After 35 hours researching and testing 16 high-end earbud models head-to-head with an expert listening panel, we’ve determined that the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3 is the best set of in-ear headphones under $200. In a competitive category, the H3 won our panelists’ ears and hearts by being fun to listen to, comfortable to wear for long periods, and beautiful, to boot.
The Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3 sounds fantastic—all four of our panelists placed this set in their top three, with half choosing the H3 as their favorite. The highs are clear but not sibilant: You’ll hear detail on consonants, but they won’t smack you in the face. The lows are smooth and ever-so-slightly forward, so electric bass will pop in rock songs, and hip-hop bass lines will have some oomph. The H3 earbuds are beautifully designed and solidly built, and most important, they were comfortable for all of our panelists. The three-button remote/mic unit is designed for iOS, but the play/pause function should work on most Android phones. While the mic quality was pretty standard sounding for an in-line remote/mic in our tests, our callers were able to hear us just fine. And with Bang & Olufsen’s impressive two-year warranty, you can feel comfortable that the H3 is a sound investment.
For a bit under $200, NAD’s Viso HP20 features a spacious soundstage. It has an extra boost on the treble and bass that really suits hip-hop and rock music, especially live recordings. Not strictly neutral, the lows can sound as if they have a touch of extra reverb on them, but not in an unpleasant way.
This NAD set has an attractive metallic design and a three-button remote/mic that’s on a par with the H3’s, but the earbuds’ bullet-shaped chassis forced two of our panelists to push the tips quite far into their ear canals to get a proper seal. This is ultimately a minor quibble, but when you’re picking between the best, it’s the small flaws that separate first place from second.
Are you using headphones with an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus and experiencing crackling sounds or problems with Siri? We can help with that.
Not only do I hold a bachelor’s degree in both music performance and audio production from Ithaca College, but I also have tested literally hundreds of headphones while working for The Wirecutter.
I spent several years in terrestrial radio before moving on to become a professional voice actor in Los Angeles, a job I still do and love. In other words, I’ve been in and out of top recording studios for over a decade. I also have reviewed high-end home audio equipment for publications such as Home Entertainment, Home Theater Magazine, and Sound & Vision. My articles have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, and Time, and on Good Morning America, the BBC World Service, and NBC Nightly News. In other words, I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s out there and what’s worth your time and hard-earned money, and I am committed to finding gear that will make you happy.
Then there’s our panel of experts: In addition to myself, Lauren Dragan, we had Brent Butterworth, a Wirecutter AV writer with decades of experience in the audio field for publications such as About.com, Home Theater, Sound & Vision, and many others; John Higgins, a session musician, sound editor, and occasional Wirecutter writer with a music master’s degree from the University of Southern California; Phil Metzler, a musician/keyboardist in the band Just Off Turner, and Geoff Morrison, AV editor here at The Wirecutter and writer for CNET, Forbes, and Sound & Vision, with over a decade and a half of audio and video reviewing under his belt.
While other features such as volume controls and microphones still count for something, headphones in this price range should sound great above all else—and in general, they do! Unlike less expensive in-ears, which can be lacking in bass reproduction, clarity, and depth of sonic field, the best $200 headphones can rival similarly priced over-ears in sound quality.
However, in this range, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice sonic fidelity for easy travel. These are headphones for an audio fan who is always on the move. They should be compact, portable, and easy to pop in a bag (in a way that you just can’t dream of doing with over- and on-ears). They should isolate external noise so you can listen on a noisy plane or street and not have to crank up the volume, yet still be comfortable in your ears so you can listen for a few hours and not have your ear canals ache. One important point: Although you technically can run with these headphones on, they are not water or sweat resistant. You’ll want to have a separate pair of earbuds to take to the gym or out for a jog.
In-ear headphones are a tricky purchase. Not only do you have to take into account sound and build quality, but you also have to remember that fit is of utmost importance. Finding the right fit can be a very personal preference. So when you come across a pair of in-ear headphones that are favored by many different people, with very different ears, you’ve found something special.
To narrow down what to test, I read a ton of reviews—pro reviews, Amazon customer reviews, audio-blog reviews. I scoured Crutchfield, Amazon, and Head-Fi. I looked at every major manufacturer’s site to see what was new since our last review. I checked with professionals like Steve Guttenberg of CNET and Tyll Hertsens of Inner Fidelity for their picks.
After coming across several headphones that seemed to be consistent top choices or that were so new they had no reviews at all (but seemed promising), I ended up with a list of 15 headphones that we would pit against our previous winner (so, 16 in total). During the research phase, all our choices fell between $150 and $250.
We conducted the panel thusly: All listeners used a portable audio device to assess the sound. Why? Because in-ears are made for use on the go, and mobile devices are how the average person experiences these headphones. Also, this way we could test any special remote/mic options, as well. The panelists used music of their own choosing, and with which they were extremely familiar. I asked the panel to consider the sound quality, comfort, fit, build quality, weight, and ease of remote/mic use (if applicable).
This is the only time all of these headphones have been compared directly, back-to-back, by multiple audio professionals. After our panelists ranked the headphones, I then told them the prices and asked them if that information altered their rankings at all. And voilà! We had our pick!
If you want high-quality earbuds that sound great, look beautiful, and have a remote/mic, the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3 is for you. The Apple-certified remote/mic is unobtrusive on this pair’s thin and light cable, and in our tests these headphones were comfortable, across all of our panelists’ diverse ear shapes.
The H3 earbuds particularly shine on high notes. They’re capable of rendering notes with rapid attack and delay, which means they can deftly handle quick and delicate notes, such as pizzicato strings. Unlike some headphones in this category, these have no intense boost to the treble. Syllables on lyrics don’t pierce through the mix, and strings sound smooth and authentic. The lows are a little forward, but not overbearingly so, just enough for bass, cello, and lower synth notes to feel fuller and richer.
That tuning makes the H3 especially well-suited for listening to jazz, classical, and anything with acoustic instruments (think instruments that amplify themselves, like brass and strings, as opposed to electric bass or synthesizers). To anyone accustomed to headphones with boosted highs, the H3 can sound somewhat warm, but our panelists found the H3’s overall sound very pleasant.
The H3’s silicone ear tips offer a decent amount of noise isolation—enough that you probably won’t hear someone speaking to you when you’re listening to music at a low to medium volume level. However, if you’re trying to block out back-of-the-plane engine noise, or standing directly next to traffic frequently, you may want to check out our noise-cancelling picks.
Despite a metal chassis, the H3 set is lightweight and very comfortable in the ears. The cable is thin and won’t transfer noise when you move, and the three-button remote/mic unit is easy to use, with a nice, satin, tactile grip to it. The mic sounds fine; your callers will hear you, but it isn’t anything revolutionary. Like all Bang & Olufsen products, the H3 feels very well-crafted, and the company backs that craftsmanship up with an impressive two-year warranty, as well. (Most companies give you a year.) An included hard case helps to keep your investment safe.
As mentioned above, the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3 produces a slightly rolled-off high end and very slightly less-defined bass, though the mids are still enjoyable and do a great job of making pianos and guitars come to life. As a result, a bass line might sound more “wuh” than “buh.” This could be happening because of the lack of high end to rein it in and define the moment the kick drum has hit, or perhaps because of a slight boost into the lower mids.
Neither aspect to the sound is overt, however, and again, for anyone listening to classical and jazz, this lighter hand on treble and lows won’t be noticeable. It’s more on rock, hip-hop, and pop, where you might expect that extra punch on the top and bottom notes, that you’ll probably notice the ever-so-slight coloration.
The NAD Viso HP20 is another great choice for a bit less than $200. While these earbuds aren’t neutral sounding, they are a lot of fun for anyone who likes to bump the bass. Offering a solid build, they come in black or silver, with an Apple-compatible remote/mic. The cable is linguine-style—flat and fat—which some people prefer to avoid tangling. However, that heavier cable, combined with the shape of the bud that sticks out of the ear, could make this NAD pair feel a little less stable in your ears.
Slight fit issues aside, the HP20 sounds great. It produces a little more intensity on high notes, so if you like that bit of extra volume to add detail to consonants or fret noise on a guitar, you’ll adore the HP20. These headphones also have a bit of a low-end bump that pushes kick drums and bass line to the foreground of a mix. The big soundstage gives you a feeling of depth in sonic space (as opposed to sounding two-dimensional and inside your head). That affected depth comes at a price, however: Acoustic instruments sound great—just not authentic, especially at higher volumes. It’s as though you’re listening to an acoustic guitar that’s miked and has reverb on it, rather than having your ear next to the instrument itself. Overall, rock, pop, and electronic music are really well-suited to the HP20, and any instrument that goes through an amp or FX pedal sounds extra lively on these headphones.
As with many options in this category, the difference between good and great is subtle, and really noticeable only when you listen to several headphones back-to-back. If you like having a touch of extra detail and a touch more bass without distorting the rest of the mix, you’ll be happy with the NAD Viso HP20.
Winner: Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3
Second place: NAD Viso HP20
Although this category sees a lot of tough competition, the H3’s more neutral sound edged out the boosted highs and lows of the HP20. For anyone who likes to bump bass or prefers extra intensity on consonants, however, the HP20 is a great option.
Comfort and fit:
Winner: Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3
Second place: NAD Viso HP20
A flatter earbud design and a lighter cable helped the H3 edge out the HP20 in fit. You’ll spend less time fidgeting with the H3 than the HP20, as the NAD design’s thicker cable and bullet-shaped earbuds can cause the HP20 pair to sag and tug at your ear canals.
Build quality and remote/mic:
Tie: Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3 and NAD Viso HP20
Both models are built to last, with sturdy metal construction and a nice grippy feel to the cable and reinforced connection points. Both pairs have a three-button remote/mic, and both of those sound about the same over phone calls (fine), though the NAD remote feels a little more plasticky than the B&O one. But the NAD HP20 comes with both a ¼-inch adapter and an airplane adapter, whereas the B&O H3 does not. Both have carrying cases that feel high-quality. Overall, it’s a wash.
We saw RHA’s CL750 Ceramic at the CES 2017 trade show. The $140 CL750 has stainless steel housing, as well as a high-impedance driver that allegedly gives the headphones a higher level of control over the sound than the competition offers. The pair is designed to be used with an amplifier, though. We’ll check it out in our next update.
In September, Denon announced the wired AH-C720 and AH-C820 in-ear headphones. The AH-C720 has an 11.5 driver, as well as dual Acoustic Optimizer ports, while the AH-C820 offers the same ports plus two 11.5 drivers in each earpiece. The AH-C720 and AH-C820 have Comply-brand memory-foam tips (the AH-C820’s tips feature a built-in wax guard), and they work with the Denon Audio smartphone app—available for iOS and Android—to adjust your mobile device’s sound as well as to set up playlists and access Internet radio stations. We’re looking into testing the AH-C720 and AH-C820 for our next update.
Audeze introduced the iSine 10 in-ear planar magnetic headphones. This pair can connect over a Lightning cable (that uses its own DAC and amplifier), as well as a standard audio cable. Due to the planar magnetic technology, the iSine 10 headphones have a 33 mm diaphragm, making them much larger than your average in-ear headphones. They sound fantastic, but they aren’t very practical. We’ll put them head-to-head with our top picks in our next round of updates.
Master & Dynamic’s new ME05 headphones are made from brass, but we’ll have to give this set a listen before we decide whether the company’s material choice is worth the price.
The RHA T20i is now available. While we didn’t love the company’s previous iteration, the T10i, this version features a new driver and magnet arrangement. The T20i likely won’t best our top pick, but we’ll test it against other higher-priced headphones with filters—including the Torque t096z, Torque t103z, and Trinity Delta—soon.
The Klipsch Reference X6i headphones are the least expensive option in that company’s new Reference line. We weren’t impressed with Klipsch’s X11i headphones when we tested them for the last update to this guide, but last year Wired praised the X6i’s sound quality and fit despite having minor issues with the thick cable and the carrying case.
(Photos by Lauren Dragan.)