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The best headphones for 2021

With many different headphones to choose from, which ones are the best of the best? Here's a look at CNET's top picks -- from full-size models to tiny wireless earbuds.

When it comes to the best headphones, it's hard to narrow things down to the best of the best, particularly since there's an endless array of amazing options available, and it's impossible to review every single model on the planet. But I'll try anyway. We tend to focus on wireless headphones, and true wireless in particular -- yes, Apple's AirPods have been insanely popular over the past several years. But this list of best headphones also includes over-ear headphones, on-ear models, headphones with noise cancellation, and even some more affordable headphones as "budget" standouts for those who don't want to drop a lot of cash to get great sound and optimal comfort.

These are our current favorites for the "best headphones" designation (with waterproofing ratings included for in-ear models). Note that we'll be seeing plenty of new models coming out soon, many of which we noted in our best headphones of CES 2021 roundup. We'll update this list regularly as those new models are released.

Read more: The best true wireless earbuds of 2021

David Carnoy/CNET

In many ways, Bose's $279 noise-canceling QuietComfort Earbuds are excellent true wireless earbuds, particularly when it comes to their sound and noise canceling, which is arguably the best out there right now in a set of earbuds. Performance-wise, they clearly have a leg up on Apple's best-selling AirPods Pro true wireless noise-canceling buds. However, the AirPods Pro's smaller design, somewhat more comfortable fit and superior voice-calling capabilities make it hard to declare the Bose the straight-up champ (they both are splashproof, with IPX water-resistance). Ultimately, it depends on what your priorities are.

Read our Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review.

 

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Even if they don't sound quite as magical as you'd hope a $249 model would, the Apple AirPods Pro still manage to be a great pair of true wireless earphones with noise cancellation. That's largely due to their winning design and fit, improved bass performance and effective noise canceling -- and now these true wireless headphones have been updated with spatial audio, a new virtual-sound mode for watching movies and TV shows (only works with iPhones and iPads running iOS 14).

They're an excellent choice when you want to make a call or listen to music during your workout. Yeah, they're expensive at $250, but the good news is they tend to sell in the $200 to $220 range.

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

Sony's earlier WH-1000XM3 model was great. But if it had a weakness, that was voice calling, particularly in noisier environments. The WH-1000XM4 model has improved in that area and also adds multipoint Bluetooth pairing so you can connect to two devices -- such as your phone and PC -- at the same time. That means that if a call comes in while you're using the headphones with your computer, the audio will switch to your phone when you answer the call.

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 probably still have a slight edge for voice calls, but the 1000XM4 headphones are arguably a tad more comfortable and also have some other slight improvements to noise cancellation and sound that make this model a great all-around choice. Even better: This model gets regularly discounted.

Read our Sony WH-1000XM4 review.

 

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The second-generation Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 aren't cheap. These true wireless earphones are better all around than the originals, with a slightly smaller, more comfortable earbud design, great audio quality, active noise canceling that rivals that of the AirPod Pro, improved battery life (up to seven hours versus the original's four) and better noise reduction during calls. If you don't like these ANC earbuds in black, a white version is slated to follow later this year. Most importantly, though, the Momentum True Wireless 2 have the same great sound -- for true wireless earbuds, anyway -- offering clearly superior sound quality to the AirPods Pro. 

They use Bluetooth 5.1 with support for the AAC and aptX codecs, for devices that support aptX like Samsung's Galaxy smartphones. 

Read our Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 review.

 

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Yes, they're expensive, but the AirPods Max deliver richer, more detailed sound than lower-priced competitors from Bose and Sony. They also feature arguably the best noise canceling on the market along with premium build quality and Apple's virtual surround spatial audio feature for video watching. While they're heavy, they manage to be surprisingly comfortable, though I did have to adjust the mesh canopy headband to sit a little more forward on my head to get a comfortable secure fit when I was out walking with them. They should fit most heads well, but there will be exceptions.

Read our Apple AirPods Max review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

I've been a fan of Samsung's recent Galaxy true-wireless earbuds. The Galaxy Buds Plus fit my ears really well and have become one of the better true-wireless values, sometimes selling for less than $100 online. And the Galaxy Buds Live, also discounted a bit since their original debut, feature a discreet and innovative "open" design and I like to use them for running and biking. Now the $200 Galaxy Buds Pro -- Samsung's long-awaited active noise-canceling model -- have arrived with upgraded sound and high expectations. (Yes, the Buds Live also have noise canceling, but it's rather modest.)

The Buds Pro are mostly impressive, although just how good you think they are will ultimately depend on how well they fit your ears. The other caveat is that Samsung's new 360 Audio virtual surround feature (similar to Apple's spatial audio) only works with Samsung's latest Galaxy S21 models. I do expect that over time firmware upgrades will offer small improvements and we'll see some discounts sooner rather than later.

Read our Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro review.

 

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Some of Tribit's 2020 true wireless earbuds were decent for the money, but none of them truly stood out from the pack. Its new Flybuds C1, however, are top-notch as far as inexpensive true wireless go. Not only do they sound very good for their modest price, with good clarity and strong, punchy bass, but their call quality measures up well to the AirPods', with good noise reduction -- the earbuds have two microphones in each bud -- and a sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the buds when you're making a call.

They also have strong battery life (12 hours at 50% volume) and 30-meter range with Bluetooth 5.2 connectivity. They use Qualcomm's QCC3040 chip, which includes aptX audio streaming for compatible devices such as Samsung's Galaxy phones. 

While they don't have active noise canceling like the AirPods Pro, if you get a tight seal, which is crucial for optimizing sound quality, they do a good job of passively sealing out a lot of ambient noise. They're IPX4 water-resistant (splashproof) and have a compact matte-black charging case with USB-C charging. I also liked how they have tiny physical buttons on their stems that work well for controlling playback and volume control. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung's Galaxy Buds Plus have been out a while and generally cost a little more than $100, and sometimes less. Featuring very good sound for the money, they offer strong battery life (up to around 11 hours for music playback), and they pack dual drivers for better sound and an additional microphone in each bud to help with external noise reduction while making calls.

The newer and more expensive Galaxy Buds Pro add noise canceling and offer improved sound, with slightly better bass definition and overall clarity, but some people like the fit of the Galaxy Buds Plus better (they come with sport fins, which can help you get a more secure fit).

Read our Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus review.

 

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The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, the long-awaited successor to Bose's QuietComfort 35 II model, may not be a quantum leap forward, but these headphones offer slightly better sound and noise cancellation along with top-notch headset performance for voice calls. They're a strong all-around audio performer (some prefer their sound to that of Sony's WH-1000XM4) with up to 20 hours of battery life and a more durable design than their predecessor, although the QuietComfort 35 II headphones may be slightly more comfortable.

At launch, they cost $400, but they've come down in price. We've seen the white version dip as low as $299 while the black and silver versions have hit $340. That said, Sony's WH-1000XM4, their closest competitor, has also seen nice discounts.

Read our Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review.

 

While the Elite 75t has been out a while, it's still one of the best true wireless earbuds out there and recently added noise canceling via a firmware upgrade. Earlier firmware updates improved voice-calling performance. 

The Elite 75t aren't quite as comfortable to wear as the AirPods Pro, but they do sound better, with clearer overall sound and better bass audio quality definition, so long as you get a tight seal.

The slightly more rugged Elite Active 75t is also available for about $20 more, but with the new Elite 85t's arrival (it sounds slightly better but is slightly larger), we're seeing frequent sales on the Elite 75t. 

Read our Jabra Elite 75t review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

Anker's Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro ($130), the company's first earbuds to feature active noise canceling, are mostly an excellent set of true-wireless earbuds that measure up pretty well against Apple's AirPods Pro for significantly less money.

While I had an issue with the included ear tips and had to use some other tips (it's crucial to get a tight seal or both noise canceling and sound quality will suffer), they should fit most people comfortably. Sound quality is better than Anker's earlier Liberty Air 2 and the noise canceling is effective. These also work well as a headset for making calls and are available in multiple color options.

Read our Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro review.

 

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The Mpow X3 sound shockingly good for the price, with decent clarity and powerful bass (they play loud), and they even have active noise canceling that's fairly effective. They list for $60 on Amazon, but frequently dip to $50 or close to it. Note: The white version offers some small upgrades over the black version and costs slightly more. 

They did fit me comfortably and securely, and I got a tight seal from one of the XL ear tips. They're fully waterproof (IPX8) and get up to seven hours of battery life at moderate volume levels with USB-C charging. (The charging case looks like a fatter version of the standard Apple AirPod case.) Call quality is good -- they have a sidetone feature that lets you hear your voice in the buds -- but I've used other models with better noise reduction during calls. I noticed a touch of audio lag when I streamed a YouTube video, but I had no issues when streaming iTunes movies.

The touch controls take some getting used to (they're a little wonky), and it didn't help that the instructions in the box seemed to be for an older version of the X3 -- I found the current instructions online, which helped me figure things out. Aside from a few minor downsides, the X3 is a very good value.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As far as sound, comfort level and build quality, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than Anker's Soundcore Life Q30 for the money. It doesn't quite have the clarity or bass definition as some of the top premium models, but it's less than a third of the price and gets you about 75% of the way there in terms of sound (it's well balanced overall with punchy bass and there's an app that allows you to tweak the sound). Noise canceling is good for the price, though not up to the level of the Sony WH-1000XM4 or Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Battery life is rated at an impressive 40 hours with USB-C charging.

The only area where the Q30 falls a little short is for voice calls. It picks up your voice fine in quieter environments, but it just doesn't reduce background noise all that well. 

Compared to the Q20 (see below), the Q30 does offer improved sound (it's not a huge difference, but it definitely is a notch up) and a more premium design. Anker often offers the Q20 at a $10 discount at Amazon. Eventually, we should see something like that on the Q30.

David Carnoy/CNET

From a design standpoint, the Earfun Free Pros seem identical to the Fiil T1XS buds, which are also a good value. However, the Earfun Free Pro has better features, including active noise cancellation with a transparency mode, wireless charging and Bluetooth 5.2. They're rated for seven hours of battery life without the noise-canceling function on, or about six hours with it. They're IPX5 water-resistant, which means they can withstand a sustained spray of water.

They sound very good for the money, with relatively clean, balanced sound and bass that has some kick to it -- they're pretty open-sounding. Lightweight and comfortable to wear, they have little fins that help keep them securely in your ears, and they're fairly discreet-looking.

Don't expect them to cancel noise as well as the AirPods Pro, but they do provide some decent muffling. It's worth noting that you can use either the left or right earbud independently and there's a low-latency mode for video watching (and presumably gaming). Call quality was decent, too: Callers said they heard some background noise, but it wasn't intrusive and they could hear my voice well. The touch controls were responsive.

David Carnoy/CNET

Say what you will about the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live's bean-shaped design, but they might just be the most innovative new true wireless earbuds of the last year. Like the standard AirPods, they have an open design -- you don't jam an ear tip into your ear -- and they're quite comfortable to wear and fit my ears more securely than the AirPods. That said, they won't fit everybody's ears equally well. These wireless buds are discreet and basically sit flush with your ear without a little white pipe extending out from them.

They deliver good sound and work well as a headset for making calls, with good background noise reduction so callers can hear you clearly even when you're in noisier environments. While they feature active noise canceling, it's mild compared to the noise canceling in earbuds that have a noise-isolating design. In other words, buy them for their design and sound, not their noise-canceling features.

Read our Samsung Galaxy Buds Live review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony's WF-1000XM3 earbuds have been out for a while and are probably due for an upgrade in the not-so-distant future, as rumors of the new WF-1000XM4 percolate. In recent months, we've seen them discounted by $50 off their list price, and they remain a solid pick at that price. As far as sound quality goes, they're among the best-sounding wireless earbuds and also feature excellent noise-cancellation technology to reduce ambient noise.

The only drawback is the WF-1000XM3 Bluetooth earbuds aren't rated as sweat-proof or waterproof headphones. That said, I've used them for light workouts with a bit of a sweat at the gym without a problem. They use Bluetooth 5.0 with support for AAC but not aptX.

Read our Sony WF-1000XM3 review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

V-Moda's M-200 are currently the only wired headphones on this list. Released in late 2019, these clean and detailed sounding over-ear headphones have excellent bass response, and the cushy ear cushion cups mean they're also comfortable to wear. Featuring 50mm drivers with neodymium magnets, CCAW voice coils and fine-tuning by Roland engineers -- yes, V-Moda is now owned by Roland -- the M‑200 is Hi‑Res Audio certified by the Japan Audio Society. Other V-Moda headphones tend to push the bass a little, but this set has the more neutral profile that you'd expect from studio monitor headphones. It comes with two cords, one of which has a built-in microphone for making calls. It would be nice if V-Moda offered Lightning or USB-C cables for phones without headphone jacks.

Note that in 2021, V-Moda has released the M-200 ANC ($500), a wireless version of these headphones that includes active noise canceling. It also sounds great but its noise canceling, call quality and overall feature set don't match those of the AirPods Max. 

More headphone recommendations