Drift off and get a great night’s rest with these clever ear soothers
There’s nothing better than waking up feeling fully rested after a really deep sleep. If you’re regularly struggling to achieve that, you might find sleep headphones can help you get there. Sudden sounds and loud noises – from snoring partners or noisy external traffic – can all rouse you from your slumber. But the good news is that many sleep headphones can mask outside noise, as well as lull you into a deep restful sleep by playing relaxing content.
Sleep headphones come in a few different varieties, and I’ll drill down into that later, but what unites them is they’re all designed to be worn while you sleep. As well as core sleep-assisting audio content, many can also play you a range of additional sleep-enhancing material, ranging from guided meditations and breathing exercises, to the low hum of an aircraft cabin. Whatever your particular “jam”, sleep headphones should be able to help you get your fix.
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How to choose the best sleep headphones for you
What are the different types of sleep headphones?
The most common sort found nowadays are versions of true wireless in-ear headphones. These fit in your ear, but are Bluetooth-enabled and so aren’t wired together in any way. This sort comes with a charge/carry case, but can be a bit fiddly as they are easier to lose.
Then you have wired in-ear headphone types. These are still connected via Bluetooth to whatever device you’re playing sound from, most likely your phone. But the individual earbuds are wired together, the wire being strung across the back of your neck when you’re using them. These are easier to keep track of and tend to be cheaper to buy, but not everyone is going to like the idea of wires.
Lastly, there are headband-based types. These are the sole preserve of sleep headphones, because they fit on your head like a sweatband, many doubling up as eye masks, too. This type’s really handy if you want to totally escape from your environment, perhaps while on a plane or on a break in a noisy office. The downsides are that they’re bulky and you can’t see your phone when you have them on, in order to control them. Having said that, for many struggling to get to sleep, that might be considered a bonus.
What do sleep headphones play?
This depends entirely on the type of sleep headphones you go for. Some are limited only to playing the content library that comes with their dedicated app, while others can happily play whatever content you want. It’s worth thinking about exactly what you want to listen to while you fall asleep – you might also want to hear a podcast, an audiobook, a soundscape or perhaps even a guided mediation. Everybody’s needs are different so do check that your choice of sleep headphone can play whatever you think will help you nod off.
Are sleep headphones only for sleep?
Not necessarily. Some sleep headphones are one-trick ponies, designed to do nothing else except get you to sleep: these tend only to play music from their library. Of course you can wear them at other times, but be aware you’re not going to be able to listen to your lovingly crafted Spotify playlist through them. Other sleep headphones can certainly be used as normal headphones, but bear in mind that the genre has primarily been designed to be comfortable when worn while lying down.
How we test sleep headphones
At Expert Reviews, we know that impartial testing of the products we feature delivers the most reliable and complete information. As such, we personally test all the sleep headphones we review. We start by downloading the associated apps and then use each device in a real-world scenario; for example, when we’re actually trying to sleep. All functions on offer are put to the test, so, if the sleep headphones can be used as a standard set of headphones, too, then we’ll use them as such to assess how well they perform.
Through testing we observe how well the headphones dull environmental sounds presented at their usual levels, including traffic, snoring and family chatter in the household. We assess how comfortable the headphones are to wear, both for side and back sleepers, to ensure that no matter your chosen position, you’ll achieve a good night’s sleep.
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The best sleep headphones you can buy in 2023
1. Anker Soundcore Sleep A10: The best for versatility
Price: £160 | Buy now from Soundcore
These earbuds come with four different-sized tips, as well as three different wing sizes. This means it’s easy to find a comfy yet snug fit, one that won’t see the buds falling out when you toss and turn at night. They can be slightly uncomfortable if you sleep on your side, though, as they’re larger in profile than others and stand slightly proud in the ear.
The associated Soundcore app is easy to use and set up, and is packed with useful tools. As with the Bose app, there’s a decent selection of library sounds to choose from. These are grouped into categories labelled “focus”, “relax” and “rest”, as well as “sleep”. There’s also an “other” category, which comprises instrumental mood music.
Oddly, there are no white/brown/pink noise options to choose from, which is slightly surprising as they are very popular with people experiencing sleep issues. However, we like the fact that these earbuds are also designed to be used in waking life, making them a more versatile option than some others.
The earbuds sense when you’ve fallen asleep and activate active noise masking. This feature adjusts the volume based on what outside noises are occurring, so you shouldn’t be disturbed. This is a handy feature, and means you can barely hear anything other than your chosen audio. Incidentally, if you’re a data fan, it’s worth knowing these headphones also track your sleep and show you how well you’ve slept each night.
Key specs – Style: In ear; Noise masking: Yes; Charging: USB charge case; Alarm: Yes
2. SnoozeBand Deluxe: The best eye-mask-style sleep headphones
Price: £60 | Buy now from SnoozeBand
This relatively affordable headband is a great option if the idea of wearing earbuds at night doesn’t appeal. The SnoozeBand also works as an eye mask, so it blots out light in its quest to enhance your sleep. I found it very comfortable to wear, but it does tend to slip slightly while on. However, the audio quality was pleasingly clear (audiophiles might find it a bit lacking, but I had no issues), allowing me to listen to podcasts and music as I reclined in bed.
As it simply links directly to your phone via Bluetooth, rather than having to go through an app, you just need to pair it and then play whatever content it is that you want to listen to. I really liked this approach, as opposed to being confined to a walled garden of content.
Downsides? The controls for the headband are located on your forehead when you’re using it. I found this a tad fiddly, and it’s compounded by the fact that, once you’ve put the headband on, you can’t actually see your phone.
In its favour, however, I did appreciate the provision of a zipped pocket for inserting a small ice pack or heat pad – potentially handy for those times you’re feeling a bit under the weather. If you’re already used to sleeping with an eye mask on, this option could be just the ticket.
Key specs – Style: Headband; Noise masking: No; Charging: Cable; Alarm: No
3. Kokoon Nightbuds: The best for personalisation
Price: £230 | Buy now from Amazon
These advanced wired in-ear headphones felt extremely secure when being worn. There’s a good selection of different-sized buds supplied so it’s easy to find a comfy fit. I really liked the MyKokoon app that comes with this model as it has an unusually comprehensive content library, with selections for going to sleep, disruptive sleep and anxiety. Within these categories you can choose meditations, coaching, music and even storyscapes, a thoughtful section I didn’t find provided by the apps on any of the other headphones I tried.
Functionality is definitely one of the Kokoon’s strengths. The app monitors your sleep, showing how many times you woke up and sleep duration. I appreciated having this data, although it may actually make some people more anxious (you can always just ignore this feature). You can also set sleep and wake-up times. It even determines the best times for you to go to sleep and wake up, based on your sleep profile; you have to fill out a questionnaire to get it to do this.
You can play your own playlists from other apps through the headphones. Back sleepers may find these headphones mildly uncomfortable – the battery pack rests at the back of your neck – but I didn’t find them too intrusive. As someone who sleeps mainly on their side, I generally found the design to be very comfortable.
Key specs – Style: Wired in-ear; Noise masking: Yes; Charging: Cable; Alarm: Yes
4. Quieton 3.1 sleep earbuds: Best soundless earbuds
Price: £249 | Buy from QuietOnThe latest version of these soundless ear buds launched in November 2022, and they offer a few new features over their older model.
As these earbuds are soundless, they don’t play any audio at all – pop these earbuds in and all they do is actively cancel noise. If you like the idea of being lulled to sleep with swooshing waves or brown, pink or white noise, then you’ll need to look elsewhere, but the key benefit here is that you don’t need to pair them with a phone or tinker with an app to set them up.
The idea here is that you get to sleep in peaceful semi-silence. We found the QuietOn 3.1s very effective at blocking out the worst of the outside noise while still allowing us to hear our phone alarm or the stirring of kids in an adjacent room.
The trick for making these comfortable is to select a smaller earbud size than you think you’ll need (they come with a range of eartips included), but do bear in mind that they are tiny and very easy to lose – so make sure to keep them in the included charging case.
Key specs – Style: In ear; Noise cancellation: Yes; Charging: USB charging case; Alarm: No