To find the best over-ear headphones of 2020 we researched more than 50 models before purchasing the 17 most promising, then spent over 100 hours listening to them all side-by-side. Throughout the process we listened to every genre of music available, listened to podcasts, and used each pair while watching movies on tablets and laptops. We also had multiple different people with varying sized heads and ears wear each pair for a full day to ascertain their relative comfort levels. Finally, we tested each model's ability to isolate the wearer from outside noise, as one of the biggest perks of over-ear cans is their ability to provide a quiet listening environment, even when there's a lot of hustle and bustle happening around you. Whether you're looking for an audiophile-approved premium listening experience, or just want an inexpensive way to enjoy music and concentrate better in your open office plan, we have you covered.
The Best Over-Ear Headphones of 2020
Bose Noise Cancelling 700
If we had to pick one pair of headphones to use for the rest of our lives, it would be the Bose Noise Cancelling 700. First off, the even sound profile and exceptional clarity make just about every genre of music sound great, whether you like soprano singers or bass-heavy ballads. That sound quality is backed up by impressive active noise cancellation that manages to make much of the cacophony of the world melt away without creating a weird feeling of pressure in your ears. Combine that with wireless capabilities and an extremely comfortable fit and you've got a pair of headphones that you can wear all day, every day, and anywhere.
Really the only downside to the Bose Noise Cancelling 700 is the hefty price tag, particularly considering that there are many models available that still sound good yet cost significantly less. However, if you're the type that wears headphones for multiple hours a day, the premium price is well worthwhile.
Read review: Bose Noise Cancelling 700
Best Bang for the Buck
Soundcore Life Q20
Punching above its weight class in every category, the Soundcore Life Q20 offers 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, as well as 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 when 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, these are the headphones for you.
Read review: Soundcore Life Q20
Best on a Tight Budget
Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear
Most people make the switch from earbuds to over-ear headphones for two reasons — comfort, and the modicum of noise isolation that covering one's ears provides. The Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear provides both for a bargain basement price. In fact, these are some of the most comfortable headphones we've worn, rivaling some of the premier models and even graciously accommodating those of us with larger noggins. The sound, while certainly not premium, feels fairly good for the price.
Obviously these cans can't compete with the sound produced by the models that cost 10 times as much. In comparison the low end shrinks to the background a bit and the upper registers can sound a bit thin and tinny. However, if you're looking for some headphones that sound good enough and that can comfortably be worn all-day on a budget, you can't do much better than the Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear.
Read review: Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear
Best for Clarity and Brightness
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, you'll likely love the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC. These headphones absolutely 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.
The biggest potential disappointment in choosing these headphones comes from the 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 effective enough to both 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 also employed multiple testers with all different sizes of heads and ears to wear each pair for a full day to determine long-term comfort. Finally we travelled with all of these headphones on planes, trains, and to noisey coffee shops to test their portability, ease of use, and ability to isolate from outside noise. All of our headphones were purchased at standard retail prices, 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 Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear and the Soundcore Life Q20 both offer decent sound at impressively low prices, with the latter even offering 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 great acoustics we think the high price tags of the Bose Noise Cancelling 700and the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC are well worthwhile.
Thanks to superior nose 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 listening was done back-to-back, quickly shifting through multiple models, so that we could accurately grade their relative bass, mid, and trebly quality, overall clarity, and fullness. We also threw some podcasts into the mix to see how accurately each could convey the dulcet tones of Jad Abumrad's voice.
Of the headphones we tested, we would consider three to be elite in terms of sound quality — the Bose Noise Cancelling 700, the older sibling and ever classic Bose QuietComfort 35II, and the creatively named Sony WH1000XM3. All of these models present fairly balanced sound profiles, meaning they don't accentuate or mask any particular frequency, leaving those decisions up to the recording artist you happen to be listening to. This, combined with great clarity and separation, allows all of these models to provide very accurate and high-quality depictions of whatever types of music you prefer.
If we were to really split hairs with these models we'd say the Bose Noise Cancelling 700 is the best of the bunch, offering the highest and most consistent quality in all registers. In comparison, the Bose QuietComfort 35II lacks just a bit of bass punch, and the Sony WH1000XM3 loses a bit of clarity, particularly at higher frequencies. However, these differences are minor and we wouldn't hesitate to recommend any of these models to those looking for top-notch sound quality.
Also an elite performer, the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC puts an emphasis on clarity. In the mid and high frequencies it has even better clarity and separation than the other top scoring models. This makes anything that isn't super bass-heavy --acoustic numbers, folk, jazz, etc.-- sound fantastic. However, this model has slightly lower bass response than the other top scorers, meaning bass-driven music like hip-hop and metal don't sound quite as full or powerful.
Just outside the top performers, both the Bose Soundlink Wireless II and the Jabra Elite 85h still provide great sound quality for slightly more reasonable prices. The former maintains the exception clarity of Bose's more expensive models, but drops a bit of the bass power. The latter provides plenty of well-defined bass power, but loses a bit of clarity in the higher registers.
A slew of models fell into an above-average but not exceptional range in our sound quality testing, the most notable being the Soundcore Life Q20. This model leans into a bass-forward sound that still flatters the upper registers enough to create a good soundscape, all for a much smaller price tag than the premium models.
Many people look to over-ear headphones to provide an acoustic barrier between themselves and the outside world, both to reduce audible distraction and to provide a better listening environment for their music. 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, while others rely solely on the earcups themselves to block noise. 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 more holistic real-world testing, wearing each pair while working in our open office, in crowded cafes, while travelling on busses and airplanes, and in busy train stations.
Unsurprisingly, the models that employ active noise cancellation fared better in our noise isolation tests. The best of the bunch was the Bose Noise Cancelling 700. These cans are able to 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 essentially disappear. Notbaly, all of this silence is accomplished with barely a trace of the odd feeling of pressure many active noise cancellers produce.
The Sony WH1000XM3's noise cancellation performs very similarly to that of the Bose Noise Canceling 700, but lets in a bit more of the higher pitched noises. It also creates more of that inner-ear pressure feeling, generally not to an uncomfortable degree, but to a more noticeable one than the Bose.
While the top performers in this category clearly stood out, even the relatively pedestrian noise isolation of the lower priced JBL Live 650BTNC and the budget Soundcore Life Q20 were able to block out enough ambient noise in most situations to significantly elevate the listening experience.
You're likely to wear over-ear headphones for long periods of time, 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 work day, and then assess any discomfort they may have experienced. While there are some differences between the padding used in each pair, we generally found the biggest differentiating factor to be size, as some headbands and earcups can comfortably accommodate larger heads and ears, and others simply cannot. 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 supple 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 WH1000XM3, 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 Anker Soundcore Life Q20 features big earcups with a lot of cushioning, akin to the design of the premium Bose models, which are cozy no matter your ear size. In fact, this is one of the few models we've found whose headband is a bit too large for those with smaller heads, but average to larger headed folk will likely find these headphones super comfortable. The bargain Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear also features cushy padding and large earcups that don't create any hot spots, no matter how big your ears are.
If your ears and head are average sized or smaller, you generally can't go too wrong with the fit of over-ear headphones, at least in our experience. However, every person is different, so we'd strongly suggest buying headphones from a retailer with a generous return policy, because even the best sounding headphones are a waste of money if you find them uncomfortable.
While we've never found a pair of headphones that are particularly difficult to use, 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 notable product in this category, as it uses an intuitive and responsive touch sensitive control pad to complete common functions. This both makes the headphones look more streamlined and simplifies things like volume control, as simply dragging a finger up and down to adjust volume feels more natural than pressing a button multiple times. The Sony WH1000XM3 and the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC also utilize touch sensitive controls, but we found them to be far less responsive than those on the Bose Noise Cancelling 700.
We also really like the auto-pause feature of the Jabra Elite 85h where music is automatically paused when you take the headphones off, and then starts up again the minute you put them back on. If you're using the headphones to make a call the microphone will mute when you take them off, and unmute when you put them back on. These headphones also have programmable "moments" that can automatically adjust noise cancellation settings based on the ambient noise around you. This feature can sometimes be finicky, but is useful when it works.
Over ear headphones tend to be at their best when on the go, whether that be while travelling, at the office, or on city commutes. Therefore we assessed how easy it was to tote each pair of (often very expensive) 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 travelling and commuting.
Most of these headphones are of a similar weight, and the vast majority of them 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, if you're spending an amount well into the triple digits, you're going to get a semi-rigid carrying case included with your headphones. All of the Bose models, the Sony WH1000XM3, the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC, and the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC fall into this category.
When you get lower down in price range, one of the first sacrifices tends to be the quality of the included case. Less expensive models tend to use soft cloth cases that really only guard against scratches, not against any sort of impact. These sorts of cases are fine for tossing the headphones in the top of your everyday bag, but aren't' quite cut out for long trips with overstuffed bags.
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 generally make your music listening more enjoyable, we hope our testing results have helped you find the right pair.
— Max Mutter and Michelle Powell