Best headphones 2021: The best at any price

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Sony WH-1000XM4

What are the best headphones?

After a new set of headphones? There are plenty of different styles in different sizes that come with all types of features. If it’s an on-ear you’re after, perhaps an over-ear or maybe even an in-ear; our selection of headphones represent the very best we’ve tested.

From budget cans to the latest premium efforts, there’s enough variety to suit not only your needs but your budget. And we’ve not just plumped for the latest and greatest. There are a few golden oldies still going strong and are worthy of a recommendation.

Scroll below for the best the headphone market has to offer. For a more detailed look, click through to links to our full reviews.

 


Sony WH-1000XM4

1. Sony WH-1000XM4

Raises the bar

Pros:

  • Superb audio
  • Great noise cancellation
  • Comfortable fit, lightweight design
  • Useful smart features

Cons:

The XM4 knocks off the XM3 from top spot on this list, and it does so with an improvement in all areas. Some improvements are rather subtle, such as the design, but they reap dividends with cushier, more comfortable wearing experience. More obvious are the new smart features in Speak-to-Chat and improvements to Ambient smart Control that personalise your audio experience without getting in the way.

ANC is again terrific, suppressing noise for an even smoother and quieter noise-cancelling experience, and the sound is terrific, taking the performance of the previous over-ears and refining it in a way that makes the XM3 sound rather dated. The XM4 are Sony’s best noise-cancellers yet.

Best headphones 2021: The best at any price

2. Bowers & Wilkins PX7

Fantastic over-ear sound

Pros:

  • Big, textured sound
  • 30 hour battery life
  • Wear sensor technology
  • Ambient pass-through mode

Cons:

  • ANC could be stronger
  • Pricey
  • Wireless strength can get choppy

With the PX7, B&W has crafted another entertaining pair of headphones. The active noise cancellation isn’t as strong as others, but fends off most distractions. Wireless connectivity can get choppy in busy areas, though, despite the presence of aptX adaptive audio.

The audio is fantastic; delivering a big, textured and sumptuous listening experience that make the PX7 one of the finest-sounding ANC headphones on the market.

Best headphones 2021: The best at any price

3. Sony WF-1000XM3

Super true wireless quality

Pros:

  • Great musical sound quality
  • Super noise cancellation
  • Snug, comfortable fit
  • Rock solid wireless connection
  • Great with all types of music

Cons:

  • Adaptive sound can be intrusive
  • No aptX

If you’re looking for a wireless earbud with excellent noise-cancellation, the WF-1000XM3 are the best overall choice on the market.

They sound fantastic, exuding a musical quality that enhances the listening experience. Wireless connectivity is rock solid; the ambient noise feature is helpful for hearing what’s around you and active noise cancellation is one of the best we’ve sampled. Price drops since its release means it can be had for close to £150, and that makes the Sonys great value in our books.

Best headphones 2021: The best at any price

4. Bose QuietComfort Earbuds

The best earbuds for noise cancellation

Pros:

  • Tremendous noise cancelling
  • Sounds brilliant
  • Tight, comfortable fit
  • Excellent transparency mode

Cons:

  • Less than average battery life
  • No aptX

After Sony launched the WF-1000XM3, we were anticipating what Bose response would be. After listening to the QuietComfort Earbuds, we’d describe the response as emphatic.

The look is a bit kidney bean-like but we like the svelte appearance. The StayHear Max tip ensures that they stay rooted, with the only parts touching your ear being silicone for what proves to be a comfortable fit. At launch the Bose didn’t have onboard volume control, but subsequent updates has added the feature to the Bose Music app.

The noise-cancelling is superb – the best we’ve heard from a wireless earbud. There are a range of ANC levels to cycle through, with the Earbuds’ Transparency Mode giving the listener excellent situational awareness of what’s around them.

The sound quality just as good. They deliver lots of power and energy, the handling of highs, mids and lows are well judged and the tone is not just neutral but natural. They are one of the best, if not the best ANC wireless earbuds available.

Momentum True Wireless 2

5. Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2

Lush sound

Pros: 

  • Expressive, lush sound 
  • ANC
  • Good fit 
  • Robust feature set

Cons:

  • Pricey
  • ANC and Transparency Mode tax battery life

The Momentum True Wireless 2 refine areas the original were lacking and bump up the feature set for a a great true wireless experience.

The introduction of ANC is welcome, and even though it’s not particularly vigorous, it suppress a good amount of surrounding noise. Sennheiser has excelled yet again in the audio department, delivering a warm, lush and expressive sound that we can’t get enough of.

 

Best open-backed pair headphones - Audeze LCD-1

6. Audeze LCD-1

Uncompromising performance

Pros:

  • Lavishly detailed and explicit sound
  • Light, portable and robust design

Cons:

  • Sound leakage makes them anti-social
  • Not exactly feature-rich

At £399, the Audeze (pronounced Aw-dee-zee) LCD-1 are the company’s most affordable headphones. Yes, most affordable.

The design is open-backed so they’re not commuter-friendly, and the feature list is small – the LCD-1 is all about the audio performance. And the LCD-1 serve up a detailed and dynamic sound that aims for neutrality and hits it. If offending fellow passengers with your music tastes appeals, these headphones produce a thrilling sound while doing so.

Best wireless connection headphones - Shure Aonic 215

7. Shure Aonic 215

Weird looks, great sound

Pros: 

  • Open, balanced, detailed, punchy and all-around splendid sound
  • Decent battery life
  • Robust wireless connection 

Cons:

  • Flat-out odd looks
  • App updates can’t come soon enough

The Aonic 215 are one of the stranger looking true wireless around with their huge antennae, but Shure’s first stab at a wireless earbud is a resounding success.

On the feature front they hit nearly every mark – Bluetooth 5.0, aptX and long battery life – but no ANC is disappointing for the price. Nevertheless, thanks to the weird antennae, the fit offered is great; noise isolation is robust and the sound quality is very satisfying: well-defined, well-balanced and never less than convincing.

Best cheap true wireless headphones - Cambridge Audio Melomania 1

8. Cambridge Melomania 1

Affordable true wireless on a budget

Pros:

  • Great battery life
  • Comfortable fit
  • Poised, energetic sound

Cons:

  • Grey finish is a bit austere
  • Touch controls take some getting used to

The Melomania 1 – the name means “an inordinate liking for music or melody” – were Cambridge Audio’s first true wireless and among the finest you can buy, whatever the price.

With a battery life of 45 hours and a price of £99, they’re much less expensive than efforts from B&O, Sennheiser and Sony. With a detailed, energetic sound that exhibits good control over the frequency range, these are the best wireless earbuds under £100.

Best headphones for bass - Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 3

9. Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 3

Irresistible sound

Pros:

  • Rapid, forceful and detailed sound
  • Fit comfortably
  • Look and feel the money’s-worth

Cons:

  • Quite big
  • Others cancel noise even more effectively

The Momentum Wireless 3 is a monster of a headphone, both in size and in sound.

The noise cancelling is lighter than you’d expect, but as a overall package they’re up there with the best. Build quality is great; features are plentiful though battery life is just 17 hours. The sound is outstanding with well-controlled bass, plenty of clarity and a midrange that is laced with detail and nuance.

Best headphones 2021: The best at any price

10. Lypertek Tevi

Confident budget headphones

Pros:

  • Confident, lively sound
  • Polished build quality
  • Affordable
  • Long battery life
  • Comfortable to use

Cons:

Cheap in the true wireless market often meant rubbish. That’s not the case with the Lypertek Tevi.

Reeling off the features the Tevi have 70 hours of battery, Bluetooth 5.0 and an IPX7 rating, they’re good value for money. They deal well with whatever musical genre or track you fire at them with a confident, lively performance. If quality on a budget is what’s required, the Tevi are a great pick.

Best headphones for comfort - Bowers & Wilkins PX

11. Bowers & Wilkins PX

Talented and musical over-ears

Pros:

  • Fantastic sound
  • Handy smart sensors
  • Auto power/connect/play
  • Attractive design

Cons:

  • Noise cancellation could be stronger

With the PX, B&W focused on its core strengths of design and audiophile sound and they delivered on both counts.

Noise-cancellation is not the strongest and 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 remain one of the best-sounding, most musically proficient pairs of headphones available.

Best cheap noise cancelling headphones - Philips PH805

12. Philips PH805

Outperform their price point

Pros:

  • Well made from good materials
  • Decent spec
  • Punchy, full-fat and subtle sound

Cons:

  • Ho-hum noise-cancelling
  • Could sound more dynamic

The PH805 aren’t the most effective noise-cancellers, but offer a decent noise-zapping experience for its £150 price.

Bluetooth 5.0 is supported and battery life reaches 30 hours (with noise cancellation toggled off). Dynamically they could be better, but otherwise there’s little to complain about, with a sound that’s a faithful-enough reproduction of what you’re listening to.

Shure Aonic 50

13. Shure Aonic 50

The best-sounding wireless headphones

Pros:

  • Sensational sound
  • Good comfort
  • Effective ANC
  • Looks great
  • Custom EQ settings

Cons:

  • Pricey
  • Not particularly portable

The Shure Aonic 50 were the best-sounding pair of wireless headphones we’d heard in 2020. They’re for audiophiles and while that potentially limits their appeal, if audio quality is the priority then the Aonic 50 are the headphones to get.

They come with noise-cancellation, the first headphones from Shure to do so, and prove effective at reducing the noise of traffic and pedestrians to the level where they’re not of much bother. They’re not the most portable of headphones as they can’t be folded inwards. The carry case they come with is about the size of a frisbee.

Though the sound lacks warmth, what you get is a razor-edged sense of precision, detail, and articulation. Bass response offers plenty of variety, and dynamically they’re very capable, fizzing with energy. You shouldn’t trifle these headphones with low-quality streams, they’d much prefer a diet of higher quality/high-res audio.

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

14. Bose NC 700 Headphones

Stylish noise-cancellers from Bose

Pros:

  • Very comfortable
  • Very good noise cancellation
  • Easy to use app
  • Great looks
  • Neutral sounding character

Cons:

  • Can’t fold
  • Audio could use a little more organisation
  • 20-hours battery not massive

The Bose NC 700 are the brand’s flagship full-sized headphones, featuring a new design and improved ANC over the QC35 II. They exude style and are one of the comfiest headphones we’ve worn, though they can’t be folded inwards and that makes them less than portable.

Nevertheless, the noise cancellation is impressive, up there with the best in terms of suppression. Battery life is rather modest but unless you’re a heavy user then you’re unlikely to feel 20 hours of endurance is too problematic.

We found the sound quality to be typical Bose: big, powerful with lots of energy. Its neutral approach is tonally not far off from the QC35 II with its sharp treble response, big bass performance and spacious sound. We do feel they could be better at organising how those elements come together, and they’re not as melodic as our current favourites the XM4. Even so, the Bose impress with their sound, design and noise cancelling skills.

Best cheap in-ears headphones - Final E500

15. Final Audio E500

Budget all-stars from an esteemed hi-fi brand

Pros:

  • Comfortable, light
  • Spacious, punchy and quite balanced sound

Cons:

  • Need greater bottom-end control and more dynamism to their sound

Japanese audio brand Final have a reputation expensive and uncompromising headphones, so it’s with curiosity that we sample its £20 in-ears.

These in-ears are far better than their price would indicate, capable of drumming up a spacious sound that’s both balanced and punchy. With a generous assortment of eartips to help achieve a comfortable fit, they’re one of the more effective pound-for-pound headphones you can buy.


How do we select the best 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.

Still looking for a headphone to buy? If you’re interested in delving deeper into other types, here are other pages that go into greater detail.

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