Your speakers and headphones of choice may say a lot about you and your tastes. Do you choose the most basic, utilitarian option? Do you select one with a recognizable logo? If so, do you do so because of the sound quality or the prestige? Or is your choice purely about getting the best audio for your buck?
Regardless of your motivations, this month's PCMag Readers' Choice Award survey will help you figure out which brands do the best job delighting their users and which leave them wanting.
Speakers and headphones come in several different shapes and sizes. We break speakers down into two categories: wireless, including Bluetooth and Wi-Fi devices, and wired PC speakers. We hope that at this time next year, we'll be able to add a third category—smart speakers—including Amazon's Alexa-based Echo family of products as well as others like Google Home, the forthcoming Siri-based Apple HomePod, and Microsoft Cortana-based Harman Kardon Invoke—to name just a few.
Unfortunately, for this year's survey, the Google Home has yet to make a dent—we didn't have enough Home users to include Google in our analysis—while the other devices have yet to hit store shelves.
There are many ways to look at headphones but we split them along the lines of wired and wireless models as well. Apple made a controversial move last year by removing the 3.5mm headphone jack from its iPhone 7 and 7 Plus; people must now use Lightning headphones (or traditional headphones with a 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter) or embrace Bluetooth. Apple wasn't the first company to do this but it was the most notable. A few other new smartphones have eschewed the headphone jack; Google will reportedly do the same with its forthcoming Pixel 2 models.
Apple released its own tiny Bluetooth headphones, the AirPods, and its Beats by Dr. Dre brand offers a few different Bluetooth choices as well, but it's not alone. Several companies make Bluetooth headphones compatible with iPhones and other smartphones, tablets, and PCs.
Each survey respondent was asked to rate their satisfaction with their speakers and headphones including overall satisfaction, satisfaction with the ease of setup and reliability, and likelihood to recommend. In addition, they were asked about their satisfaction with more detailed aspects of their devices including using the speakers and headphones for listening to music, movies, games, and audiobooks.
The speakers and headphones you use can say a lot about you. Read on to figure out which brands will make you look like you make smart, informed choices.
The PCMag Readers' Choice survey for headphones and speakers was in the field from July 24, 2017 through August 14, 2017. For more information on how the survey is conducted, read the survey methodology. Each person who completed the survey was entered into a drawing to win a $350 Amazon.com gift card.You can win! Sign up for the Readers' Choice Survey mailing list to receive invitations for future sweepstakes.
Looking for expert opinion? Read PCMag's roundups of the Best Headphones and Best Bluetooth Speakers.
If you're looking to upgrade the sound on your desktop or laptop PC, the choice is clear: Bose. The company wins a PCMag Readers' Choice Award for wired PC speakers for the fourth straight year. Only two other companies—Altec Lansing and Logitech—made the cut this year, but neither could come close to matching any of Bose's satisfaction ratings.
Bose's overall satisfaction rating of 8.9 on a scale from 0 (extremely dissatisfied) to 10 (extremely satisfied) and satisfaction with reliability rating of 9.2 were identical to last year. Likelihood to recommend slipped slightly from 9.2 to 9.1, but that is still an excellent rating. All of Bose's other ratings improved over 2016. The greatest increases were for satisfaction with the speakers for audio chat (from 8.4 to 8.9), video chat (8.4 to 8.9), and listening to podcasts (8.7 to 9.1). Bose received its highest satisfaction ratings for listening to music, listening to videos, and listening to audiobooks, all of which scored a 9.2.
Among Bose's competitors, Altec Lansing scored slightly better than Logitech for satisfaction with listening to music (8.4 to 8.3) and listening to videos (8.6 to 8.4). On the other hand, respondents preferred Logitech's reliability versus Altec (8.9 to 8.7).See all of our survey results for Wired Speakers.
WINNER: WIRED SPEAKERS
If you want great sound from your PC, our readers say "give Bose a listen," something they've been saying for a while. Bose has won the PCMag Readers' Choice for PC speakers every year since 2014.
Wireless speakers come in all different shapes and sizes. You can easily find dozens of Bluetooth headphones for less than $10 though don't be surprised if the audio quality is no better than your phone's built-in speaker.
On the other end of the scale, you could spend well over $2,000 for a single Devialet mono Wi-Fi speaker. Fortunately, there are a lot of companies making more reasonably priced alternatives that deliver great sound and a very satisfying experience. This year, our readers' top pick is Harman Kardon, a well-known name in audio, which makes a wide range of higher-end attractive Bluetooth and Wi-Fi speakers. Harman Kardon, which was recently purchased by Samsung, wins our 2017 PCMag Readers' Choice Award for wireless speakers.
Harman Kardon and Bose received the top overall satisfaction ratings in this year's survey with identical scores of 8.9. For both companies, these scores were an improvement over 2016, when Harman Kardon was rated 8.7 by respondents and Bose only rated 8.5. While their overall satisfaction ratings were the same, Harman Kardon slightly edged out Bose in overall reliability (9.4 to 9.2), satisfaction with listening to music (9.4 to 9.3) and likelihood to recommend (9.2 to 9.1).
Ultimate Ears, a 2016 Readers' Choice Award winner in this category, also gives Harman Kardon very stiff competition. Ultimate Ears, which specializes in portable Bluetooth speakers, had a slightly lower overall satisfaction rating (8.8), but actually rated better in likelihood to recommend (9.4) and satisfaction with reliability (9.5).
Sonos, which practically invented the home wireless speaker category, also won a Readers' Choice Award last year, but this year the company saw its overall satisfaction rating drop from 8.9 to 8.7. Satisfaction with reliability and likelihood to recommend were also lower than last year, but at 8.9 and 9.1, respectively, both ratings are still very good.
Amazon's overall satisfaction rating of 8.4 was the lowest in the wireless speaker category this year. The vast majority of the Amazon speakers rated were Alexa-based smart speakers from the Echo family of products; these alone had a slightly higher overall satisfaction rating: 8.5. We added several smart speaker-related questions to this year's survey. Echo users were most pleased with using their speakers to set timers; this task received a satisfaction rating of 9.3. Using the speakers to stream music and other audio also rated well (8.9), as did controlling smart home devices (8.5).
On the other end of the spectrum, respondents were least satisfied with Alexa's ability to search for information (7.5) and didn't feel the speakers did a great job of understanding requests (7.8). Of course, Amazon would like to see people use their Alexa devices to order products, but this task only received a satisfaction rating of 8.0. Because Amazon was the only company to get the requisite 50 responses to be included in our analysis, we can't compare these ratings to any other smart speaker, but they do give a good sense of where consumers are finding value with the Alexa-powered Echo speakers.See all of our survey results for Wireless Speakers.
WINNERS: WIRELESS SPEAKERS
Harman Kardon continues to expand its line of innovative, attractive Bluetooth and Wi-Fi speakers. PCMag readers like what the company has to deliver, rating highly in every category.
If you're still using the headphones that came with your smartphone, it's time for an upgrade. You have several brands from which to choose, but this year two companies lead the way: Audio Technica and Bose. The companies share our PCMag Readers' Choice Award for headphones. Audio Technica also receives an award for its wired headphones, while Bose earns an extra for wireless headphones.
Several PCMag readers rated the headphones that came with their Apple and Samsung phones and both companies got very mediocre overall satisfaction ratings of 7.8 and 7.5, respectively. On the other hand, Audio Technica and Bose both rated 9.2 for overall satisfaction. In all, 10 companies received overall satisfaction ratings over 8.0 and six were over 8.5.
Our two Readers' Choice Award winners, along with Sennheiser, had very impressive likelihood to recommend ratings: 9.3. Bose and Sennheiser also led in satisfaction with reliability (9.3) with Audio Technica right behind at 9.2. Bose had the highest rating for satisfaction with listening to music at 9.5 and Audio Technica and Sennheiser both rated 9.4. Klipsch (9.2) and Beats by Dr. Dre (9.1) also rated over 9.0 on this measure. If you're a gamer looking for headphones, consider Logitech and Sennheiser which had the highest ratings for satisfaction with gaming at 8.9 and 8.8, respectively.
When choosing your upgrade, one of the biggest decisions you'll have to make will be whether to cut the cord or not. The obvious benefit of wireless headphones is that you're not physically tethered to your phone, tablet, or PC. On the other hand, wireless headphones are often larger and heavier than equivalent wired headphones; they need to be kept charged and often the sound quality isn't quite as good. Still, the convenience of no wires might be enough to sway you.
For those who prefer a wired headphone, our readers recommended Audio Technica. The company had the top ratings for overall satisfaction (9.2), likelihood to recommend (9.3), and satisfaction with listening to music (9.5). Bose and Sennheiser were very close behind with Sennheiser matching Audio Technica's reliability rating. None of the other companies came close to these three companies' ratings.
Bose's satisfaction ratings for its wireless headphones improved on every measure over last year's performance. Overall satisfaction went from 8.9 to 9.2 and likelihood to recommend went from 9.1 to 9.5. Several other measures improved to 9.5 or better including satisfaction with listening to music (9.6) and satisfaction with listening to videos, podcasts and audiobooks (all 9.5). Satisfaction with noise cancellation also rated 9.5.
Apple made an impressive debut in the wireless headphone categories with its tiny AirPods. Respondents rated overall satisfaction at 9.0 and ease of setup was 9.6, the best in the category. (Bose was right behind at 9.5.) Apple was also rated best for satisfaction with talking on the phone (9.1). Bose was next closest at 8.7.
Sony also received an overall satisfaction rating of 9.0 and had several ratings of 9.0 or better, including satisfaction with listening to music (9.3). Sennheiser's overall satisfaction rating of 8.9 was behind Bose, Apple, and Sony, but the company's likelihood to recommend rating of 9.3 only trailed Bose.See all of our survey results for Headphones & Earphones.
WINNERS: HEADPHONES AND EARPHONES
Audio Technica—Overall and Wired
Consistently excellent, Audio Technica is now a PCMag Readers' Choice Award winner for the third straight year. If you prefer the high fidelity sound of wired headphones, especially if you need studio-quality audio, check in with Audio Technica first.
Bose—Overall and Wireless
Bose is back on top, earning a Readers' Choice Award after just missing out last year. If you're going wireless, Bose is your first stop, and they don't do badly with wired headsets overall, either.
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