When you start to research which headphones you should buy you begin to notice a trend. Almost all of the options people talk about are either large over-ears or small earbuds. And for good reason. Earbuds are obviously super convenient to carry around, and it’s hard to beat the sound that comes out of larger cans. But on-ears shouldn’t be overlooked which is why we put together this list of the best on-ear headphones. We should probably start with the basic question of, “What are on-ear headphones?” And if you don’t know the answer you might think that I’m being a sarcastic jerk here but the short answer is they’re just headphones that sit on your ears. We go into the pros and cons of the different types of headphones here if you want to dig deeper, but yeah, the answer is painfully straightforward.
On-ears don’t have the portability of earbuds and you won’t get the same soundstage that you would expect in a pair of over-ears, but they do give you a little of both and fall in the middle of what the other two types of headphones have to offer. But being the warm porridge of headphones still doesn’t make them right for everybody. Should you upgrade from a pair of earbuds? What if you’re a commuter? Is it worth it or should you just go straight to some of the better-known over-ears like the Bose QC35 II or the Sony WH-1000X M2? We tackle these questions one at a time down below, but if you’re in a hurry and just want me to shut up and recommend a pair of on-ears then here’s your answer: the Bowers & Wilkins P5 Wireless.
You can’t go wrong with the Bowers & Wilkins P5 Wireless
If it’s in an H2 heading it has to be true. The P5 Wireless is a great pair of on-ears for a few different reasons. First is the sound quality. Bowers & Wilkins might not be as recognizable a name as something like Beats or Bose, but they’ve been in the game for a while and know what they’re doing when it comes to sound. You wouldn’t really expect a pair of on-ears to do a good job with bass reproduction (because there’s very little room in your ear for air to move around in), but as Lily Katz mentioned in the full review they do a good job at presenting the listener with a modest reproduction of deeper bass notes without overpowering anything in the mids. It’s because of that restraint in the low end that makes vocals sound especially smooth on these.
Bowers & Wilkins P5 WirelessFull Review
Besides knowing when to hold their punches, the P5 Wireless have a few other things going for them as well. If you’re familiar with any of Bowers & Wilkin’s other products it should come as no surprise that build quality here is top notch. You’ll find plenty of leather and metal all around, so these have a nice weight to them that makes them feel a little more substantial in the hand and on the head. The ear pads sit right on your ears but are super comfortable thanks to the plush memory foam wrapped in sheepskin leather than Bowers & Wilkins uses here. Of course, this does mean that they do get a warm and won’t be too comfortable on a hot day. On the bright side, the ear pads are replaceable so if they end up getting gross after a while you can always just swap them out.
Playback controls can be found right on the ear cups
As far as connection goes these are rocking Bluetooth 4.1 with support for aptX and AAC codecs. They have a battery that should give you about 17 hours of constant playback, but you can always use the included audio cable to connect to your devices. All of the playback controls can be found right on the ear cups so you shouldn’t have any problems controlling your music without reaching for your phone. One downside to these is that they don’t fold at the hinges so unless you have a bag at the ready that you can toss these in when you’re not using them you’re going to have to either carry them or leave them around your neck. The price is also not the most consumer friendly, but you get what you pay for. A pair of headphones with great build materials that also don’t slouch of sound quality.
What else should you know?
A lot of the picks that made this list are wireless, so one thing you might want to be aware of is Bluetooth codecs. You can dig further into this topic by reading our full deep dive if you want, but basically what you need to know is that codecs are a way of getting the most out of the music files being transferred between your devices. It’s a way of packaging and unpacking files more efficiently allowing for higher quality streaming, as long as both devices share the same codec.
For example, if your headphones are aptX compatible but your phone doesn’t support aptX, then they can’t use that codec to stream music. Instead, both will revert to the default codec (SBC) which is a standard in Bluetooth. You won’t get the best quality possible but it’s good enough for most people.
Active noise cancelling (ANC)
If you never took Physics 101 thinking about sound waves might sound intimidating, but it really isn’t. And there are plenty of headphones that take advantage of how sound waves behave, including one on this list. If you have a few minutes learning how this works is actually just good life knowledge, but if you’re in a rush it’s easy enough to get the jist of. Imagine you have a wave whose amplitude (the height of the wave) equals 1. Now, what happens if you subtract 1? You’re left with nothing. That’s how ANC works. Tiny microphones in the headphones can pick up outside sound and measures it. That information is then sent to the headphone drivers which produces sounds that are more or less the opposite.
In physics, this is called an out-of-phase wave. The two waves cancel each other out, and what you’re left with is your favorite song playing into your head with no interruption. Now it’s worth mentioning this isn’t a perfect process by any means, and some headphones are better than others. So don’t expect your next pair of ANC headphones to imitate life in a vacuum, but if you just don’t want to hear the low hum of an airplane engine modern technology should get the job done.
What the hell is a frequency response?
Although specs are important when shopping for a new pair of headphones, it’s just as important to understand what those specs mean. One of the most common ones you’ll see when researching audio is frequency response, which measures if and how well a particular component reproduces all of the audible frequencies in a given range (usually 20Hz – 20kHz) and if that piece changes the signal in any way on the way through. Depending on what you like or plan to do with your headphones, you might want a pair of headphones with a curve that looks a certain way. People working professionally with audio will usually prefer the frequency response to be as flat as possible because it means that each frequency is being accurately reproduced by the headphones. But if there’s anything that Beats has taught us, it’s that the masses like bass. So, in that case, a frequency response curve that looks more like a smiley face might is expected. It’s hard to summarize this into something easily digestible, so if you want to know more make sure to read this great guide by Rob Triggs.
What are some other options?
Bose SoundLink On-Ear WirelessFull Review
If comfort is what you’re after then look no further than the Bose SoundLink On-Ear Wireless headphones. As any audiophile can tell you, Bose has their faults. But when it comes to a comfortable listening experience they’re hard to beat, and that remains true with the SoundLink on-ears. These give prominence to the mids which will be helpful for listening to podcasts or humming along to your favorite melodic pop song on your next commute. The plush padding on the ear cups combined with the velour-like padding on the bottom of the headband combine for a supremely comfortable time.
Battery life is roughly 15 hours which is more than enough to last you an average day or two even if you do forget to plug them in at night. Of course, nothing is perfect, and though there’s plenty to like about the Bose SoundLink On-Ear Wireless headphones, one con is the build quality. Being made of mostly (if not entirely) plastic means yes they’re lightweight, but they’re also not the most durable pair of cans. They do come with a hardshell carrying case that you can toss them into should they be in for a bumpy ride, but for the most part, you’re probably going to just be tossing these into your bag since they fold down so nicely. In this case, you might want to just be aware that they’re in there. At just under $200 these aren’t the most expensive Bose headphones by any means, but replacing them wouldn’t be fun either.
AKG N60NC WirelessFull Review
AKG might be best known for their high-end over-ears but they also dabble in on-ears and thankfully so, because the AKG N60 NC Wireless headphones are quite spectacular. They have a minimal black design with silver accents and a premium lightweight design. There is some slight distortion in the lows and mids (assuming your ears are young enough to pick it up), and the bass is a bit “boomy” but it actually isn’t that big of a problem. And besides, it’s entirely worth it if what you’re most interested in is the active noise cancelling.
If you enjoyed the ANC of the original AKG N60 NC headphones but wished they were wireless, these are for you. They’re perfect for travel and the 30-hour battery life seemed to live up to its claim in our full review, but if they do die you can always hardwire them to the source device via the 3.5mm audio cable. There were some issues with microphone quality so if you’re going to be taking a lot of phone calls on this it’s something to keep in mind. The price is also a tough pill to swallow at around $299 but if you value portability and don’t want to sacrifice much else these might be for you.
Grado SR60eFull Review
If you’re looking for the best on-ear headphones when it comes to sound quality, look no further than the Grado SR60e headphones. Grado is a name that isn’t really known by the masses, but they have commanded respect from anyone who knows audio for the better part of 60 years. Many of their products are top of the line and even though the Grado SR60e is an entry-level model, they are still one of the best pairs of on-ears that you can get. The design of most Grado products is fairly unique and not something that you see every day, and that design language bleeds into the SR60e as well.
The SR60e headphones have foam ear cup covers that look like they belong in a different decade, in a good way. The classic design goes hand-in-hand with the classic Grado sound that gets you a pretty accurate representation of the audio, barely emphasizing any frequencies. On a related note, these are open back headphones so if you’re looking to take these with you on a commute you might want to apologize to the person sitting next to you in advance since they’re going to experience first hand what you have on your playlist. Sound leakage is going to be a thing here, so best use these while at home or at your desk.
If you plan on using these to study the minute details of your favorite songs then you’ll be happy to know that they also come with a quarter inch adapter so that you can plug them right into your audio interface. They work equally well with mobile devices so thanks to an impedance of only 32 Ω. If that’s your main source device then at least you get an adapter that you can save the adapter for a rainy day.
Monoprice Hi-Fi On-Ear HeadphonesFull Review
Okay, but what if you already have a great pair of headphones and are looking for something good and inexpensive to have as a backup? Then these might be for you. Monoprice does a great job at making high-quality inexpensive products, and the Monoprice Hi-Fi Lightweight On-Ear headphones are as good of a “bang-for-your-buck” option as you can get. For the sound of a pair of headphones many times more expensive, you can get these for less than $15. Don’t ask us how they make a profit (because we have no idea) but if you have a spare $20 lying around we would definitely recommend treating yourself to a pair of these at least as a spare to always keep in your bag.
True to their name, these on-ears weigh only 4.5 ounces which is about the weight of two eggs yolk and all (I’m not the only one who compares the weight of headphones to eggs right?) Regardless of your preferred unit of measurement, these are super light. That’s in part due to the all plastic build materials (for about $15 you won’t find any metal here), but also because of the 36mm drivers, they managed to squeeze into the ear cup. They could’ve opted to use 30mm drivers if they wanted, but to squeeze the most out of the low end the 36mm drivers were a good choice.
The cable is a bit on the short side at 46 inches in length, but towards the top of it, you’ll find the mic and multifunction one-button remote. Naturally, this allows you to answer and end phone calls, but it also gives you some handy control options over music playback like double-clicking to skip tracks and triple-clicking to return to previous tracks.
Should you get on-ears if you already have earbuds?
Now let’s circle back to the questions we brought up earlier one by one. Starting with is it a good idea to get a pair of on-ears if you’ve only ever used earbuds? If you have an incredibly good pair of in-ears then you might be better off sticking with those, especially if you value being able to stuff them in your pockets until you need them (I know I do). But if you’re rocking the earbuds that came with your phone or like to make your wireless gym ‘buds pull a double shift as your main headphones throughout the day, then it might be a good idea to test the waters of on-ears and treat yourself to a better sound experience. After all, that’s what headphones are for right?
But why spend so much money on something that could break or be lost? That’s where cheap earbuds shine because it isn’t that expensive to replace any of the pairs on this list we made. But at the same time, expensive headphones (like anything else) are an investment. If you want to enjoy the time you spend listening to music why not treat yourself to something a little nicer? If you can find value in the time you spend listening to your new headphones you’ll probably take care of them a little more than your earbuds anyway.
Are on-ears good for commuters?
Sure you’re going to be giving up that ability to wrap them up and throw the headphones in your pockets, but if you commute with a backpack or briefcase stashing your new on-ears in there for safekeeping shouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience. Plus the upgrade in sound quality is going to make listening to music more of an experience rather than just passing the time. But to be clear, if you’re not commuting with a bag of some kind nothing is going to beat a good pair of earbuds. They don’t even have to be that expensive. But if you have a place to store a large pair of cans when you’re not using them, on-ears are a great upgrade. They’re smaller and more portable than large over-ears and usually sound better than cheapo earbuds as well. If you commute regularly to work or school, we definitely recommend at least trying out some of these headphones.
Why not just go for larger over-ears?
Larger headphones are great and will definitely give you a great experience, but just like on-ears, they aren’t for everyone. If you’re a commuter and are short on space in your bag, find over-ears to be too bulky and uncomfortable, or just don’t want to spend damn near $400 on something like the Sony WH-1000X M2 then they might not be for you. If you can swing it then, by all means, go for it. Plenty of the larger over-ear options have superb sound quality and ANC to boot, but for something that’s a little more convenient to carry every day a good set of on-ears can work wonders.
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.
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