Best Small & Portable Headphones

| May 28, 2012 | 0 Comments

Welcome to my list of recommendations for small, portable headphones. My general suggestions for navigating the list:

  • First set your budget. Regardless of your budget, there is a good portable headphone out there for you. You don’t need to reach for the expensive models if you don’t have the expendable cash: the lower-end headphones perform admirably.
  • Are you okay with on-ear headphones? Some people find them uncomfortable, but they offer better portability since they are smaller. Eliminate the ones that don’t fit your preference.
  • Where do you plan on using your headphones? If you want to eliminate outside noises and reduce sound leakage, go for a Closed-back model. Not sure? Go Closed-back to be safe. The only real advantage of open-back models is a wider soundstage, but for portable headphones I suspect most people want good isolation from outside noises and minimal leakage.
  • Read the descriptions once you have narrowed down the list using the above criteria. They are not end-all be-all descriptors but hopefully they will give you the right idea. My goal is that you will not have to do much research outside of reading this list in order to find a portable headphone that you love!

[Disclaimer: these recommendations are not comprehensive. Instead, we have tried to find something for everyone while keeping the lists short. At the same time, this is a living document so let us know what we’re missing!]

In order of increasing price:

Coby CV-185 – $10 (On-ear, Closed-back)

For those on a tight budget, the CV-185 should not be overlooked. While it isn’t the prettiest thing out there, it is supremely functional for the price. Flat folding and collapsible, the CV-185 represents one of the best values in the headphone world. The sound is clean, controlled, and never sounds harsh. They are not high-isolating but leak nominally. If you find them at all uncomfortable, try replacing the stock ear pads with some cheap foam ones from Radioshack. [Buy at Amazon]



Philips O’Neill “The Stretch” – $50 (Over-ear, Closed-back)

The Stretch is an rugged portable headphone that shines in the areas of build quality and comfort. The headband is made of TR55LX nylon and even after sustaining crazy deformations, it will snap right back to place.  Sound quality is about average for the price: it remains smooth throughout but does not stand out in any particular category. Still, The Stretch is a solid headphone that I do not hesitate to recommend due its user-friendliness and seemingly indestructible build. [Philips O’Neill “The Stretch” Review] [Buy at Amazon]



Sennheiser PX100-II / Ultrasone HFI-15G – $70 (On-ear, Open-back)

These two headphones have a lot in common, enough to consider them essentially the same for our purposes. They can fold up into a glasses case (!) and are supremely comfortable, yet they still manage great sound quality. The V-Jays are easier to recommend if you will be listening to a wide range of genres, but if pumping out bass is a top priority, these two headphones win out. The overall presentation is smooth, dark, and thick. A reminder that they are open-back, so they leak sound! [Buy at Amazon]



AIAIAI Tracks – $80 (On-ear, Closed-back)

AIAIAI took a minimalist approach to the design of the Tracks, as they seem to do with all their headphones. The speakers slide seamlessly up and down the thin headband to fit any size head and are easily detachable. Despite their aesthetics, they feel (and sound) far from cheap. The closed-back design lends itself to any environment, and these are a fabulous deal for the total package they offer. In the realm of ultra-portables, the Sennheiser PX200-II (see below) is the only headphone standing in its way, but the Tracks has the edge in terms of bass impact and liveliness. [Buy at Amazon]


Jays V-Jays – $90 (On-ear, open-back)

The V-Jays are the probably the safest choice amongst the ultra-portables on this list (PX100, PX200, Tracks). They will sound great with any kind of music you throw at them with excellent detail retrieval. They fold up easily and compactly, although not as nicely as the Sennheiser PX100-II. The sound is very clear and consumer friendly while the bass quantity almost reaches that of the PX100-II. Soundstage is notably excellent as well. The big warning here is that they are open-back so if you need isolation, stay away! [Buy at Amazon]


Sennheiser PX200-II – $90 (On-ear, Closed-back)

The PX200-II is basically a more balanced and refined version of the PX100-II. It is closed-back, so the more natural comparison is actually the AIAIAI Tracks. The PX200 has a flatter frequency response and boasts better clarity than the Tracks, but at the same time loses out in the areas of bass impact and fun factor. Honestly, they are both great headphones and if you simply chose whichever one is more visually pleasing to you, you would probably not regret your choice. Also available in white. [Buy at Amazon]



Philips CitiScape Downtown – $100 (On-ear, Closed-back)

The CitiScape is a new line of headphones by Philips whose highlight in my opinion is the Downtown. It has large memory foam pads that use MusicSeal technology to enhance the isolation. We are not sure how it works, but it does! The Downtown has a modern look and feel with excellent sound to match. My biggest complaints are the lack of folding features and the limited color selection: brown, white, and purple are the only options currently available. [Philips CitiScape Downtown Review] [Buy at Amazon]



V-Moda M-80 / True Blood V-80 – $180 (On-ear, Semi-closed-back)

The M-80 was in development for over 3 years, and it shows in every aspect of their design. The build quality and accessories are phenomenal, including two detachable cables, one of which has a built-in microphone. Worth noting is how tiny the ear cups are – they are true portables. The M-80 does not fold but come with a very sturdy (and cool looking) case. In terms of sound, the highlight is the mid-range: clear, relaxed, and simply luscious. The bass is thick and has enough quantity for all but bass-heads, and the treble is laid back as to avoid any harshness. This all makes for a very engaging yet non-fatiguing sound. Also available in white. [Full V-Moda M-80 Review] [Buy at Amazon]


AIAIAI TMA-1 – $200 (On-ear, Closed-back)

The TMA-1 was designed as a techno/electronica DJ headphone but the result is also great for consumers. The matte finish with no branding has an undeniably classy look. In terms of sound, the signature is very dark: the bass and mids are given about the same weight while the treble is clearly a step below (although it can be equalized up if you want more balance). Bass quality is very good: it is full-bodied with strong impact. It does not reach bass-head status but maintains better resolution because of it. The mids are thick and lush while the treble is detailed but slightly recessed. Compared to the HD-25, soundstage is improved but the mids and treble are not as forward. There is less clamping force, but also less isolation. Overall an excellent headphone – the only genres it doesn’t sound great with are acoustic-based such as classical and jazz. [Buy at Amazon]

Sennheiser HD-25-1 II – $200 (On-ear, Closed-back)

The HD-25 has been around for a very long time but is still a favorite among DJs and audiophiles due to its unrivaled build quality and isolation. The sound quality is great too but not competition-devouring. The sound can be described as well-balanced, detailed, and forward. It sounds great with all genres, but the soundstage is notably small. There is a significant clamping force but most people still find it comfortable for several hours. [Sennheiser HD-25-1 II Review] [Buy at Amazon]



Audio Technica ATH-ESW9A – $215 (On-ear, Closed-back)

The standout feature of the ESW9A are its beautiful wooden cups. The luxurious lambskin ear pads are also worth a shout out. The sound should be perfect for those who don’t want to commit to the ultra-warmness of the MS400 nor the highly technical HD-25. It is very smooth-sounding throughout while never sounding muffled. They are flat-folding but lack detachable cables and are not collapsible. [Buy at Amazon]



Phiaton MS400 – $230 (Over-ear, Closed-back)

The MS400 is hard to fault as an overall package, performing admirably in every category you can name. The warm and smooth sound signature pairs well with all modern music.  It is not as technical as the DJ headphones on this list, but the MS400 has bass power that those other headphones can’t touch. Build quality is great and comfort satisfies for several hours at a time. They fold up nicely into the included carrying case. The on-ear version is the MS300. Also available in black. [Buy at Amazon]



 Audio Technica ATH-ES10 – $400 (On-ear, Closed-back)

The ATH-ES10 is the top model in the ES series and is clearly the best headphone of the bunch although it bears its own unique sound signature. Build quality, comfort, and sound technicality are all a step up from the ESW9A. The frequency response is V-shaped: the bass is very strong and impactful, the mids are laid back and smooth, and the treble is crisp and very prominent. If it weren’t for the sparkly treble, the ES10 could easily be called a warm headphone. A very unique and enjoyable sound. [Buy at Amazon]

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Category: Best Headphones

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