If you imagined picking the ideal laptop or smartphone would be hard, with an endless selection of headphones available buying a new set can be an arduous and confusing process. Plus, what’s considered a perfect set of cans by one person might not be as appealing to a different user. For that reason we've broken down our selection of the best headphones across several different categories, based on professional reviews, user comments and our own experiences, explaining what makes them the best of the bunch. Here are our top picks for the best headphones of 2018.
- Best Over the Ear (Closed)
- Best Over the Ear (Open)
- Best Wireless Earbuds
- Best In Ear
- Best Noise Cancelling
- Best Gaming Headset
- Best for Sports
- Best Budget
Best Over the Ear (Closed Back)
Closed or open-back? While the former offers noise isolation that make them better for using outdoors and often boast beefier bass, open-back headphones versions tend to have better overall sound quality, are lighter, and don’t heat up your ears as much.
For the second year in a row, the Sennheiser Momentum 2 offer the best combination of features, qualities, and price in this category. The closed-back elements of noise isolation and the incredibly heavy, powerful bass are standout features in these headphones. They also boast well-defined treble and smooth mids that can add a whole new dimension to your favorite tracks.
Thanks to the hidden hinges, the Momentum 2.0s can be folded down for better portability when out and about. They’re very light and extremely comfortable, mostly due to the larger, leather-covered earpads and memory foam.
You get an inline remote/microphone for controlling music/calls on your iOS or Android devices, with different versions of the headphones available for each operating system. They also have that gorgeous Sennheiser style and are available in black, ivory, or brown.
Sennheiser also offers the Momentum 2.0 in a wireless version (Bluetooth, NFC) that includes active noice cancelling, but those will run you about $400. If interested, buy them for the sound quality and the wireless capabilities first, noise canceling second, as there are better dedicated headphones (see further down) if you travel a lot and want them particularly for the noise canceling functionality.
Same Fidelity, Less Refined Looks
For a tad less, the Audio Technica ATH-M50x remain a great alternative praised by audio engineers and pro audio reviewers alike. At $150 they are also cheaper. However, the Sennheiser Momentum 2 edges them out in when it comes to sound, appearance and materials, as well as comfort and fit.
Best Over the Ear (Open Back)
Available for a few years now, the excellent Philips Fidelio X2 headphones have dropped in price, making them even more of an attractive buy than they were before. Like the closed-back winners, Philips’ headphones excel when it comes to comfort, featuring a leather headband and mesh band, memory foam, and velour-covered earpads. They also boast fantastic build quality and eye-catching design.
The Fidelio X2 come with 50mm neodymium drivers and work with any device featuring a 3.5mm audio jack, though using a dedicated headphone amp will get the best out of them.
While $260 is no small amount of money, these headphones are cheaper than some of the high-end options from the likes of Sennheiser and Oppo, but that doesn’t mean you’re making a huge, or even notable, compromise when it comes to audio quality; the X2s can hold their own against some of the best. Expert Reviews praises the crisp highs and clear mids, while What HiFi writes that the spacious, smooth sound has extra detail, clarity, and solidity.
For a set of headphones almost as good as the $600+ models, at half the price, you’re unlikely to find better than the Philips Fidelio X2s.
Best Wireless Earbuds
Most true wireless earbuds are good for working out, but many are lacking in other areas, such as falling out of sync, dropped connections, and producing top-tier audio quality. However, there is an option for audiophiles—providing they’re willing to pay for it: Master and Dynamic’s MW07.
The biggest caveat with these is the price. At $300, they’re some of the most expensive buds available. But with that you get stunning build quality—polished acetate and stainless steel—and design. There’s no mistaking that these are top quality.
When it comes to their audio, many reviews repeat the same phrase: they are the best-sounding truly wireless earbuds you can buy. They offer excellent balance with crisp, detailed highs and punchy bass. And, as TechRadar notes, the sound feels like it’s coming from around you rather than from inside your head.
There are plenty of other elements of the MW07s that go someway toward justifying that price. The stylish charging case comes with indicator lights and uses USB Type-C instead of micro USB, they feature excellent on-board controls, connections are super solid, they’re incredibly comfortable, and the top volume is satisfyingly loud.
Other than the price, the only other issue might be the somewhat lacking 3.5-hour battery life. In that regard, Apple's AirPods are the more convenient alternative if you're into Apple's ecosystem, but if you put audio quality first, then the MW07's are way better.
For Home Use
For those who prefer to enjoy their wireless headphones in the home, Sennheiser’s RS 165 Wireless Hi-Fi Headphones, are pretty good. Like the Astro Gaming A50 cans, they come with a base station transmitter that’s also a charging stand.
Those with large homes will be pleased to learn that the RS 165 headphones feature a interference-free 100-foot range, thanks to the propriety 2.4GHz wireless link. They also have an 18-hour battery life, which will be appreciated at those times when you’ve forgot to charge them and are about to start a Lord of the Rings marathon.
The headphones are designed primarily for connecting to your home theatre, which is why they produce clear dialogue that’s easy to hear. Listening to music is also an enjoyable experience, as they feature the usual Sennheiser quality and a Bass Boost mode for vibrant sound, while the closed-back design makes sure you’re not disturbed by outside noise.
Best In Ear
While in-ear headphones tend to be the preferred choice for gym addicts—check them out in our sports category—this form factor is also popular with those on the move and anyone who finds over/on-ear headphones too restrictive and bulky.
Our top choice in the category, the 1More Triple Driver In-Ear earphones, mixes top performance with value. At just $100, these are proof that headphones around this price can look and sound great. The Triple Drivers are made from aluminum and boasts excellent build quality. And if you find they’re not a perfect fit, you can try the 6 sets of different sized silicone ear tips and 3 sets of foam ear tips in the box.
As the name suggest, there are three drivers in each ear bud—two balanced armatures and a separate dynamic driver—which provide excellent balance and detail. 1More collaborated with internationally acclaimed producer, mixer, and sound engineer Luca Bignardi to tune these headphones, which gives you an idea of how much work went into their audio quality. While 1More also offers a quad driver version, the negligible difference between the two means they’re not really worth an extra $50.
For those willing to spend another $20, check out last year’s winners: Sennheiser’s Momentum In-Ear M2. The German company has a deserved reputation when it comes to producing top-quality audio products, and these are no exception. They look and sound great, though the cheaper 1More headphones do have slightly better professional and user reviews.
Best Noise Cancelling
Noise-canceling headphones are an area where Bose has long dominated—its QuietComfort QC 35 won this category last year—but that all changed at IFA when Sony unveiled the amazing Sony WH-1000XM3; a worthy pick in our ‘Best of IFA 2018’ feature. While Sony’s most recent product isn’t hugely different from last year's excellent WH-1000XM2, there are enough updates to make these the best active noise-canceling headphones on the market today.
Sony says the WH-1000XM3’s biggest improvement over the previous model is the inclusion of the new QN1 processor, which boasts four times the processing power of the last-generation chip when it comes to getting rid of external noise. When I tried the headphones at the deafeningly loud Berlin event, activating the active noise canceling (ANC) feature resulted in that din all but disappearing, thanks to the QN1’s improved ability to deal with many different noises and not just the low-frequency drone of airplanes. They can also be set up so certain sounds, such as PA announcements, can be heard.
There are a slew of different noise-canceling modes and profiles available for different scenarios, and the app uses a phone’s accelerometer to alter the ANC mode depending on what you’re doing. There’s also a Quick Attention mode that lets you turn down the music and hear external sounds without removing the headphones.
So, we’ve established that the noise-canceling features are outstanding, but does the WH-1000XM3’s audio qualities match? Thankfully, they do. These headphones produce some awesome, balanced music that’s like honey for the ears. They support 32-bit audio processing and Sony’s LDAC, which transmits around three times more data than Bluetooth.
Rounding off the other features are the 40mm drivers, NFC, USB Type-C charging, Bluetooth 4.2, a 40-hour battery life, a 4-hour charging cycle, and Google Assistant support via an upcoming update. They’re also ridiculously comfortable and light.
An excellent alternative
Bose’s QuietComfort QC 35 were a deserved winner of this category last year, and the updated version (series II) offer the same amazing audio quality and sound-canceling tech but now come with extra features, including Google Assistant, to make them even more compelling. Comfortable and light with an excellent microphone for making phone calls, it’s a close call between these and the Sony WH-1000XM3s, but Sony just edges it with the slightly better sound and noise canceling abilities.
Best Gaming Headset
Gaming headphones are arguably the most subjective of all the categories, with different users prioritizing different qualities: surround sound, comfort, microphone quality, versatility, etc. But for those who want the best of everything, there’s the SteelSeries Arctis Pro.
SteelSeries offers plenty of choice when it comes to excellent gaming headphones, with its Siberia and Arctis lines proving particularly popular. But the Arctis Pro, which look almost identical to the Arctis 7 and uses the same ski goggle headband and fabric ear cups, sit at the top of the pile.
The Arctis Pro boasts Hi-Res 24-bit audio support and a 5Hz – 40kHz frequency response range, which, as noted by PC Gamer, makes the drivers sound great for everyday compressed audio usage and allows you to experience high-res audio in games such as Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Unlike so many other gaming headsets, SteelSeries’ pair also excel when it comes to listening to music.
Buyers get a retractable, super-clear bidirectional microphone with background noise canceling that’s said to be the equal of some pro-grade equipment, but the marquee feature is the GameDAC box. The pill-shaped device contains a digital-to-analog converter that takes the audio processing away from the CPU. It also features a large volume control and OLED display. Using the DAC, you can customise the 10-band EQ settings, enable DTS Headphone:X v2.0 surround sound, and balance the game and chat audio.
Combined with their versatility, light weight, and comfort, the Arctis Pro are perfect for gamers. It’s no wonder they've been called “the best gaming headset ever.” But at $240, you’re paying for the privilege.
A Cheaper Alternative
Not only are Kingston’s newest HyperX Cloud Alpha headphones fantastic for gaming, they perform just as well when listening to music, movies, and pretty much anything else. 50mm drivers, a closed-back design, and superb build quality all combine to produce a stunning product. How they’re only $100 is a mystery.
With the Astro Gaming A50 (v.3), not only are you getting a fantastic set of cans for gaming on both PC and PS4, but their all-round audio quality also makes them great for listening to music. The 5GHz ultra low-latency wireless connection is strong and stable, battery life is long, the software is great, and the microphone is excellent. Plus, they can be worn comfortably for hours—even on the largest of heads. The only caveat is that eye-watering $300 price tag.
While headphones such as Bose’s SoundSport Wireless are great for the gym and exercising in general, many people prefer their earbuds to be untethered. While such devices were around before the Airpods, it was Apple’s products that helped increase the category’s popularity. For those who want truly wireless portability, there are Jabra’s Elite 65t. They’re certainly less noticeable in the ears than Airpods, which for some people is a big plus.
Connectivity (Bluetooth 5.0)—often an issue with wireless earbuds—is solid, and the audio quality is some of the best in class, boasting excellent bass. There’s even an option to alter the EQ using the companion app. The Elite 65t come with four microphones for wind and ambient noise reduction, which makes them surprisingly good for taking calls, especially when outdoors.
Other features include a two-year warranty against water and dust, instant Siri/Google Assistant/Alexa activation, and 5 hours battery life from a single charge—though the portable battery case lets you add another 10 hours while out and about. At $170, the Elite 65t buds are cheaper than some high-end competitors, but they still offer a comparable, if not better, experience.
Despite not being for everybody, Apple’s AirPods are still popular thanks to their wireless reliability, range, battery life, and charging case. They’re certainly convenient and are designed to work best with iDevices, and most Apple fans will likely adore them.
There's also a slew of options for those who prefer their earbuds to be connected while they workout or run. The aforementioned Bose SoundSport Wireless offers loud volume combined with solid mids and highs, while the company’s StayHear+ eartips ensure they won’t fall out, even during the most hardcore runs and sessions. The only problem is that some may find them a bit bulky and heavy. There are also the Jaybird X3 headphones, which are said to offer powerful audio performance with strong, rich bass and well-defined, bright highs.
In the world of headphones, the term ‘budget’ is subjective. And while sub-$50 products fall into this category, we believe something around the $70 - $100 mark is the sweet spot when it comes to low cost without a drastic reduction in quality.
The Audio-Technica ATH-M40x may be a budget set of cans, but their size, build, and design suggest otherwise. They come with 40mm drivers—just 5mm smaller than the more expensive M50x that were runners up in out ‘best over ear’ category—and the ear cups rotate. Despite being satisfyingly chunky, they’re surprisingly lightweight. Best of all, even though they're closed-back, most users say they can be used for hours on end without suffering from hot, sweaty ears.
But it’s the all-important sound quality where the ATH-M40x offer amazing price vs. quality performance. They produce full-bodied, crisp and clear sound with good, punchy bass and noise isolation, with a frequency response of 15–22 kHz. Overall, a fantastic option at this price.
Most reviewers agree that you won’t find a better set of headphones around the $100 than the Audio-Technica’s ATH-M40x, but if you have to spend less, check out the company's $70 ATH-M30x. These come with the same size drivers and frequency range as their more expensive big brothers, and while they aren’t quite as good overall, the $30 saving might be worth it for those who aren’t as particular about their headphones.
Masthead image credit: Conducting the Chaos by Spencer Imbrock