Headphones: Listen Up!

Top Performers: Full-Size, In-Ear, Wired, Wireless & Noise-Canceling

You’ll find more headphones of all types that sound great but cost less than their predecessors did. Many more models than ever before in all price ranges have in-line microphones and controls, but not all work well—or at all—with the Google Android mobile operating system.

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If you believe that you have to spend a lot of money to buy great-fitting, great-looking and great-sounding wired or wireless in-ear or on-/over-ear headphones, then you should think again.

A new generation of higher quality, lower priced ($50–$100) headphones has emerged. This includes models from brands that are known for producing high-priced headphones—AKG, Audio-Technica, Beyerdynamic, Etymotic, Grado, Sennheiser and Shure. Traditional headphones-makers have been joined by at least seven home-speaker-makers—B&W, Kicker, Klipsch, Marshall, Now Hear This (NHT), Paradigm and Yamaha—in making such models. They see headphones, as one manufacturer puts it, simply as speakers that you wear.

Not to be outdone, budget-headphones manufacturers now make models that cost less than $50 that sound better than ever before. Even at $50, you should be able to get quality headphones and good sound, says Robert Heiblim, who is the chief executive officer of BlueSalve, which is a consumer-electronics and technology consultancy. We evaluated several such models, and we heard what he’s saying.

Why do so many great-sounding sub-$100 in-ear and on-/over-ear headphones suddenly now exist from so many different headphones-makers? Manufacturers agree that experience that’s been gained over the past 3 years in the Chinese factories that churn out the world’s supply of headphones is paying off. According to manufacturers, the Chinese figured out how to manufacture headphones better—and more inexpensively—by hiring additional audio engineers and improving their tooling. Increased manufacturing capacity achieved additional cost savings.

Also, more models than ever before are equipped with in-line (read: cable-mounted) microphones and music controls, which allow you to keep your smartphone in your pocket and answer calls, conduct conversations, control your music playback––pause, skip a track, repeat—and control volume.

HAIL SMARTPHONES. Why does everyone suddenly want to be in the headphones business? Credit the smartphone. Since Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, smartphone ownership in the United States has risen to 88 percent as of November 2014, according to market-research company comScore. When smartphone market penetration rose to “critical mass”—51 percent—in mid-2012, that prompted headphones-makers to make their products more compatible with smartphones.

As a result, you now can find headphones that include in-line microphones and controls on half of all types of headphones that are sold, according to Futuresource Consulting, which is a market-research company. In 2011, only 30 percent of all headphones had this feature. “By 2018, we think that could be 65 percent,” says Rasika Iyer of Futuresource. Iyer says only the least expensive headphones of any type—typically those that are priced below $25—fail to include this smartphone/headphones conversation capability.

Headphones that include in-line microphones and controls are compatible with any smartphone or tablet computer, regardless of the device’s operating system, so you can listen to audio. However, whether your headphones’ in-line microphone and controls can operate the device is less certain. Apple’s iOS operating system has the edge, manufacturers tell us. “Everyone is having to struggle to work with both formats,” says Brian Nohe, who is the president of headphones-maker SMS Audio. “Apple is good at standardizing.”

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Unlike iOS, Google’s Android operating system is fragmented and implemented across a wide variety of smartphones and tablets. Consequently, you have no way to know whether a headphones’ in-line controls that are labeled to work with devices that aren’t Apple products will do so. No rhyme or reason exists—it’s up to the smartphone-maker to make its smartphones compatible.

“There are many types of Android phones, and we can’t make one [headphones model] that we can say works on all,” admits Sean Sullivan of Shure. All of the Android changes make it “intricate and messy” to keep up with in-line controls that work with all models, he says.

Even if a manufacturer labels its headphones that have in-line controls as being compatible with devices that don’t use iOS, you should check whether the manufacturer lists caveats and exceptions. We found those warnings in the instructional manuals or on the boxes of all types of headphones that we evaluated.

BLUETOOTH BOUNTY. The proliferation of smartphones also produced a proliferation of sub-$150 wireless in-ear and on-/over-ear headphones that use Bluetooth technology to connect with the smartphone. According to Futuresource, Bluetooth will be included in 14 percent of all headphones that are sold in 2015. Only 3 percent of headphones in 2011 included Bluetooth technology.

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