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Technology.

24 June 2021

How to buy the best headphones

Upgrading to a good-quality pair of headphones makes a real difference when listening to music. We explain how to find the perfect pair for you and highlight our pick of the best headphones we've tested.
Oliver Trebilcock
How to buy the best headphones

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.

Types of headphones: in-ear, on-ear and over-ear

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:

  • Soft-tipped earpieces, such as the Sony WF-1000XM3s: Most in-ear headphones are this type. These typically come with several different sizes of flexible eartip that you can swap out to the size that best fits. This means they form an acoustic seal so less sound from your surroundings impinges on your listening, and less sound from the headphones leaks out.
  • Hard plastic earbuds, such as the Apple AirPods: These are simpler and easier to fit as you don’t have to fiddle around swapping tips, but they may not be the perfect size for your ears. They tend to let in more background noise, potentially forcing you to up the volume higher than ideal, Also, more sound leaks out. As a result, aside from the AirPods, most other pairs with this design are extremely cheap pairs.

 The graphic below shows the main types:

Headphone types

Wireless headphones

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 Apple AirPods, 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.

Should I buy wired or wireless headphones?

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.

For more on deciding which type to go for, see our wired vs wireless headphones guide.

In-ear wireless headphones come in two main designs:

  • Wireless earbuds: These are the most popular type, with no wire between the earpieces.
  • Other in-ear wireless headphones: Here the earpieces are physically linked together. This could be by various methods, such as a simple wire connecting the two, or the earpieces being connected to a flexible or rigid neckband.

The graphic below gives examples of these two types:

Truly wireless and other in-ear wireless headphones

Video: how to buy the best headphones

Watch our video to help you decide which headphones are right for you.

What headphone type is best for you?

In-ear headphones

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.

Our guide on how to protect your hearing has more advice on getting the volume levels right.

For the top-scoring in-ear pairs in our lab tests, see our best in-ear headphones guide.

On-ear headphones

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.

Over-ear headphones

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.

On and over-ear headphones: open vs closed-back design

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 Grado headphones are open-back, for example.

Our lab experts reveal the top pairs on the market – see our best on-ear and over-ear headphones guide.

How will you use your headphones?

There are three main ways headphones are used, and you should look for a pair that will best suit your lifestyle.

  • Home use: Larger pairs with a headband are often best, as they tend to be the most comfortable for extended use. If you plan to use them to listen to your TV, see our guide to the best TV headphones.
  • Travel and commuting: Many will choose noise-cancelling pairs that actively eliminate unwanted external noises such as the hum of a train; these are often more expensive.
  • Activities: Whether for dog walking or running, the best pairs will be lightweight, weatherproof, sweat proof and stay secure. Many opt for wireless in-ear and earbud headphones to save having to untangle long cables.

How much should you spend on a new pair of headphones?

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.

If you’re looking for a cheap pair and want to avoid a dud, see the recommendations in our best cheap headphones guide.

What headphone features should you look out for?

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.

Noise-cancelling headphones

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.

Noise cancelling technology is most common in over-ear headphones, but on-ear and in-ear pairs can offer it too. High-end truly wireless headphones, such as the Sony WF-1000XM3 and AirPods Pro, are increasingly offering it.

If this function is a priority, check our guide to the best noise-cancelling headphones.

Ambient sound mode

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.

Sports headphones

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.

Our tests of all headphones assess how good they’re likely to be for exercise by assessing how well they fit when moved around a range of angles. Read our guide on the best sports headphones for more.

Bone conduction headphones

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.

AfterShokz is a popular bone conduction brand. Find out how two of its models performed in our tests in the AfterShokz OpenMove review and the AfterShokz Aeropex review.

Waterproof headphones

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.

We explain more about the different levels of water resistance in our guide to the best headphones for running.

Headphone microphones

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.

Companion headphone apps

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.

Voice control

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.

How do wireless headphones work and which devices do they connect with?

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 TV headphones guide. Some TV headphones also offer Bluetooth, which allows them to connect to other devices as well.

Are all headphones compatible with Apple and Android smartphones?

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. 

What makes a good pair of headphones?

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:

  • Sound quality: The best headphones provide full sound with the right balance of treble, mid-range and bass frequencies. An excellent-sounding pair will give you a warm sound with good depth.
  • Comfort: Whether you intend to use headphones every day or just occasionally, comfort is paramount when deciding what to go for. If you plan to use them for long periods of time, over-ear pairs are typically the best choice.
  • Durability: Some headphones can have alarmingly short lifespans, developing serious signs of wear in a matter of months or less. This is a particular problem for budget headphones, which may seem like a bargain, but prove not to be when they simply do not last.

To see all the hundreds of headphones we’ve tested and find the right pair for you, head over to our headphones reviews.

What headphone brands are there?

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.

Which headphone brands are most reliable?

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.

Find out which manufacturers make headphones that stand the test of time in our guide to the most reliable headphone brands.