Trains, car horns, loud-chewing officemates, there are a lot of things in the world that can ruin your concentration of enjoyment of your favorite podcast. Enter wireless headphones. After scouring the field for the best headphones in every price range, we bought 12 of the best and brought them into our testing lad for some meticulous analysis of sound quality, noise isolation, comfort, and more. Whether you want the latest and greatest in active noise cancellation and audio drivers, or just want something inexpensive that sounds decent and can muffle most of the world's ambient noise, we can guide you to the perfect pair.
The Best Wireless Headphones of 2018
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|Pros||Great sound quality, great noise cancellation||Great sound quality, good noise cancellation, comfortable, built-in Google Assistant||Great sound, comfortable||Good bass, intuitive controls||Good sound quality, noise cancellation, inexpensive|
|Cons||Expensive, touch sensitive controls can take a little getting used to||Expensive||Noise isolation not on par with other high-end models||Clarity slightly lacking||Somewhat shallow ear cups|
|Bottom Line||Exceptional sound quality and noise cancellation||Top of the line headphones that offer everything you could want||A great choice if you don’t care for active noise cancellation||A good buy if you like deep bass and can find a sale||Most of what you get out of $300+ models, but for a fraction of the price|
|Rating Categories||Sony WH1000XM3||QuietComfort 35 II||SoundLink Wireless II||XB950N1 Extra Bass||TT-BH22US|
|Sound Quality (30%)|
|Noise Isolation (25%)|
|User Friendliness (10%)|
|Specs||Sony WH1000XM3||QuietComfort 35 II||SoundLink Wireless II||XB950N1 Extra Bass||TT-BH22US|
|Manufacturer Reported Battery Life (hours)||30||40 wired, 20 BT||15||22||25|
This month we tested the updated Sony WH1000XM3 and the popular Sennheiser HD 4.50. The improved noise Cancellation of the new Sony pushed it into the Editors' Choice slot, ousting the longstanding Bose QuietComfort 35 II. We found the Sennheiser to be above average headphones in every category except comfort. The relatively small ear cups left anyone with average-sized or larger ears complaining of pinching and hotspots within an hour. Overall we felt the much less expensive TaoTronics TT-BH22US would be a better choice for most people.
Best Overall Headphones
Sony updated their flagship headphones with even better noise cancellation and slightly larger, more comfortable earcups. Now the undisputed kings of noise cancellation, the WH1000XM3 headphones provided a nearly silent environment in which you can enjoy your music. You can even adjust the noise cancellation settings to allow certain noises like voices in, and you can temporarily turn off noise cancellation by tapping the earcup so you don't miss that important announcement. The sound quality is also spectacular, rounding out sharp and booming low end with crisp high notes to create a balanced and nuanced soundscape. The improved touch controls are also a little more reactive than models of yore, making them feel more intuitive. To top all that off Sony increased the battery life to 30 hours, and added a quick-charge features that give you 5 hours of battery life with a mere 10 minutes of charging.
The WH1000XM3 does have some drawbacks when compared to the competing Bose QuietComfort 35 II: the earcups still aren't' quite as large or comfortable, and the touch-sensitive controls can take some getting used to. These are very minor drawbacks, however, so if you're looking for the best listening experience available you can dive into the WH1000XM3 without reservation.
Read review: Sony WH1000XM3
Bose QuietComfort 35 II
While these headphones no longer occupy our Editors' Choice podium, they still offer top-notch performance. The sound quality is on par with that of the Sony WH1000XM3, and the noise cancellation capabilities are only slightly inferior. We still feel that the Bose QuietComfort 35 II are the most comfortable headphones around, so if you have particularly large ears or tend to get annoyed when wearing headphones over long periods of time, we would still recommend these headphones over the Sony WH1000XM3.
Read review: Bose QuietComfort 35 II
Best Bang for the Buck
The TaoTronics TT-BH22US achieves an impressive feat, offering nearly all of the performance of the top models, but at a fraction of the price. For just $70 you get active noise cancellation, good overall sound quality, and a relatively comfortable fit. You also get an above average battery life, so you can stay in the groove all day.
While the TaoTronics TT-BH22US headphones do everything well, they also aren't' the best at anything. The high-end models listed above provide small but appreciable steps up in sound quality, noise isolation, and comfort. However, if you don't want to pay a big premium to upgrade from good to truly great, the TaoTronics TT-BH22US offer an incredible value per dollar.
Read review: TaoTronics TT-BH22US
Great Budget Option
Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear
Eschewing expensive noise cancellation technology for large ear cups that muffle sound the old fashioned way, the Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear offers the best option for bargain hunters that want some way to enjoy their music without interruption. For less than $40 these super comfy headphones let you listen to music in a coffee shop or on the subway without hearing every saucer rattle or nearby conversation.
These headphones certainly aren't for audiophiles, and they certainly can't block out much noise as models with active noise cancellation. But they are a big step up in terms of sound quality and noise isolation when compared to standard earbuds, and they won't set you back too far.
Read review: Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear
Analysis and Test Results
A good pair of wireless headphones can cancel out the cacophonous din of modern society and let you enjoy both your work and play time in your own private bubble of rich, unadulterated music, or silence (your choice). A bad pair can make your ears itch and not offer any noticeable improvement over the sound of the free earbuds that came with your phone.
In order to make sure your experience lines up more with the former description, we tested the most popular and highly regarded wireless headphones on the market to find the best one for every application and price range. Most of our tests focused on sound quality, noise isolation ability, and comfort, the three main things you'll notice when wearing a pair of headphones. We also examined the portability and user-friendliness of all our headphones and combined the results of all these tests to arrive at the overall scores you can see above.
If you are looking for the best bang for the buck, take a look at the above chart of Price vs. Performance and you will see that the TaoTronics, which won our Best Buy Award, is a standout with relatively high performance and the lowest list price in the group (hover over the blue dot in the lower right). The Bose QuietComfort 35 II is also differentiated in value, even though it is more expensive, it offers significantly better performance than similarly priced products.
What About EMFs?
All wireless devices create an electromagnetic field (EMF). With the recent proliferation of wireless devices, there has been some concern as to what those EMF's could be doing to our health. So far the jury is still out, with no solid data pointing towards a link between exposure to the relatively low levels of EMF created by personal electronic devices and any adverse health issues. The National Institute of Health claims the EMFs emitted by small electronics to be, "…generally perceived as harmless to humans."
That being said, we know many people will want to limit their EMF exposure. In measuring our wireless headphones we found that, on average, they produce about 3 times as much EMF exposure as a cell phone being used during a call (which we measured at 2 V/m). Luckily most of these headphones offer wired connections as well, so if you're just sitting at your desk not really taking advantage of the wireless capability, you can just plug the headphones in and drastically reduce the EMF level.
Because they are able to isolate you from ambient noise, a good pair of over-ear headphones can provide a listening experience that rivals, or even surpasses, that offered by a high-end sound system. After testing multiple different audio products we've found that clarity and bass quality seem to have the biggest bearing on whether or not most people think something sounds good, therefore we focused most of our testing there. To do this we listened to everything from hip-hop to podcasts and folk music to dubstep on every pair of headphones, paying careful attention to the clarity and bass.
The Bose QuietComfort 35 and the Sony WH1000XM3 shared the top score of 9 out of 10 in our sound quality testing. Both of these headphones produce exceptional clarity and great bass combined with good noise isolation, resulting in a near-operatic listening experience. If we're really splitting hairs the bass of the Sony is just a bit more powerful and the Bose sounds just a tad crisper, but in practice, both of these models sound phenomenal and it's really a coin toss as to which one is better.
Just behind the top scorers was the Bose SoundLink Wireless II, which picked up a score of 8 out of 10. These headphones have all of the exceptional clarity you would expect from Bose, but lack just a bit of the bass power that the higher end models have. This can make tracks with a lot of low-end sounds relatively shallow, but the overall sound is still far superior to that of most headphones on the market.
A slew of models earned a score of 7 out of 10. There were some slight differences between these models, but overall they all represent a significant step up in quality from the standard earbuds that come with many smartphones, yet fall short of the clarity and richness the top end models can produce.
Of the models that scored 7 in this metric, the Beats Solo3 and the Beats Studio3 had the best overall clarity, falling just slightly short of the Bose models in that respect. This made podcasts and acoustic numbers sound quite good. However, they also had the weakest bass of any of the models in this range, putting their low-end performance on par with that of much less expensive models like the Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear. This results in a sound that is very crisp but lacks some fullness, especially for bass heavy tracks. The Mpow H5 and the TaoTronics TT-BH22US both had slightly better bass and slightly lesser clarity than the Beats models. That makes both of these models quite good values for those seeking decently powerful bass on a budget.
The Sennheiser HD 4.50, also in the 7 out of 10 club, was fairly consistent in its performance. The bass, clarity, treble, and fullness were all above average, but no specific aspect stood out. This led to a good overall sound, but one that just lacked some of the punch and fullness of the top scoring models.
The Sony Extra Bass did live up to its name, providing a deep and resonant low end that was bested only by the highest priced models that we tested. Scoring a 7 out of 10 in this metric, the Extra Bass is great for those that like their bass on the thumpy side, but don't want to spend top dollar. However, you do sacrifice a bit of clarity, and we would recommend steering clear of the extra bass effect, it tended to make the music sound hollow and echoey.
The TaoTronics TT-BH22US and the Audio-Technica ATH-DSR7BT were the two models that scored a 7 that balanced their sound quality attributes, with both their clarity and bass power representing a slight step down from that of the top models. This makes these headphones a bit more versatile and able to make any genre of music sound fairly good (when compared to the Extra Bass), though they also don't have a particular genre in which they excel.
No pair of headphones that we tested sounded bad, at worst they sounded akin to the cheap earbuds that come with smartphones and that you can pick up at Best Buy for $20. That's the category where the 2 models that earned scores of 5 out of 10 in our sound quality testing fall. Of these models, the Skullcandy Crusher by far has the most powerful bass, maybe even too powerful when it's turned all the way up (these headphones literally shake on your head). However, that bass comes at the expense of clarity, with their overall sound being quite muddled.
No aspect of the Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear's sound quality is particularly impressive, but they don't' sound terrible either. Overall we would say the sound drivers sound about as good as the standard earbuds that come with a smartphone, or that sell for $10-$20 on convenience store shelves. The Mpow ends up sounding a bit better than these earbuds because of the noise isolation provided by the over ear design. If you've always been satisfied with the sound of standard earbuds, the Mpow is a great way to add some noise isolation at a low cost. If you're looking for a more refined listening experience, these aren't the headphones for you.
The noise isolation provided by over-ear headphones not only blocks out ambient noise, it can make your music sound richer and more immersive. We tested noise isolation by using our headphones in crowded offices and cafes. We also did a more controlled test using a fan that created exactly 70 dB of noise and trying each pair of headphones on in the same location one right after the other. This allowed us to make accurate comparisons in performance. Overall we found that models with active noise cancellation blocked out much more sound than those without that technology, but there was still ranges of performance within each subcategory.
The Sony WH1000XM3 provided the best noise isolation in our testing, picking up a rare perfect score of 10 out of 10. These headphones block out all but the loudest noises. Even without music playing, someone speaking right next to you is barely noticeable. With music playing, you'll have people waving their hands in front of you to get your attention because you most likely won't hear them. Sony also lets you fine-tune the noise cancellation, so you can allow voices to still get through so you don't miss that train announcement.
Just behind the Sony WH1000XM3 was the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, which scored 8 out of 10. The Bose was comparable to the Sony with music playing, creating a near impenetrable barrier between your ears and ambient noise. Without music playing it let in slightly quieter conversational tones than the Sony did, but still provided enough serenity to get work done or daydream. It also only has crude adjustments, allowing the noise cancellation to be set on low or high.
All the models that scored 7 out of 10 in our noise cancellation testing offer active noise cancellation, but don't provide top end performance in that regard. These models include the TaoTronics TT-BH22US, the Beats Studio3, the Sony XB950N1 Extra Bass, and the Sennheiser HD 4.50. Overall these models block out more noise than models without active noise cancellation, but let at least some 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 likely won't notice them. However, if you plan to use the noise cancellation feature without musical accompaniment, you may want to consider the high end Sony and Bose models.
The worst scoring model that offers active noise cancellation was the Mpow H5, which earned a 6 out of 10. Considering the low price, we were surprised that it offered active noise cancellation at all. In our testing, it was much more adept at drowning out some of the background noise than models without active noise cancellation but was clearly inferior to the other models that offer the same feature.
All of the following models do not have active noise cancellation. The best of these passive sound mufflers were the Bose SoundLink Wireless II and the Audio-Technica ATH-DSR7BT, both of which scored 5 out of 10. While these models are a significant step down from the active noise cancellers, they have deep ear cups that offer a decent degree of protection for outside sound. You'll definitely hear everything that happens around you when wearing these headphones, but it will likely be muffled enough that your brain can ignore. Overall they're about even to wearing some of those orange earmuffs you might use when mowing the lawn.
A number of models earned a score of 4 out of 10 in this metric, including the Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear, the Beats Solo3, and the Skullcandy Crusher. These models have slight thinner ear cups that still muffle sound, but don't provide quite as much sound dampening as non-noise canceling models that have deeper ear cups. We wouldn't want to mow the lawn in these headphones, but they're good enough to at least muffle some of the sounds of your favorite cafe.
The worst performer in this metric was the Beats Solo3, which earned a 3 out of 10. These headphones were the only on-ear ones that we tested, thus they don't offer the same kind of sound blocking that all of the full over-ear headphones do. They still block more outside noise than earbuds do, but you'll be able to hear most of what is going on around you unless you really crank up the volume of your music.
Wireless headphones will likely be worn for extended periods of time, either while you're working at your desk or sitting on a long flight. Therefore, comfort is paramount. Any slight crunching of the ears or small hotspot is going to turn into a huge annoyance come hour 3 of wearing the headphones. To test comfort we had everyone in the office, with their various sizes and shapes of heads and ears, wear each pair for a full 8-hour day of work. After that day we interrogated everyone to get their thoughts on each pair.
Bose makes far and away the most comfortable headphones we've ever worn with both the QuietComfort 35 II and the SoundLink Wireless II sharing the top score of 9 out of 10 in this metric. The elongated, more anatomical shape of their ear cups provide the most universal fit we've found (it's surprising how many companies seem to think that ears are perfectly circular). The ear cups are also relatively large and deep, making them friendly to those with ears on the bigger end of the spectrum.
The Sony WH1000XM3 fell just behind the Bose, earning an 8 out of 10. These headphones opt for an ergonomic shape but the earcups are still slightlysmaller than those of the Bose models. The difference is minor, and many users won't notice a difference. However, if you have larger ears or tend not to like to wear headphones for longer periods, Bose is likely a better choice.
The surprisingly inexpensive Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear earned an impressive score of 8 out of 10 in this metric. These headphones have deep padding and well-shaped ear cups that sit comfortably on your head. The ear cups are just slightly smaller than those on the Bose headphones, so if your ears are in the 90th percentile in terms of size, you may feel a bit of pinching.
The Sony XB950N1 Extra Bass earned a score of 7 out of 10 in this metric as they offer a little less room for larger ears than the top scoring models. Though the earcups are quite large, they are perfectly circular, so there is still less room for earlobes.
Earning scores of 6 out of 10, the ear cups of both the Skullcandy Crusher and the TaoTronics TT-BH22US are somewhat on the medium side. These models were comfy for our testers that had average to small ears, but for those that had larger ears there were complaints of some hot spots.
Both Beats models we tested scored 5 out of 10 in our comfort testing. The Studio3 has ear cups with a slightly oval shape and a medium size, and a medium amount of padding. This results in a fit that is ok for smaller ears but quickly feels restricting once ear size starts pushing against the upper end of average. The Solo3 is the only pair of on-ear headphones we tested. Actually having something push against your ears, in our opinion, reduces long-term comfort, though they are fine for wearing for an hour or two.
The Mpow H5 also earned a 5 out of 10 in our comfort testing. Again, these headphones have small earcups. They felt perfectly comfortable to our smaller-eared testers, but produced lots of uncomfortable hotspots after our larger-eared testers wore them for a couple of hours.
The worst performer in our comfort testing was the Sennheiser HD 4.50. These headphones use fairly small ear cups with very stiff padding. This led to uncomfortable hotspots within an hour of use for all of our testers, and those hot spots were worse for people with average-sized or larger ears. If you have small ears you may be able to use these headphones for long periods of time without discomfort, but for most people the ear cup design seems to ruin an otherwise great pair of headphones.
The beauty of wireless headphones is the fact that you can bury your phone in your bag and forget about it. To really take advantage of this you'll need some sleek and easy to use controls on the headphones themselves. Some manufacturers do a better job of designing these controls than others. To score user friendliness we again used consensus by committee, having multiple people in the office use each pair of headphones and their associated controls and then jotting down notes about their likes and dislikes. We did not include connectivity in our ease of use scores, as we found that all of our headphones were equally easy to pair with Bluetooth enabled devices.
All of the headphones we tested were relatively easy to use, thus all of our scores sat in the very tight range of 6 to 8 out of 10. At the top of that range was the Bose QuietComfort 35. These headphones have nice, tactile play/pause and volume buttons. There is also a multifunction button that can be pressed multiple times to skip the track forward and back. There is also a dedicated noise-canceling switch. These headphones also got a score bump for their dedicated Google Assistant button. There is also an app that lets you fine-tune EQ and noise cancellation settings.
A slew of different models fell just behind the QuietComfort 35 II with scores of 7 out of 10. The Bose SoundLink Wireless II has mostly the same interface as its sibling, but lacks the Google Assistant button. The TaoTronics TT-BH22US interface is very similar to that of the QuietComfort, but it does not have an app that can adjust noise cancellation settings. The Audio-Technica ATH-DSR7BT also lacks an app, but it uses a sliding volume control that we like. You can also hold the volume control up or down to switch tracks. The Mpow H5 is very similar with a switch to turn noise cancellation on and off and multi-function volume/track control buttons.
with a 7 out of 10, the Sony WH100XM3 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.
The vast majority of headphones that we tested fell into the 6 out of 10 range. Generally, these models lacked any sort of app with which to make fine-tuned adjustments, and don't have any particular special features that we liked. They just have the bare bones play/pause, volume, and track skipping functions.
Wireless headphones are the perfect companions for long flights, long walks, and long train rides. Therefore, you're going to want headphones that can easily be toted along with you. We assessed portability by weighing each pair of headphones, measuring how small they could fold up, and judging the quality of any sort of carrying cases that were included.
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 padded carrying case, you won't mind tossing the Solo3 in whatever bag is accompanying you on your adventures.
A few different models scored 8 out of 10 in this metric, all of which fold down to slightly larger packages than the Solo3. The Bose QuietComfort 35 II is slightly heavy at 10.9 ounces, but comes with a very nice carrying case and folds down fairly small. The Sony WH1000XM3 is similar at 9 ounces and also comes with a quality carrying case. The Beats Studio3 is slightly lighter at 9.1 ounces and has a semi-hard carrying case. The TaoTronics TT-BH22US is very light at 7.5 ounces and has a semi-hard carrying case. The Mpow H5 don't fold down very small, but they come with a semi-hard carrying case and are incredibly light at just 8 ounces.
The Bose SoundLink Wireless II has a similar carrying case to its sibling, but doesn't fold up quite as small. The lack of active noise canceling does make it a bit lighter at 7 ounces. All added up this earned it a score of 7 out of 10. The 10.1 ounce Skullcandy Crusher also earned a 7, losing points because it only comes with a drawstring pouch.
The Sennheiser HD 4.50 comes with a soft carrying case with no padding. This isn't a huge deal, but we would have liked a slightly strudier travel case to protect the $180 investment. The headphones are very light at 8.45 ounces, and the battery lasts 25 hours. All this combined to earn a score of 7 out of 10.
The Audio-Technica ATH-DSR7BT doesn't fold up quite as small as other models, is slightly heavy at 10.5 ounces, and comes with only a drawstring pouch carrying case. It is still portable, but not quite as much as other models, earning it a 6 out of 10.
The bottom scorers in our portability testing both earned a 5 out of 10. The Mpow Bluetooth Over Ear using a drawstring pouch carrying case and doesn't fold up much. The Sony XB950N1 Extra Bass similarly doesn't fold very small and uses a drawstring pouch. Both of these models weigh around 10 ounces.
In this age of ubiquitous electronic accessories, one less wire to worry about can be surprisingly freeing, especially when that wire would be dangling from your head. We hope our testing results have helped you find the perfect pair of wireless headphones for your needs and budget. If you're still hemming and hawing about whether you need noise cancellation, or if its worth spending extra to get better sound quality, check out our buying advice article. It lays out a few more tips and pointers for figuring out exactly what will work best for you.
— Max Mutter and Steven Tata