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The best headphones in 2021

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

The best headphones are just that: top contenders from the best over-ear headphones and the best wireless earbuds coming together into a single collection of the absolute finest wearable audio devices on the planet.

Expect a mix of luxurious cans complete with active noise cancellation (ANC), highly portable earbuds, water-resistant headphones suitable for working out and just about anything between: provided it’s good enough to ace our testing. We’ve also been sure to cover a range of budgets, so you don’t need to get priced out of enjoying genuine quality. Whatever your needs, here are the best headphones you can buy right now.

What are the best headphones?

Sitting in the No. 1 spot on our best headphones list is the Sony WH-1000XM4, the latest model in the Sony Mark series. These headphones blend champion sound and elite noise cancellation into a luxe, comfy design. Sony’s companion app opens the door for plenty of customization (e.g. ambient listening, controls, sound) and the headphones are compatible with hi-res streaming services to enjoy the highest level of sound quality possible.

Coming in a close second is the Bose 700, which have unrivalled ANC performance and intuitive tech features. Sound is crystal clear when listening to music and taking calls. We also love the svelte, contemporary design with comforting ear pads and touch controls. 

The Apple AirPods Max come in third – they’re pricey, but stellar sound quality and features mean they’re worth the investment, especially if you’re an iPhone user. The Jabra Elite 75t Active currently stand as our favorite wireless earbuds, thanks to their durable aesthetic, long battery life and energetic sound. 

The best headphones you can buy today

Best headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4

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1. Sony WH-1000XM4

The best headphones overall

Size and weight: 10 x 3.03 x 7.27 inches, 9 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
Multiple ways to connect the headphones
Call quality could be improved

If you’re really set on owning the absolute best headphones that money can buy, we advise spending your Christmas cash on the WH-1000XM4. Not only are Sony’s flagship headphones the top noise-cancelling model at the moment, but they outperform every competitor in numerous categories, including sound and special features. The company’s loud and dynamic soundstage delivers plenty of boom and detail to give songs full-bodied presence. Listeners can also play around with the Sony Headphones Connect app to personalize audio by selecting from several well-engineered presets or by manually adjusting the EQ to their liking.

The WH-1000XM4’s active noise cancellation is right up there with the Bose 700’s, and the touch controls and battery life (30 hours with ANC on) are superior. Not much has changed in terms of design, though the premium craftsmanship certainly gives these cans a luxe look that match their high price.

Read our full Sony WH-1000XM4 review.

Best headphones: Bose 700

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2. Bose 700

The best active noise-cancelling headphones

Size and weight: 8 x 6.5 x 2 inches, 9 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
Smart, intuitive buttons and touch controls
Expensive

The Bose 700 are the runner-up for best headphones and have a sexy new design and cool features that come with its high price tag. They’re equipped with a whopping eight microphones, six of which are employed to deliver Bose’s champion noise cancelation when listening to music or talking on the phone. It offers up to 11 levels of adjustable ANC that work equally well to neutralize noise across different frequencies. Bose even made improvements to sound quality, as the 700s produce clean, balanced audio for crisp highs and solid bass; lows are felt more when at max ANC level.

Despite sharing the same battery life as its predecessor, the QC35 II, it still holds up strong at 20 hours with ANC on. Smart assistant integration, touch controls, and improved multipoint technology also make these some of the most intuitive noise-cancellers for commuters and music lovers alike. 

Read our full Bose 700 review.

Best headphones: Apple AirPods MaxTop Pick

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3. Apple AirPods Max

The best Apple headphones, money no object

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
Expensive

It's a shame the AirPods Max are so much more expensive than their noise-cancelling rivals, but once you try them it's hard to take them off. The plush design and comfortable fit present an immediate feeling of luxury, and this only grows once you start playing music.

The active noise cancelling works brilliantly, general sound quality is crisp and impactful, and the 3D Spatial Audio feature is a game-changer if you’ve never used it. This uses head-tracking tech to create a surround sound effect, which can give movie playback a definite edge compared to other headphones. Battery life is respectable too, with Apple’s 20-hour estimate tracking well with our own testing.

Read our full Apple AirPods Max review.

Best headphones: Jabra Elite 75t Active

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4. Jabra Elite Active 75t

The best wireless earbuds

Size and weight: 0.8 x 0.7 x 0.6 inches, 0.2 ounces (per bud) | Battery life (rated): 7.5 hours; 28 hours (with charging case) | Bluetooth range: 30 feet (10 meters) | Special features: Active and passive noise cancellation, customizable EQ, fully waterproof

Loud, full sound
Sleek, waterproof design
Active and passive noise cancellation
Strong battery life with fast charging
Can get extremely loud at max volume

Jabra found a way to improve our favorite wireless earbuds, packing a hell of a lot of performance into a tinier waterproof design. The Elite Active 75t boasts better battery life and sound than the AirPods Pro, plus its charging case holds more portable power and feels sturdier. Fitness fanatics will love the reliable comfort and fit they provide; sweat absorption is one of many unsung features on here.

Any areas where the Elite 75t fell short like call quality and digital assistant support have been improved as well. The buds produce consistently clean detail and warm, lively instrumentals and vocals that can also be tweaked through special features (e.g. built-in EQ, music presets) in the companion app for personalized sound. Best of all, the new over-the-air ANC update brings active noise cancellation to the earbuds and does a surprisingly good job of blocking out ambient sound. Keep in mind that even with ANC turned off, the Elite Active 75t offers amazing passive noise cancellation. If you wanted grander noise-cancelling results, we do recommend the all-new Elite 85t, which boasts its own ANC chip and delivers great noise neutralization and sound.

Read our full Jabra Elite Active 75t review.

AirPods Pro

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5. Apple AirPods Pro

The undisputed king of AirPods

Size and weight: 2.4 x 1.7 x 0.9 inches, 8.8 ounces | Battery life (rated): 4.5 hours (NC on), 24 hours (with charging case) | Bluetooth range: 800 feet | Special features: Active noise cancellation, “Hey Siri” support, spatial audio

Modern, functional design
Great active noise cancelling
Comfortable semi-custom fit
Adaptive sound
Battery life could be longer

A year on store shelves and Apple’s noise-cancelling earbuds are still arguably the top model in their class. The level of engineering demonstrated on the AirPods Pro cannot be overstated. Underneath the smaller, redesigned casing are six sensors, a powerful three-mic array, and Apple’s renowned H1 chip that boosts performance on all fronts. Audio is significantly improved from the AirPods 2, with the buds producing clean, balanced sound to enjoy music, podcasts, and movies peacefully. Adding to its sonic capabilities are new features like spatial audio that were introduced with iOS 14 and create a theater-like soundscape that makes watching movies even more immersive.

ANC is also surprisingly effective, as the outward- and inward-facing mics manage to neutralize a large amount of ambient sound; low-humming noises and neighborly chatter will go completely silent. The inclusion of ear tips makes a world of difference, insulating sound, while providing a comfy and customized fit, which can also be optimized for better audio output through the all-new Ear Tip Fit Test. Hands-free Siri just keeps getting better and better, while cool features like Announce Messages, Audio Sharing, and auto switching showcase the AirPods Pro’s multifunctional talents.

Read our full Apple AirPods Pro review.

Best headphones: Master & Dynamic MW08

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6. Master & Dynamic MW08

Premium ANC earbuds with top-quality audio

Size and weight: 0.8 x 0.8 x 1 inches, 0.2 ounces (per bud) | Battery life (rated): 10 hours (ANC on), 12 hours (ANC off), 42 hours (with charging case) | Bluetooth range: 30 feet (9 meters) | Special features: Hybrid active noise cancellation, two-level ambient listening mode, Bluetooth 5.2, customizable fit, smart controls

Stylish, durable design
Great sound
Active noise cancellation
Decent battery life
Expensive

Master & Dynamic's MW08 joins the AirPods Pro among the best headphones with a true wireless earbud form factor. The MW08 is more expensive than Apple's pair of buds, which is saying something, but you won't be worrying about the price too much when you're enjoying deep, impactful sound with adjustable active noise cancellation.

The MW08 scores high on battery life and comfort, too, though it's the design sensibility that really stands out. The D-shaped outer panels look great, all polished ceramic and precisely machined stainless steel, while IPX5 water resistance keeps rain and sweat at bay. You even get real buttons as the onboard controls, instead of unreliable touch sensors.

Read our full Master & Dynamic MW08 review.

Best headphones: Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Carbon Edition

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7. Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Carbon Edition

The best headphones for sheer craftsmanship

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

What’s immediately striking about the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Carbon Edition is just how well-made they are. This is a pair of headphones you’ll want to show off, and even if the all-black coloring of the Carbon Edition isn’t to everyone’s taste, you can get the standard PX7 in silver as well.

They’re expensive, but as with the Apple AirPods Max you’re paying for quality. Bowers & Wilkins has made sure the PX7 sound even better than the look and feel, with a dramatically wide soundstage and intricate detailing. We also love the Soundscapes feature, which can help you relax by mixing in gentle nature sounds to your music playback.

Read our full Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Carbon Edition review.

Best headphones: Sennheiser CX 400BT

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8. Sennheiser CX 400BT

Great-sounding, well-priced earbuds

Size: 1 x 0.9 x 0.9 inches | Weight: 0.2 ounces (per bud) | Battery Life (Rated): 7 hours, 20 hours (with charging case) | Bluetooth range: 35 feet (10 meters) | Special features: Bluetooth 5.1, customizable touch controls, source switching, EQ controls, replaceable tips, voice assistant support, customizable EQ

Great sound
Well-featured app
Decent battery life
Very comfortable
No ANC
No water resistance or sweat-proofing

Other than lacking ANC, the Sennheiser CX 400BT deliver the impeccable sound quality of a much more expensive pair of wireless earbuds. Literally: they have the same drivers and basic design as the $250 Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2, so if you want beautifully balanced, crystal-clear audio without paying premium-tier money, these are as good a choice as any.

You can also fully adjust the EQ via the app, as well as customize the touch controls. Battery life is respectable rather than outright brilliant, but the CX 400BT will last you a fair few hours, and you probably won't want to take them out in that time as they're so light and comfortable.

Read our full Sennheiser CX 400BT review.

Best wireless earbuds: Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro

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9. Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro

Feature-packed ANC wireless buds

Size: 0.8 x 0.7 x 0.8 inches | Weight: 0.2 ounces (per bud) | Battery Life (Rated): 5 hours (ANC on), 8 hours (ANC off), 18 hours (with charging case and ANC on), 28 hours (with charging case and ANC off) | Bluetooth range: 30 feet (9 meters) | Special features: Adjustable ANC, Ambient mode, Voice Detect, 360 Audio, quick source switching, IPX7 waterproofing

Improved design
Full waterproofing
High call quality
Lots of features
Some features only work with Samsung Galaxy smartphones
ANC improved, but still not the best

The Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro sound great. Not that’s out of the way, you can focus on the huge array of tricks and tools that Samsung has squeezed into these small yet stylish true wireless earbuds.

Besides some much-improved ANC, there’s a transparency mode with “Voice Detect” tech to automatically kick in when you start a conversation. Then there’s IPX7 waterproofing, enough to survive a dunk in the bath, as well as an adjustable EQ and Bixby support. You’ll need a Samsung Galaxy smartphone with OneUI 3.1 to access some of the even more advanced features, like 360 Audio: Samsung’s take on Apple’s Spatial Audio surround sound mode.

Read our full Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro review.

Best headphones: Jabra Elite 45h

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10. Jabra Elite 45h

The best headphones under $100

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
Excellent comfort and connectivity
Small and sophisticated on-ear design
Best-in-class battery life
No noise isolation

The cheap headphones category has seen an influx in high-quality models released over the past year, and the Jabra Elite 45h is the one that has impressed us most. At under $100, these on-ears boast a spec sheet that you would find on a luxury pair of wireless cans. Let’s start with the 50 hours of playtime, which is the second highest in the category (the Marshall Major IV beats it with 80 hours) and is more than double the battery life of noise-cancelling goliaths like the Bose 700. Even the quick-charging technology on these headphones doesn’t disappoint, generating 10 hours of use on a 15-minute charge. 

Audio is entertaining and can be personalized on the Sound+ app, though bear in mind that the headphones leak sound at a high level. There isn’t an aux port either, but with connectivity being flawless and the ability to pair up to 8 devices, you won’t miss it.

Read our Best Cheap Wireless Headphones Under $100 page.

Bose QuietComfort Earbuds

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11. Bose QuietComfort Earbuds

The best earbuds for noise-cancelling

Size and weight: 1.5 x 1 x 1 inches, 0.3 ounces (per bud) | Battery life (rated): 6 hours, 18 hours (with charging case | Bluetooth range: 30 feet (9 meters) | Special features: Adjustable ANC, Bluetooth 5.1, Self Voice mode for enhancing calling

Category-leading ANC
Well-balanced sound
Excellent call quality
Bluetooth 5.1
Battery life could be better

No pair of wireless earbuds can match the QuietComfort Earbuds’ ANC performance. None. How Bose managed to engineer these buds with the same functionality and technology as the Bose 700 is unbelievable, giving listeners elite noise cancellation that blocks out nearly 90 percent of external sounds, and that’s with half the mics of its over-ear counterpart. Bose even got experimental with its ANC technology, blending the feature with its Transparency mode to produce more accurate ambient listening. You can expect the same warm, rich sound as the 700 as well, and the addition of Bluetooth 5.1 increases wireless performance so you can enjoy stronger connectivity across all devices. Oh yes, these are also the best wireless earbuds for making phone calls.

Where the QC Earbuds are lacking is in both design (these are some bulky, heavy buds) and battery life; 6 hours with ANC on looks good on paper, but it’s really 30 to 45 minutes shorter than what the spec sheet reads.

Read our full Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review.

Best headphones: Beats Powerbeats Pro

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12. Beats Powerbeats Pro

Brilliant running and sports earbuds

Size and weight: 4.7 x 1.6 x 5.5 inches, 0.8 ounces | Battery life (rated): 9 hours, 24 hours (with charging case) | Bluetooth range: 50 feet (15.2 meters) | Special features:: Automatic switching, Fast Fuel charging, sweat resistance

Lengthy battery
Versatile sound
Secure, water-resistant design
Bulky charging case
No companion app

Should you want a sportier AirPods alternative that offers the same seamless iOS integration, along with better overall fit and sound, then give your undivided attention to the Powerbeats Pro. These wire-free, sweat-resistant earbuds hook around the ear to deliver the best on-ear stability in the true wireless category. They also have Apple's H1 chip under the hood, granting you 50% more talk time, instantaneous connectivity to iDevices, “Hey Siri” functionality, and access to many of the cool features found on the AirPods Pro. This includes auto switching and Audio Sharing to stream music from an iPhone to two pairs of AirPods or Beats headphones. 

However, the Powerbeats Pro’s biggest selling point is battery life, which is rated at 9 hours on a single charge and up to 24 hours with the bulky charging case. Those are marathon numbers right there.

Read our full Beats PowerBeats Pro review.

How to choose the best headphones for you

Many factors come into play when shopping for the best headphones, but your decision should always come down to intended use. That being said, you’ll want to take the following categories into account before settling on any pair.

Design

Design usually takes precedence over everything. Are you looking for in-ear, on-ear or over-ear headphones? Wired or wireless? Luxury or sporty? Since these are headphones that will be used for multiple occasions, you want something that suits your lifestyle. Whatever type you choose, make sure the headphones are well built, easy to carry, and comfy to wear for about 1 to 2 hours daily.

Audio quality

Sound is the second box to check off. Different models offer different sound, and since you’re buying a pair to enjoy music individually, it’s important to find headphones that match your sound preference, be it heavy bass or distinctively clear to where you can hear the littlest nuances in recordings. Some models offer personalized sound via companion app, which allows the user to create their own profiles and tweak EQ levels to their hearing.

Battery life

Most premium wireless headphones are rated at 15 hours and higher. Wireless earbuds can last about 5 to 10 hours and offer extended playtime with their bundled charging cases – always make sure one is included.

Accessories

Accessories are just as important, especially for wired models (the manufacturer must include the aux cable). Any headphones that come with a carrying case, charging cable, user guide, and extra ear cups or tips are solid purchases.

How we test the best headphones

THE BEST HEADPHONES AND EARBUDS

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 Over-Ear 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

From the design and comfort to the sound quality and overall value, we evaluate several areas when picking the best headphones. In addition, Tom’s Guide employs a rigorous review process that compares products with similar fit, features, and pricing.

Each pair of headphones and earbuds is worn over the course of a week for 2 hours at a time. During this time, the staff evaluates comfort and fit, ease of use, and audio. We test sound by listening to predetermined sample tracks across different music genres, including hip-hop, rock, jazz, classical, and pop. Volume, clarity, and fullness is evaluated too. Movies, podcasts, and video games are considered, when necessary.

Regarding features, we test the effectiveness of active noise cancelling, Bluetooth range, and battery life for wireless and wired headphones. Additional features are also tested for app-enabled headphones, along with ease of setup. Build quality, controls, and fit are taken into serious consideration for wired headphones. Fitness-focused headphones go through vigorous workouts, as we analyze fit while exercising and how well they handle ambient sound in loud environments.

Once testing is complete, we rate headphones based on our five-point system (1 = worst, 5 = best). If a product is truly exemplary, it's awarded an Editors' Choice.

  • Eric_31
    So essentially this article can be summed up with "all the headphones listed have great noise cancelling and great sound." I would have appreciated at least a bit of effort in comparison. The only point of comparison is the price and the seemingly arbitrary and unexplained rating. This article was absolutely no help at all.
    Reply
  • LizzyHarris
    Great, thanks! :)
    Reply
  • Azhrei21
    @Peter_133 This list is for earbuds you would workout or run or hike or mow (etc etc etc) with... not actual headphones you wouldn't take out of the house genius...
    Reply