Buying a decent set of headphones is tough. There are just so many choices: noise-cancelling, or earbuds, or in-ear, or those weird ones that you have to go to a doctor and have molded? Plenty of people will try and convince you that you get what you pay for with headphones, and that a good set are worth their weight in gold. That may be true to an extent — those $1,000 molded ones do sound awesome — but you don't have to take out a second mortgage in order to get a good pair. Whether you're buying for the audiophile in your life, your running-obsessed relative, or the friend you can't bear to see ruining their ears and their music with those those horrible Apple EarPods, there's a great set of headphones here for you.
Best headphones: V-MODA M-100
V-Moda has quietly amassed a stellar reputation among headphone aficionados, and the Crossfade M-100s are the company's latest release. As a 600-page thread at Head-Fi should indicate, there's plenty of excitement surrounding the M-100s, which feature incredible build quality — utilizing steel in those typical headphone weakspots — and impressive durability. There's a bit more emphasis on bass compared to V-Moda's previous LP and LP2 headphones, but all in all the M-100s offer a tremendous soundstage for $310, which can be enjoyed both with an amp and straight out of your smartphone or media player.
Best earbuds: Etymotic ER-4PT
Etymotic's ER-4PTs remain a superb reference earbud: they have a flat sound profile that presents your music as it was recorded without any undue adjustments or so-called "improvements" in tonality. They're not suited for fans of the low end; bassheads may be left wondering what they just spent upwards of $300 on. But for those with an appreciation for music as it was meant to be heard (and the high-quality audio files that call for such pricy 'buds), Etymotic's set remains in a class of their own.
Best under $100: Sennheiser HD-280 PRO
At the all-important $100 price point, we'd essentially call it a tie between Sennheiser's HD-280 PROs and Grado's SR-80i headphones. But the same open design responsible for the latter's wide-open sound also produces leakage that's very much audible (and often annoying) to those around you. That could be reason enough to opt for closed headphones like the Sennheisers, which continue to receive acclamations from nearly everyone that buys them. Still, it’s also worth giving a nod to Sony's MDR7506s. These beloved $99 "Professional" cans have managed to stick around virtually unchanged since the mid 90's and we see no reason for Sony to change the formula now. Go with any of these choices and you can do no wrong.
Best under $50: Philips SHE3580
Particularly when it comes to earbuds, you don't need to pay exorbitant sums for terrific audio reproduction. Philips' SHE3580s make for a good example of that. For a mere $12.99 you get a pair of buds with impressive range, effective sound isolation, and a comfortable fit. Considering what they cost, it's hard to ask for much more.
Best noise cancelling: Bose QuietComfort 15
Yes, when it comes to pure noise cancellation, Bose is still on top thanks to its $299 QuietComfort 15 headphones. It's indisputable that superior options exist if audio quality is your top concern — including many sets with decent noise isolation — but frequent travelers have embraced these for a reason. There's simply nothing better for anyone in need of a break from the outside world. And judging by the price, Bose remains fully aware of that.