Best phone headphones: 25 pairs tested
24th Jun 2012 | 11:55
Top earbuds and over-ear headphones for your mobile
Best headphones for phones - Sports
It's a minefield out there - what are you supposed to do when you pull your new phone out of the box and realise the headphones included just aren't up to scratch?
Actually, this scenario is less common than you might think, but when it comes to Apple products, you're going to want to know the best replacement iPhone earphones - as let's face it, the ones that come in the box are just laughably poor and leak sound to anyone within a kilometre.
But it's not as simple as choosing the best pair of headphones from a shelf in a shop - you've got to consider styles, shapes, sound quality, price and overall functionality before parting with your hard-earned cash these days.
So to that end, here's our fancy guide to reams of the latest headphones on the market to show you what you need. Whether it's cutting the wires, running a marathon or just spending a few hours in quiet audio contemplation, there should hopefully be something here for you.
We've all been guilty of it at some point - buying a high end portable music player and then not getting some decent headphones to make the most of it.
And with most phones now pumping out a decent audio experience, relying on the in-box buds is almost a crime giving the pathetic levels of sound exuded by most - you need the best iPhone headphones or the best Android headphones.
So if you've chosen from our list of the best mobile phones and found the phones that's right for you, think about investing a little more and getting a quality pair of earbuds or over-ear options to make the most out of your music or videos.
We've trawled through loads of different options and styles of headphones designed to be used with smartphones, so whether it be music or movies that you use your handset for check out our list of the best headphones for phones.
One of the worst things about having headphones for sports is the fact most of them still come with wires. It's great then that Jabra has managed to do away with cables (apart from the one that links the two earphone heads together) with the Jabra Sport. It does this by hooking up to your handset through the magic of Bluetooth.
Built for use when running, the Jabra Sport range has been given ear hooks, but these are rather chunky. This is understandable given that they need to house the Bluetooth tech and also have an FM tuner built in, but it does mean that it will take you a while to hook them around your ears. It was lucky, then, that they were rather secure and didn't fall out mid-exercise – even when covered in sweat.
Surprisingly the sound was decent, even though it has been squeezed through a Bluetooth signal.
We did find that linking the earphones up (digitally) to our handset did take longer than expected but this was a one-off thing. Once your phone remembers the headphones, it takes seconds for them to match.
A decent stab at sports earphones, with the added bonus of being wireless. Although the Jabra Sport hooks are a tad too chunky, they sit great on the ear and can easily get you through prolonged exercise.
The issue of sports headphones is pretty easy for some people: if there's no hook, then the music dispensers will fall out of your ears at the earliest twinkling of perspiration.
So these SHQs should solve that, with the large, rubberised hook and pseudo-adjustable tips to sit easily in your ear.
However, while they'll never desert you on a run and are immune to degrading from sweat, they will let you down if your perspiration levels get too high, as the buds will slip form your canals and refuse to sit back in there.
The sound quality is tinny too - these are running headphones, and won't stand up to being used day to day, although the upgraded models with inline microphone do sound better than their original counterparts.
A decent pair of hook-style headphones will keep you in tunes and won't fall apart, but don't offer good enough levels of sound quality for the price.
Sennheiser PMX 680i
These loop-style headphones are a comfortable fit for both running and the gym, and the sweat-resistant nature of the materials used means they won't fall apart after a few months.
However, these options simply sit on top of the ear canals, and often in quite an uncomfortable manner - and if you start sweating profusely, the moisture can create a muffling seal between the audio and your ear.
The inbuilt volume control is handy but can get a bit bulky - make sure you clip it onto your clothes firmly before beginning.
The sound quality is fine - it needs to be up there with the best given the way these sit on the ears, and it just about passes, although you can forget about quality bass reproduction.
Great for those that want the loop style, and the inline remote is large enough so you'll always be heard through the panting, but these won't suit for use when you're heart rate is racing.
Sennheiser CX 680i
Similar to their neckband-shod brothers, the CX680i's offer up a partnership with Adidas and a day-glo yellow wire for a more 'sporty' look.
And again like their looped brother, the headphones pack a fairly meaty inline remote too, which you'll need to clip securely to clothing to avoid it flapping around when you're charging around the park - although the volume wheel is a really useful tool.
While we were initially sceptical of the EarFin, a small upwards hook that holds the headphones into the ear, we quickly fell in love with the twist lock system when no matter how hard we flapped our head around when running (yes, as ridiculous as it sounds... don't say we don't put ourselves out for our readers) they failed to come loose, while maintaining the comfort of buds.
The sound quality was impressive throughout, thanks to the well-fitting fin and in-ear design - it's nothing market leading, but thankfully not as tinny as most other sports headphones on the market and more than adequate.
Our favourite sports headphones on test - a decent audio experience coupled with well-fitting buds make them an easy choice, despite the price. However, the fins might not be as comfortable for everyone, so if you get the chance to try before you buy we suggest you do.
Klipsch S5i Rugged
Klipsch headphones might not be your first thought for sport options, but these buds perform much better than you'd expect, even at the higher price.
The large and easy-to-find inline remote has huge buttons for pausing or skipping tracks and controlling volume on iPhones, and the range of tips to choose from is impressively wide.
The fit is snug enough to not need extra hooks on a long run - they stay in the ear pretty well, although if you find yourself sweating profusely they can start to slide around a little. However, the angled design helps them sit in the ear well, giving a comfortable fit.
Sound quality is up there with the best for voice, offering crystal clarity and a decent range for audio too.
Perhaps not the most rugged-looking headphones, but if you're trying to up the quality of your exercise tunes these are worth a look.
Price: £70 (plus £70 for custom tips)
These are the little brothers to the HF3's, and while not strictly sport headphones, we've decided to include them here for a couple of reasons.
1 - Etymotics has developed an application to monitor noise levels, meaning if a certain noise level (like a vehicle honking) is reached, the app will disable the music so you can deal with it... for instance, not getting run over.
2 - If you invest in some custom tips, then they'll stay in your ears without an issue even over a marathon - plus the seal is tight enough to block out sweat.
Sonically we could really hear the difference between these and the HF3's, as they buck the trend of a lot of the more expensive headphones to offer up a relatively bass-free experience. Not to the point of sounding tinny, but it does detract from the richness.
With a lower build quality than their higher-end brother's, the MC3's are a nice enough pair of headphones with a decent microphone that can be heard even when running.
However, for the price you might want to think about investing that extra £50 for the HF3's as the sonic difference is marked and the overall performance worth the extra cash.
Ferrari by Logic3 P200
The term 'luxury' is bandied about far too often with headphones, but the P200's, bearing the Ferrari name, at least live up the standard.
Featuring floating earpieces, which pack a 50mm speaker driver, the overall fit is one of comfort, albeit feeling quite heavy on the head. There are carbon fibre elements to the design, and the whole aesthetic resembles F1 headsets quite closely.
Sonically, the P200's are excellent. Not too bass-heavy and offering very clear vocal tones, we really enjoyed using these - in the comfort of our own home.
The ostentatious design will put some of, as will the very tight fit on the head... you really get a sense of solid construction, but that can be quite restrictive with longer sessions.
Sure, you pay extra for the Ferrari brand, but you get a very good set of cans for your money. They're slightly bulky and are leaky enough to annoy fellow commuters - but the design will probably put you off wearing them on the tube anyway.
Philips O'Neill The Stretch
Recently rebooted to incorporate an inline remote, the Philips O'Neill The Stretch headphones offer a new black and gold design along with a durable yet flexible frame.
While at the pricier end of the scale, the collaboration with O'Neill means tweaks to make the headphones helpful for all things gnarly - with the detachable tangle-free cord making it easy to plug the headphones in with a phone secreted inside a large snowboard jacket.
The plush pads offer a really snug fit, and while the sound output is pretty bass-heavy, it's a dominant audio experience that directs all the music into your ears.
The inline remote is the only downside in our eyes - people found it a little hard to hear us even when lifting it close to our mouth, and the sliding volume control can sometimes lose connection.
A fair whack to shell out, but for sound quality and a comfortable fit, these cans get a big tick from us.
Noise cancelling is big business these days, and a pair of headphones that can properly cut through the frustrating sound of the hissing tube or the roaring aircraft engines really are worth their weight in gold to the regular traveller.
The sound quality is, in a word, superb. Even at overly-loud volumes the balance is still more than acceptable, and even compared to the other headphones on offer here, their noise cancelling abilities are beyond impressive.
But we'll go back to it again: the sound quality is so immense that we want them in this category rather than pointing to their ability to remove annoying noises.
We've been on four long-haul trips recently and it's testament to the M4U2's ability to render both subtle melody and vocal tones means they're excellent for all manner of tasks.
The inline remote was one of the best we tested too - the solid click of the microphone makes it easy to skip through tracks, although it was a little low down to allow us to be heard in every environment, meaning on occasion we had to disconnect to speak to our loved ones.
Obviously the expense will put a lot of people off, and there is a weight issue: the audio quality is offset by a slight pain in the neck through extended use.
For value, functionality and comfort travelling, we recommend the Sennheiser MM 550-X range, but as a general set of cans for all manner of tasks, we're in love with the PSB offering.
These headphone from Sony are pricey, but well worth it. While they don't offer much in the way of fancy features, they do one thing very well: sound great.
You might be expecting a little more for your money in the shape of noise cancelling capabilities, or some wireless connectivity (although the latter is available as the MDR-1BT) but they do just offer up decent quality audio and fit really well to boot.
You get two cables with these headphone included in the box, allowing for both smartphone and bog-standard connection, but the former will only fully work with iPhone and iPad devices. This is all the more confusing given Sony was giving away these headphones with its latest Android smartphone, the Xperia Z, and the volume button doesn't do anything.
A great set of cans for the fact they reproduce sound so faithfully - and the inbuilt mic makes it easy to take and make calls too. Just don't expect full functionality if you've got an Android phone. Even a Sony one...
In ear headphones
Ferrari by Logic3 T150
Part of the more luxurious Cavallino range of headphones from this joint effort, the T150s represent a high-quality attempt at delivering powerful sound into your ears.
The 10mm speaker driver offers very impressive performance for smaller 'buds - and the lamb'sleather design, coupled with the woven cabling, really makes you feel like you're handling £149-worth of gadgetry, something other more expensive headphones don't manage.
Sonically we were again very impressed - there are five sets of earbuds and once you find some that seal into your ears, you'll really start to get nuances of sound.
The bass from the driver is very impressive and the mid-range is far better represented than we'd have imagined from headphones of this size.
Expensive, but worth the price. You'll just have to decide whether you're the kind of person that wants Ferrari branding in your ears, but the quality pervades beyond design in the T150s.
Atomic Floyd SuperDarts
For a pair of earphones that cost £199, you would expect them to deliver a sound experience that impresses you every time you use them.
You want the sound to be crisp and punchy, smooth and deep, soothing and yet startling. You want the high-end to tingle on your ear drums, with every sonic vibration adding extra detail to the soundscape.
And the Superdarts manage all this with aplomb.
The solid stainless steel earbuds each contain dual drivers, which means two mini speakers in each ear. This is an expensive way to build an earbud, but it undoubtedly delivers better sound, with each driver individually handling a separate part of the sound spectrum.
The SoftSeal silicone eartips create a good level of noise isolation to eliminate external noises too, and the Kevlar cable is so tangle-freeyou'll spend ages trying to trick it.
The headset is Made For iPhone, which can be picky at times when it comes to Android phones. The remote button may work, btu the volume keys certainly won't... although the placement is very good and picks up voice well.
So the Superdarts are pretty good then. They're brilliant, in fact. You just need to decide whether you can afford the price.
If you can't, you can content yourself with the knowledge that you'll never know how good your music could have sounded. And if you can? Your ears will love you for the rest of your life.
The brand known for its amplifiers dives into our headphones run down with a set of odd-looking buds - the Minors are by far the largest buds on test.
The fit is achieved by twisting the unit into the ear using a range of tips that slot into the various extrusions on your ears, and while this is novel, it can quickly get uncomfortable.
It also lets a lot of noise leak in, so unless you're dead against in-ear options, these might get tiresome after a while.
That said, for the price the sound quality is immense - the drivers we assume are stuffed into those large frames are certainly pumping out crystal clear sound and the inline microphone is also one of the most audible to those on the other line on test.
They look weird, but sound great - but beware, unless you're fine with a lack of noise isolation and slightly uncomfortable fits, these might not be the best for you.
Sometimes you don't want to spend thousands of pennies on new headphones - although technically you still would be for the Jabra Rhythms, at least its fewer coins you'll need.
Jabra promises to have tuned each pair of ear buds especially for different types of music, and while none of them really hit anything approaching a really impressive sonic performance, the Rhythms are the most acceptable of the lot.
The buds fit relatively well, although we had issue getting a tip that really fitted well from the three on offer - and the inline microphone really works much better than you'd expect from the price.
There are loads of headphones in electronics shops for around £20 that offer a really substandard performance - so in that mini league, the Jabra Rhythms are clear winners.
Headphones that don't sound terrible, and won't make you cry tears of frustrated anger should you lose or break them - the Rhythms are decent quality and super cheap too.
If you're fed up with the mountains of cash festooned about your person, or want a pair of headphones that, you know, are actually quite good, then these iPhone upgrades to Sennheiser's powerful IE8's are a decent option,
They'll work with most phones as a hands free too, although like most the volume buttons won't function, and certainly offer a deep and tight sonic experience, with solid, and more importantly rich, bass levels combined with a much stronger performance at the high end than most headphones on test here.
You can even tune the headphones using a small screw - although we found that unless you're desperate for swathes of bass you'll be better off holding this at the mid-to-low setting.
You also get a whopping 10 tips to experiment with for your cash, so you'll always find something to fit in your ear - and while the plastic casing doesn't feel in the least bit premium, it's lightweight and handy for making the headphones portable.
A quality pair of headphones that are really only worth considering if you've got a lot of cash to spend - the sonic range is impressive and the range of tips are really helpful in finding the right fit, although be warned: the speaker section that sits in your ear is a bit larger than others on the market.
A pseudo-successor to the insanely popular CX300 set, Sennheiser is looking to corner the market in inexpensive upgrades to your bundled headphones.
The MM50s are what you'd expect from such a purchase, with a snug fit in the ear and a decent level of clarity for the cash - bass heavy if we're being critical, but not terribly so.
The quality of the headphone cord is average and feels a little spindly - we didn't have any trouble with it breaking or cracking in our tests, but don't pull on the wire too heavily when yanking them out a bag.
For the price, this is a decent upgrade to the inbox headphones you get in the box - audio clarity outstrips the value for sure.
The X10i's from Klipsch represent a real investment in your listening experience, as even with a recent price drop they're still a pretty costly affair.
However, unlike most of the anonymous black buds on offer, these come with a cool stylised aluminium 'tail', which is designed to be an acoustic dampener.
We could chat for ages about the audio quality - the best way to describe it would be 'natural sounding' - giving a wide range of sonic ability without needing to overcompensate for any track. In terms of a set of buds for all occasions, you can't go wrong with these.
But it's the fit in the ear that we love. Not just because of the ridiculously light 10g weight, but the smaller dimensions and angled frame means they sit almost perfectly in the ear and, while not the most adept at noise isolation, feel the most comfortable for long-term use.
Slightly pricey, but not out of the price range of most - and the sleek and easy to find inline microphone is among the better we've seen on test.
Price: £135 (plus £70 for custom tips)
In a world dominated by background noise, there's only one thing that can save our music - custom earbud tips.
That's right - while the HF3 range is sonically one of our favourite on test, nothing beats the fact you can get your own set of customised earbuds and never have to worry about the sound of the tube disturbing your listening experience again.
We fully recommend getting the custom tips as while you might have to pay nearly £200, it properly realises the power of these strong and lightweight buds. With the inbuilt tips, sound is generally quite good; but with the silicon moulded options, the entire range could be felt and more importantly the bass was improved no end.
If money was no object, we'd recommend these headphones above all else on test, and not just because of the option for customised buds.
With a well positioned microphone and strong build quality, there's a lot to love here, even for the price.
Denon AH-C 560R
We weren't sure what to expect when we picked up the Denon options, and we have to say that what we were given didn't exactly blow us away.
In fact, it's hard to say anything particularly unique about the Denon 560R's, as while we weren't upset by the bass or high levels, the sound quality was just a bit... average. Roughly what you'd expect for a £60 pair of headphones, but without the wow-factor others have managed to deliver.
The fit was snug enough though, and you'll find these among the more comfortable to wear - the range of ear buds was impressive and offered good noise isolation - although we did experience a fair level of noise leakage.
One of the big problems we did have with these buds is the microphone - the buttons are easy to hit, but it was nigh-on useless as a hands on microphone on the street. One to stay away from if you want something with pizzazz and to actually use it as a hands free kit.
Philips Bluetooth SBH 9000
Bluetooth headphones have seemed like such a good idea for what seems like decades, but only now are they becoming genuine alternatives to wired cans.
These options are among the most robust we've seen, ticking the boxes in nearly every category - skipping tracks, pausing on the go, changing the volume, and all from touching one of the ear pads.
The fact they're Bluetooth means the track skipping will even work on non-iPhones, which is a real plus, and the cushioned pads sit nicely on the ears without much in the way of sound leaking.
The only downside is they're pretty bass-heavy and lose some of the higher end sounds, but for general music playback or movie watching, cutting the cords with these is a superb experience.
Great battery life and an extra 3.5mm wire in the box means you won't have to worry about a lack of sound with these long-lasting headphones.
(Note: The Jabra Sport headphones are also Bluetooth enabled - but they're in the sport section of this test, because, well... isn't it obvious?)
These little puppies are a good find simply because they offer three things for cheap: decent sound, wireless connection and a microUSB connector for charging.
The build quality has been lowered a little to compensate, but we like the flat band design (and can be picked up in a rather striking red hue as well.
The Rockaways are a quality set of earbuds for the price - the buds in the box aren't the best for fit, and the design is a little large for some ears.
But for £50-ish it's not a problem - and we can heartily recommend these for those looking for something wireless on the go.
Sennheiser MM 550-X
What to say about these little darlings that properly does them justice? OK, the price is a little bit on the steep side, but when you break down all the extra features you're getting - well, it doesn't seem so hard on the wallet any more.
From the lightweight construction to the reams of gadgetry bundled, out of all the headphones on test these were the ones we reached for on the train journey home.
The noise cancelling element is among the best out there - we noticed the least audio seepage of any of the others on test.
But the reason we're including them in the Bluetooth section is the fact apt-X is included... it's superb when you hear the improvement, and now the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One X are rocking the standard, audio quality is about to get a lot better.
We have minor quibbles: the blue flashing light on the side is a little onstentatious, the SRS surround sound 'enhancement' is awful and the removable battery can be removed a little too easily... but these are minor elements.
If you've got the cash, buy these headphones without question. Sonically, functionally and aesthetically they're among the best on the market.
Parrot Zik by Phillipe Starck
Bluetooth headphones have seemed like such a good idea for what seems like decades, but only now are they becoming genuine alternatives to wired cans.
These Parrot Zik Wireless headphones by Stark are something of a novelty on one hand, thanks to their price, and a jaw-dropping masterpiece in sound quality on the other.
But at no point do they justify their £300+ price point – the Starck design, plus the amount of technological wizardry on board, makes up a bulk of that cost. We're really not sold on the design either, as while we enjoy the look of the swooping lines and metallic finish, on the head they inspire some rather curious looks as people try to ascertain just what you've chosen to furnish your bonce.
However, as we mentioned, the sound quality is excellent, and is enhanced by the associated app for iPhone or Android. Through this platform you can extend the width of sound you're hearing, making it more narrow or expansive depending on what you're listening too, and does have a modicum of an effect.
The bass and treble notes are equally impressive, although don't justify the price tag at all. We've heard better (not much, mind) from cheaper headphones – so remember that you're buying design here as much as sound quality, although the noise cancelling on offer was more than on a par with other headphones in this test.
You are getting some other goodies: NFC pairing is good, but remember to take them off before pairing as you'll get those looks again if you wipe your phone all over your ear to get the sound out.
Another way to get stared at is using the touchpad on the right earpiece to skip tracks, pause and raise the volume – but this was such a delightful feature that we just didn't care.
Sadly, on the best features of the Parrot Zik's didn't work well enough for us. Using a pressure pad, the music will instantly pause when you take them off your head, and does work well. However, when laying on your neck, the music will start up if it accidentally comes into contact with skin, which makes the whole idea pointless.
Battery life is good, but one of the BIGGEST problems we have with these headphones is there's no notification to let you know when the juice is about to run out. This meant a number of frustrated journeys where we didn't have the optional 3.5mm headphone cable or a power outlet. Just a useless pair of fashion-led headphones.
Would we recommend the Parrot Zik's to anyone looking to buy a pair of Bluetooth headphones? No – simply because the price is too high. If you've got infinite amounts of money (which is a problem that, sadly, is a growing concern) then you might fancy the stylings of these cans, but in truth, there are better options for the money.
Perhaps another iteration would solve a lot of the problems – better battery management and a tweaking of that neck pad would help – but for now, these are to be gawped at while you buy something a little more sensible.
Noise cancelling headphones
Sony's heritage in the headphone space is well-known - and these rather pricey buds are the latest in the long line of noise cancelling options from the Japanese brand.
Their design is striking, and for good reason: they're noise cancelling, but without a separate box on the wire - it's all in the buds themselves.
To that end, they're pretty large and slightly cumbersome - although the fit is excellent and provides good noise isolation even before the quiet noise cancelling kicks in.
However, the headphones won't work when the battery dies, so you can face some lengthy, boring train journeys - and the noise cancellation is prone to the odd bit of hissing here and there too.
A little too expensive to be recommended - the weight and lack of passive playback grate, and while the overall functionality is good, it's not quite enough to warrant shelling nearly £300 out for them.
The less-known brands traditionally are those many steer clear of - but with these BlackBox offerings, you get a more than acceptable noise cancelling experience.
From the easy to clip microphone section to the impressive in ear fit, we're fans of these buds - and that's before we get to the quality noise cancellation too.
They raise the volume a fair bit when you activate the noise cancelling, which feels like a bit of a cheap trick initially - but on the tube and in the air, it offers almost total silence from the outside world/
The headset is a little plasticky, and the AAA battery would be nicer as a chargeable pack... but there's not much else we can criticise here.
Headphones that you might not recognise are no longer to be feared. The BlackBox name won't let you down here, and the new C20 range is excellent at keeping up with your smartphones needs.
Audio Technika ATH-ANC9
These headphones feel like they should arrive at the cheaper end of the market - with plastic construction and a creaky build, the price tag is somewhat confusing.
However, the options are great: different noise cancelling modes that switch between office, aeroplane and study rooms are a little different to the competition.
The noise cancellation is good too, as the pads are plush and don't tire your ears over use - although the large volume disparity when turning noise cancellation on and off grates somewhat.
Vocal tones are slightly lost in the bass as well, but at least the switch to jump in and out of noise cancellation mode is easy to hit... it's surprising how annoying that can be.
Build quality lets down a decent performance from these cans - the overall functionality is nice, but not really something we'd recommend fully for the price, especially with the better-specified and similarly-priced Sennheiser MM 550-X's on the go.