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The best over-ear headphones in 2021

Best over-ear headphones
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The best over-ear headphones deserve to be your first port of call when shopping for a durable, long-lasting pair of cans — especially if you want one with active noise cancellation (ANC). Over-ear designs form a seal around your entire ear, not just your ear canal, so are usually better at blocking out outside noise than even the very best wireless earbuds.

Indeed, most of our favorite noise-cancelling headphones are of the over-ear variety, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more affordable models as well. Whether you’re looking for a luxurious pair of high-end headphones or something cheap, light and portable, we’ve got you covered with our picks of the best over-ear headphones we’ve tested.

Editor's Note: The Tom's Guide Awards 2021 for audio have been announced, and the Sony WH-1000XM4 has won the Best over-ear headphones award! Head to the audio awards page to see all the winners and recommended runners-up.

The best over-ear headphones: Back to school

Our back to school guide is here, with plenty of tech recommendations to help you get geared up for the next school year. We’ve including buying guides on everyday studying equipment like Chromebooks and iPads, as well as useful studying-from-home kit like desks and office chairs.

There are also guides on buying headphones and the best Bluetooth speakers; the best over-ear headphones can help you too, as they’re great for blocking out distractions while you study.

What are the best over-ear headphones?

The title of best over-ear headphones right now goes to the Sony WH-1000XM4. Whether it's crisp sound quality, effortlessly effective ANC or its long battery life, the WH-1000XM4 is a brilliant all-rounder that's not too expensive.

In second place is the Bose 700. This has almost all of the same qualities as the WH-1000XM4 and its noise cancellation tech is even better. However, the Bose tends to be more expensive. 

Then we have the Apple AirPods Max, a very pricey but feature-rich pair of over-ears that combines good old-fashioned sound quality with some highly advanced EQ and surround sound features.

The best over-ear headphones you can buy today

Best over-ear headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

1. Sony WH-1000XM4

The best over-ear headphones overall

Size and weight: 9.94 x 3.03 x 7.27 inches, 8.95 ounces | Battery life (rated): 30 hours (ANC on), 38 hours (ANC off) | Bluetooth range: 40 feet (12 meters) | Special features: Active noise cancellation, customizable EQ, multipoint technology

Excellent sound and noise cancellation
Plenty of features via Sony Connect Headphones app
Stellar touch controls
Call quality could be improved

The Sony WH-1000XM4 is a superlative pair of headphones. It sounds superb, coping very well with a huge range of tracks and genres, and is comfortable to wear for hours at a time. Other highlights include ambient sound control to hear what's going on around you and speak-to-chat for automatically pausing music when you speak.

And, while the ANC may not be the best in its class, Sony’s noise-cancelling still silences more than enough background noise to make enjoying the WH-1000XM4 even easier. Battery life is outstanding, too: we got 29 hours of playback from a single charge, and that was with ANC on. Switch it off in quieter places and it’ll keep going even longer.

Read our full Sony WH-1000XM4 review.

Best over-ear headphones: Bose 700

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

2. Bose 700

The best over-ear headphones for noise-cancelling

Size and weight: 8 x 6.5 x 2 inches, 8.8 ounces | Battery life (rated): 20 hours (NC on) | Bluetooth range: 30 feet (9 meters) | Special features: Adjustable active noise cancellation, customizable EQ, charging case (optional)

Adjustable ANC levels
Slick, attractive design
Excellent noise cancelling on calls and music
Expensive

Nobody does active noise-cancelling quite as well as Bose. The replacement for another top-quality set of ANC cans, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, the Bose 700 adds a slick new design, useful capacitive touch controls and even better sound quality.

What makes the ANC so great isn’t just its effectiveness, but the amount of control Bose affords you over it. Through the mobile app there are no fewer than 11 different levels to choose from: so you can leave a touch of ambient noise coming in if you want to listen for announcements or stay safe near traffic, or you can turn it up to full and silence even the kinds of noises ANC can have trouble with, like speech.

See our full Bose 700 review.

Best over-ear headphones: Apple AirPods MaxTop Pick

(Image credit: Future)

3. Apple AirPods Max

The best over-ear headphones for iPhone users

Size and weight: 7.4 x 6.6 x 3.3 inches, 13.6 ounces | Battery life (rated): 20 hours (ANC on) | Bluetooth range: 33 feet (10 meters) | Special features: ANC, Spatial Audio, audio sharing, Siri

Luxury design
Excellent noise cancellation
Spatial Audio sounds great
Very expensive

As expensive as the AirPods Max is, there’s a sense that you get what you pay for: the aluminium and mesh fabric build is plush and comfortable, while sound quality and ANC effectiveness are up there with the best.

Apple has also loaded the AirPods Max with some rather advanced features, like Adaptive EQ, which tailors the sound output according to how the AirPods Max sit on your head: frequencies are tweaked to account for the fit of the earcups and the size of your ears. There’s also Spatial Audio, a very impressive version of digital surround sound, though as this feature requires a recent iOS or Mac device to work the AirPods Max are best suited to existing Apple fans.

See our full Apple AirPods Max review.

Best over-ear headphones: Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC

(Image credit: Sennheiser)

4. Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC

Reliable, all-round ANC over-ear headphones

Size and Weight: 10.2 x 7.1 x 3.9 inches, 8.4 ounces | Battery Life (Rated): 19 hours (NC on), 25 hours (NC off) | Bluetooth Range: 30 feet (9 meters) | Special features: ANC, digital assistant support

Sennheiser sound
Attractive and comfortable design
User-friendly controls
ANC doesn’t perform well on airplanes

It shouldn't be a surprise to see audio specialist Sennheiser on our best over-ear headphones list. The HD 4.50 BTNC is a pair of headphones that perfectly exhibits the company’s ear for high sound quality. It’s relatively affordable, too, especially considering it comes with active noise-cancelling; it's a cheaper alternative to the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless.

The HD 4.50 BTNC's noise cancelling doesn’t work quite as that of the Bose 700, but for well under $200 it’s still a great deal. The comfortable, no-nonsense design and intuitive controls also help cement the Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC as an ideal pick if you want to try your first pair of over-ear ANC headphones with a limited budget.

See our full Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC review.

Best over-ear headphones: Cleer Enduro ANC

(Image credit: Future)

5. Cleer Enduro ANC

The best over-ear headphones with cheap ANC

Size and Weight: 7 x 6.6 x 3 inches, 10.6 ounces | Battery Life (Rated): 60 hours (ANC on) | Bluetooth Range: 30 feet (9 meters) | Special features: Active noise cancellation, Ambient mode, digital assistant support, Android Fast Pair 2.0, NFC pairing, EQ customization

Very good value
Class-leading battery life
Bass-rich sound
Effective ANC
ANC mics pick up wind noise
Comfort wanes over time

With exceptional battery life  and full noise cancellation, complete with an Ambient mode, the Cleer Enduro ANC is a stone-cold bargain. Sure, its ANC tech isn't on the same level of the Bose 700, but for well under $200 there aren't many pairs of over-ear headphones that offer such a complete package.

It's even got support for the high-quality aptX Adaptive Bluetooth codec, and if you instead connect using the bundled 3.5mm cable, you can listen to Hi-Res Audio as well. You can manually adjust the EQ too, using the companion app, though we liked the default, bass-heavy sound signature.

Read our full Cleer Enduro ANC review.

Best over-ear headphones: Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Carbon Edition

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

6. Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Carbon Edition

Expensive but beautiful-sounding over-ear headphones

Size and weight: 3.1 x 6.9 x 8.7 inches, 10.9 ounces | Battery life (rated): 30 hours (ANC on), 33 hours (ANC off) | Bluetooth range: 33 feet (10 meters) | Special features: ANC, Ambient mode, Soundscapes profiles

Wide and dynamic soundstage
Companion app with useful features
Lengthy battery life
Finicky connectivity
Carbon fiber design isn’t for everyone

Few over-ear headphones come as finely crafted as the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Carbon Edition. And it's not all style and no substance, either: sound quality is genuinely on par with the very best, and its ANC technology is pretty good as well.

It's expensive, costing much more than the Bose 700 or Sony WH-1000XM4, but there's definitely a sense that it's earned that price. The soundstage is strikingly wide, adding drama to the songs that need it, and while there are no EQ customization options the sound is well-balanced enough not to need them. There's also a unique and enjoyable "Soundscapes" feature that can mix in nature sounds to help you relax.

See our full Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Carbon Edition review.

Best over-ear headphones: Microsoft Surface Headphones 2

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

7. Microsoft Surface Headphones 2

The best over-ear headphones for productivity

Size: 8.03 x 7.68 x 1.89 inches | Weight: 10.22 ounces | Battery Life (Rated): 20 hours (NC on) | Bluetooth range: 800 feet (243 meters) | Digital Assistant Support: Yes

Adjustable ANC levels
Pairs with 10 devices simultaneously
Smart controls
Lower battery life than competitors
Surface Audio app needs more features

Microsoft might not be the first name in audio, but the Surface Headphones 2 is a pleasant surprise. It both sounds better and cost less than its predecessor, the original Surface Headphones, and it makes up for middling battery life with some very fast charging: we went from empty to full charge in well under an hour.

The Surface Headphones 2 might also be a good choice if you use Windows a lot. It requires a Microsoft 365 subscription, but there’s a unique voice dictation feature that uses the onboard microphones to turn your speech into text in Word or Outlook.

Read our full Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 review.

Best over-ear headphones: Jabra Elite 45h

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

8. Jabra Elite 45h

A long-lasting pair of affordable over-ear headphones

Size and weight: 7.3 x 6.1 x 1.9 inches, 2.3 ounces | Battery life (rated): 50 hours | Bluetooth range: 33 feet (10 meters) | Special features: Customizable EQ, multipoint technology, Soundscapes mode

Personalized sound via Jabra Sound+ app
Small and sophisticated on-ear design
Best-in-class battery life
No noise isolation

There are lots of good reasons to buy the Jabra Elite 45h. There’s the price, which is lower than all but a few on this list; there’s the customizable EQ; and there’s the seriously impressive 50 hours of battery life.

While this is without any kind of ANC, the Elite 45h’s excellent power management continues with its fast-charging capabilities: a mere 15 minutes of charging gave us enough juice for 10 hours of playback time. You can also connect to up to 8 different devices at a time, which helps make up for the lack of a 3.5mm port.

Best over-ear headphones: Bose QuietComfort 35 II

(Image credit: Future)

9. Bose QuietComfort 35 II

Quality Bose ANC at a lower price

Size and weight: 7.1 x 6.7 x 3.2 inches, 8.2 ounces | Battery life (rated): 20 hours (ANC on), 40 hours (ANC off) | Bluetooth range: 30 feet (9 meters) | Special features:: Active noise cancellation, dedicated digital assistant button, Music Share

Stellar noise cancellation
Crisp, wide sound
Can listen in wired mode with ANC on
Google Assistant integration could be improved

Logically, if you want a pair of Bose ANC over-ear headphones you should just buy the Bose 700. And that’s fine, but even though the QuietComfort 35 II has been replaced, it’s still a highly capable set of cans — and is much more affordable than the newer model.

This means it offers a canny route into Bose-quality noise cancellation, comfort and audio quality. It’s far from outdated, too. You still get modern features like integrated Google Assistant support, and the ANC can be toggled between High and Low settings, so you still have a degree of over how strong the silencing effect is.

See our full Bose QuietComfort 35 II review.

Best over-ear headphones: Focal Clear

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

10. Focal Clear

Wired over-ear headphones for serious audiophiles

Size and weight: 4 x 9.7 x 9.8 inches, 15.9 ounces | Battery life (rated): N/A | Bluetooth range: N/A | Special features:: Removable 3.5mm cable

Distortion-free sound
Stunning design
Excellent audio reproduction
Very expensive
Open-back design not ideal for public use

If you’re an audio purist looking for some hi-fi headphones to use at home, the Focal Clear will deliver — provided you can afford it. This ultra-premium set of headphones uses an open-backed design, which prevents pressure from building up in the earcups and adversely affecting the sound.

Like any open-back headphones, anything you listen to with the Focal Clear will be audible to those around you, and likewise there isn’t much in the way of isolation from ambient noise. That’s why it’s a pair of over-ear headphones that’s best kept at home, so you can get lost in its impeccable sound quality without any distractions.

See our full Focal Clear review.

How to choose the best over-ear headphones for you

PICKING THE BEST HEADPHONES AND EARBUDS STYLES

Take a look at Tom’s Guide’s comprehensive guides for the best headphones and earbuds you can buy, per category and price point.

·      Best Wireless Earbuds

·      Best Noise Cancelling Headphones

·      Best Cheap Wireless Earbuds

·      Best Fake AirPods

·      Best Running Headphones

·      Best Wireless Headphones

·      Best Cheap Running Headphones

·      Best Cheap Wireless Headphones 

·      Best Cheap Noise-Cancelling Headphones

·      Best Cheap Headphones

·      Best Cheap Earbuds

When shopping for headphones, you’ve already narrowed things down massively by deciding on a pair of over-ear cans specifically. But there can still be much variation in the design of individual pairs, so you should still look out for factors like the headband shape or the amount of earcup padding to judge how comfy they might be. Don’t be afraid to pass on headphones you don’t like the aesthetics of, too.

Sound quality is clearly important. You can read more about how we test this below, but you should consider whether you’d prefer a balanced sound signature or once that favors a particular part of the frequency spectrum. Electronic fans might prefer heavy bass, for example. That said, a lot of over-ear headphones have mobile apps that let you tweak the EQ to your liking.

Think about how much battery life you’ll need as well. Over-ear headphones can deliver anywhere between about 20 and 60 hours of playback so you should never need to recharge too often, though naturally longer is usually better. Keep in mind that ANC will reduce battery life when it’s turned on, as it needs to permanently power the onboard microphones.

How we test the best over-ear headphones

We thoroughly test every pair of headphones based on a variety of factors, and employ a consistent testing approach so any comparisons with other pairs are trustworthy and fair.

In this case, every pair of over-ear headphones has been used over the course of a week for 2 hours at a time. This allows the tester to both gauge the sound quality across a mix of genres and volumes, and to see how comfortable the headphones are when worn for extended periods. We’ll listen to hip-hop, rock, jazz, classical, pop and more to see how each pair performs, and will do the same with movies, podcasts and games, where applicable.

We also test the effectiveness of features like noise-cancelling in real-life situations, and will make sure manufacturer claims about battery life and Bluetooth range are accurate. Build quality, the ease of setup and any control schemes — including those involving an app — will also be judged.

We rate over-ear headphones with a 5-point system (1 = worst, 5 = best). Products that excel in one or more particular fields that's rated 4 stars or above may also receive an Editors’ Choice award.

James Archer

James joined Tom’s Guide in 2020, bringing years of experience in consumer tech and product testing. As Audio Editor, James covers headphones, speakers, soundbars and anything else that intentionally makes noise. A PC enthusiast, he also covers the occasional spot of computing and gaming news, usually relating to how hard it is to find graphics card stock.

  • ZolaIII
    Just a shot comment on your spousedly "best pick" the Sony WH-1000XM4. After recent detail measurements on ASR I can say how those are absolutely horrible (in the worst possible way) by any standards in a passive mode, ANC one partially compensate that but still not enough. They got a passing judgment there of course not deserved one (headless panther or anything else is only appropriate one).
    Reply