Unless you're truly hardcore music fan, most of us get our music through our phones nowadays. When it's not thorugh our phones, it's through our computers. iPods have largely gone extinct, and the Zune is the butt of a joke in a Marvel movie. And forget about that iRiver MP3 player I was rocking back in college.
Despite that, there are still about a million different ways to listen to music and it can be hard to wade through all the options. We're going to dive in, looking at some starter headphones, some solid soundbars, and other ways to amp up the audio experience for your loved ones this holiday season (or maybe just for you. We're not judging.)
We'll recommend some headphones and earbuds, taking you through a few different price points, some ways to amp up your current audio setup, as well as some other ideas to get started on moving from PC speakers to something with a bit more boom.
Shure SE535 ($399)
Shure SE535 in-ear headphones pictured with Shure RMCE-BT2 adapter (not included)
If you want some incredibly comfortable earbuds with a great seal and some great bass, Shure's entire line is not to be missed. The SE535s are pricey, but well worth the cost if you want something you can beat up and take with you.
Etymotics ER4SR/XR ($349)
For a slightly flatter sound, Etymotics ER4SRs are your first stop. The SR stands for Studio Reference. These in-ear headphones are designed to have as flat a response as possible. They're not going to sound as deep as some other headphones, but they're clear and clean. Check out the ER4XRs for a bit more bass boost.
Focal Elegia ($899)
You want expensive? We can do expensive. Let's talk about the Focal Elegias, a set of $900 cans that promise superior audio and comfort. What else do they do? Nothing. They're headphones and headphones alone. If you're buying these, you'd better have a proper DAC (and maybe Amp) already – these aren't bus headphones. These are for your "listening nook" or your "music room." Because if you can afford these, you probably have one of those.
Audeze LCD-4 ($3,995)
If you're a person with more money than sense, you can also spend a cool four grand on a single pair of headphones.These use planar magnetic technology to drive sound, which should mean lower latency and faster response and, as a result, more detailed sound with less distortion. But they're also $4,000. If you get these, you'd better have spent at least half as much on an amp and a DAC.
ATH M50X BT ($199)
Audio Technica's M50x headphones are the gold standard for people looking for something that can deliver sound without emptying your wallet. This fall, Audio Technica decided to join the cable-cutter revolution with the ATH-M50xBT headphones. They're the same classic design and nearly identical sound, but they're Bluetooth headphones – and pretty nice ones at that.
The headphones use BT5 tech, which means lower-latency sound and better battery life. The battery in these things lasts a whopping 40 hours according to the manufacturer, before requiring about 7 hours plugged in to charge back up to 100%. Along with the ability to take calls, these headphones can also interact with your phone's voice assistant. They aren't noise cancelling headphones – we'll get into that in a bit – but they're all but guaranteed to be a win. The M50x is about as reliable as it gets with mid-range headphones.
Sennheiser HD 599 ($185)
If you're looking for something with an open back to wear at home, Sennheiser's 599HD headphones are a solid choice. Check out our review for an in-depth look, but you can expect to get good, clean sound out of a good-looking pair of open-back, wired headphones. (Check out our review!)
Grado SR325e ($295)
On-Ear headphones aren't for everyone – especially those of us with glasses. But if you want some simple, spartan, elegant headphones, Grado always delivers, and the SR325e cans are a nice set of open-back, on-ear headphones that will last you decades. (Check out our review!)
Shure SE215 ($90 – $125)
These are some of my all-time favorite headphones. They're not too expensive, and they can take a beating. I've had mine for 7 years and I still love the way they sound. They're a bit heavy on bass, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The modular design also means that you can replace the cable and the ear tips. There's even a separate Bluetooth adapter you can pick up to take them (or any other Shure earbuds, like the 535s above) wireless.
Sony MDR V6 ($70)
These headphones have been around since forever. They're under $80 and at this point it's a matter of ain't-broke-don't-fix. Sony's not going to replace these anytime soon at this point. The coiled cable means you might not want to take these around as mobile headphones (or that you might really want to take them out), but they're closed-back, so you're not going to be sharing your music with your cubemates at full volume either way.
Noise Cancelling Headphones
Sony 1000xm3 ($348) There's a battle in the noise-canceling market, and one of the few true contenders is Sony's 1000xm3 headphones. Having tried these out myself I can say for sure that they offer top-end noise canceling on top of supreme comfort, solid battery life, and yes, excellent sound. I like to say that you get what you pay for, but in the case of the 1000xm3s, you might be getting even more than you're paying for.
Bose QuietComfort 35 II ($299)
I haven't tried these myself, but Bose is the gold standard for noise-cancelling headphones. While I'm going to lean toward Sony in general, just because I tend to like their electronics, Bose has a pile of accolades high enough to plant a flag on, and you can't go wrong with these.
DACs, Amps, and Stacks
First, a quick primer on what these are – since they're not on the list for equipment needed to just get started. A DAC is a Digital-Analog Converter, which does exactly what the name says, converting your digital music to an analog signal. Your headphone jack on your computer does this, but the DAC does this on a dedicated circuit. An amp amplifies the volume. If you have some headphones that you like that don't seem like they get loud enough, they might need an amp to get full sound.
FiiO E10K ($75)
The FiiO E10K does the work of both a DAC and an Amp, and it does it for pretty cheap. For most headphone listeners, this is going to be more than enough. It's compact, takes a straight 3.5-mm headphone input, and has both a bare line-out for speakers a jack with a volume knob for headphones. There's also a bass boost switch if that's something you're into. The device plugs into your computer via USB, and you're set – you'll get cleaner, clearer, louder music, along with the convenience of being able to control two separate audio devices without dinking around with switching sources in Windows. This is also the starter amp, so if you have trouble with it, there's tons of chatter on sites like Reddit and head-fi.org.
The Schiit Stack
Audio geeks like some weird Schiit. That's pronounced just like you think it would be. Audio company Schiit has a pair of boxes called the Magni 3 and the Modi 3. When you put them together Voltron style, they become the Schiit Stack.
Plug the Modi 3 in first – that's your DAC. It offers USB connectivity, or you can get optical and coaxial if you upgrade to the slightly-more-expensive Uber version. Its only line-out is red and white RCA, though, so you'll want to plug that into the Magni 3, the amp. From here, you have two options – there's an RCA out to go to your bookshelf speakers, and a ¼" headphone jack.
The Schiit Stack represents a fast and comparatively inexpensive way to get – all at once – a great audio set up, an excuse to slip 'Schiit' into conversation, and a fast way to make people question your purchasing decisions. All in all, a great buy.
Klipsch R-51PM ($399)
Bookshelf speakers aren't something you replace often. Instead of cheaping out, save up and buy a good pair. They're going to last you the rest of your life as long as they stay on the shelf and no one puts a foot through the driver. A pair with a good set of outs in the back can plug into just about anything, too. These Klipsch speakers have USB, SPDI/F, RCA, and 3.5mm Aux outs, as well as an out to an optional subwoofer. Oh, and they have Bluetooth built in, too.
Audioengine A2+ ($199)
If you want something that looks as good as it sounds, Audioengine's A2+ powered bookshelf speakers combine a traditional form factor with eye-popping white or red body options.
JBL GO 2 ($25) For the times when you need something small, inexpensive and durable, I can firmly recommend JBL's GO 2. It comes in about a thousand colors. It's waterproof. It's sturdy. It's pocket-sized. This thing can go from the shower to the pool to the park and keep playing.
Sonos One ($175 – ???)
If you want to get started building a whole-house audio experience, Sonos is a great place to start, and the Sonos One is a pretty inexpensive way to do it. They're wall mountable, and they can be used as rear speakers in a Sonos home theater system. They're humidity-resistant, so they can be dropped onto your bathroom sink or under the awning in your backyard. They're also Alexa-compatible, so if you have an Echo-something somewhere, you can tell it to play music over speakers. Because they play over Wi-Fi, you're not going to have the music dropping out if you get up and walk out of the room, and you can build up a Sonos network of speakers starting from just one up to an unrealistic limit that only the most determined among us could hit.
Harmon Kardon Soundsticks ($149)
These look more "2001 iMac" than "2018 computer audio," but for $149 you're getting 2.1 audio that earns the set a place in just about ever speaker list out there. We can't help but throw our hat into the ring. I'm not a fan of the look, but it doesn't matter how it looks when you close your eyes and take in the sound.
Edifier R980T ($69)
On the other hand, if you swing hard the other way, you can pick up something like Edifier's R980Ts, which have a traditional bookshelf-speaker style packed into a pair of 4-inch powered bookshelf speakers. I'm not a fan of the back-mounted volume, but they have a classic look and a very appealing price.
DIY Speaker Kits
Sometimes the best presents, though, aren't the ones you just plug in, but the ones you make. While making your own headphones might be a stretch, making your own speakers is easily within range. You don't need a full workshop for these. While there isn't an easy Amazon link for these, you can find them all over online. Check out sites like KMA Kits and Parts Express for a couple of examples. If these are a gift, maybe throw some sandpaper and a gift certificate to the hardware store for the other supplies if you're feeling extra generous.
If you or your loved one has a dope pair of headphones worthy of putting on display, a headphone stand is an easy, simple one. On the cheaper end, start with – no joke – a banana holder. You can get one that sits on your desk or even one that could be bolted to the underside.
If you don't want a dual-purpose produce/audio gear holder, though, there are a whole bunch of dedicated headphone stands, like this one that has a nice spot for your cord to sit, or this elegant-looking wooden one that would go nicely with those Sennheisers up above.
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