Our audio experts have tested more than 31 wireless headphones over the years. For this review, we purchased 11 of the best headphones on the market for side-by-side testing. Our team spent more than 200 hours comparing sound quality in our lab, testing noise isolation in crowded cafes and airports, and employing a panel of testers to rate their overall comfort and user-friendliness. Our combination of real-world testing and laboratory-style analysis informs our expert recommendations, and this in-depth review will help guide you to the right pair of headphones based on your needs and budget.
Active Noise Cancelling: Yes | Battery Life: 30 hours
REASONS TO BUY
Impressive sound quality
Top-notch noise cancellation
Long battery life
REASONS TO AVOID
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is the latest iteration of a long line of great headphones, and it completely lives up to its manufacturer's reputation. Their sound quality is superb, providing crystal clear expression through the low, mid, and treble frequencies and offering a fine-tuned EQ that can balance that sound in any way you'd like. The noise cancellation is top of the line, providing us with a nearly silent listening environment throughout our testing, regardless of the amount of ambient noise. Sony also added some extra padding around the ears, which gives these a slightly more comfortable fit. These are our favorite daily-wear headphones, thanks to some user-friendly touches like the ability to connect to two Bluetooth devices at once and a sensor that automatically pauses your music when you take the headphones off.
The only bone we have to pick with these wireless headphones is their price. However, they're still not the most expensive on the market. Given their high level of performance and comfort, we think it's a reasonable ask. Those with larger ears may find the tips of their ears rubbing against the sides of the earcups, but our large-eared testers didn't find this sensation overly annoying. Bottom line, if you want a pair of top-notch headphones and are willing to pay accordingly, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is sure to please.
Active Noise Cancelling: Yes | Battery Life: 20 hours
REASONS TO BUY
Excellent sound quality
Top-tier noise cancellation
REASONS TO AVOID
Investing in a pair of premium headphones only to find that they aren't perfectly comfortable is a bummer. Enter the Bose Noise Cancelling 700. Of all the top-of-the-line models we've tested, these have been the most universally beloved in terms of comfort. This comfort is due primarily to their large and ergonomic ear cups and deep, plush padding. Additionally, these headphones offer top-tier (if slightly short of field-leading) sound quality and active noise cancellation.
The price is the clear drawback to the Bose Noise Cancelling 700, as is universal when talking about high-end wireless headphones. These headphones are among the priciest wireless models, ringing up slightly more than many comparable models. However, if you're in the market for a pair of premium cans and typically struggle to find a comfortable fit, these will likely be worth every penny.
Active Noise Cancelling: Yes | Battery Life: 40 hours
REASONS TO BUY
Good active noise cancellation
REASONS TO AVOID
Lacks some clarity in mid and higher frequencies
Headband too large for smaller heads
Soundcore is known for making decently performing audio products available at an approachable price, and the Soundcore Life Q20 headphones do not disappoint. Resonant yet controlled bass sets a solid foundation for a warm overall sound that lent itself to pretty much any music genre. That sound is backed up by active noise cancellation. It's not the best in the field, but it does enough to turn crowded plane cabins and noisy terminals into more favorable listening environments. Perhaps most importantly, the large ear cups and ample padding provide all-day comfort, which can be a rarity in budget headphones.
Regarding sound quality, our main gripe with the Soundcore Life Q20 is that they have a lower level of clarity that does not always flatter vocals. And while the noise cancellation is impressive for the price range, the difference between the Life Q20 and competing high-end models is pretty obvious. Still, it's better than no ANC altogether. We also must point out that this model has a larger headband — even in its smallest configuration, it may be a bit too long for those with smaller heads. But, all things considered, we think these headphones sound great, and when it comes to balancing price and performance, they are one of the best values currently on the market.
Active Noise Cancelling: Yes | Battery Life: 20 hours
REASONS TO BUY
Excellent sound quality
Seamless integration with Apple devices
Great control set
Exemplary noise cancellation
REASONS TO AVOID
Several features unavailable when paired with an Android device
Could be more comfortable
Smart case doesn't protect headphones much
The Apple AirPods Max deliver what you have come to expect from this tech company—innovative features, slick design, and seamless integration with other products in the Apple ecosystem. Once initially paired with your device(s), these headphones connect as soon as you take them out of their protective sleeve and set them on your noggin, where they'll continue to crank out high-quality sound for up to 20 hours. There is no need to mess with Bluetooth settings to dive into your music, a nice convenience. Nine built-in microphones, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope ensure that the noise cancellation is functioning properly, automatically optimize equalization, notify your device to pause your media when you take the headphones off, and automatically start things back up when you put them back on again. The motion-sensing tech also allows for a more immersive theater-like experience when watching movies and TV. A volume wheel/button combo and an additional button that toggles the noise-canceling features are the only controls on the headphones. They are simple, intuitive, and allow you to skip tracks or summon Siri with a few taps; no awkward swiping is required.
Despite the obviously high amount of research and development put into these futuristic headphones, our testers found room for improvement, most notably in terms of fit. The earcups don't provide an even seal around the ears, causing pressure points above the ears. These are also the heaviest headphones in our lineup by three ounces. If you aren't immersed in the world of Apple devices, we highly recommend one of the top-performing models from Sony or Bose, as we found that several convenient features do not work when paired with an Android device. The price is a big elephant in the room when considering a pair of AirPods Max, as other top-performing models offer similar sound quality for less dough. Still, in terms of pure user experience, these are as good as it gets for Apple loyalists.
We've purchased and tested more than 150 audio products, including headphones, earbuds, and speakers. Our extensive testing puts each product through a multi-point performance analysis to rate sound quality and so much more. We conducted over 200 hours of real-world testing to complete this review. This process involved using the headphones in the office, coffee shops, and on transatlantic flights. In addition to this holistic testing, we also meticulously evaluated the sound quality and comfort, listening to a wide array of music with every pair of headphones, side-by-side, one right after the other. The bevy of information we gleaned from these tests informed the scores we gave to all of our headphones and has allowed us to identify the best pair for almost every application.
Wireless headphones undergo more than 15 individual tests to rate their performance. The most important test metric is the Sound Quality score, which makes up 30% of the overall score. Our Sound Quality rating comprises tests for clarity, bass, and fullness. This review also utilizes extensive research and reported observations from multiple testers to analyze each product's performance.
Our testing of wireless headphones is divided across five test metrics:
Sound Quality tests (30% of overall score weighting)
Noise Isolation tests (25% weighting)
Comfort tests (25% weighting)
User Friendlinesstests (10% weighting)
Portability (10% weighting)
To dial in our audio testing process, we consulted with sound recordist Palmer Taylor. Palmer has been working with sound since 2005, focusing on location audio while also completing music composition and recording projects. In that time, he has recorded audio for such clients as National Geographic, ESPN, and Apple. Steven Tata, Michelle Powell, and Max Mutter served as the lead testers and writers for this review. This trio features lifelong musicians and audio analysts who have been leading our audio product testing since 2016. In that time, they've listened to more than 150 of the most highly regarded consumer audio products on the market.
Analysis and Test Results
A good pair of wireless headphones can cancel out the dissonance of modern society and let you enjoy work and playtime in your private bubble of rich, unadulterated music or silence — it is your choice. However, a bad pair can make your ears itch and offer little improvement over the sound of the free earbuds that came with your phone.
As far as sound quality per dollar goes, you cannot do much better than the Soundcore Life Q20. These cans offer above-average sound quality and noise cancellation for an incredibly reasonable price. They provide a great introduction to the features that the high-end models boast, though each feature is a clear step behind the functionality of the high-priced competition. The Sony WH-1000XM4 offers the best overall value for those with a little more cash to spare. While they are far from inexpensive, they offer the best performance for most consumers without being the most expensive model on the market.
What About EMF?
All wireless devices create an electromagnetic field (EMF). With the recent increase of wireless devices, there has been some concern about how those EMFs may be affecting our health. The National Institute of Health classifies the EMFs emitted by small electronics as "…generally perceived as harmless to humans", with no solid data that directly links exposure to the low levels of EMF created by personal electronic devices to any adverse health issues.
That being said, we know some people still prefer to limit their exposure to EMFs. In measuring our wireless headphones, we found that, on average, they produce roughly three times as much EMF exposure as a cell phone call (which we measured at 2 V/m). Luckily many of these headphones offer wired connections as well, so you can drastically reduce the EMF level by plugging in the headphones if you're just sitting at your desk.
A good pair of over-ear, wireless headphones provide a listening experience that rivals, or even surpasses, what a high-end sound system can offer because they can isolate you from ambient noise. After testing multiple categories of audio products, we have found that clarity and bass quality seem to significantly influence whether or not most people think something sounds good. Therefore, we focus most of our testing on these attributes, paying careful attention to the clarity and bass while listening to everything from folk music to dubstep, and from hip-hop to podcasts, on each pair of headphones.
Our overall favorite sound comes from the Sony WH-1000XM4. These cans pull detail and nuance out of the low, mid, and high frequencies, providing an incredibly sharp and immersive listening experience. That broadness of detail also lets you better customize the sound. Prefer a warmer, bass-forward tone? A few adjustments of the EQ (via the associated app) is all it takes. Prefer things on the brighter side? Same deal. We were borderline blown away by the quality, no matter how we adjusted the sound, and it only gets better when you engage the impressive active noise cancellation.
Just a small step down from the Sony WH-1000XM4 is the Bose Noise Cancelling 700. If pressed, we give the Sony WH-1000XM4 a slight edge in both bass power and overall clarity, but the headphones are about even for all intents and purposes. We ranked the Bose headphones slightly lower because they lean into the warmer, more bass-forward sound that has earned Bose its huge following. The flatter frequency response of the Sony WH-1000XM4, though, is more amenable to broader customization.
Though ousted from the top of the podium by newer models, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II remains better than the vast majority of the options on the market. The acute clarity and deep yet defined rumble of its signature Bose bass make for a fantastic listening experience. In fact, the QuietComfort 35 II sounds as good as the top models. The slight advances in noise-canceling technology are the only thing that makes the overall experience of some newer models a little better.
The Bose SoundLink Wireless II have all of the exceptional clarity you would expect from Bose but lack just a bit of the higher-end models' bass power. Though some tracks with many low-end can sound relatively shallow, their overall sound is still far superior to most headphones on the market.
The Apple AirPods Max provide excellent sound quality, with several internal mics constantly monitoring the sound while making tiny adjustments to optimize the equalization. The result is consistent clarity across musical genres and podcasts. You have to rely on Apple's equalization decisions, though, as you cannot customize the EQ yourself.
The Jabra Elite 85h also scores quite high for sound quality. This model produces fantastic articulation and power in the low end but falls just behind the top scorers when it comes to clarity in the mid and high ranges.
The Beats Solo3 and the Beats Studio3 boast strong clarity, falling just slightly short of the Bose models in that respect. Because of this, podcasts and acoustic numbers should sound quite good. However, they provide weaker bass, resulting in a very crisp sound but lacking some fullness, especially for bass-heavy tracks. Conversely, the Soundcore Life Q20 has better bass but slightly lower clarity than the Beats models. That makes this model a good value for those seeking decent bass on a budget.
We find it important to stress that none of the headphones we tested sounded terrible, even the models that scored lowest in the sound quality metric. Still, in our side-by-side tests, the difference between the best and worst sounding products is quite apparent and significantly affects audio enjoyment.
Noise Isolation and Cancellation
In a world full of distractions, one of the main reasons to opt for over-ear headphones rather than earbuds is their ability to block out ambient noise more effectively, elevating the quality of your music and making it easier to concentrate. Noise isolation comes with any product that physically covers your ears, creating passive noise reduction in the process. Products in this category increasingly provide active noise cancellation(ANC), which utilizes external microphones to listen to the surrounding environment and play mirror opposite sound waves into your ears to cancel out that ambient noise. We started our noise isolation testing by wearing each pair of headphones, one after another, next to a fan that created exactly 70 dB of sound and noted how much noise each was able to block. We repeated this test with ANC turned on for the headphones that offer it. We rounded things out by conducting hours of real-world testing with each pair to find which effectively blocked out the world and which left us annoyed by the din of modern life, using them in crowded coffee shops, our bustling office, and in airports and train stations.
The top scorer in our noise isolation testing was the Sony WH-1000XM4. These headphones offer some of the best active noise cancellation we have ever experienced, easily cutting out the bustle of a crowded train station or the din of an overly noisy home office.
The Bose Noise Cancelling 700 achieves excellent noise reduction in most situations (bustling coffee shop, an office full of chatty co-workers, etc.) even without music playing. Only the loudest, most sudden noises are slightly noticeable. Also significant, these phones provide this level of cancellation without a hint of the odd pressure you usually feel in your ears with full-blown active noise cancellation. When you're on a phone call, there is even an automatic "self voice" setting that kicks in and blocks out all noise except your voice. This ensures that you sound more natural than screaming into the phone because you can't hear yourself.
Earning a respectable assessment in our nose isolation testing is the Bose Quietcomfort 35 II, which is long the standard-bearer of consumer noise-canceling headphones. The noise-canceling technology in these phones manages to easily dampen predictable noise, like the background hum of an airplane or murmur of conversation. Still, they let in more higher-pitched noise than the top-scoring models do. They also create a slight feeling of pressure when active noise cancellation is turned on. Most people will barely notice this, but some may find it annoying.
When it came to staccato noises, such as typing or other tapping sounds, the Jabra Elite 85h were among the best noise-canceling performers in our tests. However, it occasionally lets in a bit more low engine hums than the top scorers.
The Apple AirPods Max provides exceptional noise canceling, which becomes apparent when you switch to transparent mode, where our testers found the instant assault of outside ambient noise so jarring that they immediately switched noise cancellation back on.
Coming in behind the top-tier products regarding noise reduction are the JBL Live 650BTNC and the Beats Studio3. Overall, these models block out more noise than models without active noise cancellation, but they transmit at least a muffled version of most conversations that occur in their direct vicinity. This level of performance is likely plenty for people who will also be listening to music with their headphones, as conversational tones will be quiet enough that you probably won't notice them. You may, however, want to consider the high-end Sony and Bose models if you hope to use the noise cancellation feature without musical accompaniment.
The Soundcore Life Q20 provides a decent degree of active noise cancellation, given its low price tag. Things like voices tend to be more noticeable than they are with the higher-scoring models, but they are quieted enough that listening to music at a moderate volume can generally drown them out.
Simply by the merits of their design, over-ear headphones can offer a reasonable degree of noise isolation, even if they don't offer active noise cancellation. In our opinion, the best of this category are the Bose SoundLink Wireless II and the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones. Both models feature deep earpieces and fluffy cushioning that creates a tight seal around your ear, blocking out a considerable level of ambient noise without even turning on their ANC features. Sure, you will still be able to hear things, but most sounds will become muffled, indistinguishable, or even unnoticeable. Overall, these headphones' noise isolation is about equal to wearing some of those orange ear protectors you might wear while mowing the lawn, but they also allow you to play some tunes.
Not surprisingly, the Beats Solo 3 earned the worst score in this metric as they are the only on-ear rather than over-ear cans we tested. That on-ear style simply lets in much more ambient noise than even the most porous over-ear models. However, our testers did find these headphones are much more comfortable for extended wear while still sounding significantly better than earbuds. So if you'd prefer to be aware of your surroundings at all times, the Solo 3 could be a good choice.
While working at your desk or sitting on a long flight, you will likely wear wireless headphones for extended periods. Accordingly, comfort is paramount. Come hour three of wearing headphones, any slight pressure on the ears or small hotspot from the outset will turn into a considerable discomfort. To test comfort, we had everyone in the office wear each pair for a full 8-hour day of work to see how each pair fared on various sizes and shapes of heads and ears. After that day, we interrogated everyone to get their thoughts on each pair.
Bose makes some of the most comfortable headphones we've ever worn. The flagship Noise Cancelling 700, the ever classic Bose QuietComfort 35 II, and the more basic SoundLink Wireless II all share the favor of our test panel. The elongated, more anatomical shape of their earcups provides the best universal fit we've found (it is surprising how many companies put out perfectly circular earcups). The earcups are also relatively large and deep, making them friendly to those with ears on the bigger end of the spectrum.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 falls just behind the Bose when it comes to comfort. These headphones opt for an ergonomic shape, but the earcups are still slightly smaller than those of the Bose models. The difference is minor, and many users will not notice a difference. However, Bose is likely a better choice if you have larger ears or tend to dislike wearing headphones for long periods.
The Jabra Elite 85h employs cushy padding and ergonomic design. However, the earcups are just slightly smaller than those of the top-scoring models, so it may still feel a bit constraining for those with particularly large ears.
The Soundcore Life Q20's ample padding and large earcups earned it a nod of approval from our testers. They are an excellent choice for anyone seeking all day-comfort on a budget.
We like the soft, perforated memory foam of the Apple AirPods Max, but they create an uneven seal around the ears, docking them a few points since they create some pressure points above the ears after hours of use for multiple testers. These headphones are also the heaviest in our test fleet, weighing 13 ounces. The mesh headband, though, might be our favorite headband of all models, and it distributes the weight of these headphones very well.
The feeling of liberation that comes from eliminating the dangling wire between headphones and smartphones is disappointingly diminished if you have to dig your phone out every time you want to pause your music or adjust the volume. Thus, to fully take advantage of that magical thing we call Bluetooth, you'll want headphones with built-in reliable and intuitive controls. In assessing user-friendliness, we have multiple testers use each pair for extended periods, ensuring they try all the features, such as play/pause, skipping tracks, adjusting volume, and even summoning voice assistants on some models. We then aggregate our documented experiences into the overall user-friendliness scores.
When paired with an Apple device, nothing beats the user experience of the AirPods Max. They instantly connect with your iPhone, iPad, or Macbook as soon as you put them on, and pause whatever media you're using when you remove them from your ears, be it iTunes, Spotify, youtube, and other streaming media. Volume, track skipping, and noise cancellation are all controlled by a wheel and a button, providing plenty of tactile feedback often lacking in swiping-style controls. Having only two buttons that provide everything the user needs is a grand fusion of simplicity and function. And you can summon Siri at any moment with a hands-free "Hey Siri" voice command. We also like that toggling through noise cancellation, transparency, or passive noise isolation doesn't mute the music, so you receive uninterrupted playback. Be aware that some of these functions are not available when paired with an Android device. As such, we don't recommend it for Android users, as several other models provide better integration with Android devices, sound just as good, and cost less. Apple users with iOS devices will notice and appreciate the smooth operation this manufacturer is known for.
Thanks to their effective execution of touch controls, the Bose Noise Cancellation 700 succeeds in user-friendliness. We found swiping and tapping on the earcup to skip tracks, play/pause, and adjust the volume to be responsive and intuitive, notably more so than competitors that opt for the same style of controls. The dedicated buttons for shuffling through noise cancellation presets and summoning virtual assistants are nice touches (the Bose 700 works with Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri). Still, this model falls behind the simplicity of the two-button AirPods Max, since the 700 needs three buttons and touch controls to achieve similar functionality.
The Sony WH-100XM4 represents a small improvement in user-friendliness over its predecessor. The touch controls on the right earcup still take a bit of getting used to, but the new surface feels better and allows for more natural gestures. However, the touch gestures still feel a bit less natural or intuitive than those of the Bose Noise Cancelling 700. This new version can connect to two Bluetooth devices at once and automatically pauses music when you take the headphones off, the latter being a feature that the Bose models can't do.
The Jabra Elite 85H offers a similar interface to the other top models while sharing similarities with some of the great features on the AirPods Max. For example, songs automatically pause and calls automatically mute when you take the headphones off and automatically resume when you put them back on, which is a feature we love. The "moments" feature can analyze outside noise and automatically adjust the noise cancellation accordingly. This feature doesn't always work perfectly, but it is very useful for certain situations and can be customized.
Wireless headphones are the perfect companions for long flights, walks, and train rides. Therefore, you're going to want headphones that can easily be carried along wherever you may go. We assessed portability by weighing each pair of headphones, measuring how small they could fold up, and judging the quality of any included carrying cases.
The Beats Solo3 is the most portable pair of headphones we tested, mostly due to their relatively small size (they are the only on-ear headphones we tested). With a weight of just 7.5 ounces and a padded carrying case, you won't mind tossing the Solo3 in whatever bag is accompanying you on your adventures.
The Bose Noise Cancelling 700 weighs in at a reasonable 9.2 ounces and folds into a fairly long and wide case but is quite slim, meaning it easily slides into a backpack. The QuietComfort 35 II is slightly heavier at 10.9 ounces but comes with a similar carrying case. The Sony WH-1000XM4 is similar at 9 ounces and comes with a quality carrying case. The Beats Studio3 is slightly lighter at 9.1 ounces and has a semi-hard carrying case. The 10.5 ounce Jabra Elite 85h offers a protective, intuitive case, but it lacks any internal organization for cables or adapters.
None of the headphones we tested felt like a burden to toss in a backpack on the way to the coffee shop or airport. However, some are a bit bulkier than others and don't come with any sort of protective carrying case that would lend peace of mind when stuffing them into a backpack or overflowing carry-on. The protective sleeve that accompanies the Apple AirPods Max offers little in the way of confidence-inspiring protection. We'd have no issue bringing this model from the home to the office, but its lack of protection makes us less sure about taking them on vacation and work travel. Still, you should keep the case around. This model lacks an on/off button, but will go into battery-saving "sleep mode" when the user places the headphones into the case.
If you want wireless headphones to help cut the cord in the office, consider reading the best wireless mouse review to see your options.
In this age of ubiquitous electronic accessories, one less wire to worry about can be surprisingly liberating, especially when that wire would be dangling from your head. Wireless headphones are all the rage these days and with so many to choose from, it can be hard to know which pair will suit you best. We hope to make each model's positive and negative attributes clearer through our extensive reviewing process and help steer you in the right direction for your purchase.
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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.