Tom's Guide Awards 2021: The top headphones and audio products this year

Tom's Guide Awards 2021: Audio
(Image credit: Sony)

The past 12 months have been great for audio tech and headphones. Not only have we seen the arrival of the AirPods Max and Sony WH-1000XM4, two stellar pairs of over-ear headphones, but the wireless earbuds revolution has continued apace, giving us better quality at increasingly lower prices. 

What’s more, exciting new audio technologies have arrived and older ones have (finally) gained mainstream acceptance. Streaming has taken a giant leap forward, for instance, with Apple Music getting both spatial audio and lossless formats. We’ve already become accustomed to carrying around millions of songs in our pockets, but we now have the tech to really do them justice. In many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a music fan.

Best headphones overall: Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony WH-1000XM4

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The Sony WH-1000XM4 delivers everything you could want from a pair of headphones, and at a lower price than its biggest over-ear rivals. It sounds even better than the preceding Sony WH-1000XM3, with highly effective active noise cancellation. Plus, its long battery life and comfortable design makes the WH-1000XM4 one pair of headphones you won’t want to take off.

Highly Recommended: Bose 700
The Bose 700 is an excellent pair of over-ear headphones in general, but where it truly excels is ANC — you won’t find better noise neutralization elsewhere.

Highly Recommended: Jabra Elite 85t
From its classy design to its commanding sound signature, the Jabra Elite 85t is a premium set of wireless earbuds through and through.

Best wireless earbuds: Jabra Elite 85t

Jabra Elite 85t

(Image credit: Jabra)

The Jabra Elite 85t continues a line of fantastic earbuds from the Danish brand. Its relatively huge 12mm drivers can pump out some of the best sound you’ll hear from the true wireless form factor, and its active noise cancellation is equally impressive. Credit is also due to the Jabra Sound+ app, which is packed with personalization features.

Highly Recommended: Master & Dynamic MW08
Earbuds as finely-crafted as the MW08 are hard to come by, and the bass-rich sound ensures this pair of buds isn’t just a looker.

Highly Recommended: Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus
Not content with beating the Apple AirPods on audio performance and battery life, the Melomania 1 Plus is more affordable, too.

Best noise-cancelling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony WH-1000XM4

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony’s noise cancellation tech is both effective and customizable: the WH-1000XM4’s NC Optimizer can even measure your ear shape, so that the effect becomes tailored to you specifically. The WH-1000XM4’s battery also lasts a lot longer than many of its noise-cancelling competitors, helping to counteract the usual downside of ANC sapping the charge faster.

Highly Recommended: Bose 700
If you only want the most effective ANC on the market, nothing beats the Bose 700 for cutting out those distracting ambient sounds.

Highly Recommended: Cleer Enduro ANC
The Enduro ANC is an outstanding budget option, offering both full ANC and the single best battery performance we’ve seen from a pair of headphones.

Best sports headphones: JLab Epic Air Sport ANC

JLAB Epic Air Sport ANC review

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

It may be cheap, but the JLab Epic Air Sport ANC has serious workout/running headphone credentials. And not just design traits like the secure-fitting ear hooks or rugged water resistance, but also surprisingly refined audio and superb battery life. Even the companion app is as good as they come, offering full customization of both the EQ and the onboard touch controls.

Highly Recommended: Bose Sport Earbuds
This cheaper, sportier cousin to the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds stays secure in your ears while delivering bass-rich music to help keep you motivated.

Highly Recommended: Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro
While not a pair of sports earbuds per se, the added waterproofing and ergonomic fit of the Galaxy Buds Pro make it a good workout companion.

Best over-ear headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony WH-1000XM4 white

(Image credit: Sony)

The old Sony WH-1000XM3 was already a formidable pair of over-ears, and the newest model practically perfects the formula. Sound quality, ANC, comfort and battery life are all first-rate, and the WH-1000XM4 is an ideal vessel for Sony’s immersive 360 Reality Audio format. Best of all, it’s cheaper than similarly high-specced headphones.

Highly Recommended: Cleer Enduro ANC
The Enduro ANC has emerged as one of the biggest over-ear bargains, with good sound, ANC (with an ambient mode) and world-beating battery life for under $150.

Highly Recommended: Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Carbon Edition
The stellar craftsmanship of the PX7 Carbon Edition is something to behold, and its spacious, dramatic soundstage impresses even more.

Most innovative headphones: Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro

(Image credit: Samsung)

While the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro covers the essentials well, it’s also crammed with thoughtful bonus features. These range from automatic switching between different Samsung Galaxy phones and tablets to Samsung 360 Audio, a spatial audio-esque 3D playback mode that remains exclusive to the Galaxy Buds Pro.

Highly Recommended: Earin A-3
The world’s smallest set of wireless earbuds is both charming and clever, especially in its accelerometer-enabled touch controls.

Highly Recommended: Apple AirPods Max
With its mesh headband and replaceable memory foam earcups, the AirPods Max cuts a unique figure, even before you get into its extensive feature set. 

Best headphones design: Apple AirPods Max

AirPods Max

(Image credit: Future)

It’s expensive, but few pairs of headphones have as luxurious a design as the Apple AirPods Max. The aluminum earcups and mesh headband provide eye-catching looks without compromising on comfort, and the Digital Crown — borrowed from the Apple Watch — works very well as an alternative to buttons or touch controls.

Highly Recommended: Master & Dynamic MW08
A handsome mix of aluminum, stainless steel and ceramic, the MW08 earbuds look as good as they sound.

Highly Recommended: Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Carbon Edition
Bowers & Wilkins gave the existing PX7 a striking all-black paint job for the Carbon Edition, though it’s the overall build quality that really stands out.

Best headphones for battery life: Cleer Enduro ANC

Cleer Enduro ANC

(Image credit: Future)

We got more than 50 hours of noise-cancelled playback from the Cleer Enduro ANC, an almost unbelievable feat of endurance given that active noise cancellation puts extra strain on the battery. This is more than double what you’d get from the Bose 700 or AirPods Max, even if you were frugal with them.

Highly Recommended: Urbanista Miami
Like Cleer’s cans, the Miami is a very long-lasting set of ANC headphones at an affordable price: we got nearly 47 hours in our testing.

Highly Recommended: JLab Epic Air Sport ANC
While its battery-reporting figures can be sketchy, by providing 9.5 hours of noise-cancelled playback the Epic Air Sport ANC’s performance is beyond question.

Best smart speaker for music: Google Nest Audio

Google Nest Audio

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

As the name implies, the Google Nest Audio is more closely focused on music playback than previous Google Home and Nest devices. As such, it’s the best-sounding Nest speaker yet. Bass is punchy without lacking control, and there’s enough detail on show to give complex recordings a sense of layering and texture. You can also pair two Nest Audios together, for true stereo sound.

Highly Recommended: Sonos Roam
Sonos speakers have a deserved reputation for sonic richness, and for all its battery-powered portability, the Sonos Roam is no exception.

Highly Recommended: Amazon Echo (4th gen)
The latest Echo is Amazon’s best-sounding Alexa speaker since the Echo Studio — so naturally, it’s a solid lower-price alternative.

Best soundbar: Creative Stage V2

Creative Stage V2

(Image credit: Future)

The Creative Stage V2 is a budget soundbar, but you won’t know just from listening to it. With a dedicated subwoofer backing up the main bar, the Stage V2 delivers crisp, clear audio that can gain some extra width through the Surround mode. It’s also particularly easy to set up and use, so makes an excellent choice for anyone upgrading from their integrated TV speakers for the first time.

Highly Recommended: JBL Bar 5.0 MultiBeam
The JBL Bar 5.0 MultiBeam is a space-saver’s best friend, using beamforming tech to simulate surround sound from a single device.

Highly Recommended: Vizio M-Series M512a-H6
If you want a true Dolby Atmos experience, the M-Series M512a-H6 has everything you need — including upfiring speakers and a pair of satellites — at a reasonable price.

Tom's Guide Staff

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  • SpeleoFool
    It's unfortunate that the audio market is so segmented between high-volume consumer products and high-quality "audiophile" products. Audio quality has taken a back seat to convenience for a generation, and now lists like this one do little more than pander to big brands that shovel things like wireless connectivity and active noise cancellation onto us like they're the only things that matter. Meanwhile, Koss Porta Pros have been around since 1984 and at ~$30 sound better than literally every audio product stocked at my local big box electronics store. It's not necessarily expensive to have truly good audio quality, but it is difficult because the opportunities to personally experience good audio products are so scarce (and those who don't know, don't look, creating a Catch-22 that's holding back a potential revolution in mainstream audio quality).

    For what it's worth, one of the actually most interesting audio products of 2021 is the MEST MkII earphone by a relatively obscure Chinese company called Unique Melody. UM integrated a bone conduction driver into the original MEST, then expanded that to a dual-sided, full-range bone conductor in this year's MkII. There is an acclimation period, of sorts--it seems to take a few hours (give-or-take) for your brain to figure out how to correlate the transmissive sound of the bone conductor with the traditional air-movement sound from the other drivers (dynamic driver for bass, BAs for mids and treble, and electrostatic transducers for ultra-highs). Once that correlation happens (what some are calling the "MEST click"), you'll perceive an incredibly vivid, focused, 3D soundstage unlike anything that "traditional" IEMs or headphones can do. It's a truly brand new type of listening experience that is utterly compelling.

    For $1800 you can get a custom MkII--one with a 3D printed shell modeled after your own anatomy. Customs are not unique to MEST, but they are uniquely synergistic--a custom form factor provides perfect contact between MEST's shell and your ear, optimizing the bone conductor performance and ensuring fit and performance is totally consistent. Customs also eliminate the requirement for eartips, allowing for longer listening sessions because the IEMs just kind of float in place instead of applying lateral pressure to your ear canal to wedge themselves in place.

    Obviously, $1800 is serious money; I'd call it out of line with what's presented here, but with AirPods Max breaking the $500 mark, it's really not inappropriate to explore options at any price point, is it? Besides, when I see a list of "Top" headphones and audio products, it pains me that the products most focused on delivering the best possible sound quality are nowhere to be found.