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Best on-ear headphones 2021

Best on-ear headphones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best on-ear headphones you can buy in 2021.

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 than the latter. As the name suggests, they sit on your ears rather than covering them completely, which is a look you might prefer or find more comfortable.

When choosing the best on-ear headphones for you, there are a few things to keep in mind, such as what features you want. Bluetooth? Active noise-cancelling? And 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, however, are more versatile and won't annoy people around you.

You should also consider how portable they are. Most pairs fold up to fit in a pocket or small bag, and some are so light you could forget you have them on you. Check them out 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...

Best on-ear headphones 2021

(Image credit: AKG)

1. AKG Y400

The best on-ear headphones with wireless smarts

Specifications
Connector: 3.5mm (cable supplied)
Cable length: 1m
In-line remote and mic: Yes
OS support: iOS/Android
Bluetooth: Yes
Noise-cancelling: No
Battery life: 20 hours
Reasons to buy
+Expansive, detailed presentation+Impeccable timing+Classy build quality
Reasons to avoid
-Nothing at this price

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/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

Best on-ear headphones 2021

(Image credit: Austrian Audio)

2. Austrian Audio Hi-X50

Talented on-ear headphones that set high standards at this level

Specifications
Style: Closed-backed
Cable length: 3m
Wireless: No
Noise-cancelling: No
In-line remote and mic: No
Connector: 3.5mm
Weight: 285g
Reasons to buy
+Solid build+Forthright and informative sound+Even-handed nature
Reasons to avoid
-1.2m cable is an optional extra

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

Best on-ear headphones

3. Grado SR80e

The best on-ear headphones for sound quality, but they're not for everyone.

Specifications
Style: Open-backed
Cable length: 2m
Wireless: No
Noise-cancelling: No
In-line remote and mic: No
Connector: 3.5mm
Weight: 231g
Reasons to buy
+Great detailing+Lively audio+Tight bass
Reasons to avoid
-Sound could be more mellow

This is one of the few pairs on on-ear headphones in this list that are open-backed, meaning sound leaks like water through a sieve. But the upside is a more open, spacious soundstage – indeed, at this price, the dynamics, detail and clarity are all but unmatched.

They sound fast and nimble, able to jump between genres with ease, and the bass is clean and punchy. Some may find them a little tiring to listen to for long periods at high volumes and the design won't suit everyone, but you can't argue with the overall sound quality. 

An exceptional and exceptionally odd pair of headphones – and a current What Hi-Fi? Award winner, no less.

Read the full Grado SR80e review

Best on ear headphones

4. AKG N60NC Wireless

The best value on-ear headphones with wireless and noise-cancelling

Specifications
Bluetooth: Yes
Noise-cancelling: Yes
Battery life: 30hr
Charging: Micro USB
Built-in mic and controls: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Clear, punchy sound+Musical; balanced+Smart design
Reasons to avoid
-Nothing of note

One of the most compact and convenient pairs of noise-cancelling headphones we've ever tested, the AKG N60 NC deliver a superb performance for the money. They're a good-looking pair of on-ears with an excellent fit. Battery life is 15 hours with the noise-cancelling and Bluetooth engaged, and this ramps up to 30 hours when the noise-cancelling is turned off.

Bass delivery is powerful yet transparent with crisp, detailed vocals, soaring highs and convincing dynamics. You'd be perfectly content to wear these all day and for the money, they're extremely tough to beat.

Read the full AKG N60NC Wireless review

Best on-ear headphones

5. Urbanista Seattle Wireless

Excellent value wireless headphones that sound great for the price.

Specifications
Style: Closed-backed
Cable length: 1.2m
Wireless: Yes
Noise-cancelling: No
In-line remote and mic: No
Connector: 3.5mm
Weight: 172g
Reasons to buy
+Engaging audio+Perform well wirelessly
Reasons to avoid
-Bass could be better-Lacks aptX

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.

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

Best on-ear headphones 2021

6. Grado SR325e

The open-backed design might divide opinion, but sound quality is excellent.

Specifications
Style: Open-backed
Cable length: 1.7m
Wireless: No
Noise-cancelling: No
In-line remote and mic: No
Connector: 3.5mm
Weight: 358g
Reasons to buy
+Balanced tonally+Transparent across frequencies+Dynamic and expressive
Reasons to avoid
-Divisive styling

Be warned: like the Grado SR80e above, these are open-backed, which means they leak sound like anyone's business. That's great for home listening (as the sound is more open and spacious), but not so much for your daily commute – unless you want everyone knowing your guilty pleasures include Kylie and Black Lace.

If this doesn't phase you, go right ahead. Because the SR325e are one of the most successful pairs of headphones in What Hi-Fi? Awards history. Here, a sturdy solid build meets superb sound quality, with an expansive sound space really letting every instrument breathe. If you’re serious about sound quality and they fit your budget, what are you waiting for?

Read the full Grado SR325e review

Best on-ear headphones

(Image credit: Eric Jones at Jones Studio Ltd)

7. Grado GW100

Open-backed and wireless? Sounds like an odd combination but it works

Specifications
Style: open-backed
Cable length: No
Wireless: Yes
Noise-cancelling: No
In-line remote and mic: No
Connector: No
Weight: 170g
Reasons to buy
+Fast and exciting sound+Great with rhythms+Excellent detail
Reasons to avoid
-Open-back design means plenty of sound leakage-No isolation from environment

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

What Hi-Fi?

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