Best over-ear headphones for 2021: Bose, Sony and more
Want to really listen to your record collection or just have better-quality sound from your music streaming account? True audiophiles will find that full-size around-ear or over-ear headphones are superior to the ubiquitous earbud. They’re better at filtering out background noise, have superior audio quality (and better bass) and surround your ear canal with soft and squishy cups. In the past, a list of best over-ear headphones would have included many wired models, but consumers these days tend to prefer active noise-canceling technology to drown out ambient sound.
So, with apologies to audio purists (but not really, because these all offer great sound quality and a top-notch listening experience without tethering you by an audio cable), here’s a look at our current top picks for best over ear headphones. We considered factors like battery life, noise isolation, and the comfort of the ear cup (as well as audio quality, of course). We included some affordable headphones and more expensive options, so you’ll find a good earphone regardless of your budget. We’ll update this list regularly as we review new products.
Sony’s earlier WH-1000XM3 model was great. But if it had a weakness, that was voice calling, particularly in noisier environments. The WH-1000XM4 model has improved in that area and also adds multipoint Bluetooth pairing so you can connect to two devices — such as your phone and PC — at the same time. That means that if a call comes in while you’re using the headphones with your computer, the audio will switch to your phone when you answer the call.
The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 probably still have a slight edge for voice calls, but the 1000XM4 headphones are arguably a tad more comfortable and also have some other slight improvements to noise cancellation and sound that make this model a great all-around choice. Even better: This model has been selling for $278 during holiday sales, down from its list price of $350.
Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, the long-awaited successor to its QuietComfort 35 II models, may not be a quantum leap forward, but they offer slightly better sound, call and noise cancellation quality for an optimal listening experience. Alas, these Bose headphones cost $400, but they’re a strong all-around audio performer with up to 20 hours of battery life on a single charge. That’s a lot of battery life!
V-Moda’s M-200 is a wired-only headphone and one of the few wired over-ear headphones on this list. Released in late 2019, these clean and detailed sounding over-ear headphones have great sound and excellent bass response, and the cushy ear cups mean they’re also comfortable to wear. Featuring 50mm drivers with neodymium magnets, CCAW voice coils and fine-tuning by Roland engineers — V-Moda is now owned by Roland — the M‑200 is Hi‑Res Audio-certified by the Japan Audio Society. Other V-Moda earphones tend to push the bass a little, but this has the more neutral sound profile that you’d expect from a studio monitor headphone. These studio-quality headphones come with two cords, one of which has a built-in microphone for making calls. It would be helpful if V-Moda offered Lightning or USB-C headphone cables for smartphone users.
When it comes to premium noise-canceling headphones, Bose and Sony have been the dominant sound players over the last few years. But now Sennheiser has turned up with its new Momentum 3 Wireless and it deserves some attention, particularly from folks who are fans of the Momentum line. It’s available to buy now for $299 — even less than Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.
Not only does it feature enhanced audio quality with improved noise-canceling features (goodbye, external noise) and excellent sound and audio for listening to music, but it also performs well as a headset for making calls on your iPhone or Android. While its noise cancellation and comfort level doesn’t quite measure up to the noise cancellation and comfort of Sony WH-1000XM3’s, it has well padded ear cups covered with sheep leather and I had no trouble rocking it for a two-hour music listening session, to say nothing of the battery life.
While its noise canceling and comfort aren’t quite on par with competing models from Bose and Sony, JBL’s Live 650BTNC measures up well in terms of sound — the best over ear headphones if you don’t want to spend more than a few hundred dollars. The listening experience is still very good, the ear pads are comfortable and very little ambient noise leaks through. These over-ear headphones are worth considering if you don’t want to spend $300 or more on noise-canceling headphones. We like the sound of that.
I liked Bowers & Wilkins’ original PX noise-canceling over-ear headphones, but they were slightly lacking in the comfort and noise-canceling departments. The company’s new PX7, released in the fall of 2019, improves on both fronts, with excellent sound, four noise-canceling settings (Automatic, Low, High and Off) and a well padded ear cushion in a sturdy, eye-catching design. There’s also an adjustable ambient “transparency” mode that allows you to hear the outside world.
The headphones are a tad heavy at 10.7 ounces (304 grams), but the build quality is top-notch — and it better be, considering these are a little pricey at $400. Bowers & Wilkins also makes a more compact on-ear model, the PX5, which costs $100 less and is also quite good. But this model does sound a little better.
The sound is rich and detailed with deep bass that remains well defined even at high volumes. This is a pretty dynamic headphone, with a touch of extra energy in the mid-highs. It’s not laid-back like the earlier PX5 Wireless and its most direct competitor is probably the Sennheiser Momentum 3 above. That Sennheiser is arguably superior for making calls, but this B&W probably wins on design.
These Bluetooth headphones support AAC and aptX, use Bluetooth 5.0, charge via USB-C and have up to 30 hours of battery life at moderate volume levels. Its noise canceling isn’t quite at the level of the Bose or Sony, but it’s not far off — as I said, it’s improved from the original PX’s noise canceling.
When Jabra first announced its new Elite 85h ($300, £280) over-ear headphones, it touted how it would be equipped with always-on (hands-free) voice assistant control using Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant. Alas, that feature didn’t make it into the final product — apparently it affected battery life too much, and battery life is critical — but the Elite 85h is nevertheless an excellent noise-canceling headphone that makes music and other audio sound good. It’s comfortable to wear and also works well as a headset for making calls — important for over-ear headphones.
Introduced way back in 1991, the Sony MDR-7506 has long been a favorite headphone of recording engineers and other sound professionals (yes, this is a wired headphone). The origins of its design date even further back, since the MDR-7506 is, in fact, a refresh of the Sony MDR-V6 that rolled out in 1985. Both models were designed for the pro sound market, but remain hugely popular with consumers.
While the two headphones have the same design and are very comfortable, they don’t sound identical. Both offer very well-balanced sound and excellent clarity for their modest prices — and both are great overall values. But the V6 makes a little more bass and sounds more laid-back and mellow, while the 7506 is leaner with a more accentuated treble range, which makes it a little crisper and livelier.
Another audiophile favorite, Grado’s Prestige Series SR325e has been around for a while — we reviewed these over-ear headphones back in 2014. It’s an open-back wired model, which means it leaks sound (don’t use it in an open-office environment), but it delivers some of the most open, detailed sound you’ll find at this price.
Grado, which is based in Brooklyn, New York, and builds most of its products there, has not changed the iconic exterior design of the headphones and like its SR325 predecessors (the previous model was the SR325i), his model has the same firm, bowl-shaped foam pads that apply a little more pressure to the outer edges of your ears than the more simple foam pads of the step-down SR80e, which are arguably more comfortable. The SR80e headphones are significantly lighter, but not of the same build quality as the SR325e model. Some people like Grado’s earpads (they’re user-replaceable), but overall we’d say this model’s comfort level isn’t up to the level of its sound quality: Comfort is good but not great.
Bang & Olufsen’s Beoplay H9 doesn’t get mentioned much in the discussion of top noise-canceling headphones because at $500, it’s a really pricey pair of headphones. The latest third-generation version has been upgraded in a few significant ways that make it better than the earlier H9i. Battery life for this version has improved over the previous version to 25 hours, there’s now a dedicated button for your voice assistant, the padding on the ear cushions and headband is cushier and the touch controls have been tweaked. The sound is still good.
Some people, particularly weightlifters, like to work out in full-size headphones, and the BackBeat Fit 6100 over-the-ear wireless headphones are a very solid choice for both the gym and everyday use. The adjustable sport-fit headband has an IPX5-rated water-resistant and sweat-proof design, 40mm angled drivers and noise-isolating ear cups with an “Awareness” mode. Battery life is rated at 24 hours. They sound quite good and really stay on your head securely — you can adjust the tension in the headband, which is innovative and ideal for exercise headphones.
They’re a little expensive at their list price of $180, but sometimes the price dips closer to $100. They’re available in black, camo and gray.