There is no accessory more fundamental than a good pair of headphones. They link our ears, privately, to music, media, and entertainment. These days, there is so much content to enjoy that the number of options can be overwhelming. The same is true with the sheer number of headphones on the market. There are so many different kinds available, you might want some help sorting through the possibilities.
In this article, we’ll look at several different kinds of headphones that suit the needs of different kinds of people. Some will be eye-catching; others will be more low profile. One thing they all have in common is great sound quality. Choose any of the headphones on this list and your ears will be happy.
1. For Active Noise Cancellation in an Over-Ear Form Factor
In what seems to be an eternal tug of war between Sony and Bose, Sony once again takes the title for headphones we recommend in this category with the WH-1000XM4. These headphones deliver high-tech active-noise cancellation, automatically adapting to a range of acoustic environments. The WH-1000XM4 can even learn to recognize locations you frequently visit, in order to build specific ANC profiles for them.
These headphones have been joyfully received by our customers, not just for their ANC, but for their sound quality and their relatively long battery life. If you’re seeking peace and quiet while working from home, or if you want an ideal pair of headphones for the commute, these headphones will deliver in both performance and convenience: Sony made sure these cans support Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant, doing so in a comfortable form factor that includes soft, pressure-relieving earpads.
2. For Comfortable, Wireless, and Budget-Friendly On-Ear Headphones
Budget-friendly, sub-$50 wireless headphones have proliferated this year, giving us a wealth of models from which we can choose. This year, we’re recommending the NYC CANS from Electro-Harmonix, a company famous for its guitar pedals and axe-related paraphernalia. EHX, as it’s more commonly abbreviated, isn’t notable for headphones, but the company is expanding, and we want to show off the job it’s done with the NYC CANS.
These on-ear headphones occupy a less-expensive sphere of the market, so you can’t expect their battery life to wow you, nor the built-in microphone to handle demanding windswept locales. What you can expect is a warm sound, though never muffled, as well as a durable performance—and a built-in MP3 player.
Hold the phone—what? You heard me: While these headphones provide Bluetooth 5.0 streaming and a 3.5mm jack for wired listening, they also give you the ability to play tunes straight from the headphones themselves, thanks to an integrated microSD slot. If you’d rather not carry a bulky device in your pocket, you can just load your tunes or podcasts into the headphones and go about your business.
3. For an Everyday True Wireless Headphone
Previous lists had us select one true wireless winner. But this year, the category has flourished, and we can’t choose just one. It’s also true that some tasks seem purpose built for the true wireless form factor: Why would you ever want a big old headband while you’re working out?
So, for the first of three true wireless entries this year, we’re selecting the Sennheiser MOMENTUM as our all-around recommendation. They provide excellent noise cancellation, giving you a Transparent Hearing function to let some noise back in if you want. These headphones supply a high-quality sound and a comfortable fit. The battery lasts for 7 hours, while the case will give you an extra 21.
4. For Pros Who Need to Check Their Work on a True Wireless Headphone
The Apple AirPods Pro are ubiquitous. We could argue they require no recommendation or marketing on our part: We can count on people to buy them—except for audio professional users, who might find their sound quality somewhat anemic.
However, their very ubiquity is the reason pros should have a pair: If you work in mixing, mastering, or in the podcast space, it behooves you to buy these for checking your work. It’s the reality of our times that a lot of listeners use these true-wireless headphones, or headphones made by Apple with a similar sonic signature.
Think of them like the car test for the isolated, work-from-home epoch: If your mixes sound good on these, you know you're in the ballpark. If they're lacking in bass, too harsh in the mids, or too piercing in the highs, well, you’ve got some work to do.
5. For an Old Classic in the Field
Yes, the Sony MDR-7506 Headphones are bulky. Yes, they can sound bright. Yes, their cable is longer than you’d want in a walking headphone. But these headphones are also a staple of home and field recording. Plus, people always clamor for them when we leave them off the list.
It’s no wonder they deserve a spot: The Sony MDR-7506 Headphones are closed-back headphones designed to reveal the detail of your audio in full force. If you want a (sometimes painfully) accurate sonic experience, this is a great bet for a comparatively low price.
6. For Mixing in the Modern World
Slate Digital is no stranger to releasing controversial hardware. Pro audio readers might remember the VMS, or Virtual Microphone System, which aimed to give anyone on a budget the sound of a professional microphone locker worth a fortune. The bold move paid off: The VMS is not so much controversial as it is embraced these days.
In 2020, Slate Digital pivoted to the headphones space with the Slate VSX, another product that pairs a blank-slate (pun alert!) piece of hardware with software aimed at modeling and optimization. These headphones utilize room-modeling software to transport you to famed mixing studios, mastering rooms, audiophile spaces of known repute, cars, and more. Though the system is only a couple of months old at the time of this writing, the reviews are pouring in—and they are positive.
7. For Recording Audio Anywhere
The Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Headphones make their return to this list. Why? Because we're hard-pressed to find a better pair of closed-back, over-ear headphones for the money. You can use them for mixing, editing, DJing, and private enjoyment.
But we're putting them up this year for tracking audio: If you need to record music while blocking out the outside world, all while maintaining an accurate view of your overall sonic picture as you record, these are the headphones to get. Their drivers are tuned to give you a good picture of the sonic space in terms of transient response, frequency response, and stereo field. So they provide a boon to anyone tracking parts in reaction to a backing track: You'll be able to clearly hear your place in a given arrangement with these headphones.
8. For the Ultimate in a Hi-Fi Headphone (Ducks for Cover…)
Hi-Fi is a controversial category: Nobody agrees on what actually qualifies as a hi-fi product, and for every listener who recommends one item, there is an opposing faction of vociferous haters. Yet the Sennheiser HD 800 S, which are not cheap by any means, are remarkably well reviewed on aggregate websites. They’re also beloved on forums and among our customer base.
These are an open-backed pair of headphones thoughtfully constructed in looks, comfort, and sound. 56mm transducers, combined with a proprietary sound-absorber technology to eliminate masking effects, ensure an accurate frequency response between 4 Hz and 51 kHz. The angle of construction allows for a stereo field that is never cramped, but remains natural, free from the fake-feeling width many closed-back designs impart.
Did we mention how comfortable they are? Handcrafted, microfiber ear pads feel wonderful on your ears, while the headband ensures durability and comfort at a remarkably light weight. Lastly, users have the choice of a conventional 1/4" connector or the balanced 4.4mm jack that’s more and more popular in with the hi-fi crowd.
9. For Watching TV without Disrupting the House
We’re going to end the year with a new category for us: a headphone for watching television and gaming on the big screen. This choice is an acknowledgment of our present circumstances: Many of us are stuck indoors, within relatively small confines, and with people we would rather not annoy.
The Sennheiser RS 175 Digital Wireless Headphone System answers the question of, “How do I watch television without disturbing my working/sleeping housemate?” This system is meant to give you virtual surround-sound in a private-listening environment. Shipping with closed-back, circumaural headphones, the RS 175 system can offer an immersive gaming or movie-watching experience without disturbing your loved ones. Or, if you and a loved one wish to enjoy something together without disturbing anyone else in the house (for instance, a sleeping child), the system supports the addition of a pair of separately available HDR 175 headphones.
What do you think are the best headphones of the year? Let us know! And, if you have any questions about these headphones, or if you want additional recommendations, you can speak to a B&H Sales Professional by visiting the SuperStore in New York City, calling 1-800-606-6969, starting a live chat, or sending an email.