Whether it’s to psyche yourself up for a run, lose yourself on a hike, or escape the constant whine and chatter of air travel, music makes everything better. But, the right listening experience requires the right headphones. Here are our picks for the best headphones for every budget and listener style in 2021.
Best Overall Headphones
Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise-Canceling Overhead Headphones
After 18 months of testing, we still love Bose’s industry-leading 700 headphones (our #2 pick for best headphones overall). But, Sony’s fantastic WH-1000XM4 wireless headphones eke out the win for best overall headphones. They boast all of the same features, including a sleek design, superb audio, better noise-canceling tech, touch sensor controls, and a soft, comfortable fit. They also deliver a whopping 30 hours of wireless playback (more than enough for even the longest of long-haul flights), plus a quick 10-minute charge is enough for five hours of playback. The best part is that they’re around $60 less than the Bose 700. They’re our pick for the best headphones overall and arguably the best headphones for travel too.
Best Overall Headphones (Runner-Up)
Bose Noise Cancelling Wireless Bluetooth Headphones 700
More than 18 months after they dropped in the U.S., Bose’s Headphones 700 continue to impress. With 11 levels of active noise-cancellation, they effectively drown out everything from chatty coworkers to airplane engines to screeching subway noise. The sound is crisp, deep, and lifelike whether you’re listening to podcasts, Zeppelin, or Bach. The lightweight steel construction is durable and packable, while soft angled earcups provide a perfect all-day fit. Plus, they deliver nearly 20 hours of wireless audio on a single charge.
Best Luxury Headphones
Ultrasone Edition M Plus Headphones
Ultrasone has long been popular overseas with DJs, recording studios, and high-resolution audio enthusiasts. This year, the Bavarian brand made the leap across the pond, bringing some of the world’s swankiest, most premium headphones Stateside. The Ultrasone Edition M Plus Headphones are a world apart from even the most popular brands in the U.S. Proprietary S-Logic Plus technology delivers strong bass and a more spatial audioscape, while 40mm titanium-coated transducers promise a wider range and clearer sound overall. Plus, the soft sheep leather cushions help dampen ambient noise and feel like pillows over your ears by adjusting to any head shape. These are the best headphones to buy if only the best will do, and money is no object.
Best Modular Headphones
AIAIAI TMA-2 HD Wireless Headphones
“Upgrading” your headphones usually means tossing the old and buying an entirely new pair, which can get pricey. AIAIAI takes a smarter approach with a modular catalog. Start with the TMA-2 HD Wireless, the company’s flagship headphones. They deliver precise sound representation with rich lows and highly detailed mids and highs — all transmitted wirelessly using HD 24-bit quality with 18 hours of playback time. Plus, buttery soft Alcantara over-ear cushions provide comfortable wear for all-day listening sessions. If you ever need to upgrade the headband, earcups, or speaker unit, just buy the piece you need and keep everything else.
Best Ultralight Headphones
RHA TrueControl ANC Earbuds
RHA is a little-known brand in the States. But, this Scottish audio shop has been making some of our favorite headphones and earbuds for years. New for 2020 are the RHA TrueControl ANC. These flagship earbuds are lightweight and ultra-packable, making them perfect for minimalist travelers. They pack all the latest and best headphone tech — wireless charging, IPX4 water-resistance, and next-gen Bluetooth with aptX and AAC — into a compact package. What’s more, they last for five hours on a single charge, with the included charging case delivering 20 hours total playtime.
Most Eco-Conscious Headphones
House of Marley Redemption ANC Headphones
New for 2020, House of Marley’s Redemption ANC are an upgrade to its popular Liberate Air earbuds. The next-gen edition boasts many of the same features but adds active noise-cancellation to the mix. The new stem design also ensures a more comfortable and anchored fit during more active pursuits. Even more important is the company’s use of environmentally-friendly materials like bamboo, natural wood fiber composite (sourced from sawdust), and recycled silicone. They’re a kinder, greener alternative to Apple’s AirPods Pro.
Best Budget Earbuds
JLab Audio Epic Air ANC True Wireless Earbuds
JLab Audio is proving you don’t need to drop $300-plus for a pair of durable, great-sounding, wireless headphones. The company’s Epic Air ANC True Wireless Earbuds deliver all the most important features — active noise-canceling, customizable audio, wireless charging, and nearly 50 hours of playback — in a compact, affordable set of earbuds. Coupled with IP55 sweat- and water-resistance, they’re among the best headphones for runners. At less than $100, they’re practically a steal.
Best Retro-Look Headphones
Marshall Major IV Wireless Bluetooth Headphones
Marshall has a long history of creating legendary speakers and headphones. The company’s latest Bluetooth wireless cans, the Major IV, are the next iteration in its best-selling Major series. The newest edition brings the brand’s five-plus decades of experience to bear. The Major IV deliver incredible audio courtesy of custom-tuned dynamic drivers for deep bass, smooth mids, and crisp highs. We love the handsome, textured, retro-contemporary design and, with an eye-popping 80 hours of wireless playtime, you won’t need to take them off to recharge any time soon.
Best Headphones for Sleep
Bose Sleepbuds II
It seems strange to buy a pair of headphones or earbuds just for sleeping. But, Bose has always been a little “forward-thinking” (read unconventional). Unlike every alternative on this list, the company’s renewed Sleepbuds II lean more on their noise-canceling tech than their ability to recreate studio-quality sound. The tiny buds are designed to fit comfortably in your ear for all-night wear. Using the dedicated Bose Sleep App, you then select from three different sound types to help you fall asleep. Noise Masking sounds help drown out ambient noise; Naturescapes are soothing nature sounds like falling rain or rustling leaves; and Tranquilities are the sort of tinkling new-agey music you’d hear at any modern spa. They’re pricey for a gadget that does just one thing. But, for hard-luck sleepers who have tried everything, they can be a godsend.
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