Apple makes great phones, tablets and computers; earphones not so much. The ones that come free with the iPhone look attractive, but they’re pretty much worth what you pay for them when it comes to sound quality.
Great sound, though, doesn’t come cheap, which is why a pair of premium headphones or earphones can make the perfect gift for someone who loves their music but perhaps doesn’t have the budget to really splash out on themselves.
If you’re buying for a musician, check out the more studio-oriented recommendations in our music gift guide. For those who will mostly use their headphones while on the move, read on …
One of the most visible trends of the past few years has been the growth of popularity of headphones, rather than earphones, while out & about. Headphones used to be strictly something used at home, but the superior noise-insulation properties of headphones – coupled to a new generation of smaller, lighter models – has made them an increasingly popular choice. Hence most of my recommendations are headphones rather than earphones.
Parrot Zik 2.0: $400
If you’re buying for someone who loves their gadgetry as much as their music, it’s probably hard to do better than the Parrot Zik 2.0 – a smaller, lighter and slightly redesigned version of the original Zik launched back in 2012.
The technological appeal is three-fold. First, the headphones are wireless, with a Bluetooth connection to an iPhone or Mac. Second, they offer active noise-cancellation, with four of the five built-in microphones used to cancel ambient sound while the fifth is used for phone calls. Finally, the user-interface is as hi-tech as they come: the entire outer soft-touch surface of the right earcup forming a trackpad. You can play, pause, skip forward or back and adjust the volume simply by tapping – which is as convenient as it is technologically appealing.
You’re not sacrificing any sound quality for gadgetry, either: What Hi-Fi gave the headphones 4 stars out of 5. The Philippe Starck-designed looks don’t hurt, either. The only downside (apart from the price!) is the limited battery-life, providing about six hours when used wirelessly, but providing all-day noise-cancelling performance when used wired.
Bose Quiet Comfort 25: $300
Bose’s Quiet Comfort series are probably the best-known noise-cancelling headphones out there, and the QC25 model improves on the previous-generation QC15 with a new folding design for greater portability when you’re not using them.
The noise-cancellation is incredibly effective, reducing the engine and wind noise on a airliner to a distant murmur. The sound quality is clear and neutral, with decent but not overwhelming bass performance, and the battery-life is nothing short of amazing: a single AAA battery providing more than 30 hours of noise-cancelling performance.
The aesthetics are perhaps the weakest point, with a somewhat plasticky look & feel, but the earcup casings are metal and the headband has a fabric covering (albeit with fake suede).
What Hi-Fi rated them best noise-cancelling headphones of the year, making them a good choice for anyone who does a lot of flying or works in a noisy open-plan office.
Bowers & Wilkins P5: $300
My personal favorite, I rarely go too far without my trusty B&W P5 on-ear headphones. They combine the fantastic, neutral sound for which Bowers & Wilkins is known, with superb comfort, excellent portability and gorgeous looks.
One of the reasons I chose them is that they have just the right amount of sound isolation without active cancellation, allowing me to hear when an on-board announcement is made on a plane or train, and allowing sufficient awareness of traffic in the city. And while I’m generally a big fan of wirelessness, I’m not keen on headphones being yet another gadget I have to charge, so this is a rare situation where I prefer to stick to a good old-fashioned wire!
The earpads are made from incredibly soft sheep’s leather, making them comfortable even when worn continuously on long journeys, and when you want to put them away the fold-flat design means they take up very little room in a bag.
I also love the fact that you don’t have to worry about damaging them by breaking or damaging the cable. Pull off the left earpad (it’s held in place by strong magnets) and you can simply unplug the cable and plug in a replacement. You even get a spare cable in the box (though without the microphone you get on the original), and additional cables are available separately.
Beats by Dr. Dre Solo2: $300
Beats headphones are never going to win any accolades from audiophiles, but their popularity is undeniable, so they have earned a place in any roundup outside a hi-fi site. Teenagers love them for the thumping bass and fashionable image, along with the Bluetooth wireless connection and all-day battery-life.
But these are one Beats model that aren’t just for teenagers. While some Beats headphones go crazy on bass, the Solo 2 model is somewhat more balanced than the Solo HD, and while there’s no noise-cancelling, the sound isolation is good enough that you’re unlikely to miss it in most environments.
The headphones are grippy enough to cope with running and cycling, and it can only be a matter of time before I see someone wearing them for Parkour. Be careful when buying that you don’t confuse them with the cheaper non-wireless model.
Logitech UE 900S: from $399
Finally, if you’re buying for someone you’re convinced won’t be persuaded to go for headphones, the Ultimate Ears 900S offers true studio monitor quality sound from a pair of earphones.
Although made for Logitech by a professional audio company, they still have a built-in microphone to allow them to be used for phone calls as well as music. You also needn’t worry about fit when buying as a gift: they come with nine different color-coded memory-foam tips, allowing anyone to find their perfect fit.
They get 5-star reviews on Head-Fi, with the sound described as phenomenal, amazing, fantastic. Sound isolation is described as good, while they also get top marks for comfort, with many users saying they forget they are wearing them.
Check out more of our holiday gift guides for more ideas, and of course you’ll find plenty more inspiration over on 9to5Toys. See also my review of the Master & Dynamic MH40 headphones carried out after this gift guide was written.