Step one of finding the right pair of headphones is to choose the kind you need. Do you want wireless headphones, or perhaps a pair with active noise cancellation to make a noisy commute more bearable?
It’s tempting to jump straight in and start looking at some of the most tech-packed pairs on the planet. But remember: these features don’t come for free. If you’re on a tight budget you’ll get better sound from a basic cabled pair.
We review headphones every week, so if you have come to the right place for up-to-date buying advice on everything from £30 in-ear headphones to replace those that came with your phone to £300 ones you don’t even have to plug in.
While this round-up covers headphones broadly, be sure to check out our best headphones for running round-up if you're looking for a pair specifically for exercising. These will not only survive sweat and moisture, but will also be far more secure so you're not constantly dealing with earbuds falling out or headphones dropping off your head. We've also got a list of purely wireless headphones – perfect for the Apple iPhone 7. If you're a frequent traveller, you might be interested in our best noise-cancelling headphones list.
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The round-up is arranged roughly in price order, but the curious among our readers may want to read through the entire list to see just what's available out there.
Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 at Amazon.co.uk | Was £269.99 | Now £199
AKG N60 at Amazon.co.uk | Was £229.99 | Now £149
Sony MDR-HW700 at Amazon.co.uk | Was £450 | Now £375
AKG Y50 at Amazon.com | Was $129 | Now $79
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x at Amazon.com | Was $169 | Now $149
Sony MDR-HW700 at Amazon.com | Was $350 | Now $232
Whether you like in-ear or over-ear, you're sure to find something that matches your needs on our list. So read on for our definitive guide to the best headphones available right now.
If you want the most discreet headphone around, look for an in-ear set. These are most like the ones bundles with mobile devices, and use a little rubber tip to create a seal in your ear to block out noise.
It’s this part that also stops them from leaking sound like Apple’s EarPods, which can annoy everyone around you if you like your music loud. Earphones are also a great choice if you don’t have much to spend, with great pairs starting at around £30. You may also see this kind of headphones called an IEM, which stands for inner-ear monitor.
The only real downsides to in-ear headphones are that some people don’t like the feel of the tips in their ear canals, and that most don’t sound quite as large as a full-size pair.
One big step up the size chart sit on-ear headphones. These are perhaps the most popular kind of portable pair at the moment. They don’t dig into your ears and can make much more of a style statement than in-ears, but are at much less risk of making you look silly than a full-size set.
Out of all the kinds of headphone, this is the one we’d recommend trying in person if you can. Because their pads sit on your ears rather than around them, they can feel uncomfortable if they have a tighter fit. Glasses-wearers are at most risk of this, as firmer on-ear pairs will push your ears back onto the glasses’ stems.
This caveat aside, they’re great all-rounder portable headphones, particularly for a work commute or the gym.
Over-ear headphones are often very large, and therefore are a bit conspicuous. They tend to side-step most of the comfort issues of the on-ear kind as the padding rests on the less-sensitive area around your ears rather than directly on them. They usually offer decent noise isolation too.
They can often function as a great at-home pair and an on-the-go set. However, this is only true of closed-back headphones. There are also open and semi-open pairs that don’t put a solid ‘wall’ between the drivers and the outside world.
These can sound great, and are the best type if you want home cinema or home studio set, but they’re not much good outdoors as they leak sound and won’t block out noise.
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Those are the basic types of headphones, but there are a few variations that are worth knowing about, too. Here's a quick overview.
The latest iPhones do not have a headphone jack, so they can only use a normal cabled pair with an adapter that plugs into the Lightning charge port. There are two other solutions: wireless headphones and Lightning pairs.
Lightning headphones have a cable that ends in a lightning connector rather than a normal 3.5mm jack. This makes them ‘digital’ headphones, but means they can’t be used with other devices. Even MacBooks.
Related: Best Lightning headphones
Lightning headphones do bring along with them some useful features, however. By using a digital connection, functionality can be more easily added to headphones, such as an external DAC or noise cancelling headphones that don't require a separate battery. There's also the potential for Lightning headphones to sound better than their analogue counterparts, too.
Before rubber-tipped IEMs became the standard type of earphone, phones and MP3 players used to come with earbuds. This is what Apple EarPods are, really: earphones with a hard plastic shell that sits in your ear canal but doesn’t make a firm seal.
Few headphone companies focus on earbuds these days but they are worth considering if you want in-ears but don’t like the invasive feel of a rubber-tipped earphone. Their main issue is that earbuds leak sound at higher volume. If you’ve ever been annoyed by the tinny whine of someone’s music on the bus or train, they probably used a pair of these.
Unlike the other types above, wireless headphones are not tied to a particular design. You can get in-ear, on-ear and over-ear wireless pairs.
As you probably know, they get rid of the headphone cable. Most use Bluetooth, which lets you get 5-10m away from your phone before the signal starts to break up. They’re great for the gym
Bear in mind, though, that they'll almost invariably offer worse sound quality than a rival non-wireless pair. And you have to remember to recharge them, although most larger pairs let you plug in a cable when you run out of power too.
The other feature worth thinking about is noise-cancellation. This is clever tech that actively gets rid of noise, rather than passively blocking it like a simple closed-back headphone. It does this with the help of at least one microphone. The mic is used to monitor ambient noise, an inverse wave of which is then piped-out by the headphone, negating the din.
Active noise-cancelling works best on low- and mid-frequency noise, such as engines, air conditioners and other such drones. It's generally less effective at reducing high-frequency noise than simpler isolation. Noise-cancelling headphones are perfect partners for long haul flights as they block engine noise brilliantly.
We've drawn together the best headphones available now in one convenient location so, whether you are looking for wireless headphones, noise-cancelling headphones or in-ear headphones, we've chosen the best cans to suit your needs.
Related: Best noise-cancelling headphones