Capable Cans: The 9 Best Over-Ear Headphones

You can just pack a pair of basic, bundled earbuds into your audio holes and listen to some beats, but even the best ones are going to be tinny and aren’t going to really get you moving or give you the sweet audio dynamite you crave. Short of a full surround system, there is only one way to get high-quality, hi-fi sound and that is to go with an over-ear headphone model. They pump more power, more bass, and more overall clarity just by virtue of being big enough to deliver the goods.

These headphones (also known circumaural headphones) give you a few different styles to choose from: You’ve got your closed back type that help block outside sound, but are bulky and limit your sound stage, reducing your overall experience. There’s the kind with an open back which allow you to hear what’s happening around you so you know to dodge oncoming traffic, but they also bleed sound. Then there’s some more portable models or those meant to specifically and electronically shut out sound. However you like your headset, one of our 9 best over-ear headphones will be music to your ears.

Sony MDR7506

Sony MDR7506

Pro: Long-lasting magnetic interior
Con: Exterior can wear out over time

Ground Floor: For over-ear headphones that cost less than $100 you don’t have many options. You have even less good options, and only one that is really exceptional. This is it. The classic MDR7506 is old-school, without a doubt. They use a standard coiled cord along with gold plug and adapter. It’s enough to make you want to do the cabbage patch, but these headphones are the “they don’t make ’em like they used to” model that you can bore your kids talking about. They tip the scales at just 8 ounces, which is lighter than standard and will make them a little more comfortable than heavier models if you’ve got a weak swan’s neck, but that isn’t to say they lack in power. The neodymium magnets and 40mm driver might not be high tech, but they can still give you a high level of precision that is outstanding for the low price. Where they will suffer a little is in wear and tear. The ear pads will need replacement after a couple of years and the hinges might need some tightening, but both of those are easy and inexpensive fixes. A few exterior flaws housing a tried-and-true interior make these a great buy for the sound master on a budget. [Purchase: $85]

Skullcandy Crusher

Skullcandy Crusher

Pro: Built-in amp
Con: Large

Bass Basics: Ordinarily you aren’t going to get a lot out of a pair of over-ear headphones without getting items that are big ticket, but if you want something that delivers above and beyond its price bracket, you can’t go wrong with the Skullcandy Crusher. First off, they look stylish and impressive, not like some plastic foam jobs but rather like a vice grip for your head. They don’t use a digital bass system but instead fire up a full second driver that uses true vibrations that don’t just work on your ears but give you a little rattle in your molars. They even come with a bass response adjustment feature for those who are all about that bass and those who prefer a more mellow mix. The big, thick ear cups help limit exterior noise, but also don’t make these the most travel-friendly option. A battery-powered amp further adds to the girth and weight. Their higher end suffers a little, so big treble fans or those who expect some greater refinement and distinction in their audio are not going to find it here. For funk, dubstep, and more bumps than a set of moguls, those who need to keep more scratch at home won’t end up bleeding from the wallet but can still hit some jarring lows. An in-line mic allows these to work with phones, a feature absent in many over-ear options. [Purchase: $100]

Audio Technica ATH-M50x

Audio Technica ATH-M50x

Pro: Resonably portable
Con: No in-line microphone

Most for the Money: Originally made as an answer to the Beats operation, the original ATH-M50 were made for listeners who wanted more than bass at an inflated price. Those with a broad musical palette celebrated their entrance onto the market, and the new M50’s do more of the same with a few refinements that are geared toward long-term wear and the user who needs these more places than the studio. Normally over-ear headphones are terrible for mobility, but these manage to pull it off fairly well with earpieces that can flatten out to a respectably compact size. Even when you’re wearing them, they don’t completely swallow your head like a flight helmet. The ATH-M50x’s come packaged with a couple of cords depending on your needs: A coiled one for home stereos and studios, and a flatter model made for travel. Neither one carries with it an in-line microphone option, which is honestly the only major flaw in a headset that seems ready for the user on the move. Despite that, the sound quality is outstanding offering pinpoint tonal balance, broad stereo imaging, and an overall soundstage that is impressive. They even have a little passive noise cancellation. [Purchase: $169]

V-Moda Crossfade M-100

V-Moda Crossfade M-100

Pro: Exceptionally tough build
Con: Dense

Mix Masters: These begin with a bombproof exterior and build into it a fantastic listening system that works very well for mobile DJ’s or anyone who demands a more exacting sound combination. The 50mm dual diaphragm drivers are made to separate lows, mids, and highs to magnify the listener’s experience and also permit sound identification for those who are spinning at the club or creating sound samples at home. The Crossfade’s offer a foldable, portable body that is made to literal military standards so that they’ll even work if you suddenly find yourself calling in drone strikes during particularly difficult nights or rough Viking weddings. They can be battered and abused and still create crystal clear sound reproduction that doesn’t use as many digital to analog cycles which will distort your sound and pollute your mix. The plug is even kevlar reinforced to keep it from fraying or taking damage, causing electrical failure to poisoning your listening experience. An ergonomic design helps distribute the weight for longer wear while the customizable exterior lets you brand them however you choose. [Purchase: $269]

Bose QuietComfort 25

Bose QuietComfort 25

Pro: Last word in noise-cancellation
Con: Middling sound quality

Quiet Time: The QuietComfort 25’s are making a lot of noise by being very, very quiet. These are the new cranked down, pimped out, rock solid noise-cancelling headphones from Bose that start off with the technology that made the QC 15 one of our favorites and takes it into the stratosphere. We will say that if sound quality is more what you want out of your headphones, then these aren’t going to do anything to blow your mind, and your cash would be better spend somewhere else, but if your priority is cutting down on ambient sound then you’ll be pleased as punch with these. They offer the tighter bass that Bose is known for, but you can get some spikes in both bass and mid-range sounds that might set your teeth on edge. Keep in mind that the whole sound experience is going to change whether you use active or passive noise cancellation modes, so a little experimentation could fix your wagon if these aren’t giving you quite the sound you hope for from this price range. This is not to say any of the sound is less than good, just less than mind-boggling. [Purchase: $300]

Beats Studio Wireless

Beats Studio Wireless

Pro: Bluetooth wireless connectivity
Con: Unrefined sound that muddles when used wirelessly

Blue Bloods: Bluetooth headphones and wireless headphones in general are always going to be mildly inferior to their wired brethren, which is just another way that science has let people down: by following the laws of physics. That being said, if you just want to hang yourself every time you see a wire and need a pair of headphones that don’t make you want to end it all, the Beats are simply the best; though they’ve still got some problems. First off, the entire Beats line is overrated and overpriced, these just don’t have much competition when it comes to being able to handle a decent Bluetooth connection and using it to power the bigger drivers that are found in over-ear headphones.

Their advantage comes in the form of their powerful DSP (digital signal processor) that compresses sound so that even after cutting the cord you can get cleaner sound. They pump a lot of bass that works with R&B, rap, hip-hop, and most electronic music, but classical connoisseurs will wonder where their money went. If you need Bluetooth, you’re better off with an on-ear headphone or earbud, but these are the best in the biz for over-ear Bluetooth. Some Harmon Kardon BT’s or AKG 845BT’s might save you some coin, but you’ll run into new and different issues with those. [Purchase: $380]

Bowers and Wilkins P7

Bowers & Wilkins P7

Pro: Ear cups mold to fit your head
Con: Expensive

Listening Luxury: Don’t ever claim you know what the best over-ear headphone for sound quality is until you’ve at least tried the P7 from B&W. Almost any musical taste can find a lot to love and very little to complain about when it comes to framing any music, be it coming from your home studio, a smartphone, or the EQ on your theater system. The rich, full stage that these present astound even hardened audiophiles. This is to be expected from the company who punches at the highest weight class when it comes to home audio, but their ability to capture both bass-heavy and nuanced musical performances complete with vocals and orchestral arrangements isn’t what really set these apart. Rather, it is their comfortable fit that sets them apart. Wearing them is a true joy, which is a hard thing to come by in this sector of the market where bulk, heat, and pressure can easily ruin a soaring musical experience. They have a dual cavity build that slowly acclimates to your head, hugging your ears without adding pressure or pinching, but sinking into the ridges of your skull to create a seal that is both comfortable and improves the audio quality. [Purchase: $400]

Shure SRH1540

Shure SRH1540

Pro: Professional sound mixing capability
Con: Expensive

Studio Grade: Bass is actually a delicate thing when added to a musical mix and too often headphones attempt to blow it out like they’re trying to impress the kids in the Honda out on the strip, rather than adding it in to enhance an overall sound experience. The SRH1540 uses an extremely low bass response that doesn’t just blast and bump, but also doesn’t skimp, leaving you with a high, reedy sound. The importance of this is especially clear to sound mixers, editors, and others in the mixing and recording field who need to have a very clear picture of exactly what is going into a track as they lay it out. It also works well for those who often have vocals overshadowed by more modern headphones that emphasize an overpowering baseline without considering the overall blending that the listener experiences. With a carbon fiber frame, the slightly bulky-looking SRH1540’s actually keep comfort at a premium and won’t grind you down even after hours of wear hunched over a sound board. The ear pads are a glorious Alcantara that cups and comforts your ears. The basic nuts-and-bolts appearance and weighty price generally keep these to the studio pro or perfectionistic audiophile. [Purchase: $500]

Sennheiser HD 800

Sennheiser HD 800

Pro: Engulfing sound experience
Con: Terrible for out of home use

Homeward Bound: Audiophiles should have a pair of these at home for those times when they need premium headphones that offer the style and comfort that can only be had sipping cognac in your easy chair by a roaring fire. Let a little Brahms wash your cares away as the HD 800’s find every note, or hook them in to turn a movie into a full-scale auditory theater experience as these create an immersive sound space that drops you in the center of the action. The engineering behind the HD 800 is meant to operate naturally, bridging the gap between electronically generated sound and the way your eardrums perceive noise. Employing a proprietary transducer the 800’s are meant to generate waves of sound that mimic the way it moves through a room, rather than merely relying on alternating vibrations. The result is beautiful, but the complicated design with open backed ear cups that leak noise like a sieve and an extended cable that can’t be simply wrapped up makes taking them out of the house is not an option, even if you did want to risk the loss of investment. [Purchase: $1,480]

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