Best Headphones Buying Guide 2023: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best headphones you can buy in 2023.
These days picking which headphones to get is a tricky task for even the savviest of buyers.
First off you need to think about your budget. After all, if you're just a casual listener looking for something cheap to keep you entertained on the morning commute, then there’s no point investing your next rent payment in an expensive audiophile-level set.
Then you’ve got to think about form factor. Do you prefer the comfy isolation of a set of over-ears? The snug fit of in-ear? The middle ground of on-ear? Do you want the reliable interruption-free boon of a wired connection or the blissful freedom of wireless?
These are all questions you need to consider. But even after all that, here’s the rub. Even after answering all these questions and finding a set that ticks all the boxes you’ve marked, if you buy blind without doing your research to find out how they perform in the real world, you still risk investing in a poor product.
We’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve gotten a set of headphones that on paper look amazing, but fail to deliver the goods when we put them through their paces in our test rooms.
Which is why we’ve created this handy guide detailing the best headphones we’ve tested that you can still buy. We’ve checked every set personally to ensure its audio quality and value for money, so you can trust our buying advice.
This list also includes options for every type of headphone we test, so if you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for, but know the form factor, brand or connectivity you want, make sure to check out one of our more specific buying guides.
How to choose the best headphones for you
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If you want a pair for home use, to plug into your hi-fi system or music player, then a pair of wired over-ear headphones is probably 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).
For a pair to use with your phone on the go, 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 in-ear earbuds or the less intrusive fit of on-ear headphones – and both styles vary in terms of budget and features.
Your next decision is between wired and 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 ANC headphones (active 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.
Lastly, if you're a fitness fiend who wants to prioritise a secure fit and waterproofing, you're better off going for a pair of sport headphones.
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, or perhaps take a glance at our very favourite pairs across all styles, feature offerings and price points... which is where this page comes in.
Below is a round-up of the best-quality headphones on the market right now...
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 ANC favourites.
When we saw the official pictures of the Sony WH-1000XM5, 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 a major redesign. But it's paid off.
The Sony XM5 headphones might feel a little less premium than before, but the jump in sound quality from the previous generation is a big one, and rivals could once again have their work cut out. If you are looking for a new pair of wireless noise-cancelling headphones, your auditioning should start here. The older XM4 (below) were already the best around, but the XM5 are undoubtedly better for those who can afford to pay the premium.
Read the full Sony WH-1000XM5 review
The predecessors to the newer Sonys above, the WH-1000XM4 headphones are still competitive and – what will be the clincher for some – available at a lower price. While the new level progresses sound quality and arguably has a nicer design, these XM4 remain an excellent option if you're looking to save a few bucks.
A lightweight design, high levels of comfort, the convenience of Bluetooth and one of the best noise-cancelling functions currently on the market. Oh, and they sound fantastic too, with a sound that is detailed, open and clear. Low frequencies hit with precision, too.
They’re super comfortable too and offer useful new features such as Speak to Chat which allows you to hold a conversation without removing or touching the headphones. A premium pair of headphones, but worth every penny.
Read the full Sony WH-1000XM4 review
Beyerdynamic refers to the DT 900 Pro X as premium studio headphones. That had us scratching our collective heads. After spending some considerable time with them we still can’t figure out what makes these over-ear headphones less suitable for home use. They’re well made, comfortable and sound great, so whether they are intended for the studio or not, we really like them.
Ultimately, these Beyerdynamics fulfill their 'studio' brief by delivering all the resolution, stability and control required to dissect a recording, but at the same time manage to convey the emotional impact of the music as well as anything we’ve heard at this level. If you’re looking for a quality pair of headphones at this price, put these at the top of your shopping list. Once you have a listen you’ll be glad you did.
Read the full Beyerdynamic DT 900 Pro X review
Building affordable true wireless in-ear headphones is a different discipline to building expensive ones, but it’s no less tricky. In the WF-C500 Sony has managed to bring a lot of what makes its expensive true wireless in-ears (such as the WF-1000XM4 below) 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. 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.
As an overall package, then, the Sony WF-C500 are genuine contenders. Another deserved What Hi-Fi? Awards 2022 winner.
Read the full Sony WF-C500 review
The unexpectedly huge price of the Apple AirPods Max makes them considerably dearer than the great majority of premium (if we can even still call them that) wireless noise-cancelling headphones but they really do justify that extra outlay.
You need an iPhone or iPad to get the most out of them. They will work with non-Apple products using standard Bluetooth 5.0, but you’ll miss out on many of their unique features.
Assuming you are a keen Apple user, the AirPods Max are the best wireless headphones you can buy – and not by a small margin. Their authenticity, detail, crispness and spaciousness elevate them so far above the previous best in the wireless noise-cancelling class that the comparison starts to become a little redundant and you instead begin to consider them alongside proper hi-fi products.
There’s no denying that they cost a lot more than typical products in this class but, if sound quality is king, there’s equally no denying that they’re worth it.
Read the full Apple AirPods Max review
With the new WF-1000XM4, Sony's managed to build on the huge success of the WF-1000XM3 and produce a sensational pair of true wireless earbuds.
There's dynamics and detail in spades and it's a balanced performance, with taut, precise bass notes and refined, sophisticated vocals. You can't help but be carried away by their sense of musicality.
Those who prioritise battery life in their AirPods alternatives should find the eight hours promised by the Sonys more than sufficient. The wireless charging case also extends this by a further 16 hours.
The Sonys are comfortable to wear too, with touch-sensitive controls and ear tips that provide excellent noise isolation. Combine this with brilliant noise cancelling courtesy of Sony's Integrated Processor V1 and the WF-1000XM4 are difficult to fault.
IPX4 water resistance is included, as are clever features such as Quick Attention and Speak-To-Chat which both allow you to have a conversation without removing the earbuds. If you buy one pair of true wireless earbuds this year, make it the WF-1000XM4.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000XM4
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
Panasonic isn't a brand that immediately springs to mind when you think of cheap wireless earbuds. But perhaps it should be. The RZ-S500W are the company's first foray into wireless noise-cancelling earbuds and they're sensational performers for their outlay.
Specs are thorough, with noise-cancelling tech, an Ambient Mode, twin mics for voice calls, and battery life that totals 19.5 hours (6.5hrs from the buds and 13hrs from the charging case). A 15-minute USB-C quick-charge can deliver 70 minutes of playback. The touch controls on each bud are responsive and intuitive, allowing you to control your music and switch between noise-cancelling modes with zero fuss.
You also get five sizes of ear tips to help with fit. We found this a little hit and miss, so we'd definitely experiment and consider mixing the sizes if it means getting a more secure fit.
Both noise-cancelling and sound quality are excellent. There's plenty of agility through the low end and loads of texture across frequencies. Music sounds clear and there's a great deal of refinement on show, which is to be welcomed at this price level. To sum up, these Panasonic earbuds are superb for the money.
Read the full Panasonic RZ-S500W review
Say hello to the 'Best wireless earbuds over £200' at the What Hi-Fi? Awards 2022. As the title of the award suggests, these premium Bluetooth in-ears sound amazing and set a new benchmark for wireless earbuds at this level.
Smaller and lighter than the original QC Earbuds (which you can find a few places below), the Earbuds II provide a comfortable fit and lots of features. Bluetooth 5.3 is a big bonus, and the Bose app allows you to alter the amount of noise-cancelling on offer via a number of customisable presets.
Speaking of noise-cancelling, the Bose are at the top of their game. They can automatically adjust the amount of ANC on offer so your music isn’t drowned out by particularly loud noises and the effect is deeply impressive. As for sound, it's balanced and neutral and overflowing with fine detail.
It's a shame there's no support for high-quality wireless audio codecs such as LDAC or aptX HD, nor is there wireless charging or Bluetooth multipoint. But we don't think this is the end of the world when you consider that these classy buds ooze such sophistication.
Read the full Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II review
The AirPods and AirPods Pro in-ears have 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’s set to change with the new AirPods Pro 2. 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 Sony WF-1000XM4 and Bose QC Earbuds II (just higher up this list), but with the AirPods Pro 2, Apple has more than caught up. The Pro 2 are a five-star stunner and arguably the number-one choice for iOS users.
Read the full AirPods Pro 2 review
Given everyone’s apparent obsession with wireless headphones, you’d be forgiven for thinking the days of wired headphones were numbered, especially at the more affordable end of the market.
But, we’d be surprised if those thoughts ever surfaced in the corridors of Austrian Audio’s Vienna HQ. The company, born out of ex-AKG employees, has hit the ground running with its first-ever range of wired headphones, Hi-X.
We’d consider the Hi-X15 an analytical pair of headphones, but they still manage to make music entertaining with it – they extract bags of detail but keep the soul of your music intact. Throughout the frequency range, these headphones deliver consistently high detail levels and fantastic dynamics. There isn’t an ounce of fat on any track played through the Austrian AudioHi-X15 headphones. But at the same time there’s enough weight and substance to low frequencies that you don’t feel as though you’re missing out.
We wouldn't insist on you partnering them with a suitable DAC/headphone amplifier, but do so and you’ll be rewarded with a mature-sounding pair of headphones that go above and beyond at the money.
Read the full Austrian Audio Hi-X15 review
There are true wireless headphones that have proven so consistently commendable over the years that a new iteration is hard to ignore when it comes along, and the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless are one of them.
Entering their third generation here, two years on from the launch of the sophomore efforts, the wireless noise-cancelling earbuds remain on the top rungs of an increasingly tall ladder with an improved performance that's right up there, a competitive spec sheet that offers great battery life (28 hours) and Bluetooth codec support (aptX Adaptive), and the bonus of extra in-app personalisation features. Oh, and a welcome new launch price below those of the former Momentum models.
They're nice and comfortable, deliver one of the most mature, spacious and refined performances in the market, and have the bonus of noise cancellation too.
In bowling, three strikes in a row is called a ‘turkey’; in What Hi-Fi? reviews, three five-star badges in a row is known as a blinder of a run. Building on an already winning recipe with an improved feature set, decent step up in performance and kinder price tag, the Momentum True Wireless 3 are as competitive as ever and Sennheiser’s best yet. A brilliant buy.
Read the full Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 review
Cambridge’s compact, fuss-free and affordable design in its original Melomania 1 true wireless earbuds (below) was a hit with us the first time around in 2019. The addition of a slicker paint-job, app support for EQ customisation and the step-up in sonic detail and refinement – without the anticipated price hike – only makes us want to heap extra praise upon the new Melomania 1 Plus.
While the original Melomania 1 can now be had for a significant discount, we’d still point you towards this updated model. There’s no noise-cancelling onboard, but those who don’t need shouldn't hesitate to add these latest Melomanias to their shortlist. For an engaging, detailed, expansive listen, the Melomania 1 Plus are very much in the running for best at this level.
Read the full Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus review
The Mark Levinsons enter our test room doors as the most expensive wireless pair we’ve tested and therefore do so with a weight of expectation on their shoulders. Can wireless performance ever be so good as to justify such an expense? You bet it can.
If we hadn’t unboxed the Levinsons and gone through the simple Bluetooth pairing process ourselves, we would be tempted to check for any wires dangling from the earcups. While the No. 5909’s performance is still short of the best available from similarly priced wired headphones, it’s easily the best wireless headphones performance we’ve come across.
Anyone who is after the convenience of wireless without sacrificing too much sound quality to get it, and lucky enough to afford such a best-of-both-worlds solution, the Mark Levinsons are highly recommendable.
Perceived value may not get top marks (they don't look as bling as they could), but sonic value certainly does – and that’s really what matters here. Mark our words, these wireless headphones really wow.
Read the full Mark Levinson No. 5909 review
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 to getting the swivelling buds in place, though.
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, 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 comes close.
Read the full Shure Aonic 3 review
Focal’s entrance into this burgeoning premium Bluetooth headphones market isn’t surprising considering its presence at the premium end of the wired space. And nor is the success of its first effort. The gorgeous-looking Bathys are highly recommendable for anyone after the convenience of portability in a premium pair of headphones at this price, who can stretch their budget above the B&W Px8 but not to the heights of the Mark Levinson No5.909.
For a wireless headphone performance, it’s among the most engaging we have heard. And if you want them to double up as home headphones for longer listening stints, which they are more than comfortable enough to wear for, know that going wired via the built-in DAC/USB-C port does add a degree of refinement and tightness to the delivery.
Noise cancellation is fairly non-intrusive to the performance, too, and if you need it – as we did on two flights during testing – it does a decent job of diminishing distracting outside world noise from your music listening in ‘Silent’ mode.
Read the full Focal Bathys review
If you can get past the slightly bulky case and earpieces, lack of active noise cancellation and a somewhat retro design, there’s a great deal to enjoy in Shure’s debut traditional true wireless earbuds.
The earpieces, while large, fit securely, a fact helped immeasurably by the premium comply memory foam tip options supplied, in a total of three sizes. Unlike other designs which sport touch-capacitive controls using sensors (often with varying degrees of success), there’s a single tactile button on the top edge of both earbuds here. Because of the size of the units, the buttons are easy to find and they work really well. The ShurePlus Play App is slick, intuitive, reliable and offers more performance tweaks than we’re used to seeing at this level, too.
Although Sony’s XM4 (above) deliver a marginally more accessible sound – for want of a better word, they occasionally sound more fun – the Shure Aonic Free’s sonic recipe brims with precision, preferring to major in analysis. And that’s no bad thing. Ultimately, Shure’s trademark sonic profile is faithfully celebrated and delivered in the Aonic Free: expansive, clear across the frequencies, layered, emotive and with enough reserve to celebrate the nuances in your chosen source material.
Read the full Shure Aonic Free review
We’re impressed with the wired Austrian Audio Hi-X55. They are nicely built, and relay a track faithfully. They won’t be for everyone – they aren’t as easy a listen as some rivals, and will certainly be unforgiving with some recordings. This character trait is where the fine Austrian Audios differ from their most obvious rivals, the Sennheiser Momentum or Philips Fidelio X3. Those other pairs provide warm, comfortable listens, where the Austrian Audios are far more analytical and more ‘professional’ in their presentation.
But if you want to hear what is truly in a track or recording, you won’t find better analysts at this price. Definitely worth an audition.
Prefer an on-ear fit? The Austrian Audio Hi-X50 are just as impressive.
Read the full Austrian Audio Hi-X55 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 HD 250BT might not feature any luxury flourishes, but they're a good-sounding, durable and truly likeable set of budget on-ears.
That's not to say the 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.
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 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.
Want closed-backs? Check out the brilliant Beyerdynamic T5 (3rd Gen).
Read the full Beyerdynamic T1 (3rd Generation) review
The Px7 S2 are a clear step forward for B&W, offering a more sophisticated, neutral and detailed sound compared to the 2020-released PX7. These are headphones that really prompt the listener to dig in and analyse their music. Some of the best wireless headphones competition, such as the leaderboard-topping Sony WH-1000XM5, are arguably more engaging, but the Px7 S2 are still an excellent and stylish alternative for those who enjoy attentive listening.
Generally, the Px7 S2 put in a strong noise-cancelling performance, too, with consistency and minimal sound colouration across the different settings. The 30-hour battery life is welcome, as is fast charging. And support for aptX Adaptive and aptX HD are big ticks in the box for those who own sources that also support these higher-quality Bluetooth codecs.
Note that the Px7 S2 don’t support passive audio, though, so must be charged up and powered on even for cabled listening.
Read the full B&W Px7 S2 review
The SoundMagic E11C headphones are the latest addition to a range that represents one of the more surprising success stories of recent years. The E10 set the marker for affordable excellence for a number of years, and following an E10C in-line mic and remote control upgrade, the E11C equivalent arrived back in 2018. Two years on, we’re happy to report that they’re still pretty magic.
They boast an improved driver, and a silver-plated copper cable over their predecessors. The better driver means improved sound, but it still remains recognisably SoundMagic - the bass is ample, with plenty of warmth and depth to keep you enveloped, while the top-end isn't compromised. And the midrange has decent clarity, displaying great energy and control.
Considering the price, these are nothing short of a miracle. If you're on a budget, we have no hesitation in recommending them most heartily. What are you waiting for?
Read the full SoundMagic E11C review
Yes, you can get true wireless earbuds not geared towards sport that, for a similar price, will deliver more insight into music by offering that bit more detail and dynamic subtlety. The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 and Sony WF-1000XM3 are two such pairs. But, unlike these JBLs, they won’t have the honed ergonomics or ruggedness to be hailed as ideal fitness buddies.
Within the context of earbuds for exercise, the Reflect Flow Pro are like champion heptathletes – strong in all areas. They're waterproof, lightweight, comfortable and with multiple ear tip fin options, and sound very decent for the money. And for that they are extremely easy to recommend.
Read the full JBL Reflect Flow Pro review
We first reviewed the Shure SE425s back in 2013. That feels like a lifetime ago - back then, Daft Punk's Get Lucky was riding high in the charts, while we were all marvelling at a new device called the iPhone 5S. But unlike Get Lucky and the 5S, these Shures have 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. If that's your priority - and in our humble opinion, it really should be - these will not disappoint.
Read the full Shure SE425 review
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 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.
Read more about how we test and review products at What Hi-Fi?