Over-ear headphones are where it’s at if your priorities are sound quality and comfort. If you’re willing to deal with the larger footprint (headprint?) and increased weight that they entail, the sonic rewards are more than worth it.
For this list we’re including both wired and wireless headphones, either with or without active noise cancelling (ANC). As well as audio performance and comfort, we also consider feature set, battery life, build quality, and general usability as selection criteria.
As always, price is considered a factor and you can be sure that the best value products will shine through.
Editor’s note: this list was updated on March 21, 2021, to include more technical information.
For most people, the best over-ear headphones are the Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony has built itself a solid reputation for active noise cancelling headphones. The current iteration of the company’s flagship, the Sony WH-1000XM4 continues to deliver impressive noise cancelling performance and sound quality—all while adding features that enhance its usability at a price that won’t make your eyes water.
Sony WH-1000XM4Full Review
The WH-1000XM4 takes a page from its predecessor when it comes to overall design. However, thicker ear pads allow for a more comfortable over-ear experience with better isolation. Touch controls are still present on either side of the ear cups, allowing you to control volume and playback.
Learn more: What is frequency response?
The sound quality of the Sony WH-1000XM4 is excellent. A fairly neutral frequency response allows the sounds of instruments to be reproduced accurately. This neutral sound signature makes these cans appealing to listeners of virtually any genre. Sony has also one-upped themselves in regards to noise cancellation, better cancelling out low-frequency sounds like jet engine rumbles and air conditioner hums.
Additional notable features include automatic on-ear detection, Bluetooth multipoint connectivity (up to 2 devices), support for multiple Bluetooth codecs (SBC, AAC, and LDAC—no aptX), great mic quality, the Sony Headphones Connect app, USB-C charging, auto-pause when you start talking, and a near 20-hour battery life.
The best bang for your buck is 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.
Drop x Sennheiser HD 6XXFull Review
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 headset you should get. 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.
What are some other options?
Like the Sennheiser headphones, the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro headphones are both open-backed and easy to recommend. Not only because of how comfortable they are, but because they’re a solid value when it comes to sound quality. This headset isn’t built for commuters, but is a fantastic choice for listening at home.
Beyerdynamic DT 990 PROFull Review
The DT 990 Pro over-ear headphones are made almost entirely of plastic and don’t fold, or have rotating ear cups. The padded velour ear cups feel great and are comfortable for long listening sessions, even if you wear glasses. Not to mention the open-back design allows for a better soundstage than what you’ll find in most closed-back headphones.
But nothing is perfect, and the one big caveat with these is that the wire is non-removable and they have an impedance of 250Ω. If you want to properly drive these, you’ll need a dedicated amp to provide the extra juice needed. Alternatively, you can just rely on any of the best sounding smartphones to drive them for you.
The best deal on planar magnetics are the Monoprice Monolith M1060
Another pair of open-back headphones that we couldn’t leave off of this list is the Monoprice Monolith M1060 planar magnetic headphones. Monoprice is no stranger to making high-quality products at low prices whether that’s in the form of headphones or USB cables. So when the company announced a pair of planar magnetic headphones, we had to check it out, and they didn’t disappoint. But let’s get one of the biggest cons out of the way right now: these are heavy. They weigh about 500g and are made almost exclusively of metal and wood.
Monoprice Monolith M1060Full Review
Inside each giant ear cup is a 106mm planar magnetic driver. That’s more than double the size of the 40mm drivers you’ll find in the Sony headphones we mentioned earlier. So, yeah, they’re big. You can read more about how this affected the sound quality by reading the full review, but chances are you won’t be upset if you splurge and pick up a pair of these for yourself.
Like both the Sennheiser and the Beyerdynamic headphones mentioned above, these are also open-back headphones designed to be used in a controlled environment. Because there’s nothing separating the drivers from the outside. This means everyone around you can hear what you’re listening to and, even worse, you’ll hear them too. These headphones have a removable cable that terminates in a 3.5mm jack on one end, and two 2.5mm connectors on the other.
The Audio-Technica ATH-M40x is a budget friendly buy
These are all great, but what if you’re not looking to spend so much money? In that case, it’s easy to recommend the Audio-Technica ATH-M40X. The ATH-M50X headphones are basically internet famous, but they also have more emphasis on the low-end. Generally, the ATH-M40X is the way to go, particularly if you are in the market for studio headphones. If you’re unsure what that means, be sure to review the pros and cons first.
Audio-Technica ATH-M40XFull Review
The foldable, slim design won’t attract too much attention when out in public. At the same time, though, the closed-back design makes these great for using in public as they passively block outside noise. Not as good as a pair of active noise cancelling headphones, but good enough.
Even though the audio cable is removable, one of the downsides is that they’re proprietary cables made by Audio-Technica. So if you lose one or it breaks, you’ll have to order the replacement from the company. On the bright side, Audio-Technica provides two cables from the start: one straight 1.2-meter cable for when you’re on-the-go, and a 3-meter coiled cable for a desk or in a studio. The ATH-M40X is a great option for most people, especially since it won’t break the bank when you pick up a pair.
Best over-ear headphones of 2021: notable mentions
We told you there would be a section for all you audiophiles out there, and here it is. If you just want the best you can get, check these out.
- Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless: These are worth checking out if for nothing other than the great sound quality.
- Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro: These are one of Beyerdynamic’s more affordable studio headphones, featuring a consumer-friendly sound signature that appeals to professionals in need of closed-back recording headphones.
- Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro: Designed for serious audiophiles, these cans deliver a wide soundstage and relatively flat frequency response for professional studio applications. As an added bonus, it’s plush earpads provide maximum comfort during long mixing sessions.
- Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700: These are the newest headphones from the active noise cancelling juggernaut that is Bose. While they didn’t dethrone the Sony WH-1000XM3 in any technical aspect, they’re still a great option if you have money to blow and want one of the best noise cancelling experiences around.
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II: Yes, these headphones are years-old, but they keep up with the best of them—we promise.
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II Gaming Headset: If you need a great sounding gaming headset and a solid pair of Bluetooth headphones, these cans for you. This headset uses the same technologies as the original Bose QuietComfort 35 II, and adds a few features geared towards gamers—including a detachable boom microphone.
- Focal Listen Wireless: Despite the bulky size, these headphones are comfortable to wear for long periods at a time and are excellent at passive noise isolation.
- Focal Utopia: We actually got a chance to review the Focal Utopia headphones and, wow, they’re good. But as great as they are, they’re crazy expensive which is why we can’t recommend them to the average person. That said if you have the money to blow, go crazy.
- Sennheiser HD 58x Jubilee: These large, open-back, over-ear headphones are a Massdrop exclusive and feature an ever-so-slight emphasis in bass reproduction.
- Sennheiser HD 600: If you think spending that much money on headphones is ridiculous, no one is going to blame you. Which is why the HD 600 headphones are another solid option from Sennheiser for way, way less money.
- Sennheiser HD 660 S: These open-back cans are popular amongst higher-end home studio musicians, sporting aluminum voice coils that deliver a balanced and accurate reproduction of sound. If you’re looking to invest in a reliable pair of reference-quality headphones, these belong on your wishlist.
- Sennheiser HD 820: Priced at almost $2,000, these cans aren’t for the faint of heart. Touting a closed-back design that still delivers a natural, wide soundstage, these headphones represent Sennheiser’s quest for innovation within the audio tech industry.
- Sennheiser PXC 550-II: For just under $200, you’re getting a headset with a foldable design, excellent active noise cancelling performance, great sound quality, Bluetooth 5.0, and extensive codec support (SBC, aptX, aptX Low Latency, AAC).
- Sony MDR-7506: If all of these options are way too expensive, then go with the Sony MDR-7506 headphones. These are far from new, but they’re still an industry standard when it comes to audio production.
- Sony WH-1000XM3: The newer WH-1000XM4 wouldn’t have been possible without these cans. The last-gen WH-1000XM3 are still available for a slightly lower price than its successor, and is still considered one of the best ANC headphones on the market.
- Sony WH-CH700N: Admittedly, these aren’t going to knock your socks off in the same way that the WH-1000X M3 headphones might, but these are still a solid pair of ANC cans that are worth looking into. Especially when you consider that they cost roughly half the price at around $200
If you’re working with a limited budget, don’t forget to check out some of our other lists which include headphones at more affordable price points.
What about the Apple AirPods Max?
You may be wondering where the Apple AirPods Max are in all this, and why they didn’t make it as one of our top picks.
There are two reasons why these haven’t made our list: firstly, they’re like really expensive. Maybe perceptions have shifted regarding the price of consumer electronics since Apple’s flagship handheld devices sell for over $1k. But here in the real world, walking around with headphones that cost $549 USD doesn’t seem like a great idea, especially if you want to keep them.
Learn more: Ultimate headphone buying guide
Secondly: many of their coolest features are available exclusively to those who have a (recent) Apple device to pair them with. And that includes getting the best out of the Bluetooth link. Since most people fall outside that category, the price is an even bigger hurdle to overcome..
If you’ve got cash to burn, and are already invested in Apple’s ecosystem/walled garden, go ahead and check out the AirPods Max. They sound fantastic, and like the popular AirPods Pro, the AirPods Max feature impressively effective noise cancelling technology. Additional features include a bold yet comfortable design, Transparency Mode, Active EQ, Spatial Audio, and the inclusion of Apple’s H1 Chip for a seamless connection with Apple devices.
What else you should know about over-ear headphones
What is isolation?
Isolation refers to the ability of your headphones to block outside noise from reaching your ears. This might sound like active noise cancellation, but it isn’t. Active noise canceling uses microphones to pick up the sounds that are going on around you and then uses clever processing to cancel it out. In physics, it’s called destructive interference and you can learn more about that here, but that isn’t what isolation is.
Isolation is simply having a physical barrier between your ears and the outside noises. Every time you stuff your fingers in your ears, you’re isolating yourself. You might hear certain loud noises going on around you, but for the most part, sounds are blocked out. A good pair of over-ear headphones can do something similar. They’ll cover your ears and block noises that would otherwise interfere with the music you’re listening to.
What should you know about Bluetooth?
You may have noticed that there are Bluetooth headphones on this list, which means that you might want to familiarize yourself with how it works before making a decision.
Does it have the same sound quality as wired headphones?
Nope. While Bluetooth has become way better and more convenient in the last few years it still can’t compete on a technical level with wired over-ear headphones. Sure, we might be a little biased against removing the headphone jack, but even our objective testing of the LDAC codec (which is arguably one of the top transfer methods currently available) revealed that Bluetooth falls short. Of course, you probably won’t have to worry about it too much if you’re over the age of 24 because our hearing tends to go a lot sooner than you might realize, but it’s still something you should be aware of. At least for now, wired headphones still reign supreme.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Both the Bose QuietComfort 35 II and Sennheiser PXC 550-II offer great sound and impressive active noise cancelling for their sub-$300 price tags. However, which headphone you choose entirely depends on your needs. Be sure to check out our versus article which explores each product's pros and cons, which will hopefully help guide you towards a final decision.
It's normal for ear pads to become dirty after awhile. If you're wondering how to your headphone's ear pads, be sure to check out our complete guide!
Most consumer-oriented headphones aren't ideal for serious audio work. For the best results, use a pair of studio headphones that feature a flat frequency response for accurate sound reproduction.