As a writer who works in a busy, noisy office, I can vouch: A good set of headphones is indispensable.
Although I’m happy to stick with my earbuds for the walk to work and my time in the gym, sometimes, I just need something with a little more oomph.
Over-ear headphones can help you get in the zone at work (while tactfully signaling that no, you’re not available for a quick chat right now) and keep you comfortably shielded from the sound of crying babies on airplanes.
Plus, they look cool. On-ear headphones are basically a fashion accessory at this point, for better or for worse.
With the holidays swiftly approaching, you might be in the market for a new set or three. They’re pretty common holiday wish list items.
They’re also pretty freaking expensive. Which begs the question: Do you really need to spend $300 — or even $100 — on a pair of headphones?
Are Beats Worth It? What are the Best Headphones for Your Money?
To answer these questions, I took the slightly less-than-hygienic liberty of swiping all my officemates’ headphones from their desks when they weren’t looking and putting them to the test.
(Just kidding; I asked for permission first. Mostly.)
Full disclosure: I’m no fancy audiophile who’ll only accept music files in FLAC form. I own a turntable, but I will admit it’s 75% for hipster cred.
In other words, I’m no music expert. I don’t know much about sound quality other than whether or not the music sounds good, true and strong to my ear. There will be no discussion of decibels here.
Furthermore, I think style and comfort are crucial when picking a new pair of headphones, so I based my ranking on these factors, as well as price. All four metrics, which I scored out of 10, had equal weight in my judgment.
Ready to figure out which pair of headphones to stick in your loved one’s stocking? Here’s what I found.
9. V Moda Crossfade M-100: $200+
All leather and metal, this sleek headset is very modern-looking.
And the sound quality is dope — you can definitely hear the isolation of the right and left speaker, and the bass is physically palpable. When I listened to music, I heard only the loudest and shrillest parts of the conversations around me.
That said, I found the set pretty darn tight and uncomfortable. (Another quick disclaimer: I have a gigantic head, so this problem might not apply to everyone.)
The earpieces don’t fit over my ear entirely (which I know is by design, but still leaves me feeling squished), and, though it may be adjustable, the set squeezes my head like a vice.
One of my main metrics for choosing a set of headphones is whether or not I’d be able to fall asleep in them on my next red-eye flight. That’s a definite “nope” for these bad boys!
8. Sentey B-trek H9 Pro LS-4560: $99
A high-tech headset with wireless capability and on-set controls, these headphones have a pretty large profile, even though they’re collapsable. As I snap them open, I’m a little afraid I’m breaking them.
The ear cuffs fit over my ears and then some, and the headset itself is quite loose, despite my big head — so much so that the earpieces don’t rest flush with my face. I feel like the headphones could fall off if I start rocking out too hard, though I don’t know if it’s because the set’s been well-loved by its owner, associate video producer Teyonna Edwards.
Although Edwards reports that the set costs about $99 new, it looks like you can get ‘em cheaper on Amazon. At the time I wrote this post, there was a new set for $69 and a few used ones as low as $35.
The sound quality is pretty good, but perhaps due in part to how far from my ears the set sits, the noise cancellation is about nil — I can hear everything else going on around me clearly. The treble’s a little thin and overall, the sound doesn’t feel as powerful as some of the other headphones at this price point…
…but if you have an exceptionally big head, you probably can’t do much better for comfort.
7 (tie). Beats Solo: $150+
Perhaps the originator of the on-ear headphone fashion statement, these babies are so well-known, they may appear on your loved one’s wish list by name.
But are they really worth their steep price tag?
But $250 is still a lot to drop on a headset.
Although no one in the office has this latest version (I mean, we’re Penny Hoarders, after all), I was able to try on senior editor Heather van der Hoop’s original Beats Solo — the wired version. Although Beats has discontinued them, you can find them for about $150 to $200 on eBay and Amazon.
While van der Hoop’s bright blue set is definitely stylish, the cord isn’t cloth-wrapped like some of the other nice sets I tried out.
And importantly, the headphones aren’t nearly as comfy as I would have imagined them to be, given their popularity.
The earcup is soft, but it doesn’t quite encapsulate my entire ear, and the headset itself is pretty darn tight, too. It would definitely give me a headache after a while.
(Another of our writers, Susan Shain, recently laid her own pair of Beats to rest when the headband snapped in half. “Too tight for my big head,” she said. I guess writers need more space for all those brains!)
While there’s almost no noise cancellation without sound playing, as soon as the music starts, the room’s chatter fades away. And the bass is super deep and awesome.
All in all, though, sound quality means nothing if the headphones are too uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. So when it comes to this ultra-popular pair, I remain a skeptic.
6 (tie). Creative Hitz WP380: $89
These headphones, which belong to fellow staff writer Lisa Rowan, definitely had the slimmest profile of the ones I tried. With their no-nonsense black and plain metal features, they reminded me of my headsets from the ‘90s — but their Bluetooth compatibility and on-set audio controls quickly foiled that illusion.
Although $100 is actually mid-range when it comes to headphones, it’s still a lot of money. And in this case, I’d hesitate to call it well-spent. (Sorry, Lisa).
These babies had almost zero noise cancellation, even when I played loud music, and the earpieces didn’t fit entirely over my ears. That said, the set carried a surprising depth of sound, including bass, given their flimsy appearance. The treble was a little tinny, however.
5 (tie). Nakamichi BTHP06: About $65
While this headset isn’t exactly stylish — and maybe feels a little flimsy — it’s got some decent features for its price (which is as low as $35 on eBay right now).
It’s Bluetooth enabled and wireless, and features a microphone and a host of controls on the headset itself. It’s collapsable, too, for ease of transport.
The ear cushions are comfy, but don’t fit over the entire ear. Otherwise, though, it’s pretty wearable, and not too tight. I could probably fall asleep in these.
There’s not much noise cancellation with no music, and only some with music; it’s not enough to block out my co-workers’ laughter. The sound quality is only OK, and the bass lacks depth.
All told, I’d probably spring for an upgrade from these for better sound quality. But for a wireless set with all the gizmos, they’re not bad for the price.
4. Urbanears Plattan: $49 wired, $99 wireless
These are the headphones I wear every day — or, at least, the updated version thereof. I bought mine a little over two years ago when preparing for my first-ever long flight over the Atlantic Ocean.
I didn’t want to spend Beats-level cash then, either, so I found this cheaper version. And I’ll admit that looking cool at the airport was a significant motivator for the purchase, so Urbanears’ impressive spread of colors was a big influence on my decision.
And for the price, they’re not bad… but I’m also not planning on buying them again. The earpiece doesn’t quite fit over my ears, and they do give me a headache after a while.
Plus, their plastic/waxy coating started peeling off pretty soon after I bought them, and after over two years of use, the left speaker shudders a bit. (Unfortunately, the warranty only lasts a year.)
The sound quality is pretty decent; there’s no serious bass, but I can’t hear people talking when I have them on.
So while they don’t look as high-quality as some others up close, if you want a fun, colorful, affordable option, Urbanears makes a decent product. And heck, a lot can happen in two years — the newer iterations might be much better.
3. Sennheiser HD280 Pro: $100
Our video manager, Michael House, says this is his absolute favorite pair of headphones ever — the pair I tried is the third he’s owned.
The very first thing to note: They. Are. HUGE. And they’re not collapsable, either.
Plus, they come with one of those gigantic, coiled stretch cords. They’re not cute — and if you travel a lot, these might be kind of a pain in the butt to tote around.
But putting them on is a dream: Despite their size, they’re pretty lightweight, and their cuffs fit entirely over the ear. They’re tight, but not uncomfortable, and they feature pretty decent noise cancellation, even without any sound playing.
And once the music starts… well. These easily had the best sound quality of the bunch, in my opinion. Treble notes are clear and crisp, the bass is deep, and even with quiet music, the sound cancellation is full. They also have a great isolation of the right and left speakers.
Obviously, these headphones are made for someone doing sound-intensive work, like video editing. Unlike most of the less-industrial models, they don’t have a mic, so you won’t be taking any phone calls.
But if you’re looking for a comfortable, surprisingly affordable, high-performance headset for work, look no further.
2. Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones: $300
Ugh. To be honest, I’m a little upset at our Facebook advertising copywriter, Kelsey Buxton, for letting me try on her super-luxe set, because now I definitely want these headphones. And I definitely don’t have $300 to plunk down on them.
They’re super cute and comfy — Buxton’s got the white pair with brown and blue accents, deliciously soft brown leather ear cuffs and a cushy, suede-lined brown insert on the headband’s crown.
They fit completely around the ear and are so lightweight I could forget I’m wearing them; I’m sure I could fall asleep in them on my next flight (or heck, at my desk). The matching blue cord is cloth-wrapped and includes a mic and volume controls.
But my favorite part of these headphones has nothing to do with looks.
There’s a little switch on the set itself that turns the power noise cancellation on, and it is pretty freaking impressive. Even without music playing, engaging these headphones’ noise cancellation is like turning down the volume of the room. I can still hear people talking, but it sounds far away, and there’s much less echo inside the headset itself.
As far as sound quality, this isn’t the best of the bunch… but it’s pretty good. The difference between having the noise cancellation engaged or not is less obvious when music is playing. There’s also less isolation of the right and left speakers than with some of the others I tried, and the bass isn’t as thumpy.
But if you’re going to spend a ludicrous amount of money on headphones, I’d definitely pick these over Beats. Just make sure you pick the set that pairs with your preferred OS — the Apple– and Android-compatible versions are sold separately!
1. Sound Intone Universal Noise Isolating Headphones with Microphone: $20
Folks, we have a winner! This cheap set of headphones actually impressed me.
I tried out this golden version, which is available right now from some Amazon sellers for as little as $13.99 — but in general, the set sells for about $20. They come in a few different colors, and the mic is conveniently placed on a fancy-looking, cloth-wrapped cord.
Better yet? They fit over my ear entirely, and are super comfortable. If anything, I’d prefer them to be a little bit tighter.
The sound quality is exceptional considering the price, but they don’t cancel out all noise. I could definitely still hear the people around me talking and coughing, especially when I tried out a softer, lyric-free song by The xx.
But as their owner, director of media relations Lizabeth Cole, quipped: “If I break them, it’s only $20.”
Hard to argue with that logic.
Your Turn: What’s your favorite set of headphones? Let us know in the comments! (Seriously; this writer’s in the market for a new pair.)
Disclosure: Clink! Clink! Clink! That’s the sound of pennies hitting our piggy bank, thanks to the affiliate links in this post. It’s a better savings plan than stopping traffic to pick up loose change — and safer, too!
Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.