A good pair of headphones are truly life-changing, shutting out the noise and filling the world with great music. So in that spirit, we've chosen some real gems for our pick of the best headphones of this year. Whether you want in-ear or over-ear, budget or high-end, we'll have something for you. For more background information on headphones, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Battery Life: 28 Hours
What We Like: Superb sound quality, excellent price, comfortable, ridiculous battery life.
What We Don't: Lack of noise-canceling may be a dealbreaker for some.
There are literally thousands of headphones available to buy right now, but if we had to pick the best pair to spend your money on, it would be the Sennheiser HD 4.40s. These wireless, over-ear headphones combine superb sound quality with ridiculous battery life – you can use them for a full day without even looking at your charging cable. Only the Cowin and Anker headphones, mentioned below, deliver better battery life and they don’t sound nearly as good. The HD 4.40s are also very comfortable to wear for long periods of time, which puts them above other similarly priced models, like the AKG Y50 and Grado SR80e. The best overall pair of headphones has to tick a lot of boxes, and the Sennheiser HD 4.40 absolutely does. The real kicker is the price. It’s frankly insane that a pair of headphones this good costs under $100. That makes them affordable for most people.
That being said, there is one major shortcoming. The Sennheiser HD 4.40s don’t offer any form of active noise-canceling. While they block out the outside world pretty well, you won’t find the same cancelation technology as you would on more expensive headphones, like the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. This might be a dealbreaker for some people, but we think these headphones are so good in other ways that we have to give them the top spot. It’s worth noting that Sennheiser offer a newer model that does include noise-canceling, called the HD 4.50. However, it costs double the price, and the cancelation isn’t good enough to justify it. It’s a much better idea to stick with the brilliant HD 4.40. Save yourself some money; these headphones are the ones to go for.
See the Sennheiser HD 4.40
Best Headphones Under $100
Battery Life: 28 Hours
What We Like: Brilliant battery life for the price, punchy sound quality, good value.
What We Don’t: Noise-canceling is a giant bundle of meh.
Cowin’s E7 are among the most surprising headphones on this list. We didn’t expect such an affordable pair to offer so much, but they’ll satisfy anybody looking for great value. The 28 hours of battery life is comparable to headphones that cost over twice as much - the Sennheiser HD 4.40 headphones have identical battery life, and cost $99. And although the E7s don’t sound quite as good, they remain an excellent budget alternative to the Sennheiser headphones, with punchy sound and good design. The sleek looks and high-quality range of accessories seal the deal.
If you go for these headphones, you must be aware that the noise-canceling feature isn’t worth using. It’s mildly effective at best, and renders the music muffled and indistinct. It works perfectly fine for calls, with voices sounding clear and detailed, but the Sony and Bose headphones on this list offer far better noise-canceling. Ultimately, the Cowin E7 do have flaws, but in the sub-$100 landscape, they deliver a staggering level of value. We highly recommend them if you’re on a budget. Note that there is a more expensive model, the SE7. Those are good, but they’re expensive, and offer less battery life.
See the Cowin E7
Best Wireless Headphones
Battery Life: 28.5 Hours
What We Like: Matches superb sound with excellent noise-canceling and battery life.
What We Don't: Price may turn some people off.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 wireless headphones are absolutely perfect for travel. They may be a little pricey, but they tick just about every box we can think of. Wireless? Check. Superb noise-canceling? Check. Phenomenal app, sound, and battery life? Check, check, and check again. A lot of headphones do one or two things really well, but the XM3s excel in so many different categories that we'd be crazy to put anything else in this spot.
Sony made some real improvements to this new version, including tweaking the noise-canceling and adjusting the design for extra comfort. It's a fantastic upgrade and these won't cost you a cent more than the old XM2s. They are a little more expensive than most headphones on this list – compare them to the $229 Bose SoundLink II, which also offer noise-canceling - but the sound quality alone makes them worth the price. We found it rich and weighty, with satisfying power in the bass and great warmth on the vocals. The noise-canceling isn't quite as good as the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, below, but it's a minor difference. Those headphones don't have the same level of sound quality at all, making them an inferior option to the Sony model. The XM3s also have exceptional battery life - we got 28.5 hours at moderate volume, while the Bose headphones only delivered around 20. Ultimately, what Sony have done here is create a package that satisfies in just about every way. They are especially important if you travel a lot or just want to make your commute a little quieter...Read our in-depth review
See the Sony WH-1000XM3
Best Noise-Canceling Headphones
Battery Life: 19 Hours
What We Like: The best noise-canceling money can buy.
What We Don't: Very pricey, low battery life, dull appearance.
The new Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have the best noise-canceling technology on earth. Not even the stellar Sony WH-1000XM3, above, can beat them. You can select just how much noise cancelation you want to apply, and the isolation is fantastic. Bose even promise future augmented reality updates. While they’ve been vague on the specifics, we imagine this will be some sort of intelligent adjustment.
The problem is, as they stand, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are never going to dethrone the aforementioned Sony WH-1000XM3. The Bose headphones have significantly less battery life, cost $50 more and, despite a complete redesign, still managed to look as exciting as a pair of airplane headphones. In fact, we don’t even think they improve significantly on the previous model, the QuietComfort 35 II, which are $50 less expensive. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are worth looking at if you want top-class noise-canceling and are prepared to pay for it, but their huge price and notable flaws make them a second option at best. For better overall headphones, that are far more affordable, try the Sennheiser HD 4.40 at our current top spot - as long as you don’t need noise-canceling...Read our in-depth review
See the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
Battery Life: 11 Hours (3 Hours on Earbuds, Additional 8 Hours in Charging Case)
What We Like: Good sound and build quality, waterproofing.
What We Don’t: The charging case is massive.
Let’s rundown why we think the TOZO T10 are the best earbuds you can buy. They’re true wireless earbuds, which means there are no cables involved, and the convenience factor is off the charts. They offer good sound quality, with clear bass and warm mids. They’re also comfortable to wear for hours at a time, and the battery life will get you through a long work day without breaking a sweat. Then there’s the price: $50. That’s way less than the Airpods Pro ($235) or the Sony WF-1000XM3 ($230). The T10s are also IPX8 waterproof, which essentially means they can handle a short session in the pool. Want to go swimming with these for under half an hour at shallow depths? No problem.
Despite all the stellar positives we’ve listed, there are some downsides. The charging case is an ugly, oversized monster, with a pointless little belt loop on one end. It’s good for dropping into a backpack, but much less so for dropping into a pocket. Slightly pricier earbuds, like the Jabra Elite Active 65T, have a major advantage here - though their case lacks magnetic slots, which is something the T10s’ have. But if you can stomach that little inconvenience of the bigger case, you’ll find that the TOZO T10s are an excellent pair of earbuds that will more than satisfy most people. If you want a much deeper selection of earbuds to choose from, by the way, we have a full lineup of the very best right here.
See the TOZO T10
Best of the Rest
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Superlative sound, great looks
What We Don't: Sound bleed can be a problem, not great if you like bass.
We’d argue that most people wanting to buy headphones want a good mix of features - wireless, noise-canceling, AI assistants, or any combination of the above. That’s you, right? But sometimes, you want a pair of headphones that put sound quality above everything else. In that case, buy the Grado SR80e headphones. Grado are a Brooklyn company who have been making headphones for over fifty years; the audio quality they offer with the SR80e feels like it was engineered by humans, not machines. It’s rich and detailed, with a staggering amount of space. We love the looks, and the design really stands out from the crowd. Compared to just about every other pair here, the Grados just crush the competition.
You should not, however, expect any advanced features. In fact, the Grado SR80e offer virtually no additional features at all. While the sound quality is fantastic, as is the price, those looking for more advanced features may want to invest in something like the Sennheiser HD 4.40s, which are fully wireless and cost less. Also, if you work in a busy office, or want to wear these around other people, you’d better be prepared for them to remark on your choice of music. The SR80e headphones are open-back, meaning the rear of the drivers is open to the air. This is great for increasing space and depth in the music. We think you’ll love the effect, but it does mean that these headphones leak sound like crazy. Definitely don't plan on taking them on your next flight. For a quieter, noise-canceling option for travel and everyday use, see the Sony WH-1000XM3s, above.
See the Grado SR80e
Battery Life: 15 Hours
What We Like: Super light, comfortable, decent sound quality, highly affordable.
What We Don't: The headphones don’t fully fold up.
If you’re on a budget, the MPOW H7 are a revelation. They offer a light, comfy pair of over-ear headphones with solid battery life and highly acceptable sound quality. The audio certainly won’t bother the likes of the Grado, or even less-expensive models like the Tribit XFree Tune, but for forty bucks, it’s a lot better than it has any right to be. The build of the H7s is light and flexible, meaning they can take a beating. They may not be perfect for working out - those over-ear cups will get sticky if you sweat - but for the commute or walking the dog, they excel. Budget headphones can often be a letdown, but the MPOW H7 truly impressed us.
If we had one criticism, it would be that the headphones don’t fully fold up. The cups rotate inwards, but not upwards, meaning the headphones take up a fair bit of space in a bag or backpack. We don’t think that’s a dealbreaker, however, and if you can handle not having high-end sound, you’ll love the H7s. They might be basic, but they more than succeed in what they set out to do: provide a good pair of headphones at a very friendly price. If you can stand to spend $10 more, you may want to spring for the Cowin E7, mentioned above, which offer more features and better battery life.
See the MPOW H7
Battery Life: 24 Hours (4 Hours on Earbuds, Additional 20 Hours in Charging Case)
What We Like: User-friendly, incredible cancelation, excellent battery life, superb call quality.
What We Don't: Low waterproofing, noise-canceling really seals you off from the outside world.
Everything about the Apple AirPods Pro is extraordinary. They are incredibly easy-to-use, pairing with your iPhone in moments, and with your Android phone in only a few more moments. The bass has improved from the original model, and the battery life and call quality are outstanding. Crucially, it’s the noise-canceling that wins the day here. Apple provides software to help you find the best tip size, creating a good ear seal, which means that the cancelation technology is already starting from a good place. The result? Complete and total silence. If you travel a lot, or commute regularly, the Apple AirPods Pro could be essential.
Were it not for their high price, the AirPods Pro would probably place above the TOZO T10s, which offer far better value. As it is, their high price raises an eyebrow – although you can get the original AirPods for around a hundred dollars less, if you’re prepared to forego the excellent noise-canceling. Plus, the AirPods Pro have an IPX4 waterproof rating, which is more than enough to handle a few splashes and some light rain, but not enough to protect them if they fall into a puddle. If you want something with more waterproofing, the aforementioned TOZO T10s offer IPX8 protection, making them all but impregnable. Regardless, the AirPod Pros are some of the best headphones we’ve ever tested, and offer some of the best technology.
See the Apple AirPods Pro
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Outstanding sound quality, funky design.
What We Don't: The Y50s have some comfort issues.
The AKG Y50s are on-ear headphones, meaning the cups sit on top of the ear, as opposed to over it, like the Cowin E7s above. We don’t normally recommend on-ears, which can suffer from sound quality issues, but we believe the Y50s are fantastic. If the design of the Grado SR80e isn’t your thing, the Y50s are an excellent alternative. They have funky, eye-catching design, and provide rich depth and detailed sound. Although they aren’t wireless, we find them to be lightweight and well-made, which is always a nice feature.
However, these headphones do have some comfort issues which keep them out of our top five. We found that the small ear cups were a tad uncomfortable over long periods, pinching our ears too tightly. They also tended to get uncomfortably warm. If you listen to music for hours at a time, the Y50s may not be the best option for you; we’d suggest the Cowin E7 in that case, or the MPOW H7 if you’re looking for a less expensive pair. But, if you’re looking for a great-sounding boutique headphone for under $100, and don’t mind the lack of wireless connectivity or the comfort issues, then give the AKG Y50s a shot.
See the AKG Y50
Battery Life: 37.5 Hours
What We Like: Seriously impressive battery life, powerful bass.
What We Don't: Annoying controls.
Do you hate having to charge your gadgets or value battery life above all else? Then the Tribit XFree Tune should be your first choice. The battery life in our tests was ridiculously impressive! At 37.5 hours, it smoked the far-more-expensive Sony WH-1000XM3 by nearly 10 hours. It also doesn’t hurt that the headphones both look and sound really good, with thick and dynamic bass. The latter is far better than that offered by the Beats by Dre Solo3 Wireless, which cost more than three times as much. The XFree Tune are comfortable to wear, and perhaps best of all, are affordable. At $42, they are cheaper than the Cowin E7s, but keep in mind that they don’t have noise-canceling capabilities.
Regardless of the excellent battery life, we aren’t fans of the controls, which are annoying and finicky to use. We frequently found ourselves fighting with the headphones, which is not a good situation to be in. However, that issue aside, the Tribit XFree Tune impressed us in some areas and will do well for wireless listening.
See the Tribit XFree Tune
Battery Life: 19 Hours
What We Like: Impressive noise-canceling, best case in the business.
What We Don't: Dull sound quality, high price despite age.
If you want noise-canceling, then Bose are the name to go for, and the QuietComfort 35 IIs are the best headphones they’ve ever made. The cancelation is superb and almost entirely blocks out the world around you. The noise-canceling may be slightly below that of their newer Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, but those headphones are far more expensive and not as good overall as the QuietComfort 35 IIs. We also think these headphones are superior to the Sony WH-1000XM3s for cancelation, but the Sony headphones offer better sound quality. We also adore the carry case, which is perfectly light, handy, and has interior pockets.
But - and it’s a big but - the great cancelation comes at a price. The sound quality of the QuietComfort 35 IIs isn’t nearly as good as other similarly-priced models - especially in comparison to the Sony WH-1000XM3s, which sound fantastic. Furthermore, given the age of the QuietComfort 35 IIs, they really should have had a price drop by now. Their $349 price tag is the same as when they first came out. You may want to wait for a discount or invest in the less-expensive Bose SoundLink II headphones, below, which offer equally decent cancelation...Read our in-depth review
See the Bose QuietComfort 35 II
Battery Life: 23 Hours (5 Hours on Earbuds, Additional 18 Hours in Charging Case)
What We Like: Stellar sound, super comfy, good cancelation.
What We Don't: Expensive for what you get, volume issues.
If you’re looking for noise-canceling, but hate bulky over-ear headphones, Sony have you covered. The WF-1000XM3s are among the very few earbuds to offer noise-canceling, and one of the only models to do so without a bulky control module. They have good cancelation too - not quite up there with the expensive Apple AirPods Pro but still solid. Plus, the sound quality is magic and the WF-1000XM3s are comfy to wear for long periods of time. If you want the best true wireless earbuds around, and money is no object, then these are the ones to buy.
The WF-1000XM3s have some great features, but over $200 for earbuds is a lot to ask, especially when they have one frustrating flaw that might actually turn some away. Despite excellent touch controls, which isn’t as easy to pull off as you might think, there’s no volume control. You’ll control the volume entirely with your phone. That means that, if your phone volume is left on maximum by accident, you’re going to be blasted with noise. We get why Sony left off the volume controls - they’re tough to achieve on earbuds - but it’s still something that might be an issue for some...Read our in-depth review
See the Sony WF-1000XM3
Battery Life: 37 Hours
What We Like: Massive battery life, can take a pounding.
What We Don't: Distorted bass, weak overall sound.
Beats headphones are popular for a reason and the Solo3 Wireless have some definite pluses. The most important one – this is especially relevant if you value reliability – is that they can take a pounding. The flexible plastic design can handle being knocked around in a bag and the lightweight Solo3s are ideal for the gym. While we think the AKG Y50s are better headphones overall, they aren’t wireless. The Solo3 not only fulfil those criteria, but are also perfect if you have an iPhone. Thanks to the new W1 chip, pairing is instant, without the need to fiddle with Bluetooth connections. And the battery life is absolutely enormous, second only to the Tribit XFree Tune.
But these features do come with a significant downside, which is the sound. It’s not great. The bass, in particular, feels woolly and unfocused. Those looking for better sound should check out the less expensive AKG Y50s, or the wireless Cowin E7s. If you’re not too fussed about precise sound quality, however, the Beats Solo3 Wireless have plenty to recommend about them. Beats’ newest over-ear model, the Beats Solo Pro, are a decent alternative with better sound quality, but are also more expensive...Read our in-depth review
See the Beats Solo3 Wireless
Battery Life: 28 Hours
What We Like: Hyper Speed Charge feature, light and comfortable build.
What We Don't: Don’t offer anything particularly special to compete with other models.
The Taotronics SoundSurge 60 are a reasonably standard pair of headphones that have at least one killer feature. It’s called Hyper Speed Charge, and it guarantees you two hours of battery life from five minutes of charging. If you find yourself pushed for time on a regular basis, or forget to charge your headphones, this feature could be a game changer. And given the impressive 28 hours of battery life overall, the SoundSurge 60 definitely deserve a spot on this list. They are also light and comfortable to wear, though not quite as comfy as the less-expensive MPOW H7.
Unfortunately, if the Hyper Speed Charge doesn’t sway you, then there’s not a lot left in the barrel here. Compared to other headphones in this price range – we’re thinking of the Tribit XFree Tune and Cowin E7 – there’s nothing particularly special or noteworthy about the SoundSurge 60s. They’re a good alternative, but shouldn’t be your first choice. What is worth noting is that there’s a version available with noise cancelation for $10 more, but it’s very poorly implemented, and we suggest spending your money elsewhere.
See the Taotronics SoundSurge 60
Battery Life: 15 Hours
What We Like: Comfortable, lets you pair two sources at once.
What We Don't: Still quite expensive for what’s offered.
Let’s say you don’t need noise-canceling, but you’re still interested in reliability and comfort. In that case, it’s worth considering a pair of slightly older headphones – the Bose SoundLink II. They don’t have the excellent noise-canceling of their Bose brothers, the QuietComfort 35 II, but they are significantly less expensive. The $120 drop in price gets you a pair of very decent wireless headphones, that are exceptionally comfortable, and sound solid. They also have a great feature that lets you pair two devices at once via Bluetooth, meaning you can watch a video on your tablet and then effortlessly switch back to listening to music on your smartphone.
However, the Bose SoundLink II still feel quite expensive for what you get. Yes, they’re comfortable and the twin source pairing is handy, but it’s very hard to argue that these offer better value than models like the Cowin E7 or the Tribit XFree Tune, both of which cost significantly less. The sound is good, but it’s not that good. Ultimately, these are the perfect choice for anyone who doesn’t want to pay the earth for headphones, but is still prepared to part with a little money for comfort and handy features...Read our in-depth review
See the Bose SoundLink II
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Absurd sound quality for the price.
What We Don't: Very basic.
It’s rare for us to recommend a pair of over-ear headphones under $20. Below that price point, shortcuts are typically made, but the Sony MDRZX110 are one of the few exceptions. Sony are known for quality, and even though the MDRZX110 are a budget offering, there’s plenty to recommend about them. The chief reason to buy these is the sound quality, which is a lot better than it has any right to be. The bass is a little underpowered, but there’s a lot of detail and clarity in the audio. They are also comfortable and light. If you have less than $20 to spend, but still want quality, you should choose these over the Panasonic Headphones RP-HT161, below. Those are a little more expensive, and not quite as good.
However, unless you are seriously on a budget, the Sony MDRZX110 may prove a little too basic. They have almost no advanced features – no wireless, no noise-canceling – and the design and build are about as simple as you can get. We do think they perform well, especially for the ridiculously low price of $15, but for only a few dollars more you could get the excellent MPOW H7 – a fully wireless pair of headphones that offer great sound quality.
See the Sony MDRZX110
Battery Life: 37 Hours
What We Like: Excellent battery life for the price.
What We Don't: Major issues with the sound.
If you want outstanding battery life, but don’t want to pay for it, we strongly recommend the Anker Soundcore Life Q20. In wireless mode, and with noise-canceling activated, they will run for 37 hours. That’s longer than the similarly-priced Cowin E7 and Taotronics SoundSurge 60. Additionally, they have efficient charging, with five minutes of charging providing four hours of playback. That’s actually better than the Hyper Speed Charge feature found on the Taotronics SoundSurge 60, above.
However, despite the great battery life, we don’t think the Anker Soundcore Life Q20 should be your first choice at all. We encountered some pretty major issues with the sound, especially in wired mode. The bass felt dull and lifeless, and there was hardly advanced detail in the audio at all. Very obviously, different people have different expectations of sound quality, but even at a basic level, the Soundcore Life Q20 clearly had problems. We love the battery life, and think they deserve a spot on this list, but the Soundcore Life Q20 should not be your first option.
See the Anker Soundcore Life Q20
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Loud, satisfying bass.
What We Don't: The cord is a nightmare to use.
As one of only two pairs of over-ear headphones on this list for under $20, the Panasonic Headphones RP-HT161 are perfect if you like things to get loud. Their powerful drivers can really crank out the volume, which is great if you like to occasionally blast music. The bass is exceptionally satisfying, and far better than many cans that are reputed to have a great bass – likely even better than the expensive Beats Solo3 Wireless. You should always be careful when playing music loudly, as you don’t want to damage your hearing, but enjoying short bursts of loud music (no more than a minute or so) shouldn’t be a problem with these.
However, if you’re in the market for a budget pair of headphones, we recommend the MPOW H7 or Sony MDRZX110 over the Panasonic Headphones RP-HT161. Our main reason is the cable. It’s absolutely awful; long, unbelievably frustrating, and prone to tangles. If you plan to listen while seated at a desk or on the couch, you’ll be fine, but you can forget about taking these headphones out and about. We think that, while the Panasonic Headphones RP-HT161 have their pluses, there are better options available – especially the Sony MDRZX110, which are actually less expensive.
See the Panasonic Headphones RP-HT161
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Ridiculously-good sound for the price.
What We Don't: About as basic as they come, with no modern technology.
You read that price right. We didn't leave off a zero, we promise. The VE Monk Plus are one of the best pairs of budget buds you can buy, with sound quality that beats far more expensive models like the TOZO T10s. Listening to the Monk Plus for the first time, with expectations set firmly at zero, is a startling experience. The sound is incredibly lifelike - far more than the price tag would suggest. Admittedly, they can't beat models like the Sony WF-1000XM3, which obviously sound better, but they more than hold their own.
However, $9 buys you good sound, but not a lot else. The Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus have no in-line microphone, no wireless functionality, and no noise-canceling. The cable can’t be removed and the build is flimsy, but at this price, there’s very little to complain about. If all you want is a pair of solid earbuds, without the bells and whistles, look no further than the Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus.
See the Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus
And For When You Win The Lottery
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: That bass!
What We Don't: Uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.
Were it not for the fact that the price puts it out of reach for most people, the AUDEZE LCD2C would be at the very top of this list. Make no mistake: these are the best headphones under $1,000. While the overall sound is excellent, our love comes down to one thing: the incredible, life-changing bass. These headphones – the full name of which are the LCD2 Classic – are the budget version of the original LCD2. AUDEZE ditched the wooden cups of those headphones, but kept the sound signature, which means bass that is deep, rich, and glorious. We know it seems like these headphones cost a lot, but trust us, they will reward you for years to come
However, these headphones are mostly suited for at-home listening. You'll definitely struggle taking these headphones away from your desk or couch, as they don't fold up, can feel heavy, and are uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. You also shouldn't expect noise-canceling, but then again, you don't want anything to mess with that incredible audio quality. If you want to see more examples of high-end headphones (that may or may not cost an arm and a leg) check out our list of the best high-end headphones. Talk about drool-worthy...Read our in-depth review
See the AUDEZE LCD2C
|Sennheiser HD 4.40||$99||Yes||No||28 Hrs||No||18Ω||113dB|
|Cowin E7||$50||Yes||No||28 Hrs||No||Unknown||Unknown|
|Sony WH-1000XM3||$350||Yes||Yes||28.5 Hrs||No||47Ω||104.5dB|
|Bose NC Headphones 700||$399||Yes||Yes||19 Hrs||No||Unknown||Unknown|
|TOZO T10||$40||Yes||No||11 Hrs||IPX8||Unknown||Unknown|
|MPOW H7||$40||Yes||No||15 Hrs||No||Unknown||Unknown|
|Apple AirPods Pro||$235||Yes||Yes||24 Hrs||IPX4||Unknown||Unknown|
|Tribit XFree Tune||$42||Yes||No||37.5 Hrs||No||Unknown||Unknown|
|Bose QuietComfort 35 II||$349||Yes||Yes||19 Hrs||No||Unknown||Unknown|
|Sony WF-1000XM3||$230||Yes||Yes||23 Hrs||No||Unknown||Unknown|
|Beats Solo3 Wireless||$200||Yes||No||37 Hrs||No||Unknown||Unknown|
|Taotronics SoundSurge 60||$60||Yes||No||28 Hrs||No||Unknown||Unknown|
|Bose SoundLink II||$229||Yes||No||15 Hrs||No||Unknown||Unknown|
|Anker Soundcore Life Q20||$60||Yes||Yes||37 Hrs||No||Unknown||Unknown|
|VE Monk Plus||$9||No||No||N/A||No||64Ω||113dB|
*WP = Waterproof rating. Here's what it means.
- Over-Ear vs. On-Ear vs. In-Ear
- Wired vs. Wireless vs. True Wireless
- Sound Quality
- Call Quality
- Battery Life
- Bluetooth Pairing
- Working out With Headphones
- Headphone Smart Assistants: Google, Alexa, and Siri
- Impedance and Sensitivity Explained
- Are Headphones Bad for You?
- Stepping up to a Headphone Amp
There are three types of headphone builds you’ll encounter in the wild, and it’s worth knowing the advantages and disadvantages of each one before you make your pick. The one you go for will depend on what you value more: sound quality or convenience.
Over-ear headphones, as the name suggests, enclose your ears completely with large padded cups, isolating them from the outside world. The cups will be joined by a headband, which is why some manufacturers use the slightly jargony term 'circumaural' - it means the headphones in question cover the entire ear and nothing more. They can be wired or wireless - here’s more on the key differences - and are fantastic for immersing yourself in sound.
They are also generally more comfortable, and because of their larger size and increased power capacity, they tend to offer better sound quality. That's why most high-end, audiophile headphones tend to be of this type. That being said, they can be bulky and it's tougher to make them portable other than making them fold up for travel. You'd go for this type of headphones if sound quality and advanced features, like noise-canceling, are at the top of your priority list. You also need to be OK with a little extra weight and slightly less convenience. The best overall headphones on this list, the Sennheiser HD 4.40, are over-ear headphones.
These are far less common, and bridge the gap between over-ear and in-ear headphones. Instead of enclosing the entire ear, these have pads that rest on the outside of them. They tend to be lighter and more flexible than over-ear headphones, but you can generally expect to encounter sound that isn't as good. They can also be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time, as they tend to pinch the skin of the ear. There’s only one pair on this list: the Beats Solo3 Wireless (full review here). Generally speaking, we'd avoid going for this type unless there's a compelling reason. Over-ears provide better sound and isolation, and there's often not a lot of difference in weight. By the way, if you see the term 'supra-aural', it just means on-ear. You have our permission to write angry emails to companies who use this jargon.
In-ears, or earbuds, are perfect if what you want is a lightweight, portable solution; something you can hang around your neck or sling into a bag. Their plus points are obvious, being that they’re much lighter than traditional over-ear headphones, and can often offer better isolation. With a good fit in the ear, they will effectively block the outside world, as well as boost certain elements of the sound, like the bass. They come in three forms: traditional wired earbuds, wireless earbuds (which are joined by a cable, and connected to your phone with Bluetooth) and true wireless (which have no cables at all).
There are, however, a few downsides. You'll need to experiment a little to get a good fit - most in-ear headphones come with multiple interchangeable tips, just for this purpose. You're unlikely to find features like noise-canceling on in-ears, as it's hard to implement in such a small housing. And they are, of course, easier to misplace. Regardless, there are plenty of fantastic in-ear headphones available, like our office favorite, the Apple AirPods Pro. You'd buy those, or something similar, if you wanted good sound in a small, portable package.
There are three types of headphones your encounter in the wild, and it’s worth knowing the advantages and disadvantages of each one before you make your pick. They are all significantly different, so it’s worth getting to know them.
Wired headphones and earbuds are the most traditional type. They are, as you’d expect, connected to the playback device with a cable. Very obviously, these headphones don’t use a wireless Bluetooth connection, and so the big disadvantage is that you will always be tethered to whatever you have connected to the headphones. That’s obviously quite inconvenient, and of course, you do have to deal with things like cable tangles as well, particularly with wired earbuds.
However, these small inconveniences don’t mean that you should reject wired headphones entirely. One of the big advantages they have is that their sound quality is usually much better than their wireless equivalents. They don’t need to carry internal conversion and amplifier circuitry to translate a Bluetooth signal into actual sound, so a large part of what you’re paying for goes to the actual construction of the headphone drivers themselves – the parts of the headphone that reproduce sound. In other words, if you value sound quality, wired headphones will give you the best bang for your buck. We recommend the Grado SR80e headphones. At $148, they are not just among the best wired headphones available, but also among the most affordable.
You’ll often hear the old myth that wireless headphones can never compete with wired for sound quality. That’s simply no longer true. Bluetooth – the standard way of transmitting audio to wireless headphones – has gotten much better in recent years. The current top tech - Bluetooth 5.0 and aptX/aptxHD, which are explained below - offer excellent audio quality. If you see either of those, you know you've made a wise choice.
Wireless headphones are far more common than traditional wired models these days and for good reason. It’s not just that their sound quality is competitive; it’s that they are far more convenient. While you will have to charge them and deal with the occasional incidents of low battery, they’re much easier to simply throw into a bag, slip into your pocket, or hang around your neck. If you’re looking for a pair of headphones to use outside of home or work, or you don’t want to plug them in and have to deal with wires, then wireless headphones are not just an acceptable choice, but an excellent one. We like the Sennheiser HD 4.40 wireless headphones, which are currently ranked at the top of our list. They match decent sound quality with good design and comfort, and of course, superb convenience.
Wireless headphones can be either full-size over-ear models or earbuds. Note that a pair of traditional wireless earbuds – where the two buds are connected by a single cable – are different to true wireless earbuds, which we will explain below.
Wireless Bluetooth in-ear headphones are connected with a short cable, but with true wireless, there are no wires at all. You'll have two small, separate earpieces, both connected via Bluetooth. This is a super-convenient way to travel with headphones, but you'll have to be careful not to lose one. You'd choose this type if you're done with cables and want something easy and simple to use. True wireless are also ideal for working out.
Right now, one of the best pairs of true wireless earbuds you can buy cost around $50. You wouldn’t expect this, as the technology is relatively new and leading models tend to be expensive, but the TOZO T10 are an exception. We found them to be a great way to experience the convenience and simplicity of true wireless earbuds. The sound quality is roughly the same as that found on traditional wireless headphones, so you won’t lose anything there.
There’s an old myth that good sound quality is expensive. We very much disagree with that and, as exhibit A, we present the Venture Electronics Monk Plus earbuds. Their total cost is under $10 and the sound quality is really freaking good. They’re even better than some models that cost more than ten times the price. While those earbuds have their downsides, sound quality isn’t one of them.
So, if you’re looking to buy a pair of headphones with sound quality as your prime consideration, you shouldn’t automatically assume that more expensive headphones sound better. For example, a pair of wired headphones and a pair of wireless headphones that both cost $100 would still sound dramatically different. Not only would they have different internal construction and tuning, but the wireless headphones would also have an internal amp, creating a markedly different sound signature. In addition, some headphones will have better bass than others, or better treble, and these things will have nothing to do with the actual price tag. They will have everything to do with the type of experience the manufacturer is trying to create, and the quality of components used to make the headphones.
You might be sighing with discomfort right now, thinking that you’ll have to do a lot of reading and testing before you find a pair that suits your needs. While research is always a good idea, there are definitely some principles you can use to guide you. In general, earbuds tend to provide better bass than other models, provided you get a good seal in your ear canal. Because there’s less space for the soundwaves to manoeuvre, you’ll often get higher quality bass from these models than you would from a pair of larger, over-ear headphones. In contrast, while over-ear headphones can certainly provide decent bass when called upon to do so, they are often a little more agile in terms of treble than their in-ear counterparts. Again, these are general principles. In our picks on the list above, we will always talk about the sound quality – not just how good it is, but who it’s best suited for. That should hopefully help you make a good choice.
Noise-canceling tech was, no joke, one of the biggest leaps forward for headphones we've ever seen. It's a deceptively simple idea: microphones embedded in the headphones record the sound of the outside world, then apply a digital process known as phase cancelation to it, effectively silencing it. That means that any sound coming into the headphones from the outside world is removed, leaving just your music.
Noise cancelation - sometimes referred to as Active Noise Cancelation (ANC) - works best when used on low, rumbling sounds, like plane engines, trains, and freeway traffic. This makes headphones that use it absolutely ideal for travel and commuting. Cancelation standards have gotten so good that, once you've tried it, you'll wonder how you ever managed without it. It used to be that you would only get noise-canceling technology in full-size over-ear headphones, but that’s no longer the case. Manufacturers like Sony and Bose have made great strides in earbud noise-canceling. Sony’s WF-1000XM3 earbuds have stellar cancelation and we highly recommend them.
That being said, there are a couple of downsides to noise-cancelation that are worth knowing about. It won't completely block the outside world, and can often cause music to be ever-so-slightly muffled, which is something we noticed with the Bose headphones mentioned above. This is a typical side-effect of the cancelation, and it means that you are unlikely to find the technology in any high-end headphones.
Here’s the good news about taking calls on headphones. Microphone technology has gotten to the point where almost all headphones – certainly every single model on our list that has the ability to make and receive calls – will have good quality. You should, without exception, expect to be able to clearly hear whoever you are calling and for them to be able to clearly hear you. Many headphones, like the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (full review here), even use additional technology to clear things up further. The Bose headphones use four microphones combined with cancelation technology to isolate your voice from the world around you, ensuring that anybody talking to you will be able to hear you with no trouble at all.
But let’s say you don’t want to spend the $399 Bose ask for their technology. Our favorite pair of headphones for taking calls are the $235 Apple AirPods Pro. They do a fantastic job of picking up voices and handle calls with no difficulty whatsoever. Additionally, their use of the Siri virtual assistant means you can answer and make calls using your voice, which makes them an absolute breeze to operate.
You should never expect to get the advertised battery life out of a pair of wireless headphones. It's just not going to happen. While manufacturers usually don't lie about their battery life specs – and we would never accuse them of this without evidence – there is, shall we say, a certain amount of massaging that goes on within the industry. Battery life depends mostly on how loud the headphones are playing; more volume requires more power, which of course, drains more battery. To get their battery life specs, manufacturers will typically play headphones at a much quieter volume than most people would prefer. That's not what we do here. When we review wireless headphones, we make sure to leave them playing at 75% volume, which gives us a much better picture of how strong the battery is.
So yes, there's a bit of deception going on here, but you shouldn't let it put you off. Even if you knock a couple of hours off each listed battery spec, which is the result we usually get after testing, you still have more than enough battery in most cases. Battery technology has gotten better over time, and it’s rare to find a pair of headphones or earbuds that offers less than 15 hours of charge. You won’t have to pay a lot for this either. The Tribit XFree Tune, which cost under $50, boast a solid 37.5 hours of battery. That’s impressive, and we can’t see anybody needing more time than that.
If you have a pair of wireless headphones or earbuds, you will be pairing them using Bluetooth technology. Despite repeated questions from our commenters about whether there are any Wi-Fi enabled headphones available, we have yet to find any. That means that you will need to pair your wireless headphones with your device if you want to do any listening.
The actual procedure is easy. Every pair of headphones will include a simple set of instructions for doing this, but broadly speaking, all you need to do is put the headphones into pairing mode, enable Bluetooth on your device (such as a smartphone), and then select the headphones. In the future, the headphones and device should pair automatically, assuming they are both switched on and the device’s Bluetooth is activated. Some smartphones even offer the ability to pair multiple headphones at once, which is extremely useful. For example, if you and your partner both want to watch a movie on a plane, then the phone should be able to transmit audio to two pairs of wireless headphones simultaneously. No longer will you each have to settle for one earbud each.
Unfortunately, the world of Bluetooth is filled with jargon. The first one you need to understand is the number that is often quoted after the word Bluetooth, as in Bluetooth 4.2 or 5.0. Essentially, a larger number means that the headphones will be able to receive more audio data, and receive it faster. This means higher quality and fewer dropouts. Obviously, you want as high a number as possible, but the good news is that the differences between the levels are minor. For example, the $23 MPOW H7 headphones use Bluetooth 4.1. It’s not exactly the best out there, but is more than acceptable considering the highest level of Bluetooth right now is 5.0. You shouldn’t have any issues with the Bluetooth audio quality in slightly older models.
You’ll also often see terms like aptX and aptXHD. Broadly speaking, these are tiny software programs, known as codecs, that reduce the size of the audio file without affecting the sound quality. These are always good to have, although it is worth noting that both the source device and the headphones will need to be able to send and receive aptX. In other words, if your phone can transmit aptX audio, but your headphones can’t receive it, you will receive regular Bluetooth audio. aptX and aptXHD tend to be the province of slightly more expensive headphones, like the $349 Sony WH-1000XM3 (full review here).
By the way, we frequently get readers emailing in to ask about how to solve Bluetooth dropouts. These issues don’t just happen to cheaper headphones, either. Even more expensive models can sometimes suffer dropouts and lag. Unfortunately, there’s no concrete answer here, as a lot of it depends on not only the headphones being used as well as the source device, but also the environment. Tall buildings tend to adversely affect Bluetooth signal, as does anything between the device and the headphones, like a wall or even a cubicle partition. Ultimately, if this happens to you, the best advice we can give is to experiment with your surroundings before you start experimenting with your phone.
Gym sessions without music are no fun at all, so it makes sense to take a pair of headphones with you when you hit the weights or the elliptical. However, it’s worth noting that not all headphones are suited for gym work, running, or cycling. It’s not just that they become uncomfortable over time – over-ear headphones in particular tend to be culprits here, as they can become uncomfortably sticky when you sweat. It’s that the sweat you exude – and to a lesser extent, any rain you face while on a run – may actually damage the headphones.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to find out whether or not a pair of headphones is suited for the gym. It’s called an Ingress Protection rating. You’ll see this as the letters IP followed by two characters - for example, IPX6 or IP68. The first number refers to the level of protection from dust and small particles (an X means the headphones have not been rated for this). The second number – the important one – refers to how much water the headphones can take. Anything upwards of IPX4 will handle sweat and a bit of rain, and anything upwards of IPX7 can actually be dunked in water for a short period. This means that you can tailor your headphones to the activity. However, sometimes manufacturers do not note the IP rating at all. While this doesn’t mean that a pair of headphones won’t be fine with a little water or sweat, it does mean you should exercise caution. We’ve listed every headphone’s IP rating, if they have one, in our table above.
Smart assistants haven't quite taken over the world as their creators would have liked. Amazon may tout Alexa as the solution to all your problems, and Apple might urge you to let Siri run your life, but much of this is still confined to private spaces. It's very rare to see people talking to their virtual assistants when they're out and about. Somehow, it just feels wrong to ask "Siri, what's my next appointment?" in public.
That hasn't stopped headphone manufacturers from incorporating smart assistant functionality in their headphones. This is almost exclusively the domain of wireless models, some of which even include a special button dedicated to activating your chosen assistant. Some of the models on this list, like the $235 Apple AirPods Pro, are designed to be used exclusively with a particular assistant - in this case, Apple's Siri. Others, like the $349 Bose Quietcomfort 35 II (full review here), are entirely agnostic and allow you to talk to any virtual assistant you choose. If this is the kind of functionality you want, you'll need to take compatibility into account when you buy. If you're an Android user, for example, you might find it tricky to get your AirPods to communicate with Google Assistant. For the record, Google Assistant is our preferred choice. It’s the smartest and is best at responding naturally to both initial and follow-up questions.
Headphone specs can be overwhelming. Manufacturers like to list a lot of them, with minimal explanation, which is not super-helpful. But in reality, there are only two main specs you need to be aware of; even then, nothing bad is going to happen if you ignore them. These specs are impedance and sensitivity, and we're going to break them down here. If, by the way, you want a deep dive on these specs, we've got a full guide ready to go. If not, read on.
Impedance refers to electrical resistance. Talking about this means delving into some pretty gnarly math. So, look at it like this: it's a measure of how much power a pair of headphones takes to work. A smaller number means it needs less power from an amplifier to get to a decent, listenable volume. Impedance is measured in ohms (Ω) and is actually very easy to understand. Any headphones with an impedance up to about 32Ω can be run very happily off a smartphone. Between 32Ω and 100Ω, you can still probably use a phone, but you may struggle with volume. Above 100Ω, you'll almost certainly need a dedicated, separate headphone amp to provide enough power. For example, the Grado SR80e have an impedance of 32Ω, meaning it's entirely possible to power them just by plugging them into a smartphone. We have and they're glorious.
Sensitivity is closely linked to impedance and is a measure of how loud a pair of headphones can get at a given power input - usually one milliwatt. It's measured in decibels (dB), and the larger the number, the louder the headphones are. Really, that's it. If volume is important to you, this is the first thing you should look at. It's not a perfect metric - there are no objective industry standards, so manufacturer testing can vary - but it's a good starting point. The loudest headphones on our list are the $99 AKG Y50, which reach 115dB. By the way, you'll sometimes see sensitivity listed as Sound Pressure Level, or SPL.
Let’s get this out of the way right now. Wireless headphones do not cause brain cancer or vertigo. There is literally no evidence for this. While there is research that shows that electromagnetic fields may be messing with human DNA, there is absolutely no evidence that Bluetooth headphones – which put out very tiny amounts of radiation – are doing anything to you. Given what we know about radiation, you would have to listen for a long, long, long time to do any damage. Rest assured, wireless headphones are not going to do anything to your brain. The music you listen to might, but that’s your problem.
We’ll say the same for the claims that over-ear headphones make you go bald. Yes, if you wear your headphones all day every day without moving them, with the same patch of hair pressed down underneath them, then you can probably expect some thinning. But this will, again, take an exceptionally long time. Right now, there is zero empirical evidence that headphones are actually responsible for baldness. Mostly, it’s your grandpa’s fault. Sorry.
Deafness, on the other hand, is possible. More specifically, hearing damage over time if you play your music too loudly. This goes for any audio equipment. You might want to play your music as loud as possible, but you should be very careful about doing so for anything other than a short period of time. People’s ear canals and tolerances are different, but broadly speaking, you should always aim to play your music at the lowest level possible. The lower you go, the longer you will be able to listen. If you really do need to blast your tunes, do so for as short of a period as possible. Here’s a good trick we found over the years: if you’re struggling to hear your music at anything other than an inarguably loud level, then turn it down by degrees, spending a few minutes at each volume level before turning it down. Your ears will acclimatize and you’ll find yourself listening at safer volumes for longer periods of time.
You’ll have fantastic results with just about all the headphones on this list, but let’s say you want to step up your game to something a little more fully featured, with increased sound quality. Welcome to the wonderful world of headphone amplifiers.
We haven’t really gotten into it in this article, but every pair of headphones needs to be powered from somewhere. This means they need electricity to work and that power comes from an amplifier. For most people, the amplifier will be in their phone (if they are using wired headphones) or contained in the headphones themselves (if they are using wireless ones). Headphone amplifiers can be very small, generally speaking, as headphones don’t need a lot of power to work. However, one thing you can have a lot of fun with, if you have some cash and are so inclined, is to take a pair of wired headphones and pair it with a dedicated desktop or portable amplifier.
Let’s say you have a pair of $148 Grado SR80e. You could quite happily connect them to your smartphone, or you could buy a dedicated amplifier, like the Schiit Audio Magni 3 (full review here). This will not only supply the right amount of power to your headphones, but will also sharpen and improve the sound. It can be a fun and rewarding rabbit hole to travel down, even if you aren’t prepared to spend thousands of dollars. Headphone technology is becoming less expensive, and pairing a good pair of headphones with a good amp can be a blast.
By the way, it's entirely possible to connect wireless headphones to an external amp. After all, what happens when the battery runs out? Many come with a cable specifically for this, and all you need to do is connect it to bypass the internal headphone amp.