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If you’re looking for the best headphones on the market, it’s tough to get a straight answer. What works for some people doesn’t work for others, and few product categories are as diverse as headphones. In-ears, on-ears, over-ears—there’s just so much to choose from, and it’s hard to tell what’s right for you.
Editor’s note: This list was updated on November 17, 2022 to include the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) as a top pick, and the Sennheiser MOMENTUM 4 Wireless in the notable mentions.
Why is the Sony WH-1000XM5 the best pair of noise cancelling headphones?
Now that Sony has released the Sony WH-1000XM5, it takes the crown as the best active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones. This new model outperforms its closest competitors in noise attenuation and microphone quality. The default frequency response is a bit bassier than what we typically recommend, but you can easily equalize this from the Sony Headphones Connect app (iOS/Android) or your preferred third-party equalizer. To see frequency response and isolation charts for any of our top picks, scroll to the end of each photo gallery.
The WH-1000XM5 offers top-of-the-line specs and features, including a custom equalizer, Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, and auto-pause/play sensors. The Sony WH-1000MX5 includes speak-to-chat, which pauses your media when you are speaking to someone and resumes playback 30 seconds after so you don’t miss the person’s response. You also have Bluetooth multipoint which is a great productivity feature for those who like to keep an ear on their phone while connected to their laptop. The microphone system is among the best we’ve seen in a headset like this and cancels out background noise effectively no matter the conditions. Take a listen to two of our microphone demos below!
Sony WH-1000XM5 mic demo (Ideal):
Sony WH-1000XM5 mic demo (Wind):
If the price tag of the WH-1000XM5 is just a bit too high, you also can’t go wrong with the older Sony WH-1000XM4, which was previously our pick for best noise cancelling headphones.
When comparing the Sony WH-1000XM5 to the WH-1000XM4, it’s clear that these headphones are closely related. Even though the XM5 model has better ANC and sound quality to boot, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is still worth getting if you don’t want to spend as much money. The fourth-generation headset shares many of the premium features found on the WH-1000XM5 and you can expect the older model to go on sale.
If you want a budget alternative, the Sony WH-XB900N is a solid ANC headset if you can find it. However, you’ll only save $100, as the price tag is most often around $250. The fact of the matter is that good ANC is tough to get at a good price, and Sony currently has the best.
The Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) is the best set of wireless earbuds for iPhone owners
True wireless earphones took the market by storm after being dominated by the Apple AirPods for so long. Now there’s plenty of competition, much of which offers a more compelling experience than most of Apple’s audio products. However, with the company’s latest release, the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) is back on top of the pole for iOS users. These buds offer great ANC, sound quality to match, and sound better than the AirPods (3rd generation) simply by virtue of the fact that they can seal your ear canal.
These earbuds bring a big improvement to ANC and battery life, and the retain the same IPX4 rating, which now also covers the charging case. Speaking of the charging case, that’s where a lot of the more notable changes come. The AirPods Pro (2nd generation) charging case features Apple’s new U1 chip, which makes it compatible with Apple’s Find My service and the new integrated speakers will emit a noise to help you find it.
Much like all the other AirPods, this is best used with Apple devices. It only supports SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs, so there’s no high quality codec for android users. Also, many of the earbuds software features are found in the iOS settings app, so you’ll miss out on other platforms in that respect too. Still, this is about as good as it gets for wireless earbuds for Apple users.
The AirPods Pro mic sounds best in quiet environments but can filter out some background noise. Listen to our samples below.
AirPods Pro (2nd generation) microphone demo (Ideal):
AirPods Pro (2nd generation) microphone demo (Office):
AirPods Pro (2nd generation) microphone demo (Street):
How does the microphone sound to you?
Spend a bit more for the Shure AONIC 50 and get great ANC and supreme comfort
The Shure AONIC 50 is a great Bluetooth headset for those who want as many ways to connect to their device as possible. With the AONIC 50, you get support for the SBC, AAC, aptX HD, and LDAC codecs for wireless audio, along with multipoint connectivity. You can even enjoy an analog or digital connection via 2.5-to-3.5mm cable or USB-C cable respectively. This means those with or without headphone jacks on their phones can easily enjoy wired playback with the AONIC 50, something you also get with the more affordable Shure AONIC 40.
Shure’s noise cancelling tackles nearly all frequencies, though not as well as Sony or Bose’s flagship headsets. The AONIC 50 will drown out the sound of your roommate doing their laundry and chatter of your other roommate as they video chat with friends. By default, the frequency response is excellent and takes very kindly to equalizing, which you can do directly from the ShurePlus PLAY app (iOS/Android).
Anyone who views headphones as long-term investments should get the Shure AONIC 50; they’ll easily last for years and years to come. Shure covers the headset with a two-year warranty, and the removable ear pads are easy to clean and replace once they’ve become too worn down. You’re paying a premium but it’s what we’ve come to expect from top-notch headsets like Bose and Sony… and now Shure.
The Shure AONIC 50 microphone sounds good when you speak from a controlled, quiet space but it does little to filter out background noise.
Shure AONIC 50 microphone demo (Non-standardized, firmware 0.4.9):
How does the microphone sound to you?
Can’t go wrong with the new “old standby” AKG 371
Though people have been picking the Sony MDR-7506 for decades, a true successor in the “budget monitor headphone” category has finally taken center stage. The AKG K371 offers a really good baseline for what constitutes good sound in the consumer market.
That’s not because these are super bassy, or that they’re flashy—if anything they’re the opposite of both. This pair of headphones sounds excellent for what it is, and provides a really good double-life as a dependable studio monitor. Sure, these are a set of wired cans with a rather cumbersome cable. But if you’re listening at home, mixing a track, or working at the coffee shop: these are the headphones you want.
The HiFiMan Sundara is an excellent pair of high-end headphones
Sure, you could spend thousands of dollars on headphones that may or may not sound better, but the HiFiMan Sundara is at the perfect crossroads between affordability and top-tier performance. Sure, that sounds a little weird to say for a set of $300 USD planar magnetic headphones, but our testing shows the Sundara does an excellent job at providing listeners with good sound quality when compared to its closest competitors.
However, many headphones in this bracket are very heavy and uncomfortable, and the Sundara has this issue to an extent. However, the choice to use cloth in the padding of the ear cups and the form-fitting band do a lot to make this product far more comfortable to use for those who wear eyeglasses. If you don’t wear eyeglasses, all the better.
Of course, as open-back headphones, these let in just about every sound around you. So be sure to note that before you start spending like crazy. Additionally, if you’d like to equalize these headphones any: you’re probably going to want an amplifier of some sort to avoid volume issues.
Why should you consider the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700?
While the ANC on the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 may not be as impressive as the company’s Bose QuietComfort 45 headphones, Bose has shown commitment to users by improving the ANC with a comprehensive firmware update (version 1.8.2). You can view the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 ANC chart here.
We also like the NCH 700 for its sleek design and seemingly perfect touch controls. Many companies make calibrate their headsets’ touch panels to be too sensitive, resulting in many misfires, but Bose’s headset is a breeze to operate. The default frequency response (chart here) is excellent and requires little fixing, but you can change it directly from the Bose Music app (iOS/Android) if you’d like.
Those with unusually low voices may sound a bit “off” or “hollow” to those on the other end but this is to mitigate the proximity effect. For the most part, the NCH 700 microphone is quite good in all contexts since it filters out quite a bit of environmental noise.
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 microphone demo (Ideal):
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 microphone demo (Street):
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 microphone demo (Wind):
How does the microphone sound to you?
Audiophiles should consider the Drop x Sennheiser HD 6XX
If you’re looking for the absolute best way to spend money on headphones for the computer, Drop’s partnership with Sennheiser brought a legendary audiophile option—the HD 650—down to roughly half the original asking price. Budget-conscious audiophiles would be doing themselves a disservice by not giving these a spin.
There are a few minor differences between the HD 6XX and the HD 650, but most are cosmetic in nature. The performance of the HD 6XX is top-notch, and is much lighter than it looks. If you’re the kind of listener who spends a lot of time at the computer, this is the kind of headphones you should be looking for. Just be aware that the open back is a double-edged sword: it allows for better sound quality and clarity, but it also lets in all the outside noise around you.
The best headphones: Notable mentions
We can’t highlight every headset the way we’d like, so instead, we’ve put together a bulleted list of alternative standouts that didn’t quite make the best headphones cut.
- Apple AirPods Max: iPhone owners who want something beefier than the AirPods Pro for international flights should invest in the AirPods Max. We do mean invest: this headset originally retailed for $549 USD but occasionally goes on promotion for less. This has the best ANC we’ve seen and excellent sound quality. If you have an iPhone you can take advantage of the headset’s H1 chips for hands-free Siri access, automatic device switching, Adaptive EQ, and more.
- Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2: Audiophiles and enthusiasts sing the praises of the original ATH-50x for its rugged build and reliable performance. The second-generation Bluetooth version carries over everything we love about the tried-and-true wired model with LDAC support and excellent battery life. For under $200 USD, this is a solid headset.
- Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700: Bose and Sony continue to duke it out for active noise cancelling king. Although the Sony WH-1000M3 has a leg up on the Bose Headphones 700, the fact remains that this is a great ANC headset. The senior company went with a modern design for its AI-enabled headphones. We like these headphones but are disappointed to see just AAC and SBC codecs supported.
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II: Yes, this headset is from 2017, but it still holds up today. The ANC keeps pace with some of the best headsets on the market, and comfort remains bar none. If you don’t care for the most premium hardware (e.g., USB-C charging) save some coin and get the QC 35 II instead of the QC 45.
- Grado SR80e: If you can’t shell out for Monoprice’s monolithic headphones, the Grado SR80e may be more up your alley. When you listen to these you’re getting a nearly pure reproduction of sound with the added benefit of an open-back build. This means you get to experience a more realistic perception of 3D space.
- Sennheiser MOMENTUM 4 Wireless: Sennheiser is a legacy audio company, but it knows that kicking it old school isn’t always the way to attract younger consumers. Its Momentum line of headsets has proved successful, and the fourth iteration of its Momentum Wireless over-ear cans continues that. These headphones support aptX, aptX HD, and aptX adaptive, ensuring high-quality streaming from any platform, and the over 56-hour battery life means you can do it for a long time.
- Sennheiser PXC 550-II: These middle-ground active noise cancelling headphones offer a lot for their sub-$300 price. They have very good sound quality, decent ANC, Bluetooth multipoint, fast charging, and good mic quality. They’re also comfortable to wear and support the SBC, AAC, aptX, and aptX Low Latency codecs.
Hold up! Something’s different:
Some of our picks’ frequency response and isolation charts were measured with our old testing system. We have since purchased a Bruel & Kjaer 5128 test fixture (and the appropriate support equipment) to update our testing and data collection. It will take a while to update our backlog of old test results, but we will update this article (and many others!) once we’re able with improved sound quality measurements and isolation performance plots. These will be made obvious with our new chart aesthetic (black background instead of white).
Thank you for bearing with us, and we hope to see you again once we’ve sorted everything out.
If you want more portable options, check out these earbuds
- Bose QuietComfort Earbuds: In typical Bose fashion, the QC Earbuds has excellent sound quality to boot and some of the best ANC around, save for the WF-1000XM4 from Sony. These earbuds are pretty bulky, as is the case, but they still fit comfortably because of the StayHear Max ear tips.
- Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus: This is a truly great pair of wireless earbuds with solid sound and mic quality, battery life, and features like direct Spotify for easy listening. If you want a few more features from Samsung like ANC and 360 Audio, check out the Galaxy Buds 2 or the more durable Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro.
- Sennheiser MOMENTUM True Wireless 3: This is among the best wireless ANC earbuds you can buy and it has a premium design with an IPX4 rating. The Smart Control app lets you adjust the sound quality and you can find a very secure fit with the included ear and wing tips. The main downside, like many premium wireless earbuds, is the price.
- Sony WF-1000XM4: These wireless earbuds have active noise cancelling, a decent microphone, and best of all sound excellent. Their battery life isn’t the best, but they offer quick charging to make up for it. These earbuds support SBC, AAC, and LDAC. When you download the Sony Headphones Connect app you can EQ the sound signature and enable adaptive sound control.
What you should know about the best headphones
Calling something “the best” at anything is controversial at best, so we create our best lists with the caveat that your experiences may vary from our own. Sometimes people have a unique set of needs, and that can’t be satisfied by going to a list of “best headphones” because the article doesn’t address what the best headphones out there are… for you. Consequently, we encourage all of our readers to write down all the things they want out of their headphones first—before rolling the dice on a pick. This list has a lot of all-time greats, but if you need something a little bit more tailored to your needs, definitely keep reading our other lists and features to arm yourself with enough knowledge to make the right purchase.
Think hard about what types of headphones you like (in ears? over ears? on ears?), and also try to figure out what features you need. Maybe you need to go to the store to see how they fit on your head? Do you wear glasses or have ear piercings? Maybe you should look into getting velour pads instead of leather! These are all things covered in our reviews and other best lists.
Are wired headphones better than Bluetooth headphones?
This list has a few wired options if you want great sound, but we also have a few wireless options if you prefer convenience. If you opt for a Bluetooth pair, there are a few things you should know. First and foremost, the rumors you’ve heard are true. Bluetooth just can’t party with wired headphones, at least as it pertains to sound quality. Even some of the best codecs available aren’t as great as they seem at first glance. AAC is basically only good if you’re on an iOS device which means Android users should probably stick to aptX, and LDAC isn’t truly hi-res. The good news is that you most likely can’t hear any of the details in the data that’s being dropped, but it’s still not a great selling point. Of course, if you do think that you have superhuman hearing feel free to test yourself with our simple hearing test.
There is hope, though: Bluetooth SIG announced LE Audio and the LC3 codec, an efficient alternative to SBC. We’re excited to see the benefits to the hard-of-hearing community play out in the real world, and know that LC3 will provide a 50% increase in audio quality relative to SBC. What’s more, headphone stutters will be lessened as packet-loss-management is improved, so instead of hearing annoying, intermittent drops, the dropout process will be much smoother. Even the best headphones will benefit from the new codec.
We mentioned codecs in the last section, but what exactly is a Bluetooth codec? If Bluetooth is the technology that enables two devices to communicate with each other, then codecs can be thought of as the language that they speak.
When two devices speak the same language, they can communicate faster and send more data between each other which results in better sound quality. Some of the best codecs have high transfer rates if both devices are compatible, and if they aren’t then everything just reverts down to the basic codec called SBC.
Unfortunately, codecs can be a bit finicky and as we mentioned before don’t always work the way they’re intended to which is why wired headphones usually sound better. Though it is worth mentioning that Qualcomm’s aptX adaptive that seems promising, but we’ll have to wait to test it ourselves before we get our hopes up.
How does active noise cancelling work?
If you were wondering how active noise cancellation works, don’t worry you’re not alone. There’s a lot that goes into it and some companies like Bose and Sony have their own ways of achieving it technologically, but it all comes down to basic physics. Active noise cancelling is actually something called destructive interference. If you take one wave with an amplitude of +1 and combine it with another wave that has an amplitude of -1, you’re left with zero.
Active noise cancelling headphones take advantage of this by using tiny microphones to hear what sounds are around you and then creating an opposite sound wave to cancel that before it reaches your ears. Of course, this isn’t perfect and works better for long, droning sounds then sudden, screeching ones. So don’t expect ANC headphones to block out that crying baby on your next flight. But when you combine noise cancelling technology with good isolation, you can get pretty close to completely blocking the outside world.
This is harder to achieve when it comes to earbuds, as they don’t completely cover your ear. So instead, a solid pair of memory foam ear tips might be worth looking into as they do a better job at isolating sound than the silicone ones that come with most buds.
How we choose the best headphones
If you’d seen this list before, you’ll probably notice that it’s completely different than it was in years past. Now it’s a perpetually updated piece. Gone is the Sennheiser HD 800, and the rest of the exorbitantly expensive headphones. That’s because we realized that what’s “best” objectively, isn’t what’s “best” for everyone… so our selections needed a bit of tweaking.
Just like it is with power tools and kitchen utensils, different headphones are built for different purposes. Using the right tool for the job is important, and ensures that you get the best experience possible. You wouldn’t use a chainsaw to cut butter any more than you’d use a set of AKG K7XX on an airplane.
In that light, we took extra time to take into account how most people actually use headphones. What makes a good pair of gym headphones? What makes a good pair of wireless earbuds? What’s the good in having a best headphones list that doesn’t help most people buy headphones they like?
While we took the time to highlight some Bluetooth headphones, active noise cancelers, and open-backed cans—be sure to read the descriptions to see if they’re right for you. Many people want a set of headphones that will do everything, but those models are few and far between. That’s why our winner isn’t a set of headphones you’d see on other outlets’ top 10. It’s more about what people actually want than what’s objectively the best performing set out there.
While many might be upset that we chose more consumer-geared models than the stunning halo products of audiophile lore: it’s important to us that our readers aren’t dissatisfied with their headphones. To that end, we find that the ultra-expensive headphones are generally a poor fit for most, often leaving your average consumer frustrated and feeling like they wasted a lot of money. Those with a more developed idea of what kind of headphones they want should also check out our other best lists. Not every best headphone model listed here will meet all of your needs.
With that being said, all of our picks were used by at least one team member, and all of these picks sound fantastic. Because our ad-free business model relies on you enjoying your headphones without returning them, this list represents what we earnestly feel is the most deserving of your money. We knew that we wanted to create a list of financially attainable headphones that meet realistic use cases, rather a drool-inducing, unrealistic list for your average consumer.
Why you should trust SoundGuys on the best headphones
In short, you should trust us because we show our work, strive to provide as much unimpeachable information to you, and pin our revenue model on the happiness of our readers with our recommendations. If you return the product we suggest, we don’t see a dime.
When it comes to audio, the SoundGuys team has years of experience reviewing products between them (and even more listening to them). Chris spent years reviewing audio products, among other things, at publications such as USA Today and Reviewed.com, Lily clocked in countless hours at radio stations and reviewing products independently before joining our team, and Adam has been listening to headphones and speakers for nearly five years as part of SoundGuys. So needless to say, if a product makes best headphones list it’s because we were genuinely impressed by them and had some hands-on experience with them (or at the very least put in hours of research).
Frequently asked questions about the best headphones
I wish I could give you a definitive answer of one perfect pair of wireless headphones, but truthfully, the answer to this question depends on your personal preferences. Do you want really good active noise cancelling? Go for the Apple AirPods Max, Shure AONIC 50, or Sony WH-1000XM4. Are you looking for great sound quality and don’t want to spend a fortune? Check out the Audio-Technica AT-M50xBT or Sennheiser PXC 550-II. Is long battery life important to you? Try the Sony WH-XB900N. There are a lot of good headphones out there, and we do our best to outline all the objective facts and describe our subjective experiences with each product so you can make an informed decision based on your personal priorities.
The Apple AirPods Max are bound to be a fine pair of headphones for any iPhone user, but the noise cancelling headset is extremely cost-prohibitive. It affords a lot to the right listener, though. Each ear cup houses Apple’s H1 chip for extensive processing power so the headset can deftly perform tasks like hybrid ANC, passthrough audio, hands-free Siri access, Spatial Audio, and more. If you have multiple Apple devices all synced up to the same iCloud account, you’ll enjoy automatic device switching.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 feature several upgrades from the Sony WH-1000XM3 including improved noise cancelling, Bluetooth multipoint, and speak to chat functionality. That being said, the WH-1000XM3 is still an excellent pair of headphones, and they’re likely to go on sale now that the newer model is out.