Best headphones in 2021: Bose to Sony

The world’s not short of slightly ostentatious, beautifully constructed, startlingly expensive and great-sounding headphones. So if that was all Yamaha’s YH-L700 (£470) had going for them, it’s not at all certain they’d show up on this list.

Happily, that’s not all they have going for them. Yes, they show off just a little – those squared-off earpads, for example, are a bit of a prosper. And they’re built to last, from high-quality and tactile materials. Unless you’re actively considering buying a pair of Apple AirPods Max, they look quite pricey. And they’re a very fulfilling listen when playing in stereo.

But it’s when they’re not playing in stereo the YH-L700 become an thoroughly different proposition. Using Yamaha’s long-acknowledged expert of digital sound processing, the YH-L700 are able to deliver a spatial audio presentation of any music you choose to listen to. 

If you’ve heard Dolby Atmos or DTS:X you know what we average. If you haven’t, well, imagine a dome of sound over your head, from front to back and side to side, with sounds able to emanate from any point. That’s spatial audio and that’s what the Yamaha YH-L700 can do. Convincingly and believably. 

Don’t look quite so expensive now, do they? nevertheless look pretty big, though…

Pros: Engrossing spatial audio effect; built to last from high-quality materials

Cons: Noise-cancelling is nothing special; (comparatively) big and heavy; expensive

Price: £470 | Check price on Amazon | Yamaha 

Audeze LCD-1

The best premium open-back headphones

kind: Over-ear | Wireless: No | Bluetooth: No | Battery life: n/a | far away: No | Finishes: 1 | Weight: 250g | Cable: 2m | Noise cancelling: No | Sensitivity: 99dB | Style: Open-back

The Audeze LCD-1 (£399) are so out of step with the current fact in over-ear headphones it’s almost comical. Not only are they not wireless, they have a wire running to each earcup. Not only are they open-backed, but they leak sound more freely than virtually any open-back different. There’s no app, no noise-cancelling, no far away control…

What there is though, is extraordinarily assured and achieved sound. The LCD-1 use a planar magnetic driver arrangement instead of the much more shared dynamic driver different, and while that doesn’t really explain just why they leak sound so profusely, it goes a long way to explaining the fidelity, accuracyn and simple musicality of the sound they make. For once, the idea that a particular pair of headphones can make you hear music differently already if you’ve heard a hundred times before is justifiable – the Audeze LCD-1 peer effortlessly into your music at an almost subatomic level, and then describe it to you in complete.

Just because they’re light, and just because they fold fairly flat, that’s no reason to use the LCD-1s in public – not unless you’re after an injunction for noise pollution, anyhow. But in private, alone, with your favourite music all cued up, well… these are the perfect headphones for your circumstances.

Pros: Remarkably direct, accurate and convincing sound; comfortable 
Cons: Leak sound promiscuously; not the last information in luxury

Price: £399 | Check price on Amazon | Richer Sounds | Thomann

Open vs closed back – what’s the difference?

Open-back headphones are the audio-listening device of choice for many audiophiles – and with good reason. The open-back design method air can move by your headphones, preventing distortion within the earcups – enabling a clearer sound. This does have its drawbacks, however. The open character method sound can pass both in and out – meaning you’ll likely upset others around you if you listen out in public while outside noise may annoy you too.

Those benefits and drawbacks offered by open-back headphones are reversed for closed-back. Closed-back enables better noise cancellation – passive or active – and they’re also better at keeping your audio to yourself. They may not offer the clearer audio you can get from open-back but they are usable in more of your average everyday listening scenarios. Audiophiles, though, should consider open-back for private listening.

Headphone impedance explained

Headphones with higher impedance tend to draw more strength while headphones with lower impedance drawing lower strength. For the average listener, you need not concern yourself much with impedance but it can be important to specialists who use equipment like DJ mixers. Headphones with lower impedance are more likely to blow out when used with amplifiers.

Generally, below 25 ohms is seen as low and is typically the level of phones, speakers and other small devices. Over 25 ohms is permissible for more specialist listening. Finding headphones over 25 ohms isn’t all that hard, however, with our favourite headphones – the Sony WH-1000XM4 (£243) – coming in at over 40 ohms when plugged in.

Frequency response explained

Put simply, frequency response equates to how well a piece of audio equipment can copy sounds that the human ear can hear. We can, generally, hear frequencies as low as 20Hz and as high as 20,000Hz (20kHz). Despite this, headphones often venture outside these boundaries to showcase how well their headphones can work at any frequencies. For example, the Sony XM4 headphones tout a 4Hz-40,000Hz frequency response. This method the headphones are capable of reproducing bass around the 20-300Hz range, mids between 300Hz-4,000Hz and treble above 40,000kHz. If the headphones you are buying have a frequency response not covering each of these ranges then they will fair worse at those frequencies.

Who makes the best headphones?

In our humble opinion, its Sony and their WH-1000XM4 – a cracking follow-up to their already magnificent WH-1000XM3s.

However, all headphones users have different needs and may be willing to give a little ground in different areas to get what they want. Jaybird makes great headphones for runners, AKG makes impressive headphones if you only want to use under £100 while Bose had nailed wireless earbuds.

Where is the best place to buy headphones?

If you’re looking purely for the lowest prices then we have to recommend Amazon as the best place to buy headphones. Across our top picks, Amazon consistently offers the cheapest prices.

However, John Lewis is often not far behind on prices and offers its 2-year guarantee across all purchases. It’s also worth bearing in mind offers from specific retailers and manufacturers when it comes time to buy your headphones, as you may be able to get a deal or additional bonus that isn’t obtainable on just any given day.

How much should you use on headphones? 

As a lower benchmark, you can now get a cracking pair of in-ears for £40 and decent wireless earbuds for the £50-70 mark. If it’s on-ears, wired or wireless, we’d recommend pushing your budget up to £70-90 as a minimum. 

Where noise-cancelling is concerned, this is where you should start to pay £200+ for both on-ears and true wireless earbuds if you want the best in audio quality and NC. Ditto if you don’t care about noise cancelling but top notch, detailed sound is a must. As for the top end, the £2,795 Focal Stellia are the best pair of closed-back headphones we’ve ever tested so it takes all sorts. 

Over-ear vs On-ear vs earbuds – which is better?

In the headphone world, there’s a decision for you to make already before you look at specific models – do you want headphones that cover your ears, sit on your ears neatly sit in your ears? The answer will ultimately come down to personal taste but each has its benefits.

Over-ear headphones often bring the biggest and best sound in addition as a comfortable, if large and cumbersome, fit. On-ear headphones are similar to their ear-covering cousins but, instead, rest on your ears and aren’t as big – making them more portable. Then, there are the earbuds – they sit in your ear and can come in either wired, wireless or true wireless forms. Earbuds are typically the most portable option but offer the tamest sound.

All those factors can differ greatly between price points, brands and design – so bear that in mind too when making your buy. For example, over-ear headphones can have open or closed-back designs, with the former offering further sound benefits but potentially hassling those around you. While on-ear headphones aren’t always that compact and some wireless earbuds can offer extremely good sound for their sizes. Be sure to review all of our WIRED Recommends headphone guides that characterize entries across all these categories to get a complete grasp of the differences between specific products.

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