Bluetooth headphones have come a long way in the last couple of years, and now offer sound quality that rivals conventional ‘wired’ headphones. In fact, with Apple and other manufacturers now abandoning the traditional 3.5mm audio socket on the iPhone and other types of smartphone, you’re pretty much forced to go wireless and buy Bluetooth headphones these days.
(Unless you’re prepared to specialise and go for a pair of Lightning headphones.)
You’re spoilt for choice, too, with dozens of new Bluetooth headphones released every month, covering different designs, features, and price levels. These fall into three main categories:
Over-ear headphones: Big, chunky models that completely cover your ears seem to be something of a fashion statement at the moment – even if they do make you look like a Cyberman – and the size of these headphones means there’s plenty of room inside them for large drivers that provide expansive, detailed sound.
On-ear headphones: If you want something a little more compact, that you can take off and slip into a backpack when you’re travelling, then smaller on-ear headphones that just rest on the outside of the ear are a good choice.
In-ear headphones: But, of course, mobile tech is all about portability, so many people prefer lightweight, in-ear headphones that they can wear all day long, or simply shove into a pocket when they’re not needed.
Best wireless headphones
1. Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony has once again proven that it knows how to make captivating wireless headphones. The previous XM3 model was already top-notch so it’s perhaps no surprise that the Japanese tech giant has gone with a largely ‘if it ain’t broke’ philosophy for this refreshed edition.
That does mean that XM3 owners might find it hard to justify an upgrade but it’s unlikely that you’re reading this article if you already have those cans.
The XM4s looks almost identical to the previous model, although the cups are slightly bigger and there’s a visible sensor in the left one which enables auto switch-off. The important thing is how divinely comfortable they are along with excellent build quality.
If you’re looking for over-ear headphones to wear for long periods of time, then these are among the best you can get.
Sonically, the XM4 are the same as before so you’re getting amazing sound quality from the 40mm Liquid Crystal Polymer drivers. However, there are some new features that might tempt you to get the latest model.
Adaptive Sound Control can adjust automatically based on locations that you frequently visit. So you can set a certain level of noise cancelling for the office and at home, for example. And you don’t even need to take the headphones off when chatting to someone thanks to Speak to Chat. This AI feature learns your voice so that it can pause music when you speak.
A major reason to go with Sony is the best-in-class active noise cancelling and the firm has made this even better by curtailing high and mid frequencies. It so good that it’s a little eerie at times.
Rounding things off are Multi-Point two device Bluetooth pairing and battery life of 30 hours with ANC on, or a whopping 38 with it off. There’s almost nothing to dislike here and the lack of aptX won’t bother Apple users.
Read our full Sony WH-1000XM4 review on Tech Advisor.
2. Cambridge Audio Melomania 1
Wireless earbuds, as you probably know, are all the rage but not everyone can afford a pair of AirPods let alone the AirPods Pro. Luckily there are cheaper alternatives around and Cambridge Audio has put together a rather attractive pair.
The Melomania 1 have a reasonable RRP of £119 but can easily be found for under £100, currently just £89 at Amazon putting them into budget range despite being extremely high quality.
These earbuds are very small and light, a simple bullet shape makes them unusual, but they fit very securely and comfortably. An IPX5 rating means they are splash and sweat resistant, so they won’t break if you get caught in a shower.
The compact size also means a very small charging case so these are super portable. The case has decent magnets to hold the earbuds in and a set of LEDs on the front to indicate battery level.
Despite the small size, the Melomania 1 have very strong battery life. The earbuds can last up to nine hours on their own and the case can charge them another four times, resulting in a whopping total of 45 hours.
Physical buttons on each earbud may be preferable to some users compared to touch-sensitive ones. They are easy to press accidentally when putting the headphones in or adjusting them but once in place means you don’t ram them into your ear canal. There’s plenty of control but you’ll have to learn all the different button presses for.
Microphones mean you can use the Melomania 1 for phone calls and for using Siri.
All of this would be pretty pointless if the sound quality wasn’t good, but you can rely on a company like Cambridge Audio. 5.8mm drivers are ‘enhanced’ by graphene and there’s Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity along with both AAC and aptX codecs.
The sound is clear and spacious with plenty of bass and mid-range and enough top-end to keep things bright. The tuning is well balanced so the earbuds sound good for a wide range of content.
You will struggle to find better true wireless earbuds at this price. The only thing missing is noise cancelling.
Read our full Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 review on Tech Advisor.
3. Bose QuietComfort 35 II
Comfort is in the name and the Bose QC35 IIs certainly live up to it: the wider headband makes for a sturdy fit and the foam is incredibly soft and luxurious-feeling. Bose says the cushions are manufactured from a synthetic protein leather and contain a silicone bead for passive noise reduction.
You can connect the QC35 headphones to two devices simultaneously and switch between them seamlessly – just pause on one and play on the other. We found wireless performance excellent but you can use the headphones wired should you need to (although you’ll still need battery power to use the noise-cancelling and digital active EQ). You’ll get up to 20 hours battery life wirelessly, which doubles when using them wired.
The QC35s have microphones outside and inside the ear cups to listen to the unwanted sounds which are going on. An opposite signal is delivered via two proprietary digital electronic chips to cancel out the noise. It works extremely well and gives you a real sense of calm and isolation without even playing anything through the headphones – and without exerting pressure on your eardrums, which can be a side effect.
Noise cancellation aside, the QC35s sound excellent, although you do get a slightly better (and more consistent) audio when using them wired. The 2nd-gen II model updates noise cancelling to be adjustable which is a nice addition.
They also add support for digital assistants so tap the multi-function button and Siri is at your beck and call.
What you also get here is what many regard as a classic Bose sound quality: rich, balanced and crisp. Combined with the noise cancelling, the result is an atmospheric and intimate experience. The drivers provide tight and refined bass too.
Read our full Bose QC35 II review on Tech Advisor.
4. Apple AirPods (2nd gen)
We still think the stalk-like antennae look a bit odd, but there’s no doubt Apple’s wire-free AirPods are an impressive piece of tech. They also started a trend, with several other manufacturers leaping on the bandwagon with similar designs.
Audio quality is very good, with a clean, detailed sound and an attractive warmth to vocals and lighter instruments such as acoustic guitar and classical strings. Bass isn’t terribly strong, but it’s respectable enough given the compact design and the fact that the earpieces tend to sit quite lightly in your outer ear. (If you like plenty of bass, consider Apple’s Beats brand instead.)
There are, admittedly, less expensive Bluetooth headphones available that provide similar audio quality, but there’s more to the AirPods than just the wire-free tech. The updated H1 chip not only makes the AirPods more responsive but adds hands-free Hey Siri support, removing the need to tap to activate.
Additional sensors inside the headphones can also detect when you put them on or take them off again, automatically putting them into standby to save power.
Battery life is around five hours on a single charge, but the carrying case has its own battery, which allows you to repeatedly recharge the AirPods for up to 24 hours. This updated model gives you the option to buy a case which supports wireless charging.
5. Beats Flex
Buying Beats headphones used to mean splashing the cash but that’s no longer the case and the Beats Flex are the cheapest ones yet at just £49.99/$49.99.
These are colourful – unless you get the black ones – neckbuds that keep things simple for those unable to drop hundreds on a pair of headphones. Apart from black, they are available in Yuzu Yellow, Smoke Grey and Flame Blue.
While wireless earbuds are the booming part of the market, neckbuds shouldn’t be underestimated. The design means that you won’t lose an earbud if it falls out and you can simply leave them having around your neck when they’re not in use.
Like many others, the two earbuds contain magnets so they snap together when you’re not using them. The band is made from a sturdy material called Nitinol and a control module on the left-hand side provides volume and playback controls, as well as a mic for voice calls.
At just 18.6g total, the Beats Flex are good if you do plan to go running or similar. Note that they don’t offer any official IP waterproof rating, although the rubber-like build should keep out splashes.
As you would expect, pairing them with Apple products is a breeze and you can also use the Audio Sharing option to stream your music to a friend who has a compatible set of AirPods or Beats headphones.
With 12 hours of battery life, they last longer than wireless earbuds and a ‘fast fuel’ feature means you can get 1.5 hours of playback from a 10-minute charge over USB-C.
The low price doesn’t mean bad sound either and “The deep bass on Bad Guy by Billie Eilish has a firm, rhythmic pulse that drives the song forward. There’s a nice crisp sound to the finger-snaps that punctuate the song, and the Flex really captures the shrug-of-the-shoulders tone as Billy pronounces “duh…” halfway through. There’s plenty of detail, too, as the Flex picks up all the multi-layered harmonies on Queen’s Somebody To Love.
The Flex can even handle more delicate classical sounds, capturing the sad, mournful tone of the cello and violin as they slowly weave through the air on Max Richter’s On The Nature Of Daylight.”
Read our full Beats Flex review.
6. Beats Solo 3 Wireless
Battery life tends to be an issue for Bluetooth headphones, but the Beats Solo 3 really stand out from the crowd with a 40-hour lifespan. The headphones also provide a ‘fast-fuel’ option that gives you three hours of music playback after just five minutes of charging.
Available in a variety of colours, they weigh about 215g, but they’re compact and comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time, and fold flat so you can slip them into a backpack easily.
The Beats brand is owned by Apple, so this third-gen version of the headphones includes the same W1 chip as the AirPods. This allows them to automatically connect to Apple devices, and to activate Siri voice commands by tapping the ‘B’ button on the left earpiece.
That earpiece also houses the main playback and volume controls, or you can connect the RemoteTalk cable, which includes a more conventional set of controls and a microphone. The RemoteTalk cable has a standard 3.5mm connector, which also allows you to go wired if the battery runs down (although the latest iPhones don’t have a 3.5mm connector, so you’ll need an adapter).
You get that trademark powerful Beats bass, but more tightly focused than on previous models, which really drives dance and rock music along. The mid-range and higher frequencies are clear and lively, although they can sometimes feel as though they’re struggling to compete with the bass.
If you love bass the Solo 3 Wireless could be your ideal set of headphones – especially with that impressive battery life – but if you prefer classical or more delicate sounds you might prefer something with a little more all-round balance.
Read our full Beats Solo 3 Wireless review.
7. RHA T20 Wireless
Unlike true wireless earbuds, the T20 Wireless sports the ‘neckbud’ design, with a SecureFlex neckband that sits comfortably around your neck connected to the earbuds via short steel-reinforced cables for a clean look.
The over-ear hooks that make RHA earphones so great are present here, helping take some of the weight of the earbuds and keep them securely in place, even during intense workouts. You can mould them to the shape of your ear and they retain that shape well, only needing the occasional adjustment.
No less than 10 sets of eartips in the box, help you find the right fit for your ears, including advanced Comply Foam tips that mould to the shape of your inner-ear and provide a comfortable near-perfect seal.
There’s 12 hours of battery life on offer, which is decent but not exactly industry-leading, but the good news is that you can easily switch between wired and wireless modes using the standard 3.5mm cable, also included in the box.
Of course, it’s audio performance that matters most when it comes to a pair of headphones and the T20 Wireless don’t disappoint there either. RHA’s buds have a DualCoil driver system which, when combined with a voice coil and custom diaphragm, providing impressively balanced audio playback.
The also have swappable physical tuning filters so you can tweak the EQ without using an app if you want, for example, an emphasis on bass.
The audio experience is nothing short of phenomenal, offering crystal clear audio playback with no harsh tones or tinniness – even at high volumes. Slip the bass filter on and you’ll be treated to animated, booming deep bass and slip on the treble filter to enhance the vocals of those acoustic covers you love so much.
The RHA T20 Wireless neckbuds are expensive at £199.95/$249.95, but with so much on offer in terms of design and audio performance, it’s worth the cost.
Read our full RHA T20 Wireless review on Tech Advisor
8. AKG N60NC
Noise cancellation is one of the best aspects of on-ear headphones. The technology is clever enough to cut out interfering frequencies that might hum above your tunes. The AKG N60NC headphones are exceptionally good at what they set out to do.
They are also foldable and relatively compact, which is pretty handy as sometimes even the best on-ear headphones can take up a little bit too much space in a bag. This makes them an excellent choice if you’re always on the move commuting or at airports.
Given their travel focus, AKG also promises up to 30 hours of battery life, which is incredible for wireless headphones. The N60NCs also have a passive mode which means they can still be used for a period after the battery is flat.
9. Sennheiser Momentum Free
Sennheiser releases quite frequent updates for its Momentum range of headphones, and the latest addition to the range is the Momentum Free, priced in the UK at £170. They’re available in the US for around $200 under the name HD1 Free.
The company claims the Momentum Free is its most compact set of Bluetooth headphones, weighing just under 40g, and with only a short neckband connecting the two earpieces.
They don’t cut any corners, though, including a three-button remote control and microphone for voice calls. There are some clever touches too, such as the magnetic earpieces that cling together over your neck in order to keep them safe when they’re not being used. The headphones support standard Bluetooth, AptX and Apple’s AAC format, so they’re a good choice for both iOS and Android devices.
Battery life is around six hours, which isn’t too bad for such a compact set of headphones. It’s shame, though, that Sennheiser couldn’t stretch to a charging case.
Sound quality is excellent, though, with the trademark Sennheiser sound that combines rich, warm vocals with plenty of detail. The bass response is good too, with the frequency range starting at 15Hz, a little lower than many small in-ear headphones. We were also pleased to see that Sennheiser includes no less than four different sizes of ear-tips, to help you get a firm, comfortable fit.
10. Denon AH-C160W
Denon is well-known in the traditional hi-fi market for its high-quality amps and speakers, and it brings that audio expertise to its AH-C160W headphones.
A standout feature is the frequency response, which digs right down to 5Hz and ensures these compact headphones manage to produce a firm, full bass sound that’s ideal for listening to dance music while working out. The clear, detailed sound will work well with other types of music too, so it’s really just a question of whether you like the over-ear hook design.
Wrapping the hook over the top of your ear can be fiddly at times and might not appeal to everyone, but it does keep the headphones firmly in place when you’re pounding the pavement. We also like the fact that Denon includes a set of Comply memory foam ear-tips, along with the other four conventional silicon tips and a carrying case.
Battery life is relatively modest, though, at around four hours, so you’ll need to remember to charge them regularly.
How to choose wireless headphones
As well as simply choosing the basic type of headphones mentioned at the top, there are some other things to consider before you hit that buy button.
This life is crucial, and many in-ear sports headphones have tiny batteries that help to keep the weight down but may only last for a few hours. That might be fine if you just want to listen to some music while you’re working out, but won’t be much use on a long journey by train or plane.
However, some in-ear headphones, such as Apple’s AirPods, also include a charging case that can top up the battery, so that’s something you should check on before buying any in-ear headphones.
Larger on-ear and over-ear headphones have room for more powerful batteries, and can often last all day on a single charge. Many also provide a wired option so that you can still use them like ordinary wired headphones when the battery runs down, which is ideal for people who spend a lot of time travelling.
Some headphones are specifically designed for people who travel a lot or use headphones in noisy conditions and provide active noise-cancelling (ANC) option that helps to block out background noise on trains and planes – although this can add quite a lot to the overall price of the headphones.
Note this isn’t to be confused with passive noise isolation (or often referred to as cancelling), which is just the way physically having headphones in/on blocks sound – like putting earplugs or ear defenders on.
We’d always recommend trying out any new headphones in a store or showroom whenever possible, but that’s not always practical with so many new headphones competing for your attention.
So we’ve tested a selection of Bluetooth headphones that provide great sound quality to help you get started.
All the headphones here will work excellently with the latest iPhone models. It’s typical for them to support Apple’s preferred AAC codec, although some will have others too like aptX which is handy if you want to also use them with other devices like Android phones.
It’s also worth noting that all Bluetooth headphones mentioned here are compatible with the Apple Watch – perfect when going for a run.
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