Quickest way to increased audio bliss:
Why a TL: DR?
I didn't want to do this part originally, but I know there many who won't read this entire post, and will only be concerned with a small segment.
Read sections 2, 3 & 6. No headphone is suited for everyone. Take how YOU listen into account, then come back when you can and read this in full.
See bottom of this post for recommendation/comparison request form. Use that so it answers everything we'll need to know.
I see so many people ask the wrong questions or not ask the right questions when looking to buy headphones/earphones, and thought perhaps I could finally be of some use to XDA by writing up a guide to help those in their search for the "best" purchase FOR THEM.
First of all, audio is largely subjective. What a person is suited for is dependent upon many factors that vary from person to person. I'll list those out here before going into detail.
2: Genres/Musical preference
3: Type of headphone
5: The audio rig as whole
6: Source material
7: Build Quality
Fellow Audiophiles- Please add your wisdom where I've missed things so it can be added here.
Disclaimer: I do not claim to be any expert, so please correct any misinformation. Also, I'm American and refer to pricing in USD.
Obviously, everyone has their spending limits. Don't be too quick to just throw a number out there. What you're really asking is: How much is my listening pleasure worth to me right now?
If you sell yourself short and buy $15 headphones, you may be quickly unsatisfied, they may break, or you may be losing out on quality you don't yet know exists. If it's merely a tool to you and you don't often listen to music for pleasure, or that's all you can dedicate to the purchase right now, no worries. There are many great offerings on any budget. I've read rave reviews of $5 earphones.
Likewise, if you set a $1000 budget, you may find that you're spending beyond what you would benefit from, due to frequency of use, passion for quality, or if you've suffered hearing loss. Also, you may spend $1k on headphones only to find your audio system as a whole cannot do the headphones justice. I'll touch more on that later.
2: Genre/Musical Preference
No headphone/earphone will suit all needs. If you listen to classical music, you are likely listening for clear, bright, detailed highs, and for the texture in the bass more than the booming volume. If you relish more in beautiful vocals, the midrange will matter more. EDM, rap, hip-hop enthusiasts: you know you're not really living in your music if you don't feel the bass thump in your skull. That $500 headphone your classical loving friend swears by may not do drum n' bass any justice, and vice versa.
Many popular headphones (ahem Beats, Bose, Skull Candy) are more appearance than quality, and may offer booming bass that overshadows the rest of the music. THERE ARE BETTER OPTIONS AT THE SAME OR LOWER PRICES. Don't settle for a nice label. Get quality you can hear.
3: Type of Headphone
There are 2 basic categories, and a handful of sub-categories.
In-Ear or Traditional Headphones
Earbuds: sit in your ear without entering the ear canal, these are like stock iPod earbuds. Usually cheaper, lower quality, offer minimal noise isolation.
IEMs, aka In-Ear Monitors: Enter the ear canal itself. IEMs offer excellent noise isolation to keep you more "in your music" and can range from a few dollars to a couple thousand, from barely passable as music to a symphony in your ears.
Traditional Headphones can be:
portable (fold up for easier travel h or full sized
On-Ear (the cup sits on your ear) or Over-Ear
Open-back (just like it sounds) or Closed
*I'll add more here later, I'm more of an IEM guy and cannot speak from personal experience on On/Over Ear and Open/Closed in terms of Sound Quality. I'll add more when someone with expertise fills me in or I've done enough research myself.
Things to consider here are comfort, noise isolation, accessories, removable/replaceable cables, and whether or not you need a mic/remote.
*I'll be adding much information on mic/remote compatibility later
5: Your audio rig
Headphones are worthless without a source to play it. They are the END of the system (other than your ears), you should look at your particular system and what your needs are from beginning to end.
It starts with source material, from vinyl to MP3, but I'll get into digital audio formats in the next section.
I'm going to rule out, at least temporarily, turntables, tape players, 8 tracks (lol), CD players, etc. and focus on digital formats for now.
Phone or DAP? Or computer?
Using your smartphone is convenient, but usually won't offer the same quality as a dedicated Digital Audio Player. Personally, I use my phone as I'm on it so much that I'd rather have the convenience over the increased SQ. I'm sure that will change, but I just can't do without pause/play/skip/volume control from my IEMs directly.
You may opt for a higher quality DAC or amp to hook up to your rig. You may buy a better sound card for your pc.
You need to consider that all of this affects what you hear, and sometimes it's not your earphones holding you back, it's your phone's crappy Yamaha DAC that the bastards put in instead of that beautiful Wolfson that they used to use (yes, Samsung, that's directed at you).
6: None if the above matters of you've got 96 kbps mp3 files, scratched CDs or vinyl, or a tape player (how are reading this from your Commodore 64 anyway?)
MP3 is the most popular digital format, though certainly not the best. If you're not happy with the audio detail in your music, consider either replacing those 128kbps mp3's with 320kbps mp3 or FLAC files. FLAC is "lossless", offers amazing detail, and 30mb+ per song. If you've got the storage space, flac is the way to go.
7: Build Quality
Are you brutal on your gear? Some options can take more of a beating than others, and those less careful (or buried with children) should consider this carefully.
Buy from a place with a warranty and use your warranty when it breaks. The $50 you may save from a random eBay seller won't mean anything when you have no warranty for your $300 headphones.
Also, stop yanking on the damn cords. You'll ruin the jack/connections and left or right channel may drop out. Pull by the plug, keep them in a storage case not crumpled in your pocket and they'll last much longer.
That's about it, except...
DO YOUR HOMEWORK.
www.head-fi.org is your friend. Excellent site for reviews, deal alerts, opinions, and learning all things audio.
Reviews are critical. I may say the best IEM under $150 is my trusted Shure SE215, because of the bass, mids, non-sibilant highs and the fact that I've added the optional mic/remote cable, but if your taste is instrumental, vocals, etc. and you don't want the mic/remote, there are better options FOR YOU. They're your ears and nobody else's, so don't take anybody's opinion that one is categorically better than any other, unless they're telling you WHY it's better.
HEADPHONE/EARPHONE RECOMMENDATION FORM
Use/copy this when asking for advice
2: Genres/Musical preference:
3: Type of headphone:
4: Functionality: (Mic needed? cable over ear vs. Straight down? Open/Closed back if v full size headphones, etc)
5: Your player/setup:
6: Source material (mp3, flac, stream, etc.):
7: Area of highest importance:
On an unrelated note...