Headphones. Are. Everywhere. At times, it feels as though there are more different varieties of headphones in the world than there are people, and that presents a pretty big problem when you’re trying to track down the best headphones you can buy.
And this really is a big decision. Many people will spend the equivalent of a round of drinks on their headphones, and that’s a big mistake. While it’s not impossible to find a decent pair for £30-ish, most at that level will make Tool sound like the Teletubbies and will fall apart faster than Napalm Death’s You Suffer.
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Besides, think about it for a second and you almost certainly do most of your music listening via headphones. Shouldn’t most of your listening also be your best listening? The answer is ‘yes’, so read on to find the best headphones for your budget and listening habits.
Best headphones: The Louder Choice
Given the abundance of different styles of headphones available, you might be surprised that both of our strongest recommendations for best headphones are on-ear style and use Bluetooth rather than a cable. What’s our reasoning? Many people find in-ears uncomfortable and wires are a pain, particularly as so many phones now do without a headphone socket.
Our two recommendations are split by price. The Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones are without doubt the pair to buy if your budget it £300-ish. They sound awesome, are more comfortable than a silk dressing gown, and have the best noise-cancelling in the business.
But if you don’t have £300 to spend, the AKG Y50BT headphones are what you’re looking for. Available for well under £100, they combine smart looks and excellent portability with exciting, wireless sound.
How to buy the best headphones for you
There are so many decisions to be made when choosing your next pair of headphones. The best approach is to think about when and where you’re going to be doing most of your listening and what specific requirements you have.
Desperate to block out the banal nattering in your office and fill the resulting silence with some Metallica-style meditation? You want a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Looking for some Meshuggah-shaped motivation for your next run? There are some fitness-specific true wireless in-ears with your name on.
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Do all of your listening at home and value outright sound quality over any concerns for your cohabitees? Some classic, wired, open-backed on-ears will give you a sound to rival the world’s very best loudspeakers.
Fit matters a huge amount, too, particularly in terms of in-ears. Our lug-holes are all different, you see, and failing to ensure that your chosen headphones fit yours correctly could result in them not only falling out, but also sub-standard sound. If possible, try before you buy, but also feel free to return a purchased pair if you don’t feel that you’re getting the fit or sound 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 for portable use 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.
If going wireless, consider the battery life being offered and which version of Bluetooth is being used. The later the version (we’re now on 5.0), the more battery-friendly and potentially better sounding it is. AptX Bluetooth, meanwhile, is specifically for audio and suggests that sound quality has been prioritised at least somewhat.
The best headphones to buy right now
1. Sony WH-1000XM3
Digital meets analogue in these brilliant, wireless, noise-cancelling cans
Launch price: £330/$400 | Type: Over-ear | 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 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.
The best headphones with Bluetooth for a very reasonable price
Launch price: £99/$120 | Type: On-ear | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 20hr | Connector: MicroUSB
We’ve been fans of the wired AKG Y50s (which you’ll see below) 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.
The Y50BTs sound just as good as the wired Y50s, though, which means they’re punchy, dynamic, detailed and downright fun to listen to. Whatever you chuck at them, from Soundgarden to Slipknot, 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 smashing pair of cans for the cash.
3. Beyerdynamic Soul Byrd
A brilliant pair of wired in-ear headphones for not a lot of money
Launch price: £69/$84 | Type: In-ear | Bluetooth: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: N/A | Connector: 3.5mm
Yes, you can buy a pair of wired in-ears for a tenner these days, but they’ll sound as pleasant as a nail through the foot and will last as long as a Buzzcocks song. The same can be said for whatever buds came with your latest phone (if it came with any at all). It really is worth paying more, particularly if you do most of your listening on the move.
That’s where the weirdly monickered Soul Byrds come in. Easy to listen to but interesting and captivating, too, they’re great for all genres of music.
They’re also dead comfortable to wear, burrowing into your ears far less than most rivals, and have an integrated mic and controls that work with iOS and Android phones alike.
4. Sony WF-1000XM3
The best true wireless in-ears you can buy
Launch price: £220 | Type: In-ear | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 6hr (+18 hours from case) | Connector: USB-C
Meet the current pinnacle of true wireless in-ear headphones. The Sony WF-1000XM3 has an all-new Bluetooth chip that sharpens up music synchronization 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 the morning commute and tedious day in the office. To listen is to fall in love with your tunes all over again.
5. AKG Y50
The best headphones if you want stylish on-ears for under £50
Launch price: £49 | Type: In-ear | Bluetooth: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: N/A | Connector: 3.5mm
The original, wired version of the Y50BTs above, the Y50s represent brilliant value for money. For less than £50, you get a great-looking, great-sounding, super-portable pair of on-ear headphones.
They’re available in loads of colours (and black), fold up small enough to slot into a pocket (there’s also a fabric case in the box), and fit securely but comfortably. There’s no noise-cancelling here, but there is a mic and control unit housed along the cable.
Sound is clear, detailed and punchy, so you hear your music as it was intended, with plenty of rhythmic fun to be had. The only tiny issue is that they’re not super-sensitive, so you might find that you need to turn the volume up more than expected.
6. Grado SR325e
Incredible hi-fi headphones for luxurious at-home listening
Launch price: £300 | Type: On-ear | 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.
7. Jaybird Vista
These wireless in-ears and the best headphones for rockers who run
Launch price: £160 | Type: In-ear | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 6hr (+10 hours from case) | Connector: USB-C
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. If you enjoy running (as if anyone, anywhere has every ‘enjoyed’ running), you should definitely check out the Jaybird Vistas.
Like most 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.
8. Shure SE425
Band-approved in-ears combine authenticity and durability
Launch price: £219 | Type: In-ear | Bluetooth: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: No | Controls: No | Battery life: N/A | Connector: 3.5mm
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.
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.