Top five best over-ear and on-ear headphones for 2021
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.
Pricing and recommendations correct as of April 2021.
Should I buy over-ear or on-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)
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.
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.
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.
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.