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Technology.

29 October 2021

Top five best over-ear and on-ear headphones for 2021

We round up the best over-ear and on-ear headphones to help you find your ideal pair for crystal-clear sound, great features and optimum comfort
Oliver Trebilcock
Best headphones 2015 2

Over-ear and on-ear headphones both have headbands that you wear over your head – many find them easier to fit and more comfortable than in-ear headphones.

Our top-scoring over-ear and on-ear headphones deliver spectacular sound and maximum comfort, whether you’re listening on the go or at home. Many of our best performing pairs have excellent active noise cancelling too. 

Over-ear headphones completely surround and 'cup' your ears, while on-ear headphones sit on top of your ears.

Below we reveal the very best pairs of each type, as judged by our professional listening panel and independent lab tests, and explain the difference between the two types.

 Want to know more about how to buy the best headphones and what’s available? See our expert guide to buying the best headphones.

Only logged-in Which? members can view our recommendations in the tables below. If you’re not yet a member, join Which? to get instant access.

Best over-ear headphones

  • 91%
    £159.00

    These over-ear headphones were a landmark launch, becoming the highest-ever scoring wireless headphones at our expert lab. The industry-leading active noise cancelling is some of 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%
    £99.99

    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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  • 75%
    £169.99

    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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  • 74%
    £164.28

    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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  • 73%
    £249.00

    If you’re looking for exceptional build quality headphones, few beat the robust, premium feel of these headphones. They’re packed with features, including Siri and Google Assistant voice control support, an extensive equaliser to adjust the sound to your tastes and a handy detachable cable. Noise cancelling and sound quality are excellent, and there’s even an ambient sound mode for more awareness of your surroundings when crossing the road.

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Best on-ear headphones

  • 78%
    £119.00

    These on-ear 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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  • 74%
    £34.99

    Just looking for a simple, great-sounding pair of wired headphones? You’ve come to the right place. These headphones are affordable, comfortable and the build quality is great – perfect for those that just want to plug in and listen without the fuss. You really don’t get much else – there are no controls on the cable or travel case. But they’re perfect for use at home with a computer or any other device with a standard 3.5mm socket.

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  • 70%
    £164.95

    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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  • 68%
    £73.84

    The Beats EP are wired on-ear headphones. Their lack of wireless connectivity makes them more affordable and a popular entry-level model for the Beats headphone range. But is the sound quality good enough, or would you be better off with another model? We sent them to the Which? lab to find out. Read on for our full review of these wired headphones.

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  • 67%
    £24.99

    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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Pricing and recommendations correct as of November 2021.

Not found the headphones for you? Browse all our headphone reviews.

Should I buy over-ear or on-ear headphones?

Over-ear headphones

These are typically larger and pricier. The earcups completely surround and provide a seal around your ears, for improved comfort and noise cancelling. This makes them the best option if you listen to your headphones for long periods at home. 

They’re also good for using on public transport, as they can provide more effective active noise cancelling than on-ear headphones.

Pros: Comfortable; often offer active noise cancelling; seal around your ear blocks out more sound, even for pairs without noise cancelling

Cons: More bulky; often more expensive (particularly for noise-cancelling pairs)

On-ear headphones

Often cheaper than over-ear pairs, the more compact earcups of on-ear headphones sit on top of your ears. Opt for these if you don’t want to carry a large pair or don’t want them to look so big on your ears, though bear in mind the way they sit on top of your ears can cause painful pressure over long listening sessions. 

Pros: More compact and portable; often cheaper

Cons: Not as good at blocking out external noise as over-ear pairs; tend to leak more sound to your surroundings; can cause pressure on your ears

Over and on-ear headphones vs earbuds

The appeal of in-ear and earbud headphones lies in their compact size and portability, but if comfort and sound quality are your main priorities, an over-ear or on-ear pair may be a better bet.

While the best in-ear pairs can sound exceptional, many people have trouble getting a great fit with in-ear headphones, and if you don’t get a good fit this can have a big impact on sound quality – especially the bass. 

Over-ear and on-ear headphones rarely suffer these fitting issues, so you can be much more confident you’ll get the best sound quality the headphones can deliver.

For the best-sounding and most comfortable earbuds, see our expert guide to the best in-ear headphones.

Wireless vs wireless over and on-ear headphones

Wireless headphones, which connect to your phone or other device by Bluetooth, are by far the most commonly sold type of headphones these days, although wired headphones are still available to buy if you’d prefer.

Wireless headphones free you from tangle-prone wires and the risk of accidentally yanking the cable if you step away from your connected device.

Wireless headphones can have a much wider range of features than their wired counterparts, such as active noise cancelling to cut out background noise. Many also come with apps to allow you to tweak settings such as the levels of treble and bass to the sound.

On the flip side, you need to remember to charge them, and if you plan to keep your pair for more than five years you may find the battery starts to degrade – and few headphones have user-replaceable batteries.

Wired headphones tend to have a simple plug-in-and-play approach. There are no worries about the batteries degrading, and – if you plan to use them mainly at home – tangled wires are less likely to be an issue. However, some modern smartphones lack a headphone socket, so you’ll have to use an adaptor to connect wired headphones.

The good news is that you don't have to spend too much to get a great on-ear wireless pair – our Great Value wired models start from about £25 and our wireless models from around £30.

For more information, see our dedicated wired vs wireless headphones guide.

On-ear headphones for kids

If you're worried about your children damaging their hearing by listening to music too loudly, there are quite a few on-ear models designed specifically for kids. These include built-in volume limiters to help avoid kids raising the volume to dangerous levels.

The best headphones for your hearing, whether you're an adult or a child, will be ones that block out as much external noise as possible so you don't have to turn your music up too loud to hear it. If you tend to listen in noisy environments, look for noise-cancelling models if you can (although these are often more expensive). Even some standard headphones with a good, tight fit will block out a lot of the noise from around you.

To find out more on good listening approaches with headphones, see our expert guide to how to protect your hearing.

Headphones to avoid

On-ear and over-ear headphones are often expensive, so it's important to avoid wasting money on a dud. We’ve tested many terrible pairs that are uncomfortable to wear and won't do your music justice – they'll make your music sound pathetically tinny or a booming mess. We’ve selected some of the worst in the table below. 

Over-ear and on-ear headphones to avoid

  • 32%
    £49.99

    These affordable headphones may have barely passable noise cancelling technology, but the headphones themselves are heavy, hot and uncomfortable to war. Sound is muffled, dull and lacking in detail. Battery life is also well below the manufacturer's claims. Avoid.

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  • 37%
    £60.00

    Beware being lulled into a false sense of security by big brand names. These big-brand headphones are one of our worst-ever scoring pairs of headphones in our expert lab tests. Sound is thin and sibilants in speech are so harsh they're painful. Our listening panel found they were hot and tight, clamping round your head, and heavy as well.

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  • 39%
    £30.00

    These budget over-ear wireless Bluetooth headphones are a shining example of ‘too good to be true’. At a rock-bottom price, they’re barely more expensive that some of the cheapest in-ear wired headphones. They seem to have all the useful features, including a mic and controls to answer and control calls, as well as volume and music controls, and the earcups swivel flat for easy storage. However, sound quality is appalling. Bass is boomy, but also thick and dull; sound is muffled and lifeless, lacking articulation and excitement, and highs are tinny and harsh.

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