Best headphones 2024 – every type tried and tested

Finding the perfect pair of headphones can be far from straightforward. First, you need to choose between the comfort of over-ear headphones or the portability of in-ear monitors (or earbuds), then consider things like budget, feature set, audio source and where you'll usually listen.

If you're simply streaming from your phone on the basic Spotify plan, splurging on top-tier headphones might feel a little OTT. However, if audio quality is your top priority, investing a bit more and considering things like codec support for wireless options becomes much more crucial. 

You may also want to weigh up the pros and cons between closed and open-back designs – we love them both, but your listening habits will ultimately determine which is the better pick for you.

And yet, after all that, there’s always the chance that buying blind based on brand name or price tag, that they fall short of their promises and don’t deserve your hard earned money.

To make things easier, we’ve put our 50+ years of headphones testing to good use, and pulled together this comprehensive buying guide. Every pair featured has undergone thorough testing by our team of expert reviewers, both in the controlled environments of our testing rooms, and out in the real world, to ensure they truly stand out as the best of the best.

Once you’ve made your choice, don’t forget to check out our best headphone deals buying guide, for all the top savings we’ve spotted, and check out the winners of the What Hi-Fi? Awards 2023 headphone categories if you haven’t quite found what you’re looking for in our picks below.

Written by
Becky Roberts
Written by
Becky Roberts

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 best headphones in 2024

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.

Best overall

What Hi-Fi? Awards winner. The best-value premium noise-cancelling wireless headphones out there, period

Specifications

Bluetooth: SBC, AAC, LDAC
Noise-cancelling: Yes
Battery life: 30hr
Charging: USB-C
Cable length: N/A
Built-in mic and controls: Yes

Reasons to buy

+
Sensational sonic clarity
+
Great app and ease of use
+
Punchy and precise, agile bass

Reasons to avoid

-
Build seems a little less premium than before
-
Don’t fold away completely

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 in 2022, 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. We particularly noticed an improvement in the lower frequencies this time round, and wrote in our review that they displayed "a newfound precision" that made even the superb XM4s sound a little thick in the bass. We also praised them for exposing "greater detail" than their predecessors across the frequency range, plus tip-top timing that sees notes "dispatched with unerring precision... they don't miss a beat".

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

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Sony WH-1000XM5 scores in depth
AttributesNotesRating
SoundMusical and hugely entertaining, the best we've heard at this level★★★★★
FeaturesNumerous control options, impressive app, but no aptX support or waterproofing★★★★☆
Noise-cancellingBrilliant, arguably best-in-class★★★★★

Best budget earbuds

2. Sony WF-C500

What Hi-Fi? Awards winner. Real competitors in the budget wireless earbuds arena

Specifications

Bluetooth: SBC, AAC
Noise-cancelling: No
Battery life: 10hrs (20hrs with charging case)
Charging: USB-C
Cable length: N/A
Built-in mic and controls: Yes

Reasons to buy

+
Compact and comfortable design
+
Spirited, well-balanced sound
+
Fine control app

Reasons to avoid

-
You can find better battery life
-
Slightly small-scale sound

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 obvious corners.

Yes, the WF-C500 can be bettered (and by quite a margin) for overall battery life – the JBL Live Pro 2 TWS offers 30 hours to the WF-C500's 20 hours – but you’ll be hard-pushed to find a more comfortable pair, or one with a more complete control app.

If you can stretch your budget, then you will be able to buy greater outright scale of sound and a punchier and more ‘exciting’ listen, but the C500 are very likeable indeed, and easily the best package you'll find at its very modest price tag.

In our review we said the balance Sony has gone for here is "understandable, sensible and enjoyable" and note that "between their impressively neutral tonality, front-foot sonic attitude, and fine levels of detail and insight, they’re well worth the investment."

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.

Both are five-star earbuds (the C700N now have an Award of their own), 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

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Sony WF-C500 scores in depth
AttributesNotesRating
SoundVery few rivals strike a more convincing sonic balance★★★★★
FeaturesNo ANC, but good control app, 20-hour battery life and waterproofing★★★★☆
Buildthe Sonys are simple to get into position and will stay comfortable for hours once they’re there★★★★★

Best budget headphones

What Hi-Fi? Awards winner. A great pair of inexpensive over-ears that don't sacrifice noise cancelling

Specifications

Bluetooth: SBC, AAC
Noise-cancelling: Yes
Battery life: Up to 50 hours
Charging: USB-C
Cable length: N/A
Built-in mic and controls: Yes

Reasons to buy

+
Forceful, robust sound presentation
+
Decent ANC for the price
+
Solid build quality

Reasons to avoid

-
A little over-enthusiastic in the bass
-
No case or foldability

For a very reasonable price, the Sony WH-CH720N are a dependably made, enthusiastic-sounding pair of headphones that, while occasionally straying into the realm of excessive bass, deliver good noise cancelling (a rare thing at this price) and a strong feature set to the mid-to-low price bracket of the wireless headphone market. 

These are designed as a pair of cans for those who aren’t keen on forking out a few hundred quid for a more premium pair of over-ears like the Sony WH-1000XM5 or Apple AirPods Max but equally don’t want to skimp on active noise cancellation or suffer a significant drop in audio fidelity by opting for the cheapest over-ears we can recommend, the entry-level WH-CH520. And they nail their brief.

The WH-CH720N are hardly a lavish affair and certainly don’t make the heart flutter with excitement every time you set eyes upon them, but they’re solid, substantially made and reasonably comfortable for their price. Throw in effective ANC that dampens noise pretty well and a sound that is lively, energetic and detailed (in our review, we note that "we can’t think of any rival headphones at this price that could keep up with such a spirited delivery"), and you have a job well done.

Read the full Sony WH-CH720N review

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Sony WH-CH720N scores in depth
AttributesNotesRating
SoundEnergetic, lively and detailed for the money★★★★★
FeaturesUp to 50 hours of battery, ANC and in-app EQ★★★★★
BuildSolid, substantially made and reasonably comfortable – they don't fold though★★★★★
Top Tip
About Us
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Becky Roberts

We noticed that these capable budget headphones had a tendency to sound a little overwhelming at times, with a bass response that might be a touch too enthusiastic for some. If you feel the same, dive into the Sony Headphones app and adjust the bass EQ down a notch or two – you'll take away some of the warmth without losing any of their assertiveness.

Best premium earbuds

What Hi-Fi? Awards winner. Sony's most accomplished and analytical wireless earbuds to date, and our pick of the premium lot

Specifications

Bluetooth: SBC, AAC, LDAC
Noise-cancelling: Yes
Battery life: 8hr (24hrs with charging case)
Charging: USB-C
Cable length: N/A
Built-in mic and controls: Yes

Reasons to buy

+
Class-leading levels of detail and clarity
+
Top-notch musicality and timing
+
Comfortable, discreet design

Reasons to avoid

-
Some rivals produce more bass
-
Could feel more secure

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 – we note in our review that they're "not quite as rich or full in the bass" as we've come to expect from flagship earbuds from Sony, but the detail and clarity they're capable of is "really rather special".

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; 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

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Sony WF-1000XM5 scores in depth
AttributesNotesRating
SoundStunning all-round sound quality only beaten by pricier Boses★★★★★
FeaturesGreat ANC and usability features, but aptX isn't on the menu★★★★★
BuildComfortable and more liveable than the XM4 for longer periods of time★★★★★

Best AirPods

Apple's best-sounding AirPods yet are up there with the best

Specifications

Bluetooth: AAC
Noise-cancelling: Yes
Battery life: 6hrs (30hrs with charging case)
Charging: Lightning
Cable length: N/A
Built-in mic and controls: Yes

Reasons to buy

+
Clear, detailed and powerful sound
+
Excellent noise-cancelling
+
Improved battery life
+
Smooth, intuitive use with iOS devices

Reasons to avoid

-
Many features restricted to iOS devices only
-
Customisable ANC modes would be useful

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-1000XM5 higher up this list, but with the AirPods Pro 2, Apple is now on par where it once was still playing catch up.

"The AirPods Pro 2 sound confident," we say in our full review, "as if they’ve finally found their footing. They deliver a sound that’s very capable while also being very easy and fun to listen to. Regardless of what you’re listening to, the AirPods Pro 2 turn their hand skilfully to all genres of music."

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. 

The Pro 2, on the other hand,ff are highly recommendable and arguably the number-one choice for iOS users.

Read the full AirPods Pro 2 review

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Apple AirPods Pro 2 scores in depth
AttributesNotesRating
SoundBalanced, clear and detailed sound, and spatial audio is a bonus★★★★★
FeaturesInnovative iOS features – but not for Android users★★★★☆
BuildComfortable, with interchangeable silicone ear tips for a more secure fit and seal★★★★★

Best wired earbuds

What Hi-Fi? Awards winner. You'll struggle to find a better pair of wired in-ear headphones at this price

Specifications

Bluetooth: No
Noise-cancelling: No
Battery life: N/A
Charging: N/A
Cable length: 1.27m
Built-in remote and mic: Yes

Reasons to buy

+
Awesome dynamics and musicality
+
Insightful and balanced sound
+
Lightweight and comfortable

Reasons to avoid

-
Understated sound

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 a 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.

Best of all, the Shures absolutely nail sound quality. "In the nicest possible way," we say in our review, "the Aonic 3 are the kind of headphones you can put on and just forget about. There isn’t a single element that sticks out – bass notes don’t protrude and highs don’t cut too deep. The Shures are honest, transparent and true to the original recording." 

We love the level of detail they offer too, and their sense of rhythm and timing needs to be heard to be appreciated. We simply 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, 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

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Shure Aonic 3 scores in depth
AttributesNotesRating
SoundBreathtakingly musical earbuds★★★★★
FeaturesA case, adapter and in-line remote are onboard★★★★★
BuildA knack is required to get the swivelling eartips in place, but then comfort is of the highest order★★★★★

Best wired headphones

What Hi-Fi? Awards winner. These wired, open-back headphones are the ones to beat at this level

Specifications

Bluetooth: No
Noise-cancelling: No
Battery life: N/A
Charging: N/A
Cable length: 1.8m
Built-in remote and mic: No

Reasons to buy

+
Excellent detail and dynamics
+
Hugely entertaining performance
+
Rugged build

Reasons to avoid

-
Open-back design leaks sound
-
New earpads won’t suit all

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.

Our reviewer notes that we can "follow low-level instrumental strands with more ease, especially in more densely produced tracks" while "the newfound sense of refinement makes it easier to relax when listening 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. The open-back versions, the DT 900X Pro, are also a great option if you really can't get over the Grado's somewhat dated design.

If your budget doesn't quite stretch to either of these, your best bet are the Award-winning, one-model-down Grado SR80x (open-backs) or five-star Austrian Audio Hi-X15 (closed-backs). Got more to spend? The Rode NTH-100 are also Award winners, and simply fantastic.

If you are looking for a quality pair of wired headphones around the Grado SR325x's price level, though, and are happy with an open-back design, put them at the top of your shopping list. Once you have a listen you’ll be glad you did.

Read the full Grado SR325x review

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Grado SR325x scores in depth
AttributesNotesRating
SoundHugely entertaining performance with excellent resolution★★★★★
ComfortNot everyone will like the thinner foam earpads – they they do sound better★★★★☆
BuildSolid build, though not very modern-looking★★★★☆

Best for home

High-end home headphones that feel as good as they sound

Specifications

Noise-cancelling: No
Bluetooth: No
Battery life: N/A
Charging: N/A
Cable length: 3m
Built-in remote and mic: No

Reasons to buy

+
Nice bass detail
+
Clear and organised
+
Handles treble well

Reasons to avoid

-
The improvements on a performance-per-pound basis are getting subtler
-
Designed for audiophiles over general use

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. In our review we particularly liked the Amiron's "clear midrange vocals, their tight timing, and the impressive way that they can handle challengingly messy songs" 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

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Beyerdynamic Home scores in depth
AttributesNotesRating
SoundAn impressive sound that takes the whole frequency range in its stride★★★★★
Comfort you could easily wear these headphones for hours on end★★★★★
BuildSolid, well made and luxurious to wear★★★★★

Best for audiophiles

Beyerdynamic refines its winning open-back formula to great success

Specifications

Bluetooth: No
Noise-cancelling: No
Battery life: N/A
Charging: N/A
Cable length: 3m
Built-in remote and mic: No

Reasons to buy

+
Clean, balanced presentation
+
Even-handed, informative nature
+
Comfortable and well made

Reasons to avoid

-
Needs top-class partners

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 a 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

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Beyerdynamic T1 (3rd Gen) scores in depth
AttributesNotesRating
SoundAs informative as you'll get at this price★★★★★
ComfortLight, padded and comfortable enough for long listening sessions★★★★★
BuildHandsome 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?

Recent updates

  • February 2024: We added more detail to our best buy picks to improve context, adding alternative options and quotes from our reviews to help you better with your buying decisions.
  • October 2023: We added information to flag our new What Hi-Fi? 2023 Award winners.

Headphones FAQ

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 of wired vs wireless headphones 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.

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Yamaha engineers discuss the rewarding YH-5000SE journey – and future headphones

My success story of the year was also the biggest surprise

Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her 10 years in the hi-fi industry, she has been fortunate enough to travel the world to report on the biggest and most exciting brands in hi-fi and consumer tech (and has had the jetlag and hangovers to remember them by). In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.