2011 will always stand out in our minds as the year the headphone industry went ballistic. All sorts of companies are clamoring to snatch a slice of what is (apparently) a really huge headphone pie, from corporate spin-offs to mobile phone case designers and small Swedish start-ups. We think the fresh competition has raised the bar for headphone performance and design, and lit a fire under the feet of some of the more established headphone brands. When that sort of thing happens, the consumer usually benefits; but, it can get a little confusing trying to keep up with all of the new names and model numbers. So, we’ve compiled a list of our five favorite headphones for the year and even gave a few others some honorable mention. Happy listening!
Make sure to check the rest of our Best of 2011 Awards to see all of this year’s winners.
NOCS NS400, $99
Best in-ear headphone
Swedish headphone maker NOCS is one of those fresh faces we mentioned and, as such, is still building its reputation. But with products like the NS400 Titanium earphones, it won’t take long before NOCS has built some serious street-cred. Light, comfortable and extremely revealing, the NS400 Titanium has become our in-ear reference headphones and, currently priced at $99, are a whale of a deal.Check out our very favorable Nocs NS400 Review.
Runner-up: Klipsch Image S4A
AiAiAi TMA-1, $200
Best on-ear headphone
Danish headphone maker AiAiAi surprised us with its excellent sounding TMA-1 on-ear headphones. We like that the company ditches flashy on-product branding in favor of a more understated and industrial look. At $200, the TMA-1 may seem a little pricey for a compact on-ear model, but we assure you they are some of the best sounding headphones available at that price, regardless of size. More details in our full AiAiAi TMA-1 Review.
Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b, $220
Best noise-cancelling headphone
You can take two totally different paths when it comes active noise-cancelling headphones. Either seal your ear up from the outside with a big circum-aural (around the ear) headphone or plug it up with a canalphone (in-ear headphone). Both means are effective, but personal preferences usually have people taking definite sides.
For the over-the-ear fans, we recommend the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b. These cans are extremely effective at noise-reduction, very comfortable and sound great. If you prefer an in-ear solution, we suggest the Phiaton PS20 NC. Phiaton’s half-in-ear design and noise-cancelling circuitry make a formidable team and the PS20 series is one of our favorite sounding in-ear headphones.
Phiaton PS20 BT, $149
Best wireless headphone
We have yet to find a wireless headphone that strikes just the right balance between convenience and sound quality, but the Phiaton PS 20 BT takes us one giant step closer to our ideal. While Bluetooth technology can be challenging in general, the new Bluetooth 3.0 profile allows for outstanding sound quality, as evidenced in Phiaton’s latest edition of the already stellar-sounding PS 20 in-ear headphone. Based in part on feedback from our Phiaton PS20 BT Review, Phiaton has updated the PS 20 BT’s firmware for a more straightforward and stable Bluetooth experience, making these earphones an even more compelling choice for wireless audio.
Sennheiser HD598, $250
Best over-ear headphone
While we feel conflicted by Sennheiser’s color choice for the HD598, we have zero reservations over their sound quality. The HD598 are the best sounding full-size headphone we tested this year and easily one of the most comfortable as well. If you don’t mind the cream and brown color treatment, the HD598 will treat you to big, accurate sound with satisfying bass at a price that won’t completely drain your wallet. Check out our Sennheiser HD598 Review for the whole story.
Runner up: Phiaton MS400