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The best headphones for back-to-school 2021

Kids and young adults alike are heading back to school and it’s a prime time to revamp your style and device needs. Whether they’re looking for a way to decompress while walking between classes or they use music to focus while studying, headphones are at the top of the wish list for many students. But with so many brands and models on the market, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by features and specifications that all sound so similar.

To help you find the best headphones for your back-to-school needs — from affordability to gaming headsets to sheer sound quality — we’ve done the research. You can always check out our best wireless headphones and best noise-canceling headphones roundups, too, but if you’re in the back-to-school mindset, this breakdown is for you.

Shopping on a budget? Here’s a look at the best headphones under $100.

The best headphones for students at a glance

The best affordable over-ear ANC headphones

Sony WH-CH710N

The Sony WH-CH710N headphones.

Why you should buy them: One of the best active noise-canceling headphones at an achievable price.

Who they’re for: Students who want to block out distractions while studying or commuting, without dipping into their tuition savings to do it.

Why we picked the Sony WH-CH710N:

Active noise cancellation is a must for many students. Noisy libraries, crowded trains, busy halls — academic life at any age is full of distractions. At around $100, the Sony WH-CH710N represents the company’s middle ground in their range of wireless headphones and offers excellent noise cancellation for the price. You won’t get the kind of features of our overall best headphones of 2021, the Sony WH-1000XM4, but you will enjoy a comfortable headphone with a strong Bluetooth connection (and a wired connecting option) that also provides an ambient mode so you can have a conversation or hear the world around you on your bike ride to school without removing the headphones entirely.

That said, the WH-CH710N don’t have the full-on ANC of Sony’s most elite headphones, the HW-1000XM4s we get into below. Instead, they offer their next-best option, Artificial Intelligence Noise Cancellation (AINC), a second-tier technology that is designed to constantly adapt to the environment to create the most effective noise cancellation mode. While that’s great for students who are likely traversing from library to class to home with any number of steps along the way, it’s not quite the premium noise cancellation you’ll find in more expensive models, and that’s OK.

But more importantly, they have an estimated 35 hours of playtime with noise cancellation turned on, and 45 hours with noise cancellation turned off. That’s enough to go about a week without recharging. How many students do you know who are proactive about charging their devices?

Additionally, the Sony WH-CH710N allows you to connect to Siri, Google, or Amazon Alexa voice assistants, giving students greater opportunity to organize their lives on the go. Got an important test to study for? Just ask Alexa to set a reminder while listening to music and you’re all set.

Read our full Sony WH-CH710N review

Anker Soundcore Life Tune XR

Anker Soundcore Life Tune XR.

Why you should buy them: At $99, they’re some of the best bang-for-your-buck ANC over-ear headphones on the market.

Who they’re for: Students with an ear for good sound who want to listen to music all day and really get into it.

Why we picked the Anker Soundcore Life Tune XR:

First and foremost, the Anker Soundcore Life Tune XR delivers when it comes to active noise cancellation. With several listening modes, including indoor, outdoor, transport, and transparency modes, you can control the noise cancellation depending on where you are, which is a nice touch for students going from A to B. Not to mention, that transparency mode makes it easy to have a conversation with somebody on a group project without removing your headphones entirely.

They’re also some of the most comfortable over-ear headphones you’ll find, with soft cushioned earcups that make them great for wearing all day, which we imagine most students will be doing. If you’re also gaming during the day, they offer a wired option that improves the sound quality and gives you a really comfortable pair of gaming headphones.

Plus, for the sound-snobs, the headphones pair with the Soundcore app (Android, iOS), allowing you to adjust the equalizer in the headphones for the perfect sound no matter what you’re listening to. Given young people’s range of music tastes, that’s a nice touch.

Best of all, with ANC off, the Life Tune offers 60 hours of playback on a single charge. That’s a full week and the weekend covered for students. With ANC turned on, it’s still an impressive 40-hour battery life. If you do run out of battery, fast charging lets you get four hours of listening with just a five-minute charge, perfect for those emergency “need-my-music” situations.

Oh, and did we mention they’re just $99?

The best affordable true wireless ANC headphones

Amazon Echo Buds 2

Amazon Echo Buds 2 on a table out of their case.

Why you should buy them: Good, flexible wireless ANC earbuds that can help you organize your life, too.

Who they’re for: Students who prefer in-ear headphones and actively use Alexa.

Why we picked the Amazon Echo Buds 2:

Amazon did an odd thing with the Echo Buds 2. They made them cheaper than the original Echo Buds at $120 (formerly $130). But don’t let that fool you; the Echo Buds 2 are still as feature-rich as ever. With good sound quality and outstanding call quality, the Echo Buds 2 are great for students who want a pair of high-quality true wireless earbuds that support listening to music as well as they do talking to friends or family on the phone.

The Echo Buds 2 are ergonomically designed to pop in and out of their charging sockets easily so students won’t have to worry about fumbling or dropping them while transitioning on the go. Nor will they have to worry about the Echo Buds 2 falling out of their ears thanks to a comfortable, secure-fitting design. Athletic students will appreciate the optional wing tips that increase the Echo Buds 2 security during vigorous physical activity, as well as the IPX4 water resistance that makes them more than capable of fending off a little sweat.

Not to mention, the Echo Buds 2 supports hands-free Alexa so students can use their voice to make calls, add items to their calendar, create a homework to-do list, and much more.

The kicker for conscientious students? Amazon leads the way in terms of sustainable, recyclable packaging and the Echo Buds 2 are no exception.

Read our full Amazon Echo Buds 2 review

Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro

Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro.

Why you should buy them: Very comfortable, very high-quality wireless earbuds with customizable sound and controls.

Who they’re for: Anyone who has a hard time finding wireless earbuds that fit, or wants excellent ANC with wireless flexibility.

Why we picked the Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro:

Anker makes this list again with the wonderfully lightweight and customizable Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro. These are Anker’s first true wireless earbuds to offer ANC and yet they absolutely deliver.

The packaging is a little crazy, with a full nine sets of ear tips, but because of that flexibility, you’re bound to find a fit that is truly comfortable for your entire day. That’s great for students who never take their earbuds out despite zipping between classes, activities, and friends’ houses throughout the days and weeks. With touch sensors, you can control the volume, play/pause, track skipping, voice assistant access, and customizable ANC without ever removing the buds. You can even customize what the touch controls do using the Soundcore app, giving you greater flexibility in how you use your earbuds.

Audiophile students will also appreciate the sound quality. Whether they’re listening to something for school or just want to appreciate a complex melody, the Soundcore app lets you tweak the EQ using a huge array of genre-based presets. You can also save your own custom EQ settings to set your own soundstage and experience music precisely the way you want to.

Beyond comfort, though, the Liberty Air 2 Pros also offer outstanding ANC for their size and price point ($130) and elite touch control flexibility.

Read our full Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro review

The best premium over-ear ANC headphones

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 side view.

Why you should buy them: Some of the best headphones on the market, with exquisite noise cancellation and call clarity, as well as outstanding comfort.

Who they’re for: Those who don’t mind splurging on high-quality, especially if they know they’ll use them. Particularly handy for students who will still be attending classes remotely.

Why we picked the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700:

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are at the high-end of the price spectrum at around $380, but they’re loaded with features to justify the price. For starters, they sound great and offer Bose’s best-in-class noise cancellation, making them a good choice for students who just need to buckle down and block out the noise of, say, a crowded coffee shop. They’re also extremely comfortable so those all-nighters won’t be so tough.

Students will like the sleek, lightweight, minimalist design and the generous pivot and tilt that help them fit regardless of head size or shape. Integrated controls managed by a touchpad on the right earcup will help students take calls on the fly, flick through playlists, and adjust the volume. On the other earcup, adjustable noise cancellation will come in handy for different parts of the day, from riding the bus to spending the night at the library.

Although they leave something to be desired in terms of battery performance (20 hours with noise cancellation), the quick charge feature is a nice touch for those who forget to plug them in overnight. In just 15 minutes, you can get 2 to 2.5 hours of playback time.

However, it’s the voice clarity for calls and voice assistants where these headphones really separate themselves. If you’re still going to school remotely, they’re a great choice to ensure you’re hearing and speaking clearly and the fact that they can connect to multiple devices at once makes them very handy.

Read our full Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review

Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony WH-1000XM4 over-ear ANC headphones.
Riley Young / Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: They’re our best-rated headphones for 2021.

Who they’re for: Students and/or parents with deeper pockets (or an uncle who likes to give the gift of technology) who know that quality and functionality are worth the extra cash.

Why we picked the Sony WH-1000XM4:

We named the Sony WH-1000XM4 our best headphones for 2021 for good reason. At around $280, they’re not the most expensive high-end headphones on the market, but they do offer some of the absolute best features.

A sleek, comfortable design fits in with students’ style while the 30-hour battery life with noise cancellation turned on is very good from over-ear ANC headphones — and better than the aforementioned Bose Noice Cancelling Headphones 700s, which top out at 20 hours. Turn off the noise cancellation on the XM4s and you’ll get 38 hours.

On one earcup, you have integrated touch controls to change the music and take calls through a series of taps. But these headphones are also smart. Rather than removing them from your head or pausing the music to have a conversation, you can just start talking and the Sony WH-1000XM4 adapts settings accordingly via onboard sensors, pausing your media and letting in sound. Sony calls it Speak-to-Chat and it’s a very useful feature for social butterfly students who are likely to bump into friends while listening to music. Still, if you want to remove your headphones anyway, the XM4s will pause your music automatically — a cool feature once reserved for only true wireless earbuds.

With superior sound quality, noise cancellation, and comfort, they’re great for students who spend a lot of time listening to music and podcasts and want to do so with the best headphones available.

Read our full Sony WH-1000XM4 review

The best premium true-wireless ANC earbuds

Bose QuietComfort Earbuds

Bose QuietComfort Earbuds.

Why you should buy them: Our favorite true wireless ANC earbuds aren’t cheap at $280, but they’re the best noise-canceling buds you’ll find.

Who they’re for: Students who want the flexibility of true wireless earbuds without sacrificing high-end noise cancellation.

Why we picked the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds:

Bose has long been the king of noise cancellation because of releases like the extraordinary QuietComfort Earbuds. They may look a little clunky, but that’s because you’re getting over-ear noise cancellation quality in a set of true wireless earbuds. That’s not easy. With that noise cancellation, you can also rely on outstanding audio and call quality, making them a great choice for students who want to use their time walking between class or on the way to practice to call home.

Plus, with a secure fit and solid battery life, they’re an awesome choice for on-the-go students spending a lot of time out of the dorm, or the remote learning scholar buckling down at home (or taking a break with some Disney+).

The QC Earbuds also enjoy an outstanding Bluetooth connection, a valuable perk for students leaving their devices behind when they go down the hall to their neighbor’s room or when sparking up a spontaneous solo dance party to loosen up during a study break — you can go about 30 feet without experiencing any signal dropout.

Add in the excellent touch control features to adjust noise canceling levels, play/pause music, and answer calls, and the QC Earbuds are an awesome choice for students who want best-in-class true wireless earbuds.

Read our full Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review

Sony WF-1000XM4

Sony's WF-1000XM4 true wireless ANC earbuds.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: You’re looking for something sleeker than the QuietComfort without sacrificing too many of the features.

Who they’re for: Students who want great true wireless ANC earbuds that also look cool.

Why we picked the Sony WF-1000XM4:

While the Sony WF-1000XM4s fall slightly short of the Bose QuietComfort despite the same $280 price tag, the one area it does win is in style. The XM4 earbuds are 10% smaller than their Sony predecessor, XM3, and the case provides wireless charging as an option, a nice touch for students who probably have enough wires in their lives already. The smaller buds also make them better for working out than the Bose QC thanks to the more compact, rounded housing that doesn’t hang from your ears and IPX4 waterproofing. That broad surface also makes it much easier to tap the touch controls.

The Sony WF-1000XM4soffer very good sound quality, battery life, wireless charging, and noise cancelation but, more importantly for some, they don’t hang all the way out of your ears. If you’re worried the Bose QuietComfort won’t mesh with your style, these are a better choice. Students will love the useful, easy-to-access touch controls and that these earbuds are truly a “do-everything” kind of bud. From class to after-school activities to running outside, the XM4s have you covered in all aspects of life.

Read our full Sony WF-1000XM4 review

The best budget earphones for gamers

HyperX Cloud Earbuds

HyperX Cloud Earbuds.

Why you should buy them: An excellent distillation of the popular HyperX Cloud headphones, these tangle-free earbuds are perfect for active gamers.

Who they’re for: Gamers — especially Nintendo Switch gamers — who like to take their playing on the go.

Why we picked the HyperX Cloud Earbuds:

Gamers, take note: The HyperX Cloud Earbuds are made for a more active gaming lifestyle. With a 90-degree angled plug and a tangle-free cable, they’re optimized for handheld mode (making them ideal for the Nintendo Switch), but are just as good when stationary. They come with three sizes of silicone ear tips to find the perfect fit for extended gaming sessions and thanks to the slim, convenient in-line mic, you can answer calls, control your streaming media, and communicate with your squad seamlessly.

All of that said, they’re not great when it comes to doing anything other than gaming. If you want a set of earbuds specifically for gaming — which is perfectly reasonable for students who like to take their study breaks that way — these are a great choice. However, if you’re looking for a set of buds that you can unplug and use to listen to music on your way to class, you might be better served going with one of the above (or below) options.

Still, at $40, the HyperX Cloud Earbuds are a good value buy for gamers who want to have a set of gaming earbuds at the dorm room and have another set of headphones for everything else.

The best true wireless earbuds for gamers

Razer Hammerhead True Wireless

Razer Hammerhead True Wireless earbuds and battery case.

Why you should buy them: Outstanding audio quality, a specialized Gamer mode, and fun RGB lighting make these $130 earbuds a ton of fun for gamers.

Who they’re for: Gamers who want to feel fully immersed in the action without having a clunky headset over their heads.

Why we picked the Razer Hammerhead True Wireless:

With a comfortable fit and improved design, the Razer Hammerhead True Wireless offer much of what you’d get from a full-featured over-ear headset in a tiny set of earbuds. They offer both passive and active noise cancelation depending on your gaming mood, as well as customizable EQ controls and a set of pre-programmed sound profiles.

Unlike many other gaming earbuds, the Hammerhead is also optimized for general users. They fit snugly in your ears, making them great for exercising and wearing all day. All of those pre-programmed sound profiles also make it a good earbud for listening to podcasts and audiobooks, a perk that students will enjoy.

All of the controls are touch-sensitive and can be remapped for play/pause, skipping tracks, voice assistants, controlling ANC modes, and more. With so much going on in their lives, students will appreciate the customizability of these earbuds.

And, of course, the Razer Hammerhead True Wireless earbuds have a Gaming Mode, which reduces audio latency to 60ms, to help you fully immerse yourself in gaming action. Plus, just for fun, the responsive RGB lighting on the backs of each earbud is a cool bonus (and a neat safety trick for night-time joggers).

Read our full Razer Hammerhead True Wireless review

The best volume-limiting headphones for kids

Happy Plugs Play

A girl wearing Happy Plugs Play headphones.

Why you should buy them: Great for extended remote-learning sessions, volume-limiting keeps kids’ ears safe throughout the day.

Who they’re for: Kids and parents looking for something a cut above budget-level headphones.

Why we picked the Happy Plugs Play:

Sure, you’ll pay a little more than you might think ($80) for this set of over-ear headphones you’re just going to hand off to your sticky-handed kids, but for those with young students glued to their computer monitors all day doing Zoom calls and learning remotely, your money’s going towards some solid safety with volume limiting that keeps the level capped at the widely-acknowledged safe range of 85 decibels. So whether kids are learning or using them for after-school leisure-time gaming, TV, or music listening, you know their ears are protected from any noise-induced hearing loss.

Comfortably cushioned and highly adjustable for head sizes from ages 3 to 15, the Happy Plugs Play headphones are ready for long classes. Battery life is also pretty great for kids headphones, at a respectable 25 hours (a quick 10-minute charge gets you another five hours of listening time, to boot).

And while the Happy Plugs Play only have passive noise cancelation (created by the seal around the ear cups), and not the fancy active noise cancelation of others on our list, the sound isolation is more than enough here to keep kids focused on learning.

Rounding out the features is a great-sounding mic, great for clear class participation on video calls and phone calls in general. They also have a handy audio sharing feature via the headphone’s USB-C or 3.5-mm AUX outputs, great for study time with a classmate or sharing tunes with friends.

Read our full Happy Plugs Play review

The best affordable headphones for younger kids

Onanoff BuddyPhones Play+

BuddyPhones Play+ headphones for kids.

Why you should buy them: Great price and a diverse set of clever kid-safe features not seen in comparable headphones for younger users.

Who they’re for: Younger at-school kids, and even toddlers, who don’t want to spend a ton on headphones but still want something rugged with great safety features.

Why we picked the BuddyPhones Play+:

At just $50, the level of innovation that has gone into these on-ear Bluetooth headphones from Icelandic company Onanoff is impressive. Designed with younger kids in mind, the BuddyPhones Play+ offer three levels of volume limiting that the company calls SafeAudio, for different ages and even scenarios — the 94dB TravelMode, which allows for additional volume taking extra noise from airplane or car engines into consideration; the 85dB KidsMode, best for most kids; and the quieter 75dB ToddlerMode, which goes that extra mile to protect the more-sensitive ears of those three and under. The different volume limit options mean kids can grow into the Play+ headphones, giving parents extra value for the money into their child’s early teens, if they last that long.

For parents and little ones struggling through remote learning — keeping kids focused and in their seats should be a Nobel Peace Prize-awarded achievement — Onanoff has come up with the unique StudyMode feature that enhances dialog and vocal sounds, making them crisp and clearer for kids to hear during lessons. The Play+’s built-in microphone allows kids to participate with teachers and classmates, too.

Now for some specs. Battery life is a respectable 20 hours, not bad for 50 bucks, and their 20-meter Bluetooth range (they also work wired and without power, it should be noted) means when your kid leaves their desk to ask you a question in your basement home office they should still stay connected.

Compact and foldable for taking in the car, the BuddyPhones Play+ headphones haven’t forgotten your kids’ siblings or friends either, as BuddyLink sharing allows kids to connect multiple pairs of BuddyPhones to share the same media source. The BuddyLink Play+ headphones are available in six bright colors and come with cool earpiece stickers to trick them out.

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