Best Over Ear Headphones of 2021
$248.00 at Amazon
$379.00 at Amazon
$299.00 at Amazon
$211.20 at Amazon
$499.00 at Amazon
|Pros||Superb active noise cancellation and overall sound quality, multipoint Bluetooth pairing, auto-pause, relatively comfortable for most people||Excellent sound quality, field-leading noise cancellation, comfortable||Great sound quality, good noise cancellation, comfortable, built-in Google Assistant||Great sound quality, great noise cancellation, comfortable, user friendly features||Great noise cancellation, high quality sound, very user-friendly when used with Apple products|
|Cons||Expensive||Expensive||Expensive||Expensive, both sound quality and noise cancellation fall just short of being the best in the field||Very expensive, pressure points above the ears, don't function as well with Android devices, no headphone jack|
|Bottom Line||Top-notch in terms of both noise cancellation and sound quality, it's hard to find a better listening experience||Pillowy comfort and one of the best personal listening experiences we've enjoyed from any device||Top of the line headphones that offer nearly everything you could want||Premium cans that offer unique features on top of great sound quality and noise cancellation||For the Apple aficionado, this model offers seamless integration with your iOS devices while providing a high-quality and immersive listening experience, plus exceptional noise cancellation|
|Rating Categories||Sony WH-1000XM4||Bose Noise Cancelli...||Bose QuietComfort 3...||Jabra Elite 85h||Apple AirPods Max|
|Sound Quality (30%)|
|Noise Isolation (25%)|
|User Friendliness (10%)|
|Specs||Sony WH-1000XM4||Bose Noise Cancelli...||Bose QuietComfort 3...||Jabra Elite 85h||Apple AirPods Max|
|Manufacturer reported battery life (hours)||30||20||40 wired, 20 BT||36||20|
|Measured weight (ounces)||8.8||9.2||10.9||10.5||13.6|
|Included case||Semi-hard case||Semi-hard case||Semi-hard case||Semi-hard case||Pouch to hold ear cups|
|Earcup padding cover material||Foamed urethane/leatherette||Leather||Synthetic protein leather||Leatherette||Mesh textile|
|Charging cable length (inches)||7.9"||42"||47.2"||12"||39"|
|Microphone for voice?||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Onboard buttons||Volume, change track, take/make calls||Volume, play/pause, forward/back, noise cancelling, voice assistant, power/bluetooth, answer/decline/mute calls||Volume, play/pause, forward/back, noise cancelling||Volume, play/pause, forward/back, noise cancelling, voice assistant, power/bluetooth, answer/decline/mute calls, toggle between sound modes||Volume, play/pause, forward/back, Siri, noise canceling/transparency, bluetooth pairing|
Best Overall Over Ear Headphones
Most people upgrade from earbuds to over ear headphones in search of better sound quality and more sound isolation. If you're looking for the best possible experience in both of those categories, we highly recommend the Sony WH-1000XM4. These headphones offer effective noise cancellation as well as clear and detailed audio quality throughout all of our tests. This gave us a new appreciation of familiar songs and provided us with a quiet and distraction-free listening environment. The audiophiles among us were very satisfied. Those looking for top-notch features won't be disappointed, either.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 are premium headphones and they ask a correspondingly premium price. Additionally, the earcups are just a bit smaller and less padded than those of the top Bose models, so if you have larger ears you may want to direct your attention there. However, if you're willing to pay a bit extra for top-tier headphones we highly doubt you can do much better than the Sony WH-1000XM4.
Read review: Sony WH-1000XM4
Most Comfortable Premium Over Ear Headphones
Bose Noise Cancelling 700
The Bose Noise Cancelling 700 headphones offer both noise cancellation and overall sound quality that, in our opinion, are just barely short of top-notch. They back that performance up with very large and ergonomically shaped earcups with ample padding swaddled in supple faux leather, providing an incredibly comfortable and luxurious fit. That's not to say that other premium headphones aren't comfortable, almost all of them are, but the Bose Noise Cancelling 700 takes it to another level.
Unfortunately, all that comfort comes at a pretty hefty price. A price, in fact, that is often a bit higher than that of some models that sound slightly better. However, if you're willing to make small sacrifices in sound quality and cost to get premium headphones with the best chance of providing you with long-term comfort, we think the Bose Noise Cancelling 700 is well worth the price.
Read review: Bose Noise Cancelling 700
Best Bang for the Buck
Soundcore Life Q20
The Soundcore Life Q20 punches above its weight class in every category, offering one of the best values currently on the market. For just a fraction of what the premium models cost, these headphones provide a well-balanced and smooth sound and some of the most effective active noise cancellation we've ever seen in this price range. Perhaps most notably, they also buck the budget model trend of small, claustrophobic earcups in favor of ample space and fluffy padding.
While we think these headphones sound great, they certainly have drawbacks compared to many of the higher-end models. Namely, they lose some clarity in the vocals, and in very bassy tracks, the low end can get a bit muddled. The noise cancellation also lets in more voices than slightly pricier versions of the technology do. However, these are only slight imperfections and certainly not flaws that ruin the overall listening experience. If you're looking for all-day comfort, good sound, and reasonable noise cancellation at a low price, then look no further than the Soundcore Life Q20.
Read review: Soundcore Life Q20
Best Headphones for Dedicated Apple Users
Apple AirPods Max
If you're dedicated to the ecosystem of products produced by Apple, you're in luck when it comes to over-ear headphones, as the Apple Airpods Max sound like a dream, have excellent noise cancelation, and are very user-friendly when paired with iPhones, iPads, and Macbooks. Equipped with several mics, a gyroscope, and even an accelerometer, these headphones have plenty of data inputs to adjust EQ based on what you're listening to, dynamically fine-tune the noise cancellation, and pause your music or movie when you remove them. The button and dial controls are intuitive and provide a more satisfying degree of feedback than touch-sensitive controls.
All the tech crammed into these headphones comes at a steep price, and the Airpods Max cost significantly more than their top-scoring, arguably better-sounding competition, but we're willing to bet that Apple fanatics will fork over a bit extra for the integration with their other Apple devices. That leaves our main gripe, that the earcups don't provide a perfectly even seal, as the main detraction from this model. There is more pressure at the top of the earcups, allowing for some sound leakage at the bottom. That aside, these headphones have the quality and features that keep Apple fans loyal, and they won't disappoint that crowd.
Read review Apple Airpods Max
Best Wired Model
Opting for a pair of wired headphones can often get you excellent sound quality for a lot less than competing wireless models. The Audio-Technica ATH-M50x is perhaps the best example of this. These headphones produce exceptional sound, balancing sharp, punchy bass with phenomenal clarity and separation in the higher registers. With a corded pair of headphones, you're guaranteed fast and lossless audio that's key for podcasters and recording artists. these headphones are comfortable, and we like that they come with multiple different lengths and styles of detachable cables included.
The Audio-Technica ATH-M50x is a bit less portable than many wireless models on the market due to its required cable and inability to fold up particularly small — not to mention that it includes no carrying case beyond a cloth bag. It also lacks active noise isolation. While the earcups block some sound, we often found ourselves cranking the volume higher to drown out ambient noise. These headphones are an excellent choice for those seeking exceptional sound quality and not bothered with wireless functionality or noise cancellation.
Read review: Audio-Technica ATH-M50x
Best for Clarity and Brightness
beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC
You'll likely love the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC if you're one whose attention instantly goes to the vocals, violins, acoustic guitars, or any other mid to higher-pitched instruments in an ensemble. These headphones flatter the mid and treble frequencies, imbuing them with a clear brilliance that suggests the musician is sitting right next to you. This is balanced by a defined low-end that, while not overpowering, gets the job done. If your musical preferences lean towards dynamics and nuance rather than teeth-rattling bass, you'll appreciate the Lagoon ANC.
The biggest disappointment in choosing these headphones comes from active noise cancellation. When shopping in this price range, one would be reasonable to expect a bit better performance at blocking out voices and typing noises. However, we still found the noise cancellation useful enough to limit distractions and improve our listening experience in noisy environments. Plus, if you're mostly here for the impressive clarity, the noise cancellation just feels like a bonus.
Read review: Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC
Why you Should Trust Us
In designing our sound quality testing process, we consulted with Palmer Taylor, who has been working as a professional sound recordist since 2005. In that time, he has worked on music composition and recording and has completed location audio projects for clients such as ESPN, Apple, and National Geographic. Reviewers Michelle Powell and Max Mutter have now used that testing process to assess the quality of more than 130 personal audio products.
To complete this review, we spent hundreds of hours listening to dozens of headphones in a side-by-side manner, meticulously critiquing their relative clarity and overall quality in every frequency. We traveled with all of these headphones on planes, trains, and noisy coffee shops to test their portability, ease of use, and ability to isolate from outside noise. All of our headphones were purchased: our testing results are never influenced by manufacturer freebies.
Related: How We Tested Headphones
Analysis and Test Results
We divided our over-ear headphone tests and resulting scores into five weighted metrics. We gave the most clout to sound quality, comfort, and noise isolation — the three things you'll notice most when using your headphones. We assigned less weight to user-friendliness and portability as these are two things that can be differentiating and significant in certain circumstances but are generally less noticeable in day-to-day use.
If your budget is more at the shoestring level, the Soundcore Life Q20 offers decent sound at an impressively low price and doesn't skimp on key features like active noise cancellation. If you want truly premium sound, you are going to have to pay a corresponding price premium, but for those that value excellent acoustics, we think the high price tags of the Sony WH-1000XM4, the Bose Noise Cancelling 700, Apple Airpods Max, and the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC are well worthwhile. If you can deal with wires, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x provides great sound quality for much less than the elite wireless models.
Thanks to superior noise isolation and proximity to your ears, over ear headphones can produce some fantastic listening experiences. To assess sound quality, we listened to a range of music, from bass-heavy thumpers to balanced melodies, and higher-pitched acoustic numbers, with each pair of headphones. All of this was done back-to-back, quickly shifting through multiple models, so that we could accurately grade their relative bass, mid, and treble quality, overall clarity, and fullness.
We've tested several headphones that we think sound great. However, sound quality is a somewhat subjective thing, and each of these headphones appeals to different tastes and preferences. The Sony WH-1000XM4 is perhaps the most universally loved headphones in our review. These headphones manage to maintain power, balance, and clarity throughout the bass, mid, and treble frequencies, making for an incredibly detailed listening experience. Additionally, this evenness throughout allows you to adjust the EQ any way you want — super bassy or high and bright — and still get fantastic sound quality.
The Bose Noise Cancelling 700 offers a similarly high-quality listening experience to the Sony WH-1000XM4. However, it leans into a more bass-forward and warmer palette, losing a bit of its quality if you adjust the EQ too far away from that.
The Audio-Technica ATH-M50x is arguably the best sounding pair of headphones we tested. These headphones emphasize the bass and treble ranges, producing a powerful yet controlled low end and an incredible amount of detail in vocals and higher guitar riffs. This creates a broad and engaging soundscape. However, some people can find that extra brightness and detail in the upper registers a bit taxing to listen to, preferring a warmer overall sound.
The Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC sounds quite similar to the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, but with slightly less bass power. In the upper registers, it sounds exceptionally clear and bright.
Many people look to over ear headphones to provide an acoustic barrier between themselves and the outside world. Some of the models we tested employ active noise cancellation, a technology that pipes in sound waves opposite to the ambient noise around you to cancel that noise out. To test this, we began by sitting next to a fan whirring at 70 decibels while wearing each pair, carefully noting how much of the fan noise made it to our ears. We then conducted real-world testing, wearing each pair while working in our open office, in crowded cafes, while traveling on busses and airplanes, and in busy train stations.
It was no surprise that models employing active noise cancellation fared better in our noise isolation tests. The best of the bunch was the Sony WH-1000XM4. These cans can effectively cancel well over 90% of ambient noise in most situations. Case in point, even without music playing, we were barely able to notice coworkers talking just 5 feet away at the adjacent desk. The hum of airplane engines and the clack of railroad tracks virtually disappear.
The Bose Noise Canceling 700's noise cancellation performs very similarly to that of the Sony WH-1000XM4, but lets in just a bit more noise when the ambient cacophony gets particularly loud. The Apple Airpods Max also offers great noise cancellation but suffers slightly due to the uneven fit of their earcups.
You're likely to wear over-ear headphones for long periods, say while working in the office, or on a long flight; therefore, they need to be comfortable. To find the most comfortable pair, we had multiple people with different head and ear shapes and sizes wear each model for a full workday and then assess any discomfort they may have experienced. We generally found the most significant differentiating factor to be size, thus the higher scoring models in this metric are generally the ones that are friendly to both large and small ears alike.
In general, the higher-priced models we tested provide both large earcups and more flexible headbands that can easily accommodate large heads and ears without creating uncomfortable hot spots but can also slim down to fit snugly on smaller heads as well. This includes all of the Bose models, the Sony WH-1000XM4, and the Jabra Elite 85h.
Luckily there are more reasonably priced models that are friendly to those with big noggins as well. For instance, the Soundcore Life Q20 features large earcups with a lot of cushioning, akin to the design of the premium Bose models, which are cozy no matter your ear size.
While we've never found a pair of particularly difficult headphones, there are certainly some that make things a bit easier than others. To score user friendliness, we had multiple testers run through an interface obstacle course with each model, pairing them with their phones, adjusting volume, skipping tracks, and summoning virtual assistants with the on-headphone controls and using any associated mobile apps that unlock advanced features and customization.
The Bose Noise Cancelling 700 is the most unique product in this category, as it uses an intuitive and responsive touch-sensitive control pad to complete standard functions. The Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC also utilize touch-sensitive controls, but we found them to be a bit less responsive. The Sony adds a sensor that automatically pauses music when you take the headphones off, a feature we ended up loving.
Ironically, the Apple Airpods Max headphones don't employ any touch-sensitive controls. Instead, they rely on buttons and a dial that provide great tactile feedback. When paired with other Apple products, they automatically pause any media automatically, be it Netflix or Youtube, so you won't miss a word.
Over ear headphones tend to be at their best when on the go, whether while traveling, at the office, or on city commutes. Therefore we assessed how easy it was to tote each pair of (often costly) headphones along with us during our daily lives. We accomplished this by weighing each model, measuring how small they fold up, grading the protective qualities of any included cases, and taking them along while traveling and commuting.
Most of these headphones are of similar weight, and the vast majority fold up to some extent. Therefore, the most differentiating factor tends to be the included carrying case. Stiffer cases that securely hold the headphones in places provide more peace of mind when shoving the headphones into an already over-stuffed carry-on. In general, you're going to get a semi-rigid carrying case included with your headphones if you're spending an amount well into the triple digits. All of the Bose models, the Sony WH-1000XM4, the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC, and the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC fall into this category.
A good pair of over ear headphones can quickly become a treasured, everyday accessory. Whether you're looking for a pair to block out the din of the world or to make your music listening more enjoyable in general, we hope our testing results have helped you find the right pair.
— Max Mutter and Michelle Powell