This article was last updated by Digital Trends A/V Staff Writer Nick Woodard on 9/4/2020.
Time to invest in a new set of headphones? It’s a remarkably crowded market with hundreds of models to choose from, so here’s a handy timesaver: The Sony WH-1000XM4 are the best headphones. In fact, their combination of top-notch audio quality, superb noise cancellation, and dependable wireless performance is such a strong formula that we also named the WH-1000XM4 the best wireless headphones and the best noise-canceling headphones.
That is an extraordinary set of claims to make, and we don’t make them lightly. Our team has a combined 50 years in the consumer and pro audio industries. We have reviewed hundreds of headphones, using them in all kinds of locations, with audio sources that range from surround-sound movies to the most aggressive hard rock and rap.
We are convinced the Sony WH-1000XM4 will be the best pick for most people, but if you’re looking for some alternatives, we have you covered there, too. We’ve identified a number of other models that are more than worthy of your consideration, each with their own specific strengths, whether it’s for use during a workout — or merely to keep you from giving your credit card too much of a workout.
The best headphones at a glance
- The best wireless headphones/best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4
- The best wireless earbuds: Sony WF-1000XM3
- The best earbuds under $100: 1More Triple Driver
- The best headphones for working out: JLab Epic Air Sport
- The best headphones for music: Sennheiser HD6XX/HD650
- The best headphones for iPhone: Apple AirPods Pro
- The best headphones for Android: Google Pixel Buds 2
- The best headphones for gaming: Audeze Mobius
- The best headphones for kids: Puro PuroQuiet
Why you should buy them: Beautiful wireless sound, plush comfort, and excellent noise canceling.
Who they’re for: Anyone who wants a top-tier wireless experience, and loves silencing the world around them.
Why we picked the Sony WH-1000XM4:
Sony’s technologically advanced WH-1000XM4 are the fourth generation of Sony’s flagship wireless headphones (following the excellent WH-1000XM3, WH-1000XM2 and MDR-1000X models) that offer top-tier noise canceling, excellent quality wireless audio, and plush comfort. This enticing combination earned the model a rare five-star rating in our initial review, and — thanks to a few notable improvements — makes the latest version the best headphones you can buy.
At the heart of the WH-1000xM4 is outstanding wireless sound. Sony’s LDAC technology delivers a wireless signal at what the company claims is three times the quality of standard Bluetooth streaming. The company has dropped support for the aptX and aptX HD Bluetooth codecs, a feature supported in the previous 1000XM3, but we wouldn’t lose too much sleep over this. The headphones still support SBC, AAC, and of course LDAC, which is one of two Bluetooth codecs that have been certified as Hi-Res compatible.
Sony says it has made improvements to the noise-canceling technology in the 1000XM4, specifically when dealing with mid-to-high-frequency sounds like human conversations. Our reviewers didn’t notice a huge difference between this model and the previous XM3, but that’s likely because those cans were already great noise-canceling headphones to begin with. Compared to Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, it’s too close to call with the new 1000Xm4 as both are outstanding.
Sony didn’t make any major changes with the 1000XM4, and it’s truly hard to find fault with that. The previous model was the best around, and the same goes for this iteration. These new headphones did, however, add multi-device Bluetooth support, meaning you could take a call from your phone, then resume watching a YouTube video on your computer thanks to a simultaneous connection to both.
Why you should buy them: Excellent sound, very good battery life, and amazing noise cancellation.
Who they’re for: Those who want true wireless earbuds with the best ANC available.
Why we picked the Sony WF-1000XM3:
Ever since they debuted in 2019, the Sony WF-1000XM3 have ranked at the very top of our list of the best true wireless earbuds. That’s thanks to their unmatched combination of sound quality, noise cancellation, wireless performance, and battery life. This seems to be Sony’s secret formula: While a few true wireless earbuds might rank higher in one of these attributes, none so far have pulled them all together as Sony has.
Apple’s AirPods Pro come closest to succeeding, but the Sony WF-1000XM3 still enjoy a slight edge, particularly in the sound quality and call quality categories, and they clean Apple’s clock on battery life. Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 2 are another close competitor, one with objectively better sound, but Sony still offers the best value of the bunch.
It’s always been tough to beat Sony on sound quality when the company trots out its best effort and the WF-1000XM3 are no exception. With its proprietary DSEE HX engine, Sony is able to work sonic wonders on just about any music material you care to play. And while we think these earbuds have an almost perfect balance of highs, mids, and lows right out of the box, you can make these settings your own using Sony’s Connect app.
With ANC on, battery life is a perfectly acceptable six hours, but turn that feature off and that number jumps to eight. That’s not quite the best these days, but it’s way better than most, including Apple’s AirPods Pro which top out at five hours. A quick charge feature gives you an extra 90 minutes of life with just 10 minutes in the charging case — and that case holds three more full charges.
You also get some really handy features, like being able to use the earbuds together or separately, hear the world around you using transparency mode, and you can customize what the touch controls are responsible for. Add Google Assistant and Siri compatibility and you’ve got a real winner.
Why you should buy them: These earbuds are premium in every way but their price.
Who they’re for: Anyone who wants a really great-sounding set of earbuds but is unwilling to spend hundreds of dollars for the pleasure.
Why we picked the 1More Triple Driver:
The adage that you get what you pay for is generally true for audio products like headphones. What has made us big fans of the 1More brand is its ability to redefine that expectation in surprising ways. The 1More Triple Driver in-ear headphones are a great example of this: They exhibit all of the hallmarks of high-end, expensive earbuds, yet manage to keep the price highly affordable for most people.
Their combination of dual balanced-armature drivers matched with a dynamic driver to pump up the lower end are kind of engineering normally found on products that cost more than double the price of the 1Mores. Even the smaller details are very well ironed out, such as Kevlar-wrapped cables that increase resistance to wear while simultaneously reducing tangles.
Boasting materials like cast aluminum that has been polished and sandblasted for a luxurious feel, even the included carrying case — normally a throwaway pouch that people ignore entirely — has been obviously crafted and built with care.
The headphones sound amazing, with a wide and complex soundstage that warranted an official THX certification. In fact, when we went backstage at a recent Aerosmith concert, it was the 1More Triple Drivers that the band and THX selected for the best possible listening experience. 1More has many other budget-friendly products, including the newer Dual Driver ANC Pro Wireless, but we think the Triple Drivers offer the best value.
Why you should buy them: Immersive sound, excellent battery life, and waterproof functionality.
Who they’re for: Anyone who wants a set of wireless earbuds made specifically for demanding workouts.
Why we picked the JLab Epic Air Sport:
Until this year, our favorite headphones for workouts were the Jabra Elite Active 65t. Why? Great battery life, great sound, and the kind of waterproofing that means you don’t need to think twice before taking them on watery adventures. But JLab’s Epic Air Sport have won our workout hearts and it’s easy to see why: Almost everything we liked about the Jabras is now eclipsed by the JLabs.
It starts with battery life. These days, you can expect a lot of longevity from a set of true wireless earbuds and the Epic Air Sport deliver big time. They can run for 10 hours before needing to make a return trip to their charging case. For a lot of people, that means you don’t need to bring the case with you, which is a huge plus for those all-day bicycle road trips. Each earbud has its own power button — so no need to worry about wearing them down if you don’t use them for a while. But if you do pack the charging case, you probably won’t need to look for a USB cable for days — it stocks an amazing 60 hours of extra life for a total of 70 hours of autonomy.
The JLab Epic Air Sport come with a huge array of fit options. Seven sets of silicone gel tips and one set of foam eartips combined with the built-in earhooks to virtually guarantee a good fit. We love that there are three EQ modes to choose from, and you can select them from the buds themselves — no app required. We liked the Signature mode the best: “The sound engineers at the company have scooped out a bit of mud in the midrange to bring big, punchy bass alongside a crisp and bright high register,” our reviewer noted. The Epic Air Sport sound better than the Jabra Elite Active 65t, though perhaps not quite as good as the Powerbeats Pro. But given the JLabs cost $100 less, that’s understandable.
With an IP66 rating for dust and water resistance, the Epic Air Sport are up for almost anything short of an actual swim. You can’t fully immerse them in water, but showers (whether intentional or otherwise) should be fine, and it means you can clean them under running water. Access to your favorite voice assistant is the cherry on the top of this excellent set of wireless earbuds.
Why you should buy them: Audiophile sound quality from a legendary brand, in a comfortable design that is also remarkably affordable.
Who they’re for: Those who take their music listening seriously, and want an uncompromising set of headphones.
Why we picked the Sennheiser HD6XX/HD650:
Audiophiles generally agree that if you’re passionate about music, and you have a listening space that is relatively free of outside sounds, nothing beats a really good set of open-back headphones. As far as we’re concerned, you won’t find a set of open-back headphones that manage to combine superb sound quality and a reasonable price than the Sennheiser HD6XX/HD650. To be clear, these are not exactly the same models. The HD6XX is a run of the HD650 with a lower price from Massdrop, and a few physical changes, but when it comes to their audio chops, they’re identical.
Those who buy either of these headphones are in for a treat. Our reviewer didn’t hold back in their assessment of these cans’ ability to fully realize every detail of a recording, noting their “warm and rigid bass, a midrange that dips close to the ruddy colors of analog tape saturation (without sacrificing an ounce of detail), and a laser tight response up top that helps illuminate vivid clarity and granular instrumental texture across the board.”
If that sounds like the kind of performance you want in a set of headphones, we think you need look no further than the Sennheiser HD6XX/HD650. You can certainly spend more to get this level of quality, but you don’t have to.
Why you should buy them: Unbeatable ease-of-use, top-notch noise-canceling, and superb sound.
Who they’re for: iPhone (or iPad and iPod Touch) users, who want a no-compromises true wireless earbuds experience.
Why we picked the Apple AirPods Pro:
We’re going to assume that by now you’re well aware of the AirPods’ top features like hands-free Siri, super-simple pairing, excellent wireless connectivity, and highly pocketable design.
Now let’s remind ourselves of their top drawbacks: Mediocre sound, no noise cancellation, and no water- or sweat-resistance. Guess what? The AirPods Pro keep all of the best parts of the AirPods and fix the parts we didn’t like. Are they perfect? No, but they’re such a big improvement over the standard AirPods, we think you’ll love them.
We were frankly surprised at just how good the AirPods Pro turned out to be. The noise cancellation is on-par with Sony’s WH-1000XM3, which is saying a lot. The new in-ear design is both comfortable and secure. And amazingly, they sound way better than Apple’s previous version. We would often bemoan the fact that the AirPods didn’t sound very good, especially when compared to the plethora of decent true wireless options for the same or less money.
Apple might not have done much to help with affordability with the AirPods Pros, but at least now you can buy them knowing you aren’t compromising on any features. They are a worthy upgrade for anyone who has already become a fan of the AirPods.
Why you should buy them: The Google Pixel Buds 2 are full of features and usability for a reasonable price.
Who they’re for: Android users who are looking for the ideal compliment to their smartphones and mobile devices.
Why we picked the Google Pixel Buds 2:
Between the features, the design, and the sound quality, you won’t find a better of buds for Android users than the second generation Google Pixel Buds.
Google seems to have built its new buds with lovers of the Android ecosystem in mind. A Fast Pair on Android feature effortlessly starts the setup with your Pixel or Android smartphone, and features like hand-free Google Assistant and Google Translate stand out as innovative abilities for you to take advantage of.
They may not have noise canceling, but the Google Pixel Buds 2 have an Adaptive Sound feature that automatically adjusts the volume to the environment that you’re in. That pairs well with the improved audio quality of the Pixel Buds 2, and a new design that makes them immensely more comfortable than the originals.
Altogether, the Google Pixel Buds 2 have a winning formula for buds that appeal to all, especially those who have already adopted Android devices.
Why should you buy this: It does everything right, connects to everything, and has incredibly granular features.
Who’s they’re for: Primarily PC gamers who crave 3D and 7.1 surround sound with specificity to the type of games they play.
Why we picked the Audeze Mobius:
The Audeze Mobius is the kind of headset you buy when you have deep pockets and an even deeper wish list. Compatible with PC, Mac, and consoles, the Mobius is a wallet-crushing $400 7.1 surround sound headset of nearly unparalleled quality. From how it feels on your head to how you perceive game audio across multiple genres, the Mobius earns its top-dollar price with equally premium performance.
Offering Bluetooth or wired connectivity, the Mobius also boasts a stellar 10 hours of play per charge and allows you to adjust mic and headphone volume independently with two different toggle switches. It also offers seven different EQ presets to match different audio needs for different game genres. For example, you can prioritize footsteps to give yourself an edge in first-person shooters.
Its 3D mode centers your audio experience to your screen so that as you turn your head, sounds come from their source in your video game in relation to the perspective of your ears in actual space. It can track your head up to 1000 times per second and identify sound sources, changing them dynamically as you move. That feature aside, the pure sound quality is stellar, and though you’ll get the best quality out of Bluetooth or USB wired connection (the 3.5mm jack into a console controller doesn’t get quite as loud as we would like, and won’t remember your audio settings when you turn them off), audio is spectacular through the Mobius, and in competitive gaming, your voice will be well transmitted to your teammates.
Beyond the laundry list of features and customizations the Mobius offers, it’s also relatively lightweight and comfortable to wear. It features both a memory foam headband and replaceable contoured memory foam earpads that combine to make long gaming sessions less fatiguing.
The microphone is removable, making the Mobius suitable for other audio activities like listening to music or TV wirelessly, which we highly recommend. As expensive as it is, the Audeze Mobius is absolutely worth the high investment and is our top pick for a premium gaming headset.
Why you should buy them: The PuroQuiet protect your kids from dangerously loud sound levels while they cancel out external sounds.
Who they’re for: Parents who want to provide their kids with high-quality headphones, without exposing them to loud sounds.
Why we picked the Puro PuroQuiet:
Noise cancelation for kids? Doesn’t that mean they’ll ignore their parents even more often than they already do? Perhaps, but it’s a risk worth taking if it means your kids’ hearing will be protected over the long-term. That’s exactly the premise behind the Puro PuroQuiet headphones. Not only are they wireless and great-sounding, but they also come equipped with a software limiter that keeps the volume at or below 85dB, which is considered the maximum volume that children should be exposed to for prolonged periods. The noise-canceling feature means they’ll actually be able to listen to lower (therefore safer) volumes.
These headphones pack about 16 hours of battery life, which ought to be enough for a whole day or more, but if not, there’s always the option of using an analog cable instead. An external switch lets you turn the noise cancellation on and off. Make no mistake, these might be aimed at kids, but the quality of construction, selection of materials, and color choices give them an appearance that will still appeal to your young charges long after they’ve outgrown their Disney phase (some of us still haven’t).
While not the cheapest kids’ headphones you can buy, they are very reasonably priced for what they offer. We think your kids’ ears are worth it.
Research and buying tips
- Who makes the best headphones?
- What’s the best place to buy headphones?
- Over-ear/On-ear headphones vs. earbuds: Which is better?
- What type of headphones are best for working out?
- What headphones should I buy if I don’t want others to hear?
- How does active noise-canceling work?
- Do any headphones use a lightning connector? Or USB-C?
- Do headphones include a microphone?
- Do headphones have audio lag?
There are a ton of manufacturers currently making awesome headphones, from major brands to smaller boutique outfits, so there is no clear winner when it comes to the best company in the headphone world.
We typically recommend buying from a major retailer like Amazon, Best Buy, or Walmart, or a smaller, more specialized local audio retailer. You can also take a look at our price predictions for the best headphone deals ahead of Prime Day 2020 before you buy.
That depends on what you’re using them for and how much you’re willing to spend. At the high-end, over-ear and in-ear headphones can both perform fantastically. For those of us not willing to spend thousands on headphones, over-ear headphones typically offer better bass response and a bigger soundstage, but in-ear headphones are significantly more portable and convenient — especially wireless earbuds.
True wireless models like the JLab Epic Air Sport which feature sweatproofing, are far and away the best headphones for working out because you’ll never have wires in your way.
Closed-back over-ear headphones or snugly fitting in-ear headphones are the best way to ensure your favorite tunes won’t leak out into the world around you.
Headphones with this feature use exterior microphones to capture the sound around you. They then reproduce matching frequencies with their phase inverted to cancel ambient noise.
Yes, you can find both Lightning and USB-C headphones on the market, but given that you might want to use your headphones with something other than a cell phone, we typically recommend you buy an adapter or wireless headphones, rather than headphones with such a specific kind of connector.
These days, most headphones include a built-in microphone. That said, some do not, so be sure to check before you buy if you want to make phone calls.
Some lower-quality wireless models do lag when watching movies and YouTube on your cell phone, but in the vast majority of cases, they do not have audio lag. Any wired headphones won’t have any audio lag at all, and neither will the vast majority of Bluetooth models.
How we test
We test headphones and earbuds the way normal people live.
We run every pair through a rigorous testing process over several days or weeks. That includes playing them in all sorts of scenarios — be it on a bus, in the listening room, or at the office — and playing back from a wide array of sources. We know most people use their headphones with a smartphone, often with lower-quality MP3 resolution tracks, so we do, too.
However, we also move up to high-resolution audio files, as well as a wide variety of sources, including plugging in directly to a PC or Mac, using USB DACs (digital-to-analog converters), and employing high-quality, dedicated portable players and amplifiers. Finally, we compare the headphones to some of our go-to models, both in their class and price point, as well as a level or two above to find out if they can punch above their weight.
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