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Updated: 7 Jun 2022

How we test headphones

Discover how our experts test headphones for sound quality and comfort. Only the very best become Best Buys.
Oliver Trebilcock

Which? examines everything that matters for headphones, including sound quality, comfort and how well they work in real life – so you'll know exactly what to expect. Our unique, comparative lab tests mean you can trust our verdicts and choose with confidence.

We put all the headphones through the same tests – providing consumers with impartial advice – which means that if a product isn't any good we'll say so. Which? works for you, providing trustworthy advice without a hidden agenda.

What are Which? Best Buys, Don’t Buys, Great Value and Eco Buy headphones?

Best Buys

The headphones that excel the most in our tests, and that score at least 70%, are named Best Buys. But you should still read our reviews to find a pair that best fits your individual preferences.

Don't Buys

Poor-performing headphones that receive a substandard score of 45% or lower are Don’t Buys and should be avoided. These will have disappointing sound quality well below the average, so there will be far better options for your money.

Great Value headphones

How much buyers are willing to spend on headphones varies dramatically, so that’s where our Great Value recommendation comes in. Great Value models do pretty well in our tests – scoring 60% or more – and the sound quality is still well above average and more than enough for most (if you’re not an audiophile stickler for these things). They're also at least 20% cheaper than the average price for that type of product in our tests. For example, we compare noise-cancelling models against each other to see which are Great Value, as those with noise-cancelling do typically cost more than other pairs. Great Value models are the ones to go for if you’re looking for a bargain. Some Great Value models will also score well enough to be Best Buys.

Eco Buys

If you find you’re replacing your headphones every few years, it's worth considering a pair that's built to last. So if you’re looking for a pair more likely to keep on going, consider our Eco Buy recommendations. These pairs offer both superb performance – so you’ll want to keep using them again and again – and offer ways to help them last longer. For example, some pairs will offer battery replacement schemes so you’re not limited to battery lifespan, and others will offer a range of replacement parts so you don’t need to buy a whole new pair in the event of damage. For more information on how we select Eco Buy pairs, see our Eco Buys news story.

Head straight to our headphone reviews, where you can filter using the Best Buy menu to see our recommended pairs. Or read on to find out more about how our experts test to answer the key questions to get a superb pair of headphones.

What's the sound quality like?

To test sound quality we use a listening panel of five experts. They assess each pair of headphones using nine set audio tracks, covering a range of music and radio genres from pop and spoken word to classical and jazz.

What's the comfort and fit like?

How the headphones sound isn't our only consideration – we also assess them for comfort and how adjustable they are.

Our five lab experts rate these aspects, taking into account placing them in position, removing them from your ear, and how secure they are, including the potential of the headphones to accidentally fall out of your ear.

How do we test noise cancelling?

Headphones designed for travelling often have active noise-cancelling technology that filters out unwanted sounds, such as aircraft and railway noise, so you can listen undisturbed. However, we've found noise cancelling so poor you'd barely notice it's working at all, so it's important to know the best pairs to choose, particularly since many noise-cancelling headphones cost well over £100.

We test noise cancelling in two ways. Firstly, our lab uses a synthetic reference ear to test a headphone's noise cancelling under lab conditions. Secondly, our professional listening panel, with a range of ear sizes and ages, try out the noise cancelling themselves and   give their verdict. 

We test the noise cancelling using real-world recordings, including one of the London Underground on both trains and platforms, so you can be sure our Best Buy headphones really deliver.

How durable are they?

We rate the quality of the material used to construct the headphones and any areas of obvious concern.

The headphone cables are stress tested, to replicate getting them caught on arms or around your neck – to make sure they're strong enough, as well as assessing how tangled they get.

Do they suffer from sound leakage?

Our scientists use a calibrated reference ear to accurately test the headphones for how much sound leaks out to your surroundings while in use, to ensure you don't buy a pair that'll annoy those around you. Our expert listening panel also subjectively assess the headphones for sound leakage while in use, listening for any loud or irritating noises or tones.

How long does the battery last?

Bluetooth headphones, which allow you to connect to your devices wirelessly, have batteries built in. As do wireless dedicated TV headphones with a dock. Manufacturers make all sorts of battery life claims, but you shouldn’t always believe them – our real-life independent tests show they can be greatly different in reality.

In our tests, we set the headphones playing and time how long it takes the battery to run out, so you have figures tested in exactly the same way to compare from model to model across all the brands. We’ve even found headphones that will barely last an hour per charge, and some that’ll last 40 hours or more.

At Which? we wouldn’t usually award Best Buys to products that don’t have user-replaceable lithium-ion batteries. However, there are currently very few wireless headphones that allow you to replace their batteries yourself, so this doesn’t affect our recommendations for headphones.

Should I buy them?

We give every pair of headphones a Which? test score so you can immediately see at a glance which are the best and worst, plus how each model compares. The headphone score ignores price and is based on the following criteria:

  • 60% sound quality
  • 15% comfort and durability
  • 15% audio enhancements
  • 10% features

Audio enhancements includes factors such as the stability of any wireless connections, and how much sound leaks from the headphones to your surroundings.

Dedicated TV headphones, which are specially designed for use with your TV and come with a wireless transmitter, have slightly different criteria:

  • 60% sound quality
  • 15% comfort & durability
  • 10% audio enhancements
  • 10% power consumption
  • 5% ease of use

Headphones need 70% in our tests to earn our Best Buy recommendation. Headphones that score 45% or less are highlighted as Don't Buy models to avoid.

For information on how we test gaming headsets that can be used with your TV for playing video games such as on PlayStation consoles, see our dedicated best PS5 headsets guide.

What brands make longer-lasting headphones?

As well as our tough lab tests we also assess how reliable headphone brands are in our annual member survey. Each year we get data on over 50,000 devices – including more than 1,800 headphones – and use this to determine which brands make products are built to last. If we find that headphones from a brand are unreliable and likely to experience a fault then we won't name them as Best Buys, no matter how well they did in our lab assessment. To find out how reliable popular brands are, see our guide to the most reliable headphone brands.