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Best on-ear headphones
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 July 4, 2023, to move the Koss PortaPro to the budget position.
Our pick for on-ear headphones is the Jabra Elite 45h
For under $100 the Jabra Elite 45h supplies a long 67 hours, 17 minutes of audio over AAC and SBC codecs. At only 160g, it’s a lightweight companion on the go. It sounds pretty bassy and exaggerated in the highs as well, but fortunately, Jabra includes a useful app with a comprehensive equalizer. It has Bluetooth multipoint, although it isn’t totally reliable.
Like a lot of on-ear headphones the Elite 45h does not have particularly impressive isolation. It could use higher-quality codecs because it lacks a headphone jack, but that’s not a problem for Apple users. One of the best features is its quick charge: 15 minutes equals a whopping 10 hours of audio. You can even customize the sidetone for phone calls. For the price and feature set, the Elite 45h is our pick for best on-ear headphones.
The Beats Solo Pro is the best on-ear headset for iPhone owners
The Beats Solo Pro is a noise canceling headset, and its ANC works surprisingly well for on-ears. The Solo Pro has a transparency mode feature that allows you to hear the world around you. 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.
Beats gets a lot of flack for exaggerated bass emphasis, but iPhone users will benefit from the H1 chip, which allows for things like hands-free Siri access, and for some people, this will be worth the inaccurate frequency response. If you listen to pop or hip hop, it’s likely that the bass response won’t be an issue, but if you want to listen to less bass-heavy genres like folk, you could run into some clarity issues.
The Beats Solo Pro is compatible with the AAC Bluetooth codec, which performs wonderfully with iOS. When paired to an iPhone, the Solo Pro’s battery life clocks in at about 22 hours, which is enough to get you through about a fortnight of public transit commutes. And it supports Fast Fuel charging, which means if you charge your Solo Pro via the Lightning USB for 10 minutes, you get 3 hours of playback time.
Unfortunately, the Beats Solo Pro is not the most comfortable headset we’ve tried. Its clamping force is quite intense, and that makes it difficult to wear it for longer than 45 minutes at a time. In addition, the microphone quality is very poor, so don’t get it if you need to take phone calls.
The headset has also been officially discontinued, so you’ll need to look to a third-party seller to find it. If you can’t find the Beats Solo Pro in your market, the Beats Solo3 Wireless still makes for a fine alternative.
The JBL TUNE 660NC has noise canceling and long battery life
For a hit of ANC and 44 hours of listening check out the JBL TUNE 660NC. It charges via USB-C, not that you’ll need to do it often. Lightweight at 166g and foldable, you can stow it away in your bag easily. For less than $100 it has quite a few desirable features.
A quick charge of 5 minutes yields 2 hours of audio transferred AAC or SBC Bluetooth codecs. You can also use the included headphone jack cable for the best audio quality. The Tune 660NC features hands free voice assistant for people who make liberal use of their smart assistants. It might not have the best frequency response, tending to favor bass emphasis, but it’s straightforward with dedicated button controls and conveniently laid out.
For the best sound, put on the Sennheiser HD 25
These lightweight DJ headset sounds great and has rotating ear cups that will let you listen with just one ear. It can withstand blasting very loud volumes without distortion kicking in, but we don’t recommend you blow your eardrums out. They’re dubbed as monitoring headphones due to their effective isolation, and the isolation also makes them great for commuters. The cord is detachable, though it is super long (3 meters) for daily use, and you may end up buying a different shorter cable.
The Sennheiser HD 25 has a pretty comfortable fit and is lightweight as well, making it great for long listening sessions. This pair of monitoring headphones are intended to be used in louder environments, so if you’re looking for 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 Koss PortaPro
If you’re okay with a wired set of on-ears, don’t overthink it: get the Koss PortaPro. Though its design and aesthetic are quite old, it’s because the headphones work quite well. That’s the beauty of wired headphones: there’s no smart features or complicated things to go awry.
Of course, that may mean that you need to pick up a USB-C or Lightning to 3.5mm dongle, but adding $8 to your purchase in order to be able to use it with your phone is hardly a tough ask. For what you’d get for the money is one of the best-attested on-ear headphones of all time for a reasonable amount of money.
Best on-ear headphones: Notable mentions
- Audio-Technica ATH-S200BT: For around $70 this headset offers sizeable 40mm drivers and a 40-hour battery. It folds flat and has onboard controls to boot. The headphones are strictly a Bluetooth situation, so no detachable headphone cable. $69 at Amazon.
- Beyerdynamic DT 240 Pro: This runs just under $100 and certainly rivals the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x and ATH-M40x. The synthetic earpads are more comfortable and roomier than they appear. It’s definitely aimed toward audio production use. $67 at Amazon.
- Bowers & Wilkins PX5: These headphones isolate well and feature a sophisticated sheepskin leather build for a comfortable fit and timeless look. It supports aptX Adaptive and Bluetooth multipoint. $374 at Amazon.
- JBL Under Armor Sport Wireless Train On-Ear Headphones: It won’t win any awards for succinct naming schemas, but this JBL and Under Armor collaboration provides you with an IPX4-rated workout headset including washable mesh ear cup and ANC. It charges via outdated microUSB, unfortunately, but it makes a good gym companion otherwise.
- Klipsch Reference On-Ear Reference II: Concentrating strictly on sound above all else, Klipsch’s signature audio knowledge has been applied to the On-Ear II. Unlike the previous model, this one has an optional headphone jack. Find it for cheap and it could be worth it, though at full price there are better options.
- Koss Porta Pro: Talk about timeless, the Koss Porta Pro has maintained the same look since 1984. This reliable set of semi-open cans is portable and affordable. $59 at Amazon.
- Plantronics BackBeat FIT 500: It features a P2i water-repellent nano-coating that has weathered many Midwest rainstorms. Though it didn’t quite make it as one of the best on-ear headphones, it is an incredible value with some of the best Bluetooth connectivity available. $74 at Amazon.
- 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 canceling 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. $139 at Amazon.
- Sony MDRZX110: Another bang for your buck option, these pair of wired headphones are truly no-frills. It is comfortable and, for such a cheap price point, sounds pretty good.
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.
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.
Isolation is paramount if you want optimal sound quality
On-ear headphones’ biggest drawback is their inability to encompass 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.
How does noise canceling work?
We have a full feature covering this topic, but basically active noise canceling (ANC) headphones use 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.
Are on-ear headphones good for commuting?
On-ear headphones can be good for commuting but they aren’t quite as portable or convenient as earbuds and they don’t typically isolate as well as some of the best over-ear headphones. Still, 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, on-ear headsets are 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 canceling headphones are foldable and durable, so they can be easily stored in their carrying case and thrown in your backpack. The PXC 550-II isolates very well and its active noise canceling capabilities are impressive considering the mid-tier pricing.
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 about the Best on-ear headphones
Consumers and manufacturers alike have realized that isolation is a greater challenge with on-ear headphones, and they sometimes clamp too tightly. Even so, you can’t deny on-ears are portable compared to over-ear headphones.