Bigger headphones can have bigger drivers that are inherently better at delivering bigger, naturally bassier sound. They don’t burrow uncomfortably into your ears or make it sound as if your favourite tunes are being drilled directly into your cerebral cortex. Instead, at their best, they’re like wearing a pair of fluffy earmuffs and listening to a live band play just for you.
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That sounds good, doesn’t it? But which pair of over-ear headphones should you buy? You’re just moments from finding out.
What are the best over-ear headphones right now?
If you’re hunting for a shortcut to the very best over-ear headphones you can buy, there are two very different ways you can go – high-tech or old-school.
The high-tech option is the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones. These are wireless, closed-back, noise-cancelling headphones that sound brilliant and are suited to every scenario and sonic inclination.
The old-school side is covered by the Grado SR325e cans. Wired, open-backed and only as technologically advanced as an acoustic guitar, these headphones are intended for hi-fi aficionados who do their listening at home. But while the Grados are comparatively restrictive, they’re exceptional capable in a way that no amount of technology can replicate.
The best over-ear headphones: buying advice
The first thing you need to decide when looking for a new pair of over-ear headphones (once you’ve settled on a budget) is whether you want to go wireless or are happy sticking with wires. The market is very much heading in a wireless direction – not only are wireless pairs now more abundant than a beard at a Rush concert, phones are now the primary source of music listening and many of those no longer even have headphone sockets.
The good news is that wireless headphones can now be bought for very reasonable money, but it is worth bearing in mind that both wireless sound quality and battery life can vary greatly. Looking for a pair with a more recent version of Bluetooth (5.0 is the most recent, widely available iteration) can help in both regards, but isn’t a guarantee. And if you can find a pair with the audio-focused aptX codec, you know that sound quality has at least been a factor in the design.
If you’re going wired, you don’t have to worry about gizmos and thingamajigs and can concern yourself with more tangible considerations such as the length and thickness of the cable, and whether the connector is the more common 3.5mm type that you find on a phone or the chunkier, more hi-fi-specific 6.3mm type. The good news is that the more premium hi-fi pairs often include an adapter, although buying one separately won’t set you back much at all.
The other big thing to consider is whether you want open or closed-back headphones. Closed-back models are way more common now, as they keep the audio more or less confined to your noggin, while open-backed headphones generally leak enough noise that anyone in the vicinity will feel as though they’re listening to the world’s tinniest radio, which obviously isn’t ideal for the bus. But open-back headphones also generally sound more open and spacious – more like listening out-loud to a full-sized hi-fi than two little drivers strapped to your head – so if you need to listen quietly but not silently, and take your music enjoyment seriously, they can very much be the way to go.
The best over-ear headphones you can buy right now
1. Sony WH-1000XM3
Digital meets analogue in these brilliant, wireless, noise-cancelling cans
Price: £280 | Type: Closed | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 30hr | Connector: USB-C
Sony’s third-generation noise-cancelling cans are simply brilliant. Not only do they block out more noise than practically any rival, they sound better, too, thanks to the introduction of analogue amplification.
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.
The exhaustive battery life means that even the longest of long-haul flights is covered, and the sound can even be optimised for altitude, ensuring you’re always getting the best quality. The only tiny issue is that the touch controls can take a little getting used to, although they are pretty accurate once you do.
2. Grado SR325e
Incredible hi-fi headphones for luxurious at-home listening
Type: Open | Bluetooth: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: No | Controls: No | Battery life: N/a | Connector: 3.5mm, 6.3mm
They might look more like the sort of headset that a 50s telephone exchange operator might use than a pair of luxury headphones, but these Grados are utterly unbeatable at this price.
The 325es are open-backed and leak noise like a sieve leaks water, so are completely unsuited to use on a train or bus, but that allows them to deliver a really open, airy and spacious sound that’s more akin to listening to a great pair of hi-fi speakers.
And we really are talking great. The sound here is transparent, detailed, rhythmic and downright glorious. If you take your music listening seriously, this is the pair to get.
3. Bowers & Wilkins PX7
These super-sexy noise-cancellers feature next-gen Bluetooth
Price: £350 | Type: Closed | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 30hr | Connector: USB-C
Few companies can boast the hi-fi heritage of Worthing’s Bowers & Wilkins, and so any new B&W product is worth getting excited about. The PX7 noise-cancellers are even more exciting than most - not only are they the successors to the brilliant PX pair of a couple of years ago, they also boast a brand new type of Bluetooth.
This new aptX Adaptive Bluetooth allows for the wireless transmission of hi-res music and reduces lag so that audio and video are perfectly synchronised – great for when you’re surfing YouTube for music videos. There are three levels of noise-cancellation, too, so you needn’t block out absolutely everything if you don’t want to.
The icing on the cake is absolutely brilliant sound. Solid, fast and punchy as anything, they’re a great choice for a bit of thrash, but also have the detail and delicacy for those gentle acoustic moments. Other than the high price and lack of folding, these B&Ws are just brilliant.
4. AKG K72
Brilliant big cans for those on a tight budget.
Price: £40 | Type: Closed | Bluetooth: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: No | Controls: No | Battery life: N/a | Connector: 3.5mm
If you’re looking for a serious pair of headphones on a tight budget, the AKG K72s could well be for you. These simple, big, wired cans are built for comfort and longevity – you could wear them all day every day and they would never irritate and wouldn’t fall apart. AKG actually bends the cable 80,000 times to ensure it’s as durable as possible.
That cable is three metres long, so perfect for listening at home. And while the size of the headphones makes them relatively unsuited to the daily commute, they are closed-back so won’t irritate everyone else on the bus or train if the bulk doesn’t put you off.
The sound is way better than the price would suggest and much more grown up than that of most similarly priced rivals. Open, airy and spacious, with plenty of punchy bass, you really can’t go wrong with the AKG K72s.
5. Sennheiser Momentum Wireless
Third-generation Momentum Wirelesses are noise-cancelling kings
Price: £349 | Type: Closed | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 17hr | Connector: USB-C
Sennheiser’s Momentum Wireless headphones have been hugely successful over the last few years, and this MkIII version takes the range to new heights.
The sound has been vastly improved over that of the already excellent Momentum 2.0 model, with the new pair combining the energy of an excited puppy with the delicacy and eye for detail of a Bonsai artist, but there are new features, too, including automatic pairing when the headphones are unfolded and automatic pause when removed from your head.
The only flies in the ointment are a high price and relatively short battery life, but if neither of those puts you off, the Sennheisers are a great option.
6. Lindy BNX-60
The best noise-cancellers for those on a budget
Price: £75 | Type: Closed | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 15hr | Connector: Micro USB
The BNX-60s were perhaps the first headphones to prove that it really is possible to get both noise-cancelling and Bluetooth for under £100 – and all without sacrificing sound quality.
They offer a comfortable, snug fit, with a volume control, on/off switch for the active noise-cancellation and a blue light that indicates when the ‘ANC’ feature is in use on one ear, and a USB input for charging, pause/play/skip track controls, a Bluetooth connection light and a standard wired headphone output on the other. A full charge gives you about 15 hours of wireless music, or a little less with the active noise-cancelling switched on.
Cheaper headphones often fall into the trap of producing loads of low-quality bass or overly sharp treble, but these Lindys are surprisingly balanced and grown-up in their delivery. They’ve got a real groove and clarity to them, too, making them well suited to rock.
7. Shure SRH1540
Serious over-ear headphones from the live music pros
Price: £379 | Type: Closed | Bluetooth: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: No | Controls: No | Battery life: N/a | Connector: 3.5mm
Thanks to its ubiquitous microphones and on-stage in-ear monitors, Shure is intrinsically linked to live music and pro audio production. It’s over-ear headphones are less well known but still excellent, and the long-standing SRH1540s are the pick of the bunch.
The large, classic, wired design is really intended for home (or studio) use, but the closed-back cups mean that you can use them on public transport without fear of instantly becoming enemy number one.
Sound is brilliant – all of the detail you’d expect from a professional-grade pair of headphones, the tonal neutrality to let your music do the talking, and brilliant, dramatic dynamics. Serious headphones for serious listening.
8. Sony WH-CH700N
A strong option if your budget is limited to £100
Price: £100 | Type: On-ear | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 35hr | Connector: Micro USB
Sony’s clearly the dominant force in noise-cancelling headphones these days, and if you want a taste of what the company can do but don’t have nearly £300 to buy the WH-1000XM3s, the more entry-level WH-CH700Ns could be for you.
Naturally, the sound quality isn’t as accomplished and the noise-cancelling is a bit less effective, but for the money this is a really accomplished pair. There’s a slight skewing towards the bassy end of the tonal spectrum, but not in a bad way. The overall balance is natural, there’s plenty of detail, and everything ticks along at a good lick.
On top of all that, this is a really comfortable pair of headphones to wear and the battery life is amazing. If £100 is your upper limit, you could do a heck of a lot worse.
9. Beyerdynamic Amiron
At-home headphones don’t get much better than this
Price: £400 | Type: Open | Bluetooth: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: No | Controls: No | Battery life: N/a | Connector: 3.5mm
Open-backed headphones aren’t for use out-and-about as they tend to be big and they leak noise like a sonic colander. But there are benefits to the open-backed design, namely a spaciousness that closed-back headphones can’t match. Listen to a great pair of open-backed headphones and it’s as if you’re not listening to headphones at all, but a brilliant pair of perfectly set-up hi-fi speakers.
And the Amirons are a great pair of open-backed headphones. The soundstage they produce is vast and airy, and the impression of listening out-loud is enhanced by the fact that the headphones are so comfortable that you’re barely aware you’re wearing them.
The sound is also brilliantly balanced and deliciously detailed, and really rewards those who plug in to a proper hi-fi with a turntable or hi-res streamer.
10. B&W P9 Signature
The Rolls Royce of over-ear headphones
Price: £699 | Type: Open | Bluetooth: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: N/a | Connector: 3.5mm
Created to celebrate Bowers & Wilkins’s 50th anniversary, the P9 Signatures are as lush and luxurious as headphones get. The comfort-enhancing memory foam is wrapped in gorgeous Saffiano leather and the brushed aluminium frame, decoupled from the earcups to prevent unwanted vibrations affecting the sound, is thick sturdy and stylish.
Housed in the ears are 40mm drive units that deliver spacious vocals, perfectly layered instruments, precise rhythm and plenty of heart-stopping attack. True, there’s a slight richness here that’s not exactly neutral, but most listeners will love that approach.
The only other potential deal-breaker is the retro looks. We love ‘em, but if you’re an ‘any colour as long as it’s black’ type, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
About the author
Tom Parsons is a music and film fan who's been testing audio kit of all varieties for around 13 years, most of those at What Hi-Fi? He also loves rock and metal and is a particularly big fan of Coheed and Cambria.