Best on-ear headphones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best on-ear headphones you can buy in 2022.
The best on-ear headphones are a good middle ground between in-ears and over-ears; they don't burrow in your ears like the former and tend to be more portable (and less hot to wear) than the latter. As the name suggests, these unburdensome designs sit on your ears rather than covering them completely, which is a look you might prefer or find more comfortable.
There are fewer pairs in this style around compared to the larger over-ear designs that envelope your ears, but many of the big boys – AKG and Sennheiser, for example – still invest in this headphone type. And it's the sweet spot for many audiophile brands, such as Grado, too.
- Prefer over-ears? Here are the best over-ear headphones on the market
How to choose the best on-ear headphones for you
Then there's the question of what style you are after. An open-backed pair (such as the few pairs of Grado on-ear headphones below) will give a wonderfully open sound, but they leak the music like nobody's business and are therefore often limited to at-home use only. A closed-backed pair (like the majority you'll see below), however, won't leak sound much and therefore are more versatile and won't annoy people around you.
You should also consider how portable they are. Most pairs can physically fold up to fit in a pocket or small bag, and some are so light you could forget you have them on you. We'd always suggest checking out the fit in a shop if you can. Finally, you'll need to decide on a budget. Thankfully, our pick of the best on-ear headphones contains something for everyone...
Our favourite pair of on-ear headphones, the wireless Y400 are compact, foldable and come with a cable complete with in-line controls and mic for when you don't want to run down the battery with a wireless connection. They're colourful, too, coming in shimmery pink, green, blue and goldish-yellow finishes.
There's no noise cancelling, but we wouldn't necessarily expect it at this price. There is Ambient Aware mode, however, which lets in outside noise like dogs barking and car engines – handy if you want to avoid being bitten or run over. They automatically detect when you take them off and pause the music, too, saving you precious battery life.
The sound has much to like. It's spacious and three-dimensional. There’s impeccable timing throughout and the headphones deliver bass weight and power in spades. It's zealous to the point that some might prefer a slightly leaner listen, but in our eyes (and at this level) the Y400s get the balance just about right.
Read the full AKG Y400 review
The HD 250BT might not feature any luxury flourishes, but they're a good-sounding, durable and truly likeable set of budget on-ears.
The build is a black plastic affair, but it is functional and solid and features the firm’s traditional S-in-a-rectangle white branding on each ear cup. Said ear cups are nicely padded, and although the headband is not.
When it comes to sound, the HD 250BT sound a good deal more musically detailed, agile and rhythmically gifted across the frequencies than one might expect given the eye-popping price tag.
All in all, the HD 250BT are a superb budget buy – and a great way to experience what Sennheiser is capable of, without breaking the bank.
Read the full Sennheiser HD 250BT review
The SR80 have spawned many variants within the company’s Prestige Series in the three decades since, and the fact that they are still a part of the all-new Prestige X Series makes them the longest-running Grado model. The all-new SR80x succeeds the 2014-released, multi-What Hi-Fi? Award-winning SR80e from the previous Prestige E Series.
Everything we like about their predecessors – their nimble-footedness, expressive, rolling dynamics, and insight across well-defined frequencies – has been inherited, and the punch and panache that have made the Prestige models such born entertainers are very much also part of the SR80x’s sonic signature. These are far from rich or even warm in tone, but an extra generous sprinkling of refinement this time round has made their forward, clinical presentation all the more palpable.
Grado hasn’t torn up its own rulebook and revolutionised its legendary headphones, because it hasn’t needed to. But the tweaks made to the SR80x have certainly added value in the right direction. At this money, the SR80 model remains the finest in the market.
Read the full Grado SR80x review
The Prestige range of headphones has been at the core of Grado’s output since it was first introduced three decades ago. While the series has developed over the years, Grado has always done so in small evolutionary steps. The story remains the same for this new ‘x’ generation.
Put the range-topping SR325x next to its immediate predecessor (the What Hi-Fi? Award-winning SR325e), and there’s little to separate them, apart from the new flatter foam earpads, updated cable and lighter coloured stitching on the firmly padded headband. Still, the difference is in the listening: the SR325x sound notably cleaner and clearer than their predecessor.
These headphones have always been detailed and articulate performers, and that hasn’t changed, but the ‘x’ generation sounds that bit more precise and insightful.
These Grados once again prove that evolution is arguably a more reliable way of making things better than a headline-grabbing design revolution. The best just got that bit better.
Read the full Grado SR325x review
Austrian Audio may not be the most interesting of names for a new hi-fi manufacturer, but the people behind it are ex-AKG employees and some of the most experienced in the industry. And that maturity shines through in its Hi-X50 on-ear headphones.
While there’s a tendency to favour analysis over enthusiasm, it’s never taken far enough to be called unemotional or clinical. If you want to hear deep into the recording and track subtle instrumental strands, these cans do it better than almost anything else we’ve heard at this level (certainly if we stick to closed-back rivals).
At this price, there’s little to criticise when it comes to dynamic expression and low-frequency punch either. The Hi-X50 simply get on with the job with little fuss.
If you’re looking for well-designed wired on-ear headphones for portable or domestic use, these Austrian Audios should be right at the top of your shortlist.
Read the full Austrian Audio Hi-X50 review
The Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBTs are the Bluetooth version of the M50x wired headphones we gave four stars to around four years ago. This Bluetooth version behaves and performs in much the same way as that tethered stablemate – and that is pretty much a positive thing across the board.
They’re not overly analytical or neutral in their presentation of music, but make for an enjoyable, comfortable listen, which is what many of us want from a pair of headphones.
All in all, you get a fair amount for your money here.
Read the full Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2 review
These wireless on-ears are some of the best-value headphones at this price. They combine the bass boost of a street headphone with the kind of smoothness that should appeal to audiophiles – and we can't say that of many style-conscious budget wireless headphones.
They're tuned for impact rather than neutrality, with plenty of low-end thump, but if that's your thing they will do you proud. And it's not all bass: the mids are unexpectedly smooth and the treble pleasingly sweet. A very appealing all-rounder, and not just because of the price tag.
Read the full Urbanista Seattle Wireless review
The combination of wireless headphones and an open-backed design doesn't sound too clever, and there are times when we're out and about with Grado's GW100 that we find they don't really make sense.
Yet, away from planes, trains and cars we're impressed by the GW100's excellent sound. They're more articulate and insightful than just about any closed alternative. And through the supplied cable, which is sadly bereft of an in-line remote, the delivery is much the same – just blessed with a small extra dose of refinement and subtlety that serves as a reminder that wired is, ultimately, still the way to go if sound quality is paramount.
If you can cope with the open-back compromises there's just so much to like here.
Read the full Grado GW100 review
How we test on-ear headphones
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door.
Of course, testing on-ear headphones doesn't often require such facilities. What is important in our headphones reviewing process is that each pair is compared to the best in its price and style class – whether that's one standout pair or a few we favour the highest among the 100+ pairs we listen to each year for reviews and What Hi-Fi? Awards judging. What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, and we keep class-leading products in our stockrooms so we can always compare new products to ones we know and love.
We are always impartial and do our best to make sure we're hearing every product at their very best, so we'll try plenty of different types of music and give them plenty of listening time (and time to run in), while the wired headphones that might warrant being used with a DAC are tested with a suitable one. It's not just about sound quality, of course. If a pair has active noise cancellation, we'll ensure part of our testing involves using them in different environments.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team rather than an individual reviewer to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we're being as thorough as possible, too. There's no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.