The 9 Best Headphones of 2021

High-quality cans to get your groove on

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In order for a set of cans to be considered the best headphones you can buy, they need two basic things. They need to sound great and they need to be comfortable. Headphones help you get away or isolate yourself from the outside world so you can relax or even so you can get some work done. But it's not at simple as all of that. Headphones are one of the most personal pieces of tech you can buy.

Sound quality is very subjective, after all. The types of headphones that sound best to you will be determined a lot by what you want to listen to. If you're into podcasts and the spoken word, you'll want something that gets really great mid-tones. If you like music with heavy bass, you'll want some headphones that emphasize that. If you're into classical music, you might want a more neutral tone so that everything sounds great all at once. Whatever the case, it's not enough to have just great sound quality. You'll also want to address some practical concerns.

You might want headphones that are sweat or waterproof for working out or just working outside. You might want a set of headphones that works well with your phone's voice assistant. You might want wired headphones, or you might need to be wireless. No matter what you're looking for, we have a set of headphones for you. Our experts have looked at and listened to dozens of headphones and we've rounded up the best picks below.

The Rundown
Whether you're a frequent traveller, or work in an office and want to drown out the noise, these headphones will do that for you.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 are quite possibly the perfect pair of Bluetooth headphones you can buy on the market right now.
These headphones have simply the best noise cancelling you can find on a set of headphones.
Best for Phone Calls:
Jabra Elite 85h at Amazon
If you're primarily on the phone, but you like to rock out every now and then, these are a good pick for you.
If you like a bassy profile, these are a great buy.
Sennheiser has a great set of cans designed for those who prefer the quality that only wired audio can provide.
Runner-Up, Best Wired:
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x at Amazon
if you need a nice flat balanced sound, especially for editing music or podcasts, these are some of the best you can buy.
These are really nice headphones that fit any budget with battery life that's impossible to ignore.
The Master and Dynamic MH 40 headphones are one of our favorite sets of headphones when it comes to design.

Best Overall: Bose QuietComfort 35 II

Bose QuietComfort 35 II Review
4.7

Our Ratings
  • Design
    5/5
  • Comfort
    5/5
  • Sound Quality
    5/5
  • Battery Life
    3/5
  • Range
    4/5
What We Like
  • Very Comfortable

  • Amazing active noise cancellation (ANC)

  • Voice assistant support

  • Great battery life

What We Don't Like
  • Pricey

  • Not the greatest app

If you've looked into headphones for any length of time, you've come across Bose headphones. Known particularly for its noise-cancellation technology, Bose is one of the leading names in headphones. Don, our reviewer tested them for weeks and found that "Bose’s QuietComfort 35 II headphones are jam-packed with technology that’s designed to block out ambient noise and offer the best audio quality possible. We think they definitely delivered on both."

The headphones are very comfortable and sound great. As a bonus, the headphones have physical buttons for controlling your music source, which some people prefer over touch-sensitive controls that can be finicky at times. Don particularly enjoyed the battery life, writing, "Bose promises 20 hours of battery life in the QuietComfort 35 II headphones, which we found to be spot on. The headphones lasted through an entire workday with no problem and had enough charge to keep going into the evening. Better yet, these headphones have a fast-charging feature that can add another 2.5 hours of life to the battery after just 15 minutes of charging time."

The app is not the greatest to work with, but the headphones support Google Assistant or Alexa, whichever you prefer. These headphones are great for those looking for the best noise cancellation technology you can find. Whether you're a frequent traveler, or work in an office and want to drown out the noise, these headphones will do that for you.

Type: Over-ear | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: Yes | Water/Sweat Resistant: No

"A well-designed pair of noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones with excellent audio quality, a useful app, and the ability to interact with voice assistants. In addition to the extremely responsive digital assistant, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II’s best features are the impeccable sound quality and market-leading noise canceling technology." — Don Reisinger, Product Tester

Best Wireless: Sony WH1000XM3 Wireless Headphones

Sony WH1000XM3 Wireless Headphones
What We Like
  • Great sound

  • Excellent ANC

  • Very Comfortable

What We Don't Like
  • Physical controls are clunky

  • Not water/sweat resistant

Right out of the gates, these headphones impress.  Our reviewer, Jason says, "the Sony WH-1000XM3 are quite possibly the perfect pair of Bluetooth headphones you can buy on the market right now." We can't help but agree; it's hard to think of a better set of wireless headphones on the market. The Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones have great sound, excellent active noise cancellation (ANC), and can be worn for hours on end without discomfort.

These aren't the newest Sony headphones on the market. We reviewed the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones, but we're not sold on Sony's proprietary tech. Sony uses its own compression technology in the XM4's while the XM3's use AptX technology from Qualcomm. It's a minor but important point. 

Stepping down one generation of headphones gets you AptX compression, and by the way, it saves you about a hundred dollars as well. In our opinion, both of those make these headphones a better value overall.

Type: Over-ear | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: Yes | Water/Sweat Resistant: No

"Sony’s WH1000XM3 headphones have the best sound quality, excellent noise cancellation, and super-comfortable construction. Plus, the battery life allows for all day wear." — Jason Schneider, Product Tester

Best Noise Cancelling: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
4.7

Our Ratings
  • Design
    5/5
  • Comfort
    5/5
  • Sound Quality
    5/5
  • Battery Life
    4/5
  • Range
    4.9/5
What We Like
  • Excellent sound quality

  • Comfortable

  • Impressive ANC

What We Don't Like
  • Pricey

  • Touch controls are tricky

  • Just ok battery life

For a company known for noise-cancellation technology, it's a bold step to put "noise cancelling" into the name of the product. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are hands down the best noise-cancelling we've heard in a set of headphones. Not only do they have amazing noise cancelling, but they avoid the pressure issue that ANC can cause. Andy, our reviewer writes, "Of note is how we didn’t experience as much of an illusion of pressure on our ears as we have with other noise-cancelling headphones. This is a potential side effect of ANC due to the way it actively cancels exterior noise, but in this case, it was markedly improved over other ANC headphones."

But these headphones have more going for them than just ANC. They're also comfortable and they sound great. They're also very expensive. Plus, while Bose is remarkable at noise-cancelling tech, its app development is not great. We noted the Bose app as a weakness in both sets of Bose headphones we've looked at thus far. The app seems to get in the way of working with these cans. Andy writes, "Our issue occurred because we connected the headphones via Bluetooth before we used the app, and the app refused to acknowledge the already paired headphones. We had to unpair the headphones, restart the app, and pair through the app in order for the app to recognize the headphones. Once we did this the rest of the process went smoothly." 

But at the end of the day, these headphones have simply the best noise-cancelling you can find on a set of headphones. If that is your priority, look no further.

Type: Over-ear | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: Yes | Water/Sweat Resistant: Yes

"Very nearly the perfect wireless headphones from the look to the sound. Bose designed the 700s with the intent to create an unmatched listening experience."Andy Zahn, Product Tester

Best for Phone Calls: Jabra Elite 85h

Jabra Elite 85h Review
4.8

Our Ratings
  • Design
    5/5
  • Comfort
    4/5
  • Sound Quality
    5/5
  • Battery Life
    3/5
  • Range
    5/5
What We Like
  • Solid battery life

  • Impressive ANC

What We Don't Like
  • Not for larger heads

  • Hard to clean

Jabra made a name for itself in headset audio by building headsets that were comfortable to wear for a long time and had great audio for phone calls. When it shifted into consumer audio, it brought that phone call tech with it. `But it's also developed its own excellent 3D audio tech along with it. Andy, our reviewer writes, "The 85H has a truly impressive soundstage and produces a remarkably 3D stereo effect."

On larger heads, the headband might be a little tight. There isn't as much play in headband flexibility as we usually like to see. Continuing with headband criticisms, the exterior of the headband is a distinctive fabric texture that looks really sharp, but it is also hard to keep clean. But the Jabra 85H headphones have an impressive 36-hour battery life which is consistent with Andy's testing. After weeks of testing, the headphones only needed to be charged once, and even then, they went from empty to full in around 150 minutes. Once they go down, they don't stay down for long.

So if you're primarily on the phone, but you like to rock out every now and then, these are a good pick for you.

Type: Over-ear | Connection Type: Wireless, Bluetooth | ANC: Yes | Water/Sweat Resistant: Yes

"Great sound, effective noise cancelling, and attractive modern design. Furthermore, the Elite 85h are durable, so the headphones will last you for a while." — Andy Zahn, Product Tester

Best Bass: Sony WH-XB900N

4.3

Our Ratings
  • Design
    3/5
  • Comfort
    4/5
  • Sound Quality
    4/5
  • Battery Life
    5/5
  • Range
    5/5
What We Like
  • Audio is high quality, if bass heavy

  • Companion app is nice

What We Don't Like
  • Build quality unimpressive

  • Not great ANC

There are legions of fans out there who love music that just thumps, and Sony has a great set of cans for just such an audience. Sony's WH-XB900N continues Sony's long tradition of excellent sound accompanied by confusing names. These headphones lean into the low end of the spectrum, designed for music that is heavy on the bass, which can be good or bad depending on your music tastes.  Our reviewer Andy explains, "The problem with the overly potent bass was apparent in Bear Ghost’s “Necromancin’ Dancin’” where the vocals and brighter instrumentals got pushed into the background. In Slade’s “Run Runaway,” the extra bass pumped up the beat and made the song feel all the more impactful, and this tune really demonstrated the capabilities of these headphones when paired with the right song."

The build quality on these cans is not impressive at all, with cheap-feeling plastic, but that doesn't detract from the sound. The headphones are comfortable to wear for long periods of time, even if you have a larger head. The noise cancellation isn't the best, but it's useful to filter out outside noise and allows you to cut down on the volume of your music which is good for long-term hearing health. All the same the lower price point helps justify the areas of concern. But overall, if you like a bassy profile, these are a great buy.

Type: Over-ear | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: Yes | Water/Sweat Resistant: No

"For a low price point without excessively compromising in terms of sound quality and feature set, the WH-XB900N is a real bargain." — Andy Zahn, Product Tester

Best Wired: Sennheiser HD 599 Headphones

Sennheiser HD 599 Headphones
What We Like
  • Nice design

  • Great sound sound

  • Includes both 3.5 and 6.3mm jacks

  • Very Comfortable

What We Don't Like
  • No Bluetooth

To some, the words "wireless" and "audio" don't belong in the same zip code, let alone the same sentence. Sennheiser has a great set of cans designed for those who prefer the quality that only wired audio can provide. Not only do these headphones look and feel great but they come with a focus on great audio. They eschew things like noise cancellation and isolation, knowing that those can alter the sound. These are open back, which is definitely not for everyone, but they have the most accurate sound, which is why they're preferred by audiophiles.

Speaking of which, these headphones come with both 3.5mm and 6.3mm (1/4 inch) jacks so they can be plugged into basically anything from a laptop to most stereo or band equipment. Their lack of Bluetooth means they won't work with many modern smartphones though. That is important considering most music listening comes from smartphones and subscription-based services like Spotify. 

What we love most here is the satin finish of the ear cups that make these a delight to wear for long listening sessions. It's just important to make sure you have the right equipment to use them, with the knowledge that they are not "general use" headphones. If that works with what you have, these are a great set of headphones perfect for the audiophile in you.

Type: Over-ear | Connection Type: Wired 6.3mm/3.5mm | ANC: No | Water/Sweat Resistant: No

Runner-Up, Best Wired: Audio-Technica ATH-M50x

4

Our Ratings
  • Design
    4/5
  • Comfort
    4/5
  • Sound Quality
    4/5
  • Battery Life
    1/5
  • Range
    1/5
What We Like
  • Very flat, very balanced sound

  • Great build

What We Don't Like
  • Ear cups can get backwards

If you're working in an industry that requires flat, balanced sound such as sound design, editing, or mixing, the Audio Technica M50x headphones are a great pickup. They're very popular in the home studio space because they have a great sound that doesn't overemphasize bass, midrange, or treble. You can hear everything the way it actually sounds without the tuning that some headphones will give you. That's important when designing and mixing sound. Plus, they have a great solid build that will withstand being put on and taken off often, or worn for exceptionally long periods of time as will happen in a studio.

The modular ear cups swivel 180 degrees in the middle so it's easy to get the ear cups turned around so they don't pop onto your head. Our reviewer voiced that annoyance but pointed out you can quickly get used to it. One nice thing is that the cable that plugs into the headphones twist locks in, so it won't fall out on you or get pulled out accidentally. The foam on the ear cups is soft and doesn't sweat during long listening sessions.

Bottom line, if you need a nice flat balanced sound, especially for editing music or podcasts, these are some of the best you can buy.

Type: Over-ear | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: No | Water/Sweat Resistant: No

“The ATH-M50x are industry-favorite studio headphones that work well for music producers, but also double as solid consumer, audiophile options. In addition to the audio quality, the headphones are extremely comfortable.” Jason Schneider, Product Tester

Best Budget: Anker Soundcore Life Q30

4

Our Ratings
  • Design
    4/5
  • Comfort
    4/5
  • Sound Quality
    3/5
  • Battery Life
    5/5
  • Range
    4/5
What We Like
  • Multiple EQ options

  • Great battery life

  • Very inexpensive

  • ANC

What We Don't Like
  • Bass heavy

  • Few extras

If you're a music lover, but you're on a budget, check out the Anker Soundcore Life Q30 headphones. They have a low price point at under $100, but they have 40mm dynamic drivers that deliver a bright, though bass-heavy sound experience. There's an accompanying app that lets you adjust the equalizer, but right out of the box, these cans got some thump. They also feature very nice noise cancellation that our reviewer calls "surprisingly effective for headphones of this price."

The most standout feature here though has to be the outstanding battery life. Our reviewer, Jason, got around 40 hours with ANC settings on high. Anker says you'll get 60 hours without ANC. With quick charging, you'll get four hours of listening on a five-minute charge. Those numbers are simply insane, and when you consider the price point, that makes these headphones extremely difficult to ignore. Overall, these are really nice headphones that fit any budget with battery life that's impossible to ignore.

Type: Over-ear | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: Yes | Water/Sweat Resistant: No

"The Life Q30s offer a whopping 40 hours of listening time on a single charge, and that’s even inclusive of using active noise cancellation. If you leave ANC off, Anker Soundcore promises you’ll get closer to 60 hours of listening. While you’re listening, you’ll enjoy the cancellation technologies’ ability to filter out almost anything"Jason Schneider, Product Tester

Best Design: Master & Dynamic MH40 Wireless

What We Like
  • Premium build materials

  • Wired or wireless

What We Don't Like
  • A little heavy for long sessions.

The Master and Dynamic MH 40 headphones are one of our favorite sts of headphones when it comes to design. They come in a number of colors, but our favorite by far is the gunmetal and black leather combination that just looks cherry. It had a tough and durable, yet refined look that we can't turn away from. The headphones have 45mm Neodymium drivers that impress at most frequencies in the spectrum. The midrange gets a little fuzzy, but bass and treble are crystal clear.

The headphones come with a cable that converts from 3.5mm to 6.3mm with a screw-on adapter which means they'll work with most stereo systems. The headphones have zero plastic on them which is great from a build materials standpoint, but they get heavy when you're listening for a long time at once. They weigh a full 12.7 ounces which can be a lot. But as long as you're not settling in for a marathon listening session, these will do a great job for you.

Type: Over-ear | Connection Type: Wired 3.5mm | ANC: No | Water/Sweat Resistant: No

Final Verdict

Overall, we give our top pick to the Bose Quietcomfort 35 headphones. Their mix of sound quality and noise cancellation is hard to beat.  They have a nice clean design, they're comfortable, and they last a long time. If you want to up the sound quality a bit and downgrade the ANC a bit, Sony swings the other way. The Sony WH1000XM3 headphones are a generation old, but they come with reliable sound quality, ANC, and Qualcomm's AptX codec for low latency video streaming. If you don't plan to use these for watching videos, and latency doesn't matter to you that much, then Sony's current generation WH1000XM4 headphones might be a good alternate pick for you.

How We Tested

Our expert testers and reviewers evaluate over-ear headphones the same way we evaluate most headphones, with a large focus on sound quality and comfort. We start by looking at the build material, fit, and comfort of the headphones, and try to judge their durability, waterproofing, and if they'd be comfortable to wear for hours at a time. In the case of Bluetooth headphones we also consider ease of pairing, range, and battery life as important factors.

The most important element we consider is sound quality. We look at frequency response, bass, and the overall audio profile by playing audiobooks, music, streaming shows, and playing games. If they support noise cancellation, we enable the feature and see how much noise they block out in loud environments. Finally, we compare each headphone and its price to a similar competitor to help make a final judgement. All of the over-ear headphones we review are purchased by Lifewire; none are provided by the manufacturer.

About Our Trusted Experts

Nicky LaMarco has been writing and editing for more than 15 years for consumer, trade, and technology publications about many topics including: antivirus, web hosting, backup software, and other technologies. 

Don Reisinger is a tech journalist who's been covering the industry for top publications for more than 12 years. He specializes in consumer technology, including headphones and other wearables.

Jason Schneider has been covering tech and media for almost ten years, and is an expert in audio equipment and headphones. He's also written marketing copy for a number of industries, including e-commerce and consumer electronics.

Andy Zahn is a writer specializing in tech. He's reviewed cameras, weather stations, noise-cancelling headphones, and more for Lifewire.

Adam Doud has been writing in the technology space for almost a decade. When he's not hosting the Benefit of the Doud podcast, he's playing with the latest phones, tablets, and laptops. When not working, he's a cyclist, geocacher, and spends as much time outside as he can.

FAQs

How long should headphones last?

When properly cared for, a pair of headphones can last anywhere from three years to ten or more. If the manufacturer offers a longer warranty on their product, this is a good sign that they’ve built the model to last. The most vulnerable part of a set of headphones is the battery. This isn't a consideration for wired headphones, but for cans that are Bluetooth only, battery cycles will start to matter. Wired headphones can last for years and years. Wireless headphones will not last as long without compromises.

What is a soundstage?

Soundstage is how you describe the sound coming from headphones. Specifically, it relates to spatial audio. Headphones will typically give you left and right sound, but when a set of headphones give you a premium soundstage, you'll get noise from all around you - left, right, front, behind, and more. Spatial audio and soundstage are particularly important to gamers, who not only need to hear that someone is creeping up but creeping up from behind on their left.

I'm a podcaster. What headphones should I use?

When you're using headphones for production, your needs will be different than for consumption. Typically for production, you will want as flat a sound as possible. That means you have a set of headphones that doesn't emphasize any particular part of the spectrum. You want to know just how bassy your music or voice is. Let your listeners or viewers decide how bassy they like their audio. You just provide the purest sound you can.

What to Look for in Over-Ear Headphones

Wireless or wired

Deciding between wireless and wired headphones will largely depending on your equipment. If you're buying headphones for your computer or stereo system, wired is probably ok. If you're buying headphones for your phone to be on the go, then Bluetooth is usually going to be a better choice (since most phones don't have headphone jacks anymore anyway). There are a few things to keep in mind though. Wired headphones tend to have less interference and don't need to be charged. Wireless headphones give you the freedom of not worrying about wires.

Noise-cancelling

Noise cancelling is the ability of headphones to drown out, or "cancel" droning noises around you like traffic, fans, or office environments. They allow you to ignore the noise around you and focus on your tasks. You will want to know the type of technology used, whether feedforward, feedback, or hybrid because that will give you an idea as to what kinds of noises can be filtered.

Materials

The quality of the materials used to make your headphones will not only affect their long-term durability but also their sound. Typically plastic headphones are cheaper and won't last as long. Also, the plastic can cause a hollow sound to the audio itself. Premium materials like metal and wood have less reverberation and sound more accurate to what's actually coming out of the drive.

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