Remember the days when the little white headphones you got free with your iPod seemed cool? The world of portable audio has moved on, and if you’re still listening to tinny sound on badly fitting headphones, it’s high time you joined the rest of us in 2015. But be warned: they’re not cheap – if you expect anything approaching decent quality sound, don’t expect change from $150, and even then you’ll be scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Before you splash the cash, decide what you need – are you more likely to relax in a hotel listening to Bach or pelt it through the park in the driving rain? If the former, invest in a pair of over-ear headphones designed for comfort and clarity. If the latter, you need a pair of in-ear buds that won’t give up the ghost in a spring shower.
If you have a little more to spend, you could opt for the convenience of wireless Bluetooth headphones. Or to drown out the world, choose noise-cancelling headphones, which equalise noise by blasting it with equivalent sound waves. Here are some of the best on the market.
Master and Dynamic MH40
These stunning headphones are designed to be the ultimate office audio machine, allowing you to drown out the chatter and get some serious work done. When someone needs your attention, you don’t even have to take them off, simply hit the mute button on the side. The sound quality is excellent and the attention to detail unparalleled – not only do you get lamb’s leather ear pads and woven cables, it also comes with a leather cable box and canvas carry case. Available in three colours. If you’re feeling particularly flush, you can buy a stand to hang them from when you’re away from your desk ($80).
PROS Great attention to detail
CONS Everyone in the office will be jealous
Vertu is best known for its astronomically priced Android smartphones, which start at $7,800 for an entry-level model. For its first foray into the audio world, then, the $765 asking price for the V headphones sounds like a bargain. The fact that Vertu teamed up with audio legend Bang and Olufsen certainly bolsters its audiophile credentials, and the sound quality doesn’t disappoint. Slide up the volume and the outside world fades away, replaced by a haven of crystal-clear sound. Build quality is excellent, with aircraft-grade aluminium offset with luxurious lamb’s leather. The woven wire cable seems immune to getting tangled.
PROS Stunning design
Samsung Level-Over Wireless Over-Ear
Samsung isn’t best known for its headphones, but this pair with both wireless and noise-cancelling technology should be taken seriously. A touch-sensitive panel allows you to control your music by swiping your finger over the outside of the unit. They are light and well padded, ideal for long-haul flights; you’ll be the envy of other passengers when a baby starts screaming and you engage the noise-cancelling function. They’re reasonably priced and the sound is decent enough, although lacking compared with more expensive rivals.
PROS Touch controls
CONS Slightly flimsy build quality
Beats BY Dr Dre Studio Wireless
Last year Apple snapped up Dr Dre’s Beats Music and Electronics brands for $3 billion, proving that it costs serious moolah to be down with the kids. The Studio Wireless model does away with wires and connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth, allowing you to stray up to nine metres from your device before it cuts out. Adaptive Noise Cancellation (ANC) technology cuts out ambient sound by creating a second sound-wave to neutralise it. The distinctive Beats look is available in eight colours. They fold up, too.
PROS Sound-wise, expect high-quality thumping bass
CONS Expensive, a bit bling
You can’t have a discussion about quality headphones without mentioning this stalwart German manufacturer. The Momentum cans look slick, with a flexible stainless steel band topped with Alcantara (a sort of suede substitute). Ample padding makes them comfy for long periods and the sound quality is excellent, with great performance on both high and low notes. The main drawback, as with all “on ear” headphones, is that outside noise inevitably leaks in, so they’re best for indoor use. At $270, they are also remarkably well-priced.
PROS Great build quality, rich sound
CONS Some external noise leakage
Bose Quiet Comfort 20 Noise Cancelling
These in-ear headphones are the most comfortable I’ve tried. They come with three sizes of flexible silicone tips that sit neatly in the ear and help to block out external sound. The noise-cancelling technology, which will last for 16 hours on a single charge, is industry leading, appearing to place the rest of the world on mute. When the battery dies, they continue to work as regular headphones; you can also switch to “aware mode” if you need to cross a busy road. The biggest drawback is the lithium battery that hangs on the end of the cable – it tends to swing around if you use them for running. For watching movies on your iPad, these are my number-one choice.
PROS Great noise-cancelling technology
CONS Battery on cable is a little annoying
Atomic Floyd SuperDarts Titanium
This dinky in-ear option exudes quality, from the titanium build to the woven cable. They’re light for metal buds, at only 2.8g each, making them comfortable to wear for long periods. The way the wires poke horizontally from the buds looks a little precarious but you’re able to bury them pretty deep into your ears using the exchangeable silicone tips, which also aid noise reduction. Even so, they’re not quite anchored enough to be used while running. Sound quality is good but not mind-blowing – the more delicate treble gets a little lost in the squelchy bass.
PROS Small and lightweight
CONS The bass can be overpowering
Bang and Olufsen A2 portable speaker
This stylish Bluetooth speaker from audio master Bang and Olufsen is compact (25.6cm x 14.2cm x 4.4cm, 1.1kg) but smacks of quality. It’s constructed from tough extruded aluminium and should survive being lugged around in a suitcase. The sound is designed to spread evenly through a room, ideal for when you have company. And, crucially, for those of us on the go, the battery will last up to 24 hours. You can even use it to charge your smartphone.
Jawbone Mini Jambox
This dinky portable speaker (5.8cm x 2.5cm x 15.4cm, 255g) produces surprising and impressive sound that is ample for when you’re away in a hotel. It’s crafted from lightweight aluminium, comes in a range of colours and patterns, and is compatible via Bluetooth with both iOS and Android (look for the app too). It will give you 10 hours of battery life on a single charge. Usefully, it is also suitable for conference calls, so you might even be able to justify it as a business expense.
Sony XBA-NC85D In-ear
Sony reckons the fact that you get noise-cancelling technology without the need for a cumbersome battery on the cable justifies the price. The design is clever, if not overly attractive – the batteries in the earbuds make them rather large. The noise-cancelling tech is good, but trails the likes of Bose. Still, a specific “aeroplane mode” targets the low-frequency hum in cabins and you get an impressive 20 hours from one charge. If the battery does die, you can’t use them as regular headphones.
PROS Noise-cancelling without a cumbersome battery
CONS Very expensive
Monster iSport Victory In-Ear
If running is your thing then these are for you. They hook firmly into your ears, ensuring your workout isn’t interrupted. The waterproof design makes rainy-day runs a breeze and you can wash them clean after a sweaty session (an “anti-microbial formulation” keeps them fresh). Sound quality is decent for the price but audiophiles should probably look elsewhere. At about half the cost of many rivals, they are a serious contender for your cash.
PROS Good value, waterproof
CONS You get what you pay for in terms of sound quality
Jaybird Bluebuds X
Love in-ear headphones but hate wires? These wireless beauties may just be for you. They fit comfortably into your ears and are designed to stay put while you work out. For such a tiny unit, the eight hours of battery life is impressive, the Bluetooth signal is flawless and the sound quality is good enough to enjoy over the sound of traffic. They come in a choice of colours (black, white or camo) and are finished in a sweat-proof rubber. Their tiny form affects the quality of audio, but it would be unreasonable to expect Bluetooth buds to sound as good as over-ear cans. As an incredibly portable, versatile set of headphones, these are right up there.
PROS Great for working out
CONS Easy to lose as so small
Bowers and Wilkins T7
This portable speaker from the makers of the legendary Zeppelin Air iPod dock is lightweight and slimline (11.4cm x 21cm x 5.4cm, 940g), but feels like a quality product. Unlike some of its rivals, the T7 is designed solely to create beautiful sound, with remarkable performance even at high volume. The bass is deep but doesn’t overpower the mid-range, making it perfect for unwinding after a long day’s travel. It connects via Bluetooth and the battery will last for 18 hours. For quality this good, $470 is a bargain.
This pocket rocket of a portable speaker provides decent sound from a petite frame (6.7cm x 18.9cm x 5.5cm, 580g). Music is streamed over Bluetooth and setting it up is a doddle. You’ll get 10 hours of continuous use before it packs up. It’s solidly built, the kind of product that feels like it could take being dropped off a table a couple of times without going to the great electronics store in the sky. For a measly outlay of $100, this might just be the best pound-for-pound speaker on the market.