Best Headphones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best headphones you can buy in 2019.
Headphones are a superb way to boost your listening pleasure for comparatively little outlay. The very best headphones can revitalise the music you listen to, whether it's stored on your smartphone or played through your traditional hi-fi system.
But there are many types; in-ears, on-ears, over-ears, Bluetooth, noise-cancelling. If you're wanting a pair for home use, to plug a pair into your hi-fi system or portable music player, you'll probably want a pair of over-ear headphones. You'll then have to choose whether you want open-backs (which leak sound) or the more typical closed-backs (which don't leak sound).
To use with your smartphone, on the go, you'll have to decide whether you want the uber-portability of in-ears or the less intrusive fit of on-ears - and both styles vary in budgets, from under £30 to well over £300.
Your next decision is between wired and wireless. Wireless is great for its cable-free convenience and exercise appeal but it's a technology which generally attracts higher price tags compared to wired counterparts of similar quality.
And then there's noise-cancelling which may well be high on your hit list too if you're looking for a pair to accompany you in the daily grind or silence the sound on aeroplanes. Available on wired and wireless headphones, this functionality helps isolate you from the outside world by blocking ambient sound.
If you're still not sure which way to go, then take a look at our guide on how to choose the right pair of headphones. Then, below, take a glance at our very favourite pairs. We've covered all bases and price points when rounding up the best quality headphones on the market right now, so you've got the best chance of finding the right pair for you.
Best in-ear headphones
These Award-winning in-ears look and feel as if they should be more expensive. They're also a snug fit and extremely comfortable. And then there's the sound quality. Timing and organisation are excellent great sense of refinement. Lows are accurate and balanced, while highs sound sharp and precise.
Put simply, these amazing in-ears deliver on all fronts. If you want to spend a bit less or fancy flashing the cash, there'a always our list of the best in-ear headphones.
Read the full review: Klipsch R6i II
Meet the apex of true wireless in-ear headphones right now. The Sony WF-1000XM3 has an all-new Bluetooth chip which sharpens up music synchronization and a noise-cancelling processor which Sony claims offers a 40 per cent improvement on its predecessor below. There’s better in-ear grip than before too but, more to the point, these just sound great. They’re clear, expressive, detailed and deliver all the musical energy you could need to get you through the day. Listen and weep.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000XM3 review
This is a superb pair of in-ear headphones – such an easy listen, but interesting and captivating too. If you want an affordable upgrade for a pair of ageing Apple EarPods, these headphones deserve to top your hitlist.
You don’t need to ram them down your ear canal to get a comfortable and effective fit. And there’s a small three-button in-line remote control on the right-hand cable that should give functionality (including play, pause and skip tracks) across iOS and Android devices. They also come with a relatively robust, slimline carry case.
All in all, it’s a brilliant feat for a pair of in-ears that can be yours for under £70.
Read the full review: Beyerdynamic Soul Byrd
The SoundMagic E11C headphones are the latest addition to a range that represents one of the more surprising success stories of recent years. Founded in 2005, a relative flash in the pan compared to many audio companies, SoundMagic rose from obscurity to multiple-Award winners, most notably with its budget in-ear headphone range.
The E10 set the marker for sub-£50 excellence for a number of years, and following an E10C in-line mic and remote control upgrade, the E11C equivalent is new for 2019. And we’re happy to report, they’re still pretty magic.
Read the full review: SoundMagic E11C
The Sennheiser Momentum Free in-ears take all that's great about the Sennheiser M2 In-Ears and place it in a wireless package. They're an unfussy design with six hours of battery life and come with an in-line remote and mic. When they’re not pumping music into your ears, you can connect the earpieces to each other via integrated magnets.
They have the same powerful and dynamic sound you hear in the wired version. You also get an impressive sense of clarity and detail for the money with the Momentum Frees carving out bass, mids and highs with expert precision.
Read the full review: Sennheiser Momentum Free
In terms of pure, unadulterated sound, the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1s headphones are huge hitters at this price. They have a playful ease with dynamics and the vocal detail they offer is sensational. Every near crack of an artist's voice is breathlessly translated from recording studio to your ears through the 5.8mm graphene drivers.
There's a whopping 45 hours of possible battery life, thanks to the charge case, and a built-in noise-cancelling mic for calls and voice Siri/Google voice assistance. Otherwise, these are light on features compared to the Sonys above and not quite as comfortable. Nonetheless, they come highly recommended and have the water/sweat-resistance that sporty types will need.
Read the full review: Cambridge Melomania 1s
First thing's first. If you've got one eye on the AKG N40s, you need to use them with a suitable source. We're talking a premium(ish) portable music player or a smartphone and accompanying portable DAC/headphone amplifier. Otherwise, there's a good chance you won't be able drive them properly and the sound quality will suffer.
If you're satisfied your source is up to it, prepare to be impressed. They're smart looking and comfortable in-ears, with fitted over-ear hooks keeping the buds securely in place. They come with different filters so you can tweak the sound at either the top or bottom ends. It's nice to have the option, but even without using them, their spacious and immersive delivery sets them apart from the competition.
Read the full review: AKG N40
Given we first reviewed the Shure SE425s back in 2013, it's fair to say they've stood the test of time. Fun, absorbing, classy, polished and captivating are just a few adjectives that you can use to describe their sound. The level of finesse and refinement on offer is astonishing even at this price.
You can hear things you never thought were there even on recordings you know inside out. Sure, their looks might not appeal to everyone and they can be a bit fiddly to get in place first time round due to their over-ear design, but these are all about the amazing audio.
Read the full review: Shure SE425
The Bose SoundSport Wirelesses are more traditional wireless in-ear headphones, with a neckband cable incorporating a remote housing part-way down. The soft silicone rubber hooks trace the basic lines of the ear, making the fit secure and comfortable enough for running or the gym. They're also sweat resistant and IPX4 rated. The sound quality is perfect for this kind of earphone too – plenty of detail, smooth highs and powerful, punchy bass that might get you running that bit faster.
Read the full review: Bose SoundSport Wireless
These were the best true wireless earbuds we've tested but that was before we met their successors above. And we've tested a lot. Not only do you get truly great sound quality, with punchy drums and fantastic insight, they also pack noise-cancelling tech and both Google Assistant and Apple's Siri personal helper. Nine hours of battery should last all but the most marathon of commutes, and the selection of six ear tips should fit pretty much any wearer. The only downside is our test unit tended to drop out every now and again. But otherwise they have everything going for them. Highly recommended.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000X
Best on-ear headphones
Winners of multiple What Hi-Fi? Awards, the AKG Y50s hardly put a foot wrong with their impressive sound. They're balanced and insightful, uncover loads of detail and convey dynamics effortlessly. A neat design mechanism allows allows them to collapse and fold flat for easy storage. The leather earpads sit firmly on the ears and do a good job of blocking our external noise.
If you want a pair of on-ear headphones that are portable, stylish and affordable, then look no further than these AKGs.
Read the full review: AKG Y50
The Grado SR80es are exceptional and exceptionally odd headphones. Open-back on-ear headphones are a rarity and this pair show unwavering confidence in their unusual approach. These are lively headphones with excellent midrange and treble detail, as well as swift, deep bass for a pair of this size and style. They’re not the most relaxing listen and some won’t like the uncompromising nature of the midrange they present, but clarity relative to the price is excellent.
But because they leak sound and provide almost no isolation, they aren't ideal for out and about use on, say, public transport.
Read the full review: Grado SR80e
We are very impressed by the AKG Y50BTs. The company has managed to take one of our favourite products (the Y50s above!) and cut the cord, while maintaining a high quality. In addition to impressive clarity, detail and dynamics, they’re practical too. They’re comfortable to wear, and they don’t get warm too quickly.
Top sound, ease of use and a cool, well-made design – if you’re looking for an affordable pair of Bluetooth headphones, look no further.
Read the full review: AKG Y50BT
The Koss Porta Pros are a cheap pair of headphones and a lot of fun, and at around £30 they're tough to beat. Given the design first appeared in 1984, the Pros have an obvious retro look but the design also keeps them lightweight. You can toggle between a light or firm fit. The only downside is they're pretty much open-backed and quite leaky when you're out in public. If you can live with that, you'll be impressed by their upbeat, rhythmic sound.
Read the full review: Koss Porta Pro
Remaining unbeaten at this price, these hugely revealing open-back Grados are a compelling buy if you're after a pair for home use. They’re not the head-turners you might expect under £300, but they do bring a sturdy, solid build. And sound quality is unquestionable. Everything from their tonal balance to their transparency across frequencies to their timing and dynamic ability is class-leading at this price.
If you’re serious about sound quality and they fit your budget, what are you waiting for?
Read the full review: Grado SR325e
Best over-ear headphones
The Sony WH-1000XM3s have cemented the brand's position as king of noise-cancelling headphones, beating rivals like the Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs and Bowers & Wilkins PXs to top spot. For starters, they're a snug and comfortable fit and packed with useful features including an Atmospheric Pressure Optimiser, which maximises noise-cancelling performance at high altitude.
But it's the sound quality that really stands out. The Sony headphones use analogue amplification to great effect with an immense sense of spaciousness, loads of detail and enhanced dynamics.
Read the full review: Sony WH-1000XM3
Another What Hi-Fi? Award winner, the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 over-ears are portable, desirable and blessed with brilliant sound. They're dynamic, entertaining performers that get the balance between attack and finesse just right. Build quality is excellent too - the earpads are seriously comfy and isolate noise better than many rivals at the money. The 2.0s also come in two flavours, the AEi for iPhone users and the AEG for the rest, so you don't need to worry about compatibility.
Read the full review: Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Over-ear
If we had to choose one word that encapsulates both the design and sound of Beyerdynamic’s Amiron headphones, it would be ‘comfortable’. But luckily the sound is as impressive as the comfort.
At this price point, Beyerdynamic’s Amiron headphones provide an impressive sound that takes the whole frequency range in its stride. We like their clear midrange vocals, their tight timing, and the impressive way that they can handle challengingly messy songs.
On the whole, the ability of the Amirons will keep you happy no matter what they’re playing.
Read the full review: Beyerdynamic Amiron
These £1700 Sony's might look understated, but there's obsessive attention to detail. From the use of high-grade materials to the impressively engineered grilles and driver enclosures, every element of the Z1Rs has been painstakingly designed.
This means you'll need to partner them with a suitable high-end electronics to really make them sing, but you'll be left amazed by their sense of composure and their ability to extract detail and subtlety from a track. At the money, we don't think we've tested a better alternative.
Read the full review: Sony MDR-Z1R
Ask us to name the best sounding headphones we’ve ever heard and you can be sure that Focal’s brilliant Utopias would be in with a shout. They really are that good – though at almost three and a half grand, they ought to be. Essentially, these are the closed-back version of the Utopias. But on a technical level, much has been re-engineered to account for the different configuration.
Everything here has been given the premium treatment, from the drivers and specially designed venting system to the high quality leather and beautifully shaped metal parts. And they're suitably comfortable. The 3.5mm cable is a little on the short side, but there are at least other cable options.
Given the source electronics such a premium pair of headphones deserves, these Focals turn in a superb performance. Consider the likes of Chord’s Hugo 2 DAC/headphone amp (£1,799) with a suitable source such as a quality laptop and hi-res audio tracks. That done, you'll be treated to a sound that's detailed and spacious, with a powerful, agile bass. The Focal Stellia sound seamless and wonderfully integrated. The best headphones we've ever heard? Possibly.
Read the full review: Focal Stellia