Headphones have only been around since 1910, but it can be easy to lose perspective on how dramatically they changed the nature of music.
The opportunity for anyone to listen to their own private music beamed directly into their head sounds like an act of science fiction, but it’s a rather practical invention that’s functionally not that different from speakers.
That hasn’t stopped sound engineers from doing everything they can to make the experienced sound as authentic as possible.
Nearly 500 million headphone units are sold in the world every year, and they vary from cheap and shoddy knock-off brands to pristine audiophile headphones that can cost thousands of dollars on their own.
This vast market means that there’s something for practically any taste and budget, but it can also be intimidating to new consumers.
Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be. Let us help you navigate the story behind the biggest headphones brands and decode the value each one offers.
In the article below we’ll discuss some of the most trusted and well-known headphone brands available today, so whichever you choose you can rest assured of a quality product.
Table of Contents
Sennheiser’s reputation is one that’s well respected in the film industry. Their MKH 416 has been the industry standard shotgun microphone since the 1970s, but their noise cancellation technology has similarly found them praise from DJs and audiophiles.
Sennheiser is a brand that enthusiastically demonstrates the German reputation for engineering.
Despite having a large catalog of names that are largely inscrutable combinations of letters and numbers, Sennheiser headphones offer quality performance around the board while offering styles and specializations for practically any listener.
The “Momentum” series breaks Sennheiser’s traditional naming conventions but also offers a broad variety of headphones designed for active users.
Meanwhile, the HD 820 carries a price tag approaching two grand, but you can count on it to provide you a hermetic listening experience that helps even the most meticulously tuned hi-fi system truly sing.
You can’t go into an electronics store without seeing the fingerprint of Sony everywhere.
But despite having their fingers in everything from film production to video game consoles to semiconductors, their headphones are consistently rather solid.
Their catalog is one of the most expansive and diverse in the headphones industry, but their quality standards fluctuate a bit more than a brand like Sennheiser.
But as long as you’re willing to do a little research, you can find Sony headphones that perform with the best names on the market and often leverage exciting new technologies.
Unfortunately, they seem to have taken a shine to Sennheiser’s cryptic naming conventions.
The WH-1000 series remains one of the best choices for noise cancelling headphones out there, and it includes a number of specific models at varying price points.
While audio enthusiasts will likely be debating whether or not Bose headphones are overpriced until the end of time, there’s no doubt that they deliver the aural equivalent of driving in a luxury car.
Because no matter how much you pay, you can count on them to fit you about as comfortably as imaginable.
The QuietComfort 35 Series is their most popular pair and their flagship headphones product, and it highlights both the luxurious design of their over-ear cups and their trademark and class-leading active noise cancellation tech.
These are the types of headphones you can wear for hours at a time, although Bose is a little behind the curve when it comes to integrating their models with the latest app integration.
And despite feeling great, their materials look somewhat cheaper than the competition. That’s a small price to pay for people who place sound quality first and foremost.
In counterpoint to Bose, JBL headphones are almost always ahead of the curve in terms of employing new technological features that help users experience and share music more organically.
The mobile app is particularly robust and gives listeners significantly more control over the sound experience with tools like an equalizer and incremented toggles for active noise cancellation.
Whatever features are included, JBL does an impressive job of making the controls intuitive.
JBL’s sound engineering tends to be nicely balanced and more or less neutral, and their models range from cheap and sporty earbuds to more serious cans.
That said, they don’t offer much to satisfy the super high-end market, but that’s a niche that’s already well covered by established brands.
In one other sharp contrast to Bose, JBL headphones often aren’t as comfortable to wear as comparable models from other brands.
With a history dating back over a century and an expansive consumer electronics portfolio comparable to Sony, Philips could dump their entire headphones business and still be perfectly fine.
Their catalog is relatively modest but broad enough to cover all of the major use cases.
For the most part, Philips headphones fly under the radar of the general consumer market — never taking the gold in any particular category but offering consistent performance across the board.
One area where Philips does set themselves apart is in their ergonomics. Their over-ear headphones are plush and snug without being hot or suffocating, and most headphones emphasize a bass-forward sound.
But people looking for reference headphones or a clean and neutral sound should look to Philips’ most professional line: the “Fidelio”.
They combine impressive sound reproduction with heavenly memory foam ear-cups.
Koss’ claim to fame is that they were the first company to manufacture stereo headphones — allowing different channels play to different drivers in each ear-cup.
Their current production is sometimes inconsistent, but they have a few models that truly excel within specialized niches.
The “Koss Porta Pro” may be the best headphones on the market if you want a pair of affordable critical listening headphones, and the quality they offer for the price truly is one of the best deals around.
Their open-backed design creates a rich soundstage, though the total lack of sound isolation means it’s best suited to dedicated listening rooms.
They’re also sporting some original and effect budget earbud designs with the Sparkplug and plug models.
Audio Technica’s headphones selection is ideal for people who treasure high fidelity sound but might not have a lot to spend on a high-end pair.
Whether you’re looking for serious studio headphones, a pair to match with your vinyl collection, or something for the DJ booth, Audio Technica can deliver professional-grade performance at a very fair price point.
The “ATH-M50X” in particular stands out as a great starter set of studio headphones that retail for around $150.
Audio Technica’s headphones do less well in noisy and public places thanks to their poor sound isolation, but the value is truly exceptional for circumstances where you can control the ambient noise.
And since their build quality is a little flimsy, it’s best if many of these headphones are kept indoors anyway.
8) Beats by Dre
Beats by Dre opened up new demographics in the headphones market by emphasizing bold designs and a bass-forward approach to sound engineering over the costly wide-frequency engineering of headphones tailored towards the audiophile market.
The sound quality has improved since the earliest days of the brand, but Beats continues to deliver stylish, comfortable, and affordable headphones built for people who want to listen to music in their everyday lives and look good doing it.
Now owned by Apple, Beats doesn’t offer an option targeted towards audiophile-approved high-fidelity although they have expanded their line significantly.
The “Powerbeats” stands out as some of the best wireless earbuds for exercise, while the “Solo Pro” packs a respectable frequency range and quality neutral sound into a portable and comfortable pair of wireless headphones.
Engineering is more balanced across the board since Beats’ earliest models, but the popularity of the brand also brings with it a premium price tag more justified by style and design than by sound performance.
Bang & Olufsen is positioned squarely along names like Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic in the luxury headphones market.
While they’re slightly more focused on design than on sound quality, B&O is playful and experimental with their designs.
The Beoplay E8 Sport offer stylish coloring and form in a pair of wireless earbuds that genuinely feel great and do just about everything right.
Over-ear models like the H2 and H3 evoke a simplified and stripped down reflection of the classic age of stereo engineering while delivering neutral sound and highly effective noise cancellation technology.
B&O headphones aren’t always going to offer the most value for your dollar, but you can be assured that any model is going to look great and deliver consistency across every major metric from durability to features to sound quality.
If your first priority is fashion and you’re working on a budget, Skullcandy has you covered.
Their relatively ambitious catalog of headphones covers everything from sporty earbuds to over-ear models that let you adjust the bass.
The sound quality isn’t exceptional — but Skullcandy headphones tend to favor a bass-heavy approach that’s great for casual listening, exercise, and commuting.
For many customers, the sound quality should be perfectly satisfying particularly when factoring in how affordable Skullcandy models are.
But where they really distinguish themselves from the competition is through their exhaustive selection of colors, patterns, and two-tone designs for their headphones.
And since they’re so cheap, consumers can reasonably pick up multiple headphones for coordinating their outfits.
Skullcandy headphones don’t typically come with many advanced features, but you will find ANC capabilities in some of their models.
Beyerdynamic is a company known for always putting sound quality above all else, but this meticulous German brand has become the standard for professionals and discerning listeners around the world.
Their flagship is their highly praised and long-running “DT PRO” series, which is comprised of three models. The 770, 880, and 990 differentiate themselves by offering closed back, semi-open, and open back designs and are some of the most popular studio monitoring headphones for professional music production.
Regardless of the model or design choices in a set of Beyerdynamic headphones, you can expect sound quality to come first and structural design to come a close second.
These headphones are universally sturdy, although that bulky design means that they’re often a less comfortable fit for extended periods of listening.
Beyerdynamic headphones can be quite pricey, but they also offer a decent range of models for less than $200.
A subsidiary of Samsung, AKG earned their name as one of the world’s premier microphone designers and manufacturers, but they’ve developed an impressive selection of headphones for a range of uses over the years as well.
The “AKG Y400” in particular has gained a lot of attention due to their ability to convey a lush and vibrant sound stage in a pair of shockingly affordable headphones.
The N700NC similarly offers great sound and impressive active noise cancellation for slightly over a hundred dollars.
All around, this is a brand to pay attention to if you care about sound quality but are legitimately working on a tight budget.
But if you’re looking for more high-end gear, AKG can also deliver with options like the reliably neutral and clean 240 MK II studio headphones.
With a legacy dating only back to 2009, Audeze doesn’t have the legacy that many of its competitors do — but they’ve quickly established a name for themselves thanks to their planar magnetic drivers.
The bass and texture of sound quality that planar magnetic drivers deliver is one-of-a-kind, though it can take a brief adjustment to get used to.
Though they weren’t the first to harness this technology, they’ve demonstrated a capable proficiency for making it affordable and accessible.
The highly portable and streamlined LCD-1 is the best example of Audeze at their best, but they’ve since applied their basic design successfully in a number of different ways.
That includes both budget and high-end gaming headsets, a powerful set of earbuds perfect for exercise but a little pricey, and a reasonably priced set of reference headphones.