Best Headphones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best headphones you can buy in 2021.
Some pure, precise listening, wherever you go, with music just for you – headphones are a truly beautiful and relatively inexpensive way of making a huge step up in audio quality, so long as you buy the right ones. A good upgrade will make you fall in love with your favourite tracks all over again. They bring a newly-minted feel to your old classics and an appreciation for songs you never thought you liked.
But there are many types of headphone to choose from: in-ears, on-ears, over-ears, Bluetooth, noise-cancelling. If you want a pair for home use, to plug into your hi-fi system or portable music player, then a pair of over-ear headphones is best. You'll then have to choose whether you want open-backs (which leak sound) or the more typical closed-backs (which don't).
To use with your smartphone, you'll have to decide whether you want the uber-portability of earbuds or the less intrusive fit of on-ears - and both styles vary enormously in budget.
Your next decision is between wired and wireless. Wireless headphones are great for their 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 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. Available on wired and Bluetooth wireless headphones, this technology helps isolate you from the world by blocking ambient noise.
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.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones have it all. A lightweight design, comfort, the convenience of Bluetooth and arguably the best noise-cancelling currently on the market. Oh, and they sound fantastic too. It's no wonder we think they're the best headphones you can buy right now.
They replace the WH-1000XM3s (below), which were fantastic headphones in their own right but the XM4s take performance to a whole new level. They sound more detailed, more open, and clearer in their delivery. Low frequencies hit with even greater precision.
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 review: Sony WH-1000XM4
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 review: Apple AirPods Max
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 the top spot. Given the prestige of those brands, that's no mean feat.
So how did these Sonys get there? For starters, they offer a snug and comfortable fit that you can wear all day, or even to nod off. They also boast tons of useful features including an Atmospheric Pressure Optimiser, which maximises noise-cancelling performance at high altitude. Long flight? You needn't fear screaming children again.
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. Every instrument is given room to breathe, and there's no loss in terms of directness either - the sound hits you right between the ears, making you feel like you're in the room with the band. In a word: superb.
Read the full review: Sony WH-1000XM3
When it comes to comfort, Klipsch's oval silicone tips are some of the most comfortable out there. Underneath them, the Klipsch's 5mm dynamic drivers kick out powerful and punchy bass with exquisite precision. They give a good sense of space no matter whether you're using them for streaming Spotify or watching Netflix. And their dynamic quality reveals a host of sonic subtleties you wouldn't expect from such an affordable pair of headphones.
Even the cable is a little bit special, with Klipsch's trademark specks of copper embedded within it. They're sweat- and water-resistant too, so should bear up fine during most workouts. Though remember they're not specifically a sports pair of headphones - if you're running an Ironman, you'll want something built for the task.
But anyone looking to upgrade their in-ear headphones needs to give these great musical performers a try.
Read the full review: Klipsch T5M Wired review
Meet the apex of true wireless in-ear headphones right now. Building on the success of the Sony WF-1000X (some of the first true wireless earbuds to get five stars from us), the Sony WF-1000XM3 have 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. Which is not to be sniffed at.
It works. Even without music playing, you can tell they cancel out more noise than their forebears.
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. They have subtlety in spades, and impressive pacing. Proceedings are lent a fantastic sense of musicality and balance that's guaranteed to enhance tracks of all genres.
Want a pair of the best headphones around? These are most definitely up there.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000XM3 review
Shure has plenty of experience with wired in-ear headphones, and it shines through in the Aonic 3s. 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 review: Shure Aonic 3
With the Melomania 1s, Cambridge Audio has made good on its promise to save us from bad sound experiences. These budget-conscious headphones offer a cohesive, expansive and rhythmic sound, but also an intuitive, playful soundstage that few wireless earbuds can achieve at the price.
With nine hours battery life from the buds themselves, plus four additional charges from the case, that means an impressive 45 hours of continuous use from this little set-up, too. That's up there with best of them - they even outdo some wireless on-ear pairs. So if you find yourself away from a charging point for long stretches of time - while camping, say - they will last you.
Admittedly they're not the most stylish. And some might find the fit a bit fiddly (they split opinion in the office - some got on fine, others struggled). But for true wireless on a budget, they really are hard to beat.
Read the full review: Cambridge Melomania 1
Sure, the 17-hour battery life can be bettered, but with these Sennheisers Momentum 3 Wireless, that's where the gripes end. Their thick leather earpads make these headphones incredibly comfortable and even provide a good dose of noise isolation - handy if you don't have enough juice left to power the noise-cancelling feature. The on-cup controls and their collapsible design also make them easy to use and very convenient to take with you, too. And then there's the sound.
They're rich and gloriously full-bodied but still maintain clarity, particularly in the midrange. It gives them a superb tonal balance alongside their depth of bass, which will reward listeners of all stripes.
Admittedly you can get some great competitors for a fair bit less. But rhythmically speaking, these Sennheisers are cohesive and consistently dynamic too, making them quite the class leaders. Proof that you get what you pay for.
Read the full review: Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless
We are very impressed by the AKG Y50BTs. The company has managed to take one of our favourite headphones (the Y50s) 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.
But it's the sound quality that has made them some of our favourite headphones in recent years. Amazingly, they sound just as good as their wired counterparts, with the sort of insight that makes it easy to tell the calibre of the talent on hand.
There is no discernable hint of the hiss and whine that give away the wirelessness of lesser headphones.
Bags of detail go hand-in-hand with that clarity. You get all manner of texture to instruments and vocals, which are organised well enough for you to appreciate the sense of space and separation, but not regimented enough to seem clinical. Throw in some dashes of panache, and the result is a performance that’s as entertaining as it is competent.
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 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 review: SoundMagic E11C
The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2s bring a raft of improvements compared to their predecessors and one of the most refined sounds we've heard from a pair of wireless headphones.
The design looks much the same as the original, but there has been a slight aesthetic tweak. The earpieces are slightly slimmer, so they protrude less from your ears, and, more importantly, they're more comfortable to have in place for long listening sessions. One of the major changes is the introduction of noise-cancelling, which works extremely well and is pretty much on par with the Sony WF-1000XM3. They're nice to use too, with touch-sensitive pads on each earpiece which can be customised to control music playback and features.
Battery life is competitive, with a single charge giving seven hours of playback and the charging case providing an additional three charges, bringing the total battery life at your disposal to 28 hours.
It's all positive and we haven't even touched on the sound quality, which is extremely refined and sophisticated for the money. Highs and lows are composed and controlled but dynamics aren't sacrificed. The Sennheisers present a detailed soundstage with impressive scale and authority. They're a little pricier than other wireless in-ear headphones, but if your budget can stretch, your ears will be rewarded.
Read the full review: Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
This little-known Hong Kong audio company doesn't have many products to its name but it has managed to do something that many bigger brands have not, and that's come up with a super-affordable set of true wireless headphones that are actually worth buying.
Not only do the Earfun Airs give a very worthy listen but they're feature-packed too. While you won't get active noise cancelling at this price, the noise isolation of these comfortable, well-fitting earphones does an excellent portion of that same job. They're also waterproof to IPX7 standards (1m submersible for up to 30 mins), they have voice assistance built-in and support Qi wireless charging.
Call handling is responsive and clear, and the battery life is a pretty stonking 35 hours when using the charge case. Amazingly it all feels fairly premium too. The Bluetooth 5.0 connection never lets us down and, while the audio is no match for headphones at double the price, they still offer some grippy, energetic listening and an excellent sense of space.
If you’re after something inexpensive that’ll sound good on the treadmill, the Earfun Air buds could just be the ideal proposition.
Read the full review: Earfun Air review
The Y400s are a little smaller than the previous model (the splendid Y500s), with smaller drivers and they come with a cable complete with in-line controls and mic, for when you don't want to run down the battery with a wireless connection.
They're colourful, too, coming in shimmery pink, green, blue and goldish-yellow finishes.
There's no noise cancelling, but we wouldn't expect it at this price. There is Ambient Aware mode, however, which lets in outside noise like dogs barking and car engines. Handy if you want to avoid being bitten/run over. They automatically detect when you take them off and pause the music, too, saving you precious battery life.
The sound has much to like. It's spacious and three-dimensional. There’s impeccable timing throughout and the headphones deliver bass weight and power in spades. It's zealous to the point that some might prefer a slightly leaner listen, but in our eyes (and at this level) the Y400s get the balance just about right.
Read the full review: AKG Y400
The one-two punch of Qualcomm's AptX HD Bluetooth technology and B&W's largest PX series drivers make these noise-cancelling headphones an absolute knock-out. That means low latency wireless transmission at hi-res quality of up to 24-bit/48kHz levels, so long as you've the source material to back that up.
The results include the solid, detailed and tonally balanced sound we'd expect from PX headphones and that brilliant rhythmic precision. But the PX7s bring more than just that. They explore new heights of dynamic expression and a sense of pure entertainment. This is a clearer, more detailed sound than their predecessors', uncovering hitherto hidden levels of insight and expanding the soundstage significantly.
The PX7s might look and feel a little cheaper than the original PX, but we’d take them for their extra comfort and more advanced feature set. Ultimately, they’re still one of the more striking pairs of headphones on the market. And that sound - bellissimo.
Read the full review: Bowers & Wilkins PX7
JBL is a heavy hitter when it comes to true wireless sports headphones – and with the Under Armour Flash as its predecessor, the JBL Reflect Flow is a hotly anticipated entrant to the flourishing, albeit rather niche, true-wireless-for-sports market.
In their niche category, though, the JBL Reflect Flow headphones are very good indeed, especially if you want a bass-heavy sound for the gym without resorting to massive cans (which, if you're moving a lot, many people won't want).
Battery life is impressive too, standing at 10 hours (or 30 with the case). That will last even the most hardcore of training sessions. The case is a bit bulky, however, so you won't be taking that with you on a run. The finish also started to rub off after only a few days of testing, which isn't ideal.
But sound-wise, they're crisp with plenty of detail, and they time very well indeed. Bass is suitably cavernous, while the instruments sound distinct no matter how complex tracks become. Impressive.
Read the full review: JBL Reflect Flow
Remaining unbeaten at this price, these hugely revealing open-backed Grados are a compelling buy if you're after a pair for home use. They have a solid, sturdy build that feels like it'll last a lifetime of listening. And you can't question that open-backed sound quality.
Everything from their tonal balance to their transparency across frequencies to their timing and dynamic ability is class-leading at this price. They're as musical as headphones get, lapping up tracks' rhythmic energy and producing a naturally cohesive presentation. Despite all this energy, they never veer into sounding bright or hard-edged, but always balanced, detailed and dynamically sound, no matter what genre(s) you choose.
Though like other open-backed models, they do leak sound like nobody's business. So maybe one for the home rather than a packed train carriage, eh?
But if you’re serious about sound quality and they fit your budget, what are you waiting for?
Read the full review: Grado SR325e
These true wireless headphones are the more expensive of two pairs with which Panasonic has jumped into this highly competitive market. The big difference between the two is the Dual Hybrid Noise Cancelling Technology included here.
It's achieved through use of feedback coupled to analog and digital processing, and it works exceptionally well. Twin beamforming microphones increase the clarity of voices and reduce noise during calls, and there's a well-integrated Ambient Mode to amplify surrounding noise when the time is right.
Inside each earpiece is an 8mm Neodymium driver, and the housings feature metallic accents around the circular top surface of each unit. There are touch capacitive panels on the buds which are very possibly the most responsive and intuitive we’ve tested within an in-ear design. They aren’t the most secure but there are five sets of tips included to help you get the best possible fit.
Soundwise, there's a lot to like here with a clear, balanced and agile performance. There's a good dose of detail and depth, and enough dimension to offer a sense of emotion at the key moments of songs.
The RZ-S500W offer reasonable battery life, particularly when combined with the cary case, and will pick up an emergency 70-minute charge from a 15-minute burst of USB-C socket time. They are also IPX4 rated, meaning that they can handle a rainy day, too.
Read the full review: Panasonic RZ-S500W
Don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on some well-specified, true wireless in-ear headphones with active noise-cancellation? But still want to get worthwhile listening out of your Deezer or Tidal subscription and have access to Sony's 360 Reality Audio spatial audio format? These could be the true wireless headphones for you.
They’re never less than a snug and secure fit, and that could make them ideal for fitness fanatics. It can also make them quite the earful for long wears but it never feels like too much of a burden.
For sound, these Sonys are never less than crisp and an undeniably assertive and insightful listen. Through the midrange, they load vocals with information – and bring an engaging quality to music. Dynamics are well-honed at both the large and small scale and everything comes across with an enjoyable rhythmic energy. Natural, convincing and convenient to the last, these are some very crowd-pleasing headphones.
Read the full review: Sony WF-SP800N
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 review: Shure SE425
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, which is as luxurious as it sounds. The result is a pair of headphones you can wear for hours on end. And despite their bulk, they don't feel heavy at all, which is quite amazing.
But they're not just comfortable. They sound fantastic too.
What's most impressive is the way they take the whole frequency range in their stride. We like their clear midrange vocals, their tight timing, and the way that they can handle challengingly messy songs without breaking a sweat.
On the whole, the ability of the Amirons will keep you happy no matter what they’re playing. But be warned: they're open-backed, and hence leak sound like a sieve, so the usual disclaimer about not listening on public transport applies.
Read the full review: Beyerdynamic Amiron
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, which (as the name suggests) is their intended use. They're also sweat resistant and IPX4 rated.
So how do they sound? Very good indeed. They pack plenty of detail, with smooth highs and powerful, punchy bass that might get you pounding the treadmill that little bit faster. In other words, their sound perfectly marries their intended use.
In a quiet room they might sound a bit aggressive, but out and about they'll definitely keep you moving. If that's what you're looking for in a headphone, they might just be for you.
Looking for heart rate tracking thrown into the bargain? Check out the Bose SoundSport Pulse, which also earned five stars in our review.
Read the full review: Bose SoundSport Wireless
The Grado SR80es are exceptional and exceptionally odd headphones. Open-backed on-ear headphones are a rarity, but make for an amazing listening experience. Because the sound isn't contained, as with closed-backed headphones, it has more room to breathe, giving it a much greater sense of space.
The downside? Everyone around you can hear what you're listening to. So better choose your music wisely.
It takes some chutzpah to make open-backed headphones, but this pair shows unwavering confidence in its unusual approach. They're 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. Not unless you want to get some very stern looks.
Read the full review: Grado SR80e
The 10-year-old, original T1 models 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.
Read the full review: Beyerdynamic T1 (3rd Generation)
These Sonys might look understated, but they have an attention to detail that's borderline obsessive. From the use of high-grade materials to the impressively engineered grilles and driver enclosures, every element of the Z1Rs has been painstakingly designed. Nothing has been left to chance.
This means you'll need to partner these headphones with suitably high-end electronics to really make them sing (If you're looking for a pair to work with your phone, look elsewhere). But do so, and you'll be left amazed by their sense of composure and their ability to extract detail and subtlety from a track. Bass is seismic, but never overwhelming - rather it impresses through a combination of power, authority and agility that few rivals match. Tonally, things stay nicely balanced between the powerful low-end and crisp treble. And they sound impressively spacious for a closed-back pair.
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 Stellia would be in with a shout. They really are that good – though at this price, 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 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