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19 October 2020

How to buy the best headphones

Upgrading to a good-quality pair of headphones will make a real difference when listening to your music. Find out which headphones are best for you.
How to buy the best headphones
OT
Oliver Trebilcock

There are three main types of headphones: in-ear (including earbuds), on-ear and over-ear. The type you choose will depend on a number of factors, including how portable and compact a design you desire, and how comfortable you want them to be for longer listening. 

There is also an element of personal preference. In addition, many will choose wireless headphones to avoid messy cables and for frequent travellers, noise cancelling to block out external noises such as plane or train hum.

Earbud and in-ear headphones pros and cons

In-ear headphones either come with multiple sizes of flexible eartips to fit your ear size, or a hard plastic one-size-fits-all earbud. Earbud headphones' hard earpieces (like those of the standard Apple AirPods) nestle in the ear and can be easier to fit, but don’t fully seal it so are prone to letting those around you hear your tunes at higher volumes. In-ear headphones with eartips are more common for this reason: these fit snugly inside your ear canal using flexible soft eartips, providing a tight seal.

Pros: Earbuds are easy to take in and out, while eartip headphones can minimise sound leakage to your surroundings. Eartips also minimise letting outside sounds in, so help protect your hearing as you don't need to listen at such high volumes.

Cons: Sound can leak to your surroundings with earbuds, which also means you tend to listen at higher volumes, which poses more of a risk to your hearing. And when it comes to eartip headphones, some people can really struggle to get a good fit in their ears. All in-ear and earbud headphones are close in to your ears, so you need to take more care with these headphones to protect your hearing compared to on-ear and over-ear headphones which are further away from your eardrum.

Best earbud and in-ear headphones

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80%
Best Buy
£129.00
Reviewed

These headphones are some of the best-sounding our lab has tested. They're designed to pair perfectly with iPhones, and even allow you to control Siri without having to get your phone out of your pocket. They’re light and comfortable, so are easy to take out and about with you.

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74%
Best Buy
£145.00
Reviewed

If you want to save yourself from the daily chore of untangling wires, truly wireless headphones could be ideal. These big-brand headphones come with a charging case that provides two full charges. They are suitable for exercise and are sweat and weather-resistant, plus the sound quality is strong. Find out how our expert panel rated the comfort of these headphones, and whether there’s anything you should watch out for.

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72%
Best Buy
£59.00
Reviewed

This lightweight Bluetooth corded in-ear pair has plenty of detail in the treble frequencies, and sound is natural and punchy with a lovely strong bass. They have a cord which you wear round the back of your neck and are generally comfortable to wear, with a good snug fit in your ears. The earphones have small magnets on them, to minimise tangling, with them tidily clipping them together around your neck when not in use.

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See more of the top models from our expert lab tests in our best in-ear headphones guide.

On-ear headphones pros and cons

On-ear headphones have a headband with earcups that sit on your ears. They are for those looking for headphones that are smaller and lighter than over-ear models but prefer a headband or don’t get on with in-ear models.

Pros: Compact. Easy to take on and off.

Cons: Pressure exerted on ears can be uncomfortable for long listening sessions.

Best on-ear headphones

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78%
Best Buy
Safety alert
£109.00
Reviewed

These on headphones are ideal for your commute, with excellent active noise cancelling to block out unwanted background noise. They sound excellent and are comfortable as well - plus conveniently fold up into their provided carry case for easy storage. The safety issue only applies to very early batches and relates to the carry pouch.

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70%
Best Buy
£199.95
Reviewed

If you love listening through headphones at home and want to do away with wires, these could be the perfect pair. They make for very immersive listening and have nice retro looks. They have a lovely warm, natural tone with a wide range of sound frequencies produced and plenty of detail.

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67%
Great value
£29.99
Reviewed

These lightweight on-ear headphones are a great option if you’re looking for a versatile pair on a budget. The sound quality is great and they’re easy to use.

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Our discerning professional listening panel put each headphone to the test to find the best on-ear pairs on the market – find out which these are in our best on-ear headphones guide.

Over-ear headphones pros and cons

Over-ear headphones are the largest type, with earcups that go round your entire ear rather than sitting on top of them. Most headphones with noise cancelling are over-ear headphones.

Pros: Can provide the best sound quality and comfort.

Cons: Often bulky and can cost more than other styles.

Best over-ear headphones

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91%
Best Buy
£249.00
Reviewed

These over-ear headphones are a landmark launch, becoming the highest-ever scoring wireless headphones at our expert lab. The industry-leading active noise cancelling is the best we’ve yet seen, they’re superbly comfortable, and the 27-plus hour battery life goes the distance. They’re foldable and there’s even a detachable cord if you forget to charge them, plus a whole host of optional settings in the accompanying smartphone app.

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77%
Best Buy
Great value
£89.98
Reviewed

These are fantastic-sounding Great Value over-ear noise cancelling headphones – they’re so good they’ve even beaten many pairs double their price in our tests. It’s a real challenge to find a pair with effective noise cancelling in this price range, and these really do deliver.

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74%
Best Buy
£219.07
Reviewed

Headphones with effective active noise cancelling can be extremely expensive. But these headphones are a slightly cheaper option that are also excellent, with superb noise cancelling. In fact, they’re ideally-suited to travelling, with a compact design and travel case, lightweight feel and good build quality. A great alternative to bulkier pairs, and cheaper than many rivals too.

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Find out which over-ear headphones offer the very best sound quality, comfort and build quality on the market in our comprehensive best over-ear headphones guide.

Wireless headphones pros and cons

Wireless headphones use a Bluetooth wireless signal so they have no cable that connects them to your device, such as your smartphone or tablet. (They can still have other wires, such as to connect the two earpieces together, or for charging them from the mains).

Pros: No long wires to untangle.

Cons: Have to remember to charge them, Bluetooth headphones connected to your smartphone will drain its battery.

Best wireless headphones

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91%
Best Buy
£249.00
Reviewed

These over-ear headphones are a landmark launch, becoming the highest-ever scoring wireless headphones at our expert lab. The industry-leading active noise cancelling is the best we’ve yet seen, they’re superbly comfortable, and the 27-plus hour battery life goes the distance. They’re foldable and there’s even a detachable cord if you forget to charge them, plus a whole host of optional settings in the accompanying smartphone app.

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80%
Best Buy
£129.00
Reviewed

These headphones are some of the best-sounding our lab has tested. They're designed to pair perfectly with iPhones, and even allow you to control Siri without having to get your phone out of your pocket. They’re light and comfortable, so are easy to take out and about with you.

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76%
Best Buy
£169.00
Reviewed

These noise cancelling truly wireless headphones are one of the leading rivals to the Apple AirPods Pro, exceeding them in many areas – not to mention being considerably cheaper as well. There’s lots of customisation options for both Apple and Android devices, and they last more than six hours per charge in our independent tests. Noise cancelling is exceptionally strong and sound has lovely depth, bass and exquisite detail.

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We’ve reviewed hundreds of wireless headphones, including testing whether they have a reliable Bluetooth connection. Discover the finest pairs in our best wireless headphones guide.

Noise cancelling headphones pros and cons

Most headphones form an acoustic seal between your ears and the surroundings that will block our external sounds such as aeroplane noise to some degree. Active noise cancelling headphones go a stage further, sending out signals that actively cancel out these unwanted sounds.

Pros: You can listen to your music undisturbed by external noise.

Cons: Noise cancelling headphones can be very expensive due to the sophisticated technology involved.

Best noise cancelling headphones

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91%
Best Buy
£249.00
Reviewed

These over-ear headphones are a landmark launch, becoming the highest-ever scoring wireless headphones at our expert lab. The industry-leading active noise cancelling is the best we’ve yet seen, they’re superbly comfortable, and the 27-plus hour battery life goes the distance. They’re foldable and there’s even a detachable cord if you forget to charge them, plus a whole host of optional settings in the accompanying smartphone app.

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78%
Best Buy
Safety alert
£109.00
Reviewed

These on headphones are ideal for your commute, with excellent active noise cancelling to block out unwanted background noise. They sound excellent and are comfortable as well - plus conveniently fold up into their provided carry case for easy storage. The safety issue only applies to very early batches and relates to the carry pouch.

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75%
Best Buy
£218.15
Reviewed

These headphones are a genuine hit. They have a beautifully warm sound with lots of fine detail and they're comfortable to wear. They have an exceptionally long 36-hour battery life with effective noise cancelling. They're a well-deserved Best Buy.

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Our professional lab tests show that some headphones have far more effective noise cancelling than others. Find out which are worth your money in our best noise cancelling headphones guide.

Video: how to buy the best headphones

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

What to consider when buying 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 offer the premium sound quality and comfort. If you plan to use them to listen to your TV, see our separate guide to the best TV headphones.
  • Travel and commuting: Many will choose pairs with noise cancelling that actively eliminate unwanted external noises such as the hum of a train, and these pairs often come at a premium. For a cheaper alternative, you could opt for wired or wireless in-ear and earbud headphones.
  • Activities: Whether for dog walking or running, the best pairs will be lightweight, weatherproof, sweat-proof and stay nicely 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 speaking, 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: we've uncovered Don't Buy models that cost more than £200, and Best Buys that are less than £50.

To find the ideal budget pair for you, check out our round-up of the best cheap headphones.

What makes a good set 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.

  • Sound quality: the best headphones provide full sound with the right balance of treble, mid-range and bass frequencies. In-ear models can struggle when it comes to producing bass, but a good pair of over-ear headphones will give you a rich, deep sound. Over-ear headphones come in two types: open-back and closed-back. Open-back headphones offer a more natural sound than closed headphones, but tend to leak more noise. Closed headphones can sound a bit muffled, but are good at preventing sound leakage and blocking out unwanted noise.
  • Comfort: whether you intend to use headphones every day or just occasionally, comfort is paramount when choosing the best set. Some in-ear headphones are comfortable but, if you plan to use your headphones for long periods, on-ear and over-ear models are typically a better 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 have build quality that simply does not last.

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 do not last as long as more expensive models. Wireless headphones avoid common issues with wear and tear on the wired pairs. However, all headphones will degrade over time, even costly models.

Most reliable headphone brands compared

We’ve used data from our annual reliability survey of headphone owners and averaged scores across all headphone types to find the most reliable popular brands. 

Only Which? members can  log in to see the brands and their reliability scores in the chart below. If you're not a member join Which? today.

Our results expose that a whopping 45% of owners of some of these brand’s most expensive pairs suffer from deteriorating earcup fabric, and we’ve also found headphones that suffer cable damage and loss of sound a few weeks after they were bought.

Find our full headphone reliability results in our headphone reliability guide.

What are the best headphones for sports?

In-ear headphones are the best type for sport and exercise, as they're lightweight and stay securely in your ears. You need to decide whether to go for wireless sports headphones that use Bluetooth to connect to your smartphone with no risk of tangled cables, or a pair with a traditional wire, where you don't need to remember to charge them.

So-called 'truly wireless' headphones are becoming increasingly popular. These do not even have a wire between the two earbuds. However, in-ear headphones with a cord or secure headband are also very popular, and can offer better battery life than truly wireless pairs, although the gap is rapidly narrowing.

Sports headphones often have additional features to help keep them in place during exercise, such as in-ear models with a neckband or ear clips. Many new headphones also allow you to access your smartphone's voice assistant (such as Google Assistant on Android or Siri on Apple devices) so you can issue commands, such as skipping tracks, using just your voice.

What are bone conduction headphones?

Bone conduction headphones don’t sit over 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.

They offer the advantage of allowing you to be completely aware of your surroundings while listening to your music, as there’s nothing covering or blocking your ears. This means you can continue having a conversation with someone, or hear traffic as you’re crossing the road. In some cases they can also be useful for those with impaired hearing, because they bypass your outer ear and ear drum to transmit vibrations directly to your cochlea.

We've tested a popular pair of these headphones – see what we thought in our Aftershokz Trekz Titanium review.

If you want to be able to hear more of your surroundings as you listen to your music, there are alternative options to consider as well. There are open-back-style over-ear or on-ear headphones such as the Grado GW100, although these also leak sound to your surroundings, so could annoy anyone near you. Some other headphones have an ambient mode that you can use to let in more of the sound around you while not leaking sound, such as the Sony WH-1000XM3.

Want to know our all the best wireless headphones our experts recommend overall? To make comparisons and find the right pair for you, take a look at all our headphone reviews.

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