Best Headphones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best headphones you can buy in 2019.
Headphones are a superb way to boost your listening pleasure for comparatively little outlay. The very best headphones can revitalise the music you listen to, whether it's stored on your smartphone or played through your traditional hi-fi system.
But there are many types to chose 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, on the go, you'll have to decide whether you want the uber-portability of in-ear headphones or the less intrusive fit of on-ears - and both styles vary in budgets hugely.
Your next decision is between wired and wireless. Wireless is great for its cable-free convenience and exercise appeal but it's a technology which generally attracts higher price tags compared to wired counterparts of similar quality.
And then there's noise-cancelling headphones which may well be high on your hit list if you're looking for a pair to accompany you in the daily grind or silence the sound on aeroplanes. Available on wired and Bluetooth wireless headphones, this functionality helps isolate you from the outside world by blocking ambient sound.
If you're still not sure which way to go, then take a look at our guide on how to choose the right pair of headphones. Then, below, take a glance at our very favourite pairs. We've covered all bases and price points when rounding up the best quality headphones on the market right now, so you've got the best chance of finding the right pair for you.
Best in-ear headphones
Hammering 2018's Product of the Year into second place are these simple but stupendous buds, fresh from their success at the 2019 What Hi-Fi? Awards.
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 the best true wireless headphones around? You've just found them.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000XM3 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 review: SoundMagic E11C
Klipsch is no stranger to five-star headphone reviews. And one try of these Award-winning in-ears and you'll see why.
They look and feel as if they should be more expensive - that price tag will have you doing a double-take. They fit snugly, making them extremely comfortable, so they're suitable for all-day wearing or if you're bedding down for a cheeky nap.
And that's all before we get to the sound quality. Timing and organisation are excellent and there's a great sense of refinement. Lows are accurate and balanced, while highs sound sharp and precise. The sound could be a little more spacious, but really that's nitpicking - just like their look and feel, they sound a lot pricier than they are. Which is all the praise you need.
Put simply, these amazing in-ears deliver on all fronts. And if you want to spend a bit less or fancy flashing the cash, there's always our list of the best in-ear headphones.
Read the full review: Klipsch R6i II
The Beyerdynamic Soul Byrds (no, that’s not a slip of the keyboard) is a talented pair of in-ear headphones. If you want an affordable upgrade for a pair of ageing Apple EarPods, these headphones deserve to be on your hitlist. They’re so good, we’ll even forgive the spelling.
They're comfortable enough to wear all day, and because the earbuds have flat panels, they protrude less from the ear than most models. That means they'll lend themselves to lying down on your side, making them ideal for wearing in bed. Just make sure you pick something suitably soothing if you're hoping to drop off.
This is a superb pair of in-ear headphones – such an easy listen, but interesting and captivating too. It’s a brilliant feat for a pair of in-ears at this price. They might be a little pricier than some rivals, but they have that extra something that makes them worth it.
Read the full review: Beyerdynamic Soul Byrd
The Sennheiser Momentum Free in-ears take all that's great about the Sennheiser M2 In-Ears and place it in a wireless package. Really, that's all you need to know.
But if you're not familiar with this range's pedigree, we'll tell you a little more. The Frees have an unfussy design with a single short length of cable running between the earpieces. You can adjust the length via the attached slider, and can choose to run the cable either behind your neck or under your chin.
They boast six hours of battery life and come with an in-line remote and mic. When they’re not pumping music into your ears, you can connect the earpieces to each other via integrated magnets for easy storage.
They have the same powerful and dynamic sound you'll hear in the wired version. You also get an impressive sense of clarity and detail for the money with the Momentum Frees carving out bass, mids and highs with expert precision. Try them and set yourself Free.
Read the full review: Sennheiser Momentum Free
With the Melomania 1s, Cambridge Audio has made good on its promise to save us from bad sound experiences. These budget-conscious in-ears offer a cohesive, expansive and rhythmically driven 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 may 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
JBL is a heavy hitter when it comes to true wireless sports earphones – 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.
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
As dedicated makers of wireless sport headphones since 2006, Jaybird most certainly knows what it's doing in terms of fit and comfort. The Vistas are some of its best running headphones yet.
Why? They have a quick charge function that's quicker than Usain Bolt - just five minutes of juicing up will give you an hour of usage. Whack them on to charge while you suit up, and they'll be ready for a run before you are.
They fit as snugly as you would expect from a running pair, and sonically they're fun and lively with plenty of punch (essential when pounding the pavement). They're a little short on detail compared to others on this list but connectivity is solid and their stereo imaging is good.
If you’re tired of constantly having to put your earphones back in your lug holes when out running, the Vistas are a great solution.
Read the full review: Jaybird Vista
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
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
In the market for a pair of talented wireless earbuds and don’t mind a neckband design? You should definitely consider the Bowers & Wilkins PI3s.
The neckband is made of coated silicone and rubber, which is soft, smooth and quite soothing to the touch. It’s flexible too, which makes it easier to fit under jackets and clothing, and less prone to catching and unsettling the earbuds.
Sound-wise, they perform very well indeed. They have a clean-sounding presentation with crisp, distinct highs and a solid, punchy bass bringing up the rear. There is also detail and analysis around every corner.
There’s no noise-cancelling tech but Bluetooth AptX Adaptive is supported, which should ensure higher quality audio from smartphones and tablets. Apart from the limited number of eartip options, and no IPX rating (so don't go wearing them in the shower), there are few downsides to them. Give them an audition and you'll see what we mean.
Read the full review: Bowers & Wilkins PI3 review
SoundMagic's very reasonably priced wired headphones have been a big hit and the TWS50s - the clue's in the name - are the portable specialist's debut true wireless set. At just 4g apiece, these teardrop buds are beautifully light and wonderfully comfortable with a fit that's secure enough for all your wearing needs.
You'll get around six or seven hours of battery life out of the these Bluetooth 5.0 buds but an impressive total of 30 hours when combined with the charge case. There's no power-draining noise cancellation to bring that figure down but they do have an IPX7 rating, which means the headphones can withstand being submerged in up to 1m of water for around half an hour.
The TWS50 don't offer quite as much in the way of dynamic detail or timing as the likes of the Melomanias but, then, they are significantly more affordable. They still have an open and spacious musical presentation with plenty of layers to enjoy. Voices are full-bodied and there's a good zing at the top-end too.
They may not make the angels weep, but if this is the extent of your budget, you’ll get a very competitive product.
Read the full review: SoundMagic TWS50 review
Best on-ear headphones
The fact that the AKG Y50s have been Award winners for five years on the trot tells you everything you need to know. They excel in sound and style, and can now be picked up cheaper than ever.
These are exceptionally well made headphones. Their aluminium ear cups – which house 40mm drivers – have a smooth, glossy feel and feature fine cosmetic detail. And they're easy to fold up when not in use, which makes them eminently portable when on the move.
They might look a little young and brash for some, but we quite like the colourful styling and big, bold lettering. And they never fall into the self-destructive trap of style over substance, sounding as cheery as they look with upbeat tunes and delivering scale and power when required. They can be a little on the quiet side, but otherwise we love everything about these stylish cans. Try them, and you will too.
Read the full review: AKG Y50
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 odd looks.
Read the full review: Grado SR80e
We are very impressed by the AKG Y50BTs. The company has managed to take one of our favourite products (the Y50s, above) and cut the cord, while maintaining a high quality. In addition to impressive clarity, detail and dynamics, they’re practical too. They’re comfortable to wear, and they don’t get warm too quickly.
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
Foldable and noise-cancelling, these award-winning AKGs are one of the best pairs of all-purpose headphones you'll find. But just because they're convenient and affordable, that doesn't mean that they scrimp on audio quality.
They have a careful tonal balance that's delivered with plenty of detail and precision. Dynamics are convincing enough to create the highs and lows in the music while there's a good thump to the bass when required. In other words, they tick all the boxes, sonically speaking.
And then there's the superb noise-cancelling which shuts out the sounds of busy streets, noisy offices and the dreaded hum of an airplane. Put them on, and you'll forget about the outside world - great if you want to immerse yourself in music, or just catch 40 winks on a plane or train.
With their killer combination of ace sound quality, brilliant functionality and effective noise-cancelling, these are a great buy. You won't find better at this price.
Read the full review: AKG N60NC Wireless
Grado specialises in the kind of open-backed headphones that audiophiles love, but train carriages hate (they leak sound, see, so everyone shares your music listening, whether they want to or not). So its first pair of wireless headphones is big news indeed.
Even more so because they are truly excellent. But be warned: they won't be for everyone. Wireless suggests portability, yet the open-backed design remains, so maybe think twice before wearing them out in public. Thankfully, Grado has reduced sound leakage by 60 per cent compared to the SR80e and SR325e models. Still, leak they will.
Their battery life is just about ok at 15 hours and they don't fold away or pack up at all, really. However, if it's sound quality you're after, they do just the job: they deliver great expression, clarity and a sophisticated tonal balance all presented on a wonderfully broad sonic canvas. If that sounds like your kind of musical nirvana, and you're happy wearing them around the house, then these Grados will not disappoint.
Read the full review: Grado W100
One look at the quirky, retro design and the low, low price tag, and you might think these are a novelty, sort of like a Fisher-Price pair of headphones. As such, you'd think the sound quality would be suitably underwhelming. But you couldn't be more wrong.
Because while they might be cheap, the Koss Porta Pros are fun. A lot of fun. They might throw back to a 1984 design, but they're so lightweight they feel barely there, making them ideal for prolonged listening. You can also adjust the fit between light or firm, depending on your preference.
Downsides? They're pretty much open-backed and so quite leaky when you're out in public. So think twice before hitting that Summer Riddimz playlist. But if you can live with that, you'll be impressed by their upbeat, rhythmic sound, and portable, functional (not to mention eye-catching) design. Proof that first impressions can be misleading.
Read the full review: Koss Porta Pro
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
Best over-ear headphones
The Sony WH-1000XM3s have cemented the brand's position as king of noise-cancelling headphones, beating rivals like the Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs and Bowers & Wilkins PXs to 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
Sure, a 17-hour battery life is not the best you'll find on a set of wireless headphones, but with these Sennheisers, that's where the gripes end. Their thick leather earpads make them 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 a stark 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 the excellent Sonys above 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 Wireless
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 their predecessors, 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
Another What Hi-Fi? Award winner, the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 over-ears are portable, desirable and blessed with brilliant sound. They're dynamic, entertaining performers that get the balance between attack and finesse just right.
Build quality is excellent too - the earpads are seriously comfy and isolate noise better than many rivals at the money. Sennheiser enlarged them for this model, and it really shows. It also made them asymmetrical for a better fit, and again, you'll reap the rewards with every wear, especially if you wear glasses.
The headband has been tweaked too, gaining a more rounded profile and sitting a little closer to your head. Again, the payoff is more comfort.
The 2.0s also come in two flavours, the AEi for iPhone users and the AEG for the rest, so you don't need to worry about compatibility. They're both as comfortable and great-sounding as each other, so whichever you choose, you won't be disappointed.
Read the full review: Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Over-ear
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
We are very familiar with Grado headphones and rarely disappointed. You'll see other pairs on this list, both of which are What Hi-Fi? award-winners, but it's for true high-end headphones that the company is really known. And Grado claims these are the finest wooden-cased headphones it has ever made.
So, no compromise audio quality, albeit with some compromises elsewhere. We like the distinctive, unique styling, and we understand the open-back, sound-leaking design. In fact, as we said in our full review, these headphones really require a listening room. They not only leak out lots of sound but they let in everything too. Voices, traffic noises, kettles boiling, you name it – all will intrude on your listening experience to varying degrees.
Sonically, they're agile, involving and just great fun to listen to. Make sure you have a serious source system and they'll deliver a composed sound which is organised but far from routine - powerful dynamics ensure that. The wood design helps add a richness to the sound that's more forgiving of bright treble notes than some Grado designs, while still delivering oodles of detail. If you can deal with the style and open-back design, then this is as good as it gets.
Read the full review: Grado GS3000e
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 them 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 Utopias 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