Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you could always benefit from a bit of music. Or perhaps shut out the world out for a bit of solitude. In this context, headphones can be your best friend.
But rifling through headphone market can be overwhelming. Headphones come in all shapes and sizes, all types and prices, and finding the right pair can be a confusing and frustrating experience.
That’s where we come in. We’ve tested countless pairs of headphones and singled out the very best on the market across all categories, so you can get on with the very important task of enjoying your music.
Related: What is aptX?
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1. AKG Y50
Striking portable headphones for those who like a fun sound
- Bold look
- Fun sound
- Good isolation
- Boosted bass could be subtler
The AKG Y50 are some of our favourite budget pairs of the last few years. They have style, good build quality and sound. You can get them in a range of colours, if boring old black is too dull for you.
You get an extra injection of bass for a fun sound, plus it’s detailed, smooth and very easy on the ear. The Y50 is an easy one to recommend.
If you’re more of a wire-free person, there’s the AKG Y50BT version available too.
2. Grado SR80e
Great headphones for those who like an energetic sound
- Vital and detailed sound
- Fast, punchy bass
- Leaky design
- Less than luxurious comfort
Headphones 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. The offer a sound that’s hard to beat at the price.
Dynamic, fast and exciting, they treat you to a taste of hi-fi without the scary price or draining the fun out of music in favour of accuracy. The SR80es are not the most chilled, relaxing listen, but if you want to engage with your music, they’re absolutely worth checking out.
3. Audio-Technica ATH-M50x
Great sound and good comfort make these cans a smash
- Powerful bass
- Good stereo imaging and separation
- Great value among peers
- Bass is somewhat overemphasised
- Isolation could be better
You can get the Audio Technica ATH-M50X for under £115 and in our opinion, they offer some of the best sound at that price.
They give 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.
These are DJ headphones at heart, with a tough, bulky frame that values physical flexibility over being small and sophisticated-looking.
4. Sennheiser Momentum 2.0
Another home run for Sennheiser
- Top-notch comfort
- High-quality, fun sound
- Good looks
- Less subtle looks than first generation
- Sound more fun than outright accurate
We couldn’t do this list 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.
5. Sony WH-1000XM3
Easily the best noise-cancelling headphones available
- The best noise cancellation ever
- Excellent sound quality
- Fast charge feature is great
- Comfortable fit
- Responsive controls
- Could do with a touch more detail in the treble
There was a time when Bose were the leading force in noise-cancelling headphones. Sony has arguably trumped them with the WH-1000XM series. The WH-1000XM3 is the latest version and as we’ve come to expect, it’s a fantastic headphone.
The WH-1000XM2s were no slouches when it came to noise-cancellation but the WH-1000XM3 best them in that category. They zap sounds, with noises around you becoming greatly subdued when they’re headphones are in use. Chuck any noise at these headphones and they’ll fend them off with great skill.
For music playback it’s another step up with a bigger, more open sound that’s complemented by plenty of energy. The best wireless headphones just got better.
6. Sennheiser HD 800
Startlingly accurate and insightful pair of cans
- 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 that list ought to be 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.
They’re showing their age a little, and while the price to the right is high, you can get for less.
7. Bowers & Wilkins P9 Signature
By far the best headphones Bowers & Wilkins has produced
- 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 are a celebration of the company’s 50th anniversary – and what a way to usher in a half-century.
They sound bloody marvellous. The angled transducers follow the shape of your ears so the sound more closely resembles that of loudspeakers. The P9 Signature have a frequency response of 2Hz to 30kHz, so there’s plenty of low-end presence, but the mids and trebles are positively delightful, too.
And if that’s not enough, the design oozes class and sophistication with its use of luxurious Italian leather. They’re expensive but utterly fantastic.
8. Soundmagic E11C
Brilliant budget earphones
- Improved sound
- Enjoyable, with good detail for the price
- Pleasant aluminium earpieces
- Cut-down accessories package
SoundMagic has produced great quality in-earphones for low prices and guess what? They’ve done it again with the E11C.
The E10 has updated multiple times in the years since its release, but the E11C is less an update and more a direct sequel to the E10. The sound is different with some of that relaxed smoothness lost. But making up for that is a mid-range full of more detail, bass that hits harder and a better showing in terms of soundstage, clarity and dynamics.
You won’t find wireless or noise cancellation functionality here, but for this low price you do get a superb pair of in-ears.
9. Shure SE425
Astounding audio plus excellent build
- Robustly built
- Replaceable parts
- Sound great
- Fairly expensive
- Bulky cable
They have been around for years, but the Shure SE425 are still one of the best in-ears around. These dual-driver earphones offer stunning mid-range detail.
They were more expensive but have dropped down in price, 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 and the drivers come loose.
10. Fender Thirteen 6
Expensive, but they are great performers
- Spectacular levels of detail
- Impressive dynamic reach
- Plenty of power
- Lovely presentation
- Not exactly neutral
If you in-ears that offer zero compromise, the Fender Thirteen 6 are the ones to get.
Deep pockets are needed to cough up the £1549 price tag, but these in-ear monitors put on a show that blows others in-ears away. Aimed at stage performers and audiophiles, the Thirteen 6 produce a sound that’s extremely detailed, bassy and offer a soundstage that’s wide and far-reaching.
Of course you’ll need to feed the Thirteen 6 with quality sources and components to hear it at its best. They’re wasted on smartphones. So long as you have the necessary parts, the Thirteen 6 can sound spectacular.
11. Noble Audio Katana
In-ears have never sounded so much like high-end over-ears
- 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 thought £300 triple-driver earphones were crazy, then you may want to have a sit down. The Noble Audio Katana have nine drivers per earpiece and cost £1700.
The Noble Audio Katana give 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 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.
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.
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.