To find the best over-ear headphones available today, we researched more than 50 models before purchasing the 12 most promising, then spent over 100 hours listening to them all side-by-side. We listened to music podcasts and used each pair while watching movies. Our team of varying head sizes and ear shapes wore each pair for a full day to ascertain their relative comfort levels. Finally, we tested each model's noise cancellation capabilities in noisy cafes and airports. 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.
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 and clear and detailed audio quality throughout all of our tests. This ability 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.
For premium quality, you will also pay a correspondingly premium price. If you have larger ears, you should note the earcups are just a smidge smaller and less padded than those of the top Bose models, so you may want to steer your attention in that direction instead. Yet, if you're willing to pay a little extra for top-tier noise cancelling headphones, we highly doubt you can do much better than the Sony WH-1000XM4.
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 high price and one that is higher than headphones that sound slightly better. However, if you don't mind 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 investment in the end.
The Soundcore Life Q20 punches above its weight class in every category, offering one of the best values available on the market. For just a fraction of the price of premium models, these wireless headphones provide a well-balanced and smooth sound and some of the most effective active noise cancellation our testers have seen within its price range. Perhaps most notably, they also buck the budget model trend of small, claustrophobic earcups in favor of ample space and fluffy padding.
Our testers agree the Soundcore Life Q20 sounds great. Yet this model has notable shortcomings compared to the higher-end competitors. Namely, they lose some clarity in the vocals, and in very bassy tracks, the low end can sound somewhat muddled. The noise cancellation also lets in more voices than slightly pricier versions of the same technology. However, these imperfections are minor and certainly not flaws that ruin the overall listening experience. If you desire all-day comfort, good sound, and reasonable noise cancellation at an affordable price, then the Soundcore Life Q20 is a prime selection.
Not as user-friendly when paired with Android devices
Earcups could fit better
If you're dedicated to the ecosystem of Apple, you're in luck when it comes to over-ear headphones. The Apple Airpods Max sounds like a dream, has excellent noise cancellation, and is 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 the Airpods Max comes at a premium price, which is significantly more than the top-scoring, arguably better-sounding competition. Still, we're willing to bet that Apple fanatics will fork over the extra dollars for integrating their other Apple devices. That leaves our main gripe that the earcups fail to provide a perfectly even seal, which is the primary detraction from these headphones. We found 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.
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.
The Audio-Technica ATH-M50x is slightly less portable than many top-ranked wireless headphone on the market due to its required cable and inability to fold up relatively small — not to mention that the only carrying case is a cloth bag. Additionally, it lacks active noise isolation. While the earcups block some sound, our testers frequently needed to crank the volume up to drown out ambient noise. If you're seeking exceptional sound quality and not bothered with wireless functionality or noise cancellation, these headphones are an excellent choice.
We've bought and tested more than 150 personal audio devices over the years. Our testing methodology puts each product through extensive multi-point performance analysis to rate and rank each headphone for sound quality and more. Among our five weighted test metrics, we gave the most clout to sound quality, comfort, and noise isolation — the three things you'll notice most when using your headphones. Sound quality includes sub-testing for fullness (40% of total sound quality metric), clarity (35% of sound quality scoring), and bass (25% of sound quality) to give a full-spectrum analysis for better side-by-side comparisons of products. Accounting for less of each product's total score is user-friendliness and portability, which can be differentiating and significant in certain circumstances but are generally less noticeable in day-to-day use.
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.
Our headphone tests are divided across five rating metrics:
Sound Quality tests (30% of overall score weighting)
Noise Isolation tests (25% weighting)
Comfort tests (25% weighting)
User Friendliness tests (10% weighting)
Portability tests (10% weighting)
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 150 personal audio products.
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 will have to pay a corresponding price premium. Still, for those that value excellent acoustics, we think the high price tags of the Sony WH-1000XM4, the Bose Noise Cancelling 700, and the Apple Airpods Max 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. We listened to a range of music to assess sound quality, 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 to 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 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 incredible 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.
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 the ambient noise around you to cancel out that 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 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 barely noticed 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 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 an entire workday and then assess any discomfort they experienced. We generally found the most significant differentiating factor to be the size; thus, the higher-scoring models in this metric are typically the ones that are friendly to large and small ears alike. However, if you can't stand something on your head for long periods, earbuds might be more your speed.
In general, the higher-priced models we tested provide large earcups and flexible headbands that easily accommodate large heads and ears without creating uncomfortable hot spots. They can also slim down to fit snugly on smaller heads as well. This includes all of the Bose models and the Sony WH-1000XM4.
Luckily, there are more reasonably priced models that are friendly to those with big noggins. 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 also utilize touch-sensitive controls, but we found them to be a bit less responsive. They have 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 provides great tactile feedback. When paired with other Apple products, they automatically pause any media automatically, be it Netflix or Youtube, so that you won't miss a word.
Over ear headphones tend to be at their best when on the go, whether 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 place 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 and the Sony WH-1000XM4 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, no matter what headphone style they might be.
GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.