How Tom's Guide tests and reviews headphones

Bang & Olufsen HX
(Image credit: Bang & Olufsen)

Headphones (including earbuds) are the largest audio sector right now and as such, we review lots of them — getting on for more than a hundred models a year, in fact. 

From the best cheap earbuds, to the best noise-cancelling headphones with the latest ANC technology, to the wired high-end cans in our best audiophile headphones guide, we’ve got every headphone type and style covered. 

As our in-depth headphone reviews and expert buying guides demonstrate, our mission is to help our readers make informed decisions when they're choosing their next model. And to do this, we test every model we recommend — and extensively. 

You can find out more about our rating system and our general approach to testing in our guide on how we test, review and rate products on Tom’s Guide. But for insight on the testing we conduct on headphones, read on.

How we select headphones and earbuds to review

Spotify streaming on the AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

We review every major flagship headphone released by the most popular makers — that includes the latest models from the likes of Apple, Bose, Sony, and Sennheiser, and every other big-name audio brand you can think of. We also seek out lesser-known brands that offer a balance of great performance for a similar budget. 

Because not everyone wants to pay flagship prices, we also review headphones and earbuds tailored towards entry-level markets, and evaluate them accordingly. In addition, we cover designs that complement active lifestyles, assembling our favorites into guides covering the best running headphones or the best workout headphones for the gym, for instance.

How we test headphones and earbuds

Bose 700 headphones with phone playing Prince's 'Get Off '

(Image credit: Bose)

Our headphones testing process has developed over the years, just as technology has evolved. But one thing hasn't changed: our reviewers are all audio experts and have a huge amount of experience in testing products across every price point and application. As a result, they know an awful lot about sound quality and how one product compares to price rivals in terms of design and build, ease of use, features and, of course, audio performance. 

Real-world testing

Our reviewing process is subjective and based entirely on expert opinion with the product in their hands (and on their own ears) to assess comfort, fit and sound quality with all kinds of music sources at all kinds of qualities. We thoroughly test every pair of headphones based on a variety of factors, and employ a consistent testing approach so any comparisons with other pairs are trustworthy and fair. 

We use reference models as benchmarks to keep things in check and we use a selection of tracks we know well for our listening tests that demonstrate a headphone's performance characteristics.

How we evaluate sound quality

Every pair of audiophile headphones and earbuds we test is used over the course of a week for around two hours at a time. This allows the reviewer to both gauge the sound quality across a mix of genres and volumes, and to see how comfortable the headphones are when worn for extended periods. We’ll listen to a mix of music tracks from a broad range of genres, including hip-hop, rock, jazz, classical, pop and electronic, to see how each pair performs, and will do the same with movies, podcasts and games, where applicable.

You don't need golden ears or special skills to make a judgement on sound quality, just an understanding of the kind of sound you like and a selection of tracks that highlight different characteristics of an audio product's performance.

Find out more about what we listen for during our testing process.

The tracks we use are all recordings we know well and listen to regularly to assess headphone sound quality in our reviews. They may not necessarily fit with the tracks you'd choose to listen to personally, but they'll tell you all you need to know about the performance of a pair of headphones.

How we test headphones' features 

We also test the effectiveness of features like noise-cancelling in real-life situations, and will make sure manufacturer claims about battery life and Bluetooth range are accurate. Build quality, the ease of setup and any control schemes — including those involving an app — are also judged.

Factors we consider when awarding our star ratings

The Sony LinkBuds (on left) and the new Sony LinkBuds S (on right).

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

All our headphones and earbuds reviews are rated on a 5-point system (1 = worst, 5 = best). 

Products that excel in one or more particular fields and that are rated 4 stars or above may also receive an Editor’s Choice award. 

For a more detailed description of what our ratings mean, please refer to our general How we test page.