Best Over-Ear Headphones
The ultimate audio performance is reserved for these models, and some of them are true bargains
A pair of over-ear headphones can be a great addition to anyone’s quiver of audio equipment. True wireless headphones like AirPods may get more attention these days, but as almost any genuine audiophile will tell you, when looking for excellent sound quality, the best options often fit over the ears.
There’s more to like about the best over-ear headphones, as well. Some people find them far more comfortable, and they’re what you want if you need headphones with an extended battery life. Over-ear models may also be the only feasible choice if you wear a hearing aid.
Wired Over-Ear Headphones
With a few exceptions, our tests show that if you want the best audio from headphones, you’ll find that it comes with a wire. Wired models typically don’t use batteries that you have to charge, either, unless they’re noise-canceling.
The best: When money is no object, consider the Grado RS2x. This pair is a “reference” model, meaning the sound quality is supposed to be so accurate it can be used to judge recordings and other audio equipment. The claim stands up in our tests, too, with the RS2x earning a higher score than any other model in our ratings. You get what you pay for; the headphones cost a whopping $550.
That’s an absurd luxury for most people, but you can get a taste of audiophile sound for a lot less. Another pair from Grado, the SR80x, is an update to one of the company’s classic models. It delivers outstanding sound quality in our tests, standing up to almost any other model in our ratings for $125. Both of these pairs use an open-air design, meaning the back of the ear cups features 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. It adds clarity to the audio but isn’t meant to block sound from bleeding in or out, so these headphones might not be suited for every environment. If you want great sound but prefer a closed-back model that will give you more sound isolation, look at the Sony MDR-1AM2, which costs about $300.
The bargain: If you’re looking for something really cheap, check out the Monoprice Hi-Fi DJ-Style Pro. This $25 closed-back pair has okay sound, and it beats some models that cost twice as much. For a midrange model that packs a punch, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x is a classic choice for home and studio use. These $150 headphones have great sound, and their closed-back design will muffle some external noise and limit the amount of sound escaping.
Wireless Over-Ear Headphones
You don’t need earbuds to get the freedom of wireless headphones. Some over-ear Bluetooth models deliver admirable audio and come with integrated controls for calls, volume, and playback.
The best: The Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Headphones II don’t have noise-canceling tech like Bose’s best-known models, but they have great audio quality. They’re lightweight and highly portable, and they beat almost every model in this category. According to Bose, they have a 15-hour battery life. You can find them for about $230.
Technically, a Bluetooth model from Grado, the GW100, scores a bit higher for sound and costs around $250. It shares Grado’s signature open-back headphone design, which is intended to improve audio quality. That’s unusual for a wireless model because it isn’t meant to completely muffle sound from getting in or out. Grado says the GW100 is designed to limit sound leakage far better than its other models built for home listening, but we still think a closed-back model like the Bose described above is a better choice for most people.
The bargain: The Sennheiser HD 250BT makes a mark for great sound at a bargain price. Technically speaking, the HD 250BT fits on your ears, not over them, but it’s good enough to sneak onto this list. This Bluetooth model has a sleek appearance and costs $70. Want something even cheaper? We also recommend the JBL Tune 510BT, which costs about $50.
Noise-Canceling Over-Ear Headphones
Noise-canceling headphones are a must-have for folks who want to focus on their music—or just tune out the world.
The best: Bose has been the go-to brand for noise-canceling headphones for years, and their performance in our ratings bears out that reputation. The company’s flagship option, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, is a top performer. The 700 is an update to another Bose model, the QuietComfort 35 Series II. These are outstanding headphones that get the same score in our ratings, with top-quality audio and noise cancellation. It comes down to features and how much you want to spend. The QuietComfort model costs about $300 (though it often goes on sale). The newer 700 model usually costs about $380.
The bargain: You’ll have a hard time finding a better value in noise-canceling headphones than the Monoprice BT-300ANC. The model sells for under $50—a steal, given the superb noise cancellation and decent sound quality. For those who want noise-canceling headphones at an entry-level price, this one is a terrific choice.
The Science Behind Noise-Canceling Headphones
Whether it’s concentrating on work or blocking out undesirable sounds, noise-canceling headphones can be a huge help. On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Consumer Reports experts Elias Arias and James Dickerson, PhD, explain to host Jack Rico the tech behind these handy devices.