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Best headphones 2021: Wireless headphones, earbuds, and more

Best headphones 2021
(Image credit: Bose, B&W, Jabra)

The best headphones are quite a personal thing to choose. They spend their time wrapped over your head or popped into your ears and you’ll spend thousands of hours listening to music, films, and podcasts through them. So, it’s essential to know what to listen out for in the best headphones or earbuds.

We expect entertainment to fill almost every minute of our days and the best headphones can deliver that seamlessly into your life, no matter what you’re doing. But when choosing a pair of headphones, you need to consider what you’re using them for.

No matter what your needs are, we've got you covered with our best headphones guide: there are lightweight, waterproof headphones ideal for running, exercise and life down the gym; full over-ear headphones with noise-cancellation help you relax on your daily commute in a bubble of quiet calm; consider gaming headphones with enhanced microphones for clear in-game chat; or perhaps you want small, portable, wireless earbuds that you can neatly pop away in your bag when not needed? 

Many people are going to use headphones with the best smartphones. With the headphone jack going out of fashion, wireless headphones are almost a must. While video game console players won’t want to be constrained by a long cable, wired headphones for PC types might be fine and audiophiles may very well demand analog connections to listen to their vinyl records on a USB turntable.

Brands play a large part in people’s choice, as much as for their tech as their style and fashion. Sony, Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, and Sennheiser are all good guarantees of quality. But one thing that’s harder to ensure is pure comfort and there’s no real other way of doing this than trying them on. So, check your online store’s return policy and take a new set of cans for a whirl.


1. Bowers & Wilkins PX: Best headphones overall

Bowers & Wilkins PX: Best headphones overall

(Image credit: B&W)

Bowers & Wilkins PX

The best headphones in 2020 - a perfect balance of performance and price

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Over-ear headphones | Wireless: Yes | Drivers: 40mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 0.73 lbs

Reasons to Buy

Great sound
Superb noise-cancelling
Feature packed

Reasons to Avoid

Look basic for some
Don't fold that well

You want the full package? This is the full package. Bowers & Wilkins may not be a household name, but on the back of these headphones it deserves to be. These are the first wireless headphones with built-in noise-cancelling the company has produced, and it’s knocked the ball clean out of the park on its first swing. They may not look much, with a two-tone grey finish (soft gold is an optional extra) made from aluminum and ballistic nylon, they’re solid yet light, and exert a good amount of pressure when applied to your ears.

Wireless sound quality using the aptX HD codec is clean and clear, with a decent bass kick and the distinct feeling that the music is coming from in front of you. Noise-cancelling comes in two modes - Flight, which blocks out everything, and City, which should allow you to hear the honking of an oncoming taxi. 

Lifting an earcup off your ear pauses playback, and you can pause manually and adjust volume using the trio of buttons tucked behind the right earpiece. The PX doesn’t fold up particularly small, but can be made compact enough to slide into the provided carry pouch.


2. Bose 700: Best noise-cancelling

Bose 700: Best noise-cancelling

(Image credit: Bose)

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Superb noise-cancelling, and a rich sound too

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: On-ear headphones | Wireless: Yes | Drivers: 50mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 0.55 lbs

Reasons to Buy

Best noise-cancelling out there
Great sound too

Reasons to Avoid

Doesn't fold
No in-app equalization

Bose is a company that really should know what it’s doing, and it shows. The noise-cancelling performance on offer here is second-to-none, and the sound quality isn’t bad either, although it doesn’t quite match our overall best headphones. 

It’s hard to dislike the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700s, despite their extremely long name. The new design over Bose’s previous model was worth the investment, as the seamless finish exudes a feeling of quality the more plasticky models can’t match. Touch controls are a great thing to add, making buttons feel positively 20th-century, and the use of the Bose logo as part of this gives insight into the level of thought that has gone into their manufacture.

While sound quality doesn’t match the heights of the B&Ws, it’s perfectly good in its own right, and when coupled to that remarkable noise-cancelling technology the headphones sound great. A comfortable favorite among commuters, these headphones won’t disappoint.


3. Sony WF-1000XM3: Best earbuds

Sony WF-1000XM3: Best earbuds

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony WF-1000XM3

Our best wireless earbuds right now

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Wireless earbud | Wireless: Yes | Drivers: 6mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 3.5oz

Reasons to Buy

Good sound
Excellent battery life

Reasons to Avoid

Not waterproof
No aptX support

The rise of the true wireless earbud - that’s a pair that don’t rely on a cable between them like some wireless buds do - has been a remarkably fast one. They rely on duplication of technology, as each must house Bluetooth circuitry, mics, and its own battery, so they can tend toward the bulky, or have noticeable descending stems like the Apple Airpods.

Sony gets around this problem with intelligently shaped buds that sit in your ears like tiny Bluetooth headsets. Their noise-cancelling ability is good, and the overall sound quality, considering the drivers in earbuds are many times smaller than those in over-ear headphones, is remarkable. The small batteries are topped up using a charging case, which contains a larger battery you charge from the wall, and sound equalization functions are handled by a companion app on your phone.

These earbuds sit at the top-end of the price range that includes entries from Apple, Jabra, Beats and more. They need to stand out to justify that, and they do. You won’t find a better pair of true wireless earbuds out there. Their only drawback is a lack of waterproofing, making them unsuitable for use in the gym or while running. Apart from that, these are the best around.


4. Apple Airpods Pro: Best for iPhone users

Apple AirPod Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple Airpods Pro

The best wireless earbuds from Apple

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Wireless earbud | Wireless: Yes | Drivers: Unknown | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 0.19oz each

Reasons to Buy

Great sound quality
Small and stylish
Good noise cancelling

Reasons to Avoid

Expensive

Apple AirPods Pro are probably the most famous earbuds in the world, alongside the normal AirPods, but are they deserving of that monstrous fame? The short answer is yes they are. When it comes to aesthetics and form factor, AirPods Pro are peerless thanks to their compact, stylish design, and on-earbud controls.

Apple AirPods Pro are no slouches when it comes to audio quality either, and we were thoroughly impressed by the balanced sound output and solid bass these things can kick out. They also feature decent noise cancellation, which you can customize, so you can drown out the rest of the world and just jam to your tunes.

The only real issue is that you’re paying a premium for that Apple badge and there are better headphones out there for cheaper, both in terms of sound quality and noise cancelling. But if it absolutely must be Apple, these are a fine choice.


5. OnePlus Buds: Best budget earbuds

OnePlus Buds

(Image credit: OnePlus)

OnePlus Buds

At half the price of the competition, OnePlus Buds are the best cheap earbuds

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Wireless earbuds | Wireless?: Yes | Drivers: 13.4mm dynamic drivers | Noise-cancelling: No | Weight: 0.16 ounces (earbud); 1.3 ounces (case)

Reasons to Buy

Gorgeous design
Excellent battery
Great value for money

Reasons to Avoid

Rigid plastic design

Not content to blow the big names out of the water in the smartphone space, OnePlus has dived into the best headphones brawl with the OnePlus Buds. As we’d expect from OnePlus, this is a stellar first effort with the OnePlus Buds offering great sound quality at an affordable price. They offer excellent sound quality at half the price of competitors like the Apple Airpods. They look slick too - we’re especially fond of the electric blue color.

OnePlus has also brought a staple feature from its phone range along - Warp Charge. This means that you can get ten hours of playtime from just ten minutes of charging. Topping out at 30 hours total charge including the case, the OnePlus Buds last for a long time too.

The only major gripe we have is the rigid plastic design. It apes the look and feel of Apple Airpods, but they’re a little bigger and as a result, they won’t fit everyone’s ears quite as well. Definitely try a pair before you buy, because they can fall out easily when you’re on the move if they don’t fit snuggly.


6. Jabra Elite Active 65T: Best for fitness

Jabra Elite Active 65T: Best for fitness

(Image credit: Jabra)

Jabra Elite Active 65T

Ideal for running, gym workouts, and all-weather fitness

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Wireless earbud | Wireless: Yes | Drivers: 6mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 2.36oz

Reasons to Buy

Highly water-resistant
Excellent noise cancelling

Reasons to Avoid

Plasticky build
Less great case

Jabra’s entry into the fitness earbud sector packs in the features. You get water and dust resistance that should see you wash your earbuds under the tap without damaging them, along with decent sound and excellent noise-cancelling. 

They look great too, their unique shape making them instantly recognizable, and come with a nice range of different silicone tips to really lock them in place and block your ear canals - essential if noise-cancellation is to effectively remove all ambient noise. You get five hours of use out of the batteries, and the charging case will extend this by another 10 before it needs to be topped up. Watch out for the lid, though - it’s not the easiest to get along with.

While you can get better sound elsewhere, the quality the Jabras are capable of putting out is perfectly acceptable, especially if you’re using them while running a 10k or deadlift your own bodyweight. For everyday use, too, we’d find them perfectly acceptable, but we might be thinking about the Sonys.


7. Soundcore Life Q20: Best budget headphones

Soundcore Life Q20: Best budget headphones

(Image credit: Anker)

Soundcore Life Q20

A great budget choice

SPECIFICATIONS

Type: On-ear headphones | Wireless: Yes | Drivers: 40mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 0.58 lbs

Reasons to Buy

Inexpensive
Long battery life

Reasons to Avoid

Plastic feel
Others do it better

Getting 80 or 90% of the best headphones for less than a third of their price sounds like a dream, but it’s true. Headphones like that really are out there, and you don’t need to put up with too many inconveniences to use them.

Soundcore’s Life Q20s are one such set. Their sound is far from perfect, but they sound more expensive than they are, and despite the plastic-heavy construction they look like it too. They’re missing features like equalization apps and touch-sensitive panels, but in the things that matter, like noise-canceling and battery life, they’re up there snapping at the heels of the best.

There are a few frustrations too - you can’t skip tracks without opening your playback app, and they don’t fold up particularly small - but these are the things we’re prepared to overlook when we’re only paying $60 for a set of headphones. They’re also comfortable, have a rock-solid connection, and there’s a bass boost function for when you really want to rock out.

Cheap headphones are often an unwise purchase, but when they’re this good, we can’t help but recommend them.