Even if you’re not a self-described audiophile, you can certainly appreciate the difference between a pair of headphones that sound good and a pair that doesn’t. In fact, headphones are probably the one category of accessory where you really shouldn’t skimp, because you absolutely get what you pay for.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to spend $1,000, $600 or even $400 to get a fantastic pair of high-end headphones ahead of the holidays this year. In this post, we have collected six fantastic options that each deliver incredible sound without breaking the bank.
Bowers & Wilkins C5 Series 2
The market for in-ear headphones has never been as crowded as it is right now. With prices that range from $10 for budget no-name earbuds to more than $1,000 for professional in-ear monitors, there really is something for everyone.
The trick, of course, is finding the right pair of headphones for your taste and budget.
In our testing, one pair of in-ear headphones rose to the top for providing what we found to be the ideal balance of sound quality, design, build and price: The C5 Series 2 in-ear headphones from Bowers & Wilkins.
Bowers & Wilkins’ first-generation C5 earbuds were easily among our favorites in years past, and the second-generation model adds improved clarity at low volumes and high volumes thanks to a redesigned dynamic driver.
The bass has been tamed a bit in the C5 Series 2 headphones compared to the first-gen model, but these earbuds still pack plenty of punch without being overbearing.
Unless you’re willing to spend at least twice as much money, you won’t find a better pair of in-ear headphones.
Bowers & Wilkins C5 Series 2 – $179.99
Moving down into a less expensive range, Etymotic’s hf5 in-ear headphones provide impressively accurate sound reproduction at an affordable price point.
Etymotic is a company known to produce earphones with bass that is punchy and clear, crisp highs and mids that give vocals the respect they deserve. The hf5 earphones fit the bill in every way, and they are even truer than some higher-end Etymotic buds that have launched in years past.
Of note, these are pure in-ear headphones with no in-line microphone or music controls. The hf2 earphones are Etymotic’s comparable earbuds with a mic and a control button, but we found that they weren’t quite as clean as the hf5 earphones.
Etymotic hf5 – $110-$120
Our third pair of in-ear headphones featured in this guide drops below the $100 price point but delivers sound quality and noise isolation on par with much more expensive earbuds.
The R6i headphones are a fantastic fit for earphone buyers on a budget looking for something that packs a lot of punch at the low end. The tuning on these buds is all about brain-shaking bass, which remains clear even at loud volumes long after highs become piercing.
These buds are tailor-made for EDM, hip hop and other bass-heavy genres. Pick the proper tips to ensure a tight fit in your ear canal and there is no way you’ll be disappointed with the bass performance on these buds.
The R6i also includes a flat tangle-free cable, an in-line mic and button (no volume controls), a nice carrying case and four sets of tips.
Klipsch R6i – $99.97
Polk Audio Nue Era
The last set of in-ear headphones on our list this year are the Nue Era earbuds from Polk Audio. At less than $80, these buds are the most affordable pair on the list, but compromises are made at this price point.
Overall, the Nue Era earphones deliver solid performance across the spectrum, but the low-end packs much less punch than other buds you’ll find in this guide. It’s still impressive for an $80 pair of in-ear headphones though, and users who don’t prioritize pounding bass will likely be more than satisfied.
The in-line microphone is accompanied by a play/pause button and volume controls, and the Nue Era buds feature a fantastic design that you won’t find on any similarly priced earphones.
Polk Audio Nue Era – $79.99
Muzik On-Ear Headphones
In addition to earbuds, we have also featured one pair of on-ear headphones and one pair of over-ear headphones in this guide.
Up first, we have the only smart headphones on the list, Muzik’s wireless On-Ear Headphones.
These sleek new smart headphones hit several notes you won’t find anywhere else. First, they’re billed as “smart,” which is obviously something of a buzzword right now. In the case of Muzik’s On-Ear Headphones, it’s actually a pretty apt descriptor.
Muzik’s headphones connect to the company’s app on your iPhone and iPad. Beyond being able to play locally stored music and streaming music through Rdio from within the app, it allows you to configure four programmable capacitive buttons on the right side of the headphones.
So, for example, a quick tap on one of the buttons can share the song you’re listening to on Facebook or Twitter. Muzik’s platform is also open to developers, so music apps that play ball can use the On-Ear Headphones’ buttons any way they see fit.
Outside of the configurable buttons, the entire right panel on the headphones responds to touch. This allows the headphones to recognize gestures; for example, a swipe up or down on the right side of the headphones will adjust the volume, while horizontal swipes skip tracks forward or backward.
Also of note, the design of these headphones is beautiful and unique. They are on the heavy side, though weight is distributed well and the foam earpieces are reasonably comfortable for on-ear headphones, though I did experience some ear fatigue after wearing them for long periods of time. This is expected with on-ear headphones, though.
Where sound quality is concerned, we consider them to be above average for wireless on-ear headphones. They are reasonably clean at the high end and low end, though deep bass does tend to get muddy at high volumes. As for general bass response, it’s nice and even without being overbearing like Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, for example.
Muzik’s headphones come in black and white, and they offer up to 15 hours of playback on a charge. An optional audio cable is included as well for times when you don’t want to connect wirelessly.
The On-Ear Headphones from Muzik are currently available for pre-order, and orders placed now will be delivered before Christmas.
Muzik On-Ear Headphones – $299.00
Plantronics Backbeat Pro
Last but certainly not least, we have the only over-ear headphones on our list. They also just so happen to be our favorite headphones overall.
Plantronics is a name associated with audio products, of course, but it’s not a name many people would normally associate with premium headphones. The company’s Backbeat Pro wireless noise-cancelling headphones will absolutely change that.
Starting on the outside, these over-ear headphones feature a gorgeous design that just screams high-end, despite the fact that these headphones are quite affordable compared to other options in the same category. They’re also comfortable even after being worn for hours at a time.
From the look of the design to the feel of the materials, Plantronics did an incredible job with Backbeat Pro. Buttons and dials that control playback, volume and phone calls are seamlessly integrated into the design of the headset. Wireless range is impressive and the battery lasts for up to 24 hours of usage per charge.
The headphones also ship with an audio cable with an in-line microphone, play/pause button and volume controls for wired connections.
Where performance is concerned, prepare to be shocked.
The active noise cancellation on the Backbeat Pro is activated with the flip of a small switch, and it works wonderfully. Outside noise is substantially diminished even when music is not playing through the headphones. Then, play a song even at low volume and the outside world disappears.
Sound quality is tremendous on the Backbeat Pro. Highs are detailed and bright, lows are deep and powerful, and the mid-range is tuned perfectly for the widest possible variety of genres. At low volume or high volume, the separation of instruments remains clear and the sound is never muddy.
The Plantronics Backbeat Pro headphones are impressive from top to bottom, and are highly recommended.
Plantronics Backbeat Pro – $249.99
Plantronics’ Backbeat Pro headphones have also been awarded a BGR Seal Of Approval, which we award to just a handful of products each year that have been thoroughly tested and found to be a cut above the rest. More information can be found here.
Be sure to check out the rest of the posts in our holiday buying guide series