We concede that finding the right pair of headphones is something of a subjective task.
To make your choice easier, though, we set out to whittle down a market rife with choice into a list of the best headphones and earbuds that not only perform exceptionally well, but provide the most value. After months of testing several options across four of the most popular categories of headphones (for more on the differences in categories, scroll down), here’s what we found to be the best:
During our testing period, we paid close attention to several of the most important aspects when it comes to headphones: sound quality, battery life, comfort during a variety of activities, and overall connectivity. We focused our testing on the most consumer-facing options, searching for the headphones and earbuds that deliver the most value, so you won’t find thousand-dollar options designed for the pickiest of audiophiles. Instead, we looked at dependable options that work well with almost any device and any kind of music, while also delivering on the core features in their respective field.
Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound (they top our list of best over-ear headphones to boot), but they have phenomenal noise-canceling ability as well. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.
The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the best of our on-ear testing pool, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable price tag.
Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks in terms of true wireless earbuds. They deliver a wide soundstage thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-cancelling ability out of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience.
Best noise-canceling headphones and best over-ear headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4s ($348; amazon.com)
Whether it’s drowning out your neighbor mowing their lawn for the sixth time this week or blocking out your roommate’s endless Zoom meetings, the Sony WH-1000XM4s have your ears covered.
The noise-canceling bliss starts the second you put these headphones on your head — even before switching on ANC. Thanks to their over-ear design with ample cushioning, they passively block out sound. But engage ANC, and the XM4s take sound cancellation to a whole new level. With microphones built in, they monitor audio around you in real time to block it out.
No matter the situation in which we tested them — bass-heavy thumps, background conversation, sirens — no noise seemed to penetrate. We started off by running on a treadmill with the XM4s. Generally, with a non-ANC pair of headphones, you can hear the gears turning, legs hitting the mat and machine humming along. The XM4s were able to break these sounds up into, well, nothing, clearly outperforming the Beats Solo Pro in this regard.
But the XM4s really shone when blocking higher frequencies, such as the hum of a fan or AC unit, chatty neighbors and other general background noise. We put the XM4s to the test against speakers playing a backing track from a restaurant (plates clacking, people laughing and chatting) along with a real-life outdoor dining scenario. In both situations, these were able to block noise — even without music playing — from nearby tables, silverware falling and even the occasional creak of a door slowly opening. Turning just ANC on provides a white noise effect, and you effectively get left alone in your own bubble.
Adding music while ANC is switched on, though, is like Peter Parker getting bit by the spider — it just gives the XM4s a whole new set of superpowers. Yeah, you get the benefit of distraction-free noise blocking, but it also makes the music sound better. The XM4s have the ability to place you in the center of a mix, with tracks clearly flowing from the left and right around you. Take Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” in which you’ll hear the vocals, organ and eager drum beat trickle around you from the left and right. While some headphones can leave you feeling a little cramped or with white noise interfering, the XM4s leave you with just the music. The processor will even work double time to upscale tracks to higher quality that provides stronger soundstage.
The companion app for Android and iOS lets you customize the sound experience with various preset equalizers (or you can create a custom one). You can even choose to let ambient noise in via the app or with the Speak to Chat function of the XM4s. Essentially, when the device hears your voice, it will lower the music and turn ANC off, allowing you to engage with the world around you. It’s on par with the transparency mode found on the Beats Solo Pros and Bose 700s, but we really like this intelligent way to turn it on or off, as it allows you to easily wear these in more scenarios.
Sony promises 30 hours with ANC on, and in our testing we fell slightly short at about 29 hours, 40 minutes. Still seriously impressive and besting anything else on our list.
No, these aren’t the cheapest at $348, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better pair of ANC cans that will have no issues lasting for many years.
Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($194.99; amazon.com)
The Beats Solo 3s were released back in 2016, which in headphones years means they’re basically living their golden years. But despite their age, they consistently held their own during our testing. They were often neck-and-neck with headphones twice their price, if not flat-out surpassing them.
The Solo 3s produced sound you’d expect from a much more expensive pair of headphones. Instrumental and vocal clarity were among the best we’ve heard. The drums, saxophone and synthesizers of “Jazz Crimes” by Joshua Redman came through with amazing clarity. Every drum beat popped, even during the song’s busier moments with multiple instruments playing simultaneously. During “Your Best American Girl,” you might swear you were in the recording studio with Mitski as she sang and strummed the guitar.
The Solo 3s put on quite a performance when it came time to bring the bass, actually besting their successors, the Beats Solo Pros. “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish had lots of depth as well as a nice physical kick to the audio. And while the PX5s and H8is topped the Solo 3s in this category, the scores were very close — primarily coming down to differences in their overall intensity. This was most apparent during “Modern Jesus” by Portugal. The Man, which relies more on subtle bass with a substantial kick rather than depth alone. Still, the Solo 3s provided bass we could rock out to. Their performance was close behind that of the PX5s and H8is, despite costing much less.
These headphones provide an invigorating sense of 3D sound, too. We could tell exactly where the instruments were in space while listening to “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen. The experience made us feel as if we were on stage with him, and his voice rang out with equally impressive resonance. Never did a song feel flattened or below its intended quality. This was true even during the intense saxophone peaks of Joshua Redman’s “Jazz Crimes.” And, as we discussed above, the Solo 3s could handle the unusually deep troughs of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” without issue.
These headphones can make and take calls, so we rang up some people to put them to the test, and what we found was good call quality overall. Our recipients generally described us as sounding “pretty good,” with reasonable vocal clarity. For comparison, our voices were much more muffled during calls with the Bowers & Wilkins PX5s, while the Beoplay H8is calls delivered a slightly higher voice quality than the Beats Solo 3.
The Solo 3s were also a breeze to operate. Most of the buttons reside on a cap atop the left ear cup. They are well integrated into the design, with a large center button performing most functions, including playback, track skipping, call control and Siri (holding the button down will summon her). Around this button is a ring; pressing in the top increases the volume, and vice versa on the bottom. The buttons do produce a noticeable clicking sound, but not enough to find distracting. The power button is on the opposite cup with a row of LEDs beneath it that indicate remaining battery life. The controls were easy to learn, and it’s not hard to find them with your hand while you’re jamming out.
The plastic employed in these headphones seems substantial — with material that feels higher quality than that used on most of the other devices we tested, but also decidedly lower in quality than the PX5s’ and H8is’ material. The inner skeleton is metal, but it doesn’t add much heft to the device. Overall, these headphones are slim and light. The ear cups also fold in so you can stow them in the included carrying case.
Visually, these headphones are remarkable across all nine colorways (including vibrant options). The plastic shell on the headband flows continuously toward the ear cups, becoming the circular caps on top of them. The cushion inside the headband merges seamlessly with the adjacent plastic as it, too, curves toward the ear cups. Though there’s not much cushioning to speak of, the device manages to be very comfortable. Not only are the ear cup cushions high-quality, but the headphones are also only about 7.5 ounces, so the device doesn’t put much pressure on your head.
Behind the beauty and power of the Solo 3s is an equally substantial battery: The Beats Solo 3 are capable of a little more than 40 hours of playback. That, in a word, is bonkers — you’ll rarely have to plug these in. And better yet, they feature a quick charge that’ll give you three hours of battery life from just a five-minute charge.
As we mentioned above, the Beats Solo 3 are rather old, having debuted back in 2016. The Bowers & Wilkins PX5s, on the other hand, were released in 2019, and the Beoplay H8is came out in 2018. Even so, it’s clear these headphones are still up to snuff. They also still contain Apple’s H1 chip, which powers AirPods (just not AirPods Pro) to this day and provides super fast Bluetooth pairing. Furthermore, Apple offers a one-year warranty, plus two years and two incidents of accidental damage coverage, with AppleCare+.
By the time we were done with the Beats Solo 3, we had even more respect for Beats. They’re capable of audio quality like few others, comfortable, and totally easy on the eyes. Even without ANC, these headphones scored on top of our list, deserving of the title of best on-ear headphones. At $199.95 (and often on sale for less), this pair continues to withstand the test of time.
For our full analysis and insight into our testing process, read our full review of the best on-ear headphones.
Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($197 originally $249; amazon.com)
As it should be with any pair of quality earbuds, the first thing you notice about the AirPods Pro is their sound quality, which is second to none.
The latest AirPods seamlessly reproduce every note, strum, hit or key press on a track. The sound output is custom-tuned in real time using Adaptive EQ. While other earbuds may come with a manually controlled equalizer, the AirPods Pro work in real-time to analyze drivers, amplifiers and microphones on both the outside and inside of the ear in an effort to reproduce tracks as true to the artists’ intent as possible. Alongside that tech, Apple amped up the bass on the Pros to a thumping degree compared to the regular AirPods.
This all comes into play on songs like “Ex’s and Oh’s” by Elle King, which starts off strong with a leading bass tone and background snares. Sharp vocals are overlaid with guitars and a constant bass remains strong throughout. On some earbuds, this leads to unintended reverb or a cracking sound that creates a less than stellar experience. But not with the AirPods. While the roaring electric guitar is meant to have some reverb, the AirPods’ Adaptive EQ didn’t lower or raise it and left it as the track intends it to be played back so you can still clearly make out each instrument and their respective tones.
For a wider soundstage, we went back to the ‘80s with “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen. The soundtrack starts with a constant snare on the left side with guitars mixed in on the right. Then, as if Springsteen is stepping up to the center microphone, you hear his voice smack-dab in the middle. It’s not a very energetic track, but it’s a tough mix with instruments and sound switching from left to right and swelling together. AirPods Pro don’t add any extra vibrancy to the track by upping tones, but rather present it in a balanced environment that focuses on vocals.
For a more powerful test that encompasses drums, pianos, multiple vocals, guitars and a saxophone, we opted for “Born to Run.” With the AirPods Pro, you can clearly hear each respective instrument on the track as the Adaptive EQ works to mix the track in real time.
The volume produced at 50% is loud enough to block out most sound even with noise cancellation turned off. But turning on the ANC really shows the power of the AirPods Pro. Their noise-canceling ability rivals even the best over-ear headphones, creating a truly immersive, studio-like listening experience. While flying with AirPods Pro in and the ANC turned on, the engine noise and plane environmental sounds are brought down to a whisper with the volume at 50%; turning the volume up to 70% sounds almost the same as when you were still on the ground. These beat out any other passive or active noise-canceling abilities of all the earbuds we tested, and the experience is consistent whether you’re connected to an iPhone, a Google Pixel, a Mac or even a Surface Go2.
One small imperfection with the AirPods Pro is that, as an Apple-made product, connectivity to iOS devices is prioritized. As soon as you open the lid on the AirPods Pro case, the true wireless earbuds start casting a connection to iOS devices; with non-Apple devices you’ll head over to Bluetooth in order to manually connect to the AirPods Pro when first pairing. After that, opening up the case and placing them in your ears will have them connect. While it may be quicker for iOS devices, in our testing we found the connection to be sturdy and stable with 38 different devices, many of which were not Apple-made. We didn’t experience any dropouts, and using non-Apple devices didn’t affect battery life.
Those pairing with an iPhone also get the “Ear Tip Fit Test” during the initial pairing process. Essentially, this uses Adaptive EQ and pulsating tones to measure which size tips are correct for your ear.
You can comfortably wear these for long stretches, thanks to their design and long battery life — specifically five hours of it (you can quick-charge via the case for an additional five hours) even with ANC turned on. You can stretch that with ANC or transparency modes turned off.
AirPods Pro really land at the top of the mountain both in feature set and in price. At $249.99, these are the most expensive, but the sound quality, battery life, connectivity and class-leading noise cancellation will blow you away.
For our full analysis and insight into our testing process, read our full review of the best true wireless earbuds.
A quick guide to headphones
Over-Ear vs On-Ear
With headphones categories, it’s all in the name. Over-ear headphones simply mean they are built to go over your ears. By going around the ear, these create a seal around them leading to a passive noise canceling experience, as the materials of the headphones physically block out some noise.
Over-ear cans usually have ample padding — generally memory foam on higher-end options — that create a comfortable experience. The plushness allows the headphones to rest softly around the ear. Also, the hardware setup in over-ear cans are often a bit more powerful thanks to more physical space to work with, though sound quality will be similar across a manufacturer’s fleet of headphones.
The core difference between over-ear and on-ear, though, is noise leakage and retention. Over-ear headphones allow you to keep the noise in and block some noise out. On-ear cans simply rest on the ear itself, so it’s more common to have whatever you’re rocking out to leak out a bit. There’s also not much passive noise canceling with on-ear.
While shopping for over-ear headphones, you’ll obviously want to look at some of the crucial aspects — namely battery life, connectivity, and sound quality — but a comfortable design is also important, as these headphones are built with the aim of blocking you off a bit from the world. You’ll also want the padding to make sure these don’t apply too much pressure to your face or head either.
As we’ve already hinted at, on-ear headphones simply rest on your ears. Padding and comfort levels are crucial with these headphones as they can add a lot of pressure to your ears and head. And as a result, these generally perform better with people with smaller heads.
The sound experience with on-ear headphones won’t have any passive noise cancelation out of the box. Since the earcups don’t create a seal around the ear, but rather rest on it (generally with a circular design), the sound won’t be blocked out and generally leaks out a bit at higher listening volumes. It’s a trade-off, but generally, these don’t look as bulky and are a bit cheaper.
Noise-canceling headphones (also known as ANC headphones)
Luckily when it comes to ANC headphones, you get your pick. ANC — or Active Noise Cancellation — is essentially a microphone-powered experience that blocks out environmental noises, leading to a kind of vacuum-like listening experience. ANC headphones can fall anywhere on the spectrum — on-ear, over-ear, or true wireless earbuds.
In addition to the ability to block out the world around you, many of these feature a transparency mode, which pumps in some sound like conversations and other lower-end sounds. This allows the user a more immersive listening experience coupled with the ability to hear what’s going on around them — perfect for when you’re walking around to hear traffic and the like.
When you look at the chapters of personal audio listening, you first had wired earbuds. Then Bluetooth earbuds that had a cord connecting the left and right earbuds. And then someone thought of a way to cut the cord completely, ushering in true wireless earbuds.
Depending on the design, some earbuds will sit flush in your ear while others wrap around the ear with a hook, and some others will stick out a bit with stems. The latter is likely the most iconic design that Apple ushered in with AirPods. It also got us on the track of these just work.
While these pack a smaller design than headphones, there are plenty of true wireless earbuds that pack a considerable punch.When picking a pair for yourself, you’ll likely want something that plays nice with all devices, but also one that adds some magic for your most-used device. Equally as important is the design, after all these sit in your ear and you’ll want something that won’t fall out but is still comfortable.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailer’s listed prices at the time of publication.
Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: