Hands up if you remember the days of the flimsy headphones that came bundled with the legendary Sony Walkman? They were pretty awful, right? Thankfully, things have improved dramatically over the decades, with people now spoiled for choice when it comes to the best headphones for music. From noise cancelling cans and wireless sets, to earbuds and chunky headphones – there's such a huge variety.
As you would expect, prices vary dramatically – and while you can find some excellent budget headphones, many cheap headphones simply aren't worth the trouble, so it's worth spending a bit of time to see what's out there.
Below, you'll find a selection of our favourite headphones and we've also included buying advice to give you the knowledge you need before making a purchase. What’s more, our smart price widgets have found the best prices for our top picks online right now.
Best headphones for music: The Louder Choice
Given the sheer amount of different styles of headphones available, you might be surprised that both of our strongest recommendations for the best headphones for music are on-ear style and use Bluetooth rather than a cable.
What’s our reasoning? Well, some people find headphones of the in-ear variety a tad uncomfortable, and don't like wires – that's why there's been such a big rise in wireless headphones, particularly as so many phones now do without a headphone socket altogether.
Our two recommendations are split by price. The Sony WH-1000XM4 (opens in new tab) wireless headphones are without doubt the pair to buy if you're looking for top performance at a neat price. They sound absolutely awesome, are incredibly comfortable, and have the best noise-cancelling tech in the business right now.
If you don’t have such a juicy budget, that’s no problem. In this case, the AKG Y50BT (opens in new tab) headphones are what you’re looking for. They combine smart looks and excellent portability with exciting, wireless sound. You won’t be replacing them in a hurry.
Best headphones for music: Product guide
Sony’s fourth-generation noise-cancelling cans are simply brilliant and are our top pick for the best headphones for music right now. Not only do they block out more noise than practically any rival, they sound better, too, thanks to the introduction of Edge AI, which analyses your music in real time to give it a boost in all the right areas, plus adaptive sound control which automatically adjusts audio performance based on locations you frequently visit .
40mm Liquid Crystal Polymer drivers lie at the hard of the audio performance of these cans, delivering soaring highs, song-appropriate bass and smooth midrange.
There’s an app that you can use to tweak the amount of noise-cancelling provided, from ‘I don’t want to hear anything but my own heartbeat’ to ‘I’d quite like to know if a car’s about to run me over’, and you can even set the headphones to adapt the noise-cancelling to the environment.
30 hours of battery life is the icing on the cake. So, whether you’re planning a long lockdown walk, or you’re looking ahead to a long-haul flight, you know you’ll have enough juice to go the distance.
Read our Sony WH-1000XM4 review
A close second in our best headphones for music round-up, we've been fans of the wired AKG Y50s since they were first introduced back in 2014, but there was no guarantee that a wireless pair would be as good (losing the wires often reduces audio quality).
Thankfully the Y50BTs sound just as good as the wired Y50s, which means they’re punchy, dynamic, detailed and downright fun to listen to. From Soundgarden to Slipknot, whatever you chuck at them sounds authentic and exciting just as it should.
Add a lightweight and very portable design, good looks and excellent comfort, and you’ve got a killer pair of headphones for the cash.
Read our AKG Y50BT review
Meet the current pinnacle of true wireless in-ear headphones. The Sony WF-1000XM3 have an Bluetooth chip that sharpens up music synchronisation and a noise-cancelling processor that vastly improves noise-cancellation.
There’s better in-ear grip than before too but, more to the point, these just sound great. They’re clear, rhythmic, detailed and deliver all the musical energy you could need to get you through a morning commute or a tedious day in the office. To listen is to fall in love with your tunes all over again. A truly brilliant contender for best headphones for music.
Read the Sony WF-1000XM3 review
While Apple’s entry into the headphone market was an immediate success thanks to the Apple AirPods and Apple AirPods Pro, many music fans were slightly disappointed that the only choice was an in-ear option rather than something larger.
This was addressed with the launch of the Apple AirPods Max – an on-ear set of wireless headphones which, let’s face it, look the business thanks to Apple’s impeccable design. Thankfully, they also sound fantastic – and so they should with the hefty price tag they carry.
The Apple AirPods Max have Active Noise Cancellation which is superb and really lets the music shine through – especially when paired with Apple Music and its lossless/spacial audio features. And rather than going completely touch-free, Apple have included a digital crown similar to that found on the ever-popular Apple Watch. This controls volume, playback, pause and skip functions.
Built quality is fantastic although with so much metal on the outer shell, they’re not the lightest headphones in the world. That said, they are comfortable to wear for long stretches thanks to the mesh headband support and soft ear cups – which can be replaced.
It should be noted, however, that while you’re paying a premium for the Apple AirPods Max, you won’t get a wall charger included – although when revved up with a lightning connector, you will get 20-hours of playback.
The Apple AirPods Max also come in a choice of five colours: Space Gray, Silver, Blue, Green and Pink – and we think all the variations look superb, although the Silver and Blue options are our favourites.
Read our Apple Airpods Max review
Ok so they cost serious money, but that buys you some serious smarts and audio firepower. The Momentum 3 Wireless cans boast three active noise cancelling modes for different environments, including a transparent mode which lets more of the outside world in, plus Sennheiser Smart control for deeper control of your audio and other features via your phone.
If, like us, you can while away hours listening to your favourite albums, you’ll appreciate the added comfort afforded by the leather head strap and lush padded earcups. There’s Alexa, Siri and Google Voice integration too, so the only reason you’ll ever need to remove them is to charge them.
This is all before you get to the sound, which is full-bodied, well-balanced and hits all the right notes, whether you’re listening to Neil Young or Napalm Death. If you have the budget, and you’re looking for a capable pair of headphones for music, these are worth a shout.
Read our Sennheiser Momentum 3 review
German audio experts Beyerdynamic continue to make a name for themselves thanks to their excellent range of wired and wireless headphones and microphones.
We’re going to focus on the chunky Beyerdynamic Amiron wired variety, which are a superb set of cans which are ideally suited for those who like to kick back on the couch and tune into some sweet sounds.
Despite their robust look, the over-ear, open-back Beyerdynamic Amiron headphones are incredibly comfortable to wear even during extended listening sessions thanks to the snug headband and soft ear cups.
And it’s pretty likely that you’ll want to keep them on because the audio is crisp and sharp, with great balance and punchy bass. Nothing is off kilter even at louder listening levels and is ideally suited to home use.
We wouldn’t necessarily recommend the Beyerdynamic Amiron if you’re looking for a set of headphones for use on the morning commute as the open-back design leads to sound leaks, but these are a solid set of cans.
The Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus are a fantastic challenger to Apple's celebrated AirPods and offer comfort and quality audio for a ridiculously low price.
While a single battery charge will see you through nine hours of your favourite sounds (that's approximately six prog tracks, right?) that time will fly by thanks to the Melomania 1 Plus' comfort levels.
That's because to ensure a perfect fit, Cambridge Audio have packed in a range of silicone tips in a number of shapes and sizes, to ensure they'll fit anyone with a fine ear for music. It's also worth pointing out that your battery life can be boosted by 36 hours with the also included charging case.
OK, so the Melomania 1 Plus don't have noise cancelling, but it's no biggie if you ask us – especially at their retail price, which is – let's face it – an absolute steal.
Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 sit at the top table amongst the best headphones for music.
Not only do they offer 11 preset levels of noise cancellation, the headphones also boast a proprietary TriPort structure that delivers active noise reduction which actually has a positive impact on the sound quality. Talking of which, our listening experience was one of stunning clarity and directness.
Other tech triumphs include a fantastic four-microphone system for taking and receiving calls, or talking to Amazon Alexa/Google Assistant, with superb clarity, while the headphones’ angled ear cups are designed for optimum comfort.
If you want the same audio experience but aren’t so fussed about such high levels of noise cancelling, the Bose Quiet Comfort 35 II model sounds just as good for a little less.
Another Sennheiser entry for this guide, this time in the slick shape of the diminutive True Wireless 2 earbuds. If you’re looking for something more discrete, these could be the way to go.
Audio fans will enjoy lush mid-range detail, propelled by a pair of 7mm dynamic drivers, which breathe new life into classic albums, while adding extra wallop to new music. Bass can be a little over-zealous at times, but the mids and highs are compelling enough to balance out any minor gripes at the low-end.
For the money you also get active noise cancelling, which is decent but not market-leading, voice control and touch controls on the buds themselves.
Read the full Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 review
When budget is tight it’s easy to assume you won’t be able to get anywhere near the quality and features of the big names like Bose and Sony, but JBL is here to prove that theory wrong.
The JBL Tune 750BTNC headphones delivers impressive active noise cancelling and hands-free functionality for the price, but it’s the audio quality we’re most interested in here. Thankfully, that’s where JBL has invested most of its resources. There’s plenty of bass here, but it’s not overwhelming and is balanced out by stunning clarity and openness at the mid to upper ranges.
For a pair of throw-and-go wireless headphones with audio to write home about, you can’t go far wrong.
No longer the stuff of sci-fi fantasy, truly wireless in-ear headphones are now a reality. In fact, they’re all over the place, which can make it a bit tricky to choose a pair (check out out our guide to the best true wireless earbuds if you're really stuck). If you enjoy running (as if anyone, anywhere has every ‘enjoyed’ running), you should definitely check out the Jaybird Vistas.
Like many in this category, they consist of two entirely wireless buds and a case that doubles up as a charger. You get six hours of use out of the buds, and an extra 10 hours from the case. The fins, meanwhile, keep the earphones snug and secure as you lumber around the park.
Best of all, the sound has all of the energy you need to keep motivation levels up as you gasp for air, and there’s plenty of meaty bass to keep the blood pumping.
Ok, so the Bowers & Wilkins PX7s are expensive, but they come with the studio-grade seal of approval. On paper the spec looks decent: massive 46.3mm full-range drivers (the biggest in any Bowers & Wilkins headphones) are a sight to behold. While they certainly hold their own, they can sometimes sound a little lacking with heavier styles of music, but no enough that we wouldn't recommend them.
Battery life is upwards of 30 hours, and a quick 15 minute top up will give you 5 hours straight out of the gate. Noise cancelling is decent too, getting close to that offered by the class-leading Sony WH-1000XM4s.
You'll find physical buttons for power and track control around the edge of the earcups, which come replete in soft faux leather, alongside a plush cushioned headband cushioned. They're pretty light at just 310g, too.
Read the full Bowers & Wilkins PX7 review
If a pair of headphones is good enough for Megadeth, it’s got to be good, right? Not that Dave Mustaine’s crew are the only musicians to use Shure headphones – it seems that practically every band in existence uses the company’s in-ear monitors when on stage.
There are two big reasons Shure’s earphones are so prevalent: they’re supremely tough and durable and they sound really neutral and authentic.
The SE425s are the highlight of the current range, offering a supreme sound that, while a bit bass-light, is brilliantly detailed and textured through the midrange. There are no frills here - no mic, no controls, certainly no Bluetooth - but that’s because they’re serious, pro monitors, and all the better for it.
Read the full Shure SE425 Wired earbuds review
Best headphones for music: Buying advice
There’s a bundle of decisions to be made when choosing the best headphones for music. The right approach is to think about when and where you’re going to be doing most of your listening and what specific requirements you have. Let’s dig a little deeper.
What makes the best headphones for music?
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Comfort and fit matter a huge amount when it comes to musical enjoyment. Our ears are all different, and failing to ensure that your chosen headphones fit correctly can take you out of the moment. You can always try before you buy, but it should also be possible to return a purchased pair if you don’t feel you’re getting the fit or experience that you should.
If you’re looking at wired headphones, make sure the cable is the right length for your intended use. Short lengths are best when out and about as they resist tangling, while long lengths are best when at home so that you can listen from the other side of the room to your hi-fi.
How much should I spend?
When it comes to audiophile headphones, there’s no limit to how much you can spend on cans. A pair of Focal Stellia headphones will set you back $2,990/£2,800! As a rule of thumb, we would suggest you budget at least $350/£250. This will get you a pair of audiophile grade wired Meze Audio 99 Classics, or Technics wireless Technics EAH-F70N. Build quality and exotic wooden finishes start to come into play at around $600/£450 upwards.
Do I need noise cancelling for music listening?
Noise-cancelling headphones have obvious appeal for music fans. They not only block out the hubbub around you, but focus your mind more on your tunes. Looking for some Meshuggah-shaped motivation for your next run? You’ll be sure to find some fitness-specific true wireless earbuds with your name on.
Are different headphones better for certain genres?
Prog, metal, punk, classic rock, alt, jazz – all genres are produced by artists and engineers to be heard the best way possible. So open-backed headphones, or over-ears are going to deliver a more convincing, larger audio experience than in-ear buds.
If you do all of your listening at home and value outright sound quality, classic wired, open-backed on-ears are best. They will give you a sound to rival high quality loudspeakers.
Open-backed headphones create a spatial image that sounds like it’s coming from a distance, rather than the ear cup bolted to your head. The very best of these, often using fancy electrostatic designs, are sometimes described by audiophiles as earspeakers, for that very reason.
Open-backed designs also combat the sense of boxy stereo that you can sometimes experience with closed back headphones. When we listen to music live, or from stereo speakers, you’ll inevitably hear some of the right-placed sound in your left ear, and vice versa. Your brain then deduces where the music is in physical space, and creates a soundstage that sounds entirely natural. Your brain will in all probability also tell you to turn up the volume, wander closer to the Marshall speaker stack, or send an alert if you’re not carrying a beer.
In a closed speaker design, and particularly with earbuds, this doesn’t happen. What’s coming out of the left hand earbud goes into your left ear, and isn’t heard by your right. This can create a centralised sonic image, which doesn’t feel entirely natural.
But then, open-backed headphones are rubbish for commuting.
Better Bluetooth for high quality music listening?
AptX Bluetooth HD is specifically for audio and indicates that sound quality has been prioritised. Also consider the battery life being offered, and which version of Bluetooth is being used. The later the version (ideally for v5.0 or higher), the more battery-friendly and potentially better sounding it will be.
How should I listen to music?
If you’re buying headphones primarily for the best musical experience (and there are lots of other perfectly legitimate reasons to buy, including practicality and functionality) then you’ll want cans able to deliver smooth tonality and excellent detail. Look for Hi-Res Audio compatibility, and ideally best-in-class drivers.
Obviously, it’s difficult to assess how accurate headphones are when it comes to their performance, because you’ll not have been in the studio listening to the final cuts of your favourite tracks, but both these elements will confirm their musicality.
If you’re really serious about Hi-Fi, be prepared to upgrade your music system. To hear headphones at their most musical, you’ll want to couple them with a dedicated headphone amp which has the power to better drive your headphones.
How we test the best headphones for music
When it comes to sheer musicality, headphones need to exhibit clarity and convey emotion, and we listen out for both when testing. Can we feel the grit in AC/DC vocalist Brian Johnson in For Those About To Rock or clinically dissect Eddie Van Halen’s epic guitar solo on Eruption? The closer the headphones get us to the artist, the more likely we are to raise our thumbs and throw some horns.
We know from experience that getting bass right is also tricky. All too often low frequencies can sound overblown and baggy (some brands even make a virtue of this). Good bass, particularly with metal and prog, should sound tight and clean. The quality and size of drivers is key here. We run through a number of playlists, covering everything from Rush to Rammstein.
We also test for comfort. How tightly do headphones clamp, how much padding is in the headband? The ear cups, be they on- or over-ears, should isolate your tunes from background hubbub without getting overly warm.
Often, audiophile headphones are wired, so battery life and Active Noise Cancelling are not an issue, but performance-led Bluetooth headphones are always judged on their overall battery stamina and codec support.
Read more on how we test products and services at Louder.
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