The debate over which are the best headphones has raged for decades. Once, it was an argument about sound quality and comfort, but the modern digital age has made it even more complicated. Now we have noise-cancelling, the ability of headphones to cancel out the sound of the outside world and really immerse you in your music. We have wireless connections, with all the problems of dropouts and fiddly button-presses that brings with it. And we have things like the aptX Bluetooth codec and high-res audio, all trying to pipe the best quality sounds to your ears.
So, it’s not easy to pick out the best headphones in 2020. We’ve tried to smooth things over by breaking the subject into categories: best noise cancelling, best earbuds, best fitness, best budget, and we’ve gone for a best overall pair too. Pick any one of these, and you’re unlikely to be disappointed. Pick the pair that most closely aligns with your interests, and we hope you’ll be delighted.
The choice of headphones is, however, a highly subjective one. Things like the size of your head and the position of your ears come into play. Some pairs are more easily adjusted than others, and decisions like the position of the drivers within the earcups can make a huge difference to the sound they produce. If at all possible, spend some time listening to all the contenders to find the ones that really suit you. Take advantage of websites’ free returns policies to audition several different pairs until you settle on the ones that really, really sound great. Being able to relax with a great pair of headphones and truly block out the world is a wonderful thing, so pair these with one of the best smartphones and experience music in a whole new way.
1. Bowers & Wilkins PX: Best headphones overall
The best headphones in 2020 - a perfect balance of performance and price
Type: Over-ear headphones | Wireless: Yes | Drivers: 40mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 0.73 lbs
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.
- Read our Bowers & Wilkins PX review
2. Bose 700: Best noise-cancelling
Superb noise-cancelling, and a rich sound too
Type: On-ear headphones | Wireless: Yes | Drivers: 50mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 0.55 lbs
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
Our best wireless earbuds right now
Type: Wireless earbud | Wireless: Yes | Drivers: 6mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 3.5oz
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. Jabra Elite Active 65T: Best for fitness
Ideal for running, gym workouts, and all-weather fitness
Type: Wireless earbud | Wireless: Yes | Drivers: 6mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 2.36oz
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.
- Read our Jabra Elite Active 65T review
5. Soundcore Life Q20: Best budget headphones
A great budget choice
Type: On-ear headphones | Wireless: Yes | Drivers: 40mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 0.58 lbs
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.
- Read our Soundcore Life Q20 review