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Headphones! They make a pretty solid gift any year, but they're an even better option when so many of us are stuck at home. It's hard to think (much less get anything done) when the background track of your life is a cacophony of conference calls and Zoom school.
We spent a lot of time with a lot of different headphones this year, so we thought it'd be good to highlight some of our favorites. As with all things audio-related, "best" is deeply subjective — but these ones all absolutely earned our stamp of approval. Between over-ear, on-ear, in-ear and gaming headsets, we've got the bases covered.
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Over-ear and On-ear Headphones:
Marshall Major IV
Image Credits: Marshall
Marshall’s latest on-ear headphones combine great sound with a lightweight design, and some unique benefits -- including over 80 hours of playtime on a single charge. They also charge either via USB-C or wirelessly with most standard chargers, by folding them up and resting them on their right ear cup. The on-ear design means no noise cancellation and noise isolation is minimal, so they're not great for commutes but a very solid choice for the home office. For the price, they’re a great deal, and a stylish accessory, to boot.
Price: $129 from Marshall
Image Credits: Brian Heater
If you need really serious noise canceling and you aren't willing to sacrifice on sound quality, Sony's WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphones are a no-brainer.
Widely regarded as the best at what they do, these headphones actually do quite a few different things very, very well. The sleek over-ear design and sophisticated active noise canceling means they can create a totally silent work environment if that's what you want. And if you're just in it for Sony's signature killer, punchy sound, that's enough of a reason to buy them too. (Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are another top-tier pick for over-ear noise canceling if you prefer their look or Bose’s more neutral sound.) For a budget pick, Sony’s last-gen Sony WH-1000XM3 offer the same sound quality and noise canceling with a few fewer bells and whistles.
Price: $278 from Best Buy
Master & Dynamic MW65
Image Credits: Veanne Cao
The MW65s are Master & Dynamic’s wireless over-ear noise-canceling model. Between deejaying at dirty underground raves in my early twenties and editing videos for the next decade, I have probably gone through about two dozen headphones. By far, the MW65s are my favorite.
They're beautifully designed, and well-constructed with lightweight anodized aluminum and premium leather. The 40mm beryllium drivers deliver clarity throughout the spectrum and audiophiles will love their natural sound profile. The memory foam ear pads already do a decent job of muffling out garbage trucks and police sirens, but the ANC is great for shutting out the world — on high mode, it’s eerily silent. The MW65s work wirelessly via Bluetooth 4.2 with 65+ feet of signal range -- a must-have for grabbing snacks from the fridge while on important Zoom meetings or to avoid accidentally yanking the laptop off the table. Bonus feature: Google Assistant integration.
They'll cost you a steep $400+, but they’re solid headphones and you’re ultimately paying for luxury.
Price: Currently $400 on Amazon
Image Credits: Denon
The days seem longer when working from home and these Denon headphones are comfortable to wear from morning to night. And better yet, they sound fantastic with rich bass and crisp highs. The soundstage is incredible and the large cups easily block outside noise from interrupting your jam session. From hip hop to alt to underground indie classics, everything sounds better on these Denon headphones. I can’t get enough of these Denon headphones. In OutKast’s SpottieOttieDopaliscious the horns play over a lovely low-fi beat track. Uncle Tupelo's Sandusky is heavenly.
There’s a downside to these Denon headphones: to really come alive, they require more power than a computer or phone alone provide. When tested on a computer, the headphones are great. When tested with a desktop headphone amp, they're out of this world.
Price: Currently $699 from Denon
Grado Labs The Hemp Headphones
Out of all the headphones in this series, this set of cans from Grado are the most polarizing. On one side, they sound fantastic. The audio is crisp, clean, and complex. Silver Lining by Mt. Joy manages to be peaceful but powerful with strong guitar strums and complete soundstage. Turn on Heart of Gold from Neil Young and it’s more of the same: the sound is clean and pure. These headphones are for purists. The housing is made out of compressed hemp and maple, which the company says balances the sound and produces some of the best audio properties of any of its headphones. True to their name and inspiration, the hemp headphones cost $420.
While the audio is fantastic, these headphones perhaps fall short from being good work from home headphones. There’s very little sound isolation from the foam pads and open design. I’m wearing the headphones while I type this section and can clearly hear the click-clack of my mechanical keyboard while Sublime’s Steppin’ Razor plays through the cans.
Grado is a family-owned outfit from Brooklyn where three generations work for the company. The company started building phono cartridges, expanded into building speakers, and currently sells headphones and phono cartridges. These headphones are hand-built in Brooklyn and are available with numerous options including terminating the wire with an XLR connector instead of the standard 3.5mm plug.
Price: $420 from Grado Labs
Image Credits: Brian Heater
It should come as no surprise that Sony's prowess in over-ear noise canceling translates extremely well to a smaller form factor. Earbuds can’t match the sweet silence that over-ear designs provide, but if you don’t like big ol’ headphones, the compromise is likely worth it. Sony’s earbuds are a great choice, tuning out a shocking amount of outside noise in a very small package. Like the Sony over-ear pick, they have incredible sound, a very attractive design and come with a huge selection of rubbery caps of different sizes and textures to make them comfortable in different ears. If you value Apple connectivity above all else, pick the AirPods pro. If sound quality or silence matter more, you won’t be disappointed here.
Price: $158 from Best Buy
Also great: Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 2 ($269) earbuds keep pace with Sony’s earbuds, and depending on your sound/fit preferences they’re also a great pick (especially if you find them on sale.)
For the Apple devotee: AirPods Pro
Image Credits: Brian Heater
Though Apple is now positioning the $249 AirPods Pro as the mid-range product in the AirPods line with the introduction of the ludicrously priced $549 AirPods Max, they are still Apple’s headphone product that seems to have the biggest lead over mainstream competitors.
Features like passthrough mode and spatial audio are nice but are likely features you will use pretty infrequently depending on your setup. As with the less expensive non-Pro AirPods, you’ll be sure to find better sound quality in Bluetooth headphones at this price, but you won’t find a better total package that involves so little troubleshooting, a tight package and such quality noise cancellation. The AirPods Pro are a finessed product that just work in a way that makes using other wireless buds comparably painful.
Retailers are really looking to move product this holiday season, so if you’re prodigious, you’ll likely be able to score a good deal on these headphones, so if you’re plotting an upgrade or trying to see what all the buzz is about, I recommend you take the plunge.
Price: Currently $199 from Amazon
SteelSeries 7P (for PlayStation) or 7X (for Xbox)
Image Credits: Devin Coldewey
Whether you're planning on playing games on a PC or any console out there, the SteelSeries Arctis 7 gets an unreserved recommendation from me. These headphones have amazing sound in a surprisingly large soundstage, making them suitable for any gaming or media. They're also light and comfortable while offering decent isolation (and can pipe in surrounding noise if you want). Plus there's a built-in telescoping mic for chatting. There are two versions, one for PlayStation and one for Xbox consoles, though both work with PC.
Their downsides are a cluttered physical interface — there's a lot going on on the undersides of the earcups — and a corded, multi-part (rather than USB key shaped) wireless dongle. But these are minor issues considering what you get for the $150 price.
Price: $150 from SteelSeries
Budget pick: Razer Kraken X USB
Image Credits: Razer
This is my go-to headset for when friends need something solid but inexpensive. The sound is a bit bass-heavy and it’s not wireless, but I used these personally for quite a while and found them comfortable, reliable, and the built-in mic is easily operated.
Price: $44 from Amazon
Upgrade pick: SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless
Image Credits: SteelSeries
While on the pricier end for a gaming headset, SteelSeries' Arctis Pros are outstanding. They're extremely comfortable largely thanks to a ski-goggle inspired suspension headband, and swappable rechargeable batteries (one in the headset, one charging in the base station) help ensure you're never caught scrambling for a charging cable mid-battle. A dedicated mixer helps you tweak the sound to your liking even in games where it's otherwise locked, and a very visible mute indicator on the tip of the microphone makes it clear whether you're on air or not. One catch: they'll work with PC, Mac and PlayStation (including PS5 with an upcoming firmware update), but not Xbox.
Price: $326 from Amazon