A woman sitting in an airplane wearing Sony WH-1000XM headphones
Sony

What to Look For With Headphones in 2021

Choosing the right headphones for yourself can be nerve-wracking. Everyone appreciates a good quality sound and comfortable fit, but that’s not always easy to find with the sheer number of headphones out there.

To start, you’ll need to pick a form factor of headphones: Do you want a wired or wireless pair? You can find a good pair of wired ones in every price range and expect great sound quality overall.

Wireless headphones offer you freedom from wires and the ability to use them seamlessly with different gadgets. Many of them now offer faster charging and also work over a wired connection. It really just depends on your preference and the devices you use at this point!

An excellent pair of headphones will have a sturdy build and a premium look and feel. The cushions for the earcups should provide enough comfort and isolation that you can use the headphones for hours. In general, they should fit just right and shouldn’t be too tight, or else they’d end up hurting your ears.

The best headphones have an open-back design to allow air to pass through from the back of the ear cups, preventing low-frequency build-ups and offering a more natural soundscape. The only downside is sound leakage, which means people next to you can hear the song you’re listening to easily at moderate volumes. If you’re using public transport, open-backs may not be the best option.

We’ve divided our picks for the best headphones by their features along with the promise of the best possible sound quality.

Best Headphones Overall: Sony WH-1000XM4

woman using Sony XM4s while on a work call
Sony

Pros

  • Top-class Active Noise-Cancelling performance
  • Touch sensitive controls on the earcup
  • USB Type-C port for charging

Cons

  • Microphone is just good enough for calls
  • USB Type-C port doesn't work for audio

The Sony WH-1000XM2 created a wave of excitement as wireless headphones with Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) support but had several missing features. Over the years, Sony has added several improvements and fixes with the latest iteration—the Sony WH-1000XM4.

The XM4s provide excellent noise isolation and active noise-canceling performance. While it can cancel most ambient noise, you may still hear people talking loudly, babies crying, or other specific sounds. You’ll need to install the Sony Headphones Connect App to fine-tune the ANC to your specific needs, but it’ll be worth it.

If you want to speak to someone, you can place your palm on the right earcup to disable the ANC and reduce the volume. Also, you can enable the Speak-to-Chat feature from the app to pause the audio by touching the right earcup with two fingers.

You can connect the XM4s to two devices at a time with the Bluetooth Multipoint feature. That way, you can seamlessly switch between music and attend calls.

When it comes to enjoying music, these headphones carry Sony’s bass-heavy profile but are not too off-putting like the XB-series headphones. You’ll get to enjoy the vocals and can figure out different instruments on the tracks easily. The built-in presets in the companion app can be helpful to find your musical sweet spot.

The WH-1000XM4 shines across most musical genres. You can use different presets to adjust the audio reproduction as per your preferences. Also, enabling the DSEE Extreme feature for digital audio upscaling will make songs from streaming services more musical.

The two microphones offer decent call quality and pick up background noise often. And to top it all, the headphones support Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa voice assistants to use with your smart home setup as well.

The Sony WH-1000XM4 is a solid choice as a single headphone for music, gaming, calls, and using it on the move. You can pick up the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 if voice calls quality ranks higher in your priorities.

Best Headphones Overall

Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony's XM4s deliver an enjoyable sound with or without ANC. You can also take calls and use the smart touch control features to make for a versatile piece of tech.

Best Budget Headphones: Philips SHP9600

person relaxing with Philips SHP headphones
Philips

Pros

  • Good sound output for the price
  • Premium-like build quality
  • Swappable cable

Cons

  • Open-back design causes sound leakage
  • No cable with in-line microphone bundled

You don’t have to settle for subpar and creaky budget headphones anymore. There are plenty of quality options out now under $100. However, the ones we recommend are the Philips SHP9600.

Music will sound delightful on the SHP9600s with an extended bass response with an extra punch. It can produce a good and balanced soundscape comparable to the pricier and premium open-back headphones.

The earcups padding is a little soft, but the headband comes well-padded for the best comfort. Also, the build quality makes it look more premium than the price implies. They fit comfortably and aren’t too tight, though the 50mm neodymium audio drivers make it bulky.

These headphones will also serve well during some grueling gaming sessions since the audio reproduction favors mid-range the most. However, the open-back design means others can hear the sound as well.

If you don’t want to disturb others with your music, getting the Audio Technica ATH-M50x is a good idea. They’re a bit more expensive than our main pick, but Audio Technica’s offering is still in the budget headphones range. The closed-back design helps to deliver good bass and excellent all-around performance.

Best Budget Headphones

Philips SHP9600

Philip's headphones are the best bang for your buck promising pair that sounds great, looks impressive, and has a removable cable.

Best Noise-Canceling Headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4

woman using Sony XM4s on bus
Sony

Pros

  • Class-leading Active Noise-Canceling
  • Specific EQ and Presets for music
  • Lightweight and comfortable
  • Impressive battery life

Cons

  • Average microphone quality
  • Only audio mode in wired mode
  • Lacks aptX support

Sony WH-1000XM4 is the wireless headphones that top any list of wireless headphones with Active Noise Cancellation. Apart from canceling most ambient noise, it provides enjoyable sound quality.  Also, it lets you switch between music and calls effortlessly thanks to Bluetooth Multipoint support.

The pair is light and comfortable, so they’re easy to use on road trips or long flights. The XM4s aren’t really suitable for working out, though—you’ll need to look elsewhere for some workout headphones.

The companion app lets you customize the EQ settings for tuning music as per your preference. The microphone is good enough for calls, but it captures ambient sounds and noises easily. Thankfully, those are settings you can also tweak from the companion app.

Sony’s XM4s can last 38 hours on a single charge on continuous usage, and the quick charging works well. You can extend battery life by using the auto-off timer feature in the companion app or using it in a wired mode.

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are a worthy runner-up for ANC headphones that are commuter-friendly, have a serviceable microphone, and feature a neutral signature.

Best Noise-Canceling Headphones

Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony has the best noise-canceling capabilities, while managing to sound great with stellar battery life.

Best Wireless Headphones: Sennheiser Momentum 3

Person wearing Sennheiser momentums outside
Sennheiser

Pros

  • Rich and detailed sound
  • Premium design
  • Comfortable and well-built
  • Intuitive controls on the earcup

Cons

  • Lackluster battery life
  • Expensive
  • Not forging to the lower frequencies

You can pick up the Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless headphones for its Active Noise Cancellation and call it a day. Or you can opt for the more premium build of the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless.

The Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless works effortlessly with streaming services and high-resolution tracks to deliver a well-detailed and rich sound. The headphones support AAC, SBC Bluetooth, aptX, and aptX Low Latency, making them suitable for gaming and watching movies online.

The earcups are well-padded for wearing comfort and can collapse inwards to store the headphones easily. You’ll find the control buttons the earcups very easy to access. Also, with the companion app, you can control the EQ settings, switch between different sound modes, and even enable the Alexa voice assistant.

Sennheiser’s Momentum 3 has a built-in Tile-compatible Bluetooth tracker to trace your Momentum 3 if you have lost or misplaced them, which is really neat considering how expensive these are. You just need to pair the headphones in the app, and you’ll be able to find them.

That said, an unfortunate downside to Momentum 3 is its 17 hours of battery life after switching off the ANC feature. Otherwise, you’ll get roughly 13 hours with ANC enabled.

Shure AONIC 50 is a worthy alternative to the Momentum 3s, and versatile if you want to enjoy lossless music and slightly longer battery life. It delivers 20 hours of battery life with the ANC enabled and has an average microphone, though it lacks controls on the earcups.

Best Wireless Headphones

Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless

The Momentum 3s are premium wireless headphones to enjoy richer sounds with a comfortable built and intuitive controls on the earcup.

Best Wired Headphones: Sennheiser HD 800 S

Seenheiser HD 800s on table
Sennheiser

Pros

  • Detailed and cleaner sound reproduction
  • Sturdy build quality
  • Excellent performance when paired with good gear

Cons

  • Needs amplification for the best experience
  • Little to no isolation from ambient noises

Getting a no-nonsense pair of headphones that works with all genres of music, gaming, and more is hard to come by. Sennheiser HD 800 S is a luxurious and expensive pair of headphones that delivers enough bass and meticulous details to enjoy it all.

The HD 800 S feature massive 56mm drivers, which means you’ll need an amplifier or audio interface to drive them. So the drivers won’t work well with your portable music players or smartphone, but the headphones can still be used with them, just to not as great of an effect.

It has a premium build quality combining fiber cloth on earpads, metal on earcups, and high-quality plastic material on headbands. While HD 800 S provides a comfortable fit on your head and ears, it’s pretty heavy to wear them for hours, despite only being 330 grams.

Since they have an open-back design, there’ll be plenty of sound leaking out as well. That means the people in the same room can hear the audio playback. You’ll need to use the 800 S in an adequately isolated space for the best experience, especially while gaming.

You can try out the Hifiman Ananda with planar magnetic drivers at less than half the price of HD 800 S. On the Ananda, you can enjoy slightly more bass than HD 800 S and a similar well-balanced audio output. However, user forums are riddled with posts about quality control issues with Hifiman’s headphones, so it’s a very “buyer beware” situation.

Best Wired Headphones

Sennheiser HD 800 S

The Sennheiser HD 800 S are top-tier headphones for listening to all genres of music with a clean sound and wonderful soundstage.

Best Workout Headphones: Adidas RPT-01

Man working out wearing Adidas RPT-01 headphones
Adidas

Pros

  • Comfortable fit while working out
  • Washable earcup covers
  • Sweatproof
  • Decent sound quality

Cons

  • No built-in microphone for calls
  • Lacks Active-Noise Cancellation

After sorting out your sports shoes and clothing for workouts, the next challenge is grabbing a good pair of headphones. You shouldn’t use your regular wireless headphones for exercises, especially if they aren’t waterproof or sweatproof and can slip off your head mid-workout. You’ll want something that works a bit better, instead.

Adidas delivers a surprising package with their RPT-01 headphones. With an IPX4 rating, these headphones are sweatproof and water-resistant, making them perfect for a workout. Besides that, you can remove the cushion covers and wash them. The fabric design makes them breathable compared to the leather or faux-leather finish on many headphones as well.

With a comfortable fit, you can carry on a variety of workouts like lifting weights or running. The action button on the earcup also lets you change the EQ settings between different types of music. You’ll need to use the Adidas Headphones app on iPhone and Android to configure it, but it’ll be worth it when you’ve tweaked the settings.

The TREBLAB Z2 is a worthy alternative if you want better sound quality and want to take calls. The Z2 is waterproof with an IPX4 rating, has a built-in microphone for voice calls, and comes with a micro USB port for charging. It offers Active Noise Canceling to mask external sounds, but that is average at best, and the material isn’t as workout-friendly as the Adidas headphones, though.

Best Workout Headphones

Adidas RPT-01

With washable cushions and an IPX4 rating, you can focus on your workout while listening to a decent sound quality without worrying about sweat.

Best Studio Headphones: Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO

Musician using Beyerdynamic headphones to edit music
beyerdynamic

Pros

  • Closed-back construction prevents audio leaks
  • Sounds dynamic, open, and neutral
  • Very comfortable and stable fit
  • Durable build

Cons

  • Non-removable cable
  • Too bulky to carry around

For studio production and sound mixing, we like the Beyerdynamics DT 770 Pro headphones for their neutral sound profile. That’s the reason why it is also quite popular among musicians, sound engineers, and track mixing enthusiasts.

Its neutral sound profile and well-balanced audio production make it excellent for studio monitoring and production. They help you to identify any audio niggles while mixing tracks or editing podcasts.

The DT 770 Pros deliver a solid feel and are lightweight. You can carry them along and work from anywhere while its closed-back design stops sound from escaping and velvet-covered cushions for an even better feel.

The 80 Ohms headphones can work with iPads for home audio production and it costs $160. The 250 Ohms version, which costs the same, requires additional power to eke its full potential and works best with professional audio interfaces and sound mixing gear, so we recommend the 80 Ohms model for its versatility.

For an alternative, there is the Sony MDR 7506, which is relatively affordable at $100. The large ear cups are comfortable, but the build quality isn’t robust. That said, you can rely on it for punch bass response and better vocals, but they don’t isolate ambient noises well.

Best Studio Headphones

Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO Headphones

This affordable pair of studio headphones promises a neutral sound to pick up any odd glitches in the audio while mixing tracks and studio monitoring.

Profile Photo for Samir Makwana Samir Makwana
Samir Makwana is a freelance technology writer who aims to help people make the most of their technology. For over 15 years, he has written about consumer technology while working with MakeUseOf, GuidingTech, The Inquisitr, GSMArena, BGR, and others. After writing thousands of news articles and hundreds of reviews, he now enjoys writing tutorials, how-tos, guides, and explainers.
Read Full Bio »

The above article may contain affiliate links, which help support How-To Geek.