Great-sounding headphones that are comfortable to wear will be a priority for most – our independent tests uncover the pairs of all types that excel at this.
But your choice will also be heavily influenced by personal preference on style and features. The first thing to think about is the type of fit you prefer. Broadly speaking, there are three main categories: in-ear, on-ear and over-ear. Within each fit type, you’ll also have a choice of wired or wireless pairs.
Meanwhile, some headphones have a noise-cancelling feature, which blocks out external noises such as plane or train hum, making this a popular option for frequent travellers.
Read on to find out more about the pros and cons of different types of headphone.
To summarise the three types briefly:
Over-ear headphones (also known as 'circumaural' headphones) have earcups that fully surround your ears.
On-ear headphones (also known as 'supra-aural' headphones) rest on top of your ears. Their earcups are more compact, but the direct pressure on your ears can make them less comfortable for long listening sessions.
In-ear headphones are much smaller, fitting inside your ear. Their earpieces can have two different designs:
The graphic below shows the main types:
Headphones that have ditched the traditional tangle-prone wires are becoming increasingly popular. You can get wireless versions of all three types of headphones.
Wireless in-ear headphones, and in particular wireless earbuds such as the , are the most popular style. While some ‘wireless’ in-ear headphones still have wires connecting the earpieces, truly wireless headphones have none. Their small batteries are recharged by popping the earbuds into a compact charging case.
Wireless headphones use a Bluetooth wireless connection to your device. They’re now the most popular style, and most of the models we test are now wireless, but you do need to charge them regularly and their rechargeable batteries will lose their ability to charge completely after a few years.
If you mostly use your headphones at home where the wires won’t get in the way so much, then a wired pair might be better.
In-ear wireless headphones come in two main designs:
The graphic below gives examples of these two types:
These have small earpieces that rest inside your outer ear.
Pros: Compact, lightweight and easy to carry around with you; many come with different sizes of flexible eartip to provide the best fit.
Cons: Some find in-ear headphones hard to fit comfortably; the earbuds are close to your ears, so you need to take more care to listen at a safe volume to protect your hearing.
These have earcups that rest on your ears that are joined by a headband.
Pros: Lighter and more compact than over-ear models. Easy to take on and off.
Cons: Pressure exerted on ears can be uncomfortable for long listening sessions.
These are the largest type, with earcups that surround and ‘cup’ your ears rather than sitting on top of them.
Pros: Can provide the best sound quality and comfort; many have active noise cancelling, which cuts down on background noise and means you can listen comfortably at lower volumes.
Cons: Often bulky and can cost more than other styles.
Most on-ear and over-ear headphones have what’s known as a closed-back design. This means they’re designed not to leak sound to your surroundings.
Some pairs – often marketed to audiophiles – have an open-backed design. Some say these can produce a more natural, airy sound than closed headphones, but they tend to leak a lot more noise, so are only suitable for home use. Many headphones are open-back, for example.
There are three main ways headphones are used, and you should look for a pair that will best suit your lifestyle.
You can pick up a new set of headphones for less than £10, but these rarely impress. Generally, more expensive models are made from higher-quality materials, which have the potential to sound better and last longer.
However, expensive components don't protect you from poor design as we've uncovered Don't Buy models that cost more than £200. The good news, though, is we’ve found great value headphones that cost less than £50, so whatever your budget there are some good options.
As well as making the key decisions around type of headphone, and whether you want a wired or wireless pair, there are features to look out for that would suit different types of use.
Active noise cancelling is a technology offered on higher-end headphones that helps stop noisy surroundings disturbing your listening. While many pairs block out outside noise to a degree, active noise cancelling goes a step further. These headphones emit harmless signals that cancel out background noise.
They’re most desirable for commuters and frequent fliers and are most effective with low frequency sounds like plane engines; the best pairs mean you’ll hardly be able to hear these unwanted sounds at all. This is good for your hearing, as it means you don’t need to turn up the volume to drown out the sounds. However, it can often add £100 or more to the price of your headphones.
Most of the time you’ll want to prioritise hearing music as clearly as possible, but there may be times when you want to dial down the volume to hear your surroundings more clearly.
Most wireless headphones have an ‘ambient’ mode that you can toggle to let in more of the sound around you without stopping the music or taking off your headphones. Each manufacturer has a different name for this mode – some call it ‘Transparency mode’, for example.
In-ear headphones are the best type for exercise as they're lightweight, and many prefer wireless pairs as there are no cables to get in the way.
Truly wireless headphones are becoming increasingly popular. However, some people don’t find them secure enough and prefer a semi-wireless pair with a wire running between the earpieces.
Some manufacturers make headphones that are specifically designed for sport, with additional features to help keep them in place, such as in-ear models with a narrow, but solid, neckband or ear clips.
For some sports, such as running, you could also consider bone conduction headphones (see below), since they allow you to be more aware of what’s going on around you.
Bone conduction headphones tend to be wireless pairs. They don’t sit over or in your ears like other headphones, but instead slightly in front of them. Sound-wave vibrations made by the headphones travel to your inner ear through the bones of your skull. Some hearing aids employ similar technology.
Because there’s nothing blocking your ears, this lets you hear surrounding noise more clearly. This can be particularly useful for outdoor exercise such as running. In some cases, they can also be useful for those with impaired hearing as they transmit vibrations directly to your cochlea.
Many headphones now claim some water resistance. While in most cases this won’t mean they’re fully waterproof – you can’t wear them while swimming, for example – it’s nice to know that a pair won’t conk out if you drop the headphones in a puddle or go for a run in the rain.
Almost all headphones now have built-in microphones, which allow you to take phone calls and talk to the voice assistant on your connected device. We assess the phone call quality of all headphones, both inside and outside and in quiet and loud environments, so you know whether you’re buying a pair that will let you easily have a phone conversation, even on a noisy street.
Excluding most budget models, many wireless headphones now come with accompanying apps. These allow you to tweak the headphones’ settings.
Commonly they include a sound equaliser, allowing you to adjust levels of treble and bass to your personal tastes. Some provide additional settings, such as customising what the headphone buttons do, adjusting noise cancelling settings or updating the headphones’ software.
Most headphones allow you to access the voice assistant available on your connected device – this is Siri on Apple devices and Google Assistant on Android. Some also support other voice assistants such as Alexa, Samsung’s Bixby and Microsoft’s Cortana. Usually you hold down a button on the headphones to access the voice assistant, saving you the need to dig out your phone.
Most headphones now are wireless, connecting to your devices via a Bluetooth wireless connection. They’re typically designed for use with phones or tablets, although they should connect to other devices that support Bluetooth, such as the latest TVs and laptops (button controls on the headphones and customised settings may not operate with these other devices).
The exception is dedicated TV headphones with docks, which instead of Bluetooth use their own bespoke wireless connection between the headphones and the base station. The base station has a wired connection to your TV – for more, see our . Some TV headphones also offer Bluetooth, which allows them to connect to other devices as well.
Most brands design their headphones to work with both Apple iOS devices (such as iPhones and iPads) and Android devices (such as Samsung Galaxy phones). However, while i’s likely you’ll be able to play sound with any device, some features may not work with every phone or tablet, particularly customising the headphones’ settings.
This means that Apple headphones work best with Apple devices, and Huawei and Samsung headphones tend to work best with Android devices.
If you're looking to get the most out of your music, you'll need headphones that not only sound great, but are also comfortable to wear and built to last. Our tests assess:
Sony is the biggest headphones manufacturer, with the widest range of models at all price points, and Sennheiser takes a similar approach.
Apple, Beats, Bose and Samsung are the most popular premium-priced brands. Huawei offers both premium and mid-priced models, while JBL is a mid-priced brand.
At the budget end are brands such as Anker, JVC, Kitsound, Mpow and Skullcandy.
However, the headphone market is huge, with an enormous number of less-well-known brands to choose from too. Many smartphone manufacturers make headphones designed for maximum compatibility with their own devices, and there are lots of specialist hi-fi audio brands as well.
We would recommend considering what features you’re looking for, and then seeing which brands offer the features you want and the price you’re after.
If you’ve found a pair of headphones you love, you certainly don’t want them to break after a couple of months. You won’t be surprised to hear that very cheap headphones often don’t last as long as more expensive models.
Wireless headphones avoid common issues with wear and tear over wired pairs. However, all headphones will degrade over time, even costly models.
If you’re hoping your headphones will last the best part of a decade, you’ll need to choose a wired pair. The batteries in wireless headphones are unlikely to keep going for that long.
It's rarely possible to replace headphone batteries yourself, and only a handful of manufacturers offer battery replacement schemes, which can be costly. So while it’s not as good for the environment, many will simply buy a new pair when battery life deteriorates too much.