Black Friday is the biggest day of the year for online shopping. This year it lands on November 24, perfect for Christmas presents. The last Friday of the month, it may even be pay day for some of you.
It’s almost as if the shopping gods planned it this way.
Black Friday 2017 is also a great day to pick up a new pair of headphones. The main issue is choosing which pair to buy. Spotting the difference between an audio bargain and a shop selling headphones it just can’t shift any other day of the year is key.
That said, some of the best headphones will be what’s called NOS, or “new old stock”. This is usually where discontinued lines are sold at a bargain price simply because they’re no longer current.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with an older pair of headphones, particularly if they’re “wired”. Headphone technology doesn’t evolve at anything like the pace of TV or smartphone tech, so the sound quality compromises of older headphones aren't too significant.
Look out for deals of this sort from Sennheiser and Beats. They’ve been fairly common over the last few years.
We’re also likely to see a great wave of deals on a new kind of earphone during Black Friday 2017: true wireless. This is the earphone style popularised by the Apple AirPods. They’re not only wireless, there’s no cable between the earpieces either.
So many companies have started producing these, we expect to see at least a handful of true wireless deals pop up. It’s a good idea to do some research on this kind of earphone, though.
Some early true wireless earphones suffer from annoying connectivity issues that make the signal cut out occasionally as you walk around.
It’s a good idea to stick with brands you’ve heard of in this area as a lot of the alluringly cheap true wireless models we’ve tried match flaky wireless with unimpressive sound. Our guide to the best true wireless headphones is a great place to start if you want to avoid buying a dud.
Our top headphone tips
Don’t fancy a true wireless pair or just scouring for a pair of last season’s Beats? Here are the terms and features you should know about to track down a bargain before you miss out.
In-ear or not?
Your first major choice is whether to buy earphones or headphones. A common misconception is that larger headphones sound better, full stop. This isn’t always the case, particularly if we discount big studio-style pairs.
While headphones with larger drivers tend to sound bigger, you often get the best precision and quality:price ratio from little in-ear pairs. Earphones also tend to block out more sound than on-ear headphones. This is important if you’re going to wear them on public transport.
On-ear (supra-aural) vs over-ear (circum-aural)
There are two main categories of headphones, as opposed to earphones. These are full-size over-ear headphones and mid-size on-ear headphones. As the names suggest, one kind has pads that fit around your ears. The other style of pad sits on your ears.
On-ear headphones are the current favourite as a portable pair. They’re less bulky, they often look better. However, if you want a set you can wear for 4+ hours at a time, the larger over-ear kind may be a better idea. As they don’t put pressure on your ear cartilage, they are much less fatiguing for long listening.
Noise isolation vs Active noise cancellation
A normal pair of earphones or headphones blocks out sound with a simple physical barrier between your eardrums and outside noise. It might be a foam and synthetic leather pad, or a silicone tip.
Active noise cancellation is completely different. It uses microphones to monitor noise and then plays inverse waves of that noise to cancel out unwanted sound waves. This kind of noise blocking is unbeatable for getting rid of low-frequency sound, like the din of car or airplane engines.
Even professional custom moulded IEM earphones don’t get close to the effectiveness of the best noise cancellers in this regard. Active-cancelling pairs to look out for include the Bose QuietComfort 35 (wireless) and 25 (wired), the AKG N60NC and Sony MDR-1000X.
Open or closed?
The polar opposite of an active noise cancellation headphone is the open-back kind. Rather than blocking out the outside world, they all-but invite it in, with no solid barrier between the drivers and the end of the cups.
These headphones are useless for public transport. They may also annoy your co-workers if you wear them in your office and like your music loud. However, they offer the best sound quality for late-night home use thanks to the way they don't force the sound to reverberate around inside the earcup. Unless you live right next to a very noisy road.
Previous Black Friday open-back bargains have included the Sennheiser HD598 and the jaw-dropping HiFiMAN HE 560.
Bluetooth or wired?
Most headphone buyers seem to want Bluetooth headphones these days. It’s understandable. There’s no wire to snag, you can often plug in a cable if the battery runs out, recent pairs tend to have flawless wireless signal and headphone jacks are dropping from smart phones like flies.
However, if you care more about sound quality than anything else, a wired set is still the best option. More of the budget goes into the drivers and the best-sounding ‘studio’ headphones aren’t made with wireless.
What’s a DJ headphone? Many of the most popular large portable headphones are based on the DJ headphone blueprint, with large cups, big drivers and sound-isolating cups.
Lifestyle and DJ pairs have merged in a lot of ranges, but actual DJs will want pairs that have a coiled cable and cups that swivel. This lets you listen with more ear more easily. The Audio Technica ATH-M50X are one of the top options, and a potential candidate for a Black Friday bargain too.
The latest headphone craze, true wireless earphones, have no wires at all. They use Bluetooth to get the sound from your phone, and to transmit the stereo feed between the two earpieces.
No true wireless headphone lasts that long off a charge (they normally top out at around 3-4 hours) but most pairs come with a little battery pack case. This lets you recharge them several times away from a power socket.
Wireless battery life
How long should a wireless headphone last? It depends on the style you buy. True wireless headphones last just 3-4.5 hours. Ones with a cable in-between tend to last 4-8 hours. Those with a chunkier neckband last 6-10 hours.
There’s a much greater variety in the stamina of wireless on-ear and over-ear pairs. A budget set might last eight hours while the Beats Solo 3.0 Wireless hang on for a remarkable 40 hours.
If you want headphones for running or the gym, consider a ‘sport’ pair. You can use almost any kind of headphone for exercise, but these tend to have improved sweat resistance so they won’t break, or get too gross, after a workout.
Some sport headphones are also extra-bright, to make you more noticeable to road users.
One of the few headphone sound specs you get to look at when buying online is frequency response. This will generally come as something like 10Hz - 16KHz. It shows how deep and how high the frequency of the sound reaches.
However, as with contrast ratio claims in TVs, these aren’t the best way to judge quality. It tells you nothing about tone, and as the readings are often not measured to the -3dB standard (or are made up completely), they’re not consistent either.
Worried about phone compatibility? It’s not a big issue. As long as your phone has Bluetooth (all smartphones do), you’ll be able to connect to a portable wireless pair. Even Apple’s AirPods work with Androids.
However, don’t forget that a pair of wireless headphones without a 3.5mm jack won’t be much good for connecting to your old hifi.
IR wireless headphones
Not all wireless headphones are made for the street. There’s a small family of wireless headphones made for the home too.
These use a separate transmitter dock that you hook up to, say, your home cinema receiver. It then uses radio frequency bands rather than Bluetooth to transmit audio to the headset. The best RF-based headphones offer lossless audio, and quite a lot use an open-back headset for a wider, more open soundstage.
Sennheiser and Sony are the top makers of this kind of headphone Look out for the Sennheiser RS195 during Black Friday 2017.
Our deal predictions
We won't know what Black Friday's deals hold until the day itself, but we can make some educated guesses about products that are due a price cut.
Some of the following items have been discounted in previous sales, others have recently been replaced by newer models, and all of them are worth keeping an eye on this Black Friday.
Beats Solo 3.0 Wireless
One of the biggest headphone brands we’re sure to see represented during this year’s Black Friday period is Beats. As the Beats Solo 3.0 Wireless will be a year old by that point, they’re an obvious pick.
Top elements include fantastic Bluetooth performance, great 40-hour battery life, good sound quality and an ultra-simple iPhone connection. A W1 wireless chipset communicates directly with recent iPhones, meaning you don’t have to go through the manual pairing process.
Beats Studio 2.0 Wireless
Beats has just released the new Beats Studio 3.0 Wireless, making the older version a likely Black Friday 2017 bargain. You miss out on the special W1 chip and improved active noise cancelling, but they’re still great portable headphones at the right price.
Energetic sound, good wireless performance and active noise cancellation make the Beats Studio 2.0 Wireless perfect for a work commute.
Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear 1.0 and 2.0
A serial Black Friday pick, the on-ear entry in the Sennheiser Momentum series are very good, but sometimes forgotten headphones. They are petite, wired and use very nice Alcantara pads instead of the usual synthetic leather.
Typical of Sennheiser, they also have slightly more grown-up sound than the rival Beats Solo pairs too. The one negative is that as their fit focuses on comfort, noise isolation is limited.
B&O Play H6
If you fancy a luxury headphone, keep your eyes open for a B&O pair like the H6. These are classy full-size headphones with smooth sound and great comfort.
They are not wireless, but are the sort of headphone you could keep using for years. One thing to note is that there are two generations of H6: the newer one will be labelled “gen 2”. We’d be happy to recommend either at the right price, but the second version has more powerful bass and improved treble detail.
Jabra Elite Sport
Which true wireless earphone would we like to see on Black Friday 2017? One top contender is the Jabra Elite Sport. These are like AirPods but with better sound, radically better sound isolation and controls on the earpieces themselves.
One thing to note is whether you find the ‘upgraded’ version or not. The original Elite Sport last 3 hours between charges, the new version 4.5. Both have a battery case, but the new one, again, lasts longer. We’d ideally like the new edition, but at the right price we’d jump at the first too.
- Our guide to the best headphones is your one-stop-shop for our top audio picks.