Best over-ear headphones for 2021

Apple’s AirPods and AirPods Pro may by the dominant headphones these days, but plenty of people want old-fashioned full-size around-the-ear or over-ear headphones that in theory are capable of delivering, bigger, richer sound with good noise isolation. In the past, a list of best over-ear headphones would have included many wired models aimed at audiophiles, but these days consumers tend to prefer wireless Bluetooth headphones, and particularly those that feature active noise-canceling technology that helps muffle ambient sound. That said, most wireless headphones — except notably the AirPods Max — include a cable, so a wired option is available for those seeking it. 

Here’s a look at our current top picks for best over-ear headphones. We considered factors such as comfort, build quality, battery life, features and audio quality, of course. We included some affordable headphones as well as more expensive options, so you’ll find a good set of earphones regardless of your budget. We’ll update this list regularly as we review new products.

Read more: Best headphones for 2021

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Yes, they’re expensive, but the AirPods Max deliver richer, more detailed sound than lower-priced competitors from Bose and Sony. They also feature arguably the best noise canceling on the market, along with premium build quality and Apple’s virtual surround spatial audio feature for video watching. While they’re heavy, they manage to be surprisingly comfortable, though I did have to adjust the mesh canopy headband to sit a little more forward on my head to get a comfortable secure fit when I was out walking with them. They should fit most heads well, but there will be exceptions.

Read our Apple AirPods Max review.

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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 your 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 gets regularly discounted.

Read our Sony WH-1000XM4 review.

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The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, the long-awaited successor to Bose’s QuietComfort 35 II model, may not be a quantum leap forward, but these headphones offer slightly better sound and noise cancellation along with top-notch headset performance for voice calls. They’re a strong all-around audio performer (some prefer their sound to that of Sony’s WH-1000XM4) with up to 20 hours of battery life and a more durable design than their predecessor, although the QuietComfort 35 II headphones may be slightly more comfortable.

At launch, they cost $400, but they’ve come down in price. We’ve seen the white version dip as low as $299, while the black and silver versions have hit $340. That said, Sony’s WH-1000XM4, their closest competitor, has also seen nice discounts.

Read our Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review.

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Tribit’s XFree Go is hard to beat for the money. It sounds quite good for its low price and also seems fairly well built. It looks similar to Tribit’s earlier XFree Tune, but has plusher and slightly more comfortable ear pads. Don’t expect the comfort level of Bose headphones, but it has improved a little.

This model uses the Qualcomm QCC3003 chipset with Bluetooth 5.0 and is rated for up to 24 hours of battery life (alas, it charges via standard Micro-USB, not USB-C). Tribit says a quick-charge feature gives you four hours of playback time from a 10-minute charge.

One small downside is the headphones don’t automatically turn off after a set period of time if you lay them down and stop using them; you have to always manually turn them off. Also, they perform OK as a headset for making calls but not great. But you can’t have everything for less than $30!

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V-Moda’s M-200 are currently the only wired headphones on this list. Released in late 2019, these clean and detailed sounding over-ear headphones have 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 — yes, V-Moda is now owned by Roland — the M‑200 is Hi‑Res Audio-certified by the Japan Audio Society. Other V-Moda headphones tend to push the bass a little, but this set has the more neutral profile that you’d expect from studio monitor headphones. It comes with two cords, one of which has a built-in microphone for making calls. It would be nice if V-Moda offered Lightning or USB-C cables for phones without headphone jacks.

Note that in 2021, V-Moda has released the M-200 ANC ($500), a wireless version of these headphones that includes active noise canceling. It also sounds great, but its noise canceling, call quality and overall feature set don’t match those of the AirPods Max. 

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When it comes to premium noise-canceling headphones, Bose and Sony have been the dominant players over the last few years. But Sennheiser’s Momentum 3 Wireless, which came out in late 2019, deserve some attention, particularly from fans of the Momentum line. They list for $400, but have come down in price (you can sometimes find them for closer to $300).

Not only does this model feature improved noise-canceling features and excellent sound and audio, but it also performs well as a headset for making calls. While in noise cancellation and comfort level the Momentum 3 headphones don’t quite measure up to the Sony WH-1000XM4, I appreciated the nicely padded earcups covered with sheep leather and had no trouble rocking them for a two-hour music listening session, to say nothing of the battery life.

Read our Sennheiser Momentum 3 first take.

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Premium noise-canceling headphones tend to cost more than $300. But what if you’re on a tight budget — what’s your best option for noise canceling over-ear headphones?

As far as sound, comfort level and build quality, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than Anker’s SoundCore Life Q30 for the money. It doesn’t quite have the clarity or bass definition as some of the top premium models, but it’s less than a third of the price and gets you about 75% of the way there in terms of sound (it’s well balanced overall with punchy bass, and there’s an app that allows you to tweak the sound). Noise canceling is good for the price, though not up to the level of the Sony WH-1000XM4 or Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Battery life is rated at an impressive 40 hours with USB-C charging.

The only area where the Q30 falls a little short is for voice calls. It picks up your voice fine in quieter environments, but it just doesn’t reduce background noise all that well. 

Compared to the step-down Q20 ($50), the Q30 does offer improved sound (it’s not a huge difference, but it definitely is a notch up) and a more premium design.

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Razer may ge a gaming accessory company but its Opus THX-certified noise-canceling headphones are designed for everyday use. When I tried them in 2020, I liked them but thought they were a little expensive at $200. Now that they’re being discounted to around $130, they’re a more tempting over-ear option.

What you get in the Opus is a headphone that delivers clean, nicely detailed sound with well-defined punchy bass. You can tweak the sound profile in the companion app, but I mainly stuck to the THX setting, which suited my musical tastes just fine. I also thought the sound was pretty open for a closed-back headphone — the sound doesn’t feel stuck inside your head.

The Opus isn’t quite as good a headphone as the Sony WH-1000XM4, which carries a list price of $350 but often sells for less than $300. For starters, while the Opus is a very comfortable headphone with soft, plush ear pads, the Sony is slightly more comfortable and 11 grams lighter than the 265-gram (9.4-ounce) heft of the Opus. I also liked the sound of the Sony better — it’s just a little bigger, richer and more visceral. However, with the Opus’ price coming down, the headphone’s become a good value. 

Read Crumpe first take.

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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. 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.

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When Jabra first announced its 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 users working from home these days.

Read our Jabra Elite 85h review.

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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.

Read our Sony MDR 7506 review.

Sarah Tew

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. Like its SR325 predecessors (the previous model was the SR325i), this 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.

Read our Grado Prestige Series SR325e review.

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. 

Note that Plantronics has discontinued its entire BackBeat headphones line, so this model should drift out of the market by year’s end. It started out at $180 and now costs half that — and sometimes less.

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