Best Headphones of 2021
These models deliver great sound when you're on the road, at the gym, or sitting at home listening to your favorite music
Most people can’t listen to dozens of headphones every year to find the best pairs. At Consumer Reports we can, and we do.
We buy and evaluate headphones continually, rating them on factors including sound quality, noise cancellation, features, and fit. With CR on your side, all you need to know to find the best headphones in 2021 is which kind you want and how much you want to spend.
Truly Outstanding True Wireless
The best: Samsung Galaxy Buds are one of the best-scoring portable Bluetooth models Consumer Reports has ever tested. That’s all the more impressive, given their true wireless design. The Galaxy Buds produce exemplary audio quality packed into a pair of unobtrusive earpieces, complete with easy-to-use touch controls for playback, volume, and skipping tracks.
They have an advertised 6-hour battery life and a powered carrying case that will recharge the earphones for up to 7 additional hours of playback on the go. The case itself can be charged with a wireless charging mat, and it’s particularly compact compared with the cases that come with many true wireless models.
The bargain option: The Skullcandy Dime earphones are an absolute steal at $25. Their sound quality isn’t outstanding, but it’s above average—and very impressive considering the price. They have an advertised 3.5-hour battery life and a carrying/charging case good for another 8.5 hours of power. One caveat: Skullcandy gets a dismal rating for owner satisfaction in our latest headphones member survey. That doesn’t necessarily mean every Skullcandy product is a dud, though, and the Dime may be worth a gamble at this price.
The best: The Grado Prestige SR225x isn’t cheap, but the price gets you superb audio quality and a classic audiophile aesthetic. The X series is the latest update to Grado’s storied line of over-ear models, with new drivers, a more durable cable, and a redesigned headband.
This model uses an open-air design, meaning the backs of the ear cups feature a mesh screen instead of a sealed case. That gives the internal components room to breathe, so to speak, instead of forcing the sound to bounce around in a little box. That design can add clarity to the audio, but isn’t meant to block sound from bleeding in or out, so these headphones might not be suited for noisy environments or places where you might bother a neighbor.
The bargain option: Looking for a wired over-ear model for a little less? The Audio-Technica ATH-M50x headphones are a classic choice for both music producers and fans. They deliver high-quality sound, and unlike the Grados above, they’re closed-back and designed to isolate your ears. They retail for about $150. Of course, that’s not cheap, but it’s a deal for sound this good.
Noise Cancellation on the Go
The best: The WF-1000XM4 is the latest in Sony’s line of noise-canceling true wireless earbuds, and our tests show it has outstanding sound quality and sound-blocking performance. Apple’s AirPods Pro may be more popular, but we think Sony has a better product—though it’s a bit more expensive. (If you’re looking for a bargain, the previous model, the XM3, is cheaper than the AirPods and still outperforms them.)
Sony’s latest comes packed with additional features, including variable noise cancellation, which you can adjust to let in more or less sound, a monitoring mode to actively pipe in audio from your surroundings, and Speak-to-Chat, which can automatically pause the music when you start talking.
According to Sony, the XM4 has a 5.5-hour battery life and comes with a portable charging case that holds 16 hours’ worth of power before it needs to be plugged in again. But our testers note that some users, particularly people with larger ears, may feel that this model doesn’t fit securely.
The bargain option: There are lots of great choices if you’re looking for less expensive noise-canceling headphones. One of our top picks is the 1More ComfoBuds Pro. You get the convenience of true wireless headphones, great sound quality, and superb noise cancellation, all for around $100. 1More advertises a 6-hour battery life backed by a charging case that holds enough power for two full cycles.
The best: The GW100 is the first Bluetooth model from Grado, an audio company that’s famous for its hand-built products and is based in Brooklyn, N.Y. The sound quality doesn’t match that of the company’s best wired options, but it beats most of the wireless headphones we’ve tested in this category. According to Grado, the headphones have a 40-hour battery life. Shop around and you can find them for about $250.
Grado’s signature open-back headphone design is intended to improve audio quality; it’s unusual for a wireless model because it isn’t meant to completely muffle sound from getting in or out. But Grado says the GW100 is designed to limit sound leakage far better than its other models built for home listening.
For consumers who want more traditional Bluetooth headphones, we recommend the Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Headphones II. They aren’t noise-canceling like many of Bose’s headphones, but they get a great rating for sound and cost a bit less.
The bargain option: The Sennheiser HD 250BT is a relative newcomer, but it makes a mark for providing great sound at a bargain price. This is a sleek on-ear model with a price that sometimes dips below $70, making it one of the best values among Bluetooth headphones in our ratings. The HD 250BT has an advertised 25-hour battery life, and it charges over USB-C, the same cable that powers newer Mac laptops and tons of other devices.
Portable, Affordable High Fidelity
The best: For the best sound quality you can get from a portable model under $100, look no further than the 1More E1001 Triple Driver. You won’t find many competitors that deliver such impressive audio anywhere near this price. We’ve seen it go as low as $50.
These headphones have a sleek design and come with extras, including a removable shirt clip, a carrying case, and nine sets of earpieces of varying shapes and sizes to help you find a good fit.
The bargain option: The Panasonic RP-TCM125 is a great choice if you’re looking for inexpensive earbuds that don’t sound cheap. This pair just misses the cutoff for an official Consumer Reports recommendation, thanks in part to Panasonic’s mediocre rating for predicted reliability, our metric for how likely headphones are to have problems in the first two years of ownership. But that seems like a minor failing in a product that’s priced around $15, especially given this model’s above-average audio quality. We’ve tested headphones that cost ten times as much and sound far worse.
How to Choose Headphones
With so many types of headphones, how do you know which pair is right for you? On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Consumer Reports expert Elias Arias explains everything you need to know.