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Best headphones 2021: Black Friday deals on great wired and wireless options

22 Nov 2021

Experience your music as it was intended to be heard with our pick of the best headphones available

There's no simple answer to a question we get a lot here at Expert Reviews - "what are the best headphones?"

With different styles of headphones available at a wide range of prices, the best headphones are ultimately those that meet your personal requirements while remaining within your budget.

If you're after audiophile-grade sound quality and don't mind forking out hundreds of pounds, our best headphones recommendation would be very different to that which we'd give someone seeking a pair for trips to the gym.

So, before splashing out, it's essential you work out what it is you want from your earwear and how much you're willing to spend. To do that, you're going to want an understanding of the options on offer and a clear idea of which options are worth your consideration.

That's where we come in. We've extensively tested a huge number of headphones and compiled a list of our favourites across a range of popular categories.

Before we jump into the list, you'll find a comprehensive buying guide detailing the pros and cons of the different styles of headphones and a breakdown of the key features the best headphones incorporate.


The best on-ear headphones just got a lot cheaper

The price of our favourite on-ear headphones, the Beats Solo Pro, has been slashed for Black Friday. You can now pick up a pair for just £129, which is the cheapest they've been and a fraction of their £270 RRP.
Amazon
Was £199
Now £129

Sony WF-1000XM4 Black Friday deal

Our favourite true wireless earbuds, the Sony WF-1000XM4 are the cheapest they've ever been for Black Friday. With smart ANC, great sound quality and a comfortable fit, these buds have it all and are worth every penny of their new £199 price tag.
Amazon
Was £250
Now £199

Save £10 on the best-sounding earbuds under £100

The five-star rated Cambridge Melomania 1 Plus have received a minor price cut for Black Friday. The 1 Plus deliver unrivalled sound quality in their price bracket and also offer some neat customisation options.
Amazon
Was £100
Now £90

Best headphones 2021: At a glance


How to choose the best headphones

The sheer number of headphones on the market can make selecting the right pair a daunting task. However, things become a lot easier if you're able to narrow down your options by choosing your preferred style and working out which features you require. The video and buying guide below detail everything you need to know before making a purchase and should enable you to find headphones that match your user habits.

Which style of headphones is right for me?

Headphones fall into three main categories: over-ear, on-ear and in-ear, with a fourth - bone conduction - gaining in popularity. Each has its pros and cons, so make a decision based on the style you find most comfortable to wear and best suits your listening needs.

Over-ear headphones completely envelop your ears, creating a seal around them. This helps reduces the impact of external sound on your listening experience - referred to as sound isolation - but the earcups can be rather bulky as a result. Fortunately, many are foldable to enable easy transportation.

On-ear headphones sit on your ears rather than over them. Because their earcups are smaller, on-ear headphones are usually more compact and lighter than their over-ear counterparts. However, they don't isolate sound nearly as well and some people find the force applied on their ears uncomfortable.

In-ear headphones are inserted into your ears and are either shaped to rest there without falling out or come with eartips to help secure them in place. They take a number of forms and are the best choice if you're after a portable, lightweight audio solution.

Neckband earphones operate wirelessly but the earpieces remain connected to one another via a wire that runs behind your neck. True wireless earbuds - the fastest-growing area of the headphones market - get rid of wiring altogether and rely solely on Bluetooth for connectivity.

Bone conduction headphones rest on your cheekbones and create mini vibrations that move through bones in your skull and into the inner ear. For those with damaged eardrums or those wanting to be more aware of environmental sound, bone conduction headphones are a fantastic choice, though they’re not recommended if you’re after total immersion in your audio.

Are the best headphones wired or wireless?

There's no easy answer to this as both have advantages and disadvantages. Wired headphones connect directly to your audio source via a physical connection, be that a 3.5mm jack, USB-A or USB-C input. This physical connection means the headphones don't ever need charging, which is a big plus, and audio quality is typically superior to that produced over a wireless connection.

Depending on the devices you wish to use your headphones with, you'll want to choose wired headphones that offer a compatible connection. For example, Apple's new iPhones use a proprietary Lightning port so headphones sporting a 3.5mm connection won't work with them without an adapter.

As Bluetooth connectivity has developed, we've seen more and more of the best headphones making the switch to wireless functionality. Connect your smartphone or laptop to your headphones over Bluetooth and you can enjoy audio without the need for any wiring connecting them. This means the headphones will need to be charged regularly but in the case of earbuds, you get a portable charging case to help boost battery life. If you’re specifically interested in wireless headphones, check out our list of the best Bluetooth headphones available.

What other features do the best headphones incorporate?

Active noise cancellation (ANC): ANC technology is designed to drown out external noise. It’s an essential feature if you want to zone out from the rest of the world when on a noisy commute. Read our list of the best ANC headphones for more details.

Integrated microphone and voice assistant: You'll be hard-pressed to find a pair of headphones that don't come with some kind of microphone built-in, but it's well worth checking before you buy. A significant proportion support the use of your voice assistant, so if Google Assistant, Alexa or Siri are essential to your daily routine, make sure the headphones you buy have voice assistant support.

Touch controls: Touch controls allow you to control your audio without needing to access the device playing it. Over-complicated touch controls can be off-putting but you want to make sure the key commands, namely volume up/down and play/pause, are available.

Bluetooth codecs: Codecs determine how data is transmitted from your audio output to your headphones and not all of them are created equally. SBC is pretty much universal and works well enough but if you want an optimal wireless experience you should look out for codecs capable of transmitting high-resolution audio such as Qualcomm's aptX HD. Bear in mind that not every device supports every codec so check for compatibility before buying.

Waterproofing: Having some level of sweat/waterproofing is always welcome. Be on the lookout for IP certification - anything higher than IPX4 means your headphones will survive a sudden downpour and are cut out for use in the gym or while running. It's rare to find IP certification on over-ear and on-ear headphones but most of the best headphones designed to fit in your ears will have it.


The best headphones to buy in 2021

1. SoundMagic E11: Best wired earphones

Price: £40 | Buy now from Amazon

The SoundMagic E11 are the successor to SoundMagic's excellent E10 earphones. They're slightly dearer, but are sonically and aesthetically superior. The earphones have a better soundstage, a more energetic treble and a tamer low-end, delivering a balanced sound signature throughout. There are better sounding wired in-ear headphones out there, including the vastly more expensive Creative SXFI Trio linked in the section below but pound-for-pound, the E11 can't be beaten.

Read our SoundMagic E11 review for more details

Key specsType: In-ear, wired; Connections: 3.5mm jack plug; Weight: Unknown; Cable length: 1.2m

Other options worth considering:

  • Creative SXFI Trio: Outstanding holographic audio | Buy now (£85)
  • Sennheiser CX300S: Affordable earphones from an audiophile brand | Buy now (£30)

READ NEXT: Best cheap headphones


2. Sony WF-1000XM4: Best true wireless earbuds

Price: £250 | Buy now from Amazon

Like their over-ear counterparts the WH-1000XM4, Sony's latest pair of true wireless earbuds deliver in all the important areas. Audio quality is superb and noise cancellation is highly effective thanks in no small part to ambient sound control, which adjusts ANC automatically based on your location and actions. The WF-1000XM4 are comfortable too, although they do take a little bit of fiddling to position correctly in your ears.

Both the buds and their case are more compact than their predecessor the WF-1000XM3 but battery life remains unchanged at up to 24 hours of audio playback. There's now Hi-res audio support if you're using Sony's proprietary LDAC codec on an Android device and Android users also benefit from Google Fast Pair.

With hands-free support for Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant, useful features like wear detection and Speak-to-Chat and an IPX4 rating for water resistance, the Sony WF-1000XM4 are exceptional all-rounders and our recommendation if you're after wireless earbuds and have a healthy budget.

Read our Sony WF-1000XM4 review for more details

Key specs – Type: True wireless earbuds; Connections: Bluetooth 5.0; Weight: 6g per earbud, 41g charging case; Cable length: N/A

Other options worth considering:

READ NEXT: Best true wireless earbuds


3. Sennheiser HD560S: Best open-back headphones

Price: £170 | Buy now from Amazon

Bluetooth headphones are the obvious choice for those wanting to enjoy audio while on the move but open-back headphones remain the go-to for audiophiles eager to experience spacious, expansive soundstages. Sennheiser produces some fantastic open-back models, including the HD800S linked below, but for most people (including us), the HD560S are the sweet spot in terms of a price/performance balance.

They're supremely comfortable, with large, velour-lined earcups that feel snug but not too tight, and a soft, padded headband that distributes the headphones' weight nicely across your head. Audio quality is excellent, too, if you're after refined, natural sound. We were very impressed by the poise and clarity with which the HD560S deliver music and there's a real sense of scale to the way they communicate sound. Instrument separation is top-notch, making them ideal for either professional use or critical listening.

Open-back reference headphones may not be for everyone but if they're your cup of tea, you won't find any better than the HD560S without having to spend significantly more money.

Read our Sennheiser HD560S review for more details

Key specs – Headphone type: Over-ear; Connections: Weight: 240g; Cable length: 3m

Other options worth considering:


4. Sony WH-1000XM4: Best headphones for noise cancellation

Price: £279 | Buy now from Amazon

Sony’s WH-1000XM4 are the undisputed noise-cancelling kings of over-ear headphones. Sophisticated noise-cancelling technology adapts to your surroundings and actions, while also learning about the places you visit to provide noise cancellation best suited to your environment. It’s extremely effective and when fully engaged, blocks out a truly impressive amount of external sound.

But the WH-1000XM4 have more than one string to their bow. Sound quality is excellent no matter what genres you like to listen to; the headphones are comfortable when worn for long periods and they provide a range of handy features to create a seamless user experience. There’s multipoint pairing, which allows you to connect to two devices via Bluetooth simultaneously; wear detection for automatically pausing your music when you take the headphones off and Speak-to-Chat, which halts your music when you’re speaking to someone.

It was always going to take something special to surpass the excellent WH-1000XM3. Sony’s WH-1000XM4 are just that and are the best noise-cancelling headphones on the market.

Read our Sony WH-1000XM4 review for more details

Key specs – Type: Over-ear, wireless; Connections: Bluetooth, 3.5mm jack plug; Weight: 254g; Cable length: 1.2m

Other options worth considering:

READ NEXT: Best noise-cancelling headphones and best over-ear headphones


5. Beats Solo Pro: Best on-ear headphones

Price: £199 | Buy now from Amazon

With excellent battery life, impressive active noise-cancellation and great sound quality, the Beats Solo Pro are the best on-ear wireless headphones on the market. You can't control the ANC but the Solo Pro automatically adjust the level of cancelling based on your surroundings and other factors including whether you're wearing glasses or have long hair interfering with the passive noise cancellation provided by the earcups.

Not only do the Beats Solo Pro sound superb, but they're among the most stylish headphones out there and come six colours - black, grey, ivory, dark blue, light blue and red - so if you're looking to make a fashion statement with your ear wear, they're a mighty fine choice.

Read our Beats Solo Pro review for more details

Key specs – Headphone type: On-ear; Connections: Bluetooth, USB-C to 3.5mm jack; Weight: 267g; Cable length: 1.5m

Other options worth considering:

READ NEXT: Best Bluetooth headphones


6. NuraLoop: Best wireless earphones

Price: £199 | Buy now from Amazon

To make it onto this list, a pair of headphones must be something special – and the NuraLoop are just that. These wireless headphones analyse your hearing and create a unique sound profile that takes into account your sensitivity to various frequencies. The result is personalised EQ that sounds sensational. The NuraLoop aren’t a one-trick pony, though. Active noise-cancellation is extremely effective, there’s a handy Social Mode for allowing in ambient sound, Immersion Mode for boosting bass, intuitive touch controls and sweat-resistance.

On top of all this, the NuraLoop offer a secure and comfortable fit and a massive 16 hours of battery life at half volume. Those of a more traditional disposition can rest easy: these earphones can be used wired with the analogue cable that’s included in the box. If you’re an audiophile that’s yet to experience Nura’s patented technology, you owe it to yourself to give the NuraLoop or their Impressive predecessors, the Nuraphone, a try!

Read our NuraLoop review for more details

Key specs – Type: In-ear, wireless/wired; Connections: Bluetooth, 3.5mm analogue cable; Weight: 27g; Cable length: 1.3m

Other options worth considering:

READ NEXT: Our favourite wireless headphones


7. Anker Soundcore Life Q30: Best budget over-ear headphones

Price: £80 | Buy now from Amazon

When it comes to value for money over-ear headphones, the Anker Soundcore Life Q30 can't be beaten. They offer three levels of effective active noise cancellation that outperform many of their more expensive rivals, have outstanding battery life and are comfortable to wear for long periods of time.

Their default sound signature is overly bassy to the point where the earcups vibrate noticeably on tracks with a beefy low-end but pop into the Soundcore companion app and you can customise audio to your heart's content. There are no fewer than 22 different EQ presets available covering just about every genre imaginable along with an eight-band graphic equaliser that enables you to create your own sonic profiles.

With a little bit of tinkering around, you'll be able to find a sound that suits your listening preference and comfortably enjoy distraction-free audio for hours on end.

Read our Anker Soundcore Life Q30 review for more details

Key specs – Type: Over-ear, wireless; Connections: Bluetooth; Weight: 265g; Cable length: 1.2m

Other options worth considering:

READ NEXT: Best over-ear headphones


8. Apple Airpods 2: Best open-fit wireless earbuds

Price: £159/£199 | Buy now from Amazon

The Apple AirPods 2 are the most popular wireless earbuds on the market and they're among the best if you're an Apple user that wants to keep their ear canals clear while listening to audio. They forgo silicone seals and simply rest inside your ears, making them more comfortable to wear for long periods of time than the other earbuds on this list. That design means they leak sound and let external sound in, but the AirPods still manage to offer impressive audio quality, with a balanced sound signature delivering well-rounded bass and detailed treble.

Though a touch expensive, particularly the model that comes with a wireless charging case, the AirPods 2 provide seamless integration with Apple products in addition to their top-notch build quality, making them the go-to choice for iPhone users. If you don't own an iPhone you can still enjoy their great design and solid audio but you'll be missing out on voice-activated Siri, near-instant Bluetooth pairing and battery level popups.

Read our Apple AirPods 2 review for more details

Key specs – Type: True wireless earbuds; Connections: Bluetooth; Weight: 4g per earbud, 40g charging case; Cable length: N/A

Other options worth considering:

READ NEXT: The best wireless earbuds for every budget


9. Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus: Best earbuds under £100

Price: £100 | Buy from Amazon

True wireless earbuds around the £100 mark are ten a penny but none sound quite as good as the Melomania 1 Plus from UK manufacturer Cambridge Audio. In their "High Performance" mode, the earbuds deliver a wide soundstage characterised by a thumping bass response and wonderful detail. What's more, audio can be tweaked via the Melomania companion app, which features six EQ presets and the ability to create your own five-band graphic EQs.

Controls are another area of strength, with the Melomania ditching touch controls in favour of physical button presses. It's a decision that pays off as the controls are simple, easy to execute and facilitate volume changes, something often omitted by similarly priced earbuds.

Our only real complaint about the Melomania 1 Plus is that we didn't find their bullet-shaped design as comfortable as some of their competitors. But with a wide range of foam and silicone eartips included in the box, you mileage with them in that regard may well vary.

Key specs – Type: True wireless earbuds; Connections: Bluetooth; Weight: 5g per earbud, 50g charging case; Cable length: N/A

Other options worth considering:

READ NEXT: Our favourite wireless earbuds and best cheap wireless earbuds


10. Bose SleepBuds II: Best headphones for sleeping

Price: £230 | Buy now from Amazon

Leading the admittedly small pack of headphones designed to aid sleeping are the Bose SleepBuds II. We found their range of noise-masking and relaxing sounds improved our ability to fall asleep and remain slumbering through the night, while the Bose Sleep app is about as easy to use as companion apps get.

The battery and connection issues that plagued the original SleepBuds have been largely addressed, although the case does discharge when not in use, and the SleepBuds II are the most comfortable, least obtrusive earbuds we've ever tested. It's just a shame that you can only use them to play the sounds within the Bose Sleep app; they can't stream content over Bluetooth so steer clear of them if you're after headphones to listen to music or podcasts on before bed!

Read our Bose SleepBuds II review for more details

Key specs – Type: True wireless earbuds; Connections: Bluetooth; Weight: 2g per earbud, 98g charging case; Cable length: N/A

Another option worth considering:


11. AfterShokz Aeropex: Best bone conduction headphones

Price: £150 | Buy now from Amazon

If in-, on- or over-ear headphones aren’t for you, it’s worth checking out AfterShokz’ range of bone conduction headphones. These deliver sound vibrations through your cheekbones so are great for those with ear issues or simply those wanting to leave their ears free while still enjoying music.

The Aeropex are lightweight, Bluetooth enabled and IP67-rated, meaning they’re waterproof, so are an excellent choice for runners, particularly as you’re still able to hear everything going on around you. Despite the bone conduction design, they don’t leak too much sound and are sonically very impressive.

Key specs – Type: Bone conduction; Connections: Bluetooth; Weight: 26g; Cable length: N/A

Other options worth considering:

READ NEXT: Best running headphones and best gym headphones