The What Hi-Fi? Award 2021 winners have been announced, and 12 pairs of headphones – some previous winners, some new – have been decorated with best-in-class honours. There are three new winners in the wireless headphones category alone – indeed, 2021 has certainly been a year of boundary-pushing when it comes to wire-free headgear.
Naturally, it isn't all fresh products and futuristic tech; two wireless models fought off the competition to retain their titles in 2021.
And in the wired headphones realm, you'll also see some unfamiliar (and eyebrow-raising!) names. If you've never heard of Austrian Audio, for instance, don't feel bad – the company only opened its doors in 2017 and was born of ex-AKG employees. Get ready to become acquainted...
Seven headphones succeed in the wired category
However we feel about Austrian Audio as a brand name, there's no denying that the budget-friendly Austrian Audio Hi-X15 wired over-ears truly surprised us in the best way possible. For a start, they hail from the young Viennese firm's inaugural Hi-X wired headphones series.
Despite their humble price point, these budget headphones (£89, $119) look and feel anything but cheap. Their design and finish put a lot of plasticky competitors to shame – from the proper metal hinges so that they fold away neatly, to the supplied carry pouch to protect them from bumps and scrapes. More than that, though, their clear, open presentation and an incredible amount of detail left us with no choice but to present them with the 'Best wired on-ear headphones under £100' award.
Grado is a name regular readers will be far more familiar with, and its rich heritage of winning models continues with the new Grado SR80x (£130, $125, AU$179). These detailed and articulate wired headphones are great for home use – and as long as you remain conscious that, because of the SR80x's open-back design, others will hear your music, you could take them out and about too.
Buyers will be owning something made in the image of Grado's original and most-treasured SR80 headphones, too. These were, after all, built on the Grado family's kitchen table in Brooklyn in 1991, and the foundation on which it built its open-back headphones empire. This latest iteration is every inch a What Hi-Fi? Award winner in the sub-£200 category.
If you've got a bigger budget, the Grado SR325x should be your go-tos providing, again, you don't mind a leaky open-back design. The new model replaces the SR325e that sat in this position last year, and evolves the line further with new flatter foam earpads, an updated cable and significant tweaks to the 44mm drive unit.
Grado's dominance at this price level is such that we wouldn’t be surprised if its products stayed at the pinnacle of this category for as long as wired headphones have their place in this world.
Got serious cash to spend on wired headphones? Beyerdynamic's superlative Amiron model is a repeat Award winner. These super-comfortable over-ears boast an insightful and emotive sound quality that was unmatched in 2020, and that remains the case today.
Repeat awards also go to wallet-friendly wired earbud belters SoundMagic E11C and Klipsch T5M Wired. And if your budget stretches that little bit further, the sensational Shure Aonic 3 just became our wired in-ear winners priced over £100 for the second year running.
Five sets of wireless headphones scoop Awards
Don't be put off by the forgettable name, the Panasonic RZ-S500W noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds are a genuine, stone-cold hit. The touch-capacitive controls are the most responsive and reliable we've ever tested on a true wireless in-ear design, the noise-cancelling is as good as you can buy for the level, and the sound is detailed and remarkably expansive.
In truth, these feel like a far more expensive proposition overall... because they are. These true wireless earbuds launched in 2020 at £169 but quickly dropped in price to £100. The bottom line: the RZ-S500W fought off plenty of rivals at similar price points (including the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus) to snatch this hotly contested title.
Climb a little further up the food chain to the more premium true wireless headphones sector, and Sony has cleaned up yet again, for yet another year. If it's an in-ear design you seek (and you've got over the asking price burning a hole in your pocket), the firm delivered the goods once more with a stunning pair for 2021 – namely the Sony WF-1000XM4. Comfortable fit, a clear and agile bass, wonderful sense of musicality and class-leading battery life – need we say more?
If it's wireless noise-cancelling over-ears you're after, Sony's firm bested its own Award-winning XM3 model with the latest WH-1000XM4 in late 2020 – and 12 months on, there's still nothing at their price that comes close. We pitted them against stiff competition and found that even in today's ultra-competitive market, the Sony XM4 deliver nothing short of a sonic masterclass.
Can't quite reach to £279 ($250, AU$380)? Then AKG comes to the rescue. The Y400 addition to AKG's Y-series caused such a stir among the team last year that we were left with no choice but to award these talented bijou wireless on-ears one of our coveted awards in 2020. Their continued success won’t come as a great surprise to those familiar with AKG's celebrated back-catalogue of headphones, but with Bluetooth 5.0, a portable and classy build, an energetic sound and a wearer detection that's far more reliable than their elder siblings, the AKG Y400 have yet to be challenged for 2021 at the sub-£150 mark.
Yes, the Apple AirPods Max are so expensive that we had to give them their own category, but if you have this kind of cash to splash and prioritise sound quality as well as Apple-friendly features, Apple's only over-ears are excellent options.
Put all of the controversy surrounding Apple's exclusive ecosystem and its eye-watering pricing strategy aside and the unavoidable truth is that the AirPods Max don’t put a foot wrong sonically.
So, that's your lot – 12 pairs, all different styles and budgets. Only one, however, can win our ultimate Product of the Year accolade, which highlights the absolute best-value pair on the market right now. Guess away, but you'll have to wait until the official What Hi-Fi? Awards ceremony on Wednesday 3rd November to get the scoop.
These are the best headphones of 2021