If you’ve got a music lover, gamer, or frequent video conference participant on your shopping list this holiday season, here are some of TechRepublic’s top picks for headphones to give as gifts.
Whether you’re buying headphones for yourself or someone else, picking the perfect pair can be tricky. Not just because you’ll want to consider features like fit, sound quality, and price, but you’ll also want to know how the owner will use them. A set of headphones that’s great for listening to music on your smartphone may not be a good option for gaming on a console or attending video meetings on your PC.
The following are my favorite headphones by functional category. I’ve listed some of the standout features of each pair as well as why I think they’re a good pick for your shopping list. Also, I haven’t restricted this list to only headphones released in 2020. Many older headphone models are as good today as they were years ago.
Focal, a French company best known for making speakers, released the Clear in 2017. They were the company’s third set of headphones after the Utopia ($3,990) and Elear ($1,000). The Clear are open-back, dynamic-driver headphones with a circumaural design…meaning they completely enclose your ears but don’t block noise from the outside. They feature aluminum yokes, a leather and micro-fiber headband and 20mm memory foam ear cushions wrapped in perforated microfibre fabric. Each speaker driver uses a 1.6″ (40mm) aluminum/magnesium ‘M’-shape dome. They come with a molded carrying case, 3m balanced cable (XLR 4-pin), 3m unbalanced cable (1/4″ TRS jack), 1.2m unbalanced cable (1/8″ TRS jack) and a 1/8″ jack to 1/4″ stereo jack adapter.
The Clear sound the best when connected to a good DAC/amp, but because they have an impedance of 55 Ohms (compared to 80, 250 or 300 Ohms) you can get good sound even when connected directly to a smartphone or laptop. For comparison, the excellent Sennheiser HD 800 S ($1,700) headphones have an impedance of 300 Ohms and require a high-power amplifier to work properly.
The Focal Clear sound amazing, are beautiful to look at, comfortable to wear and provide excellent value. Headphones that provide similar/better sound quality often cost twice as much. The Clear are my go-to headphones for listening to music while working at my desk.
Audeze, the maker of high-end planar magnetic headphones, like the company’s flagship LCD-4 ($3,995), has been branching out in recent years and now offers a wide range of over-the-ear and in-ear options. I tested a pair of LCD-2 Classics ($799) last year and really liked them.
With the LCD-GX Audeze has combined the excellent sound quality of its LCD headphones with a flexible boom microphone to create a pair of wired headphones perfect for listening to music or jumping on voice chat with friends while gaming. The LCD-GX really are in a league of their own when it comes to gaming or video conferencing headphones.
The LCD-GX features an open-back design, magnesium housing, memory foam ear cushions and a suspension-style headband. Included with the LCD-GX is a hard-sided travel case, 8ft cable with flexible microphone (1/8″ TRRS connector), LCD series standard cable (1/4″ TRS connector), audio adaptor – OMTP to CTIA and a splitter with 1/8″ TRRS to dual 1/8″ TRS connectors for audio and microphone. The LCD-GX headphones will sound best when connected to a quality DAC/amplifier, but with their impedance of 20 Ohms, you’ll still get good sound connected directly to your computer or console.
If you’re looking for a pair of high-end wireless gaming headphones, the Audeze Mobius are an excellent choice.
This headset has an over-ear, closed-back design and uses planar magnetic drivers like the ones found in Audeze’s premium wired headphones, such as the LCD-GX. Mobius supports Bluetooth for wireless audio and has a USB-C (audio and charging) port and 3.5mm jack (analog audio) . Audeze worked with Waves to incorporate their NX technology into Mobius, which allows the headset to process 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound audio with Head Tracking and Room Emulation. With the headset, buyers also get a detachable microphone, USB-C to USB-C cable, USB-A to USB-C cable, analog 3.5mm cable, and travel bag.
The Mobius are at the upper end of the price range for wireless gaming headphones, but their sound quality, build quality and feature set, make them one of the best gaming headsets available.
Released in December 2020, the AirPods Max are one of the best options in the wireless active noise cancellation (ANC) space. At $549, they are at the high end of the ANC headphone market, which includes headsets like the Sony WH-1000XM4 ($348) and Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 ($380). For that price however, the AirPods Max offer excellent sound quality, great noise-cancelling and high-end headphone features like Adaptive EQ, Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), Transparency mode and spatial audio.
For owners of other Apple products, they also offer incredible ease of use. Thanks to Apple’s H1 chip, the AirPods Max will automatically pair with any devices signed in to the owner’s iCloud account and automatically switch between the owner’s iPhone, iPad and Mac. They also support audio sharing that allows the audio from an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch or Apple TV 4K to be shared between two sets of AirPods.
iPhone, iPad and Mac owners can use almost any wired or Bluetooth headset and there a plenty of great options out there, but for every-day use its hard to beat Apple’s own AirPods ($159) and AirPods Pro ($249). Both in-ear headphones provide good sound quality, decent battery life and the AirPods Pro offer active noice cancellation (ANC). It’s also easy for iPhone, iPad and Mac owners to integrate them into their existing Apple ecosystem with features like Find My.
Released in 2020, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are the follow-up to the company’s previous noise-cancelling headset the WH-1000XM3. They feature Sony’s HD Noise-Canceling Processor QN1 and a Bluetooth Audio SoC (system-on-chip). Each ear cup has a 1.57″ speaker driver with a liquid crystal polymer diaphragm. They feature a USB-C port for charging and 3.5mm stereo mini jack for analog audio.
The WH-1000XM4 offer several features such as Atmospheric Pressure Optimizing (designed to improve sound quality at high altitudes), a Personal Noise Cancelation Optimizer (adjusts sound to wearer characteristics like head size, glasses, and hair), Ambient Sound Control (allows sounds like “transport announcements” to come through noise cancellation), Speak-to-Chat (stops music and lets in ambient sounds when you begin talking) and Adaptive Sound Control (adjusts ambient sound settings to areas the wearer visits frequently).
The nearest competitors to the WH-1000XM4 ($348) are the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 ($379.95) and Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless ($399.95). All three headsets are superb noise cancelling options, but Sony’s WH-1000XM has a slight edge thanks to their excellent sound quality, great noise cancelling ability, good battery life, and lower cost.
For owners of a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, tablet, or laptop, the company’s own in-ear headphones are a great choice for every-day use. Released in mid 2020, the Galaxy Buds Live ($120) have a 12mm speaker and bass duct, three microphones, and active noise cancellation (ANC). The 2020 Galaxy Buds Plus ($90) have 2-way dynamic speakers and adaptive dual microphones. Both headphones provide good sound and solid battery life. And if you already own other Samsung devices and are Bixby user, you get the added benefit of headphones designed for the company’s ecosystem.
The Beats Powerbeats Pro offer rich sound quality and great battery life. They are also water- and sweat-resistant (IPX4 rating) and have an ear-hook design which helps hold them securely to your ears during a workout or run. They don’t offer a wireless charging case, but since Apple owns Beats, they do come with a Lightning cable.
Updated December 22, 2020: Added Apple AirPods Max.