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The best headphones 2021: the finest audio options compared

the best headphones
(Image credit: Future)

The technology bringing music to our ears is advancing, with innovations in active noise cancellation, sound and mic quality, and personalized EQ settings all driving the best headphones on the market right now. The likes of Sony, Bose, Apple, and even Razer are all offering headsets and earbuds at the top of their game, so if you're shopping for a new set you have a lot to gain by browsing the industry leaders. 

You'll be spending between $250 and $300 (around £270) for the very best audio money can buy right now, which might sound like a tall order considering sub-$100/£100 headphones can still tout features like ANC and Bluetooth 5.0. However, if you're shopping for quality you'll notice the best headphones not only enhance these features with their own streamlined implementation and raw power, but also offer the longevity of use you would expect from a premium purchase. You can, after all, buy three pairs of $100 headphones over three years or spend that time with the best of the best.

And these headphones really do represent the industry's most advanced audio offerings. From the raw power of the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones to the gorgeous design of the Bose 700, all the way through to the effortlessly streamlined AirPods Pro, you'll find ear candy suited for every need here. 

Plus, there's nothing quite like switching on a new set of headphones and realizing how music is supposed to sound in 2021. That's why we're bringing you all the best headphones you can buy right now. The options on this page are all offering top of the line listening experiences, but also bring their own strengths to each arena. Whether you're looking for your next fitness headphones, the best headphones to travel with, or simply the top of the class in all areas, we're breaking down exactly what makes these headsets the best and bringing you all the cheapest prices for them at the same time. 

Need something with a few more RGB lights, high-quality microphones, and immersive spatial audio? Check out the best gaming headsets available right now.

sony wh-1000xm4Editors Choice award

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony WH-1000XM4

The best headphones get even better

Battery life: 30 hours | Connection: Bluetooth 5.0, 3.5mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 8.95 oz (253g) | Bluetooth range: 30 feet

Noise-cancelling improved
Connects to two devices at once
Auto-pause when removed
Touch controls aren't always better than buttons

The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are the best headphones you can buy right now. Improvements over the previous champ (the Sony WH-1000XM3) are modest, but worth bearing in mind if the current price work for you. 

The noise-cancelling is even better and will adapt to frequently visited locations. The already-impressive audio has improved once again with better upscaling of lower-quality tracks giving you close to lossless FLAC quality without forking out for the more expensive format or paying extra for a service like Tidal. The bass is more powerful too.

Other improvement over the older model include a neat feature where the headphones will automatically pause when you remove them, which is great for quick interruptions at home/office and saving your battery too. You can get this feature on the much-cheaper Razer Opus below though too. You can now connect to two devices at once, so you can be listening on your phone on the way to work, then switch over to your laptop's audio straight away without having to fiddle with bluetooth settings. 

Looks-wise, these are virtually identical to the older model, which is far from a bad thing as the understated design is still a great look. We have seen a few discounts lately for the XM4, but you'll still find the XM3 headphones to be much cheaper. The XM4 have some great extras to tempt that extra spend although there's perhaps not enough difference to bother upgrading if you already own the XM3 model.

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best headphones: Razer Opus

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best headphones: Razer Opus

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best headphones: Razer Opus

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best headphones: Razer Opus

Razer Opus

A superbly balanced pair of headphones at a reasonable price

Battery life: 25+ hours | Connection: Bluetooth 4.2, 3.5mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight : 9.17 oz (260g) | Bluetooth range: 60 feet

Excellent noise-canceling
Incredible battery
Super comfy
Slightly lacking in bass

Razer is brand well-known to us here at GamesRadar thanks to the range of quality gaming headsets it produces - our best Razer headsets page is packed top gaming picks. But we were still taken aback when this foray into regular headphones came out of nowhere to take on the likes of Sony and Bose. And with a considerably lower asking price, the Razer Opus is a genuine contender amongst the best headphones out there.

The Opus' noise-canceling tech is excellent, even without music I found loud noises like extractor fans or washing machines faded into much less distracting levels. Fire up the tunes the Razer Opus' ANC impresses even more as I didn't even notice a gas-powered hedge trimmer my neighbor was thrashing around his garden from about 10 feet away. And look at that price compared to the top of the line Sony and Bose models on this page!

The audio quality comes with that THX seal of approval with wonderfully crisp sound across the range too. The bass is ever so slightly lacking and I would have liked the volume to have gone that little bit higher, but the audio output is far from timid and I should probably stop trying to damage my hearing so much in all fairness.

A special mention to the battery too. Listed at 25 hours, I've regularly gone past 30 with high-volume and the Active Noise Cancelling tech turned on. The Razer Opus are incredibly comfortable to wear too, no headband pinch on the crown, and the over-ear cups are soft while doing a fine job of keeping outside noise away and somehow not overheating the ears. Want more? How about auto-pausing when you remove the headphones and auto-resume when you pop them back on? Very cool.

Sony WH-1000XM3

(Image credit: Sony)

Sony WH-1000XM3

Best Sony headphones for noise-cancellation for less

Battery life: 30 hours | Connection: Bluetooth 4.2, 3.5mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 8.99 oz (254g) | Bluetooth range: 30 feet

Great active noise cancellation
Impressive battery life
Excellent sound quality
The WH-1000XM4 has some great improvements

The Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones sat atop many lists like this for quite some time and were only recently dethroned by the newer Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones. The XM3 is still well worth considering though as it's significantly cheaper and goes on sale regularly nowadays and is still one of the best in the audio biz. Industry-leading active noise cancellation, deep bass paired with clarity across the mid and high ranges, and an impressive battery life supporting all the tech inside - there's little reason not to recommend Sony's famous headphones. 

The Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones still stand a cut above many newer rivals, even offering functionality for 3D soundscapes through Sony's 360 Reality Audio. If you're not fussed about intelligent surround sound, however, these headphones are still packed with all the latest features you would expect from a premium pair of headphones. Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are ready and waiting to provide a hands-free experience, and intuitive touch controls on the side allow quick gestures to play, pause, and skip tracks. 

All of that, and you can run these headphones for up to 30 hours before giving them a charge. That's pretty spectacular and a benefit that gives the WH-1000XM3 headphones even more edge over competitors. The recognizable form factor does somewhat get in the way of portability, though the cups of this latest release are noticeably smaller than the XM2s. Soft-touch pads inside, however, offer a decent cushion that keeps extended listening sessions comfortable. 

Nuraphone headphones

(Image credit: Nuraphone)


Stunning personalization makes for unmatched audio quality

Battery life: 20 hours | Connection: Bluetooth 4.0, proprietary to 3.5mm | Noise-cancelling : Yes | Weight: 10.5 oz / 300g | Bluetooth range: 32 feet

Unparalleled audio quality
Personalized sound profile
40mm on-ear driver plus 15mm in-ear driver

The Nuraphone headphones are possibly one of the few recent products that deliver on their promise to innovate. We're used to the marketing spiel by now and rarely do these advertising beats actually enact a particularly meaningful change in how we use a product or how that product functions. Nuraphone makes good on its promise to give you 'music in full color' - it's just frustrating that palette is still so expensive. 

In all honesty, you're getting your money's worth here. It's just that $399/£349 price tag can't be ignored. If you're after one of the best listening experiences money can buy, though, you can spend a lot more with diminishing returns. 

Nuraphone starts off by tuning your personalized sound profile - measuring which ranges your hearing is particularly sensitive to and which tones will need a bit of beefing up to realistically represent high-quality audio. The result, when switching between 'normal' mode and your custom profile will have you questioning why you ever bought any other headphones over all these years. 

Bold, rich, and powerful audio immediately erupts from the unique pairing of earbuds and over-ear 40mm dynamic drivers. It's an incredible experience, with a crystal clear bass managing to shake your noggin while saving space to allow those more fragile melodic lines to delicately slide into the soundscape.

best headphones: Bose 700

(Image credit: Future)

Bose 700

Best headphones for luxury design

Battery life: 20 hours | Connection: Bluetooth 5.0, 3.5mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 9 oz (255g) | Bluetooth range: 33 feet

Distinctive design with intuitive touch and voice control features
Excellent noise cancellation
Impressive call quality
Shorter battery life

If you're looking for luxury, you'll find the Bose 700 headphones ship with plenty to spare. The 2019 noise-canceling headphones offer a sleek and sophisticated design that blends smooth curves with a stainless steel headband for a solid fit. It's not all in the looks, however - this is Bose we're talking about. The 700 models work to offer the excellent sound quality we've all come to expect from the audio giant. With tight, clear tones across all ranges and a detailed low-end that does away with cloudy bass, this listening experience is certainly worth its salt. 

Not only that, but the active noise cancellation technology in here is as intelligent as it is powerful. Select just how much of the world you want to shut out with a 1-10 range of ANC intensity for added flexibility. There are also touchpads for gesture controls, and an easy function button to access Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant.

Overall, then, the Bose 700s are the best headphones currently available if you want to listen to some excellent audio and look good while doing it. They don't quite beat out the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones in the noise-cancellation department, but they're certainly a far more aesthetically pleasing option and that slight audio step down shouldn't make you feel like you've been short-changed. 

best headphones: AirPods Pro

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AirPods Pro

Best headphones for Apple fans

Battery life: 4.5 hours single charge (24 hours with charging case) | Connection: Bluetooth 5.0 | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 0.19oz (5.4g) per earbud | Bluetooth range: 800 feet (technically)

Silicone bud tips for perfect fit
Impressive noise cancellation with extra features
Spatial 3D audio on its way
A little expensive

The AirPods Pro fixed many of the common gripes Apple was facing with its main AirPods line, and the results of this fine-tuning process make these some of the best headphones around if you're after true wireless earbuds. Silicone earbud tips may not sound like a game-changer, but poor fit is one of the biggest issues with standard AirPods. Not only do the AirPods Pro sit better in your ear, they clean the floor with their second-generation siblings in the sound department as well. 

That's actually a testament to how important those silicone buds are. With the fit corrected and a perfect seal possible for so many more punters, the new active noise cancellation features can shine and the improved sound quality can finally reach the richness many demand at this price point. That is a pretty hefty price point, however, though not uncommon among premium buds these days, especially Apple ones. 

There are plenty of extra features to make it a little easier to let go of that cash - especially if you're an Apple user. Reliability and connection speed is unparalleled thanks to the H1 chip, and you're also getting intelligent ANC thanks to Transparency Mode that only lets the sounds you need to hear into your listening experience. Plus, Apple recently announced support for spatial 3D audio coming in future updates as well. 

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Philips Fidelio X3 review

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Philips Fidelio X3 review

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Philips Fidelio X3 review

(Image credit: Philips)
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(Image credit: Philips)

Philips Fidelio X3 headphones

Best headphones for premium audio at a mid-range price tag

Type: Wired (2.5mm, 3.5mm, and 6.3mm jacks) | Sound output: Dynamic | Microphone: N/A | Compatibility: PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, mobile | Controls: N/A | Impedance: 30 Ω (Ohms) | Frequency response: 5 - 40,000Hz

Incredible bass and instrumental audio quality
Comfy over long periods thanks to top materials
Fairly priced given the performance
No mic
Cable could be too long
Lyric-heavy songs don't excel

Philips has released two pairs of headphones recently and while the Philips SHP9600 isn't anything to scoff at, the Fidelio X3 is true brilliance. This is Philips' premium-priced flagship headset right now and while it's not suitable for anyone on a budget, you absolutely get what you pay for when it comes to comfort, design, and audio quality.

It's worth noting that the Fidelio X3 isn't gaming-focused in any way; there's no microphone attachment, you won't find any gaming software on your PC that can crank up enemy footsteps, nothing like that. It's all about the thumping bass, the crystal clear treble, and instrumentals that make you feel alive. On top of that, you've got a headband made out of genuine Scottish leather and earcups lined with an almost tweed-like material. It oozes style, there is no doubt about it. It will set you back around £300/$350, but if you're an audiophile looking for some of the best headphones that will excel in day-to-day use and never feel uncomfortable during prolonged use too, the Fidelio X3 may just be for you.

best headphones: Jabra Elite Active 75T

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Jabra Elite Active 75T

Best headphones for working out

Battery life: 7.5 hours (28 hours with charging case) | Connection: Bluetooth 5.0 | Noise-cancelling: No - passive noise isolation only | Weight: 0.19oz (5.4g) | Bluetooth range: 33 feet

Water and sweat-proof
Excellent fit
Great battery life
No active noise cancellation

True wireless earbuds have long been marketed as a fitness fanatic's best friend, though few can live up to that title in reality. The Jabra Elite Active 75T buds can fulfil that role without breaking a sweat. A stunning 7.5 hour battery life will outlast even the most intensive of training sessions, with the included charging case offering 28 hours of juice overall. Not only that but these buds are IP57-rated for waterproofing and sweat-proof as well. A snug fit and subtle profile keep your ears plugged no matter how rigorous the workout, and all of that comes at a friendly price point as well. 

That said, these aren't just fashion buds for a fitness niche. Sure, they are some of the best headphones for working out, but with features like personally optimized EQs and clear call quality, you can make use of that deep bass and great sound quality whether you're on a run or just running late. 

It's worth noting that there's no active noise cancellation in these buds - but before you scroll away, know that you are still getting an impressive quality of passive noise isolation. Your buds won't be working to actively shield you from, say, the rumble of an airplane, but the secure fit will certainly block out a decent amount of extra noise. 

best headphones: Bose QuietComfort 35ii

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Bose QuietComfort 35 II

Best headphones for travelling

Battery life: 20 hours | Connection: Bluetooth 4.1, 3.5mm | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Weight: 10.9oz (309g) | Bluetooth range: 30 feet

Lightweight and comfortable
Nice selection of extra features
Great sound quality across all ranges
Micro-USB rather than USB-C

The fact that the Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs are still considered to be one of the best sets of headphones available in 2020, three years after their initial release, is testament to the impressive feature-set and sound quality on offer here. While the noise cancellation has since been beaten out by the likes of the Sony WH-1000XM3s and Bose 700s, there's still some considerable power in here, and impressive handling at both ends of the soundstage means you'll pick out a clear, detailed mid and low ranges just as easily as you will the higher. 

It's easiest to recommend the Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones to the intrepid travelers among us, however. This is one of the lightest and softest form factors gracing the shelves right now, meaning you can easily relax through long haul flights or even just a lengthier commute without the painful ear squashing that cheaper headsets are often guilty of. Plus, it feels natural to fold the headphones themselves down into their compact carrying case and sling them into a backpack when done. 

On top of all of that, you're still getting Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility and the ability to connect to two devices at the same time. The latter isn't exactly a game changer, but you'll be more grateful for this feature than you might realize. 

best headphones: AirPods 2019

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AirPods (2019)

Best headphones for Apple fans on a budget

Battery life: 5 hours (24 hours with charging case) | Connection: Bluetooth 5.0 | Noise-cancelling: No | Weight: 0.14oz (4g) | Bluetooth range: 45 feet

Getting cheaper now
Incredibly fast and reliable connection
Wireless charging options available
Fit can be hit or miss

The second generation AirPods are considerably cheaper these days, entering impulse-buy territory for many Apple fans who have been holding off. That's not to say you're grabbing an outdated pair of buds here, however. There's plenty of tech stashed away inside the standard AirPods to make that price-tag worthwhile. 

Apple users will benefit from the speedy connection times and rock-solid stability of the H1 chip most, but Android customers will still notice the AirPods' efficiency as well. These are some of the best headphones catering to the true wireless earbud market in this price range. 

The second generation brought fantastic sound and call quality to Apple's wireless earbud line, and to this day the volume and richness across the full soundscape remains impressive, though bassier tunes can sometimes miss out when the fit isn't ideal. The auto-pause when an earbud is removed certainly isn't unique to Apple, but taken with the simplicity and ease of the rest of the experience, it's the cherry on top of an increasingly affordable cake. 

While fashion may have had a lot to do with the explosive popularity of the first generation, it's the surprisingly high audio quality and silky smooth user experience that maintained that popularity through 2019's installment.