How we test headphones at ZDNET in 2024

The ZDNET team is constantly doing extensive hands-on testing of headphones and earbuds so we can recommend the best for you. Here's a look into our testing methodologies.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
The Beats Solo 3 and Solo 4 side-by-side
Jada Jones/ZDNET

Over the years, your favorite pair of headphones or earbuds can become just as essential to your daily life as your smartphone. If you're like me, forgetting your AirPods at home can ruin your day. It's important to consider all of your headphone and earbud options, as the right ones for one person may not work for the next person.

Also: The best headphones of 2024: Expert tested

That's why, at ZDNET, we review plenty of headphones and earbuds for all purposes and budgets, including cheap headphones, noise-canceling headphones, sleep earbuds, headphones for exercising, and more. Different headphones and earbuds have different use cases, and our testing methods align with them. 

How we test headphones and earbuds in 2024

The Sennheiser Accentum True Wireless earbuds.

The Sennheiser Accentum earbuds are a best in class for their price.

Jack Wallen/ZDNET

Our experts sleep, work, run, swim, hike, watch movies, and listen to music to test headphones and earbuds. During testing, we place our daily drivers in their carrying cases and use the review unit in our everyday lives to see how the devices perform in real-world situations.

Usually, we receive review units from manufacturers before they are available for the public to purchase. We use the period between receiving the product and publishing our review to spend as much time as possible putting the review unit through daily use and wear and tear. We also test the product's software features and follow up with manufacturers if needed. 

Here's a general overview of our headphones and earbuds testing methodology so you can better understand how a pair of headphones or earbuds make it to one of our lists of recommendations. 

What makes headphones or earbuds ZDNET Recommended?

A pair of headphones or earbuds is ZDNET Recommended when our testing concludes that the device is above average in at least one of our testing categories. Once we've made that determination, we add headphones or earbuds to one of our buying guides, which are tailored to those looking for headphones serving a specific purpose.

We understand that everyone has different uses, wants, and needs when looking for headphones and earbuds. Our mission is to recommend an array of products that will best serve everyone's individual preferences. 

Some headphones may excel in the design and comfort category but fall short in the noise-canceling category. Despite that product's shortcomings, we understand that some people don't want headphones with strong noise-canceling properties and prefer headphones with higher levels of comfort. We treat all metrics equally when conducting our testing, but we make it a point to let our readers know when a product won't serve their best interest. Here are the top factors we consider when testing headphones and earbuds.

Comfort and design

Sonos Ace right ear cup
Jada Jones/ZDNET

Your headphones and earbuds should offer hours of comfort, especially if you plan to wear them while working, studying, or traveling. Like many headphone and earbud benchmarks, comfort can be subjective because everyone has different head and ear shapes.

To remain as objective as possible, we wear headphones and earbuds for hours on end and note in our reviews when they become uncomfortable. 

Headphones and earbuds come in various material finishes. Some are mostly made of plastic, while others are made from more durable materials like aluminum and stainless steel. Because headphones and earbuds will accompany you in all your daily activities, we wear them for an extended period to assess their durability.

We evaluate whether headphone earpads tear, rip, or crack, determine how well a pair of headphones and earbuds can withstand drops, and bend and fold headphones to listen for any creaking or unnatural noises.

Noise cancellation 

The Monoprice BT-600ANC headphones lying on a desk
Jada Jones/ZDNET

Noise-canceling properties are less subjective, as measuring the number of decibels a pair of headphones and earbuds cancel on a noise-level chart is possible. However, some of our readers may be less interested in a chart and more concerned with how headphones or earbuds perform in specific environments.

Also: The best noise-canceling earbuds of 2024: Expert tested and reviewed

To give you the best idea of how well a device cancels noise, we wear noise-canceling headphones and earbuds in environments with varying noise levels, including the grocery store, the office, the train, the gym, and coffee shops. We record which noises we can hear and which are masked or significantly dampened to show you which noise-canceling headphones or earbuds will perform best in your daily life.

Sound quality

The Edifier Stax Spirit S3 headphones wired to a MacBook
Jada Jones/ZDNET

Sound quality is the most subjective metric when testing and reviewing headphones and earbuds. Everyone's ears perceive sound differently, and hearing is a spectrum. Additionally, headphones and earbuds can sound different depending on whether noise-canceling is enabled, your preferred music streaming service, your listening device's operating system, and which Bluetooth codec your headphones or earbuds may use.

To see this subjectivity in action, read one of our headphone reviews, compare our expert opinions with our contemporaries' views, and observe the differences in sentiments. We describe how we hear the sound come through a pair of headphones or earbuds and explain which factors may contribute to our conclusions.

Also: The best music headphones of 2024: Expert tested and reviewed

Our experts test sound by listening with transparency and noise-canceling modes, which enable us to note any differences in sound. We also listen on iPhones, Android phones, laptops, TVs, and tablets to document noticeable sound distinctions. There can be noticeable differences in sound quality when listening to Apple Music versus Spotify, so we test for that, too.

Additionally, we test wireless headphones with their included wires to determine if a pair of headphones can be listened to actively or passively.

Battery life

Bose QuietComfort Ultra in White Smoke and the Bose Music companion app
Jada Jones/ZDNET

Battery life is an objective benchmark when testing headphones and earbuds, but it can be affected by several factors. Battery life can differ from the manufacturer's claims depending on how loud you listen to headphones or earbuds, whether noise-canceling or spatial audio is enabled, the length and frequency of phone calls taken while wearing the headphones, and the settings of your listening device.

We track battery life by using all of the headphones' features to gauge how well they match the advertised number of hours of continuous use.

Use cases

Matthew Miller/ZDNET

Some headphones and earbuds are better suited for specific use cases than others, and it's our job to let our readers know which pair will best suit them. To do so, we watch movies, listen to music, travel, work, and exercise in the headphones and earbuds we test to let you know during which activities they perform the best.

We consider any software limitations or unique features to ensure you know how well a pair of headphones or earbuds can integrate into your personal device ecosystem. 

Also: The best bone conduction headphones of 2024: Expert tested and reviewed

We review many headphones and earbuds for all use cases and budgets to show you your options. However, buying a pair of headphones or earbuds is a highly personalized decision, and you should consider your wants and needs before purchasing. Here are a few things to consider before making a purchase.

Asses how frequently you'll wear a pair of headphones to determine how much continuous battery life you need. If you plan to wear headphones often in public areas, invest in headphones with strong noise-canceling properties. Consider how much you're willing to spend on headphones, as we've reviewed and recommended headphones ranging from $60 to $1,000+.

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