One of the common issues that most people have with on-ear or over-ear headphones is the familiar divot left across their hair from a poorly designed headband. It’s a small but genuine problem, and though it’s been many years since I’ve had long, flowing locks, I think my experience with practically every headphone design ever may help relieve some of the stress. There are headphones that won’t destroy your carefully arranged hairstyle, whether it’s short and spiky or long and wavy. It’s just a matter of finding the right design.
Here, in no particular order, are the over-ear headphones that I’ve found most comfortable, easy to wear, and importantly, most forgiving on my hairdo. They all sound good or even great, because comfort without performance is as useless as performance without comfort.
A small Romanian company turned these wooden-back cans from a concept into a successful reality a couple of years ago, and I had a review pair for two months of listening. The 99 Classics have a very pleasant tuning that’s faithful to the music yet still exhibits a warm touch of extra bass. But what makes them a delight to wear is the user-friendly headband design. There’s a very wide self-adjusting band of soft leather that sits lightly atop the head and imparts very little pressure. It’s just there to keep the headphones in place, which are stabilized by the arcing steel frames over the top. These headphones, like most on my list, don’t contract to a more portable size for storage, but they’re genuinely mobile in their design and ease of use.
Another common trait you’ll find among these headphones is that when a design is good, it’s either kept unchanged for a long time or it’s reproduced across models. AudioQuest, the cable specialist that also does wonderful little USB audio converters and amplifiers, uses just one design for its two headphone models. The NightHawks are the open-back version while the NightOwls have a closed-back design, which is more amenable to mobile use. Like the Mezes, the strap on the NightHawks and NightOwls is self-adjusting: it extends only as much as is absolutely needed to seat the headphones atop your head.
I reviewed the NightHawks last summer, after listening to them for a few months, and my overriding conclusion was that they were the most comfortable anything I’d ever worn on my head. The combination of soft pads and featherlight pressure from the headband meant I could wear these headphones for an entire day without fatigue. And when I wanted to demonstrate the benefits of pricier headphones to family members, I chose the NightHawks first because I knew their pillowy feel and uncomplicated design would be a winner with all who tried it.
With the Mezes costing $309 and the AudioQuest pair being $699 each, I wanted to include a more budget-friendly option, and there are few as nice as Sennheiser’s $150 HD 25s. These absolute classics have been around in some form or another since the 1980s, and the DJ gurus of Resident Advisor rate them as the "industry standard" for DJ headphones. Having had a pair for about a month now, I just really enjoy the flexibility of their split headband and their lightness. No fancy woods as with the others, just hard-wearing black plastic.
Besides looking hip in their frumpy, minimalist shell, the HD 25s are also excellent sonically. They’re tuned to a more professional and accurate sound, but if you’re the sort of person that’s grown tired of the extra bass apparent in most portable headphones, these are the perfect antidote. Just one note worth making about the HD 25s and your hair: if you’re not careful, you could easily snap the retractable headband onto your hair and give yourself a headache when trying to take them off, but that’s a minor issue that I myself have yet to encounter. When they’re on your head, the HD 25s are super comfortable and distribute their minimal weight with aplomb.
Might as well stick with Sennheiser and introduce their pair of high-end open-back models, the HD600 and HD650. The differences between them are about the sound rather than the fit, which is defined by extraordinarily plush earpads that just envelop your ears with love and tenderness. Okay, there’s one tiny bit of distinction: the HD650s have a headband padded with two pieces of foam, whereas the HD600s have that segmented into four parts, but both are awesome to wear.
I have gone through many hours of gaming, movies, and music with the HD650s on, and I’ve never felt fatigued or perturbed by them. Maybe they leave more of an imprint on your hairstyle than the others on this list, but their weight distribution, as with the HD 25s from Sennheiser, is once again so good that they barely feel like they’re there. Because they’re open back, there’s plenty of air circulating around these cans, so hot summery days aren’t much of a problem either — though, for the same reason, you obviously won’t be wanting to use these outdoors or at an office populated by other humans. Pricing for the HD600s and HD650s varies dramatically, but you should be able to find them for around $300 online.
For all of my headphones coverage on The Verge, I feel a little guilty for neglecting Audio-Technica, which consistently makes some of the best and best-loved headphones. I’m a huge fan of this so-called Art Monitor collection that the company introduced about a year and a half ago. All of them feature the latest version of Audio-Technica’s "wings" design, which omits the traditional headband for a pair of flappy paddles on either side of your head. I’ve tried the older variants of this design, and they don’t work as well as this newest form. The current iteration is damn near perfect, placing practically no weight atop my head and still balancing the headphones nicely.
Having tested the A2000Zs extensively, I still find them one of my go-to closed-back headphones picks for any and all circumstances. Full days of grinding through Dota 2 are no problem when your headphones are so light and unnoticeable. Audio-Technica’s sound is generally too light on the bass for me, and I think the titanium-clad A2000Zs do their best work with vocals, but overall I’ve been delighted with the combination of sound and comfort from these cans. If the $649 top model is too expensive for you, the A1000Zs (in red aluminum above) are $399 and also highly rated.
The newest model in this set of hair-friendly cans is the $799 MrSpeakers Aeon. I’m wearing these right now and they feel like I’ve got a Ferrari on my head. Carbon fiber on the outside; deep, luxurious leather pads on the inside; and scintillating performance. The Aeons are in line with most of the rest of my list: expensive and different. Like Meze, AudioQuest, and Audio-Technica, MrSpeakers eschews the traditional thick headband padding for a simpler, lighter leather strap that holds the headphones in place rather than weighing you down. All of these companies also favor the metal band across the top for extra stability.
What makes the Aeons stand out then? Well, among MrSpeakers products, it’s their affordability, since they cost roughly half the price of the similarly excellent Ether Flow and Ether C Flow. These are the only planar magnetic headphones on my list, and with good reason: planars are typically bulkier and heavier than conventional dynamic cans. When you want something that won’t spoil your hair, weight and simplicity of design are two of the overriding factors, and the MrSpeakers Aeons are lighter and more streamlined than anything else that sounds as pristinely good as they do.
It should go without saying that no list of headphones could ever be comprehensive or conclusive — there are just too many varieties, updates, and iterations. But what I’ve sought to present here are the examples of over-ear and on-ear cans that have stood out in my experience of testing many, many headphones. These are the most comfortable, light, and hair-friendly products I’ve yet come across in each of their distinct categories. If you’ve found others that you think are as good or better, let us know in the comments. In the meantime, I’m off to Japan to test the Sony Eggo headphones that Sam Byford swears by.