Our pick of the best on-ear headphones for meeting your day-to-day listening needs
They offer a keen balance between portability and performance and some people find them more comfortable than models that completely surround your ears or require you to wedge a piece of plastic into your ear canals. They’re still able to house similarly sized drivers to those found in over-ear options, however, meaning they can deliver a surprisingly powerful and satisfying audio experience.
Whether you’re after thumping bass in a sweatproof package, refined and balanced audio reproduction, or an on-ear companion capable of adjusting to whatever audio you throw at it, there’s an on-ear option for you below. We’ve thoroughly tested each pair in real-world conditions to bring you buying advice you can trust and help ensure you find on-ear headphones that meet your needs perfectly. Click here to jump into our on-ear headphones buying guide or scroll down to get straight into our recommendations.
READ NEXT: The best waterproof speakers to buy
The best on-ear headphones you can buy
The Marshall Major IV leave very little to be desired in the on-ear headphones stakes. One of their top credentials is epic battery life that clocks in at around 80 hours per charge. That mind-blowing stamina doesn’t come at the expense of performance, however, with the Major IV able to deliver well-articulated mids and treble that bring vocal and instrument-heavy rock and indie tunes to life. Fans of bassier genres will likely prefer the Beats Solo 3 listed below but we found the Major IV to be a lot more comfortable for long listening sessions. They also support wireless charging unlike the Beats and they look great, with Marshall’s classic golden logo emblazoned on each earpad. For stamina, style and comfort, they’re our top pick.
Read our full Marshall Major IV review
Key specs – Connectivity: Bluetooth, 3.5mm jack; Weight: 165g; Cable length: 1.5m (removable); IP rating: Not stated; Stated battery life: 80 hours
2. Sennheiser HD 25: Best wired on-ear headphones
Price when reviewed: £129 | Check price at Amazon
When it comes to wired, on-ear headphones, the Sennheiser HD 25 are a standout pick. They’re built to last, with a durable, adjustable headband and scratch-resistant earpads, and their modular design means you can switch out parts if they break.
For on-ear headphones, they offer remarkable passive noise isolation. This is largely down to the clamping force they exert on your ears, which is strong but not to the point where wearing the HD 25 becomes uncomfortable. Crucially, their build quality is matched by the well-balanced and detailed audio they produce. Their neutral presentation might not have enough bass for low frequency addicts but it remains tight and punchy, ensuring the HD 25 excel across a variety of genres.
Read our full Sennheiser HD 25 review
Key specs – Connectivity: 3.5mm/6.3mm jack; Weight: 140g; Cable length: 1.5m (removable); IP rating: Not stated; Stated battery life: N/a
3. Beats Solo 3: Best on-ear headphones for mainstream music
Price when reviewed: £149 | Check price via AmazonThe Beats Solo 3 have been around for a number of years now but remain a top-tier pick for mainstream and dance music fans. They deliver punchy highs and deep, impactful lows, making them perfectly suited for genres where a potent bassline goes a long way to carrying a tune. This sonic focus does result in a lack of mid-range detail, however, so classical music lovers and audiophiles will want to give them a miss. Owners of other iOS-based devices such as iPhones, iPads and MacBooks will benefit from seamless pairing with the Solo 3, while there’s also support for Apple’s Spatial Audio when consuming compatible content in supported apps. Handy physical controls and 40 hours of battery life round off a package that is lightweight, comfortable and attractive – there’s really little to grumble about assuming you are the bass-loving target audience for the Solo 3.
Read our full Beats Solo 3 review
Key specs – Connectivity: Bluetooth, 3.5mm jack; Weight: 215g; Cable length: 1.5m (removable); IP rating: Not stated; Stated battery life: 40 hours
4. Jabra Elite 45h: Best on-ear headphones under £100
Price when reviewed: £70 | Check price at AmazonElite by name, elite by nature; the Jabra Elite 45h are our favourite on-ear headphones if you’ve only got a budget of £100. While they can’t match the Marshall Major IV for battery life, they’re capable of lasting up to 50 hours, which is ample in anyone’s book. Their memory foam ear cushions provide a super comfortable fit, while their 40mm drivers deliver a dynamic listen. Vocals and trebles are particularly well handled across various volume levels but it’s worth noting that we did experience a bit of sound leakage when we pushed the Elite 45h to their limits. Sound can be tweaked using the EQ presets and personalised sound profiles available in the Jabra Sound+ app and this gives the Elite 45h the edge on options on this list that make do without any form of audio customisation.
Key specs – Connectivity: Bluetooth; Weight: 160g; Cable length: N/a; IP rating: Not stated; Stated battery life: 50 hours
5. Sony MDR-ZX310: Best cheap wired on-ear headphones
Price when reviewed: £18 | Check price at AmazonAfter an ultra cheap pair of wired on-ear headphones from a reputable, big-name manufacturer? The Sony MDR-ZX310 are a low-cost option that work extremely well for casual listening. Granted, you aren’t getting the stellar audio quality of the Japanese manufacturer’s flagship cans – it’s certainly a “you get what you pay for” situation with the MDR-ZX310 – but they still produce solid mid-range and treble frequency articulation for their price tag, even if we found bass to be lacking some oomph. They’re supremely portable thanks to their foldable earcups and surprisingly robustly built too, and these qualities help cement them as our favourite on-ear budget buy.
Key specs – Connectivity: 3.5mm jack; Weight: 127g; Cable length: 1.2m; IP rating: Not stated; Stated battery life: N/a
6. Adidas Sport RPT-01: Best on-ear headphones for exercise
Price when reviewed: £120 | Check price at AmazonThe RPT-01 excel as exercise headphones thanks to a snug fit, an IPX4 rating for water resistance and the ability to remove and wash their knitted ear cushions and headband. They’re rather rare in these regards – no other option on this list has an IP rating, let alone the ability to remove and wash their ear cushions. These traits certainly help set the RPT-01 apart from the crowd, but they also benefit from solid battery life of up to 40 hours and a punchy sound profile that’s ideal for the gym.
The fiddly knob used for controls takes some getting used to, but that minor grumble aside, the RPT-01 are a superb pair of on-ear headphones, particularly if you’re the active, outdoorsy type.
Key specs – Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0; Weight: 209g; Cable length: N/a; IP rating: IPX4; Stated battery life: 40 hours
Are on-ear headphones comfortable?
Comfort and fit are crucial for any pair of headphones and some people find options that sit on (rather than in or over) their ears most comfortable. They certainly prevent your ears from getting as hot as over-ear headphones and aren’t as intrusive as most wireless earbuds.
That said, if you’ve not worn them before, on-ear headphones can take a bit of getting used to. The pressure they apply on your ears may cause some slight discomfort at first, so it’s important to find a pair that combines a reasonable amount of clamping force to hold them on your head with ample cushioning on their earpads.
Should I buy wired or wireless on-ear headphones?
Wired and wireless headphones both have their advantages, so which you choose will ultimately come down to personal preference and your listening habits. Wired headphones have the benefit of not needing to be charged, tend to be cheaper, and have historically been able to deliver better sound quality than wireless options.
That’s less true these days, however, with advanced Bluetooth codecs able to transfer huge amounts of data extremely quickly. And wireless headphones have a big advantage in the freedom they provide. You’re free of any cabling, so will never get wires tangled up or accidentally pull your headphones off your head by getting your audio cable caught up in something.
Wireless headphones are also compatible with a greater range of modern devices; just about every new piece of audio technology has Bluetooth, but the number that include analogue connections is on the decline.
Is driver size important to on-ear headphones?
In short, yes. The larger the driver – the component within headphones that converts audio signals into soundwaves – the wider the soundstage and the greater potential max volume. The result is audio that sounds fuller, with greater depth and instrument separation than otherwise would be possible.
Driver size isn’t the final word in audio performance though – there are various other factors that affect sound quality, including the types of coils and magnets used, the frequency range the headphones are able to reproduce, the amount of data they can transfer and the speed at which it does so.
What other features should I look out for?
- Active noise cancellation (ANC): Escaping the hustle and bustle of the world often requires active noise cancellation. For details about how this technology works check out our ANC explainer, but the general gist is that a combination of highly sensitive microphones and complicated algorithms work to attenuate the level of ambient noise in your environment. On-ear headphones are inferior to their over-ear counterparts where ANC is concerned as they don’t completely surround your ears and therefore block out less ambient noise by default. That’s not to say you should ignore ANC: if you prefer the on-ear headphones style and want the impact of external sounds dampened, it can still prove invaluable.
- Microphone and voice assistant integration: Modern on-ear headphones are often equipped with integrated microphones and support the use of voice assistants when connected to a smartphone or other smart device. Mic quality affects how well others hear you and should not be overlooked given how regularly we use our headphones for making and taking calls. Voice assistant integration is important too, with quick access to hands-free helpers like Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri now ingrained in our culture.
- Waterproofing: For fitness enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers, headphones with some level of water resistance – evidenced by an IP certification – are a must. This protection safeguards your investment against all wetness: moisture, sweat, and unexpected rain showers. Though on-ear headphones that are truly waterproof (IPX7) are few and far between, there are a few IPX4-rated options out there capable of surviving a sweaty workout or sudden downpour.
How much should I spend on on-ear headphones?
Securing the right on-ear headphones for you doesn’t require breaking the bank. Generally speaking, on-ear models are cheaper than their over-ear stablemates. You’ll be hard pressed to spend more than £200 on a pair of on-ear headphones, while there are plenty of solid options available for under £100.
How we test the best on-ear headphones
We thoroughly test each pair of on-ear headphones that gets a recommendation on our website: if they’re visible on this page, they’ve had the proper testing treatment.
But what exactly does that testing involve? Well, we get hands-on with every product, wearing each pair of on-ear headphones in real-world scenarios to determine how they perform. The process begins with an assessment of build quality, comfort and clamping force to check how the headphones feel on on our heads.
Audio performance is of course a prime consideration and we test sound quality across all supported Bluetooth codecs, turning to high-resolution and spatial formats on platforms like Tidal and Apple Music whenever necessary. When a pair of headphones has a companion app, we’ll dive into that too, judging the impact of available EQ settings, the speed of low-latency modes and overall usability of the app itself and every other supported feature.
On-ear headphones with noise cancellation get put through their paces in a variety of locations, ranging from public transport to local supermarkets, to see how effectively they dampen the impact of external hubbub. Likewise, headphones that have a built-in microphone are judged across calls and voice recordings to analyse call quality and voice clarity against background noise.
Throughout the testing period, battery life (where relevant) is closely monitored, too. We’ll also conduct testing alongside other on-ear headphones within similar price ranges to assess how each model’s features stack up against other players in the headphones market.