The Best Headphones for 2021

by newsup

With so many headphone brands and models out there, it’s easy to get lost in choices and overwhelmed by features and specifications. We get it. Here’s a handy timesaver: If you want the best overall headphones, we think the Sony WH-1000XM4 are the ones you should buy.

Their combination of top-notch audio quality, superb noise cancellation, and dependable wireless performance is such a strong formula, these headphones made it to the top of our best wireless headphones and best noise-canceling headphones roundups. Yep, they’re that good.

We’re convinced the Sony WH-1000XM4 will be an outstanding pick for most people, but if you’re looking for some alternatives, we have you covered there, too. We’ve identified a number of other models, each with its own specific strengths, whether it’s for use during a workout or merely to keep you from giving your credit card too much of a workout.

Shopping on a budget? Here’s a look at the best headphones under $100.

The best headphones at a glance

The best wireless headphones/best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4

Riley Young / Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: Beautiful wireless sound, plush comfort, and excellent noise canceling.

Who they’re for: Anyone who wants a top-tier wireless experience and loves silencing the world around them.

Why we picked the Sony WH-1000XM4:

Sony’s technologically advanced WH-1000XM4 are the fourth generation of Sony’s flagship wireless headphones (following the excellent WH-1000XM3, WH-1000XM2, and MDR-1000X models). They offer top-tier noise canceling, excellent quality wireless audio, and plush comfort. This enticing combination earned the model a rare five-star rating in our initial review and — thanks to a few notable improvements — makes the latest version the best headphones you can buy.

At the heart of the WH-1000xM4 is outstanding wireless sound. When paired with an Android device, Sony’s LDAC technology delivers a wireless signal at what the company claims is three times the quality of standard Bluetooth streaming. The company has dropped support for the aptX and aptX HD Bluetooth codecs, a feature supported in the previous 1000XM3, but we wouldn’t lose too much sleep over this. The headphones still support SBC, AAC, and, of course, LDAC, which is one of two Bluetooth codecs that have been certified as hi-res compatible.

Sony says it has made improvements to the noise-canceling technology in the 1000XM4, specifically when dealing with mid- to high-frequency sounds like human conversations. Our reviewers didn’t notice a huge difference between this model and the previous XM3, but that’s because those cans were already great noise-canceling headphones to begin with. Compared to Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, it’s too close to call, as both are outstanding.

Among the updates Sony has made to the Sony WH-1000XM4, are:

  • Multidevice Bluetooth support, meaning you can take a call from your phone, then resume watching a YouTube video on your computer
  • Wear sensors that automatically pause the music when you slide the headphones off your ears
  • Automatic ambient mode when the XM4 detect that you’re speaking
  • Greater comfort when wearing the headphones for long periods

As amazing as the Sony WH-1000XM4 are, if you can find a set of WH-1000XM3 for a discount of $50 to $100 or more, grab them before they’re gone!

Want an alternative to the WH-1000XM4? The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are light and comfy, with killer noise cancellation and call quality. They’re better suited to business travelers, but they’re an excellent choice for general use too.

Read our in-depth Sony WH-1000XM4 review

The best wireless earbuds: Sony WF-1000XM4

Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: They’re a techno tour-de-force with superb sound, noise-cancellation, and tons of other great features.

Who they’re for: Those who want a set of true wireless earbuds with no compromises.

Why we picked the Sony WF-1000XM4:

Like the Sony WH-1000XM4 above, Sony’s flagship true wireless earbuds — the WF-1000XM4 — are the latest in a long line of excellent earbuds. Their predecessor, the WF-1000XM3 (which Sony still sells) were already a knockout choice, but they lacked a few features like a compact design and wireless charging, which the new XM4 handily address.

The earbuds are now 10% smaller, while their charging case is 40% smaller and now features wireless charging. The XM4 are a bit on the large size, so folks with smaller ears may have trouble with the fit. But that one critique aside, they’re a vast improvement over the XM3, with bigger and more accurate touch controls and memory foam eartips that create a great seal.

Sound quality, especially in the low-end, is stellar. Plenty of earbuds promise big, beefy bass, but in our experience, few of these models come equipped with the kind of detail that lets you appreciate every little nuance of that bass. The XM4 do this incredibly well, though occasionally that means a slightly less vibrant high-frequency response. If your phone supports it, the XM4 now work with Sony’s LDAC Bluetooth codec for a much higher-quality wireless signal than you’ll get with the standard SBC and AAC codecs.

Sony has once again improved its already excellent active noise cancellation as well as its transparency mode, putting the XM4 on par with the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds and Apple AirPods Pro. They should be excellent companions for all kinds of noisy places from airplanes to coffee shops.

Cleverly, Sony has also incorporated its speech-sensing tech from the WH-1000XM4, which means that all you need to do is start talking and the earbuds automatically switch to transparency and pause your tunes.

Speaking of, well, speaking — Android users will get a choice of hands-free access to Alexa or Google Assistant, something we’ve seen in only one other product: The JBL Tour Pro+.

This really only scratches the surface of what the WF-1000XM4 can do, so please do…

Read our in-depth Sony WF-1000XM4 review

The best wired earbuds under $100: 1More Triple Driver

Why you should buy them: These wired earbuds are premium in every way but their price.

Who they’re for: Anyone who wants a really great-sounding set of wired earbuds but is unwilling to spend hundreds of dollars for the pleasure.

Why we picked the 1More Triple Driver:

The adage that you get what you pay for is generally true for audio products like headphones. What has made us big fans of the 1More brand is its ability to redefine that expectation in surprising ways. The 1More Triple Driver in-ear headphones are a great example of this: They exhibit all of the hallmarks of high-end, expensive earbuds, yet manage to keep the price highly affordable for most people.

Their combination of dual balanced-armature drivers matched with a dynamic driver to pump up the lower end is the kind of engineering normally found on products that cost more than double the price of the 1Mores. Even the smaller details are very well ironed out, such as Kevlar-wrapped cables that increase resistance to wear while simultaneously reducing tangles.

Boasting materials like cast aluminum that has been polished and sandblasted for a luxurious feel, even the included carrying case — normally a throwaway pouch that people ignore entirely — has been obviously crafted and built with care. Their inline mic and control buttons are compatible with both iPhones and Android devices.

The 1More Triple Driver sound amazing, with a wide and complex soundstage that warranted an official THX certification. While 1More has many other budget-friendly products, including the newer Dual Driver ANC Pro Wireless, if you’re looking for great sound at the lowest price, we think the Triple Drivers offer the best value.

Read our in-depth 1More Triple Driver review

The best headphones for working out: Sony WF-SP800N

Why you should buy them: Excellent sound, huge battery life, ANC, plus water and dust resistance.

Who they’re for: Anyone who wants a set of wireless earbuds made specifically for demanding workouts.

Why we picked the Sony WF-SP800N:

When it comes to true wireless earbuds for workouts, the Powerbeats Pro get a lot of attention. That’s fair: They’ve got a huge nine-hour battery life, great bass response, and built-in ear hooks for a secure fit. But at $250, and given that they don’t have ANC, transparency mode, or wireless charging, they’re very expensive for what you get. Sony’s $200 WF-SP800N cost less, and have more valuable features for folks who want an awesome set of workout companions.

They don’t have ear hooks, but the included silicone wing-tips and ear tips provide a very secure fit — these buds won’t be going anywhere unless you want them to. This will appeal to folks who wear prescription glasses or like to wear shades when they run — ear hooks can really get in the way of eyeglasses. Sony’s ear tips also do a heck of a good job of passively isolating your ears from external sounds. So good, in fact, you may not even need their ANC.

But if you do use ANC, you’ll be pleasantly surprised — these Sony earbuds easily diminish external sounds to the point where you’ll hardly notice them. Between their ambient and quick-listening modes, you’ll never be out of touch with your world if you need to know what’s going on.

As you might expect, the WF-SP800N have been tuned with a pronounced bass response, courtesy of Sony’s ExtraBass feature, something that any workout buds worth their price simply must offer. Unlike some other workout earbuds, if that bass is too much, or your podcast addiction calls for an emphasis on vocals, the Sony Headphones app gives you lots of control over low, mid, and high frequencies.

They also have a huge list of additional features like auto-pause/play, the ability to use either Google Assistant or Alexa instead of the voice assistant on your phone, customizable controls, and a big nine-hour battery life (with ANC) that jumps to a huge 13 hours when ANC is off.

The only thing missing is wireless charging. We’d also love it if Sony let WF-SP800N users decide which functions they want to control, instead of making us choose from preset function families like volume or ANC.

For a very similar set of features and an even lower price, check out JBL’s Reflect Mini NC.

Awesome WF-SP800N alternatives:

Read our in-depth Sony WF-SP800N review

The best headphones for music: Sennheiser HD 560S

Sennheiser

Why you should buy them: Audiophile sound quality from a legendary brand, in a comfortable design that is also remarkably affordable.

Who they’re for: Those who take their music listening seriously, and want an uncompromising set of headphones.

Why we picked the Sennheiser HD 560S:

Audiophiles generally agree that if you’re passionate about music, and you have a listening space that is relatively free of outside sounds, nothing beats a really good set of open-back headphones.

As far as we’re concerned, you won’t find a set of open-back headphones that manage to combine superb sound quality and a reasonable price better than the Sennheiser HD 560S. They’re built to the same audiophile standards as our previous pick, the HD 6XX/HD 650, but use an updated and sleeker design, with angled drivers that do an even better job of reproducing the sound of in-room speakers.

The included detachable cable comes with a 1/4-inch headphone jack, which underlines that Sennheiser considers these to be home/studio critical listening cans, but you’ll also find a 1/4-inch to 3.5mm adapter for use with smartphones and other media playback devices. It’s also worth noting that the Sennheiser HD 560S are the only selection on this list that do not support voice calls or any remote control of a phone or media player’s functions like play/pause.

We haven’t published our full review of the HD 560S yet, but in our time with these amazing cans, we can already confirm that what we observed about the HD 650 is equally true of the HD 560s: “Warm and rigid bass, a midrange that dips close to the ruddy colors of analog tape saturation (without sacrificing an ounce of detail), and a laser tight response up top that helps illuminate vivid clarity and granular instrumental texture across the board.”

If that sounds like the kind of performance you want in a set of headphones, we think you need look no further than the Sennheiser HD 560S. You can certainly spend more to get this level of quality, but you don’t have to.

Read our in-depth Sennheiser HD 6XX/HD 650 review

The best headphones for iPhone: Apple AirPods Max

Riley Young/Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: Class-leading ANC, transparency, and call quality, plus superb sound, in a beautifully designed set of wireless headphones.

Who they’re for: iPhone users, who want the best money-is-no-object set of wireless headphones.

Why we picked the Apple AirPods Max:

The AirPods Max, at $549, are very expensive. So if you’re on a smaller budget, you may want to consider the $249 AirPods Pro instead — before the Max arrived they were our top pick for its category.

But now that the AirPods Max are here, we have to say, we’re very impressed. The design, materials, and build quality alone are almost worth the price of admission. Once again, Apple has paid attention to the smallest of details and produced a set of headphones that are at once incredibly simple and very high-tech.

The aluminum earcups and stainless steel headband sliders feel fantastic in your hands, and all of the parts move together with invisible, clockwork-like precision. The mesh fabric on the headband and ear cushions provide ample comfort.

The digital crown, which Apple repurposed from the Apple Watch, is surprisingly effective as a combo control that lets you adjust volume with much better precision than a set of buttons. The dedicated ANC/transparency mode button is equally intuitive and easy to use.

Speaking of ANC and transparency, Apple has knocked these features out of the park. Our reviewer found that the transparency was so good, it felt like he wasn’t wearing the headphones at all.

Sound quality, while not quite as good as the Sony WH-1000XM4, is darn close. We suspect very few people who try both will feel a strong push toward the XM4.

That isn’t the case, however, with the AirPods Max weight. Far heavier than any other headphones on this list, the Max are perfectly comfy for a couple of hours, but beyond that, we think folks will grow fatigued with all of that weight on their heads.

The included carry case, if you can call it that, is another weakness. It doesn’t fully protect the headphones and it doesn’t help you pack them in a backpack or suitcase. But using anything else isn’t really an option as its internal magnets are needed to push the AirPods Max into ultra-low-power mode.

Speaking of power, at 20 hours, the AirPods Max won’t win any endurance prizes, but that’s still enough juice for all but the longest of flights.

Read our in-depth Apple AirPods Max review

The best headphones for Android: Google Pixel Buds A-Series

Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: The Google Pixel Buds A-Series deliver many of the same features as the Pixel Buds 2 for a fraction of the price.

Who they’re for: Android users who are looking for the ideal complement to their smartphones and mobile devices.

Why we picked the Google Pixel Buds A-Series:

We already liked the Google Pixel Buds 2 a lot, so when Google released the Pixel Buds A-Series — a set of true wireless earbuds that are essentially identical to the Pixel Buds 2 but almost 45% cheaper — we knew the company had landed on a great formula.

Physically, the A-Series are identical to the Pixel Buds 2. Same design, including the stabilizer arcs that keep the buds from popping out during exercise. They’re tiny and very comfortable.

The charging case is also unchanged physically, though Google did remove the wireless charging feature to save some money.

Sound quality isn’t quite up to the standards set by earbuds like the Jabra Elite 75t or the Amazon Echo Buds 2, but that’s a function of their vented design. Google decided that it was better to let some outside sounds get in by default, and there’s no doubt that it’s less expensive to do this than to build in a transparency mode.

But more importantly, the A-Series retain the features that made the original Pixel Buds 2 such a good choice for Android users: Fast pairing, hands-free access to Google Assistant by saying “Hey, Google,” and real-time access to Google Translate. Sadly for Apple folks, the A-Series aren’t nearly as friendly for iPhones. They’ll work for audio and phone calls, but not for any of the more advanced features.

Battery life remains unchanged at just five hours, which is still equivalent to the AirPods Pro.

They may not have noise canceling, but the Google Pixel A-Series have an Adaptive Sound feature that automatically adjusts the volume to the environment that you’re in.

Altogether, the Google Pixel Buds A-Series have a winning formula for awesome Android buds that are now more affordable than ever.

Read our Google Pixel Buds A-Series hands-on review

The best headphones for gaming: Audeze Mobius

Why should you buy this: It does everything right, connects to everything, and has incredibly granular features.

Who’s they’re for: Primarily PC gamers who crave 3D and 7.1 surround sound with specificity to the type of games they play.

Why we picked the Audeze Mobius

The Audeze (pronounced odd-eh-see) Mobius is the kind of headset you buy when you have deep pockets and an even deeper wish list. Compatible with PC, Mac, and consoles, the Mobius is a wallet-crushing $400 7.1 surround sound headset of nearly unparalleled quality. From how it feels on your head to how you perceive game audio across multiple genres, the Mobius earns its top-dollar price with equally premium performance.

Offering Bluetooth or wired connectivity, the Mobius also boasts a stellar 10 hours of play per charge and allows you to adjust mic and headphone volume independently with two different toggle switches. It also offers seven different EQ presets to match different audio needs for different game genres. For example, you can prioritize footsteps to give yourself an edge in first-person shooters.

Its 3D mode centers your audio experience to your screen so that as you turn your head, sounds come from their source in your video game in relation to the perspective of your ears in actual space. It can track your head up to 1000 times per second and identify sound sources, changing them dynamically as you move.

That feature aside, the pure sound quality is stellar, and though you’ll get the best quality out of Bluetooth or USB wired connection (the 3.5mm jack into a console controller doesn’t get quite as loud as we would like, and won’t remember your audio settings when you turn them off), audio is spectacular through the Mobius, and in competitive gaming, your voice will be well transmitted to your teammates.

Beyond the laundry list of features and customizations the Mobius offers, it’s also relatively lightweight and comfortable to wear. It features both a memory foam headband and replaceable contoured memory foam earpads that combine to make long gaming sessions less fatiguing.

The microphone is removable, making the Audeze Mobius suitable for other audio activities like listening to music or TV wirelessly, which we highly recommend. As expensive as it is, the Audeze Mobius is absolutely worth the high investment and is our top pick for a premium gaming headset.

The best headphones for kids: Puro PuroQuiet

Puro Sound Labs

Why you should buy them: The PuroQuiet protect your kids from dangerously loud sound levels while they cancel out external sounds.

Who they’re for: Parents who want to provide their kids with high-quality headphones, without exposing them to loud sounds.

Why we picked the Puro PuroQuiet:

Noise cancelation for kids? Doesn’t that mean they’ll ignore their parents even more often than they already do? Perhaps, but it’s a risk worth taking if it means your kids’ hearing will be protected over the long term. That’s exactly the premise behind the Puro PuroQuiet headphones.

Not only are they wireless and great-sounding, but they also come equipped with a software limiter that keeps the volume at or below 85dB, which is considered the maximum volume that anyone (but especially children) should be exposed to for prolonged periods. Above that threshold and kids risk developing noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). The noise-canceling feature means they’ll actually be able to listen to lower (therefore safer) volumes.

These headphones pack about 16 hours of battery life, which ought to be enough for a whole day or more, but if not, there’s always the option of using an analog cable instead. An external switch lets you turn the noise cancellation on and off. Make no mistake, these might be aimed at kids, but the quality of construction, selection of materials, and color choices give them an appearance that will still appeal to your young charges long after they’ve outgrown their Disney phase (some of us still haven’t).

While not the cheapest kids’ headphones you can buy, the Puro PuroQuiet are very reasonably priced for what they offer. We think your kids’ ears are worth it.

Like the idea of the PuroQuiet but need something more adult-sized? Check out the PuroPro.

Read our PuroQuiet impressions

Research and buying tips

Who makes the best headphones?

There are a ton of manufacturers currently making awesome headphones, from major brands to smaller boutique outfits, so there is no clear winner when it comes to the best company in the headphone world.

What’s the best place to buy headphones?

We typically recommend buying from a major retailer like Amazon, Best Buy, or Walmart, or a smaller, more specialized local audio retailer.

Over-ear/On-ear headphones vs. earbuds: Which is better?

That depends on what you’re using them for and how much you’re willing to spend. At the high-end, over-ear and in-ear headphones can both perform fantastically. For those of us not willing to spend thousands on headphones, over-ear headphones typically offer better bass response and a bigger soundstage, but in-ear headphones are significantly more portable and convenient — especially wireless earbuds.

What type of headphones are best for working out?

True wireless models like the Sony WF-SP800N which feature sweat proofing, are far and away the best headphones for working out because you’ll never have wires in your way.

What headphones should I buy if I don’t want others to hear?

Closed-back over-ear headphones or snugly fitting in-ear headphones are the best way to ensure your favorite tunes won’t leak out into the world around you.

How does active noise-canceling work?

Headphones with this feature use exterior microphones to capture the sound around you. They then reproduce matching frequencies with their phase inverted to cancel ambient noise. How well the system works depends on a wide variety of factors from software to hardware to how well the headphones fit.

Do any headphones use a Lightning connector? Or USB-C?

Yes, you can find both Lightning and USB-C headphones on the market, but given that you might want to use your headphones with something other than a cell phone, we typically recommend you buy an adapter or wireless headphones, rather than headphones with such a specific kind of connector.

Do headphones include a microphone?

These days, virtually all wireless headphones and earbuds include a built-in microphone. That said, some wired models rely on a cable with an inline microphone, while others possess no calling features at all, so be sure to check before you buy if you want to make phone calls.

Do headphones have audio lag?

Some lower-quality wireless models do lag when watching movies and YouTube on your cell phone, but in the vast majority of cases, they do not have audio lag. If you experience lag and your headphones have a companion app that lets you adjust EQ, try disabling those adjustments. Wired headphones won’t have any audio lag at all, and the vast majority of Bluetooth models have such a small lag it’s mostly imperceptible.

How we test

We test headphones and earbuds the way normal people live.

We run every pair through a rigorous testing process over several days or weeks. That includes playing them in all sorts of scenarios — be it on a bus, in the listening room, or at the office — and playing back from a wide array of sources. We know most people use their headphones with a smartphone, often with lower-quality MP3 resolution tracks, so we do, too.

However, we also move up to high-resolution audio files, as well as a wide variety of sources, including plugging in directly to a PC or Mac, using USB DACs (digital-to-analog converters), and employing high-quality, dedicated portable players and amplifiers. Finally, we compare the headphones to some of our go-to models, both in their class and price point, as well as a level or two above to find out if they can punch above their weight.

Editors’ Recommendations

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