A collective groan echoed across the internet a couple of years ago when Apple announced that it was dropping ye olde 3.5mm headphone socket from the iPhone 7 – and, of course, from all subsequent iPhone models, including the new iPhone XS, XS Max and XR released in 2018. The reason for this was simple – getting rid of the 3.5mm connector allowed Apple to reduce the weight and the thickness of the new iPhones even further – but that still left millions of iPhone users with a serious headphone headache.
All new iPhones do still include a set of Apple’s little white EarPods, just as they have always done – but those EarPods now have a Lightning connector for plugging into the iPhone, rather than the old 3.5mm audio connector. But, of course, the cheap little EarPods don’t provide very good sound quality, which is why so many people still prefer to buy better headphones from other manufacturers for listening to their music.
Apple would really like everyone to opt for Bluetooth wireless headphones, such as its own AirPods, but the compression techniques used by Bluetooth mean that wireless headphones still can’t match the audio quality provided by conventional wired headphones (especially as Apple doesn’t support the high-quality AptX version of Bluetooth on iOS devices).
If you prefer to stick with an existing set of 3.5mm wired headphones that you really like then it is possible to buy an adapter. And, in fact, Apple did include a Lightning adapter with the iPhone 7, 8 and X when they were first launched. Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case with the iPhone XS and other models introduced in 2018.
You can still buy Apple’s Lightning To 3.5mm Headphone Jack Adapter for £9/$9 from the Apple Store, but it’s also possible to buy non-Apple alternatives from audio specialists, such as Fiio’s i1, which provides superior sound quality, but costs around £35. Some manufacturers, such as Audeze and Bowers & Wilkins also make their own Lightning cables for use with their own headphones.
The advantages of Lightning
But mucking around with extra adapters and cables is always a nuisance – especially when you’re travelling and just want to plug in your headphones with minimum fuss.
The simplest option is to buy a new set of wired headphones with their own Lightning connector. These range from affordable in-ear headphones costing less than £50 to high-end hi-fi models for £500 or more.
Lightning headphones have other advantages that help to justify their extra cost, as the digital audio signal allows you to step up from traditional 16-bit (CD-quality) audio to high-res 24-bit audio that is comparable to the master recordings produced in the studio (we live in hope for the day that Apple discovers hi-res audio and makes its vast library of music available in hi-res format on Apple Music and the iTunes Store).
With all this in mind, here’s our guide to the best Lightning headphones currently available for the iPhone and iPad. If you’re looking for discounts and sale prices, see Best headphone deals. And for buying advice related to other types of headphone, see our best wired headphones and best Bluetooth wireless headphones.
Best Lightning headphones
1. Audeze SINE
They’re expensive – seriously expensive – but the Audeze SINE headphones stand out in a number of ways. You can buy the SINE with a standard 3.5mm audio cable for about £400/$450, but this slightly more expensive model sold on the Apple Store includes both a 3.5mm cable and a special ‘Cipher’ cable, which has a Lightning connector, DAC, amplifier, and microphone built into it as well. That’s really smart, as it means you’re not limited to just using the SINE with the most recent iPhones and iPads.
They’re neatly designed too, with padded earpieces that sit comfortably on your ears, and adjustable headband with smart leather trim. The earpieces also fold flat so that you can slip them into a bag when you’re travelling.
More important, though, is the terrific sound that the SINE produces. Audeze claims that these are “the world’s first on-ear planar magnetic headphones” – a technology currently only used in a handful of high-end audiophile headphones. We’ll leave the techno-babble for another time, but the end result is a really clear and detailed sound that is a treat for your ears. It works particularly well for gentler acoustic and classic tracks, where the headphones can pick out every little detail and nuance. But there’s strong bass in there too, so you can still pump up the volume when you want to get your freak on.
The high price means that the SINE won’t be for everyone, but their versatile design and excellent sound quality provide a future-proof set of headphones that point the way to the next generation of high-res audio.
2. Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature
Strictly speaking, the P9 Signature doesn’t actually include a Lightning connector, but if you can afford £699 for these top-of-the-range headphones – not to mention £1,000-plus for one of the latest iPhones – then paying another £40 for B&W’s optional Lightning cable isn’t going to break the bank.
The handy thing about the B&W Lightning cable is that it simply replaces the standard 3.5mm cable, so you don’t have to worry about carrying around any extra adapters or cables. It also includes in-line controls for playing your music, just like a conventional cable, along with B&W’s own high-quality DAC (digital/audio converter) for hi-fi sound quality.
And, yes, the P9 headphones are seriously expensive, but the quality is obvious, from the soft, leather earpieces – slightly angled inwards to create the effect of sound coming from in front, rather than the sides – to the custom-designed metallic hinges on the headband that prevent vibrations that might affect the sound quality.
There’s no noise-cancelling tech, but the over-ear design means the headphones go right over your ears and do a good job of blocking out background noise. It’s a closed-back design, yet the P9 headphones do a terrific job of creating an open, atmospheric sound.
And when B&W played us the spoken intro to Lou Reed’s The Raven, the effect was genuinely creepy – as though the ghost of the gravel-voiced legend was standing right next to us as he intoned the words of Edgar Allan Poe. More conventional music sounds great too, with a rich, warm tone that doesn’t sacrifice any detail, and a fulsome bass that’s aided by the over-ear design.
3. Beats UrBeats 3 with Lightning connector
Somewhat surprisingly, given that the Beats brand is owned by Apple, the UrBeats 3 are one of the cheapest sets of Lightning headphones currently available. (The Lightning version shown here is also the same price as the standard 3.5mm one, so you’re not even having to pay the usual premium.)
The UrBeats3 headphones are neatly designed, with a sturdy, flat cable that helps to avoid annoying tangles when you stick them in your pocket. In fact, you can probably keep them wrapped around your neck most of the time, as the earpieces are magnetic and cling together to stay in place when not in your ears.
As you’d expect from Beats, these little in-ears deliver a really firm, punchy bass sound. The bassline from Another One Bites The Dust kicks along with a rhythm that’s hard to resist, and the intro to Prime Evil by the Orb sounds sinister and threatening as it settles into a slow, sinuous groove.
The mid-range and higher frequencies suffer a little. They’re good enough for a little pop or rock at the gym, but if you like to really delve into detail you might prefer to opt for headphones that provide a more balanced sound right across the spectrum.
Even so, it’s good to see Apple/Beats providing an affordable upgrade for the cheap earphones sold with the iPhone, and the punchy sound of the UrBeats3 will work a treat for workout sessions and generally running around town.
4. Audeze iSine 10
We really liked the iSine 20 from Audeze, although at at £599 they’re probably a bit expensive for most people.
Which leads us to these, the latest addition to the Audeze range. The iSine 10 has a similar design – with the large earpieces on both sets of headphones looking like the Tie Fighters from Star Wars – but a lower £399 price tag that is a bit more manageable. That price also includes both a Lightning cable and a standard 3.5mm audio cable so – unlike most Lightning headphones – you do still have the option of using them with other devices too (or you can buy the headphones with just the 3.5mm cable on its own for £349).
And you’ll want to use them all the time, as the iSine 10 headphones really sound great. They use a ‘planar magnetic’ design that – shorn of the techno-jargon – produces a really precise and detailed sound. They’ve got great range too, going right down to 10Hz so that they can handle deep bass that escapes many cheaper headphones and speakers, and then going right up to 50kHz for high-res audio files (rumoured to be coming to the iTunes Store soon).
The only thing that might deter some people is that the iSine 10 has a ‘semi-open’ design, similar to the more traditional on-ear headphones favoured by many hi-fi buffs. This does help them to produce a rich, expansive sound-stage that really wraps your head in a floating cloud of sound – but it also means that some of the sound leaks out and might annoy other people if you wear them on the train to work in the morning.
Works with: Lightning and 3.5mm connectors
5. Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset
It’s a bit pricey, but Sennheiser’s Ambeo isn’t just an ordinary set of headphones with a Lightning connector soldered on to the end of the cable. Sennheiser refers to the Ambeo as a ‘smart headset’, and there’s a huge amount of audio technology built into the headphones – both for playing music and also for recording audio from the world around you.
At first glance, the Ambeo looks like a fairly conventional set of in-ear headphones, with earpieces that hook over the back of your ear to keep them in place. And, as always, there’s the trademark Sennheiser sound that combines warmth and detail, and is suitable for everything from gentle acoustic sounds to noisy rock or dance music.
The Ambeo also includes noise-cancellation technology to block out background noise when you’re travelling. However, it balances this with a ‘transparent hearing’ option that allows you to pay attention to traffic and other noise in order to avoid accidents when you’re out on the busy city streets.
There’s a microphone on the control cable for taking voice calls on your iPhone, but the Ambeo also has two special ‘3D microphones’ on the earpieces, which – when used with the Ambeo app – can be used to record stereo sound and combine it with video clips that you shoot with your iPhone camera. This can add an extra audio dimension to any video that you shoot on your iPhone, although it’s primarily aimed at vloggers and film-makers who want a quick and easy way of recording high-quality sound on an iPhone.
The Ambeo app includes other features too, such as EQ controls for adjusting the sound, and the ability to program a special control button that can perform a number of different functions.
6. Philips Fidelio M2L
Philips was one of the first companies to produce Lightning headphones, and its ML2 headphones are still one of the most affordable options if you want to go down the Lightning route.
These are on-ear headphones, with an adjustable headband and soft, padded earpieces that sit firmly, but comfortably, over your ears while listening. All the controls are built into the right-hand earpiece, with a small dial for adjusting volume and a single button that you tap one, two or three times in order to pause, or to skip forward and backward. That’s a little fiddly to get used to at first, and there’s no built-in microphone either, so you’ll have to hold your iPhone up to your mouth if you want to take a call.
There’s some room for improvement there, but the M2L still delivers the goods when it comes to sound quality. The M2L includes a high-res (24-bit) DAC for playing the digital signal that comes through the Lightning connector, and this sounded great when playing a variety of rock, acoustic and classic pieces. The deep bass was a little echoey, so hard-core dance fans might prefer something with a firmer bass sound, but the M2L will still work a treat for most types of music.
The disadvantage of the Lightning connector, of course, is that the M2L will only work with recent iPhones and iPads, so you won’t be able to use them with any non-Apple devices at all. However, Philips does make a similar – and slightly cheaper – set of Bluetooth headphones, called the M2BT, that will work with a wider range of devices.
7. Libratone Q Adapt Lightning In Ear Headphone
We’re big fans of Libratone’s AirPlay and Bluetooth speakers, so we were on the phone to them as soon as we heard that the company was launching its new range of Q-Adapt headphones. The larger, Q-Adapt On-Ear headphones have already made it into our list of top Bluetooth headphones, and now this In-Ear model has arrived – although this time Libratone has decided to ditch Bluetooth for a wired connection with a Lightning interface.
One of the advantages of the Lightning interface is that it provides enough power to provide noise-cancellation features without the need for a separate battery, and that helps to keep the Q-Adapt In-Ear headphones really light and compact, with a total weight of just 20g. You can also adjust the noise-cancelling option to let in as much – or as little – of the background noise as you like, which could be handy when you’re out on the streets and need to watch out for traffic and other sounds around you. Libratone says that the noise-cancellation doesn’t put too much of a drain on your iPhone’s battery, so you should still be able to listen all day long without killing your battery.
The sound quality is good for a set of in-ear headphones in this price range, with a full bass sound that works well for pop and rock music. Libratone also provides six different sets of ear-tips to make sure you get a really good fit. Admittedly, the Q-Adapt In-Ear headphones can’t quite match the subtlety and clarity of some of the more expensive Lightning headphones that are now available, but at an RRP of £159 (and a street price around £139 or less), they are one of the most affordable sets of Lightning headphones we’ve seen so far, and a good option if you just want a really lightweight set of headphones that you can carry around in your pocket.
Works with: Lightning connector
Also available from: John Lewis
8. Pioneer RayZ Plus
Pioneer offers something different to other Lightning-enabled earphones with the RayZ Plus – the ability to use the headphones and charge your iPhone or iPad at the same time. While it’s not a groundbreaking feature, it’s a highly requested feature – especially for iPhone 7 and later users that don’t have the option of using wired headphones.
But RayZ Plus offers much more than just the ability to charge and listen to music at the same time. The earphones boast smart noise cancellation that can be adjusted on-the-fly for use in different environments. While the process takes around 10-15 seconds overall, it’s pretty impressive and can block out the majority of background noise for a comfortable listening experience.
However, Pioneer also realised that there will be situations where people need to be aware of their surroundings. That’s why the RayZ Plus also features HearThru mode that let’s in ambient sound, activated via the app or via a programmable smart button on the earphones.
They’re intelligent too: much like Apple’s wireless AirPods, RayZ Plus can detect when they’ve been removed from your ears and will pause music accordingly. It’ll also resume your music once you’ve put them back in, although we’ve found the accuracy to be a bit hit-and-miss during our time with the earphones.
Most importantly, the RayZ Plus produce phenomenal sound quality; audio is well-rounded with a perfect balance of bass and treble that can be adjusted via the dedicated RayZ app for iOS if required. In fact, they are so impressive to us that they have become our go-to headphones for everyday use.
9. EarPods with Lightning Connector
You can’t have a list of the best Lightning headphones without Apple’s own EarPods, modified for the release of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus and shipped with the latest models too. A pair will ship with every new flagship phone too, which is good news considering the absence of the 3.5mm jack.
The good news is the EarPods with Lightning connector also worth with tonnes of other Apple products – to be precise, every single iPhone, iPod and iPad that has a Lightning port. Easy.
You can also buy a pair separately if you need a spare or don’t have an iPhone 7 (or later).
Although the Nuraphones are wireless, they have a proprietary connector. Normally that’s an annoying feature but here it means you can use the headphones with a number of different cables, including Lightning.
It’s very unlikely you’ve used any headphones like Nura’s. They might look like fairly standard over-ear headphones but they also have an in-ear section, too. It’s an odd sensation that you’ll have to get used to but the technology on offer here could be worth it.
We don’t find them the most comfortable headphones around due to the design, but the sound quality are features are something quite special.
The first time you use Nuraphones, they will play a range of tones to map your personal hearing. Once it know what frequencies you’re more or less sensitive to, it will create a profile unique to you. You might not believe how good it is – try someone else’s profile and you won’t like the sound as much.
Furthermore, the design means that while the in-ear drivers do most of the regular work, the outer cups have bass drivers for an adjustable ‘immersion mode’. This is best described as like having sub woofers in your headphones and you’ll feel the bass rather than hear it.
A G2 software update to the app brings additional features, too. Namely active noise cancelling with a ‘social mode’ so you can hear what’s going on around you without taking the headphones off.