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Headphone! They're a pretty solid gift every year, but they're an even better option when so many of us are stuck at home. It's hard to think about (let alone get something done) when the backdrop of your life is a cacophony of conference calls and Zoom school.
We've spent a lot of time with a lot of different headphones this year so we thought it would be good to highlight some of our favorites. As with all audio things, “best” is deeply subjective – but all of these have absolutely earned our seal of approval. Between over-ear, on-ear, in-ear, and gaming headsets, we've got the basics covered.
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Marshall Major IV
The latest on-ear headphones from Marshall combine great sound with a lightweight design and some unique benefits – including over 80 hours of playtime on a single charge. They charge either via USB-C or wirelessly with most standard chargers by folding them up and placing them on the right ear cup. The on-ear design means no noise cancellation and noise isolation is minimal. They are therefore not suitable for commuting, but are a very good choice for the home office. For the price, they are a great deal and a stylish accessory.
Price: $ 129 from Marshall
If you really need serious noise cancellation and aren't ready to sacrifice sound quality, Sony's WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphones are a breeze.
These headphones are widely considered to be the best at their job and actually do a few different things very, very well. The slim over-ear design and sophisticated active noise cancellation allow them to create a completely silent work environment if you so desire. And if you are only interested in typical, punchy sound from Sony, that's reason enough to buy them too. (The Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 are another top choice for over-ear noise suppression if you prefer the look or the more neutral Bose sound.) For an affordable choice, the Sony WH-1000XM3 offers the last generation of Sony cancel the same sound quality and noise with a few fewer bells and whistles.
Price: $ 278 from Best Buy
Master & Dynamic MW65
The MW65 are Master & Dynamic's wireless over-ear noise cancellation model. Between DJing at dirty underground raves in my early twenties and editing videos for the next decade, I've probably looked through two dozen headphones. By far, the MW65 are my favorite.
They are beautifully designed and well constructed using lightweight anodized aluminum and high quality leather. The 40mm beryllium drivers provide clarity across the spectrum and audiophiles will love their natural sound profile. The memory foam ear cushions already dampen garbage trucks and police sirens quite a bit, but the ANC is great for shutting the world off – in high mode it's incredibly quiet. The MW65 work wirelessly via Bluetooth 4.2 with a signal range of over 65 feet – a must-have for getting snacks out of the refrigerator at important Zoom meetings or to avoid accidentally pulling the laptop off the table. Bonus function: integration of Google Assistant.
They cost over $ 400 but are solid headphones and you end up paying for luxury.
Price: Currently $ 400 on Amazon
The days seem to be longer when you work from home, and these Denon headphones are comfortable to wear from morning until night. And even better, they sound fantastic with rich bass and crisp highs. The soundstage is amazing and the large cups easily prevent outside noise from interrupting your jam session. From hip hop to alt to underground indie classics, everything sounds better with these Denon headphones. I can't get enough of these Denon headphones. In OutKast's SpottieOttieDopaliscious, the horns play over a nice low-fi beat track. Uncle Tupelos Sandusky is heavenly.
These Denon headphones have one disadvantage: they use more power than a computer or phone. These headphones need an amplifier to come alive. When testing on a computer, the headphones are great. When tested with a desktop headphone amplifier, they are out of this world.
price: Currently $ 699 from Denon
Grado Labs The hemp headphones
Of all the headphones in this series, these cans from Grado are the most polarizing. On the one hand, they sound fantastic. The tone is clear, clean and complex. Mt. Joy's silver lining manages to be peaceful but powerful, with strong guitar strums and a full soundstage. Tune in to Neil Young's Heart Of Gold and it's more the same: the sound is clean and pure. These headphones are intended for purists. The case is made of compressed hemp and maple. According to the company, it will balance the sound and produce some of the best audio performance of any headphones. True to their name and inspiration, the hemp headphones cost $ 420.
While the sound is fantastic, these headphones may not do the good job for home headphones. There's very little sound isolation from the foam pads and the open design. I wear the headphones as I type this section and can clearly hear the click of my mechanical keyboard as Sublime's step-in razor plays through the cans.
Grado is a family business from Brooklyn where three generations have worked for the company. The company started making cartridges, expanded speakers, and currently sells headphones and cartridges. These headphones are handcrafted in Brooklyn and come with a variety of options including terminating the cable with an XLR connector instead of the standard 3.5mm plug.
Price: $ 420 from Grado Labs
It's not surprising that Sony's capabilities at over-ear noise suppression do very well in the smaller form factor. Earbuds can't compete with the sweet silence that over-ear designs offer. However, if you don't like big old headphones, the tradeoff is probably worth it. Sony's earbuds are a great choice as they block a shocking amount of outside noise in a very small package. Like the Sony over-ear pick, they have an incredible sound, a very attractive design, and a huge selection of rubber caps in different sizes and textures to make them comfortable in different ears. If you value Apple connectivity above all else, choose the AirPods pro. If sound quality or silence is more important you won't be disappointed here.
Price: $ 158 from Best Buy
Also great: Sennheiser's Momentum True Wireless 2 earbuds ($ 269) keep pace with Sony's earbuds. Depending on your preferences for sound and fit, they're also good choices (especially if you can find them on sale).
For the Apple fan: AirPods Pro
Although Apple is now positioning the $ 249 worth of AirPods Pro as a mid-range product in the AirPods line with the introduction of the ridiculously cheap AirPods Max, worth $ 549, it is still Apple's headphone product that does the seems to have the greatest lead over its main competitors.
Features like passthrough mode and spatial audio are nice, but you probably won't use them much depending on your setup. As with the cheaper non-Pro AirPods, you're sure to find better sound quality in Bluetooth headphones at this price point, but you won't find a better overall package that includes so little troubleshooting, a tight package, and such high quality noise as it can be canceled. The AirPods Pro are a sophisticated product that only works in such a way that using other radio buds is comparatively painful.
Retailers are really keen to get products moving this holiday season. So, if you're great, these headphones can probably get you a good result. So if you are planning to upgrade or trying to find out what is going on I recommend you take the plunge.
Price: Currently $ 199 from Amazon
SteelSeries 7P (for PlayStation) or 7X (for Xbox)
Whether you want to play games on a PC or another console, the SteelSeries Arctis 7 receives an unreserved recommendation from me. These headphones have amazing sound on a surprisingly large soundstage, making them suitable for any game or media. They're also light, comfortable, and have adequate isolation (and can introduce ambient noise if you want). There is also a built-in telescopic microphone for chatting. There are two versions, one for PlayStation and one for Xbox consoles, although both work with PC.
Their drawbacks are a crowded physical interface – there's a lot going on on the undersides of the ear cups – and a corded, multi-part (rather than USB stick-shaped) wireless dongle. But these are minor issues considering what you get for the $ 150 price tag.
Price: $ 150 from SteelSeries
Budget pick: Razer Kraken X USB
This is my headset of choice when friends need something solid but inexpensive. The sound is a bit bass heavy and not wireless, but I've personally used these for quite a while and found them comfortable, reliable, and the built-in mic is easy to use.
Price: $ 44 from Amazon
Upgrade selection: SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless
The Arctis Pros from SteelSeries are more expensive for a gaming headset, but they are excellent. Above all, they are extremely convenient thanks to a spring strap inspired by ski goggles, and replaceable batteries (one in the headset, one in the base station) ensure that you are never looking for a charging cable during a fight. With a special mixer you can adjust the sound to your liking even in games in which it is otherwise blocked. A clearly visible mute indicator at the top of the microphone makes it clear whether or not you are on the air. One catch: they work with PC, Mac, and PlayStation (including PS5 with an upcoming firmware update), but not Xbox.
Price: $ 326 from Amazon