I have seen many people asking which headphones (cans) to get, so hopefully this will help clear up some questions you might have. There is no one best headphone, because you have to take into account price, portability, purpose, ease of powering, and most important, sound. All headphones do not sound the same, and as surprising as it might be, the earbuds that come with your iPod don't sound great. Almost all headphones included with Portable CD Players (PCDPs), Digital Audio Players (DAPs), and any other devices tend to sound quite bad, with few exceptions.
Koss: Koss is not the company who you would think of when looking for headphones, but they have some that are quite good, especially in the budget area. If you want inexpensive headphones that sound good, Koss is the way to go. They tend to be "fun" headphones to listen to, best suited for music. The most recommended Koss for budget use is the KSC-75.
Grado: These headphones tend to be a great bang for the buck, and are best suited for music, especially Rock and Metal, but still quite good for everything. Not the best gaming cans, as they don't have the best soundstage, so won't be as good for positioning as other choices. They leak sound, so arenâ€™t the best option for noisy areas or places like libraries where other people will be disturbed by your music. Grados tend not to require an amp to drive, but there is an improvement. Some people find them a bit uncomfortable to wear, but they are light, sit on the ears, and have many different pads that can be swapped to change the sound and comfort. The SR-60 is one of the headphones I recommend most to people.
Alessandro: Alessandro is basically the same thing as Grado, as they take Grado cans and slightly tweak them. While Grado is intended for the consumer market, Alessandro is more for Professionals. They sound very similar, and some people prefer them to the comparable Grado and some prefer the Grados.
Sennheiser: Sennheiser makes some excellent headphones, and are probably one of the most, if not the most popular audiophile headphones. Known by many to make high quality products, they offer cans oriented to every market. The Sennheiser sound tends to be laid back, and some people find them boring, but they are quite detailed, have a good soundstage, making them great for gaming and video, as well as music, and they tend to be quite comfortable. Higher end Sennheisers often need an amplifier to sound great, as they are high impedance and very hard to drive from the headphone out of most devices. Most of the higher end Sennheisers are open designs, letting sound in and out, so are not the best choice for noisy areas or places like libraries where other people will be disturbed by your music. While Sennheiser has discontinued them, the best headphones ever in many people's books were made by Sennheiser, the legendary Orpheus, which was an Electrostatic headphone (HE-90) and tube amp (HEV-90) combination that retailed for over $10,000. While I have not heard them, I have heard the HE-60 "Baby Orpheus", and they are by far my favorite headphones.
Audio-Technica: These headphones are a bit hard to get, the most common place is from Audio Cubes, an importer who ships the headphones from Japan. They are quite good, and very popular at the moment. While being some of the largest headphones around right now, they are surprisingly easy to drive, unlike the comparable Sennheisers. They don't need a special amp, but like most headphones, benefit from one. Generally a closed design, the isolation is not great, but much better than open designs. They are great for gaming, music, and video usage, having a wide soundstage that allows for good positioning.
Sony: Until very recently, cheap Sony headphones were quite poor, but that seems to have changed with the introduction of the XD line. Before this, only the MDR-V6 was worth a look without being too expensive. Sony also has some high end cans that are quite good. The MDR SA5000 is very popular right now with audiophiles, being very detailed, and many people have sold their Sennheiser HD650 to buy them recently. Sony cans tend to be somewhat of an acquired taste, and it often takes people a while to adjust to them, if they ever do. They often have amazing detail, but that isn't always good, as they reveal any flaws in the system. They should be great for any gaming, music, and video use, if you like them. Again, the cheap Sonys suck, Streetstyles are not good.
Bose: While it hurts me to include this company here, people must be warned. Like all of their products, Bose headphones, the Triports and Quiet Comforts (QCs), are not good, and have a tendency to break. They are grossly overpriced, to the point that the general consensus on Triports is that they would be fairly priced around $40. The noise canceling on the QCs isn't great, you are much better off getting some passive isolation cans, like Shure, Etymotic, or closed headphones, like HD280. Bose is not recommended, stay far away.
Shure: Shure makes some great canal phones, also known as In Ear Monitors or IEMs. They physically block sound, giving great isolation, but many people don't like the way they feel, as they sit in your ear canal. The cheaper Shures, like the E2c, don't sound great, but are much better than stock. Shure IEMs tend to have rolled off highs, but are pretty decent, and the E3c is much better than the E2c. Shure is about to come out with some new IEMs, the E4c, which, from the early reviews I have seen, are supposed to be great, and beat many IEMs costing more than they do, including possibly, the E5c which is the top Shure available. Basically, I only recommend Shure and any IEM for people looking for noise isolation. If you are flying, riding the bus, or anywhere that is noisy, they are great, just don't get run over by a car while walking around with them. The canalphone of choice for rock/metal/rap/electronic music.
Etymotic: Etymotic, or Ety, is another company who makes high end IEMs, which have the characteristic of being incredibly detailed, but very weak on the bass. They have greater isolation than Shures, and sound very good, but again, many people don't like them, and I recommend them for the same type of use as Shures and every IEM. Not ideal for rock/metal/rap/electronic music because of the weak bass, but great for classical, jazz, acoustical music.
Beyerdynamic: Beyer make some great cans, which are good for gaming, music, and movies, and famous for their monsterous bass. Described by some as sounding similar to the Sennheiser house sound, but with more bass. Definitly worth a look at.
Zalman, Labtec, and other "Gaming" or computer headphones: These tend to be overpriced, sound quite bad, and are gimmicks. Surround headphones are only for gaming, and they are still beat by many of the headphones above. I can't recommend any, and if you need a Microphone, get a separate one to use with the headphones you end up getting.
Types of Headphones
Circumaural: This type of headphone goes around your ears, and is generally quite comfortable, but large. They can be either open or closed, both of which have benefits. Examples are Sennheiser HD580 (open) and Audio Technica A900 (closed).
Supraaural: This type of headphone sits on your ear, like the stock headphones that come with many cheap cd players that have a band that goes over your head. They are much smaller than circumaural, but many people find them uncomfortable. This design tends to be open. An example is all Grados without the new circumaural pads.
IEM or Canalphone: Just what they sound like, this type of headphone goes in your ear canal, physically blocking sound much more than most other headphones. Origionally used by musicians while performing on stage, they have now come down to the consumer market, with even some inexpensive offerings from larger companies, like Sony. The consumer IEMs tend to isolate much less than professional models, but still block some sound. Some people find them uncomfortable, since it is a piece of foam or plastic in your ear. Examples are the offerings from Shure and Etymotic.
Earbuds: Often found bundled with cd players and daps, most tend to be low quality. Similar to IEMs in that they sit in the ear, earbuds don't penetrate the canal, so don't block sound out nearly as much. The most common is the stock ipod buds.
Open Headphones: Open headphones simply referrs to headphones where there is no solid barrier between the driver and the rest of the world. Open headphones tend to give a great sound for less money than closed, but offer almost no sound isolation in either direction, so you can hear the surrounding environment while wearing them, and people in the same room can hear what you are listening too. This can be benificial if you can't afford to be isolated from the world, but often gets annoying in noisy environments.
Closed Headphones: Closed headphones have the driver sealed from the outside, blocking some sound in and out. Not all provide great isolation, but it is much better than open headphones. The sound has a tendancy to not be quite as good for the price as open, especially with models offering high levels of isolation, but this is not a rule, as anyone who has heard good IEMs (Ety ER4) will tell you.
Under $50 Headphones
There are not many great headphones under $20, but there are some that are quite good, and not what you would expect. Koss manufactures some headphones that are thought of by many on Head-Fi to be the best inexpensive headphones available by far, and they are sold quite cheaply. All of these use basically the same driver, so the only real difference is the housing. All are quite easy to drive, and are described as "fun" headphones. Also, the Sharp MD33, which, while being a bit hard to find, is thought of as being quite good. These are canal phones, which, as the name indicates, sit in your ear canal. They block a decent amount of noise, but not nearly as much as more expensive In Ear Monitors (IEMs). All of the headphones in this section are general use and easy to drive, so I suggest just choosing the headphones that are your favorite in style. If you want me to make one suggestion, for the money, the KSC-75 is the way to go, unless you need some isolation from the ambient noise, in which case the MD33 or EX81 will be best for you. If you are willing to spend a little more, the Sennheiser HD212 and HD497 are good, as are the new Sony XD line, and should be the best choices for gaming in this category.
Koss KSC-75 - Under $20
Koss KSC-35 - Under $20
Koss KSC 50 - Under $20
Koss KSC 55 - Under $20 - (warning, many find these uncomfortable, especially people with large heads)
Koss Sportapro - Under $30
Koss Portapro - Under $40
Sharp MD33 - $40 - Hard to get, only place I know of is Audio Cubes. Canalphone but much less isolation than Shure/Ety IEMs
Panasonic RP-HJE50 - Under $20 - Canalphone, but much less isolation than Shure/Ety IEMs
Sony XD200 - Under $30
Sony XD300 - Under $50, but probably not worth it for the price increase over the XD200
Sony EX81 - Under $50, canalphone but much less isolation than Shure/Ety IEMs
Sennheiser MX300 - Under $10
Sennheiser MX400 - Under $15
Sennheiser MX500 - Under $20
Sennheiser HD201 - Under $20
Sennheiser HD212 - Under $50
Sennheiser HD497 - Under $50
$50 - $100
In this price range, headphones start to become quite good and you start having to look at the application when making decisions. The styles become more varied, and the sound quality is much better. Companies such as Grado, Sennheiser, and Shure start to have high quality headphones in this level. Alessandro is basically the same thing as Grado, just tuned slightly differently, but if you like Grado, you will like Alessandro. For gaming, I would choose the MDR-V6, XD400, or the HD280, but if you can stretch your budget a little, the AT A500 is going to be much better.
Grado SR-60 - About $70
Grado SR-80 - About $95
Alessandro MS-1 - About $100
Sennheiser HD280 - Under $90
Sony XD400- Under $70
Sony MDR-V6 - Under $80
Shure E2c - Under $80 - IEM, very good isolation, not nearly as good as the higher end IEMs, my current portables
This is where headphones start becoming amazing, and all of the choices I list sound great. At this level, you will start wanting an amp, and some of the cans really need an amp. All are much more refined than the headphones lower in the product line. For gaming, the A900 is probably the best, but the HD580 and HD595 are still excellent choices.
Grado SR-125 - Under $150
Grado SR-225 - Under $200
Sennheiser HD580 - Under $180 - Needs an amp to shine, also, the main headphones I own
Sennheiser HD595 - Under $200 - Easier to drive than the HD580, more "up front"
Sennheiser PX250 - Under $150 - Really the best choice for active sound cancelation
Audio-Technica A500 - Under $120
Audio-Technica A900 - Under $200
AKG K501 - Under $200
Shure E3c - Under $130 - IEM, very good isolation
Etymotic ER6i - Under $140 - IEM, very good isolation
When you are at this level, headphones sound great, but you will possibly ask yourself if the improvement are worth it over the last category, unless you are a true audiophile and rich. They are definitely good, but it can be hard to tell if new headphones are upgrades or just a different sound. Really, I would not feel safe buying headphone in this level without hearing them, unless you have read a lot, and heard the headphones lower in the line you are looking at to be sure you like the sound. There are some companies that allow you to audition the headphones for around 30 days, and if you are buying blind, I would go for this. For gaming, the SA5000, CD3000 or HD650 is probably the best choice.
Grado SR-325i - Under $300
Alessandro MS-2 - Under $300
Sennheiser HD600 - Under $250 - Too close to HD580 to be worth it IMO, shares the same drivers
Sennheiser HD650 - Under $400
Beyerdynamic DT770 - Under $230 - The can for bassheads
Sony MDR CD3000 - Under $380
Sony MDR SA5000 - Under $450
Shure E4c - Price not set, but probably under $220, IEM, very good isolation
Shure E5c - Under $500, but wait for reviews of the E4c before buying
Etymotic ER4p/s - Under $220, IEM, amazing isolation
Westone UM2 - Under $330, IEM, preferred by some to ER4 and E5c
There are many headphones over $500, such as those from Stax, Sony, Sennheiser, Grado, AKG, and many others, but if you are looking at buying any of these, you really need to hear them first, and look at Head-Fi. I have heard some of these, the Sennheiser HE60, Stax Omega II, Stax SR404, Sony Qualia, AKG K1000, and several others, but I don't feel qualified to choose for you. I am willing to discuss these and any other headphones though, as are the great people of Head-Fi.
While virtually all headphones benefit from it, for some, it is critical. There are many choices, ranging from tiny portables to huge home systems, and they can be quite inexpensive or very costly. Many people build their own amps (me), and if you know what you are doing, this can be a fun and inexpensive way to get a high quality amp. Headphones like Sennheiser HD580 and up require an amp to sound great, but even something simple like a DIY CMoy makes a huge difference. Prices depend on features and component choice, as well as if it is home built or commercial.
CMoy - $20-$50. This is often built by individuals, and is quite easy, and if you are planning on building any higher amps, it is highly suggested that you start with is one.
Pimeta - $90-$150. Much nicer amp, and you have the option of building yourself or hiring someone to build it for you.
Mint - $60-$100. Also done DIY, there are people who will build them for sale. It is basically a stripped down Pimeta with more SMD parts, designed for portable use.
PPA - $150-$300. Nicer than the Pimeta, and usually a home amp. Version 2 is out, and has some nice improvements.
M^3 - $150-$300. Very nice amp, either home built or comissioned. Not for portable use, and the sound is amazing.
Dr. Xin's amps - Several different types, check out his site.
SR-71 - $400. Very good commercial portable amp.
Dynahi - Either home built or commerical, this is probably the best solid state amp available. Usually costs over $1000 commercially, potentially less if built yourself, but very difficult.
There are many other amps available, but this should be enough for a start. If you have any questions, ask, or go to Head-Fi.