Can anything beat Beats? The essential guide to headphones that really rock

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You can't beat Beats. Or can you?

Headphones are a notoriously subjective choice. One person’s desire for lightweight, open-backed sound is balanced by another’s need for cans heavy on design statement, or just heavy. A frequent traveller will value noise-cancellation. If you just want better audio from your iPhone, there’s plenty of choice. Do you want in-ear, over-ear or that in-between option, on-ear? Corded or wireless? Do you want to spend your money on a celebrity musician’s name or an established audio company? Read on for our selection of seven of the best mid- to premium-price headphones.

Best for iPods

Atomic Floyd SuperDarts + Remote headphones

Apple’s latest iPhone, iPod nano and iPod touch all come with the much improved earphones which Apple calls EarPods. Even so, things get spectacularly better with this cute, effective upgrade. The compact fit on these in-ear headphones is snug to create noise isolation: they keep the music in and the outside world, er, outside. The strong sound matches decent bass with great clarity. They’re very light and the build quality is impressive. The remote control on the cable makes it easy to pause, play and change tracks with your iDevice in your pocket or bag.


Best for hi-fi sound quality


The 1 series is just out. Built from high-end materials that make them rigid but versatile, they have silent joints and very comfy cups. There are three models, starting at £299, and all have exceptional audio, not least thanks to the elements like the exotic-sounding liquid crystal polymer film diaphragm. There’s a wireless pair mid-range and this top-of-the-range model has impressive natural sound. A dual noise sensor means the noise-cancelling effect is remarkable.


Best all-rounders

B&W P3

These headphones sit on, rather than over, the ears. So your ears stay cooler than with more enclosing ’phones. This pair has clear, attractive audio and superb comfort thanks to memory foam that moulds itself to your lugholes’ shape. It’s also a material which is breathable enough to stop your ears getting too hot. While the fit means much outside noise is muffled, they don’t stop the music getting out to entertain anyone nearby. The sound B&W is known for is clear, natural and neutral, and that’s what you’ll find here. This shines when there’s a digital input like an iPod, though higher bit rates will work best. These cans are a good balance of sound, design and price.


Best for style

Beats by Dr Dre Solo HD

Above all, Beats by Dr Dre offer a trendy styling that is a strong design statement, and instantly recognisable. These on-ear cans are lightweight and highly portable. They have enough movement in the cups to offer a good fit. The sound is dominated by the same pounding beat and deep, beefy bass that the brand is known for. Where the bass is strong, some other parts of the sound are a little blurry, with vocals sometimes suffering. Still, they’re comfy, undeniably powerful and available in a bunch of super-bright colours, but they can’t compete with the audio on most of the rivals here.


Best for Bluetooth

Zik Parrot by Starck

These Philippe Starck-designed noise-cancelling headphones are smarter than average. There are sensors which know when you’re taking them off your head and pause the music, ready to start again when you replace them. Then there’s Bluetooth and NFC (the wireless data transfer system found in Oyster cards and some office entry doors). These offer wireless connection. Even better, the controls for volume and track selection are on the right ear piece in a touch-sensitive surface that responds to taps and swipes. The Starck design sense is evident – matte steel frame and matte rubber earcups. Audio is strong, with strikingly good noise cancellation. But these cans are a little heavy and a touch overpriced.


Best for travelling

Denon AH-NCW500

Noise-cancelling works by using clever electronics to match outside sound – like aircraft engine noise – and feeding the opposite frequency through the earphone, cancelling it out. Denon’s skill with noise cancelling is on a par with Sony’s above, creating a natural sound. The advantage of this technology is that you can turn the volume of the inflight movie down, which is better for your hearing. This pair of on-ear headphones are deeply comfortable and offer great build quality.


Best for comfort

Philips M1 Fidelio

These headphones are superbly light but still have rich, clear sound with plenty of bass. Vibration dampening lets every detail shine through and memory foam in the pads makes extended listening in this on-ear pair deeply comfortable – though they do have a grip some will find too firm. They offer sound isolation, rather than noise-cancelling, but the effect is excellent. They’re well-crafted and have an attractive but subtle design (if you want more discretion than Beats offers, look no further).


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