Headphones are big business. Browsing an electronics store this Christmas for a new pair of over-ear or on-ear headphones can yield a host of different results because so many manufacturers are now producing them. As electronics companies look to capitalise from your ears' audio desires, it raises the question: "Which headphones should I buy?"
Well, you've come to the right place to find out. Here at Pocket-lint we've been listening to an abundance of headphones throughout 2013 to see whether they've got the build quality and audio grunt to warrant your forking out that hard-earned cash. And we only include headphones that we've tested and lived with - we don't just pluck allegedly good models out of a hat; they have to pass our tests first.
Because different headphones cater for different needs, we've broken down our selections into a buyer's guide. From at-home heavyweights, to on-the-go lightweight cans: whether you want the best looking, the most bass heavy, or are in the market for more accurate reproduction or noise-cancelling cans, it's all here.
We’ll be updating this feature with the latest and greatest headphones that we review, so you can see where your money is best spent.
Best for classic reproduction
Bowers & Wilkins P7
Bowers & Wilkins P7 headphones are the big brother of the P-series. You'll find active noise-cancellation from giant cushioned earcups made from leather. Brushed-aluminium and steel add that all-important B&W quality and style, while a detachable cable features a remote control and microphone to hook-up via a smartphone.
The important part of headphones is the audio technology and how they sound. The P7 features diaphragms that work more like those in conventional hi-fi speakers than headphones and they sound glorious - a "flatter" less tainted listen than many competitors out there, but that's the angle B&W is coming from.
QUICK VERDICT: The P7 headphones combine a gorgeous design made from quality materials and also tick the sound quality box. These are suitable for all types of music and comfortable enough for a marathon movie session. Everything just feels balanced to the right degree. Our only negative is some sound leakage - crank the volume and others in the immediate vicinity can hear what you're listening to.
FULL REVIEW: Bowers and Wilkins P7 review
Best on-the-go headphones
Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear
Sennheiser boosted its Momentum headphones in 2013 with the colourful On-Ear model. It's available in a range of colours - blue, pink, green and ivory colour options are available - as well as delivering a colourful sound. Better sound was also on the company's objectives list compared to the predecessor, and despite the On-Ear's apparent small scale and exposed design they deliver plenty of pop to your lugholes.
You'll find a bowed metal frame with a soft side to rest on your head, while for around your ears Sennheiser has included a rather swanky Alcantara material - sometimes used in higher-end car interiors or by upholsterers - that doesn't budge. After 20,000 wears it will remain soft and is water-resistant too.
Audio-wise we've been wearing the Sennheisers for many months now and we love them. The focus isn't completely on bass like other manufacturers - although there is plenty of kick from that, right into the low, sub-bass frequencies - and Sennheiser has nailed the mids and highs too. So much so that readers, industry and Pocket-lint judges alike voted them the Best Headphones 2013 at the 10th Pocket-lint Gadget Awards.
QUICK VERDICT: The audio from the Sennheiser Momentum headphones is well-balanced across the board - a wide frequency range delivers thumping bass and sparkling top-end. The headphones are comfortable thanks to the Alcantara material, and the multiple colour choices make them look pretty cool, too. Sound isn't too well isolated from your surroundings, and the plastic earcup exterior lacks high-end like some of the other headphones listed but, still, at this price point they're a solid pair of cans.
FULL REVIEW: Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear review
Bowers & Wilkins P3
The baby brother of the P7 (even if they are older), the Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones remind us a bit of an Apple product - particularly in the white finish. They also come in black, blue or red options too.
That's the style box checked, then. Unlike the giant marshmallow-like earcups of some of the competition, the P3s head down the smaller, more delicate route. The padded drivers sit on your ear, and Bowers & Wilkins has created a special fabric that minimises sound interference while keeping them comfy. Aided by a bit of memory foam and adjustable on left and right, they sat nicely on our head without causing any discomfort, even if you have them on for hours at a time.
What we found most impressive about the P3s was the sense of space. The separation of bass, mid and treble is most pleasing and feels to have an individual separation - that sort of positioning when listening to a live band in some respects; this is stereo dynamism at its best. Nothing is pushed too hard either, the sound is very natural.
QUICK VERDICT: The Bowers & Wilkins P3 headphones may cost a pretty penny, but they not only look great and feel comfortable, but also provide excellent sound quality. Audio fans can cheer, as can design fans, heck we all can - these are tip-top headphones that offer a great, smaller alternative to B&W's own P7 in our opinion.
FULL REVIEW: Bower & Wilkins P3 review
Best for bassheads
Ultimate Ears 6000
Logitech succeeds in providing great sound quality from its Ultimate Ears 6000 headphones. A noise-cancellation switch can be flipped on at a moment's notice to mute the outside world, but whether that's on or not we found the output to be incredibly loud with a big bass, clean mid-range, and still plenty of high-end.
The headphones ship with a soft case bag, and an iPod-compatible microphone, volume control and multi-function button on the cable. Some functions - like the microphone - will work on Android phones too, which is fun, but otherwise there are the usual volume controls.
QUICK VERDICT: Not only are the UE 6000 cans stupidly comfortable, but there's also bass like you've never heard. Couple that with noise-cancellation, and Logitech has landed the one-two punch for those looking for a powerful combination. We did knock the headphones in the battery department, though, while the sound can also be a bit unrealistic at times. If you're looking for audio accuracy, these won't be the headphones for you. If, on the other hand, you want skull-crushing bass without losing out on the rest of the audio experience, then these headphones are brilliant.
FULL REVIEW: Ultimate Ears 6000 review
Beats Studio (2013)
Beats have become the go-to brand for many headphone buyers over the past few years. It's also the must-avoid brand for many others due to their weighty push towards the bassier end of the audio spectrum. If you like your beats and bass then they may well make sense, and they're as much as fashion symbol as anything else.
Visually the latest Studio cans pack a hefty look: there's glossy plastic on the outside in black, red, orange, and white varieties - although they are a bit of a fingerprint magnet.
They also sound pretty hefty too and the noise-cancelling tech means the outside world is absent from your listen. It's just you and your music. However, there is some slight hiss with noise-cancellation on.
QUICK VERDICT: Do these headphones live up to the studio name? They don't provide as clear mid and high-range as some may-like, because it's over-powered by a booming low-end. The plus is the Studio Beats carry a better noise-cancellation than the original model and the lightweight design makes them more comfortable on the head. We knocked them for being a bit plasticky and a fingerprint magnet, and when the on-board battery dies its audio over until they're recharged.
REVIEW: Beats Studio (2013) review
Sol Republic Master Tracks XC headphones Studio Tuned by Calvin Harris
Sol Republic partnered with DJ and producer Calvin Harris for the Master Tracks XC to bring a studio branding to the cans. We were sceptical headphones needed such a partnership as it all just sounded like a branding exercise.
How wrong our presumptions were. And kudos to Calvin Harris for tuning these headphones to perfection - they're said to be "acoustically accurate for music artists to use in the studio" and that sounds spot on to us. His name isn't bandied about all over the design either - it's tucked on the inside of the headband, out of view unless you're a headphone-spotter that knows all things over-ear - and we like the clean-cut style.
Something about the Sol Republic XC Master Tracks just stands out: the sound quality. The headphones are targeted for the audio-junkie, the kind of listener who wants deep, low-end bass with a stronger mid-range and extended high notes. It's all here, reproduced in rich detail. This is why Sol Republic markets the Master Tracks as being a "professional-calibre headphone".
QUICK VERDICT: Our scepticism of the celebrity branding was far from realised. In the Master Tracks XC we found an amazing sound, coupled with a lot of heavy bass and yet clear vocals. The Master Tracks XC headphones aren't for everyone, however. The price isn't on the low end, and given its bass-infused sound, they are not really ideal for classical or other smoother music genres.
The "prestige headphones" tagline for Sony's MDR-1R cans lets you know the company means business. The headphones come in a black & red or brown & silver (more grey, we thought) finish. The enfolding structure means a slightly angled design helps to envelop the ears fully - which adds to the noise isolation - and to avoid further avoid any interfering sounds the MDR-1R includes silicon rings for quieter adjustments; there are also two axes to help the earcups sit comfortably to the head without any "crushing" pressure.
That might all sound like a load of marketing spiel - but the proof of it comes in the listen. Not only did we find these Sony cans to be a stylish and comfortable set of over-ears, but they also sound great. Really great. With a fast response time and wide 4Hz-80,000Hz frequency range you'll catch the brightest of sparkles and the boomiest of bass without overdoing it. They're quite chunky, however, so although we have worn them when out and about you're more than likely going to use them at home.
QUICK VERDICT: The Sony MDR-1R has an attractive design that eventually feel very comfy when wrapped around your head. There's great sound that's well rounded thanks to lots of mid-high frequency range "snap" yet enough bass in the mix. Our only real moan are the exposed drivers that can touch against ears.
FULL REVIEW: Sony MDR-1R review
Onkyo's traditional realm in the consumer electronics space is the home cinema, but the company decided to jump into the headphone game in January 2013. Its ES-HF300 headphones make a big deal about the cable which had a great-feeling outer shell, within which is an 6N oxygen-free cable cable that Onkyo says provides better quality.
Style-wise the ES-HF300s have a similar look to the Beats, but actually take the size up a notch. The ES-HF300 is available only in black, but a similar ES-FC300 pair comes in black, purple and white and doesn't have an audiophile cable to knock down the price. So both audiences can pick a set that meets their needs.
QUICK VERDICT: For its first foray into the headphones space, Onkyo got most of it right. The ES-HF300s not only look great and feel light, but have a fantastic sound performance. The price may be seen as a tad steep, and if you need to replace that special cable it'll cost you £50 to do so, so do look after it. The cable is also too short for hi-fi and TV listening at home - which feels a little bit at odds with the Onkyo brand.
FULL REVIEW: Onkyo ES-HF300 review
Home audio masters
Philips Fidelio X1
The Philips Fidelio X1 headphones aren't designed for the outside world - the 3-metre cable included makes that clear - but rather to be enjoyed with your home stereo system. The sound is neutral, but still feels alive thanks to great response across the audible frequency range.
We're not saying the Philips Fidelio X1’s aren’t compatible with smartphone or tablet devices, but plug them into your hi-fi and, boom, it's glorious stuff. Curl up in a soft chair, slip these over your ears, and spend some time drinking tea while immersed in sound and reading the Sunday paper. Perfection.
But we digress. These cans are constructed from metal and leather, along with an adjustable headband and double-layered ear shells that are meant to stay cupped on your head. They look great and sound even better: of all the Fidelio headphones we've tested these are the best performing.
QUICK VERDICT: We're quite the fans of the Fidelio X1. Everything we listened to sounded great, not mention the build-quality and design are spot-on. They can be a bit pricey for the average consumer, but if you're an audiophile who craves a good at-home experience, these may be the headphones for you.
FULL REVIEW: Philips Fidelio X1 review
When the Denon AH-D600 headphones launched at the end of 2012 for £500, we knew the price meant these cans were aimed at the high end. The Denon headphones bring a heavy over-the-ear design with replaceable cables, and there's a leather-stitched band that nestles comfortably across your head. Most importantly, they deliver a booming sound and we've found them to be the perfect alternative for a home cinema lover looking to let the youngsters sleep.
PRICE: £500 (easy to find for £300 online)
QUICK VERDICT: They're bonkers headphones. We won't claim they'd suit an audiophile, because they quite simply push the bass too hard to be considered for people who want a pure experience. However, they are comfortable and beautifully clear to listen to. They sound utterly amazing, and for music - if you like electronic, or anything vaguely urban - they are perfect too. Their best use is for TV and movies, perhaps, as here the AH-D600 headphones explode with life and give you an experience much more like you'd get in a cinema.
FULL REVIEW: Denon AH-D600 review