Hear, Hear: Seven Best Headphones of 2020
Over ears, On ears, great sound
- It was a year when headphones suddenly became an integral part of our lives.
- And while there were many models released, most tended to follow a regular beat (pun intended) and only some headphones really stood out.
- Here is our list of seven best headphones we tested and liked in 2020.
- To check out our list of best smartphones of 2020, click here.
It was the year which saw us spending increasingly more time at home. And penned in by the pandemic, many of us discovered the benefits of the trusty headphone. Once threatened by the emergence of wireless earbuds on bands and TWS, the trials of being at home suddenly saw a lot of people discovering the joys of donning slightly more bulky but often way better-sounding headphones. And companies responded with a number of interesting product releases. Of all the headphones that were released and that we got to use, these were the ones that really struck a chord with me: (the list is in alphabetical order)
AKG K371 BT – audio magic, wireless AND wired!
Hands down my favorite headphones of the year. AKG had released the K371 earlier and they were studio quality headphones. The K371 BT tried to bring the same quality of sound to a wireless headphone, and they came very close. What they threw in as a bit of magic, however, was a cable connecting which to a 3.5 mm jack gave you close to the sound of the original 371. In essence, you had a very decent pair of Bluetooth headphones which became full-fledged studio headphones when you put them on a wired connection.
With 50mm drivers, a very neutral sound and superb clarity, a stupendous 40 hours of battery life, all at a price tag of Rs 9,499 (now often available for Rs 7,999) these were as close to a budget audiophile’s wireless dream as could be possible. Yes, some found the mix of metal and plastic design a bit of a miss, but I personally loved it. My trusty ATH M50X have competition. What else can I say?
EPOS Adapt 560 – all work and no play for the productive ones
The end of the year saw EPOS, a brand associated with Sennheiser and having a greater focus on the enterprise side, make their debut in India. And one of their debut handsets was the expensive (Rs 29,999) Adapt 560. Designed for the enterprise, it came with one of the neatest boom mic arms I have seen – it literally folds away on top of one of the cups – and while the earpads are not the largest, they are comfortable enough. There is multiple device support, a dedicated Microsoft Meetings button, very decent active noise cancellation, and very importantly, excellent call support.
Top that off with above forty hours of battery life and these are great for anyone looking for headphones in an office space. No, they do not deliver the kind of sound you would get from a Bose 700 or a Sony WH-1000XM4, which cost about the same or even lesser at times, but then the Adapt 560 is meant for productivity and not entertainment. It is for the work from home warrior. And in that zone, they are formidable. Mind you, the button interface takes some getting used to.
HiFiMan HE400i 2020 – planning on a budget planar? Get this!
The only wired headsets in this collection (well, we tend to get Bluetooth ones more often for review), the HiFiMan HE400i 2020, were as the name indicates an update of the most affordable of the brand’s planar headphones. Without getting too technical (we are working on a story on it), planar headphones are rather different from the routine dynamic driver headphones we use and while they tend to be bulkier, their level of sound quality is potentially much higher than what you would get from your regular level of headphones.
Well, the reworked HE400i came with a more comfortable design and while they remained bulky, those open backs meant we got a fantastic sound stage letting us almost sense where different instruments were being played. No, they are not for bass or treble lovers but if you are an audiophile wanting to dip your toes into the planar audio world, these are perhaps your best option. You will hear the sound of a quality that is unlikely to be matched in the sub-Rs 20,000 category. These are officially priced at Rs 17,999 but are often available for Rs 14,999.
JBL Club One – JBL gets into ANC flagship mode
JBL in India has been known for its fantastic mainstream headphones, which often deliver very good (if slightly bass accented) sound at very affordable prices (they have headphones with decent ANC for around Rs 6,000). Well, 2020 saw the brand decide to get into the Bose and Sony high-end zone. And leading its charge was the surprisingly good JBL Club One. Yes, it was rather heavy but was very comfortable with its generous padding and had a very premium feel to it. And when it came to sound, well, these came with support for High-Res sound, and while audiophiles might find the general tone to be a little too favorable to bass, these were fantastic to hear.
I would say that their sound was right up there with the best of Sony and Bose and sometimes was way more energetic – if you like a lot of pop, underground and club, these are phenomenal. ANC is surprisingly good too, which makes these one heck of an option for anyone wanting a flagship-level ANC for mainstream listening beyond the Bose-Sony zone. The UI is rather good and so is the accompanying app (you can even adjust the tuning to reflect those of a select number of DJs, a really super cool feature. Throw in a battery life of above forty hours and a price tag that started at Rs 29,999, but was getting closer to Rs 20,000 (and even Rs 9,999 for one day), and these are nothing short of fantastic. JBL just showed us they can do flagships!
Jabra Elite 45h – the battery monster!
Jabra surprised everyone with the Elite 85h in 2019, their ANC flagship which was good that we think they are still amongst the best ANC headphones out there for anyone seeking work-life balance. And this year, they came up with the Elite 45h, which were a very different breed of headphone, and impressive in a different way. The sound was a little more bass-heavy (typically mainstream Jabra), the fit was one-ear rather than over ear, but the construction was high quality and well, there was the battery life.
At 50 hours, the 45h were amongst the leaders in the wireless headphone segment, making them great options for anyone who wanted decent sound without the burden of having to wear a full-fledged over the ear headphone set. They came with an official price tag of Rs 9,999, which I think was frankly way too high, but they are often available at Rs 5,999, at which they are a steal for anyone who wants on-ear headphones with decent audio quality and awesome battery life.
Sennheiser HD 450 BT/ 458 BT – a bestseller gets a good update
Sennheiser updated its bestselling HD 4.50 ANC series with the HD 450 and a color variant HD 458. And in a segment that was brimming with over the top bass, these were very solid performers. Purists felt that the older 4.5 had a slightly sharper sound and these were slightly more bass-friendly, but all said and done, these were among the best relatively affordable ANC headsets released in the year which also delivered very good audio quality.
We really loved the comfortable fit and very good audio quality. We would have liked slightly better ANC and a less complicated button control system, though. And a more consistent price – depending on when and where you went shopping, the price would fluctuate from Rs 7,499 to Rs 14,999. It is a steal at up to Rs 10,000, a little less so as you get into five-figure land!
Skullcandy Crusher Evo – The Bass OG got an upgrade
There are two kinds of people – those who think they have heard bass and those who have heard the Skullcandy Crusher. Skullcandy’s Crusher series pretty much redefines the bass listening experience by delivering headphones that literally throb with it. It is not a sound signature that everyone will like, but a lot of folks do. And Skullcandy ended the year by introducing a new variant to the range – the Crusher Evo.
On offer was a sleeker and more comfortable design, 40-hour battery life, and sound that was just a little bass-heavy…until you hit that bass slider when all hell (or heaven, based on your inclination) broke loose. I have used them for a very short period of time, but they were comfortably the most flavor-rich headphones I heard all year! I would still prefer my old classic Crushers but if you love bass, you cannot do better than this, and at Rs 12,999, these are a very good deal for bassheads. Just be careful how much you push that slider!
And well, we HAD to mention this one!
Apple AirPods Max – and now we have jokes about headphones too…
No, we have not used them yet, but thanks to them, now we are hearing kidney jokes about headphones. If that can have the same impact on headphones that the iPhone had on smartphones, well, that would be something!
(Note: The selection here reflects the individual opinions of the author)