When it comes to headphones, there are infinite options to choose from. For the ultra-portable, a pair of earbuds may be best. On the other hand, if comfort is the end-game nothing beats a good pair of circumaural cans. Though, if you’re in need of a Goldilocks in-between option, you may be happiest with a set of on-ears. Sure, the crème de la crème of headphones cost a fortune, but that isn’t the case here. These are some of the best on-ear headphones you can buy, period.
Editor’s note: this list was updated on January 15, 2021, to mention the Sennheiser PXC 550-II.
The best on-ear headphones are the Beyerdynamic Aventho Wireless
The Beyerdynamic Aventho Wireless supports aptX HD and is expensive, but it isn’t costly for the sake of expense alone. No, these headphones feel premium and durable, with a metal-reinforced headband and matte finish. Unlike alternatives, their clamping force isn’t headache-inducing, nor is it loose enough to cause the cans to fly off either.
Beyerdynamic Aventho WirelessFull Review
The included in-line mic and remote is removable, which means it’s also replaceable. Additionally, while sound quality doesn’t compete with some of the company’s higher-end models like the DT 1990 Pro, it’s more than sufficient for most, and enjoyable for commuters. There’s a bit of auditory masking in lower frequencies like bass and male vocals, but female vocals sound excellent.
What you should know about the best on-ear headphones
As with any product, there are a few things to know before diving into your wallet to surrender your card to the store clerk. Whether you’re diving into an expensive pair of headphones or reaching for something more affordable, we’re here to cover what you need to know in brief.
Bluetooth codecs to pay attention to
Bluetooth codecs matter if you’re buying wireless on-ear headphones, and AAC is really only good for iPhone users. Right now, there’s no standardized process for how Android encodes and decodes the AAC codec. Since it’s one of the most power-hungry wireless codecs available, this leads to marked differences in performance depending on what Android smartphone is used. With that said, if you’re an Android user, keep an eye out for aptX or aptX HD and be aware that LDAC isn’t hi-res.
How does noise cancelling work?
We have a full feature covering this topic, but basically noise cancelling headphones use what’s called destructive interference to counteract environmental noise. The microphones in ANC headphones emit an inverted signal which essentially cancels the noise. Although it can’t completely silence your world, it will lessen the sound of a plane’s engine or surrounding chatter.
Isolation is paramount if you want optimal sound quality
On-ear headphones biggest drawback is their inability for them to cover the whole ear (hence on rather than over-ear headphones). This lack of isolation grants a more portable design, but can be at the detriment to audio quality. If you are invested in ensuring you get the most out of your headphones, you may need to look into studio headphones.
Another thing to note if you have a lot of ear piercings or wear glasses is that on-ears will likely hurt you. Additionally, bulky ear decor can further problematize isolation.
The Bose SoundLink On-Ear Wireless is as comfortable as on-ears get
That’s right, if you’re chasing the oxymoron that is a pair of comfortable on-ear headphones, look no further than the Bose SoundLink On-Ear Wireless. Bose gets a lot of flack for exaggerated treble emphasis, but time and again the company produces the most comfortable headphones out there.
Bose SoundLink On-Ear WirelessFull Review
As enthusiasts have grown to expect with Bose, the mids and treble are emphasized, but that’s fine. If your ears favor pop music, you’ll probably enjoy the prominent vocals and feigned clarity due to the overemphasized highs.
Battery life clocks in at 15 hours, which is enough to get you through about a fortnight of public transit commutes. And topping them up takes a little over 2.5 hours, which is on-par for wireless headphones.
Unfortunately, the plastic seems set to snap if the wrong thing falls on them in a bag and our unit had clear evidence of superglue holding things together in one of the hinges. That said, the main reason these are so comfortable is their lightweight plastic build. You win some, you lose some, even with the best on-ear headphones. Even with the few downsides, the Bose SoundLink On-Ear Wireless headphones are the most comfortable cans, no contest.
Keep out ambient noise without spending a fortune with the AKG N60 NC Wireless
The AKG N60 NC are a pair of budget active noise cancelling headphones that can sometimes be found for as cheap as $99 depending on market fluxes. While the AKG N60 NC are a tad outdated with their MicroUSB charging, they do last roughly 30 hours on a single charge. They support AAC and aptX, and you can listen with a wire if you prefer to.
AKG N60 NCFull Review
The noise cancelling of the AKG N60 NC is pretty incredible, and it does a great job of attenuating low frequencies. This makes it great for taking with you on an airplane. One weird thing about these headphones, though, is that you can’t disable the ANC. So if you want to save battery or just simply don’t want to actively cancel noise, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
The sound signature of the AKG N60 NC is consumer-friendly with a slight bass boost and treble boost, but it’s nothing so extreme that it destroys the quality of the music. You may be able to detect a small amount of distortion in the low end of the frequency spectrum because of the ANC. The microphone quality also isn’t very good, but if you’re just looking for a solid and cheap pair of ANC headphones, AKG has got you covered.
For the best sound, put on the Beyerdynamic DT 1350 PRO
These lightweight headphones have great sound quality and passive noise cancellation. They can withstand blasting very loud volumes without distortion kicking in, but we don’t recommend you blow your eardrums out if possible. They’re dubbed as monitoring headphones due to their effective isolation, and the isolation also makes them great for commuters. The main drawback of these headphones is the permanent cable. If your cat chews through this cord or it breaks in some other way, you’ll have to buy a whole new set of cans.
Beyerdynamic DT 1350 PRO
If you’re looking for a pair of headphones to use exclusively in the studio, we recommend checking out some open back options where the ear cups are open to the environment. The greatest benefit to open back headphones is their ability to recreate an open atmosphere.
Keep things affordable with the Monoprice Hi-Fi On-Ear
If you’ve made it this far and realized that most of these headphones are over $100, you’ll be happy to know the Hi-Fi On-Ear are just $17. Monoprice is widely respected for producing high-quality products at very reasonable prices. Whether you want daily headphones on the cheap because you’re rough on your gear or you just want a reliable backup, the Monoprice Hi-Fi On-Ear is a great value.
Monoprice Hi-Fi On-EarFull Review
What’s more, these are about as light as on-ear headphones get weighing in at just 127.6 grams. Now, this is done by using all plastic parts, so these don’t have the greatest structural integrity. In fairness though, most features have their drawbacks. Contrary to the compact size, Monoprice managed to fit a 36mm dynamic driver into each ear cup.
On top of all that, you even get a multifunction one-button mic and remote for playback control. This won’t allow you to access virtual assistants like Google or Siri, but given that these cost less than a trip to Cracker Barrel, I’d say Monoprice is doing pretty well for us consumers.
Are on-ear headphones good for commuting?
Yes and no. They’re not quite as portable or convenient as earbuds and they don’t typically isolate as well as some of the best over-ear headphones, but dollar-for-dollar, supra-aural headphones are usually a better value than equivalent in-ear models. On-ears are able to take advantage of the ear’s anatomy to reproduce a more realistic sound than their in-ear counterparts.
As if the name didn’t already indicate this, they’re also notably smaller than over-ear headphones. The latter of which are typically cumbersome and a nuisance to save room for in an already tight bag. If you regularly use public transit and are tired of earbuds, we highly recommend testing out any of the options above or below.
Another option is to look for over-ear headphones that have a smaller design, such as the Sennheiser PXC 550-II. While not quite as portable as on-ears, these active noise cancelling headphones are foldable and durable, so they can be easily stored in their carrying case and thrown in your backpack. They isolate very well and their active noise cancelling capabilities are impressive considering their midrange pricing.
Related: Best headphones for commuting
Best on-ear headphones: Notable mentions
- Beats Solo Pro: Just like the AKG N50 NC, the Solo Pro is a noise cancelling headset. If you’re to get any pair of Beats headphones, the Solo Pro is your best option because of its effective ANC and portable design. iPhone users will benefit from the H1 chip, which allows for things like hands-free Siri access. The reason this didn’t make it as a top pick: the clamping force is a bit much, making it difficult to wear the headset for longer than 45-minute stretches.
- Beyerdynamic Aventho Wired: These headphones do a great job at isolating external noise, but the clamping force can be a bit extreme.
- Beyerdynamic DT 240 Pro: These run just under $100 and certainly rival the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x and ATH-M40x. The synthetic earpads are comfortable and roomier than they appear.
- Bowers & Wilkins P5 Wireless: These headphones isolate well and feature a sophisticated sheepskin leather build for a comfortable fit and timeless look. They support aptX to mitigate latency and improve audio quality.
- Grado GW100: These headphones are nearly identical, physically, to the Grado SR60e except they’re wireless. You can always opt for wired listening too with the included 3.5mm cable.
- Jabra Elite 45h: These headphones have a simple and lightweight build that can be folded up nicely to carry on the road. Their battery life tops out at a monster 54 hours and they support quick charging as well. While the clarity of the audio isn’t the best, the headphones have a neutral-leaning frequency response, and their microphone is very good.
- Koss Porta Pro: Talk about timeless, the Koss Porta Pro has maintained the same look since 1984. These reliable set of semi-open cans are portable and affordable.
- Plantronics BackBeat FIT 500: These feature a P2i water-repellent nano-coating that has weathered many Midwest rainstorms. Though they didn’t quite make it as one of the best on-ear headphones, they are an incredible value with some of the best Bluetooth connectivity available.
- Puro Sound Labs PuroQuiet: If you’re looking for on-ear headphones for your child, or if you just want headphones suited to smaller heads, these are a great choice. The PuroQuiet headphones have active noise cancelling as well as a maximum volume limit of 85dB. The non-kid specific design makes these headphones more versatile than something covered in puppy designs, for example.
- Sony MDRZX110: Another bang for your buck option, these wired headphones are truly no-frills. They are comfortable and, for such a cheap price point, sound pretty good.
Related: Best headphones of 2019
Why you should trust SoundGuys
We’ve clocked countless hours working with the best of what audio has to offer, enabling us to pick out the good from the bad. And while we may have our own personal favorite products, we understand that what we love may not be suitable for what most consumers love. Additionally, none of us benefit from directing readers toward one brand over another. Each hands-on review conducted here includes a slew of charts that we use to explain frequency response, isolation, and microphone performance. If you’re interested in learning how to better understand the data, click here.
This best on-ear headphones list is a living document that we update as often as possible. At the end of the day, we want listeners to be happy with their purchases and try to streamline the research process so you can enjoy the music.
Frequently Asked Questions
Unfortunately, on-ear headphones are uncomfortable more times than not. This is simply because they are squashing down your outer ear for a long period of time. Particularly if you wear glasses or have ear piercings all up and down your ear cartilage, you should opt for a set of over-ears or in-ears to maximize your comfort level. Additionally, the ear pad material makes a difference in comfort, so try and look for memory foam ear pads with fabric or velour coverings. Not only will they be comfortable, but they will help create better isolation in your headset.