(Pocket-lint) - To listen to music on any iPhone since the age-old iPhone 7, you either need a pair of wireless Bluetooth headphones, a 3.5mm to Lightning converter (no longer included in the box for 2018 and later iPhones) or a pair of wired headphones that will connect to the Lightning port.
It's maybe not something you see in every store and from every brand, but Lightning headphones do exist, and they allow you to plug a pair of headphones directly into the port in the bottom edge of your iPhone.
So, why choose Lightning headphones? Lightning headphones do have a special quality; they're capable of receiving lossless stereo 48kHz digital audio output from Apple devices and sending mono 48kHz digital audio input. They can also draw power from an Apple device (even if the device is asleep).
Apple's Lightning port can also support headphones with integrated digital-to-analogue converters (DACs) and amplifiers, so audio travelling through the Lightning port will pass into the headphones digitally, thus avoiding typical analogue signal interferences you get with other headphones. That means, from a personal headphones point-of-view, it's the way to get the highest quality audio delivered from your iPhone.
We've picked some of the best pairs of Lightning headphones available now, comprising over-ear and in-ear models, at a variety of price points.
Our Top Pick is currently the Belkin SoundForm purely for its convenience and value for money, but other Lightning headphones are worth considering, especially for audiophiles. Those included are the Audeze LCD i3, Libratone Q-Adapt in-ear, Pioneer Rayz Plus and Sennheiser Ambeo Sport.
Our Top Pick
Belkin SoundForm iPhone Headphones with Lightning Connector
- Very affordable
- Tangle-free cable
- Inline mic/control hangs off one ear
- Not the most secure fit
The Belkin makes our top pick because we believe what most people want is an affordable, un-fussy pair of in-ears to replace the wired earpods that used to come in the iPhone box. This is arguably the closes thing to those you'll find.
Available in both black and white, these wired Lightning headphones also come in a USB-C version for Android phones. They're Apple-certified and come with a tangle-free cable. Naturally, they're at home with calls or music, while there's also an in-line volume control.
As you can see, they're inexpensive compared to many other Lightning headphone options, too.
Lightning headphones we also recommend
Here are four other very different, but brilliant, pairs of Lightning headphones that we've tested and recommend.
Audeze LCD i3
- Absolutely stunning sound quality
- Versatile wireless band included
- Earphones are detachable
- Proprietary connector for swapping out cables
- Very expensive
- They're pretty big
Audeze is one of the few high-end audio companies to go all-in on Lightning connector headphones. And it uses that connection to drive audio through a Hi-Res DAC built into the controller.
With that, combined with the huge Planar Magnetic drivers, the sound is stunning through the LCD i3. Details are superb and clear, subtle elements in the background are audible, and the tight response makes them feel very snappy and really on the ball. What's more, the bass is really well controlled and very enjoyable.
Like previous Audeze in-ears, the earphones themselves are detachable, so you can connect them up to the wireless neckband as well for a Bluetooth connection, or up to a standard 3.5mm jack-equipped cable. You get to choose.
The only real downside is the cost: these are very pricey.
Libratone Q-Adapt in-ear
- Great sound
- ANC equipped
- Fashionable design and colours
- Not the cheapest
- Not the most durable
Libratone's Q Adapt in-ear Lightning headphones use the power from the Lightning port to power their CityMix noise cancellation technology. There are four varying levels of noise cancellation, which either lets some external noise in, so you're aware of your surroundings, or blocks it out entirely.
What Libratone has going for it, as with a lot of its products, is style. The Q-Adapt in-ears look fantastic. They're sleek, pretty, and come in four different subtle colours.
While they might not be that cheap - considering they're wired - they're far from being very expensive. If you want good wired sound without having to pay a small fortune, these are the buds for you.
Pioneer Rayz Plus
- Competitive price
- Active noise cancelling
- "Hey Siri" hands free
- Fit isn't great
The Pioneer Rayz Plus have built-in noise-cancelling technology that promises to adapt to your ears, but also lets in enough external noise to make sure you stay aware of your surroundings. When you take them out of your ears, the music you were listening to automatically pauses and starts again when you put them back in.
A convenience key on the in-line controls can be set to open a music app, mute calls or launch Rayz controls, which allows you to adjust various headphone settings. Perhaps one of the best features of the Rayz Plus though, is they let you charge your iPhone while listening to music.
All this is great, and the sound quality is brilliant for the money as well. But the fit is one area that has let some users down. They often need pushing back in or adjusting to maintain the sound quality and noise cancelling.
Still, for the money, it's hard to argue with what's on offer here.
Sennheiser Ambeo Sport
- Over-ear hook design for secure fit
- 360-sound is quirky
- Mic unit is chunky
This one's a bit of a wild card entry: Sennheiser's Ambeo Sport headset. They were among the first to launch with Lightning connector included, but Sennheiser didn't want to launch an average everyday pair of in-ears. Instead, it launched with a very unique selling point.
The Ambeo headphones feature two omnidirectional microphones to produce a 360-effect in recorded audio, which means they double as a microphone for when you're recording videos on your phone. The idea is that you're immersed in your audio landscape.
They feature ANC but can also allow sounds through so that you can hear what's going on around you. Plus, now that they're older, they're very affordable.
Other products we considered
The Pocket-lint editorial team spends hours testing and researching hundreds of products before recommending our best picks for you. We consider a range of factors when it comes to putting together our best guides, including physically testing the products ourselves, consumer reviews, brand quality and value. Many of the devices we consider don't make our final best guides, ut that doesn't mean they're no good.
These are some of the products we considered that ultimately didn't make our top 5:
How to choose a pair of Lightning headphones
Lightning headphones are pretty thin on the ground when you compare them to all the other available types of headphones, particularly since everything is pushing towards wireless or true wireless these days. After all, we've found for so many different product categories, convenience really is king. You can't get tangled up if there are no wires.
So what should you look for?
Why buy Lightning?
This is undoubtedly THE question when looking for this specific type of headphone. Mainly because Apple sells a very cheap and easy 3.5mm to Lightning adapter that you could just plug any old pair of wired earphones or headphones into. For us a good pair of Lightning headphones has to include something extra. A good example is the type of in-ears or over-ears that use that Lightning power to enable Hi-Res audio with a built-in DAC.
Will you make the most of Hi-Res?
As streaming services try to outdo each other's offerings, more of them are upping the ante when it comes to streaming higher quality audio. So if you are buying a pair of Hi-Res capable headphones, make sure you're going to make the most of it. Check what streaming service you're on and if your favourite tracks and albums are available in Lossless/Hi-Res audio formats. If they are, ensure you've activated the highest available streaming/download quality in the app's settings.
Think about the fit
A big part of buying any pair of in, over or on-ears is the fit of the product. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how great a pair of headphones sound if you hate wearing them. Look for one that offers multiple tip sizes (if you're buying in-ears) or a well-designed and extending headband (if you're buying over-ears).
Where will you wear them?
As well as a fit, the environment you're going to do most of your listening in will dictate which headphones you should buy. For instance, if you're listening to music every day on a noisy commute, you won't want a pair like the Audeze models which are open-back and do absolutely nothing to cancel out external noises. You want something with noise cancelling of some form.
What about in-ear fins and over-ear hooks?
For the most part, earphones these days are designed to stay in your ears without any additional support. However, there are times when you need something extra to keep them in your ears, particularly if you use them to work out. Some will come with built-in over-ear hooks that fit over the top of your ears to keep them held in place, or with softer silicon 'fins' that hug the inside of your ear.
Do you like lots of bass, or not?
Some people love bass more than others, and you might find it's because of how you want to use the earphones. In a workout, you might want more impact and presence from bass to drive you on, whereas listening to music at home in the quiet you find it overpowering.
How important is the general audio quality?
That's an obvious one: very. If you want to enjoy your music more than anything else, you want a pair of earphones with really good audio quality. More often than not, this is enabled by a pair of high-quality drivers and normally means you can't skimp. You need to spend some money to get a pair that sounds really good. One with good bass control, but also with clarity and detail in the higher frequencies. The best buds let you hear subtle elements in the track that cheaper buds don't, while the bass keeps its texture and shape, even if it's loud and low.
What about call quality and using them for Zoom calls?
Some earphones are wonderful for listening to music, and are tuned to make your favourite playlists sound immense, but might not be as good for voice calls. If what you're looking for is a pair to make regular calls with throughout the day you want a pair that has a good set of external mics and - if wireless - beam-forming to pick up your voice clearly during calls.
What if I can't find Lightning buds that work for me?
There are a couple of options here. First, you could happily just buy the 3.5mm to Lightning adapter from Apple, and then the world of wired headphones is your oyster. Plus if you already have cabled buds you love it means you don't have to get rid of them. Second: give wireless a try. Bluetooth technologies have advanced a lot since the early days, to the point of them being close to lag-free. Apple AirPods are popular for a reason.
More about this story
Products in this list have been tested in real-life situations, just as you would use it in your day-to-day life.
In the case of these Lightning headphones, we put each pair through its paces indoors in quiet and noisy environments, and sometimes even during workouts or running sessions.
Since they're Lightning-specific, we tested them with iPhones and listened to a multitude of different genres to see how they handle. They're also tested making phone calls and Zoom calls. Each pair gets many hours of listening to see how the battery performs over time, too.
Since we started reviewing these headphones years ago, technology has advanced a lot. Over that time, we've seen them get smaller, sound better, last longer and - now - some come with tiny, portable built-in DACs. Sometimes, they even come with ANC equipped, which seemed almost unthinkable just a few years back.
As we do with all of our buyer’s guides, we also tried and measure the value of these products against competitors and the wider market. Ideally, this allows us to provide a mix of Lightning headphones that are available at different price points, and not just the most expensive options.
At Pocket-lint, we’re not interested in providing the extraneous details or number crunching in our guides; we just want to give you an easy to understand review that helps you pick the right option for your needs. Our verdicts are concise, but rest assured these picks have been tested thoroughly.