What are the best headphones available?
After a new set of headphones? Well there’s never been a better time to get a pair with so many great efforts available.
But, unless you’re a true audiophile, knowing which set to get can be a tricky task. Buying the wrong set is also a worryingly easy mistake you want to avoid as not all headphones are created equal and a high up front price doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be very good.
With supreme Active Noise Cancellation, beautiful audio quality and a sleek design that allows you to simply tap for skipping songs, answering calls and activating, these are an excellent pair of True Wireless headphones.
The influx of new tech means there’s a wealth of different types of headphones to choose from, each with very specific focuses.
As a result, you’ll want to do your research before investing in any pair of headphones. If you’re after something to drown out the outside world during your morning commute, or in the office, then Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) is a must.
If you’re looking for something to wear at the gym, a wireless set with wing tips and an IP sweat resistance rating is a solid option. If convenience is the name of the game, then a completely cable-free set of true-wireless will likely be the best option.
But even after making a decision on what form factor you want, you’ll need to consider key factors like audio-quality and battery life before handing over your cash – two things that are very difficult to gauge without real world testing.
Here to make sure you don’t invest in a bad pair of cans, we’ve created a definitive list detailing the best headphones we’ve currently reviewed. Scroll down to get a more thorough breakdown of the best headphones across every budget and form factor. Or, if you’re in a rush our current picks are:
- Best for fun: AKG Y50
- Best for energy: Grade SR80e
- Best for sound and comfort: Audio Technica ATH-M50x
- Best for noise-cancelling: Sony WH-1000XM3
- Best on a budget: SoundMagic E11C
- Best for most people: Shure SE425
If you’ve already decided you want something for sports, jump to our best running headphones guide. If you’re after something for when you’re out you may also be interested in our best wireless headphones guide. Or, if you salivate at the idea of a cable-free set, jump to our best true wireless earbuds guide.
Best noise-cancelling headphones
- The best noise cancellation
- 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-cancellation. That’s now passed on to Sony with their WH-1000XM series.
The WH-1000XM2 were no slouches, but the WH-1000XM3 best them (and other brands) in terms of noise cancellation. Sounds around you are zapped, with noises becoming greatly subdued. Chuck anything at them 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.
Bowers & Wilkins PX
- Fantastic sound
- Handy smart sensors
- Auto power/connect/play
- Attractive design
- Noise cancellation could be stronger
With the PX, B&W focused on its core strengths of design and audiophile sound and absolutely delivered on both counts.
While the noise-cancellation is behind the likes of Bose or Sony, we’re hoping the upcoming PX7 can improve in that regard.
There are perhaps too many onboard buttons to make sense of, but the wear sensor is clever, able to detect when the headphones are on or off your head pausing playback accordingly.
And in terms of sound they’re one of the best-sounding, most musically proficient pairs of headphones you can find right now.
Superb audio quality
- Great musical sound quality
- Super noise cancellation
- Snug, comfortable fit
- Rock solid wireless connection
- Great with all types of music
- Adaptive sound can be intrusive
- No aptX
If you’re looking for a wireless in-ear with excellent noise-cancellation, there aren’t any options better than the WF-1000XM3
They sound fantastic, exuding a musical quality that enhances the listening experience. Wireless connectivity is rock solid and stable; the ambient noise feature is helpful to hear what’s around you in busy, bustling cities and the active noise cancellation is the best we’ve tested in a true wireless earbud.
If an audio brand can do better than what Sony has done here, they’d have made a belter of a headphone.
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.
Delivers 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.
Great sound and good comfort
- 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.
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.
Striking portable headphones
- 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.
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.
- In-ear — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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. (Read our Best wireless headphones guide)
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.
Each one of these products has been fully tested and rated, and you can click through to the full review on each. If you’d like to know more, read our comprehensive guide on how we test headphones.