Buying Guide – How to Shop for Sleeping Headphones
Many sleepers rely on headphones that play music or soothing sounds as they wind down for bed. Listening to headphones can alleviate stress and lower one’s heart rate, allowing them to feel more relaxed as they prepare to fall asleep.
A wide range of sleep-friendly wired and wireless headphone designs are available. Some sleepers prefer designs that fit around, on, or inside the ear, while others enjoy headbands or sleep masks outfitted with audio speakers that rest snugly over their face. Sleeping headphones priced at $30 or lower are widely available, as are more expensive models for those with a larger budget.
This guide will look at some of the most popular sleeping headphones designs, as well as potential safety concerns, shopping considerations, and our picks for the best lower- and higher-cost headphones for sleeping.
Headphones for Sleeping: Common Designs and Characteristics
Like headphones designed for everyday use, sleeping headphones play music or sounds directly into the listener’s ear. What sets sleeping headphones apart from regular models is nightlong comfort; they are designed to remain in the listener’s ears for up to eight hours without causing soreness or irritation in the ears.
Some commonplace designs for sleeping headphones include:
- Over-ear: ‘Over-ear’ refers to traditional headphones that mold around the outer ear for a close, snug fit. These models tend to be on the larger side, with headphones that are connected by a solid band that fits around the top of the head.
- On-ear: Also known as clip-on headphones, these are essentially smaller versions of the over-ear models that rest on the outside of the ear without entering the ear canal. On-ear headphones may be a suitable alternative for people who find over-ear headphones too bulky for sleeping.
- In-ear: In-ear headphones — commonly called earbuds — fit snugly into the ear canal. The sound quality with in-ear headphones is usually above-average, but some sleepers find that they cause discomfort if worn for prolonged periods of time.
- Headbands and sleep masks: A more recent design, some sleep masks and headbands come with built-in audio speakers, rather than headphones that fit around, on, or in the ear. These models provide a layer of cushioning between the headphones and the sleeper’s pillow, which may make them more conducive for side-sleepers.
Additionally, sleeping headphones may be wired, meaning that cords connect them to music players, or wireless, meaning they play music without a physical connection by receiving signals from the speaker or music-playing device.
In terms of sound playback, many sleeping headphones are ‘noise-cancelling.’ This means they eliminate — or significantly reduce — outside noise by fitting snugly into or around the ear.
Additionally, some sleep-friendly headphones are designed to provide high-quality white noise and autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, sounds. White noise refers to random sound signals that produce soothing, ambient sounds that block outside noises. ASMR sounds, on the other hand, produce a tingling sensation in the ears that can help listeners relax and fall asleep more easily. Headphones designed for ASMR playback typically have high-quality microphones that reduce crackling or popping sounds.
Volume controls for most sleeping headphones are comparable to those of everyday headphones. However, it is considered unhealthy and potentially damaging to listen to music at a volume higher than 60 decibels (dB) for prolonged periods of time.
Are Headphones Safe for Sleeping?
Although sleeping with headphones can improve sleep quality for some, there are certain health risks associated with using these devices. These risks include:
- Earwax buildup: Some headphones — earbuds in particular — form a tight seal over the ear canal that can reduce circulation. This can cause earwax to accumulate around the eardrum; excessive buildup can be painful, and necessitate a doctor’s visit.
- Otitis externa: Headphones that protrude deeply the ear canal can cause this condition, which occurs when the skin in the ear canal becomes irritated and fluid begins to leak. Listening to music at an excessive volume can also lead to otitis externa.
- Hearing problems: In addition to otitis externa, listening to music at a high volume can also cause hearing impairment or loss. Most experts agree that listening at a volume higher than 60 decibels (dB) for excessive lengths of time can cause hearing damage.
- Strangulation hazard: Wired headphones pose a risk of wrapping around the listener’s throat while they sleep. This can significantly block the airway, causing the individual to asphyxiate.
- Distraction: Headphones that effectively block outside noise pose a risk to sleepers who may not hear other sounds in their home. This can be dangerous if an emergency situation occurs, such as a fire, home invasion, or medical issue involving a family member or roommate.
Despite these potential risks, it’s important to note that serious injuries involving sleeping headphones is extremely rare. By listening to music or sounds at a reasonable volume, removing headphones when discomfort occurs, and monitoring wire placement, you can greatly mitigate these risks and sleep in peace.
Considerations for Sleeping Headphones Shoppers
Next let’s look at some important factors to keep in mind when shopping for sleeping headphones and comparing different brands and models:
- How much do they cost? A new pair of sleeping headphones may cost anywhere from less than $10 to more than $200. Generally, high-tech models with multiple functions have the highest price-points, while simpler earbuds and clip-on models are the least expensive.
- How do they feel? The choice between over-ear, on-ear, in-ear, and headband/sleep mask headphones comes down to personal preference. Some people find earbuds or headbands/sleep masks too snug or invasive, while others find over-ear and clip-on styles too bulky.
- How much do they weigh? This is typically a comfort preference. Over-ear headphones can weigh up to one and a half pounds, while the other sleeping headphone types usually weigh six ounces or less.
- What is your preferred size? Some headphones are available in different sizes. Some headphones sizes are based on their electrical resistance (measured in ohms), while other model sizes are based on physical measurements and specifications.
- What is your preferred sleep position? Those who sleep on their back or stomach typically feel comfortable using any type of sleeping headphones, but side-sleepers may prefer headband or sleep mask models because over-ear, on-ear, and in-ear designs can cause discomfort when they come between your ear and the pillow.
- Do you toss and turn? Constant movement throughout the night can put a strain on headphones, and models with thin wires and more delicate parts may wear out more quickly if the user tends to toss and turn.
- Are they wired or wireless? If wired, then it’s important to sleep in a position that reduces the risk of strangulation. If wireless, then a wireless speaker or music playback device is usually also required.
- What is the cord length? The length of the cord used to connect wired headphones to the playback device may be an important factor, depending on the layout of your bedroom.
- What sizes are available? Many sleeping headphones are designed as one-size-fits-all, but some are available in multiple sizes.
- What is the product warranty length? The warranty length of sleeping headphones is highly variable. Some models offer a lifetime warranty, while others do not have a warranty at all. On average, expect one to two years of coverage from models that offer a warranty.
Additional Accessories for Blocking Nighttime Noise
If headphones aren’t enough to help you fall asleep or you prefer not to wear them in bed, you may want to consider additional strategies for blocking out distracting noises during the night. Alternatives to sleeping headphones may include the following:
Conventional and custom earplugs: Conventional foam earplugs are an inexpensive alternative to sleeping headphones. Users simply twist them until they will fit into the ear canal; once in place, they will expand to create a tight, noise-blocking seal. Foam earplugs can usually be bought in bulk; a box of 100 pairs may cost as little as $10.
Additionally, earplug molding kits are available; these allow owners to create customized shapes for their earplugs based on the unique curves and contours of their ear canal. Expect to pay $10 to $20 for a molding kit that yields one pair of customized earplugs. Most kits feature how-to guides with step-by-step instructions.
White noise machines: Many sleepers rely on machines that produce white noise when they go to bed. These machines may produce other noise colors, as well. Pink noise, for example — which many listeners prefer over white noise — gradually decreases in volume per octave, which creates a balanced listening experience compared to the constant volume-per-octave of white noise. Other options include blue, red, and brown noise.
Most white noise machine models are equipped with speakers, as well as headphone jacks for more private listening. These machines typically cost less than $100, and are widely available through brick-and-mortar and online retailers. To learn more, please visit out White Noise Machine Reviews guide.
Apps: In lieu of a full machine, some sleepers enjoy white noise from downloadable apps that are compatible with smartphones, tablets, and other portable devices. These apps are often free, but rarely cost more than $2, and usually come with a wide variety of noise and ambient sound options to accommodate sleepers with different preferences. Some of the most popular white noise apps priced at $2 or less include:
ASMR YouTube videos: Those who find ASMR sounds soothing are in luck — YouTube offers an extensive collection of videos, playlists, and channel that offer ASMR programs. These are free to use, per the terms of the site, but there is one notable downside: most do not exceed one hour in length, making them less than ideal for those who prefer to listen to ASMR sounds all night long. Additionally, ASMR apps like Tingles and Love ASMR are available for smart devices.