There's an overwhelming number of headphones available to buy in 2021, with more styles and types than ever before. You're probably wondering what 'neckbuds' even are but we've got you covered.
Here we explain all your options for a new set of cans and present an eclectic range of options for all budgets.
We've included a number of well-known best brands such as Sony and Bose, as well as a few you might not have heard of before like Rockjaw, OnePlus and Nuraphone. There really is something for everyone and although this chart is ranked, the right pair for you will depend on your personal needs.
Read on below our chart for more in-depth buying advice.
Best headphones 2021
1. Sony WH-1000XM4 - Best Overall
They might look nearly identical to the previous version, and have the same sound quality too, but Sony has still taken its flagship headphones to a new level.
Somehow, the already class-leading noise cancelling is even better and the firm has added a range of unique AI smart technology that will come in very useful. This includes Adaptive Sound Control, DSEE Extreme and the slightly odd Speak to Chat.
There's almost nothing to dislike here so these are the headphones to beat in 2021.
A spanner in the works, though, is that if these upgrades don't tickle your fancy then you'll be satisfied with the WH-1000XM3, which are now available for a much more affordable price.
Read our full Sony WH-1000XM4 review
2. Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 - Best Wireless Earbuds
At their affordable price compared to the big name rivals out there, the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 wireless earbuds should be lacking in a few areas but they're really not.
They might not have the most striking design but they're lightweight and comfortable. The buttons can handle a whole range of functions once you learn the system, too.
More importantly, there's excellent battery life on offer here combined with top sound quality so what more could you want? Perhaps noise cancelling but rarely at this price.
Read our full Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 review
3. RHA TrueConnect 2 - Best Battery Life
Now back with a second edition, RHA has made the TrueConnect 2 even better while somehow reducing the price.
Ok, they don't come with foam tips anymore and they look the same but that's forgivable considering that these earbuds can now last a ridiculous total of 44 hours - a 75% improvement - and already had top-notch build quality.
There's still no noise cancelling but they're cheaper and upgrades include better IP55 durability, excellent touch controls and a more refined sound quality.
Read our full RHA TrueConnect 2 review
4. Bose QC35 II - Best Comfort
The Bose QC35 II are still among the best all-round headphones you can get at the moment, even now that Bose has followed up with the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Offering stylish design, sound quality, usability and features.
Although Google Assistant is the main new addition, there are many more reasons why the QC35 II are great. They're oh so comfortable and last a really long time which is a good start. Then there's the almost unrivalled noise cancelling combined with excellent sound quality.
What more could you want?
Read our full Bose QC35 II review
5. NuraLoop - Best Custom Sound
NuraLoop manages to condense the audio wizardry found in the company's first product and deliver an in-ear alternative that's hard to beat in terms of comfort, quality sound, top-notch noise cancellation and battery longevity.
Better yet, at this price, they undercut Apple's AirPods Pro while delivering a better audio experience overall.
Just be aware that they lack virtual assistant support and relies on some proprietary components that might cost a little extra to replace.
Read our full NuraLoop review
6. Sony WF-1000XM3 - Best ANC Earbuds
Improving upon the original WF-1000X earbuds, the new model has been redesigned and improved.
The charging case is a little bulky, but the total run-time of 24 hours is very impressive.
With great noise cancelling and the ability to tweak everything, including the touch key functions, in the companion app and use Siri or Google Assistant hands-free, they're a great buy.
Read our full Sony WF-1000XM3 review
7. Marshall Monitor II ANC - Best Style
If noise cancelling is your top priority then Marshall is a little behind rivals in this area, but the Monitor II ANC headphones have a lot to offer.
For starters, they have a more affordable price (RRP) and offer one of the most compact and comfortable designs for a pair of over-ear headphones. They also sound very good, too.
We also like the useful buttons, long battery life and the way the app allows you to customise various elements.
Read our full Marshall Monitor II ANC review
8. Beats Powerbeats - Best for Running
The Powerbeats are a solid option for those looking for fitness-focused earbuds that won’t fall out during workouts. The over-ear hooks, though stiff and sometimes hard to put on, provide superior security, and the fact that there’s no weighty neckband means you won’t get a buildup of sweat during intense workouts either -- a huge plus compared to most other neckbuds in our chart.
The audio quality is great, with punchy powerful bass that doesn't muddy the mids and highs. Though they perform best with bassy tracks, the Powerbeats can handle vocals and highs very well too, making them strong all-rounders.
When you combine that with 15-hour battery life and a relatively cheap price tag, you've got a great pair of fitness-focused neckbuds.
Read our full Beats Powerbeats (2020) review
9. Rockjaw Alfa Genus V2 - Best Under £50
If you want great-quality sound at an affordable price, the Alfa Genus V2 should be on your shortlist.
They're excellent in-ear headphones for this price providing good build quality but more importantly, great sound quality. This is largely due to the interchangeable filters.
It might sound like a gimmick but they mean you can change the audio profile depending on your personal taste and/or what you're using them for at any given moment.
Read our full Rock Jaw Alfa Genus V2 review
10. OnePlus Bullets V2 - Best Budget
If you really are on a tight budget and just need to spend as little as possible, while still getting nice headphones then the OnePlus Bullets V2 are the ones to get.
They're super cheap but you get good build quality along with comfort and even an in-line control.
Most importantly, they don't sound like cheap headphones. Lovers of bass-heavy music won't be blown away but the Bullets V2 have a decent amount of power, clarity and, unusually, spaciousness.
Read our full OnePlus Bullets V2 review
Your buying guide to the best headphones
If your bank balance allows it, you could spend thousands on a single pair of headphones. We know that the average consumer doesn't have anything like so we're looking at more affordable sets here.
We've got a wide range of prices here so you could spend under £20/$20 or over £300/$300 depending on what you're looking for. You might want a pair for commuting every day so it could be worth investing more, or you might just want a cheap pair for occasional use.
Bear in mind that in general, spending more on audio really does mean getting better quality as well as features. If you really are on a limited budget then we have a dedicated budget headphones chart with more options.
One of the main things you need to do, apart from deciding how much to spend, is choose the type of headphones right for you.
In the grand scheme, there are three types but there are also sub-categories within those, often with a bit of crossover. Here's what you need to know:
- In-ear – Small, lightweight and generally inexpensive
- Over-ear – Comfortable and space to house larger drivers
- On-ear – A good balance of the above
Now take a look at the below options for more types:
- Earbuds – Another way of saying in-ear headphones
- Neckbuds – Wireless headphones connected together with a section designed to sit around the neck
- True wireless earbuds – Earbuds that are not connected to each other with a wire
Find out how we test audio.
Features to look out for
A lot of people buying headphones will want them to be wireless. It's not just more convenient but many smartphones don't come with a physical headphone jack so plug a cable in anymore.
For many, wireless will never reach the quality of a trusty wire, although some pairs may offer both options. Read our reviews to see how good they sound over the air and look out for the latest versions of Bluetooth as well as codecs like aptX for better audio.
We have a chart just for the best wireless earbuds.
The other modern feature to look out for is noise cancelling. Beware that many sets will try to promote this despite it being 'passive', which simply means the headphones are physically blocking sound like earplugs.
What you really want is 'active noise cancelling' (ANC) which means the headphones are listening to the outside world with microphones, then getting rid of that sound. This is done by cleverly playing you an inverted version of the signal.
Not all noise cancelling is equal though, so read our reviews to see how good it is. Some also have various levels of the feature as well as additional modes that let some outside sound in to keep you safe or so you hear important announcements. They go by various names like 'aware' or 'social'.
We have a dedicated round-up for the best noise cancelling headphones.