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For many years after the headphone was invented in 1910, there weren’t many major changes other than the development of telephone headsets. But along came earbuds, wireless and gaming headsets. Today, there are many different types of headphones and headsets.

What Are Headphones, and How Do They Work?

Headphones are a pair of small speakers worn over a user’s ears. They convert an electrical signal into a sound. Headphones allow a user to listen to audio privately. An adjustable headband contains wires that connect the two speakers. Another wire has an audio jack that plugs into the audio source.

Padding makes headphones comfortable to wear. Headphones come in two varieties: over-ear headphones that enclose your ears, and on-ear headphones that sit against your ears but do not enclose them.

best headphones and headsets

What Are Earphones, and How Do They Work?

Earphones do the same thing as headphones, but the speakers are inserted into the user’s ears. Some fit just inside the bowl of the ear while others extend into the ear canal. Earphones are also known as earbuds or earpieces. Earphones work the same way as headphones. On wired models, small wires connect the earbuds to an audio jack.

What Is a Headset, and How Does It Work?

A headset is a combination of a headphone and a microphone in one unit. The headphone may have either a single earpiece or a double earpiece. Headsets provide the same functionality of a telephone handset but with hands-free functionality. Today, headsets are often used in gaming applications.

Noise Cancellation

Active noise cancellation uses microphones in the earcups that face outward to pick up and analyze noise. That noise gets canceled out in the headphones. Headphones with active noise cancellation are more expensive, but they can tune out everything around you but your music.

The other way to approach the noise issue is with good over-ear headphones. These headphones naturally block out sound. The earcups form a seal over your ears, and this limits noise from getting in.

Headphones or Earphones?

The sound that you experience from headphones is different than the sound you hear with earphones. Headphones are able to reproduce richer low-end sound. So if sound quality is the key factor to you, go with headphones. Many people find headphones are more comfortable to wear.

If you will be listening to music while working out, earphones are a better choice. They are smaller and more likely to be water-resistant.

Headphones: Wired or Wireless?

Wired headphones have been around since 1910. Wired headphones have a jack that plugs into an outlet on the audio source.

Bluetooth brought us wireless headphones. The Bluetooth signal is compressed, which causes some of the audio quality to be lost, but wireless headphone manufacturers have developed ways of enhancing the signal. If you are an audiophile, however, you will probably want to use wired headphones.

Bluetooth headphones get their power from batteries. When the batteries are drained, you need to recharge or pop in some charged batteries. The best wireless headphones work in the 2.4GHz wireless spectrum. These should experience less interference from the many wireless devices that use the 900MHz spectrum.

Earphones: Wire Free?

Wire-free earphones have no wire connecting the two earpieces. These are wirelessly synced. Wire-free earphones are exercise-friendly and usually have some form of water resistance.

Wire-free earphones usually come with their own charging case. Controls are limited due to the very small size, and battery life is clearly inferior to wireless headphones. Wire-free earphones will not work for everyone because some ears cannot hold them in place.

Best Headphones and Headsets

Some of the leading headphones and headsets are briefly discussed. This is far from an exhaustive list, but it does present some of the most highly rated options.

best headset sample

Acoustic Research:

These over-the-ear headphones that deliver sound that audiophiles love. These headphones are considered among the best-sounding headphones. 

These headphones have a lightweight open-back circumaural design, low resilience ear cushion, genuine leather headband, connectivity options with either a 6.3mm stereo adapter or a 3.5mm audio cable, and an interchangeable headphone cable.

The large frame and open-back style earcup do not make these ideal for on-the-go listening. These headphones do not have a cable with an inline remote control.

Beyerdynamic:

These are closed, over-ear headphones that are well-suited for musicians, filmmakers, podcasters and anyone who needs to monitor with accuracy. The headphones deliver solid clarity in the highs and good bass depth. These studio-friendly headphones deliver accurate, crisp audio with professional sound tuning. They isolate background noise, and sound leakage is minimal.

These headphones have a detachable cable and a lightweight frame. The headband is lightweight and ergonomic. The soft ear pads allow comfortable extended wear. The cable lacks an inline remote. These are not the ideal headphones for those seeking heavily boosted bass.

JBL E35:

These are comfortable on-ear headphones with a deep sub-bass from one of the well-known manufacturers, JBL. These headphones are lightweight and comfortable with a fabric headband and on-ear design that’s ergonomic.

The headphones have a one-button inline remote and a detachable, tangle-free cable. Unfortunately, there are no volume controls on the remote. These headphones are available in five distinctive colors.

Bose QuietComfort 35:

These wireless headphones have been engineered with world-class noise cancellation. Now with the addition of Google Assistant, some consider these the best wireless noise-canceling headphones you can buy.

You can play music as well as manage your daily tasks, receive texts and get answers right from your headphones. You don’t even have to glance at your phone. Amazon Alexa is next to be added.

These headphones continuously measure, compare and react to outside noise, then cancel it. The headband is luxurious. The ear cushions are very comfortable. The battery provides up to 20 hours of listening, and a 15-minute charge gives another 2.5 hours. The cable does not have an inline remote.

Bang and Olufsen:

These Bluetooth wireless headphones deliver high-quality sound. With a full charge, the battery provides up to 19 hours of play time.

These headphones have an exceptionally comfortable over-ear fit. The design is quite handsome with luxurious materials. There aren't any added features, such as noise cancellation. Instead, you get crisp, rich audio and comfort that is among the very best in over-ear headphones.

Plantronics Backbeat 500:

These headphones provide listening pleasure for up to 18 hours on a single charge. Deep Sleep mode allows you to conserve power when not in use. A 3.5 mm backup jack is also provided for power.

Other features are sweat and moisture protection, memory foam ear cushions, on-ear controls, 33-foot wireless range, ability to connect multiple devices and HD Voice.

Sennheiser HD 4.40:

These closed-back, around-ear wireless headphones deliver strong audio performance with solid high frequency clarity and excellent bass depth.

These headphones are nicely designed and easy to operate. When you want to change a track, make a call or adjust the volume, it’s easy with the ear-cup mounted controls and the integrated microphones.

The ergonomically-designed ear pads give comfort. The included cable does lack an inline remote, but this is considered a solid value for the price.

ER4XR Extended Response:

These earphones deliver the sonic accuracy that sound professionals demand with subtle depth in the lows.

These earphones are considered to be an excellent in-ear choice for performing musicians who need top-end personal monitors. The package includes detachable five-foot cord, shirt clip, filter removal tool, replacement filters, quarter-inch adapter and zippered storage case. The earphones also come with two pairs of large three-flange eartips, two pairs of standard three-flange eartips and two pairs of large black foam eartips.

These earphones do not have an inline remote control or microphone.

1More Triple Driver:

These are in-canal earphones that deliver a crisp, rich, balanced audio. The company promotes that these are the world’s first THX® Certified headphones.

The oblique-angled earpieces are designed to naturally match your ear canals. The In-line controls are located conveniently, allowing you to easily select songs, control volume and take calls.

The package includes nine sets of ear tips (six silicone, three foam), a dual-prong airline adapter, a shirt clip and a travel case.

Skullcandy Jib:

This is an in-ear earphone (earbud) that includes an in-line microphone. A remote lets you control music and calls without touching your device.

Battery life is up to six hours. The package includes a micro USB to USB charging cable and two pair of silicone ear gels (small and medium). These are not for audio purists. There are no inline volume controls.

Beyerdynamic MMX 300:

This headset is a combination of closed headphones and a microphone. Beyerdynamic is not a manufacturer of gaming accessories. It is a high-end headphone company with a strong reputation among audiophiles. This headset delivers an excellent-sounding wired gaming experience.

The extremely high-quality microphone transmits your voice loud and clear. The microphone is ideal for tournament situations and noisy environments. The integrated cable remote control puts all important controls at your fingertips - muting the microphone, adjusting the volume and accepting a call.

Super-soft ear pads provide a comfortable fit and allow you to wear this headset for hours. Included are two cables, both with inline remotes; a protective carry case; a 1.5 m Y-extension cable; and a 6.35 mm jack adapter.

Turtle Beach Elite Pro Gaming:

Designed for hardcore gamers and esports athletes, this headset combines pro-level audio and crystal clear team chat. The speakers deliver crisp audio, and the microphone has TruSpeak technology that provides clear chat so your commands will always be heard.

This headset has a tension adjustment that lets you customize the headset for your maximum comfort. It has special ear cushions designed for comfort and a feature that removes pressure on those who wear eyeglasses.

The package includes the headset, removable microphone, cable, console, 3.5mm audio cable with in-line controls and 3m PC USB amplifier cable with in-line controls. Only one cable is included, and there is no Y-splitter.

Astro Gaming A50:

This is a gaming headset that offers excellent audio quality as well as a full feature set that includes an attractive charging cradle. It is lightweight and comfortable. The headset has excellent audio for games and music. Models are available for either an Xbox One or a Sony PlayStation 4.

A rechargeable lithium-ion battery provides 15+ hours of life. Dolby® Headphone 7.1 Surround gives you a cinematic, 3D gaming experience from the audio and broadcasts Dolby to streaming audiences. Cloth cushions provide comfort. A unidirectional microphone with flip-to-mute functionality enables clear, accurate communication.