Learning to play the guitar is hard, but listening to somebody else learning to play the guitar is where the real suffering begins. So, maybe keep your repetitive shredding shenanigans to yourself. The best guitar amp headphones will be good enough to let your talent shine through, while sparing you from the cruel aspersions of family, neighbours and other assorted philistines. Call themselves music lovers? Pah!
Headphones will never replace the sound of a good amp, but that’s not the point. What they will do is open up new playing opportunities for you. Struck with a new song idea at 2.30am? Just reach for your guitar, grab your headphones and weedle away to your heart’s content.
Sometimes, though, it’s other people’s hullabaloo that stops you from enjoying your playing. When ambient noise levels are already high, slipping on a pair of guitar amp headphones will transport you to a quiet practice space where you can focus solely on your outstanding playing ability and gorgeous tone. You maestro, you.
If you regularly gig, or travel with your guitar, then you may already pack a practice amp for backstage preparation or hotel-room playing. Why not lighten your rig by ditching the practice amp and instead taking one of the new breed of micro guitar amps, such as the Fender Mustang Micro, the Vox amPlug 2 or the Blackstar amPlug2 Fly? Just plug in a pair of lightweight in-ear ’phones for incredible tone on the go.
Boss has gone a step further with the Waza-Air by incorporating a fully featured guitar amp into a set of headphones and showering them with a host of clever effects. The ultimate portable set-up?
- The best studio headphones for home recording
- Or save some cash with the best budget studio headphones
Best guitar amp headphones: Our top picks
Wearable tech has arrived for the guitarist in the shape of the Boss Waza-Air headphones, and we can hardly believe how much fun it is. Even if we do eventually tire of playing with the spatial settings, which is unlikely, these are still a very solid set of cans that work faultlessly and sound fantastic. The fact that they’re wireless is so liberating, too.
Clever tech and shiny products aren’t going to magically make us better guitarists – only practice can do that. But we’re more likely to practice, and be creatively inspired, if we’re relaxed, comfortable and at one with our gear. That’s why we like the Shure SE535 Pro in-ear monitors. They’re so small and light that they almost disappear when you put them on. These tiny IEMs sound fantastic, too, and isolate you from ambient noise to such an extent that playing becomes fully immersive. Pair them with a micro-amp and you’ve got a practice rig that you can take anywhere.
Best guitar amp headphones: Product guide
Wow, we’re living through incredible times. Iron Man-style jet suits, superfast self-driving electric cars, digital money, apple-pie-flavoured Baileys... Every few months, a tantalising futuristic fantasy product is suddenly here, just a mouse-click away from the joys of ownership.
The Boss Waza-Air headphones are exactly this type of product, the kind that feels like it’s arrived suddenly and unexpectedly from the future to change our lives forever. The idea is simple enough – stuff some modelling technology into a pair of cans – but the execution is way cooler than that.
This product just wouldn’t be the same if it looked like a couple of oversized techy carbuncles growing out of your head. Fortunately, the headphones are relatively sleek, lightweight and good-looking in a retro-postmodern, authentically faux Japanese kinda way. To be frank, they just look like an unassuming pair of squared-off headphones with some shiny steel detailing. The boffins at Boss clearly know their stuff when it comes to miniaturisation.
Once powered-up, the Waza-Airs gives you access to five great-sounding amps derived from the Katana stage amplifier series, together with more than 50 effects from the Boss Tone Studio app. They’re totally wireless, too – just plug the tidy transmitter into your guitar’s output jack and you’ll be free to rock 'n’ roll. We’re already sold, but we haven’t got to the really clever bit yet.
The Waza-Airs also pack spatial technology and a gyroscope that elevates the player experience to another level. When playing a guitar through a standard amp, a big part of your adventure depends on where that amp sits in the room. Most likely, it’ll be behind you or in front of you, but it could be anywhere in a 360-degree circle. These headphones can replicate this, enabling you to place a virtual amp wherever you want it.
Incredibly, you can also set the amp to maintain its position regardless of where you turn your head. In other words, place your virtual amp near the window of your real room, and even if you turn to face the opposite wall it will still sound as if the amp is placed by the window. It’s a surreal yet seductive playing experience.
If that’s not enough, you can jam to tunes streamed over Bluetooth, too. Impressively, this ‘virtual band’ can also be placed next to your amp for uncanny realism.
The Waza-Airs are so good, we wonder if they render small practice amps obsolete. At last, a product that makes us glad to be alive!
Vox’s VGH series of headphones take the manufacturer’s micro-amp amPlug 2 technology a step further. Now, instead of having to hook up an amPlug 2 to your guitar before plugging your headphones into it, you just have to plug a pair of VGH headphones into your axe and start playing.
Essentially, the modelling doodads from the amPlug micro-amps have been transplanted into a set of headphones, removing a bit of clutter and making it both easier and faster to get up and running.
The headphones are solid quality for the price. Vox has sensibly relied upon partner Audio-Technica to provide a pair of 40mm drivers that sound full and rich with a pleasing clarity in the top end. Flick the power switch off and the cans revert to a regular set of wired headphones with an aux-in for MP3 players and so on.
Rightly or wrongly, instead of including switchable modelling within one pair of cans, Vox has decided to market three versions with distinct sonic characters. The AC30 set are based on the manufacturer’s iconic AC30, the Rock pair are based on high-gain stacks of the ’80s and ’90s, and the Bass headphones are voiced for bass guitar.
No doubt this has lowered the price for each iteration, but if you’re a bassist who also likes to play a bit of ’60s blues with the occasional foray into hair metal, then investing in all three models becomes prohibitively expensive. Then again, if you just live to leap about in spandex while playing Poison’s pièce de résistance ‘Talk Dirty To Me’, you’ll be quids in with just the Rock headphones. We know you’re out there…
All three versions feature built-in effects, such as reverb, chorus and compression, but the beauty of these headphones lies in their simplicity. Just plug and play.
If you like headphones with flashing LEDs, touch-sensitive pads and lots of other bells and whistles, then the DT 770 Pros may not be for you. On the other hand, if you primarily care about sound quality and don’t want to compromise on comfort and durability, then prepare to fall in love.
The DT 770 Pros are reference-quality headphones specifically designed for studio monitoring purposes. If that sounds a bit intimidating, don’t worry. Think about it. Even if you’ve never stepped inside a recording studio, every time you plug your guitar into your amp you’re monitoring the sound that it emits. When you play through headphones, you want a similar experience – the most honest, authentic sound possible.
Outwardly, there’s nothing special about these headphones. They look smart, comfy and functional, but that’s about it. Stick them on and it’s a whole different story. An exceptional frequency response of 5Hz – 35KHz delivers a character that’s highly transparent, detailed and with ultra-low bass response. They provide a neutral listening environment that’s perfect for monitoring nuanced picking, chugging rhythm or screaming lead.
They’re handmade in Germany, too, and designed to be worn for hours at a time. All the critical parts are replaceable, so these could be the only pair of headphones you ever buy.
The AKG K240s are studio classics, favoured for decades by producers and performers across the world. They’re another good example of how less is more – it’s striking how pro cans tend to come with far fewer ‘features’ than their consumer counterparts, even though they see many more hours of use. In the studio, sound quality is king.
These headphones come in two flavours – Studio and MKII. The MKII set feature some basic cosmetic upgrades, but the technical specification is identical for both. On this basis, we’d recommend opting for the cheaper Studio cans that, for the quality, are very cheap indeed.
With their gold trim, elegant logo and self-adjusting headband, the K240 Studios appear enchantingly retro. The circular ports cut into ear cups may look aesthetic, but they are in fact functional. The cans sport a semi-open design, which means that they sound more natural, airy and balanced than a fully closed design, but to the detriment of sound leakage.
This makes these headphones an excellent choice for occasions when sound isolation isn’t hugely important. They leak less than fully open headphones, but they’re still best avoided in noisy environments or where you could prove a nuisance to people sitting close to you.
If you can tuck yourself away somewhere quiet, though, you’ll be rewarded with a sound that’s impressively accurate, with extremely clear highs, an even mid-range and a solid bass response.
The padded cups are very comfortable and they feel robust enough to serve you well for years.
Not only are these best-sellers for Audio-Technica, they’re among the best-selling headphones on the market, period. Most brands differentiate their professional catalogue from their consumer products, but not Audio-Technica with its ATH-M50x cans. It markets them as studio, gaming and everyday headphones for all.
They certainly look the part, with their wide, soft headband, generously cushioned earcups, shot-peened-look plastic parts and brushed stainless-steel detailing. We had to double-check to make sure we hadn’t been sent a more premium model by mistake. There are some neat user-friendly design touches, such as the way they collapse down into a manageable package that’s easy to stuff into a travel bag, and how the earcups rotate through 90 degrees so that you can wear them comfortably against your neck when not in use.
How do they sound? What’s immediately apparent is the bass response, which is muscular but balanced, a characteristic of the two large 45mm drivers that feature neodymium magnets and a voice coil that’s wound with copper-clad aluminium wire. There’s clarity and mid-range definition aplenty here, too, along with an integrity that’ll stay loyal to your original sound.
There’s no Bluetooth or active noise cancelling, but the plush earcup cushions do a great job of keeping the outside world out and your guitar playing in sharp focus.
Read the full Audio-Technica ATH-M50x review
Focal is one of those intriguing brands that sit just outside the mainstream. It manages to balance what appears to be a cult following with a very popular, and a recently expanded, mid-range consumer product line. Its original top-end ‘Made in France’ series – speakers for audiophiles and studio monitors – has won numerous awards and the greatest respect, but tests the pockets of even the wealthiest.
A decade ago, when Focal merged with British hi-fi expert Naim, it started to introduce Focal-branded products that were designed in France but manufactured elsewhere to keep costs manageable. The Focal Listen Professionals are part of that evolution; they may boast a cheaper ticket price and lack a ‘Made in France’ sticker, but the quality is not to be sniffed at.
Focal’s goal with the Listen Professionals was to maintain dynamics and accurate detail across the whole audio spectrum, so it blessed them with brand-new custom drivers. In order to extend frequency response in the upper ranges, the manufacturer has suspended each 40mm speaker driver in Mylar, and composed the central domes from a Mylar-titanium alloy. The result is a driver that’s light, rigid and capable of bringing clarity and transparency to the very high end. The bass and sub-bass are excellent, too, with almost no distortion.
The thick, opulent ear cushions, resplendent in claret-coloured microfibre cloth, certainly look comfy – but even they have been developed with enhanced acoustic properties in mind. Focal claims that microfibre provides a more linear bass response than plastic or leather, and the volume of the cushions has been precisely calculated to achieve greater tonal balance. Apparently, the cups are the ideal acoustic environment. Could we tell? Perhaps that’s missing the point. What we do know is that these cans are beautifully comfortable for extended listening periods, and make guitar sound terrific provided you’re after a very natural, honest tone.
They’re more expensive than many of the products featured here, but bear in mind that the next model up in Focal’s studio line, the Clear MG Professionals, cost around four times as much, making these seem remarkably good value. They’re also the only closed-back headphones that Focal manufactures, making them the most viable choice for guitarists that this brand offers.
Read the full Focal Listen Professional review
Sennheiser makes some of the best pro audio kit in the world, so it’s remarkable to find a pair of its headphones with such a full feature set at such a good street price.
Fortunately, with the HD 450BTs, the manufacturer hasn’t sacrificed sound quality for features. These cans are aimed at consumers rather than studios, so there’s a little colouration. Bass is slightly boosted, as are the mid-range highs in order to make music and game soundtracks sound fuller, but not to a significant degree. The HD 450BTs still sound reassuringly accurate and clean – the typical Sennheiser character we’re all used to.
The active sound cancellation is very well implemented, which means you can keep your guitar at a low volume even in noisy surroundings, while still hearing yourself playing dynamically through loud and quiet passages. Passive sound cancellation is also good, provided you have smallish ears. The cups aren’t that generous in volume, so people with large ears may find them a challenging fit.
It’s nice to see Bluetooth 5.0 here, with support for quality streaming codec aptX. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to listen to yourself playing wirelessly due to latency, but the HD 450BTs come complete with a removable audio cable.
Depending on your fondness for bling, they look tastefully restrained or rather penny plain. What we do know is that you can spend a great deal more on a set of noise-cancelling headphones with only marginal gains in listening quality.
If you’re not yet a convert to in-ear monitoring (IEM) when gigging, the versatility of these ’phones from Shure will make you want to reconsider. Forget any bad experiences you’ve had with the tinny, ill-fitting earbuds that came with your phone – these IEMs are on a different level altogether.
IEMs rely on a snug fit to exclude ambient sound – the experience is a bit like sticking your fingers in your ears, but more musical. Get it right and they’re on a par, if not better, than a good set of well-isolated over-ear headphones, but without the weight or discomfort. To this end, Shure includes eight pairs of different-sized sleeves and tips to ensure a good fit and fantastic isolation.
The sound quality is superb. The SE535s employ three micro-drivers – two woofers and a tweeter – for clear, sparkly highs and smooth, mighty bass. They’re just at home on stage as they are plugged into a laptop or practice amp, and an optional Bluetooth cable is available for streaming music from your phone.
Wearing these IEMs is discreet to the point of being almost invisible. Factor in the lightweight comfort, isolation and sound quality, and the experience becomes completely immersive.
For a handy, barely-there-at-all practice rig, why not pack them in your guitar case together with a micro-amp such as the Fender Mustang Micro? Wherever your guitar goes, your practice rig goes too…
Best guitar amp headphones: Buying advice
We’re here to help you choose a pair of headphones that won’t make your carefully crafted guitar tone sound like an enraged wasp trapped inside an empty beer can. So, before parting with your hard-earned cash, consider why you want a pair of ’phones, where you’re going to use them and how you’re going to use them.
If you’re going to wear them while touring or travelling, we suggest you look at lightweight in-ear models – aka earphones or earbuds. These can be stored, together with a micro-amp, inside your guitar case ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice for an impromptu practice session.
What’s more, some can double-up as in-ear monitors for stage use, too. Just bear in mind that everyone has different-shaped ears, and some people struggle to get them to fit snugly enough to stay in place, making them less likely to seal against ambient noise. So, make sure they come with plenty of different-sized ear tips or sleeves. One-size-fits-all may work for baseball caps, but it’s meaningless here.
For those of you who’ll be using them predominantly at home, or in one location, we recommend choosing over-ear headphones of the closed-back variety. Open-backed headphones, as the name suggests, have ear cups that allow air to pass through via grilles or ports. Most audiophiles, listening in quiet surroundings, favour them over closed-back designs because they sound airy and more natural. They’re also better at dissipating reflections and sound-pressure build-up, which can be an issue with closed-back designs.
So, what’s wrong with them? The issue with open-backed designs is that where air can flow, so can sound. You’ll hear ambient noise from those around you, which may be loud enough to disturb your listening pleasure. Similarly, those around you will be able to hear your playing, which will never be that loud but may still disturb them. Our view is that if you’re playing in a place where open-backed cans would be a good choice, then you may as well just listen to your amp without headphones.
Similarly, we recommend over-ear cups rather than on-ear cups because they’re much better at blocking out ambient noise. Over-ear cups completely cover and cosset the ear in sound-absorbing material, a feature that manufacturers call passive noise isolation or passive noise cancellation. The thicker and/or better quality the material, the more proficient the sound isolation.
If you’re going to be regularly using your shiny new headphones in noisy environments, then it’s definitely worth considering a pair with active noise cancellation too. You could just crank up the volume to drown out the din, but you’ll risk developing tinnitus or even becoming deaf.
Do you need noise cancelling?
Active noise cancellation features small microphones that ‘listen’ to the outside world. A tiny amplifier then generates sound waves that are precisely the opposite – out of phase – of any ambient noise, thus cancelling it out. It’s a bit like adding +2 to -2 to arrive at zero, but more expensive. That said, although it’s true that this technology was once the preserve of top-end headphones, it’s now much more affordable and definitely worth seeking out if you need to play and listen to quiet passages where outside noise would be an issue.
Studio vs normal headphones
Many of our choices in this guide are ‘studio-grade’ headphones rather than models aimed at consumers. This is because consumer headphones are usually designed to make the bass pop on dance tracks, to bring warmth to classical music and to give clarity to vocals. They aim to flatter the source sound. In contrast, studio headphones – like their studio monitor counterparts – are designed to deliver an honest, transparent sound that’s an authentic rendition of the original source. All of us like to be flattered from time to time, but if you’re serious about your playing, you’ll want to hear your sound pure and unadulterated. Warts and all.
What about Bluetooth?
Bluetooth is ubiquitous on electronic goods, so, unsurprisingly, a few of our recommended products feature it. However, it’s not always up to scratch if you fancy connecting your guitar to a Bluetooth transmitter in the hope that it’ll communicate with your headphones wirelessly. It will work, but there can be so much latency that playing becomes unbearable – some we’ve tried even gave us time to drink a flat white between plucking a note and hearing it. Play it safe and make sure that Bluetooth headphones come complete with a detachable or fixed audio lead. In theory, you’ll enjoy better-quality audio when you wire up anyway, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole!
Finally, regardless of cost, the very best guitar amp headphones are those that you forget you’re wearing because they’re so darned comfortable. Over-ear headphones should be fully adjustable for width and height, and should hug your bonce like a favourite loved-one rather than clamp it with vice-like enthusiasm. The headband should be wide and supportive, and the earcups should have more padding than the comfiest pillows on the pillow menu at the New York Plaza.