While full-size around-ear or over-ear headphones tend to deliver the best sound, not everybody wants to walk around wearing bulky headphones. That's where on-ear models with smaller earcups come in. While headphones that sit on top of one's ears aren't everybody's cup of tea, they're more compact, more travel-friendly and also can cost a little less. They've also evolved, with more models featuring active noise cancellation and other advanced features that were once only found in larger over-ear models.
Here's a look at our current top picks. They're all wireless models except the Grado Prestige Series SR80e and Beats Ep.
Toward the end of 2019, Bowers & Wilkins released its new noise-canceling headphones: The over-ear PX7 ($400) and on-ear PX5 ($300). Both are great headphones with slick designs, strong sound and decent noise-canceling features (it's not as good as the Sony WH-1000XM3's but it's not far off). The PX7 has bigger drivers and bolder overall sound, but the PX5 is more compact, easier to travel with (it takes up less room in a bag) and can be had for about $150 less than the PX7, which isn't being discounted yet.
The Solo Pro is the first Beats on-ear headphone to feature active noise cancellation and the first full-size Beats headphone to charge via Lightning. It uses the company's Pure Adaptive Noise Canceling (Pure ANC), "derived from the over-ear Studio3 Wireless, with updated tuning to accommodate the on-ear form factor," Beats says. With a tap of button, you can turn off that noise cancellation to save battery life or hit the button a second time to enter an audio transparency mode that allows you to hear the outside world, not just the music you're listening to.
Available in multiple color options, the headphone is equipped with six microphones, two of which are beamforming mics that are designed to hone in on your voice when making calls or talking to your voice assistant (Apple's H1 chip is on board for always-on Siri). The sound is smooth and well-balanced with punchy bass that doesn't make music sound boomy. It's comfortable for an on-ear model and its more compact design travels better than some full-size models on this list. I just wish it cost a little less and came with a cable to plug into in-flight entertainment systems. Alas, the Lightning-to-3.5mm is an optional accessory that costs $35, which is ridiculous. Read our Beats Solo Pro review.
Skullcandy's Riff is the spiritual successor the Grind Wireless, which I liked for the money. Available in multiple color options, it retails for around $50 and has puffy, pillow-like ear cups that make it a comfortable on-ear model. It also sounds amazing for its price, with open, detailed sound and plump bass that's relatively well-defined. My only gripes on its design are that there's no padding on the top of the headband (at the crown of your head) and it feels a little cheap, with no metal parts. That said, it's nice and light and has a dual-hinge that allows the headphone to fold up and fold flat. No carry pouch is included. Battery life is only rated at 12 hours but a fast charge feature allows you to get 2 hours of juice from a 10-minute charge (this has micro-USB charging not USB-C).
Comfortable for an on-ear model, the BackBeat 500 delivers good sound and is durable. Battery life is rated at 18 hours. It also comes in a sweat-resistant sport version, the BackBeat Fit 500, which costs about $10 to $20 more, depending on the color. Read BackBeat 500 review.
AKG's N60NC headphones have been out a while, but they're still fine-sounding on-ear Bluetooth headphones with active noise cancellation. Samsung now owns Harman, which owns AKG, and Samsung doesn't really know how to market this venerable Austrian audio brand (AKG earbuds have been included with Samsung phones). Originally, $300, you can find these for much less (I found them for less than $120). They're certainly more enticing at that price. Read AKG N60NC Wireless review.
Once known as the Bose SoundLink Bluetooth On-Ear, the company's lone remaining on-ear model is now simply called the On-ear Wireless and it comes in one color: "triple black." While it's only seen minor upgrades over the years, I still rate it among the most comfortable wireless Bluetooth headphones you can buy and it works well for those with smaller heads (including kids).
With the company more focused on its around-ear noise-canceling and true wireless headphones, it's unclear whether this will get upgraded or even remain in the Bose headphone lineup. But I'll miss it if it goes away.
Beats makes plenty of headphones with high price tags, but its entry-level EP headphone is a surprisingly good value. The list price is $100, but you can find it online for closer to $80 and sometimes less. The EP is an on-ear model that isn't as swanky as Beats' somewhat forgotten on-ear Mixr, as well as the over-ear Executive and Pro models. But thanks to its reinforced metal frame, it reminds me of low-frills versions of those headphones. By low-frills, I mean it isn't incredibly flashy and it doesn't fold up or fold flat for travel (it has no hinges).
I liked the way they sounded and so did Steve Guttenberg, who once wrote CNET's Audiophiliac blog. They exhibit the traits of a good headphone: They're clean and open-sounding, particularly for an on-ear headphone, and there's enough treble detail to give them some sparkle. (In other words: they're not incredibly dynamic.)
The bass is a little accentuated -- this is Beats after all -- but it's not bloated or boomy. There's enough bass here to satisfy a low-end lover but not so much to turn off someone who's looking for a more balanced, neutral-sounding headphone. Read our Beats EP review.
Grado makes some great sounding wired on-ear models, including the entry-level SR60e ($80) and SR80e ($100), as well as the more expensive SR125e ($150) and 325e ($300). Like other Grado headphones, the SR80e features an open-back design, which delivers nice open, articulate sound. However, that sound does leak out a bit from the headphones, allowing people nearby to hear what you're listening to, so they're not ideal for an open-office environment.
This headphone has been around since 2014 and it still sounds great, with a smooth tonal balance, plenty of detail, and deep bass. This is the wired on-ear headphone for those who want the best sound for the money. You need to use an adapter to use it with phones that only have Lightning or USB-C ports and no headphone jacks. Read Grado SR80e review.