Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, it’s likely you could benefit from a bit of music, or from shutting the world out for a bit of solitude – and the best headphones can be your best friend.
But the headphone market can be an overwhelming place. This wonderful tool comes in all shapes and sizes, all types and prices, and finding the right pair can be a confusing experience.
That’s where we come in. We’ve tested countless pairs of headphones across all categories, so you don’t have to. We’ve singled out the very best on the market for every budget, so you can just get on with the very important task of enjoying your music.
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How we test headphones
Not just anybody can review a pair of headphones. You don’t need superhuman hearing to tell what’s good, but you do need to know what to listen out for.
Our headphone tests are done by some of the best and most prolific reviewers in the industry, with years of experience listening to everything from the plasticky freebie earbuds that come with your smartphone, to five-figure beasts of glass and marble. We love music and we want your tunes to sound good, too.
So we listen every pair of headphones we can get on or in our ears. We use a variety of sources, from basic MP3s playing on a laptop to high-quality tracks on dedicated hi-res audio players.
Our test tracks are wide-ranging to give headphones a thorough challenge. They’re also familiar, so we know every track backwards, and we know which bits might trouble the lesser performers.
We listen again and again, and we do that for weeks in case the sound changes – because it usually does. Then we’ll listen to similarly priced rivals and come up with a verdict that reflects the performance and features for the money.
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- Bold look
- Fun sound
- Good isolation
- Boosted bass could be subtler
You don’t need to spent Beats money to get a good pair of headphones. The AKG Y50 are some of our favourite budget pairs of the last few years.
They have style, decent build quality and good sound. You can also get them in all sorts of colours, if you’re tired of boring old black headphones.
Their sound style isn’t a million miles away from that of the £150-plus Beats Solo 2. You get an extra injection of bass for a fun sound, plus it’s otherwise detailed, smooth and very easy on the ear. An easy one to recommend.
Oh, and there’s a wireless version too. Check out the AKG Y50BT.
Buy Now: AKG Y50 for £59 / $96 from Amazon
- Balanced and accurate sound
- Smart compatibilty switch
- Good value
- Lacks a little smoothness
SoundMagic is a Chinese company well on its way to becoming a household name in the west, simply because of the quality of its headphones. We’ve heard dozens of positive reports from readers about SoundMagic sound quality.
The SoundMagic E50 are a great affordable upgrade, and offer a fantastic sound that gets you a higher-end vibe than most other pairs at the price. You may have heard of the SoundMagic E10, one of the most popular pairs of the past five years, but these are altogether more serious. A bit more accurate.
Less common for SoundMagic headphones, they actually look pretty good, too.
- Powerful bass
- Good stereo imaging and separation
- Great value among peers
- Bass is somewhat overemphasised
- Isolation could be better
Now available for a shade under £120 online, the Audio Technica ATH-M50X offer some of the best sound you can get at the price. They get you sparky treble and a bit of extra bass, resulting in an all-round energetic and fun sound without the bassy bloat feel you get with some lively, affordable headphones.
They’re essentially ‘style’ headphones, without the style headphone price. Not all of you may love the design, though.
These are DJ headphones at heart, with a tough, bulky frame that values physical flexibility over being small and sophisticated-looking.
- Vital and detailed sound
- Fast, punchy bass
- Leaky design
- Less than luxurious comfort
Grado isn’t just another headphone company. Pairs like the Grado SR80e are truly unusual, because while they have portable dimensions, their open-back style values sound quality over everything else.
They leak music to the outside world and block out minimal noise. We still love them, though. Their sound is hard to beat at the price.
Dynamic, fast and exciting, they get you a taste of hifi without a scary price or draining all the fun out of music in favour of pure accuracy. The SR80e are not the most soft, relaxing listen out there, but if you really want to engage with your music they’re worth checking out.
- Robustly built
- Replaceable parts
- Sound great
- Fairly expensive
- Bulky cable
They have now been around for years, but the Shure SE425 are as worth auditioning as ever. These are dual-driver earphones that offer stunning mid-range detail.
They also used to cost significantly more a few years ago, making them a better buy than ever. It’s not as if earphones really age, do they? Well, not until the cables start fraying anyway.
These are actually an update to a similar earphone that’s even older. But this newer version has a tougher cable, which is removable.
Sennheiser Momentum 2.0
- Top-notch comfort
- High-quality, fun sound
- Good looks
- Less subtle looks than first generation
- Sound more fun than outright accurate
Surely one of the most popular sets of headphones around, we couldn’t go without giving the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 a nod. They have a sound that balances portable use with high-end audio style.
You get refinement, a bit of extra bass kick, and an easy-going but detailed treble. They’re also very comfortable. We often wear this pair for hours at a time.
The Momentums are also great-looking headphones. In this second generation, Sennheiser enlarged the ear cups after criticisms that they were just that bit too small for a lot of people.
Sony WH-1000XM2 – the best headphones all-rounder
Our favourite noise-cancelling headphones
- Light and comfortable
- Excellent noise-cancelation
- Superb sound quality
- Adjustable ANC level
- Excellent mic for calls
- Long battery life
- There’s a knack to the touch controls
A lot of people will tell you to buy Bose if you want a noise-cancelling headphone. We would have too, until the Sony MDR-1000X came along – and the successors are even better. Meet the Sony WH-1000XM2, our current favourite all-round pair of headphones.
These wireless active noise-cancellation headphones can zap noise just as well as the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, but have a more dynamic sound, and extra features too. These include NFC, gestures that let you control your music with a flick on one of the earcups and a quick monitoring mode that lets you hear what’s going on around you.
They don’t blip and splutter like some cheaper wireless headphones and the battery lasts for up to 20 hours. You may think ANC headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM2 are just for frequent flyers, but we found they make our journey to work much more bearable too. They’re not cheap, but are worth every penny.
Sennheiser HD 800
- Incredible breadth to sound
- Excellent build quality
- The look… not subtle is it?
Want to spend megabucks on your headphones? There are lots of good options. And at this level it’s about what sort of sound you’ll appreciate most rather than necessarily ‘which is better’.
At the top of the must-audition list, though, are the classic Sennheiser HD 800. These are massive-sounding headphones, with the most intense micro-detail rendition you’ll hear in just about any headphone, anywhere. They are pretty bright, though, so not for those who like a nice relaxed treble.
Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature
- Classy, premium design
- Supremely comfortable
- Detailed, rich sound
- Expansive soundstage
- Plenty of cabled options (Lightning cable coming as free upgrade)
- Eye-watering price
The Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature were released to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary – and what a way to usher in a half-century they are. These are Bowers & Wilkins’ flagship over-ear headphones and they sound marvellous. The transducers are angled so they follow the shape of your ears so that the sound more closely resembles that of loudspeakers. The P9 Signature have a frequency response of 2Hz to 30kHz, so plenty of low-end presence, but the mids and trebles are positively delightful, too.
There are plenty of luscious, premium materials and the design oozes class and sophistication. These are the first pair of headphones Bowers & Wilkins have released that come in brown, too, so you feel rather exclusive.
Noble Audio Katana
- Luxuriously built
- Great optional custom-fit service
- The widest, most airy soundstage you’ll hear from in-ears
- Solid bass presence
- Plenty of eartip options
- UK pricing
- Slight lack of weight to lower mid-range
If you think £300 triple-driver earphones are crazy, prepare to have your mind blown. The Noble Audio Katana have nine drivers per earpiece and cost an eye-watering amount.
This puts them well out of the reach of most people. But that’s why they’re at the end of this buyer’s guide, not the beginning. The Noble Audio Katana are the only earphones we’ve reviewed that get you the amazing airy sound of a high-end full-size open headphone in an in-ear form. The sheer engineering needed to get nine drivers to work together to do this is astounding.
You can also get them custom-fitted in all kinds of colours and finishes, as well as having custom artwork or inlays on the earpieces. Check out the full review to see the genuine watch cogs in our review pair.
For a slightly more bassy balance but less treble extension, there’s also a joint flagship, the equally awesome Noble Audio Kaiser Encore.
What type of headphones should you buy?
Most headphones fit into a handful of categories. Here’s a quick breakdown of what each one does, so you know where to start looking – or skip this section to get straight to the products.
In-ear headphones: Also known as earphones, earbuds or IEM, which stands for in-ear monitor. This is the discreet option as in-ears don’t take up much space. They’re not for everyone, though – some don’t like the feel of the tips in their ear canals, and most don’t sound quite as good as a full-sized pair.
On-ear headphones: These are the most popular kind of portable headphones at the moment, particularly for a workout or commute. They generally sound better than in-ears, and they can be more of a style statement. They don’t dig into your ears either, but the trade-off is that tighter fitting sets can get uncomfortable, especially for those who wear glasses.
Over-ear headphones: The biggest and most conspicuous of the lot, but they are the most comfortable because they sit around your ear. That does They usually offer decent noise isolation, and better sound than on-ears. Open-back versions have perforated ear cups and sound more spacious, but you’ll want to avoid those for use outside the home.
Noise-cancelling headphones: Increasingly popular, especially among commuters and frequent travellers. These headphones actively scrub out noise, rather than passively blocking it out. Microphones are used to monitor ambient noise, an inverse wave of which is then piped-out by the headphone, negating the din. Great for blocking out plane engine sounds, or just the office air conditioning.
Oh, and to complicate things a little, all of the above are available in wired and wireless flavours.