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 so hard to tell what’s right for you.
That’s why we’ve ditched our old method of choosing what “the best” is, and instead we’re relying on our own expertise to make picks for you. What you read here may not reflect your own experience, but all five of our picks were subject to extreme scrutiny, and still came out on top.
The best headphones for most people are the Sony WH-1000X M2
That’s a bold claim to make, but with the combination of excellent sound quality, excellent noise cancellation, the use of the best Bluetooth codecs, and its price: it’s hard to choose anything else here. Winner of our best noise-canceling headphones award, the Sony WH-1000X M2 dominates almost every category it could be considered for. That’s no accident: they’re really that good.
Sony WH-1000X M2Full Review
Because not everyone is an obsessive audiophile, what fits the description for “best headphones” for most people is going to be some combination of wireless, high audio quality, and noise canceling. So, while the first candidate pool had a lot more audiophile-friendly picks, the final ranking put these on top.
Though $349 may seem excessive for headphones, we posit that it isn’t—especially if this is your primary means of escaping reality every day. A good set of headphones will carry you for years, and many of the best features on the market now are quite expensive. Though there is a point of diminishing returns at about $400, the Sony WH-1000X M2 is that Goldilocks set of headphones that tick all the boxes any commuter or wireless consumer could want.
It’s just gravy that the Sony WH-1000X M2 offers so many creature comforts that aren’t offered on other models—at least, not all in one place. For example, its other two competitors—the Sennheiser PXC 550 and the Bose QC35 II—don’t offer LDAC or aptX HD support. And while the Sennheiser PXC 550 does offer touch controls, they’re not as fleshed-out as those available on the WH-1000X M2.
If you value sound quality on a budget, these open-backs are the best value
Whether we like to admit it or not, very few of us can afford to shell out a grand for something as small as headphones. Given that the best headphones you can own are, well, the ones you can buy: it makes picking our best models a little easier.
Beyerdynamic DT 990 PROFull Review
If you’re more interested in getting the best sound possible then open-back headphones are the way to go. And one of the better pairs of open-back headphones you can get that won’t break the bank are the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro over-ears. At less than $200 you’re getting one of the most comfortable pairs of headphones on the market, which doesn’t sound like a big deal until you’re 3 hours into an Otis Redding playlist. The plush memory foam ear pads feel like pillows on your head and the open-back design means soundstage isn’t bad either.
If you’re looking for Beats-level bass these probably aren’t for you, but that doesn’t mean these don’t sound fun. Sure the sub-bass isn’t going to blow you away, but the vocal clarity and detail in the highs might. As great as these cans are they do still have their downsides. Being made of mostly plastic does have its benefits (like being super lightweight) but it also means that these aren’t the kind of headphones you want to toss in your bag on your way out the door. They also have an impedance of 250 ohms so you probably need an amp to listen to your music at a decent level.
Monoprice Monolith M1060Full Review
If you don’t mind spending a little more cash, the Monoprice Monolith M1060 headphones will put the bang in your buck. Though at $349 they’re not cheap, these planar magnetic headphones can perform on par with a few other models that are significantly more expensive. As Chris Thomas put it in the full review these are “value taken to its logical extreme.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise because of how good Monoprice is at making their products inexpensive, but it is. These headphones don’t come cheap, but don’t require the use of an amp.
These have a good amount of low end present but the main pro to these is just how clear everything sounds. Little to no distortion is apparent regardless of what you’re listening to and there aren’t really any objective tweaks that would make these sound better than they do. If you’re not looking to spend upwards of $500, Monoprice has done it again with the Monolith M1060 headphones.
HiFiMan Edition S
Buyer’s remorse is painfully real. We agonize over, should I have gone with the latest version; did I waste my money on this year’s model? It’s almost as painful as remembering when you were so excited to be picked for basketball that, in getting up, you tripped over your own shoelaces. But, hey, at least you stuck the face plant (this may or may not be heavily grounded in reality.) Fortunately, the HiFiMan Edition S eliminates buyer’s remorse. Removable back plates and a collapsible body make these headphones a portable hybrid option.
HiFiMan Edition SFull Review
A cleverly designed headband properly distributes weight while alleviating pressure with velour, leatherette ear pads. Roomy and breathable, the ear cups provide ample room for most ears and avoid common pressure points.The Edition S also comes with an in-line remote for skipping tracks and adjusting volume. There’s isn’t a mic included though, so your phone will have to stay close to your mouth. (Important to remember to avoid frustrating your partner on the other end.)
Although plastic constitutes the headband, an aluminum chassis houses the dynamic 50mm drivers. Said drivers sound phenomenal. With the back plates removed, an open soundstage is replicated, enveloping and engaging the listener at the expense of isolation. With the plates installed, highs err on the side of tinny but not overly harsh. The overall sound becomes a bit muddied. Think of placing saran wrap over a camera lens. The gist is there, but details are absent.
For less than $130, HiFiMan’s Edition S headphones show that sometimes it isn’t too good to be true. It’s just true.
The Jaybird X3 can withstand any commute—or workout
Just because a headphone is categorized as workout-friendly, doesn’t meant that it is. Covert and sweat-resistant, the Jaybird X3 provide style, portability and a good fit. Though the ‘buds won’t elicit profuse praise from audiophile ears, they’re a great Swiss Army knife. When running and working out, the sturdy wing tips offer good comfort and a secure fit. If wing tips aren’t your style, the X3 are effective without them but may wobble when bouncing around.
Jaybird X3Full Review
With beanie season in full swing, the buds’ slim profile prevents misshapen lumps from forming an unsightly silhouette of knit material. Being Bluetooth, the X3 pair quickly with source devices and zealously greet listeners with a chipper, “power on!” For commuting and exercising, the bass bump helps to anchor the music when in a noisy train car and focuses the mind during a tasking workout. Jaybird recognizes that the emphasized bass isn’t everyone’s preference and calibrates for that with the MySound app. Available in the App Store and Google Play Store, MySound allows detailed EQ adjustments for a customized listening experience.
Sure, battery life is just okay and charging via docking cradle is a bit unwieldy. However, the third iteration of the X line demonstrates that Jaybird has fought tooth and nail for recognition in the audio ring. And to borrow a phrase from Charlie Sheen circa 2011: the Jaybird X3 are “winning.”
What about other headphones?
Obviously, these headphones comprise a very small part of the market, and we encourage you to check out our other best lists. If you need a set of noise-cancelling headphones, truly wireless earbuds, workout earbuds, or even need to limit your budget to $100: we’ve got you covered. Nobody’s needs are truly the same, so if you know what you’re looking for, there are countless options out there.
Erato Apollo 7
Sometimes you aren’t looking for giant over-ears and something a little more discreet would get the job done. You’re obviously going to be sacrificing quality but if you’re looking for something that’s small, easy to carry, and just makes you feel like you’re living in the future then the Erato Apollo 7 truly wireless ‘buds might be worth looking into. These don’t offer any cool features like heart rate monitoring but sometimes keeping it simple is what works best. These do have a lackluster battery life at only 2 hours, but they come with a charging case that you can toss them into when you’re not using them.
But on the bright side, they do have an IPX7 rating against water and dust as well as all of the playback controls you could want baked into it. You can pause/play, skip between songs, adjust volume, and access Siri or the Google Assistant which is a level of control you won’t find in something like the Apple Airpods. Don’t expect a pair of truly wireless Bluetooth ‘buds to outshine any of the other headphones on this list, but they’re easily one of the better sounding options thanks to aptX and AAC codec compatibility.
Sennheiser HD-1 in-ears
Maybe you don’t like the idea of possibly losing an earbud, or maybe you just want to dangle your headphones around your neck when you’re not using them. Whatever the case if you don’t want truly wireless ‘buds there are plenty of great options for good ‘ol Bluetooth earbuds to choose from. But if we had to pick the best we’d go with the Sennheiser HD-1 wireless in-ears. Not to be confused with the HD-1 over-ears (seriously, who’s in charge of product names over at Sennheiser), the ‘buds are the complete package for what most people are looking for.
These neckbuds come wrapped in leather with red stitching along the seams holding everything together. As far as sound goes the bass in these isn’t overpowering, instead sticking to that signature Sennheiser sound with just enough to get you by followed by impressive clarity in the mids and highs. You’ll get the full array of playback controls thanks to buttons on each side of the band letting you skip between tracks, adjust the volume, etc. If you want to see what some of our other picks were for the best Bluetooth earbuds make sure to check out the full list.
What makes a set of headphones “the best?
If you’d seen this list before, you’ll probably notice that it’s completely different than it was last year. Gone is the Sennhesier 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’s the good in having a best 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.
What's the good in having a best list that doesn't help most people buy headphones they like?
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.
How we chose
After compiling the best lists leading up to Black Friday, we hashed out our ultimate top picks. 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. After brainstorming, each of us completed a spreadsheet with weighted pros and cons for a given model. Chris, our editor, then created a final model that analyzed each of our scores and posited applicable rankings.
During our testing for the previous best lists, Adam, Chris and Lily clocked in hundreds of hours with the listed models. From quantifying the effectiveness of the Sony WH-1000X M2’s ANC unit by placing a mic in a dummy head, to sweating profusely with the Jaybird X3, we made sure to push each pair of headphones appropriately. Not only that, but we also gathered information from primary, secondary and tertiary sources such as manufacturers’ websites, alternative tech review sites and user-based reviews, respectively.
We respect that our best lists may not always perfectly align with your experiences, but they're our earnest attempt to get the best-suited product on your wish list.
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 model listed here will meet all of your needs.
Why you should trust us
Not only is this site our nine-to-five, but Adam, Chris and Lily each have multiple years of reviewing consumer audio products. We’ve kept tabs on the ever-changing world of audio, giving us the ability to parse apart the gimmicks from the gems. As frequent visitors of SoundGuys already know, Chris wears his hatred for all things Bluetooth like a lovesick teenager wears his heart on his sleeve. The Bluetooth products listed? They’re damned special. Adam, a SoundGuy for nearly three years, has heard everything from pristine highs to vacant lows. Then there’s Lily with countless hours clocked in at a radio station working in a professional studio environment and reviewing audio products on her own time prior to joining SoundGuys.
We want you to be happy with your purchase—none of our writers see a dime from partnership deals or referral purchases—and nobody here is allowed to benefit from steering you towards one product or another. While this site does make money from referrals, the individual writers are paid based on their work, regardless of whether or not people clicked that “buy” icon. They will never even know if anyone did, though the site going under might be a good hint.
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