Choosing a pair of headphones nowadays is a tricky task for even the savviest of buyers.
There is budget to think about, of course – that's the easiest part. Then you’ve got to think about the form factor: do you prefer the comfy isolation of over-ears, the snug fit of in-ear, or the middle ground of on-ear? Do you want the reliable interruption-free boon of a wired connection or the blissful freedom of wireless? Is active noise-cancellation (ANC) important to you or can you happily live without it?
But even after answering those questions, buying blindly without doing proper research to determine how different pairs perform in the real world still puts you at risk of investing in a poor product. We’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve received a sample pair of headphones for review that on paper looks amazing but actually fails to deliver the goods when we put them through their paces.
This is why we’ve created a handy guide detailing the best headphones we’ve tested that you can buy, covering all types and budgets. Our expert team of reviewers have thoroughly tested every pair to ensure its audio quality and value for money are up to scratch, so you can trust our buying advice. Of over 100 pairs of headphones we review and judge for the What Hi-Fi? Awards every year, this eclectic nine are our absolute favourites...
Becky Roberts has been writing about headphones and hi-fi – not to mention other corners of the wide and wonderful consumer technology market – for 10 years. She is one of What Hi-Fi?'s go-to reviewers for both wired and wireless headphones, and an expert at picking the best-performing and best-value options for every type of buyer.
The quick list
The Sony WH-1000XM5 are the best-value wireless noise-cancelling headphones out there, with a winning combination of comfortable design, useful feature set and entertaining performance that will satisfy most people.
Best budget earbuds
Best budget earbuds
Truly brilliant value buds that manage to bring a lot of what makes Sony's premium wireless earbuds such a success without cutting too many corners too obviously. Compact design and great sound for modest money.
Best budget headphones
Best budget headphones
If you prefer an on-ear fit to an in-ear one, the Sennheiser HD 250BT are rare examples of how wireless headphones can be done on a budget. No luxury flourishes – just good sound and durable design.
Best premium earbuds
Best premium earbuds
Sony’s most accomplished and analytical wireless earbuds yet, the XM5 represent the best all-round buds with ANC, with Sony packaging everything we like about its over-ears into a practical, portable in-ear form.
The latest, second-gen AirPods Pro are the best-sounding AirPods earbuds, with improved noise-cancelling over the originals and a wonderfully rich, engaging sound that’s now up there with the class leaders.
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Best wired headphones
Best wired headphones
The latest model in a long and successful line of wired over-ear headphones, the SR325x are the ones to beat at this price point – and perfect for home use due to their open-backed (i.e. leaky) design.
Best for home
Best for home
Open-back wired headphones that sound as good as they feel (and trust us, they feel wonderful). With sound of the highest quality, the Amiron will keep you happy no matter what they’re playing.
The best headphones in 2023
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi? Our expert team reviews products in dedicated test rooms, to help you make the best choice for your budget. Find out more about how we test.
What follows are our expert picks of the best headphones currently available, spanning a range of styles and budgets. Every pair has been rigorously tested by our team of product experts to ensure it delivers great performance and value, so you can trust our buying advice.
It can be tricky for a manufacturer to push the sound performance of a product consistently from generation to generation, but that is what Sony has managed to do with the WH-1000XM5 wireless headphones, our new Bluetooth noise-cancelling over-ear favourites.
When we saw the official pictures of the Sony WH-1000XM5 when they arrived last year, we were more than a bit surprised. We wondered whether it was a wise move to give one of Sony’s biggest success stories in recent memory – the WH-1000XM4 that came before them – a major redesign. But it's paid off.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones might feel a little less premium than the outgoing XM4, but the jump in sound quality from the previous generation is a big one, and rivals once again have their work cut out to beat them. None have yet, despite very decent efforts by the Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless and Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2, which are decent alternatives if you value long battery life (Sennheiser) or more attentive listening (B&W).
Ultimately, if you are looking for a new pair of wireless noise-cancelling headphones and your budget can't stretch to the pricier, superior-sounding Apple AirPods Max, Focal Bathys or Mark Levinson No.5909, your auditioning should certainly start here. The previous WH-1000XM4 were already the best around – and are still very appealing, by the way, at their now-reduced price – but the XM5 are undoubtedly better for those who can afford them. Easy What Hi-Fi? Award winners.
Read the full Sony WH-1000XM5 review
|Sound||Musical and hugely entertaining, the best we've heard at this level||★★★★★|
|Features||Numerous control options, impressive app, but no aptX support or waterproofing||★★★★☆|
|Noise-cancelling||Brilliant, arguably best-in-class||★★★★★|
Best budget earbuds
Building affordable true wireless in-ear headphones is a different discipline from building expensive ones, but it’s no less tricky. In the WF-C500, Sony has managed to bring a lot of what makes its established premium true wireless in-ears (such as the WF-1000XM4 further down this list) such a success without cutting too many corners too obviously.
Yes, the WF-C500 can be bettered (and by quite a margin) for battery life, but you’ll be hard-pushed to find a more comfortable pair. And yes, you can buy greater outright scale of sound – but you won’t encounter a more complete control app. Some alternatives are a punchier and more ‘exciting’ listen, but very few strike a more convincing sonic balance. The C500 are very likeable indeed, and easily the best package you'll find at its very modest price tag.
They don't have active noise cancellation, which isn't surprising at this price, so if that feature is a must we would point you to the slightly pricier, next-model-up Sony WF-C700N or, if a long battery life is high on your list of priorities, the JBL Live Pro 2 TWS. Both are five-star (and therefore highly recommendable) earbuds, but if you don't need ANC or are willing to sacrifice it for a bargain buy, then the Sony WF-C500 are your best bet. Hence their current What Hi-Fi? Award.
Read the full Sony WF-C500 review
|Sound||Very few rivals strike a more convincing sonic balance||★★★★★|
|Features||No ANC, but good control app, 20-hour battery life and waterproofing||★★★★☆|
|Build||the Sonys are simple to get into position and will stay comfortable for hours once they’re there||★★★★★|
Best budget headphones
The HD 250BT might not feature any luxury flourishes, but they're a good-sounding, durable and truly likeable set of budget on-ears. At this price, that's very hard to come by.
This isn't to say their spec is bare. Features include Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX Low Latency, a 25-hour battery life, app support and Sennheiser’s beloved-of-DJs transducer tech. That tech produces a surprisingly (for this level) good performance. 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.
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, although the headband is not. For more aesthetic appeal, our only other highly recommendable option at the budget level is the AKG Y500 Wireless, which may be knocking on now but still offer a lot of bang for your buck where sound and design quality are concerned.
Other than that, there really isn't much competition around the Sennheiser 250BT's price point. But who needs multiple options when one is this good. 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
|Sound||Benchmark detail and musicality at this level||★★★★★|
|Features||In-app EQ, 25-hour battery life and aptX Low Latency||★★★★★|
|Build||Not very modern-looking but minimalist and nicely built||★★★★★|
Best premium earbuds
With the WF-1000XM5, Sony's managed to build on the huge success of previous WF models (namely the XM3 and XM4) and produce another sensational pair of true wireless earbuds.
There's a new design that is a big positive: the XM5 are comfortable, nice to use and noise-cancelling and call quality are up there with the competition. And if you’re looking for the clearest and most detailed sonic performance on the market right now, then the WF-1000XM5 produce it – and by quite some distance. They might not sound quite as fun as their predecessors – not quite as rich or full in the bass as we've come to expect from flagship earbuds from Sony – but they certainly move the game on in many aspects of performance, making them another winner.
Add to that a 24-hour battery life, Multipoint Bluetooth (so you can connect to two devices simultaneously), excellent noise cancellation (they seem to remove an extra layer of midrange noise compared to the XM4) and IPX4-rated sweat resistance, and this is a solid offering across the board.
The premium wireless earbuds space is a popular one, with many pairs from brands just as big as Sony vying for your attention. The ones we believe are worth considering aside from our number one pick are 1) the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II, which are more expensive but justify that extra outlay with a touch better sound quality and supreme ANC; and 2) the AirPods Pro 2 (below), which could win over iPhone fans with their iOS-friendly features and almost-as-good sound quality; and 3) the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3, for if you prioritise battery life and have an aptX HD/Adaptive Bluetooth phone that you wish to make the most of.
Still, as the best all-rounders for most people, we're sticking with the WF-1000XM5.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000XM5
|Sound||Stunning all-round sound quality only beaten by pricier Boses||★★★★★|
|Features||Great ANC and usability features, but aptX isn't on the menu||★★★★★|
|Build||Comfortable and more liveable than the XM4 for longer periods of time||★★★★★|
Not long ago, this accolade would've gone to the excellent-sounding AirPods Max over-ears – and maybe it will if the rumoured Max 2 raise the ceiling again. But the arrival of the second-gen Pro earbuds last year was even more pleasing, as it marked the first time an AirPods earbud received a What Hi-Fi? five-star review.
You see, the AirPods and AirPods Pro were always been one step behind the competition, particularly when it came to sound quality. They’ve been good-but-not-great wireless earbuds; lovely to use for iOS users, but never quite reaching the sonic heights established by the top noise-cancelling earbuds in this crowded and popular category.
That all changes with the latest Pro. The second generation of Apple’s flagship wireless ANC earbuds promises a more powerful processor, with advancements in active noise-cancelling, longer battery life, new features and, more importantly, better audio performance.
We certainly didn’t expect them to trouble the best-in-class competitors such as the Sony WF-1000XM4 higher up this list, but with the AirPods Pro 2, Apple has more than caught up. The Pro 2 are highly recommendable and arguably the number-one choice for iOS users.
What if your budget doesn't stretch or you don't need noise cancellation? The more affordable, non-ANC AirPods 3 are worth considering for Apple users for their iOS friendliness and spatial audio support, though they don't sound quite as good as we'd like them to, and that tip-less fit isn't for everyone.
Read the full AirPods Pro 2 review
|Sound||Balanced, clear and detailed sound, and spatial audio is a bonus||★★★★★|
|Features||Innovative iOS features – but not for Android users||★★★★☆|
|Build||Comfortable, with interchangeable silicone ear tips for a more secure fit and seal||★★★★★|
Best wired earbuds
Shure has plenty of experience with wired in-ear headphones, and it shines through in the Aonic 3. They're comfy and lightweight for starters. The headphone cable hooks over the top of your ears and keeps them secure at all times – there is a slight knack required to get the swivelling buds in place, but it'll become habit in no time.
Nine different eartip choices allow for excellent isolation, while an in-line remote and mic can control your tunes and answer calls.
And the Shures absolutely nail sound quality. They're dynamic and detailed and their sense of rhythm and timing needs to be heard. We can't think of any pair of in-ear headphones at this price that even comes close, and that's why they're What Hi-Fi? Award winners.
That said, while the Aonic 3 are truly fantastic earbuds and ideal for anyone looking to upgrade their bundled buds to a more serious proposition, they aren't exactly cheap and therefore may be out of reach for some buyers. If that's the case, the multi-award-winning SoundMagic E11 should be a first consideration. They offer the best-value performance below the Shure's asking price, despite being significantly more affordable, and have the bonus of an in-line remote.
At the other end of the scale, if your in-ear ambitions and budget surpass that of the Aonic 3, may we point you to the next-model-up Aonic 5 – the best in Shure's catalogue and indeed musical masters at their high-end level.
Read the full Shure Aonic 3 review
|Sound||Breathtakingly musical earbuds||★★★★★|
|Features||A case, adapter and in-line remote are onboard||★★★★★|
|Build||A knack is required to get the swivelling eartips in place, but then comfort is of the highest order||★★★★★|
Best wired headphones
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.
These headphones have always been detailed and articulate performers, and that hasn’t changed, but the ‘x’ generation sound that bit more precise and insightful than the previous SR325e – cleaner and clearer too.
It's important to note that these are open-back headphones, meaning they leak sound in and out and are therefore best for listening in quiet environments, undisturbed. Many of the best wired headphones sport this design, which allows soundstages to feel more open and spacious, though if preference or practicalities would see you hunting for a closed-back design (which doesn't leak sound), we would heartily recommend the closed-back Beyerdynamic DT 700 X Pro – also talented five-star performers that deliver a wonderfully rounded performance that’s as musical as it is informative. The open-back versions of these Beyerdynamics, the DT 900X Pro, would also be great buys if you really can't get over the Grado's dated design!
And if your budget doesn't quite stretch to the Grados (or Beyerdynamics), your best bet is the award-winning, one-model-down Grado SR80x (open-backs) or, next best, the five-star Austrian Audio Hi-X15 (closed-backs).
If you are looking for a quality pair of wired headphones around the Grado SR325x's level and are happy with an open-back design, though, put them at the top of your shopping list. Once you have a listen you’ll be glad you did.
These Grados once again prove that evolution is arguably a more reliable way of making things better than a headline-grabbing design revolution.
Read the full Grado SR325x review
|Sound||Hugely entertaining performance with excellent resolution||★★★★★|
|Comfort||Not everyone will like the thinner foam earpads – they they do sound better||★★★★☆|
|Build||Solid build, though not very modern-looking||★★★★☆|
Best for home
When it comes to Beyerdynamic’s Amiron headphones, one word springs to mind: comfort. The earcups and headband are made of Alcantara microfibres (which have a texture similar to suede) and microvelour, a material as luxurious as it sounds. The result is a pair of headphones you can wear for hours and hours on end without discomfort or irritation.
They're not just comfortable, but they sound fabulous too. We particularly like the Amiron's clear midrange vocals, tight sense of rhythmic drive and the way that they handle challengingly rhythms and beats without breaking a sweat. That's why they are current What Hi-Fi? Award winners at the business end of the wired headphones category.
Like the Beyerdynamic headphones above, they are open-backed and leak sound like a sieve, so the usual disclaimer about not listening on public transport applies. And at this level, you should definitely use the Amirons with a suitable DAC / headphone amp (whether that be an external one or one integrated into an existing system component) in order to get the most out of them.
If you have a healthy budget and want a stunning pair of headphones, the Amiron will keep you happy no matter the genre.
If your budget is even healthier and you're keen to get the most performance you can afford, the next pair of headphones on this list will be for you...
Read the full Beyerdynamic Amiron review
|Sound||An impressive sound that takes the whole frequency range in its stride||★★★★★|
|Comfort||you could easily wear these headphones for hours on end||★★★★★|
|Build||Solid, well made and luxurious to wear||★★★★★|
Best for audiophiles
If you have a greater budget that can extend past Beyerdynamic's Amiron to its flagship T1, you won't regret taking the plunge. The 10-year-old, original T1 open-back headphones are something of a touchstone for us as far as premium headphones go.
The main change between this third-generation model and its predecessor is that the new pair is easier to drive for laptops and mobile devices. The old model had a 600ohm impedance, while this new one takes that down to 32ohms.
The results are sound that's very similar to the originals but cleaner and clearer if anything, slightly less bright and a little more rounded in the treble too, making them a bit more forgiving of aggressive electronics and recordings. There's that same delivery of music with a palpable sense of power and authority, and vocals come through with nuance and clarity, too.
They’re comfortable enough for long listening sessions thanks to a nicely shaped, partially Alcantara-covered headband and generous velour-trimmed earpads. These aren’t the kind of headphones that impress on a short listen. However, given a few days or even weeks, it’s hard not to fall under their spell. We certainly have.
Once again, these are open-back headphones that leak sound in and out (and are all the better sounding for it), but very decent closed-back alternatives would be the brilliant Beyerdynamic T5 (3rd Gen). And if your budget is bigger still, we recommend you head on over to our best audiophile headphones buying guide, which feature the likes of the Sennheiser HD 820, Focal Utopia (2022) and Yamaha YH-5000SE at the top of the A-list pile.
Read the full Beyerdynamic T1 (3rd Generation) review
|Sound||As informative as you'll get at this price||★★★★★|
|Comfort||Light, padded and comfortable enough for long listening sessions||★★★★★|
|Build||Handsome and luxurious – universally appealing||★★★★★|
How to choose the best headphones
If you want a pair for home use, to plug into your hi-fi system or music player, then a wired pair of over-ear headphones is best. You'll then have to choose whether you want an open-back design (which leaks sound but offers sonic advantages) or the more traditional and common closed-back form (which isn't leaky). You can read all about the closed-back vs open-back headphones differences here.
For a pair to use with your phone on the go or for exercise, though, you might want something more portable. And if that's the case, you'll have to decide whether you want the uber-portability of the best earbuds or the less intrusive fit of on-ear headphones – and both styles vary in terms of budget and features. Your next decision? Whether you should go wired or wireless.
Wireless headphones and wireless earbuds are great for their cable-free convenience, but it's a technology that generally attracts a higher price tag compared to wired counterparts of similar sonic quality.
Then there are noise-cancelling headphones, which may be high on your hit list if you're looking for a pair to silence the outside sounds of everyday life. Noise-cancelling helps isolate you from the world by actively blocking ambient noise, and these days the feature is becoming more and more popular on premium wireless pairs. These days, wired noise-cancelling headphones are a rare breed.
If you're still not sure which way to go, take a look at our guide on how to choose the right pair of headphones. You might then want to delve into one of our specific buying guides (many of which are hyperlinked in this very section) if you're set on one style, but if you're open to a few types and simply after the best of the best, this is the page for you.
How we test 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 headphones don't often require such facilities (though we do often try audiophile headphones in our reference hi-fi system). 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.
We live with each pair for weeks during testing so we can see how they fare as all-round daily companions, clocking their battery life endurance, putting their build quality through the wringer, noting their comfort over long wears, and comparing their sound quality with other headphones of their type and price point. 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 – increasingly the case these days – we'll ensure part of our testing involves using them in different environments.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by multiple members of the testing team rather than an individual reviewer to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we're being as thorough as possible. There's no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict either, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.
Read more about how we test and review products at What Hi-Fi?
Are wired or wireless headphones better?
If you are looking to get the absolute best sound quality you can for your budget, wired headphones still have a considerable edge over wireless headphones when it comes to performance. Wired headphones are also more sustainable, of course, as they don't require batteries.
That said, wireless headphone performance is getting better every year and there are certain traditional features (such as active noise cancellation) that are increasingly only found in Bluetooth models, not to mention the fact that modern features such as spatial audio (for 3D immersive sound) and transparency mode (for amplifying external sound) are exclusive to wireless types. Their cable-free design is more convenient too.
Really, the choice comes down to your priorities. If it's sound, go wired; if it's convenience or next-gen headphones features, go wireless.
Should you choose headphones or earbuds?
Generally speaking, 'headphones' refer to on-ear and over-ear designs whose earpads nestle on or around your ears, while 'earbuds' cover in-ear models whose eartips bury into your ear canal. Which type you choose will depend on what you want to use them for, what performance ambitions you're aspiring to, and largely simply which design you prefer.
Earbuds are better for exercise as they're discreet and fit more securely than a bulkier on/over-ear design. As they shoot music straight into your ear canal, they tend to sound more direct too. They're smaller, of course, and so easier to carry around with you, and there's a much wider choice at the budget end of the market below, say, £50/$50/AU$80 where on/over-ear designs are harder to come by.
However, on/over-ear designs are the ones to go for if you want the best sound you can buy, as earbuds (especially wireless models) don't reach the same performance peaks at the highest end of their market. They tend to be less tiring to listen to over longer wears due to the space between your inner ear and the headphone driver, too, as well as comfier to wear for long periods without your ears getting sore. If noise-cancelling is important to you, an on/over model with ANC generally tends to be more effective than an in-ear pair with the functionality.
How much should you spend on headphones?
Headphones and earbuds vary wildly in price, from less than £20/$30/AU$50 to over 100x that. The answer on how much you should spend really depends on whether you go for a wired or wireless model, how serious you are about sound quality, and ultimately what you can spend or feel comfortable spending.
Typically nowadays, wireless headphones tend to be pretty universal on the features front, with active noise cancellation (ANC) and 20-hour+ battery lives spanning budget and premium price points. So what you're paying for is differences in sound quality and, in the case of Apple headphones for example, proprietary technologies that aim to enhance headphone listening and use beyond the necessaries (think Apple's spatial audio and audio sharing, say.) You can pick up a pair of decent-sounding wireless headphones or earbuds from about £100/$100/AU$200 or £60/$80/AU$120 respectively – we haven't come across many highly recommendable pairs below those figures – but the premium space comprising models costing around two or three times that is where you'll find not necessarily better-featured pairs but significantly better-sounding ones.
As for wired headphones, even (good) budget pairs can contend with the sound quality of mid-to-premium wireless headphones. If you're spending north of around £200/$200/AU$350 on a pair, we'd highly recommend partnering them with some sort of external DAC if your source is something like a phone or laptop to ensure you're getting the most out of them.