The Best Headphones of 2021

The Best Headphones of 2021

Last updated on February 9, 2021

The world’s first-ever headphones were invented in the 1880s, weighed over 11 pounds, and had no padding. Needless to say – they didn’t make our list. But the ones that did are, by any standards, amazing. And to the question: are 2021’s best headphones really that much better than, say, the best from just 3 to 5 years ago? In almost every case, yes.

Two reasons why: 1) With a headphone market expected to top $15 billion by 2025, the world’s premier headphone makers are wrestling for dominance. Along the way, every incremental improvement, whether by giants like Sony and Bose – or audio purists like Focal and Audeze – is a win/win for consumers. 2) A few years ago, wireless headphones were mostly a novelty with often spotty, subpar results. Today, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference in sound quality between wired and wireless and even true wireless, and hearing is believing.

So, with that in mind, we asked our World Wide Stereo audio experts to apply their combined decades of experience with the goal of picking today’s best headphones, by category, no holds barred. And yes, it was hard work (no it wasn’t), but we stuck with it (more like “loved every second”) and now we’re proud to present (after some fairly spirited discussions) the “Best Headphones of 2021.”

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#1. The Best Travel Headphones: Bose QuietComfort 35 II (QC35II)

Why it won

You’re looking at our most popular wireless headphones across the board – by far. The QC35IIs represent Bose’s flagship product, and the company’s attempt to perfect the active noise canceling technology they alone invented in the first place. Meaning: If your #1 goal is shutting off the outside world, stop reading, put a pair in your cart, and call it a day. The QC35IIs are wireless and extremely comfortable. And, like most wireless headphones, they do still come with a wire so you can continue listening even after the battery has been depleted, albeit sans noise cancelling.

Are they the absolute best-sounding headphones on the planet? No. But then again, true audiophile-level headphones cost 4 - 5Xs as much and the sound quality of the QC35IIs are still pretty amazing.

What else?

  • The QC35IIs come with Google Assistant built-in, easily accessible with a dedicated button. Battery life is excellent at up to 20 hours.
  • Bose doesn’t include any way to quickly mute volume (the way others do), so keep your eyes open when they call your number at the deli counter
  • Read more about the QC35II in our new Best Over Ear Noise Canceling Headphones of 2021 guide.

Dimensions: 6.7" x 7.1" x 3.2" (W x H x D) | Weight: 0.52 lbs | Warranty: 1 year | Style: Over-Ear, Closed-Back Wireless (For a list of headphone style variations, see our Headphone Buying Guide.) | Noise Cancelling: Yes  | Battery Life: Up to 20 Hours | Cable Length: 47.2" (Audio); 12" (USB)

Reg. Price: $349.00

#2. Best Truly Wireless Headphones: Sony WF-1000XM3

Why it won

If the only earbuds you ever tried were the earbuds that came with your phone, or a cheap pair of earbuds you found in a clearance bin – you have no idea what you’re missing. We can pretty much guarantee: spend two minutes with a quality pair of earbuds and there’s no going back – especially if those earbuds are Sony’s new XM3s true wireless earbuds. 

For one, the XM3s are truly wireless. (Some earbuds that say “wireless” actually have a wire connecting the two ear modules, but “truly wireless” or "true wireless" means no wires anywhere.) The XM3s come with Sony’s noise-canceling tech, which is outstanding and some say equal to Bose. Inside: Sony’s new Bluetooth chip, a 0.24 driver that’s tiny yet powers surprisingly big sound, an HD noise-canceling processor, a digital sound enhancement engine, 24-bit Audio Signal Processing and an excellent digital-to-analog converter. For you non-techy types, those features = excellent sound.

As for the outside, the XM3s are both ergonomical and comfortable – you may even forget you’re wearing them. They’re great for TV-watching, gaming, jogging, cooking and shutting out the world. And with Sony’s noise cancelling tech turned on, the XM3s are ideal for travel – especially in row 74, Seat H in economy with a long flight ahead. So do yourself a favor – toss those free earbuds in favor of something 1000 times better. (You’re welcome!)

More details – right here.

Dimensions: 4.72" x 5.6" x 2.5" (W x H x D) | Weight: 0.18 lbs | Warranty: 1 year | Style: In-ear, True Wireless | Noise Cancelling: Yes | Battery Life: Up to 6 Hours | Cable Length: N/A

Reg. Price: $229.99

#3. Best Earbuds for Working Out: Bose Sport True Wireless Bluetooth Earbuds

Why it won

If you want a little more bass in your workout, the Bose Sport Earbuds bring it big time without sacrificing mid and/or high range tones in the process. And we’re talking vibrant, natural bass, not the artificially boosted bass prominent in so many sports headphones. Bose patented acoustic ports and premium drivers work to make your music sound clear and balanced regardless of your volume settings.  And the StayHear™ Max ear tips don't just create an impressive acoustic seal, they keep your earbuds secure and comfortable, so they stay put no matter how intense your workout is. 

Also key to a great pair of workout earbuds: they're sweat and weather resistant - so they're super durable. Take calls easily with a click double-tap of the right earbud, or press and hold to reject it (perhaps our favorite feature when we're in the zone!). The simple and intuitive touch controls and 5 hours of playtime round out the features that secure this pair of true wireless earbuds in our top spot. Get caught without any battery power? Don’t worry. Just a quick 15-minute charge gives you up to two hours of playback time.

Dimensions: 1.05" x .74" x .83" (W x H x D) | Weight: 0.02 lbs | Warranty: 1 year | Style: In-ear, True Wireless | Noise Cancelling: No | Battery Life: Up to 5 Hours | Cable Length: 12" (USB)

Reg. Price: $179.00

#4. The Best Wireless Headphones: Bowers & Wilkins PX7

Why it won

We’ve said it before: Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) is the luxurious, beautifully crafted, music-is-your-life alternative to industry mass producers like Sony and Bose. And though a pair of B&W PX7s is typically a little more expensive than Bose or Sony – and not as good at noise cancelation (though still excellent) – they soar, musically, by comparison. Some B&W fans claim their PX7s are on par with headphones that cost three and four times as much, and they may have a case.

The PX7’s ear-cups are made with memory foam and do a good job of walling-off noise from the outside world. The buttons are easy to find by feel, and they’re tactile as opposed to “touch,” which many customers prefer. Also, according to B&W, PX7s are the first headphones to support Qualcomm's aptxHD Adaptive codec, which is designed to deliver robust, low latency, high resolution wireless technology. Meaning: higher fidelity music overall (compared to Bluetooth) and no stalling when gaming or streaming hi-res, 4K video. (See the complete spec list on our PX7 product page.)

Though it’s hard to describe how music sounds under different headphones, we listened to Cody Fry’s “Want Me Back" on B&W’s PX7s and they were so clear, rich, and spacious – there’s no going back.

Dimensions: 6.89" x 8.66" x 3.15" (W x H x D) | Weight: 0.67 lbs | Warranty: 2 years | Style: Over-Ear, Closed Back, Wireless | Noise Cancelling: Yes | Battery Life: Up to 30 Hours | Cable Length: NA

Reg. Price: $399.99

#5. Best Hi-Res Headphones Under $300: Sony MDR-1AM2

Why it won

For those who want a pair of no-frills headphones that support high-resolution audio files — without dropping the big bucks — look to Sony’s MDR-1AM2. Featuring massive custom 40mm HD drivers, Sony ensured these over-ears deliver a clear and powerful soundstage. From the aluminum-coated LCP diaphragm to the silver-coated copper cables, it’s the finer details that work in tandem to deliver an audio experience that is precise, accurate, and as close to the artist’s original recording as possible.

What else?

  • These cans were built for long listening sessions, thanks to its lightweight frame and pressure-relieving ear pads.
  • The MDR-1AMs feature a "swivel" design that allows them to lay flat and be tucked away in the included pouch.
  • If you look closely, you’ll notice the grills have a Fibonacci-inspired pattern, which Sony says “ensures no frequency is boosted or cut.” Pretty cool.

Dimensions: 9.19" x 10.25" x 4.38" (W x H x D) | Weight: 0.41 lbs | Warranty: 1 year | Style: Over-Ear, Closed-Back, Hi-Res, Wired | Noise Cancelling: No | Battery Life: NA | Cable Length: 3.94' (1.2m)

Reg. Price: $299.99

Why it won

Where do we even start? The Focal Radiance headphones, under license of Bentley Motors, are Focal’s newest reference-class headphones and represent a level of opulence worthy of the Focal pedigree. Beautifully wrapped with fine materials including full-grain leather and aluminum, they draw on the signature markings of the Bentley brand in just the right way. The luxury car manufacturer's “Diamond” effect is found on the headband, the grille of the earpads, and the cable connectors of the headphones. The “Bentley wings” are also present on Radiance, in addition to an elegant copper finish. 

Radiance's build is also quintessential Focal: big but comfortable, soft but sturdy.  These high-end headphones are packed with the latest Focal technologies for an astonishing, dynamic listening experience. They are equipped with a full-range speaker driver and a 1-5/8" (40mm) aluminum/magnesium “M” shape dome. The bass is deep and impactful, the midrange is balanced, and the treble is mellow and linear: you’ll never look back!

Highlights include:

  • Full-grain leather, copper finish, with the Bentley "Diamond" motif on the inside and on connectors
  • Solid aluminum yoke that molds to your face shape
  • 1-5/8" (40mm) "M" shape aluminum/magnesium dome full-range speaker driver
  • Asymmetrical mini-jack cable with 1/4" (6.35mm) adapter

Dimensions: 26" x 13" x 13" (W x H x D) | Weight: 0.95 lbs | Warranty: 2 years | Style: Over-Ear, Closed Back, Wired | Noise Cancelling: No | Battery Life: NA | Cable Length: 4' (1.2m)

Reg. Price: $1,290.00

#7. The Best Headphones for Gaming and Music: Audeze Mobius

Why it won

There’s a night scene in Battlefield I, a solo recon mission in a sleepy French village filled with enemy soldiers. Alone, you crawl head-down through a backyard, hoping to make it to that old red barn before anyone sees… wait. STOP. Is that a dog growling… behind you?  

If you’re a gamer, you know how tense things get – and how life and death can depend on what you do, or don’t, hear. Clearly, the folks at Audeze not only get it, they bring it to life with a phenomenal pair of fully immersive, head-tracking, 3D wireless headphones made for today’s top games. And by “immersive,” we’re talking integrated head tracking that tracks even your tiniest head movements – 1000 times a second. Warning: highly addictive– and worth every nickel.

Pretty cool feature: With Audeze HQ software, you can adjust HRTF (Head-Related-Transfer Function) personalization which combines A) the circumference of your head, B) the circumference from one ear canal to the other, and C) how big the virtual space is. In doing so, your virtual head mimics actual head movements, in real time, adding yet another mind-blowing dimension to the experience.

What else?

  • Detachable microphone.
  • Planar magnetic drivers deliver big, cinematic, audiophile-grade sound, with full 3D emulation and support for popular surround sound modes (7.1, 5.1, 5.0, 2.1, 2.0)
  • Pinpoint sound localization and anatomy calibration tailors the sound to you. And full room emulation puts you in the center of the action.
  • Wired and wireless Bluetooth connections

Dimensions: 13" x 13" x 8" (W x H x D) | Weight: 0.77 lbs | Warranty: 1 year | Style: Over-Ear, Wireless, Closed-Back, Gaming | Noise Cancelling: No | Battery Life: Up to 10 Hours | Cable Length: 50" (USB)

Reg. Price: $399.00

#8. The Best Premium Gaming Headphones: Audeze Penrose Premium Gaming Headset

Why it won

If you’re a gamer, you know how tense things get – and how life and death can depend on what you do, or don’t, hear. Clearly, the folks at Audeze not only get it, they bring it to life with a phenomenal pair of wireless headphones made for today’s top games. The Penrose wireless gaming headset is designed with console gaming in mind, serving up premium, audiophile-level sound. It's lightweight and the ear cups are generously sized and padded, which is a must for long gaming sessions. 

As for the audio and connectivity: Audeze’s high-end patented planar magnetic driver technology increases dynamic range, clarity, and detail, while reducing distortion to “near zero.” Nothing new from Audeze, but it makes the audio and immersive experience of these headphones pure magic. In terms of convenience, dual connectivity lets you connect wirelessly via the USB dongle and Bluetooth at the same time so you can connect through your console and an additional device like your phone. This lets you take calls while gaming or participate in gaming chats outside of your console. The Penrose microphone is “broadcast quality,” developed in partnership with mic experts Shure, so you'll certainly come through loud and clear!

Dimensions: 9" x 9" x 5" (W x H x D) | Weight: 0.71 lbs | Warranty: 1 year | Style: Over-Ear, Wireless, Closed-Back, Gaming | Noise Cancelling: No | Battery Life: Up to 15 Hours | Cable Length: 50" (USB)

Reg. Price: $299.00

#9. The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones (A tie):

Why it won

The WH1000XMs (“XM” for short) are over-ear, closed-back and wireless. They’re comfortable, not too tight, mushy in all the right spots, and the touch-sensitive buttons and voice control (Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant) are as good as it gets. This model replaces Sony's best-selling WH1000XM3 and, while they look similar, the WH1000XM4 boast a handful of upgraded features. They're a tad lighter, the earcups are a little cushier and about 10% larger. They've got a host of "smarter" technology built-in that can better tune and optimize for adaptive sound control. They can connect to two devices – such as your laptop and phone – simultaneously. And, they feature Sony's brand new audio processor – the DSEE Extreme.

Both the XM3s and XM4s last around 30 hours with noise-cancelling switched on, or around 38 hours with the tech switched off. Both have USB-C charging too. A 10-minute quick-charge will give you five hours of playtime - that alone makes these headphones worth a look. The new XM4s feature Wearing Detection, which automatically pauses the music when you take them off - extending the battery life even further than the XM3.

The WH1000XM4 come equipped with aptX HD for processing hi-resolution audio up to 24bit/96kHz – Sony’s own best-in-category proprietary format. And this is pretty cool: the WH1000XM’s Ambient Sound feature keeps you aware of outside sounds, while an Optimizer feature scans your head to gauge headphone seal – taking into account things like atmospheric pressure, which varies from sea level to 40K feet in the air. As a result, the XM’s noise cancelation adapts to real-time conditions on the fly. 

But the biggest two reasons they made our “best” list: they sound absolutely incredible – and after years of incremental progress, Sony’s noise-canceling tech now rivals Bose. So yes, it’s a tough choice, but easily solved with a coin toss.

Dimensions: 7.31" x 10.44" x 2.94" (W x H x D) | Weight: 0.56 lbs | Warranty: 1 year | Style: Over-Ear, Wireless | Noise Cancelling: Yes | Battery Life: Up to 30 Hours | Cable Length: 47.25"

Reg. Price: $349.99

Why it won

Bose – the people who invented noise-canceling technology in the first place. And, arguably the first to perfect it, too, via the company’s brand new over-ear, closed-back, wireless headphones: the Bose 700s. (For a list of headphone style variations, see our Headphone Buying Guide.)

The 700s replace the Bose QC 35s that every NFL coach wears during games to block out thousands of screaming fans, and they represent Bose’s newest flagship model. They’re sleeker, lighter, smarter and come with a better mic for better voice clarity during phone calls. The touch controls are new, and more intuitive, and there are now 11 levels of noise-canceling. All that, and the Bose 700s may just be the most comfortable over-ear headphones yet. For the whole story, see our Bose 700 product page.

Dimensions: 6.5" x 8" x 2" (W x H x D) | Weight: 0.56 lbs | Warranty: 1 year | Style: Over-Ear, Wireless | Noise Cancelling: Yes | Battery Life: Up to 20 Hours | Cable Length: 42"

Reg. Price: $399.00

#10. Best Budget Bluetooth Headphones: JBL Tune 700 BT Wireless Over-Ear Headphones

Why it won

JBL Tune 700 wireless Bluetooth Headphones punch out impressively deep and powerful bass at a less than $100 price point and with up to 24 hours of playtime. An included audio cable ensures you never miss a beat and can keep listening without interruption if the battery runs out. Buttons on the earcup let you easily manage calls and voice-assistant technology and multi-[point technology lets you easily switch Bluetooth devices without hassle. 

These Headphones are lightweight, foldable, and super cushy for long wear comfort. Making them also one of our top travel headphone picks.

Dimensions: 2.36" x 3.15" x 1.18" (W x H x D) | Weight: 0.48 lbs | Warranty: 1 year | Style: Over-Ear, Wireless | Noise Cancelling: No | Battery Life: Up to 24 Hours

Reg. Price: $96.00

#11. Best Planar Magnetic Headphones: Audeze LCD1 Over-Ear Planar Magnetic Headphones

Why it won

Audeze's LCD-1 delivers premium audio in a comfortable and travel-friendly package, perfect for mixing, mastering and audiophile listening. These were designed for home and studio listening. The LCD-1 over ear headphones feature Audeze’s renowned planar magnetic technology within an open-circumaural (open back), foldable and light-weight design. The memory foam ear pads and headband ensure incredible comfort during long listening sessions. 

And speaking of long listening sessions... the audio quality on these headphones is, of course, outstanding. With a wide dynamic range, deep rich bass with low audible distortion... these headphones were designed for those that enjoy pure, accurate sound. 

Dimensions: 7.17" x 8.54" x 1.61" (W x H x D) | Weight: 0.25 lbs | Warranty: 1 year | Style: Over-Ear, Open Back, Wireless | Noise Cancelling: No | Battery Life: NA | Cable Length: 2m

Reg. Price: $399.00

Still not sure? We got this.

If you’re still not sure which headphones are best for you, give us a call or send us an email. Tell us a little about how you will use them, e.g., for listening to music at home, watching TV on a device, drowning out crying babies on airplanes – whatever. Plus what kind of music do you like, what’s your budget, and/or anything else you think we should know. Just think of us as your own personal audio gear shopping concierge, on-call to help you pick the perfect pair of headphones for you.

One more thing:

A last word of advice: buy your new headphones from a trusted dealer. And the more experience and longer the track record, the better. A good dealer will take care of you in the event anything happens.

Speaking of trusted dealers...

World Wide Stereo is home to some 90+ industry-leading audio/video professionals who love what they do and talking about it, too. We opened our doors in 1979, gained a small yet die-hard following, won a slew of national awards for everything from killer car audio installations to customer service, grew the business online… and today we enjoy a faithful following of like-minded TV-watching, music-listening, gear-loving defenders of fun for the whole family. Our only rule: no one leaves unhappy.

Plus, shopping with us means you get our guarantee, which includes perks like free shipping, 60-day returns, award-winning support, and service long after the sale — always. Hence our rule: "no one leaves unhappy."

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