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 of your favourite tunes, wherever you go – headphones are a truly beautiful and (can be a) relatively inexpensive way of making a huge step up in audio quality, so long as you buy the right ones. There are many types of headphones to choose from: in-ears, on-ears, over-ears, wired, wireless or true wireless, Bluetooth or noise-cancelling or both. So which style should you invest in?
If you want a pair for home use, to plug into your hi-fi system or portable music player, then a pair of wired over-ear headphones is best. You'll then have to choose whether you want an open-back design (which leaks sound) or the more typical closed-back style (which don't).
To use with your smartphone 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 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 blocking ambient noise. While noise-cancellation is available on wired pairs, if you want both wireless connectivity and peaceful isolation, there are, of course, those that combine the two: wireless noise-cancelling headphones.
And lastly, if you're a fitness fiend who wants to prioritise portability, secure fit and waterproofing? You'll probably better off going for a sport-savvy pair of sport headphones.
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. 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.
Below is a round-up of 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-1000XM3 (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 Sony WH-1000XM4 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
Now only bettered for value by their successors (above), the Sony WH-1000XM3 cemented the brand's position as king of noise-cancelling headphones, beating rivals like the Bose QuietComfort 35 II and Bowers & Wilkins PX to the top spot when they came on the scene. 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 Sony WH-1000XM3 review
With the new WF-1000XM4, Sony's managed to build on the huge success of the WF-1000XM3 (a few spots below) 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
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
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
One of the best affordable pairs of wired earbuds we've come across.
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 Klipsch T5M Wired review
Only bettered for value by their successors above, these Sonys build on the original Sony WF-1000X (some of the first true wireless earbuds to get five stars from us), with a Bluetooth chip that 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 true wireless earbuds around? For their now discounted price, these are most definitely up there.
Read the full Sony WF-1000XM3 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 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
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
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 Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless 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
The Y400 are a little smaller than the previous model (the splendid Y500), 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 Y400 get the balance just about right.
Read the full AKG Y400 review
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 Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 review
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 Earfun Air review
Earfun builds on the success of its Earfun Air (above) by cramming even more features into a new ‘Pro’ variant, the main addition being active noise cancellation. There is now a 10mm driver and three mics per earpiece, too. But, considering the claims on the spec sheet, the price remains jaw-droppingly low.]
They're a solid proposition for the money: they fit securely, connect easily, have reliable controls and feature basic but effective noise-cancelling profiles – for just a small premium on the Air model. There’s also USB-C charging and wearer detection, plus the sound is pretty decent for the money – well-balanced, relatively transparent, taut and full through the bass, and musically pleasing overall. We haven't come across anything at this level that does everything these Earfuns do, as well as they do it.
Read the full Earfun Air Pro review
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 Bowers & Wilkins PX7 review
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 JBL Reflect Flow 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
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 Beyerdynamic Amiron review
The Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless are among the best Bluetooth headphones we have heard, period.
Providing you get a pair that properly fits (our first review sample had issues, but our second one didn't), we’re happy to say that you'd be hard-pushed to find better wireless performance for this premium amount of money. We listen to a variety of music, from classical to pop with much in between, and the Amiron Wireless are consistent in their performance. And that is to say, very good indeed. The sound is punchy and rhythmic with the clean, crisp midrange and treble complemented by a snappy well-timed bass. The lower registers are relayed confidently while not being overbearing, too.
While these Beyerdynamics do block out plenty of external sound, there is no active noise-cancelling, which less expensive rivals offer, and indeed this is a bulky, non-folding headset. But if you want the best sound you can get from a pair of wireless headphones for home use, you should look no further.
Read the full Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless review
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 Grado SR80e review
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 Beyerdynamic T1 (3rd Generation) review
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 Focal Stellia review
In the market for a pair of talented wireless earbuds and don’t mind a neckband design? You should definitely consider these new Bowers & Wilkins PI3. Bluetooth aptX Adaptive is supported, which should ensure higher quality audio from smartphones and tablets, and removes the potential for any lip-sync issues when it comes to watching video content. And their eight-hour battery life is good for this class (a 15-minute quick charge gets you two hours of playtime, too).
Design and finish are superb (as reflected in the price tag). If the earpieces are a little chunky, that's because they house B&W's Dual Driver technology, with one driver is used for highs and mids, and another for bass. The result is a clean-sounding presentation with a combination of crisp, distinct highs and a solid, punchy bass bringing up the rear. Indeed, these are confident and composed performers that serve to expand B&W’s headphone offering for the better.
Read the full review: Bowers & Wilkins PI3