Street Beats: The 6 Best On-Ear Headphones

When Hi-Fi first hit the scene, the only option for personal audio was the awkward cans that you had to strap over your ears to plug into the weird, brown box that would let you play your 45’s and jitterbug until the sun came up. As time went on, headphones got smaller and smaller while simultaneously producing better and better sound quality in compact packages that eventually ended in the tried-and-true earbuds, which are as small as you can get without going into nanomachines or microchip implants. Once the earbud system became ubiquitous, something strange happened: people realized they liked a little more heft to their headphones, seeking something between the massive ear-speakers of old and the tiny earbuds. Enter on-ear headphones.

These give you the portability of a smaller, folding headphone with the sound quality you would expect from a pair of over-ear or noise-cancelling headphones. They improve sound quality far above anything you will get from in-ear headphones and you don’t feel like you’re jamming them into your skull. They are well-ventilated, comfortable, and fit nearly any lifestyle, but a bad pair can ruin your listening experience. Before you buy, explore our 6 best on-ear headphones.

JVC HAS160B Flats

JVC HAS160B Flats

Pro: Inexpensive
Con: Low Tech

Best Basic Buy: Forget about beauty, forget about bells and whistles, forget about sturdiness and focus on good sound at a very, very low price. For the buyer who doesn’t have cash to blow but still wants some good headphones there is the Flats from JVC. The headband is basic plastic that won’t stand up to much abuse, but it also doesn’t weigh on your scalp or pinch you strangely, though they will be a little snug if you’ve got a casaba melon on the end of your neck. Where they do impress is with their sound. You can easily pay about $50 to get the same range and balance that the Flats spit out. They can be worn for hours without too much discomfort, though you’ll want a few breaks if you plan on using them all day. Anyone that is forgetful and either loses or breaks headphones will find these to be manna from heaven since they can be replaced for a pittance. Also a great way to teach your children music appreciation without dropping extra coin. [Purchase: $12]

Koss KSC75 Ear Clip

Koss KSC75 Ear Clip

Pro: No headband
Con: Sound leaks in and out

Earbud Emulator: Not everyone wants to give up the earbuds, yet want to receive some of the enhanced benefits that come with on-ear headphones. The KSC75 tries to offer the best of both, and lands extremely close to the mark. They lack the cumbersome headband and instead fit snugly over the ear with a clip that slides around the back to hold them in place for those times when you’re on the move or just taking a walk to grandma’s house. The titanium backing helps the small drivers deliver clear sound, even if it doesn’t bump, thump, or blow the roof off. You’ll still avoid distortion and when you plug these into an amp you’ll find you can get some pretty serious range out of these bad little jammers thanks to their wide frequency response. They can even push some decent bass thanks to magnets made of neodymium iron boron. Since the back is more open than most on-ear models you can expect the sound to leak out a little bit which might annoy fellow travelers or commuters, and these will not block out the sound of their complaints. [Purchase: $15]

MEElectronics Atlas

MEElectronics Atlas

Pro: Style that cannot fade
Con: Female vocals are sharp

Most for the Money: Elegant is the word for the Atlas headphones. They quickly became the darling of the Consumer Electronics Show and with good reason. They are very light, exceptionally comfortable, and one of the most striking and distinctive headphones on the market. The perforated protein leather ear cups feel almost weightless, which eliminates fatigue from a day of wear and allows your stifled ears to breathe. The ribbon cord detaches simply and lays flat to reduces tangles while also bearing a slider volume control that is much smoother than buttons or relying on a device when you need to drop the noise or pump up the volume. The Atlas uses a slightly more enclosed soundstage than many competitors which gives you a very solid bass response that thumps out of the 40mm drivers and is nearly on par with Beats by Dre. Though they don’t have quite the refinement of $300 headphones, they’re still a steal. The eye-catching designs are made with their patented IML (In-Mold Labeling) system so they won’t fade or scratch. The one issue we found was some female voices came out a little harsh and sibilant, but that’s picking at the smallest of nits. [Purchase: $40+]

Jabra REVO Wireless

Jabra REVO Wireless

Pro: Exceptional controls
Con: Large

The Cordless Solution: Getting good sound out of a pair of Bluetooth headphones is not an easy task to accomplish. With their REVO line, Jabra has worked very hard to make sure that they offer crystal clear sound reproduction even when being used wirelessly. Thankfully for purists, there is also a jack that allows you to plug straight into your computer, mp3 player, amp, or other device directly so you can catch every note the way it was meant to be heard. Our favorite part of the REVO isn’t even their excellent sound, but rather the technology put into them. In addition to being Bluetooth headphones they also bear NFC (Near-Field Communication) so that music can be shared around with just a quick tap. The controls are all handled by using a strange series of taps, swipes, swirls, and spins to adjust the volume or skip tracks. You’ll look like you’re telling the guy on base to steal second, but it’s a slick system that feels awesome once you get all the motions memorized. [Purchase: $168]

Beyerdynamic T51P

Beyerdynamic T51P

Pro: Beautiful sound quality
Con: Lacks controls

Incomparable Quality: Audiophiles, prick up your ears, the on-ear headphone revolution is here and it sounds marvelous. Beyerdynamic might not be a name you know since they aren’t often able to beat out names like Sennheiser and Bose, but if you want a dynamic listening experience that can take you to a concert hall from the comfort of your own living room, then the T51P is your must-have purchase. The sound balance shifts slightly toward the deeper, warmer end of the spectrum but that isn’t to say highs are ignored. The overall resolution and detail hit well enough to give you shivers and offer a meat-and-potatoes low end that feels like warm cocoa (with just a hint of bourbon) on a winter’s day. The memory foam is comfortable, though the austere metal headband is a little retro. The problems with these are their lack of technology. No remote. No inline controls. No hinges on the headband for storage. Hell, the cord doesn’t even disconnect as with most models. The sound is incredible and the portability is good. If they could just sew in a few more modern conveniences, we’d sing their praises all day. [Purchase: $279]

Bose QuietComfort 3

Bose QuietComfort 3

Pro: Electronic noise cancellation
Con: Ear cups don’t breathe

Silence is Golden: On-ear headphones aren’t known for their ability to block out sound since they don’t have the same physical attributes of their over-ear cousins. Naturally, Bose took it as some sort of challenge, a gauntlet cast into the dirt, to make a noise-cancelling headphone that would also fit on your ear. They took everything that was good about their QuietComfort 15’s and mashed it down into a compact model that requires less work but also shuts out a world full of screaming kids, honking horns, and cops that keep yelling at you to take off the damn headphones. They use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery to cut out exterior sounds which is activated by a button on one of the plates. The ear cups are made from memory foam that is comfortable, but doesn’t breathe very well. You’ll notice a little ear sweat the moment you take them off, but the flip-side of that is their so nice you’ll never want to. [Purchase: $314]

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