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After putting in dozens of hours of research on hundreds of models, and spending 45 hours testing 53 finalists with a panel of four audio professionals, we found that the KEF M500 is the best pair of on-ear headphones for music lovers who hate earbuds but want more portability than an over-ear set offers. These headphones are comfortable and solidly built, and they sound great.
The KEF M500 was our panellists’ overall pick for their favourite-sounding model because of its large soundstage, slight mid/bass boost and clear, detailed highs. In our tests it had more depth, detail and clarity than the competition – every kind of music sounds amazing on the M500, from classical pieces to Top 40 hits. This pair also features a stylish and sturdy metal housing that’s built to last, and comfy earpads that you can wear for hours on end. The downside is that the KEF M500 is quite expensive next to most other pairs we tested, but it is also one of the few on-ear headphone models that hold their own against similarly priced over-ear headphones, which helps justify the premium.
If you want small, affordable on-ear headphones that sound great, the Koss SportaPro is for you if you’re willing to give up some modern comforts. Yes, these headphones have 1980s-style foam earpads. Yes, they have a plastic chassis and a thin metal headband that might catch on your hair. And no, they don’t come with an in-line remote or microphone. What they do have is a nice, natural-sounding midrange that sounds great with most music genres. And they come with a carrying pouch. All of that makes for a pretty compelling package at the price.
On-ear headphones vs. over-ear styles vs. earbuds
On-ear headphones should be a serious consideration only for people who prefer something slightly more portable than bulky over-ear headphones and can’t seem to find a comfortable fit with earbuds. At any given price, you’re going to get more bang for your buck from over-ears, compared with earbuds, if sound quality is your main concern.
Over-ears offer better sound, a deeper soundstage and better external-noise isolation for the same cost, so if portability or fit isn’t a concern but sound quality is, you should be shopping for over-ears.
Similarly, if you want the ultimate in portability, earbuds are the best choice. If you don’t mind the feeling of earbuds inside your ear canals, you can get some great-sounding earbuds for around the same price as our on-ear picks.
In the end, we think that on-ears should be lighter and more portable than over-ears and must be very comfortable, as anything that sits on your outer ear will inevitably be fatiguing when you’re listening over the long term.
How we picked
First, I researched for nearly 30 hours. I read professional reviews such as those on InnerFidelity and CNET, and then I turned to shopping sites like Amazon and Crutchfield to see what people using the headphones had to say. I also dropped in on Head-Fi and other enthusiast sites. When I found headphones that seemed well-liked, I called them in for further testing. Next, I searched for newly released options that had not yet been reviewed, and I called in the most promising from that list.
At this point, we’d looked at hundreds of headphones, seriously considered just over 100, and called in the best of the best to be tested. How many did we test? Fifty-three. Yup, 53. It’s a lot.
How did we tackle that many headphones? After burning them in (which in itself was a several-day affair), we split the finalists into three price ranges: $50 and under (less than Rs 3,500), $51 to $149 (around Rs 3,500 to Rs 10,000) and $150 and over (more than Rs 10,000). Generally speaking, we have found through our past research and testing that these price ranges often mark a jump in the quality of the materials, drivers and sound.
We tested each category separately, comparing all the headphones in each group to one another, and chose our top three. We took into account the sound, fit, size and build quality.
To make it fair, panellists didn’t know the exact price of any headphone model, only that it fit into a general price group. Then, we took the winning headphones from each price group and tested them against each other to see if we had a lower-priced gem that beat out more expensive competitors. It was at this point I told the panellists the prices of their top picks.
We then asked ourselves two questions:
- If I were spending my own money, which headphone model would I buy?
- If money were no object (if, for example, the headphones are a gift), which one would I want to use?
Based on those answers, we came up with our overall winners.
Best on-ear headphones: KEF M500
Three of our four panellists named the KEF M500 as their favourite-sounding of all the on-ear headphones we heard (Geoff Morrison, AV editor at large at The Wirecutter and our fourth panellist, preferred the Beats Solo2 and the now-discontinued Samsung Level On). In our tests the highs were crisp and clear, the mids had no discernible coloration, and the bass was full and present with clear representation of pitch, even on very low notes (as opposed to thudding or woofing). Voices were clear and natural with delicate consonants, guitars and piano sounded natural and accurate, and the basslines came across as clear and rich instead of muddy.
The M500 also has the largest soundstage of all the on-ear headphones we tested: the music sounds like the recording has depth – as if it’s happening in a room rather than in your head.
The build quality is superb, and what you would expect from a premium pair of headphones. The sturdy and lightweight aluminium chassis is covered with supple protein leather at the crown, as well as on the earpads. The linguine-style cable is removable and replaceable. In fact, the M500 comes with two cables: one cable with a three-button iPhone remote/mic and one plain cable.
Everyone on our panel found the M500 to be very comfortable. The pads are soft and pliable enough to avoid pushing too much on your outer ears, yet they’re firm enough to retain a seal. These are full-day-at-work headphones that you can wear for a long time without ear pain.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Before getting the KEF M500, you have two things to consider. First, in its included hard case, this pair is a lot bigger than some of the competition. Measuring 7½ by 5 by 2 inches, the M500’s case is like a really thick slab of watermelon, which is unfortunate given that portability is one of the main attractions of on-ear headphones. Second, the M500 may be too expensive for some people. While the KEF pair is worth the asking price, we know that it may represent more of a financial investment than some people are willing to make. If that’s the case for you, consider our more affordable picks below.
Budget pick: Koss SportaPro
If you want to spend relatively little without hating your purchase, we recommend the Koss SportaPro. Are these headphones fancy? Nope. They have foamy ’80s earpads and a thin metal headband connected to plastic earcups. No remote, no detachable cord. But they’re small, light and they sound good. Besides, the SportaPro pair is compact, which makes it a good set of travel headphones.
The sound is great for the price, though: in our tests, all of our panellists put this pair in their top three in its price category. Sound-wise, the SportaPro was bested only by headphones that were double the price. To make it as one of our panel’s top choices at its price is a big accomplishment.
We found that these headphones had a nice, clear and mostly flat frequency response, with just a small bump in the lower mids. As a result, they handled spoken-word audio just as well as jazz or classical music. They lacked the high-end detail and intense lower bass of more expensive options, but really, they sounded pretty remarkable.
A note, however: despite the “Sporta” in the name, these headphones aren’t moisture resistant, so we can’t recommend that you take them on sweaty jogs. They do offer a dual over-the-head or behind-the-head wearing style, so if you like wearing a baseball cap in addition to your headphones, the SportaPro will accommodate that.
The SportaPro is mostly comfortable, as the build is very light, but the metal band could get caught in longer hair. And in addition, the clamping force isn’t overly intense but is definitely more pronounced than on our other top picks. Overall, while the SportaPro isn’t perfect, it will give you way more in sound quality than you’ll pay out for it.
What to look forward to
We used to recommend the Urbanears Plattan ADV but it was discontinued and replaced with the latest model, the Plattan 2. Urbanears claims that the new model has the same durability, which means you’ll still be able to twist and bend the Plattan 2 into various shapes without breaking them. It also has other similar features to the ADV, like a removable fabric-wrapped cable that has a built-in one-button remote/mic, and two connection jacks on both earcups that allow you to connect another pair of headphones into the Plattan 2. We haven’t tested the new version yet but we have no reason to doubt it will serve you well in a pinch.
Less than Rs 3,500
While we appreciated the lightweight design of the JVC HAS160 Flats headphones, the sound quality just wasn’t there, even for such a low price. The bass was bloated, the midrange was muffled, and the high end had a hissy quality.
The JVC HASR500B was a huge disappointment. The sound was akin to that of an “old clock radio”, according to one of our panellists. The highs were blaring and the bass sounded muffled. A tremendous pity.
For folks who have ears that stick out, the Koss KTXPro1 is another no-go. The earcups don’t pivot forward and back, so you’ll have a tough time getting a comfortable fit. Depending on how these headphones fit you, they could have muddy mids and a bass bloat, or just sound so-so and cheap.
The Shure SRH145m+ looks expensive, but when you get it into your hands, it feels cheaply constructed. None of us found this set comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time. But the biggest flaw was the treble, which in our tests was highly coloured and had a lot of peaks and dips that marred an otherwise great-sounding pair of headphones.
Rs 3,500 to Rs 10,000
We found the AKG Y50 peaked-sounding in a fun and wonderful way. With an in-your-face, kickass bass and a little extra push in the vocal range, the AKG Y50 headphones are just begging to have rock, pop and hip-hop blasted through them. The earpads look like puffy little doughnuts and are plush and comfy. The headband is metal and padded, and the entire build feels sturdy and high quality. Equipped with a detachable cable with a single-button remote, this pair is available in four colours (matte black, yellow, turquoise and red). This set does fold up, though it isn’t the smallest, even when you pop it into its included neoprene bag. But if you like a little extra oomph in your bass and a touch more clarity on cymbal hits and vocals, you’ll really like the Y50’s sound.
A few of the rest in alphabetical order:
The Audio-Technica Earsuit ATH-ES500 isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great, either. The build felt creaky and cheap compared with other models we tried in this price range, and the overall sound was dull, muffled and unengaging. One of our panellists Brent Butterworth, a Wirecutter AV writer, mentioned that he listened to a James Taylor live song, and the guitar sounded as though the “body had been stuffed with T-shirts”. The result lacked the rich mids that a good guitar sound should have. With so many great choices, it’s tough to recommend this pair.
Among the models in this price range, the Polk Hinge has perhaps the best build quality. The design details are lovely, including stitched leatherette over an aluminium headband, metal hinges and a removable cable with a three-button iPhone remote. These headphones are beautifully built, and they feel as though they’re worth far more than their price. If they sounded as good as they looked, we might have a different winner. But in our tests, although the Hinge’s drivers sounded as though they were quality, the voicing was off. The company calls it Polk Optimised Electro-acoustic Tuning and claims that the sound of the Hinge is supposed to be “immersive.” What we heard was a bloated bass and a midrange that gave male vocals too much resonance at higher volumes, making them a bit muffled. The highs were nice, clear and clean, but everything supporting them in the lower frequencies was lacklustre. Serious. Heartbreak.
The Velodyne vLeve felt brittle and plastic. Yes, the option of interchangeable skins is nice, but you can’t cover up a snapped headband or cracked earcups, which is what these headphones felt like they would end up with at the first sign of trouble. We might have forgiven this plastic feel if the vLeve sounded amazing, but despite the kick-your-ass bass, the mids were blaring and crude. We were hoping for more. You should too.
More than Rs 10,000
We recommend our top pick if you’re going to spend $150 or more. You can find a lot of great headphones in this price range, but it’s the details that make or break a top pick. With a few exceptions (which we clearly indicate below), most of the headphones in this price category are at least recommendable.
The Beats Solo2 is the best-sounding Beats pair we’ve heard. Everyone on our panel found the Solo2 very comfortable, and we all agreed that it was our favourite Beats headphone model so far, hands down. The highs were clear, clean and delicate, and they sparkled over rich mids that sounded equally as good on electric or acoustic guitar. The problem with the Solo2, in our tests, concerned the bass. Yes, the bass was forward, although not nearly as heavy-handed as on previous Solo incarnations. Unfortunately, the bass had a “whoomp, whoomp” or “buh, buh” effect, a dull, sloppy sound that oozed all over the lovely mids and highs (especially in music with already intense basslines). So singer-songwriter music sounds fantastic on the Solo2, but hip-hop, rock, and pop? Sigh. To put it into a visual, if the mids and highs were a gourmet meal, the bass would be a pudding cup that some toddler just emptied onto your plate. I mean, the food is technically still good, but man, it sure would have been better without that pudding all over it. This model comes so close to getting everything right, we’re actually excited to see what Beats does next.
Light and comfy, the Beyerdynamic T51i has a sturdy metal headband and earcups with lovely memory-foam-type earpads. Everyone on our panel found the T51i comfortable, and everyone generally liked the sound. The highs were a tad too sibilant, which left guitars and vocals sounding slightly metallic or icy, and the bass was a bit too resonant. Although we all loved the light build, we wished that the T51i folded up to be more compact. And while the earpads do swivel so that they can lie flat, the case ends up being as large as a hardcover book. This category is seriously so competitive that these quibbles were enough to push the rather good T51i out of our top slot.
The Bowers & Wilkins P3 has the “tiny” aspect down. These headphones fold up to be quite small, although the company ended up making the included hard case much larger than it needed to be, so the P3 somehow takes up nearly as much bag real estate as much larger headphones. That would be okay, but no one on our panel liked the sound very much, since the bloated bass muddied up the rest of the higher frequencies. It’s a shame, as with the right sound the petite looks and fun colours of the P3 could have had us hooked.
We like the over-ear Sennheiser Momentum headphones, and the Sennheiser Momentum On looks very similar. This pair is comfortable and light, and all of our panellists thought it was easy to wear. What confused us was the frequency ranges the Momentum On emphasised. While the over-ear version was a bass lover’s headphone, the Momentum On seemed to emphasise the lower mids with a dialled-back bass. Have you ever, while listening to music, pulled back on your ear and kinda stretched it? Doing so sort of makes music sound thin and almost like you’re in a slight vacuum. The Momentum On’s sound produced a similar feeling in comparison with the over-ear Momentum. These headphones aren’t the fan favourites we hoped they’d be. Instead they’re just…fine.
Like all of V-Moda’s models, the V-Moda XS is built like a tank – sturdy and well-crafted, and definitely more durable than some of the other headphones we tested. As Brent put it, “From a coolness standpoint, the XS are probably the best here.” In our experience, the sound had some colourations, with a boosted bass, some ups and downs in the mids and a rolled-off treble. John Higgins, an occasional Wirecutter writer and one of our panellists, wasn’t a huge fan, but Geoff, Brent, and I all liked the quirky sound. It wasn’t natural, but it wasn’t objectionable, either. However, the clamping force can cause your ears to ache when you’re listening over long periods. If you like the sound of V-Moda headphones, you will like the XS. But as we’ve said before, in this price category, a lot of good headphones got edged out by small degrees, and the XS was one of them.