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Best over-ear headphones 2021: the top cans from Sony, Sennheiser, and more

TechRadar logo TechRadar 9/16/2021 Nick Pino
a man wearing a pair of the best over-ear headphones © Provided by TechRadar a man wearing a pair of the best over-ear headphones

A pair of the best over-ear headphones is hands-down the best way to listen to music, podcasts and audiobooks. They bring you exceptional sound quality, maximum comfort and an impressive soundstage, as well as plenty of other extra features like wireless connectivity and active noise cancellation. 

While earbuds are convenient and often sound fantastic, for anyone who's serious about music and wants to eke out as much detail from their hi-res audio files as possible, over-ear headphones are the way to go.

The over-ear headphones in this guide have large, powerful drivers and come in both open-back and closed-back variations. The former offers an almost concert hall-like feel to your favorite music that’s as close as you’ll get to watching it live - though they do leak out lots of sound so aren't suitable for use while commuting or working in a communal office.

Over-ear headphones might also be a much better option for your hearing health than in-ear headphones. That's because they put a bit more distance between loud sounds and your eardrums and, by blocking out a lot of ambient noise (or all ambient noise if they have ANC), you often don’t need to have the volume of your headphones turned up quite so high. If safeguarding your hearing is important to you (and it should be), that’s another reason to consider over-ears.

The biggest problem with over-ear headphones? Their price. Because of the size of their drivers, the premium materials used in them and all the research that goes into making them sound as good as they do, their sticker price can sometimes be astronomical. 

Note that we say 'sometimes'. There are actually lots of really good-sounding over-ear headphones on the market for less than $100 / £100 / AU$150. and while we've included a few budget options in this guide, be sure to check out the best cheap headphones you can buy today for a complete run down of the top cans that won't break the bank.

In our guide below, we’ve selected a number of over-ear headphones, which includes wired models, as well as wireless headphones, for those that don't want to cut the cord.

Our top picks

While Beyerdynamic may not be as well known as its German brother, Sennheiser, the audio company has a history of creating some of the best-sounding audio gear on the market – the company’s DT770, DT880 and DT990 over-ear headphones were renowned for their excellent build and sound quality. 

Above them all, however, stands the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro, an open-back version of the Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro, a headphone which won our Editor’s Choice for its imaging, design and value for the money. Both headphones are priced the same ($599 / £589 / AU$1,159), so you won’t find a deal picking up one over the other. The difference here comes down to sound. 

As they’re open-back, the DT 1990 Pro are meant to be used at home or in the studio for serious analytical listening. Sound is able to get in and out but the good news is that the open-back design gives you the DT 1990 Pro a great sense of space. Soundstage is quite wide, too, allowing even the most lackadaisical listener to pinpoint the exact location of where each instrument is playing.  

The DT 1990 Pro are the best over-ear headphones, in our opinion, but be sure to check out our review of the Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro too for a closed-back version that's a little more socially friendly.

Read more: Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro review

It's almost unfair to stick them in the same category as the more critical listening-focused over-ear headphones, but the Sony WH-1000XM4 are the best all-around headphones we've heard since, well, the Sony WH-1000XM3.

Not only do they sound great and pack excellent noise cancellation, but they manage to do this all wirelessly. 

Other over-ear headphones on our list offer superior sound quality, sure, but the WH-1000XM4 manage to offer the best balance of features and performance. 

While they don't look significantly different from their predecessors, a number of new features including multipoint pairing, DSEE Extreme upscaling, conversational awareness and auto-play/pause using a built-in sensor all help the WH-1000XM4 claim the title of best headphones in 2021.

Offering all of this without a serious price-premium over the competition means the Sony WH-1000XM4 over-ear wireless headphones are a great all-around choice for on-the-go music listeners.

Read more: Sony WH-1000XM4 review

The fourth entry on our list of the best over-ear headphones could have easily been the first if they didn't cost well over $1,000 / £1,000 / AU$3,000. The Sennheiser HD 800 are, hands down, some of the best-sounding pairs of over-ear headphones on the planet, affectionately praised by inner circles of audiophiles the world over. When paired with the proper hardware, they sound absolutely excellent – balanced in every way. 

Unfortunately, they're supremely expensive and require more audio equipment than the average consumer is ready to buy. Should you find yourself in need – or, let's be honest, in want – of amazing over-ear headphones, these are them.

Read more: Sennheiser HD 800 review

With the LCD-1 open-back headphones, Audeze has brought its uncompromising technology down to a real-world(ish) price. As long as you are prepared to do your listening in splendid isolation – that design will generate some sound leakage – there’s just no reason to overlook these over-ear headphones.

The LCD-1s’ overall presentation, no matter the material you’re listening to nor the volume at which you’re listening, is composed, engaging and entirely believable. Listen to music you’ve never heard before and you’ll never doubt you’re being given the full picture. 

Listen to music you’ve heard a thousand times before and there’s every chance the LCD-1's will find some nuance in there you’ve never really heard before.     

Read more: Audeze LCD-1 review

If you’re looking for class-leading wireless, noise-cancelling headphones and you're not put off by the $399 / £349 / AU$600 price tag, the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 are well worth considering. 

With sophisticated noise-cancelling, much-improved sound quality, a honed aesthetic, the PX7 could give any of the over-ear headphones on this list a run for their money. 

Plus. they're packing aptX Adaptive for improved stability and latency between the headphones and your device, as well as high-quality (24-bit) streaming aptX HD brought to the table.

Read more: Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Wireless Headphones review

The Sennheiser HD 560S are to be used as a tool, in the most literal sense. If you want to be able to look deep into the details of a mix, or to make A/B comparisons with absolute certainty, these are exactly the sort of headphones you need. If you want to be entertained, energized and invigorated by your music, though, they’re less than ideal.

Sonically, the Sennheiser HD560S are a ruthlessly revealing listen. Sure enough, the soundstage they describe is big in all directions, and individual elements of a recording appear on the stage in an absolutely solid area of space. Detail levels – whether concerning instrument timbre, vocal technique or any other aspect of a recording – are absolutely sky-high, and the HD560S maintain an even, neutral balance from the very bottom of the frequency range to the very top.

Read more: Sennheiser HD 560S review

At $199 / £160 (around AU$290) the Philips PH805 offer exceptional value for money. These are wireless over-ear headphones, using Bluetooth 5 for connectivity – so high-resolution audio playback should be achievable. 

Using a single Lithium-Ion cell for up to 30 hours of playback time from a single charge, the Philips PH805 have active noise cancellation on board, administered by a couple of mics on each earcup. 

Read more: Philips PH805 review

In terms of audio quality, these Sennheiser over-ear headphones sound fantastic, with high levels of detail, warm bass, and natural-sounding highs.

Customizable noise cancellation is a great touch, but it doesn't quite reach the class-leading standards set by Sony and Bose. Battery life also doesn't compete with the Sony WH-1000XM4, and they're more expensive to boot. 

So, why buy the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless (2019)? Well, if built-in Tile tracking appeals to you, and you like the industrial design and premium materials of the Momentum Wireless, that could be reason enough – and if you do opt for them over the Sony model, you won’t be missing out on any audio quality. In that respect, they’re truly matched. 

Read the full review: Sennheiser Momentum Wireless (2019) review

The build, battery life, and sound quality of the Sennheiser PXC 550-II are all very impressive, upgrading the previous PXC 550 model with the latest Bluetooth standard and enhanced audio and smart capabilities.

The PXC 550-II over-ear headphones are a bit cheaper than the Momentum Wireless, a bit more sober in appearance and definitely not as big, with a sophisticated sound. 

Read more: Sennheiser PXC 550-II review

The Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless are the best-sounding wireless headphones you can buy, period. Sound is spacious, detailed, and makes you want to rediscover your music library. 

Their bulky design and average noise isolation make them terrible for travel but if you’re looking for the best sound from a pair of over-ear headphones, you can't go wrong with these Beyerdynamic cans.

Read the full review: Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless

They may not beat the Sony WH-1000XM3's battery life and price, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are still a fantastic pair of over-ear headphones. 

By applying noise cancelation on both music and phone calls, they offer class-leading technology, and well as a vibrant, lively sound and wide, well-balanced soundstage. 

If you’re trying to decide between buying the Sony WH-1000XM3s and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, we’d recommend going for the former because of that lower price and better battery life. 

That being said, you wouldn’t be making a mistake if you opted for the Bose cans instead (and we wouldn’t blame you if you did) – they sound great, look stunning, and the noise-cancelation is out of this world.

Read the full review: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

The Apple AirPods Max were the most hotly-anticipated headphones for quite some time, having been the subject of rumor and speculation for two years, and come with active noise cancellation, superb audio quality, and a design that sets them apart from most noise-cancelling headphones on the market.

While their exceptional audio performance and class-leading ANC impresses, they're  let down by their eye-watering price, baffling carrying case, and lack of support for Hi-Res Audio codecs.

Despite their high price, the AirPods Max aren’t exactly aimed at the audiophile crowd, owing to their lack of 3.5mm audio port; instead, these cans are squarely targeted at card-carrying members of the Apple ecosystem, with nifty features for iOS users and an unmistakably ‘Apple’ design.

For Android users, the AirPods Max are simply a high-performance pair of noise-cancelling headphones with an unusual design, as fantastic as they may sound – and for these users, we can't see how the high price is justified. 

But, if you've already bought into the Apple ecosystem, you have a lot of money to burn, and you don't care about hi-res audio, you won't find headphones that sound better or are easier to use than the AirPods Max.

Read more: Apple AirPods Max review

The V-Moda M-200 are the apex of what wired headphones can be. Although it’s 2021 and wireless headphones are much more convenient, there are still those who prefer a corded experience. That includes professionals like music producers, DJs, and video editors. Even some audio enthusiasts and gamers prefer a wired headphone for its reliability. 

The design of the M-200 is classic V-Moda: the earcups retain the brand’s signature hexagonal, angular design and the build quality is excellent with a mix of plastic, aluminum, and sweat-resistant PU leather. 

Yes, the M-200 are expensive but they’re worth it for its sound quality, resolution, build quality, and unique customizable plates. 

Read more: V-Moda M-200 Studio Headphones review

JBL is a popular name in the world of headphones and Bluetooth speakers, and rightly so. Solidly dependable, consumers know what to expect from the brand – decent sound quality for a decent price. 

That's what we found with the JBL Live 650BTNC last year – and now, ready to take their place are the JBL Tune 750BTNC, a superior successor to the 650BTNC's as a high-spec and well-priced set of over-ear headphones.

The JBL Tune 750BTNC sound great, look great, and they fit well. Reliable and easy to use, you might miss waterproofing and a few minor features – but at this price, it feels foolish to complain too readily.

Read more: JBL Tune 750BTNC review

The Focal Stellias sound absolutely fantastic. Their wide-open soundstage and detailed, accurate sound treatment means they make any genre of music sound brilliant.

If you listen to songs you think you know inside out, the Stellias' precise separation of the frequencies means that you will probably hear details you’ve never noticed before.

So why didn't they make the list? Well, we included them as a bonus option because they're incredible. But they're very, very expensive. 

They're $3,000 / £2,799 (about AU$2,400). And as good as they are, therein lies the problem: the Focal Stellias are prohibitively expensive for most people, at 10 times the price of our current favorite headphones all-rounders, the Sony WF-1000XM4.

If you like the sound of these luxury headphones but can't justify the price, check out our initial hands-on review of the new Focal Elegia. They may not sound quite as breathtaking as the Focal Stellia - at least that’s what we gathered from a short listening session – but the Focal Elegia headphones are still very impressive.

Read the full review: Focal Stellia review

The Shure AONIC 50 sport a wireless, active noise-cancelling over-ear design, selling at a premium price to compete with the likes of the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose NC 700 Headphones.

Ultimately, while you won't find every feature under the sun here, the Shure AONIC 50 are laser-focused on delivering the best sound-quality of almost any noise-cancelling headphone – securing them a place among the best over-ear headphones for audiophiles.

Read more: Shure AONIC 50 review

The Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 are the tech giant’s second pair of noise-cancelling headphones, and they offer a ton of great improvements over the original Surface Headphones, while retaining some of their best qualities.

In spite of those improvements – which includes a longer battery life and a more comfortable design – the Surface Headphones 2 are considerably cheaper than their predecessors, making them the obvious choice if you’re trying to choose between the two. 

That lower price also makes them a great alternative to the Sony WH-1000XM4,  especially as they’ve retained the winning design features of the original Surface Headphones, with built-in dials on each earcup to control your music and the active noise cancellation. 

Read more: Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 review

Urbanista's first over-ear noise-cancelling headphones are an easy recommend for those on a budget, who don’t want to sacrifice style or sound performance. Noise cancellation itself isn’t the best on the market, and while the audio could be more detailed, an extended bass response makes the Urbanista Miami ideal for pop and RnB. 

Battery life and connectivity are also decent for the price, making these a great alternative to pricier models like the Sony WH-1000XM4 or the Apple AirPods Max.

Read more: Urbanista Miami review

In some ways, the Beoplay HX are a typical Bang & Olufsen product: premium materials, premium construction, premium price. In others, though, they’re a lot less willful than we’ve become used to from the company. 

The HX headphones don’t prioritize design over performance, and while they’re undeniably expensive, they’re not as stratospherically priced as you might expect. What you get for the price, then, is vivid, lively sound and the feel and look of a premium product.

What this means, then, is that for a fair bit more than you’d pay for any number of extremely capable alternatives, you can buy a pair of Bang & Olufsen active noise-cancelling wireless over-ear headphones that are specified to compete and built to make you feel good about life. The specification is properly up to standard, performance is almost entirely impressive, and less tangible stuff such as ‘pride of ownership’ is sky-high, too. 

Read more: Bang & Olufsen Beoplay HX review

Buying advice

How to choose the best over-ear headphones

To make things easier for audiophiles, this guide focuses on sound quality above all else. We've tested all the headphones in this guide extensively, spending lots of time analysing the sound, fit, design, specs, and value for money.

When buying over-ear headphones, sound quality is the most important feature to look out for – the more expensive, the better your cans tend to sound, although there are quite a few impressive exceptions to this rule. 

How you define good sound quality depends on your personal taste. Do you like a warm, well-rounded sound, or do you prefer ultra high-fidelity that allows you to hear every single detail of your music? Are you a dedicated bass head or a classical music junkie?

If you're all about that bass, you'll want to look out for dynamic drivers that displace lots of air, leading to a bassy soundstage. If detail is everything, look for large frequency ranges – 20Hz to 20 kHz is the standard, so anything larger than this may allow for more detail in the highs and lows. 

It's also important to consider the soundstage as a whole; if you love a wide, open sound, try a pair of open-back headphones. Worried about sound-leakage when you're in the company of others? Try a pair of closed-back cans with a secure fit to stop your tunes bothering the people around you.

As we mentioned, there are a few wireless and noise-cancelling headphones in this list – that's because the sound quality of these models is exceptional. Many over-ear headphones come with these quality-of-life features these days, although they're often pricier than their wired counterparts – if you can't live without these modern conveniences, make sure you're buying headphones with the latest Bluetooth technology and active noise cancellation. 

Design is also hugely important, as a good pair of over-ear headphones need to be comfortable for long listening sessions – look out for padded earcups and headbands in materials like memory foam for ultimate comfort. 

What are the best overall headphones?

The headphones in the top spot of this guide are the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro, and they are the best-sounding wired headphones that still offer decent value for money. However, if you're looking for the best all-rounders, our pick has to be the Sony WH-1000XM4, which combine stellar sound with active noise cancellation, wireless connectivity, audio upscaling, and a sleek design that's truly portable.

How much should I spend on headphones?

That really depends on your budget - you don't need to overstretch yourself to prices you can't really afford in your quest for great sound. There are plenty of excellent budget headphones under $100 / £100 / AU$150 - check out brands like Jabra and JBL if you want to keep costs down. High-spec wireless and noise-cancelling headphones tend to cost a little more than this. When you get to true audiophile headphones for analytical listening, the prices really start to shoot up - but these cans will last you decades if you look after them.

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