Wireless headphones are a must if you want to listen to music—or audiobooks or podcasts or what-have-you—while you work or travel. After all, your coworkers and seatmates are probably not as interested in the secret life of an 80s boy band as you are. Choosing the best wireless headphones for your needs can seem hopelessly complicated—so many styles, types, and features to consider—but it doesn’t have to be. These seven questions can help you whittle down your choices to the headphones that are best suited to your needs, comfort, and lifestyle.
1. How Much Do You Want to Spend?
Unless you’re independently wealthy, your budget is going to figure into your choice of wireless headphones. Thanks to rapid advances in technology—not to mention the huge range of quality options among different makes and models—you can get decent wireless sound in a fairly affordable price range. You’ll find good-quality wireless earbuds (perfect for working out) for less than $20. But you can easily spend several hundred for top-of-the-line name-brand noise-canceling headphones, like this Bose QuietComfort model. So, figure out how much you’re willing to spend, and then dive in to the rest of these questions to help you refine your choices.
2. When Will You Use Your Headphones?
Some headphone styles work better for some purposes than others. That noise-canceling over-ear set may be perfect for the office—or your home entertainment room—but downright impractical if you plan to wear them while working out. Not sure what will work best for you? BestBuy’s Headphone Buying Guide offers these suggestions:
- For working out, consider lightweight, sports-style earbuds that fit on or in the ear. Many come with additional features, such as water-resistance, which could come in handy if you find yourself, say, running in the rain. These styles typically keep the music going without totally canceling out the noise around, allowing you to remain situationally aware—a safety must if you plan to use them outdoors.
- For the office, choose earphones that offer some noise cancellation without completely isolating you from what’s going on around you. The best options let you hear your music without subjecting your office mates to your tastes. You’ll also want headphones you can easily move around in while wearing them, or that are easy to slip on and off when you need to answer the phone or talk to the boss.
- For home, consider comfort and sound quality. Over-ear headphones typically deliver the best sound quality but can be uncomfortable for long periods of time. If you can, try a set on before committing to them. At the very least, dig into customer reviews to learn the good, the bad, and the uncomfortable as experienced by people who have actually used the model you’re considering.
3. What’s the Most Comfortable Way to Wear Your Headphones?
This question ties into the one above. What’s comfortable while you’re sitting at home won’t necessarily feel so great when your feet are pounding the treadmill. That said, there are several different ways to wear wireless headphones. The most common are in-ear, on-ear, open-ear, and over-ear.
- In-ear earbuds are the least obtrusive. Some models, such as the SoundPEATS True Wireless Earbuds, are so low-profile that most people won’t even notice you’re wearing them. At around $30, the price is hard to beat, too.
- On-ear headphones are just what they sound like. They fit on the ear without completely covering it. They generally deliver better sound than in-ear models but are bulkier and less portable. They’re a good option for people who don’t want to fidget with something in their ear but also don’t want to wear the larger, heavier over-ear headphone models. If you’re looking for headphones to wear at the office, in the coffee shop, or on your commute, on-ear headphones, like these sleek Skullcandy Riff ones, may be the ideal choice.
- Over-ear headphones typically cover your entire ear, blocking out all other noises. They typically deliver the best sound quality. They also are the ideal choice if you want to hear every last nuance of the music. They’re also typically more expensive than other types of headphones, and your ears can get uncomfortably sweaty if you wear them for long periods of time.
- Open-ear wireless headphones are among the newest types on the market. Most fit into a band that loops over the ear, around the neck, or over the head. Rather than sitting in or over the ear, they generally sit just in front of it, and make use of bone conduction to deliver the sound. They’re a great option if you want to hear your music without muffling or distorting the other sounds around you, such as when you’re jogging or riding your bike in traffic.
4. Do You Want to Cancel Other Noises?
How much of the outside world do you want to hear? For some people, canceling out other noises is a major reason for using headphones. If that’s you, you’ll want to look for noise-cancelling headphones. These block out most outside noises, leaving you blissfully alone with your music, audiobook, or podcast. The best noise-cancelling headphones tend to be over-ear sets that use “active noise cancelling” technology. These headphones actively create a sound wave to cancel out the noise around you. Better quality noise-cancelling models offer features such as memory foam earpads to make them more comfortable to wear.
5. What Special Features Are Important to You?
Some headphones do a lot more than just relay music to your ears. Models enabled with a voice assistant, such as Alexa or Google, can let you use voice commands to check mail, answer texts, and control your music and environment settings. Other features include biometric technology—measuring your heart rate and other vital signs—and volume limiting, to keep the volume within safe levels.
6. What’s the Hassle Factor?
Love the look of the latest ear candy, but not sure how well they’ll stand up to use? Think those cool open-ear headphones will be ideal for your workouts? Before you make your decision, take the time to read the negative user reviews on the models you’re considering. That’s where you’ll find out all the little hassles that you might not otherwise consider—how easy is it to replace worn earbud tips, for example, or how many hours of use you’ll actually get from a full charge. Even things as obscure as a joint that always seems to catch in curly hair could be an unexpected deal breaker.
7. How Important Is Style and Brand Name?
If you gotta have your Beats by Dre or Skullcandy, you’ve gotta have it. Just remember that name brands come with a premium price point—which doesn’t mean you can’t find bargains if you shop carefully. Keep an eye out for online bargains and be prepared to snag those Bose babies when there’s a lightning deal for them. If, on the other hand, name isn’t that important, you’ll find lots of excellent quality wireless headphones in comparable styles at a much lower price. You just have to shop around—and read the reviews.
Whether you need a gift for that friend who’s always working out or are looking for a way to zone out of the afternoon commute, these questions should help you choose the very best wireless headphones for your needs.
Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.
Deb Powers is a freelance writer living and working in Massachusetts. She writes frequently about health, wellness and lifestyle topics.