If you frequently listen to music, podcasts, or streaming media, one of the best ways to improve your experience is through a pair of high-quality headphones. Headphone technology is advancing at a breakneck pace, to the point where the top-quality headphones of just a few years ago are starting to look seriously dated.
We checked out many of the most popular in- and over-ear headphones on the market today to put together what we think is the definitive list of top-quality headphones.
1. Sony WH1000XM3 Noise-Canceling Headphones
The Sony WH1000XM3 Noise-Canceling Headphones are high-end wireless headphones designed to provide the best listening experience for the average consumer. The design is not only gorgeous, it’s comfortable enough to wear all day long and folds down into an included storage case for travel. What really sets them apart from the competition is what’s inside, namely the best audio quality you can find in a pair of strictly consumer cans and a host of other in-demand features.
Why we like it: The WH1000XM3s offer the best combination of features you can find in headphones. They’re beautiful, powerful, and offer intense clarity of sound that allows you to pick out every intricate detail of your audio.
To top it all off, they include workable noise-cancellation plus very respectable battery life. Some headphones beat them out in one or two areas, but none can match the overall combination of high-end features that Sony packed into this stylish pair of headphones.
Flaws: The only place where the WH1000XM3s show a significant fault is in its noise-cancellation. It’s very good and getting better steadily, but it isn’t quite the best.
2. Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro Studio Headphone
The Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro Studio Headphones are reference headphones made by one of the most celebrated names in the audio world. They offer some of the best specs you’ll find for a pair of studio headphones at this price, including a frequency range of 5Hz-40,000Hz, 250 ohms impedance, and 45mm neodymium dynamic drivers. Basically they’re crisp, they’re clear, and they offer a near-perfect neutral reference for someone who wants to try their hand at mixing or mastering their own music.
Why we like it: These are studio quality reference headphones at a price point attainable for the well-heeled consumer audiophile. Every part of their design offers near-perfect reproduction of the artist’s sound and intent, with the ability to pick out the tiniest details of a song. Even more surprising for closed-back headphones, the soundstage is rich and wide.
Flaws: We like the look of the DT 1770s, but not everyone will. They’re the definition of function over form and lack most of the features top-of-the-line consumer headphones have that visually make them ‘pop’.
3. Bose 700 Noise-Canceling Wireless Headphones
With the 700s, Bose made the biggest change to its headphone line in nearly a decade. Instead of the incremental improvements they made with the QuietComfort series, the 700s showcase a radical, and radically good, improvement over past designs. Gone are the thick, fluffy padded headbands and rounded cans, with a sleek and ultra-slim tapered headband and sharply contoured cans replacing them.
Why we like it: If noise-cancellation is your primary purpose for picking up new headphones, the 700s are the way to go. Bose has been the undisputed master of active noise-cancellation technology and their latest headphones display that dominance. When you combine those incredibly effective cancellation algorithms with their highly-advanced array of microphones and fine-tuned digital signal processing system you also wind up with the headphones best suited for making and receiving calls. If you’re anything like us you’ve been in a lot of Zoom meetings lately, making that a not inconsiderable bonus.
Flaws: Where Bose really disappointed us was battery life. Where most flagship over-ear headphones now offer 30+ hours of charge, the 700s top out at just 20 hours. They charge up rapidly, but that’s still a concern for international travelers or those who intend to use them for all-day listening.
4. Sony WF-1000XM3
The Sony WF-1000XM3s are true wireless headphones that combine the audio quality and feature mix of the company’s flagship over-ear headphones with the portability and comfort of in-ear headphones. They really swung for the fences here, packing some of the best drivers into a sleek and stylish pair of in-ear headphones that offer superb battery life and performance you have to hear to believe.
Why we like it: It’s no exaggeration to call the WF-1000XM3s the best true wireless headphones money can buy. They offer the whole package, with a sleek and comfortable all-day fit, powerful 6mm drivers that provide depth and clarity that will shock you, plus long-lasting battery life and effective noise-cancellation.
Flaws: The most surprising flaw with the WF-1000XM3s is their lack of any water or even sweat resistance. One of the most significant benefits of true wireless headphones is the ability to wear them while on the go, but we definitely wouldn’t feel comfortable working out in these or even walking around in them on a really hot and humid day.
5. V-Moda Crossfade M-100 Master
V-Moda has carved out a niche for itself in the premium headphone market with a range of stunningly different stylistic touches combined with excellent build quality. The Crossfade M-100 Masters are an updated version of their acclaimed first product and make a few notable comfort and audio improvements to them.
Why we like it: Durability, styling, and audio quality. In a market filled with sometimes fragile plastic headphones, the M-100 Masters are built to last, with a ruggedly handsome appearance that includes removable/customizable metal shields that allow you to put your own personal touch on the cans. It also has a highly-flexible headband and seriously thick and cushy earcups. Quality-wise it uses some of the best drivers you can find at its price point plus a host of excellent accessories that fit into its stylish clamshell carry case.
Flaws: These are definitely a statement piece. The style, and especially the lack of wireless support/active noise-cancellation aren’t going to be for everyone.
6. Jabra Elite Active 75T
The Jabra Elite Active 75T are an updated version of the company’s first sport-focused true wireless headphone offering. They combine a lighter and more compact design with improved water resistance and better audio quality. Even better, Jabra makes it easy to customize the balance and sound of your headphones with their intuitive Sound+ app.
Why we like it: The 75Ts offer basically the best combination of durability, comfort, and audio quality you can find in headphones without noise-cancellation. They’re compact, offer an impressive 7.5+25hr battery life, and combine finely-tuned mics with powerful, if a little bass-heavy, drivers.
Flaws: All the premium features the 75Ts offer come at a premium price. Given that they don’t offer noise-cancellation many headphone users might consider different in-ear headphones.
7. Audio-Technica ATH-M50X/BT
Audio-Technica has been a respected maker of studio-quality audio equipment for more than 50 years. The ATH-M50X are one of their most popular offerings for providing usable studio headphones for mixers, Youtubers, and others working in audio production at a wildly affordable price. The ATH-M50X/BTs offer the same quality features and basic design with Bluetooth connectivity for on-the-go use.
Why we like it: Both the wired and Bluetooth versions of the ATH-M50X provide crisp and punchy sounds great for enjoying fast tracks and streaming services equally. They offer near-perfect clarity through a full frequency band and are both comfortable and stylish for all-day wear.
Flaws: The most significant flaws with the ATH-M50X and M50XBT relate to connection. If you use the Bluetooth connection, you lose some of the benefits of buying near-studio quality headphones. For the wired version, Audio-Technica continues to use its own proprietary 6.35 mm cable. You won’t be able to use any 3.5mm cables you already have on hand with them.
8. Apple AirPods Pro
The Apple AirPods Pro offer a major upgrade from past generations of AirPods, but still fail to wow anyone who isn’t highly invested in Apple products. They added in features like active noise-cancellation and ear tips themselves that make them more competitive with other in-ear headphones at a similar price point.
Why we like it: They show off Apple’s iconic style perfectly. If you’re an iPhone fanatic, you’ll love how seamlessly the AirPods Pro integrates with your phone and aesthetics. Under the hood, they’ve got competitive features like active noise-cancellation, a much more comfortable fit, and improved battery life to keep you rocking longer. One addition we liked was the Dolby Atmos spatial audio feature. It creates a highly realistic 3D soundstage that tracks your head’s movement to let you immerse yourself in the audio.
Flaws: These are essentially only for someone who’s committed to the full Apple Aesthetic. If that’s not you, there are cheaper headphones that beat the AirPods Pro out in basically every category, be it sound quality, comfort, battery life, or noise-cancellation.
9. Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Wireless Headphones
The Bowers & Wilkins PX7s are wireless noise-canceling headphones built from the ground up to be the most premium consumer headphone on the market. They’re beautifully crafted from premium materials like carbon fiber and use advanced 43mm drivers to produce some of the clearest and most detailed sound possible from wireless headphones.
Why we like it: Quality. The PX7s were designed to be beautiful in appearance and sound. They offer a lively, detailed sound that lets you enjoy every intricate facet of your music while sitting comfortably on your ears and head. They also use the latest and greatest aptX HD Bluetooth codec to give you the best possible audio quality outside wired studio headphones.
Flaws: Price. The PX7s sit right at the top of the price scale for flagship headphones. Don’t get us wrong, they’re premium products with excellent features, but we aren’t sure if they’re as much better than the competition as the price would suggest Bowers & Wilkins thinks they are.
10. Anker Soundcore Life Q20 Hybrid
The Anker Soundcore Life Q20 Hybrids are a value-priced pair of over-ear wireless headphones with features that are hard to believe, given their affordable price tag. They aren’t exactly what we’d call high-end, but they do include all the most important aspects of comfortable, functional headphones.
Why we like it: We’ll put it simply: There’s no better value out there for headphones. The Q20 Hybrids cost a fraction of flagship headphones yet offer mostly the same features, if at a lower level of performance. They have active noise-cancellation, a comfortable fit, long 40+ hour battery life, and audio quality that’s nothing to sneer at.
Flaws: Basically everything. The audio quality isn’t as sharp or bright as other headphones, the noise-cancellation has some definite weaknesses, and the headphones themselves don’t come with a carry case or other common accessories.
Who should buy headphones?
If you listen to any audio and aren’t rocking great headphones, picking up a pair will be a major step up. That said, the groups below will see a huge comfort and performance improvement by investing in some.
Travelers – If you’re a frequent traveler, quality headphones are one of the best investments you can make in your comfort. Having to deal with the sounds of engines, other people’s conversations, and the dreaded crying baby can be incredibly draining.
If you’re traveling on public transit such as a train or flying headphones with active noise-cancellation tech are the way to go. They use a combination of mics and advanced algorithms to cancel out the droning sound of engines and wind (1).
Music lovers/audiophiles – This is obvious, but if you’re a music lover and you’ve been making do with cheap earbuds or old headphones, upgrading will be a real game-changer. Higher quality headphones can legitimately change the whole experience of listening to music, to the point where you discover entirely new aspects of your favorite songs. That doesn’t even consider how much more comfortable, portable, and generally enjoyable to use they can be (2).
Runners, cyclists, joggers, skaters, and other exercise enthusiasts – Exercise is an absolute necessity in today’s world, but a lot of the time it can be kind of boring. It’s especially true if you’re working out in a gym running on a treadmill or using a spin bike.
High-quality headphones give you the option to listen to your favorite songs, enjoy a podcast, or even watch a delightful video without bothering those around you.
People using ‘included earbuds’ – It’s always a plus when a phone or laptop manufacturer includes a pair of free earbuds with their product, but don’t imagine that you’re getting anywhere close to the best sound from them. Almost all the small, wired earbuds that come with products provide consistently low-quality audio.
They look cheap, feel cheap, sound cheap, and break easily. Upgrading to some real headphones, be they over-ear or in-ear, will vastly improve your listening experience (3).
How we ranked
We used five key metrics while assembling our list. These were audio quality, comfort, connection type, battery life, and portability.
Audio quality – The sound’s actual quality is always the number one priority for picking out the best headphones. Lower quality headphones often have muddier mids and highs that made it difficult to pick out the details that make your music shine.
Things we looked at included frequency range, impedance, driver size, codec support, and their sound signature. Relatively small differences can affect how well a pair of headphones sound in different conditions and with different kinds of music (4)(5). Ideally, we were looking for balanced/flat sound signatures, though we included a few with some of the other more popular variations.
Comfort – There are three broad categories of headphones out there, in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear. In-ear and over-ear headphones are the way to go from a comfort perspective, with the best over-ear headphones edging out in-ear and true wireless earbuds.
The basic features we looked for related to comfort were fit, weight, padding, configuration, and adjustability.
Connection type – Wired vs wireless headphone connections is an argument that’s been going on for over a decade, with strong arguments for both sides. Wired headphones, especially on the high end of the market, still provide consistently better audio quality and work without a battery.
Wireless headphones are more convenient for portable use, and the more advanced Bluetooth codecs are starting to approach the quality of wired headphones, but still lag behind wired connections.
Battery life – That battery life we mentioned above? Yeah, it’s really important. Thankfully the best modern headphones offer longer battery lives with faster charging times as well. The best headphones can give you 40+ hours of continuous use and be topped off enough for several hours of listening in just a few minutes.
Portability – For the purposes of portability, in-ear headphones are the reigning champs, but over-ear headphones are starting to give them a run for their money. Features we looked for here were high-quality carrying/charging cases, efficient and ergonomic folding, and low weight.
Brands we trust – There are a ton of excellent headphone manufacturers out there producing top-of-the-line headphones with different focuses. We mostly left true “studio” headphones off our list and focused on the best consumer makers, with Beyerdynamic’s excellent offering the sole exception.
For that reason, we recommend Sony and Bose as the two go-to brands. Both product lines comprise high-end over-ear and true wireless in-ear headphones that include the most in-demand features.
We weighted these metrics in order of importance to create our list. The headphones above all provide great value and performance, depending on what features you prioritize.
Q: How much do headphones cost?
A: It’s easy to get sticker shock looking at the prices of many flagship headphones. Most class-leading models are priced over $300 each, with those one level down not much better. Thankfully, there are some real bargains to be had if you’re willing to do a little research.
Our pick for best value-priced headphones was the Anker Soundcore Life Q20 Hybrid.
Q: Are over-ear headphones better than earbuds?
A: Definitely. It’s important to note though that ‘earbuds’ and ‘in-ear headphones’ are two different things. Earbuds are tiny speakers that rest over your ear canal while in-ear headphones use ear tips that actually slip into your ear canal. Over-ear headphones still provide better sound quality and usually comfort, but in-ear headphones can give them a real run for their money (6).
Q: Are headphones waterproof?
A: Some headphones are water-resistant, but there are very few pairs we’d classify as truly waterproof. Many of the headphones on our list offer at least some water and sweat resistance, but make sure to double-check the manufacturer’s specifications to make sure.
Q: What are the best wireless headphones?
A: Wireless headphones can be a bit of a misnomer. The term can include everything from ‘wireless’ over-ear headphones to ‘true wireless’ in-ear headphones that are independent of one another. We included both types of wireless headphones on our list.
Our pick for best true wireless headphones was the Sony WF-1000XM3.
Q: Are headphones bad for your ears?
A: If used safely and correctly? No. That being said, it is entirely possible to run your headphones too loudly or for too long a time. High-quality headphones have powerful drivers that let you crank up the sound. So long as you make sure you aren’t listening to extremely loud music for too long a period of time though, your ears will be fine (8).
Q: What headphones are good for working out?
A: We recommend wireless in-ear headphones for working out. They provide the most portability, comfort, and wearability during high-intensity movement and have the best water- and sweat-resistances.
Our top pick for workout headphones was the Jabra Elite Active 75T.
Modern headphones sound better and are more portable than ever before. You can choose from a host of gorgeous and high-quality options that give you the chance to tailor your listening experience.
For Hastings #1 headphone recommendation, click here.