Who should buy this
Over-ear headphones in this price range are made for people seeking a first serious pair to immerse themselves in the listening experience. They should offer a clear, balanced sound that accurately represents what the recording artist (be it musician, movie composer, or game sound designer) intended. Closed-back headphones in this price range, which are what we focused on in this guide, should also seal in the listening material and shut out ambient noise.
These are great headphones for students, office workers looking to block distractions, musicians, DJs, or anyone who wants the best sound possible at a reasonable "entry-level" price.
If you need help deciding on the best headphones for your intended use, check out our Which Headphones Should I Get? guide for decision-making assistance.
How we chose what to test
We listened to headphones using iPhones, iPods, iPads, Androids, and a receiver.
First, I read lots of reviews, including those from CNET, InnerFidelity, Sound & Vision, What Hi-Fi, enthusiast forum sites, user reviews on Amazon and Crutchfield, and more. I also hold a bachelor's in both music performance and audio production from Ithaca College, and I spent several years in terrestrial radio before moving on to become a professional voice actor in Los Angeles. Additionally, I've been in charge of the headphones section at The Wirecutter for over two years, which has given me the opportunity to listen to and test hundreds and hundreds of headphones.
After our research, we brought in all of the top and newest headphones priced from $70 to $190 so that our testing panel could hear them all back-to-back. In total, we've tested over 110 pairs, including 15 in our most recent update. Our four-listener panel has decades of experience with sound and headphones, as well as various sonic preferences, head shapes, and ear shapes, so you can be sure that if we all like something, it's pretty darn fantastic. For a full explanation of our testing methods, check out the full article.
Every audio professional we interviewed spoke highly of the Sony MDR-7506.
The Sony MDR-7506 has been our top pick three times in a row for a number of reasons. To start, this model has great reviews. CNET and Head-Fi users gush over it, and so do Amazon users, who currently give it 4 out of five stars with well over 2,000 reviews. Every audio professional I interviewed spoke highly of the MDR-7506.
The MDR-7506 headphones sound fantastic and remain very comfortable, and every one of our panelists ranked this pair as the top choice. The design has been around forever, and these headphones last forever. They have great build quality, replaceable earcups, and a one-year warranty on parts. Some reviewers on Head-Fi and Amazon claim to have pairs over 10 years old and going strong. Finally (and perhaps most important), they're an incredible value: While they have an MSRP of $130, they typically sell on Amazon for about $90. You can feel very confident in your purchase.
Although we love just about everything about the Sony MDR-7506, we wish the cable were removable and replaceable. Being able to swap it out for a shorter cord with a remote and a mic for mobile-device usage would be nice. And let's be honest: The MDR-7506 won't win any beauty contests. That said, many headphones that look twice as fancy also cost twice as much and sound half as good as the MDR-7506.
The Audio Technica ATH-M40x headphones are pretty well balanced for their $100 price tag.
Second place goes to Audio-Technica's ATH-M40x. We liked this set better than its more expensive sibling, the M50x. The 40x pair offers a dynamic, clear sound as well as a light feel and comfortable fit. The cords are removable and replaceable, too. And although this model has an MSRP of $140, it currently retails on Amazon for about $100. People who listen to a lot of rock, electronic music, hip-hop, and pop might really enjoy the top- and bottom-boosted sound. However, we liked the Sony pair's more neutral sound profile better.
Our other options
15 of the 110 pairs of headphones that we've tested in total.
Third place went to the $200 Onkyo ES-CTI300, which has a lot to offer, including an inline three-button Apple-compatible remote and microphone. Our panelists were mixed in how much they liked the slightly non-neutral sound, and the fit isn't fantastic. Definitely try these headphones before you buy, if possible. If you're on a budget, we recommend the Audio-Technica ATH-M30x, which is a pretty good buy for $70 on Amazon. On the other hand, our upgrade pick is the $400 OPPO PM-3, which is our favorite set of headphones priced less than $1,000.
Wrapping it up
If you're looking for an introduction to studio-level audio and you want to get it without breaking the bank, Sony's MDR-7506 is your best bet. Terrific reviews, great sound, an impressive track record, and a nice price—no wonder this pair reigns as our three-time champion. You can't go wrong.
This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.