Looking for the best headphones of 2021? There are more choices out there than ever before, with established brands like Apple, Beats, Sennheiser, and Bose offering a huge range of headphones and earbuds for you to choose from. If you’re not sure which brand or style of headphones to go for, our handy guide will help you make the right choice.
The first thing you should consider when choosing the best headphones is over-ear vs earbuds. This decision is equal parts a style, size, and audio quality concern. Some people prefer the look of over-ear headphones, while others value the small size and portability of earbuds. You generally get better audio quality from over-ear headphones as they have more room for bigger drivers.
Once you’ve made that choice, you then need to consider your budget. There are cheap headphones out there that pack a surprising punch for their cost, but if you want the best audio quality you’re usually going to be paying top dollar. More expensive headphones have features like active noise cancellation and wireless connectivity, as well as better audio quality.
You also need to think about battery life. The best headphones can have a battery life of 30 hours or more. Earbuds typically have much lower battery lives, but they can augment this with charging cases.
Wired vs wireless headphones is another thing to consider too. Wired headphones have a more stable connection and often don’t need to be charged, so battery life isn’t an issue, but wireless headphones are far more convenient and stylish. Smartphones don’t really have headphone jacks anymore, so if you’re listening to your tunes on the go, wireless headphones will be better, but if you’re gaming on your home computer or video games console, then wired headphones might be the better option.
1. Bowers & Wilkins PX: Best headphones overall
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. Earfun Free Pro - Best wireless earbuds
Every now and then, a product drops from a relatively unknown company and blows the whole game wide open. That’s the case here, with the Earfun Free Pro wireless earbuds from Kickstarter success story Earfun.
These true wireless earbuds offer exceptional audio quality that rivals what you’d find in headphones that cost four or five times as much. You get great bass and treble, and respectable performance on the mids that leaves them with an impressively balanced sound profile.
The Earfun Free Pro earbuds also come with active noise cancelling technology and while they can’t keep up with the market leaders here, it’s still decent, especially for a pair of headphones this cheap. And that’s really the clincher for the Earfun Free Pro earbuds - the price. At $59.99, you’re simply not going to find a better pair of headphones at this cost. In fact, you could double or triple your budget and you’ll still struggle. These things offer ludicrous value, and the only real downside is that the touch controls take some getting used to. A price worth paying, we think.
- Read our Earfun Free Pro review.
3. Bose 700: Best noise-cancelling headphones
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.
4. Sony WF-1000XM3: Best premium wireless earbuds
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.
5. Apple Airpods Pro: Best headphones for iPhone users
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.
- Read our Apple Airpods Pro review
6. OnePlus Buds: Best budget earbuds
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.
- Read our OnePlus Buds review.
7. Beats Flex: Best cheap workout earbuds
What’s going on here? Beats headphones listed as a budget option? Yeah, we’re as shocked as you are, but Beats Flex are the latest pair of earbuds from Apple’s stylish little subsidiary and they’re not only surprisingly affordable - they’re pretty damn good too.
Obviously they look great, these are Beats headphones. You don’t make it out off the production line without oozing style. Beats Flex are banded headphones connected by a flexible band, meaning they’re not truly wireless. The band means you can easily hang them around your neck when not in use though, and stop them falling to the floor if they fall out. This means they’re ideal workout earbuds.
The audio quality is pretty well rounded, with excellent bass output as you’d expect. The mids get a little lost at times, which results in some sounds getting muddled together into one, but the sound output is still great in this price range. And speaking of price, it’s also very reasonable… for a pair of Beats. Realistically you can find headphones this good for cheaper, but can you find headphones that sound and look this good for cheaper? Probably not.
- Read our Beats Flex review
8. Jabra Elite Active 65T: Best fitness earbuds
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. 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
9. Treblab Z2 - Best cheap over-ear fitness headphones
Another relatively unknown company, Treblab is also pushing the narrative that you can look outside the big audio names and still find great headphones with the Treblab Z2. These over-ear noise cancelling headphones are aimed squarely at the workout and gym enthusiast, with a lightweight, comfortable build and water resistance.
The build quality and materials are good, even if it doesn’t quite reach the same levels that you’d find in premium headphones, and you get good sound quality for the price too. The audio profile is balanced in favor of the highs, which means they’re best suited towards things like podcasts and YouTube videos, but you get respectable music performance too.
They also come with active noise cancellation - it’s not groundbreaking, but it does help drown out the background noise when you’re out at the gym or running down the street. Overall, the Treblab Z2 headphones aren’t flashy, but they are great value for money.
- Read our Treblab Z2 review.
10. Soundcore Life Q20: Best budget headphones
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