As we get closer to Black Friday and the 2021 holiday season, there’s probably at least one person on your gift-giving list who would like a new set of headphones. And unless this person has literally sent you a link to the specific headphones they want, it’s now decision time and you’ve got to figure out which one of the thousands of options to buy. You could start by checking out our roundup of the best headphones and the best wireless earbuds — you won’t go wrong with any of the products on these lists. But for a more guided approach to making your selection, here are some helpful suggestions.
It’s more than music
When buying headphones for someone else, keep in mind that these devices have become more than just a way to listen to music. With available features like active noise cancellation (ANC), transparency mode, access to voice assistants, personalized sound, improved call quality, water and dust resistance, wireless charging, and much more, today’s headphones and earbuds have become multifunctional accessories for both work and play (and everything in-between).
If your intended recipient has told you which features matter to them, congrats, your job just got a lot easier. But if you have no idea, you’ll need to make some educated guesses based on who they are, what they spend their time doing, and even the kinds of locations or conditions they’ll find themselves in.
Wired or wireless?
When smartphones all had headphone jacks, this choice came down to personal preference, with hardcore audio enthusiasts generally preferring wired headphones or earbuds for their superior sound. But today’s phones have all but eliminated the headphone jack, making wireless not only more convenient, but far more compatible with most devices.
Though rare on true wireless earbuds, many over-ear and on-ear wireless headphones come with a built-in analog input and a headphone cable, giving you the best of both worlds.
Android or iPhone?
Can someone’s choice of smartphone affect the kind of headphones they should use? The answer, surprisingly, is yes — but it’s a nuanced yes.
Many iPhone owners are fond of using the device’s built-in Siri voice assistant for everything from making phone calls to setting reminders. And while most headphones offer a way to trigger Siri using a button or touch control, only a few models let you do this hands-free by saying, “Hey, Siri.” Right now, only two brands of headphones have this feature: Apple’s own AirPods family, and select models from Apple-owned Beats by Dre.
On the flip side, Android phone owners may want headphones that let them do the same with Google Assistant. This time, there are more options, including Google’s own Pixel Buds and Pixel Buds A-Series, as well as models from JBL and Sony.
Finally — and this is really only for folks who are obsessed with top-quality audio — Apple’s phones only support the SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs. If you know nothing about codecs, suffice it to say that AAC can deliver very good audio quality and the vast majority of wireless headphones support it. But there are other Bluetooth codecs — like aptX, aptX HD, and LDAC — that can deliver even higher quality under the right conditions. At the moment, only Android phones support these codecs. If you buy someone a set of headphones that support LDAC, like Sony’s excellent WH-1000XM4, they will still work with an iPhone, but you won’t get that extra level of detail that LDAC offers.
Water resistance: A little or a lot?
These days, most true wireless earbuds and some wireless headphones offer protection from water. But the amount of protection can vary wildly, from a little (it can deal with a few drops of water here and there, but nothing substantial) to a lot (it can be submerged in shallow water for up to 30 minutes without any harm).
These levels of protection are categorized using the IPX rating system, from IPX2 to IPX8. For even more protection, some products can deal with dust and debris, too, with the “X” in IPX replaced with another number. For instance, Jabra’s superb Elite 7 Pro are rated IP57.
How much (and what kind of) protection is needed will depend on how you plan to use the headphones. Triathletes who don’t want to remove their earbuds while swimming should probably get something that’s IPX7 or better, while folks who just want something for their daily run can get away with IPX2 or IPX4.
While we’re on the topic of water resistance, we should note that some headphones have been specifically designed to work in the water or even underwater — something that even waterproof true wireless earbuds can’t always do. These include a family of devices known as bone-conduction headphones. These use speakers that are designed to send sound waves through the bones of your skull, where they make their way to your inner ear without passing by your eardrum.
It sounds freaky, but they really work. There are two big benefits to these designs: They can be made fully waterproof, and because they don’t block your ears at all, you can still hear the rest of the world perfectly clearly while you use them. This makes them great for activities like road biking or skiing, where being able to hear your surroundings is important.
Another specialty category is kids’ headphones. These are typically less expensive and designed for smaller heads, but you can also get premium features like noise-canceling. A big thing to look for on kids’ headphones is volume-limiting, which can help to prevent noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
Battery life: How much is enough?
This can be a tough question to answer, because we all use our headphones for different amounts of time on different days and in different situations. It’s also a different question when dealing with over-ear or on-ear headphones versus true wireless earbuds.
One way to approach it is to ask what’s the longest amount of time you think your recipient will be unable to plug in to a wall or power bank to recharge? If they fly frequently, they could find themselves without wall power for up to 24 hours or more. In that case, a set of headphones with only 15 hours of battery life might not cut it.
For true wireless earbuds, the question has to be divided into two parts: What’s the longest period of time they will need to wear them continuously (without the ability to put them back in their charging case) and then what’s the total time they’ll need before plugging into power? All true wireless earbuds have a “per charge” time (the longest you can go before putting them back in the case) and total playtime (the longest you can go when you factor in the capacity of the charging case’s built-in battery).
Price isn’t always a good way to judge this. Apple’s second-gen AirPods, for instance, cost $129 and get five hours per charge, while Sony’s WF-C500 cost $100 and get 10 hours per charge. Definitely keep an eye on the specs if you’re looking for good battery life.
Comfort and fit
More than sound quality, features, or price, this aspect of headphones (and especially earbuds) is the most personal and, thus, the hardest to judge if you’re buying for someone else. But here are some tips that might help.
In general, over-ear headphones (where the earcups cover the ear completely) are the most universal when it comes to comfort and fit, but they also tend to be the heaviest. Sometimes weight won’t matter. If they’re well-designed, even relatively heavy models, like the $549 Apple AirPods Max, can be comfy for prolonged periods. A bigger concern is the minimum headband size. Some are simply too big for folks with small heads (or for children). Since these measurements are seldom discussed in the manufacturer’s specs, you’ll need to look for reviews that offer some kind of assessment of fit.
- On-ear headphones, which as the name suggests, sit on the ear instead of covering the ear, tend to be lighter weight and thus more comfortable for some folks. You give up a bit of sound quality and, if the headphones offer noise cancellation, they won’t be able to cancel quite as much external sound as over-ear models. If your recipient wears glasses, they may find on-ear headphones preferable as the ear cushions won’t press the limbs of their glasses into the sides of their head.
- True wireless earbuds come in two main styles: Those that use a soft silicone tip to create a seal against the ear canal, e.g. the AirPods Pro (the most common design), and those that sit just inside the ear and don’t seal the ear canal, e.g. the AirPods. The canal-sealing design offers a more secure fit, better sound quality, and allows the earbuds to offer active noise cancellation (ANC) should the manufacturer include it. However, they tend to create the sense that your ear is “full,” and not everyone is comfortable with that sensation, especially if the earbuds don’t offer a good transparency mode (more on that later). The models that sit inside the ear are more comfortable (requiring almost no adjustments or twisting) and let you hear more of the outside world. But they are easy to dislodge, especially during intense physical activity, and they can’t compete on sound quality. Hardly any of these models offer ANC.
- Some true wireless earbud models come with integrated earhooks for an even more secure fit. This is ideal for athletes, but those hooks might interfere with eyeglasses because they use the same space.
- An alternative to earhooks are wing tips — small, flexible pieces of rubber that are designed to anchor themselves within the folds of the outer ear. For most people, they provide plenty of security, but in a much smaller size and shape.
- Unfortunately, true wireless earbuds — whether they seal the ear canal or not — simply may not work for all people. The shape, depth, number of eartip sizes, and weight can all play a role in how well they fit. If your recipient has never worn this kind of headphone or hasn’t specifically asked for a certain model, be sure that the retailer offers a good return policy.
At the end of the day, we’re talking about devices that are used for listening to music, so you clearly want good sound quality. But that term — good sound quality — will mean different things to different people. An audiophile who spends thousands of dollars on their gear will have much higher standards than someone who has been perfectly happy using the inexpensive wired earbuds that came free with their smartphone.
And while audio quality usually gets better as you spend more money, keep your recipient’s previous experiences in mind. If they won’t be able to tell the difference between a $100 set of headphones and a $300 set, why spend that extra money? Thankfully, truly terrible sound is a rarity — even in relatively affordable headphones and earbuds — and when it happens, it’s usually the result of a poor fit, not something technically wrong with the headphones.
However, it’s still worth reading reviews to learn how the manufacturer has tuned the speakers. Some put a big emphasis on bass, which can be a good thing if you value big, boomy beats for your hip-hop-fueled workouts. But that can also be something to avoid if your recipient’s taste in music veers toward classical, jazz, acoustic, or singer-songwriter genres, as an overly prominent bass response can muddy the other elements.
Active noise cancellation and transparency
Of all the features that have been added to headphones over the years, ANC is arguably the most in-demand. It makes sense: Good ANC can significantly reduce external noise without affecting the sound quality of your music. The market has responded by adding ANC to tons of models, across a variety of prices. But be sure to read reviews before buying either headphones or true wireless earbuds that promise noise cancellation.
ANC is a feature that can work brilliantly, or it can barely offer any noise reduction at all. In the worst-case scenario, turning it on can actually introduce sound in the form of hiss — a side effect of poorly designed ANC. The only way to know where a certain model sits on this spectrum is to listen to those who have tried them.
The same thing is true of transparency mode — a feature that does the opposite of ANC by letting lots of external sound into your ears, for conversations or just general awareness of your surroundings. Transparency almost always accompanies ANC, but there are also models that offer transparency on its own, like the Jabra Elite 3. It’s a very desirable feature on ear canal-sealing earbuds because of how much external sound they can block “passively.” In fact, some of these earbuds are so good at blocking sounds, you might not even feel the need for ANC. Again, reviews are your best guide to how well the transparency feature works.
We’ve covered the most important aspects of buying headphones for someone else, but this would hardly be a complete guide if we didn’t mention the many extra features you can find. We consider these nice-to-haves, not need-to-haves, but depending on your recipient’s lifestyle, they could take a set of good headphones and make them much more enjoyable.
Wireless charging (true wireless earbuds only): This is a convenience feature that lets you recharge the case using a Qi-compatible wireless charging mat. All earbuds that offer wireless charging can also be charged using a standard MicroUSB, Lightning, or USB-C cable.
Adjustable EQ: Usually offered inside of a companion app, these settings let you alter the sound signature for a more customized balance of frequencies.
Find my: Popularized by Apple, this feature is showing up on lots of headphones and earbuds from other companies. It most often relies on a companion app that uses your phone’s location services to keep track of the last known location of your headphones. Some apps go the extra step of letting you sound an audible chime from your earbuds to help you find them when they end up buried and are not visible. Still others use object finding networks like Tile to give you a much better chance of finding your missing device.
Adjustable controls: This is another app-based feature that lets you choose which functions should be associated with button-presses or touch gestures, instead of working with the factory settings
Wear sensors: This convenience feature can automatically pause or resume your music when you remove or reinsert an earbud, or remove/replace your headphones.
Fast charging: Some products are designed to give you a way to quickly charge an almost-depleted battery. The times can vary greatly, from a 15-minute charge that gives you an extra hour of play time to a 10-minute charge that can give you three or more hours.
Bluetooth multipoint: A rarity on true wireless earbuds, but quite common on full-size headphones, this lets you connect to two Bluetooth devices simultaneously, like a phone and a computer. It’s very handy for those who routinely need to switch between Zoom calls, phone calls, and music listening.
Hi-res audio: We touched on this above when we mentioned Sony’s LDAC Bluetooth codec. Some wireless earbuds and headphones give you the option of a much higher quality of audio signal from an Android phone. But keep in mind, having LDAC (or aptX HD) is one thing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the headphones themselves are capable of delivering a top-quality hi-res audio experience. You’ll also need access to hi-res audio content in order to hear any appreciable difference.
How much do you need to spend?
Here’s some good news: While it’s true that the very best headphones and earbuds can cost well in excess of $200, there are tons of products that cost far less, yet offer very good performance. You may have to choose some features over others, but you’ll have no trouble finding worthwhile picks for as little as $50.
Most of these will be from brands that don’t enjoy the same kind of household recognition as Sony, Bose, Apple, and others. If your recipient is especially brand-conscious, that could be a consideration, but we have no qualms over recommending companies like Anker Soundcore, 1More, Wyze, Tronsmart, Skullcandy, Marshall, EarFun, Edifier, and Back Bay, all of which have produced great products at highly affordable prices.