There are hundreds of different headphones and earbuds in varying shapes, sizes, styles, and colors (not to mention prices). All have the same idea at heart: To deliver high-quality audio directly into your ears. But some achieve this result so much better — and in better style — than others.

While there are plenty of budget headphones that will get the job done, the best headphones require a bigger investment. That’s why it’s good to know if your audio needs actually justify paying a higher price.

How to choose the best headphones

If you’ve been on the hunt for a new pair of headphones, you’ve likely come across a few of the “best” brands already: Sony, Bose, and Apple. While these brands do make quality earbuds and headphones, they’re far from your only options. Don’t let the FYP fool you into thinking you need to drop $350+ in order to get halfway decent active noise cancellation.

In reality, the best pair of headphones largely comes down to personal preference. Here are some questions you might ask yourself when weighing your choice:

  • Are you planning on listening at home or on the go? If you want over-ear headphones, you might prefer ones that fold up easily in your bag and are comfortable to wear for long stretches of time.

  • If you’ll be wearing your headphones on your commute or in the office, is strong active noise cancellation a requirement?

  • How long do you really need the battery to last? Will a six-hour battery life at a time get you through, or do you need the promise of a true all-day battery?

  • Are you using these headphones for casual listening, for staying focused, or for working out? This might mean the difference between investing in an audio-first brand, a pair with top-notch ANC, or a pair with wingtips that actually keep your headphones in your ears while you run.

  • What kind of music do you like to listen to with your headphones? Are you a fan of a nice and loud bass line, or do you prefer a more balanced tone?

  • Tired of lossless audio claims that don’t pan out? Maybe you’d prefer to go for a pair of wired headphones that actually deliver.

These are just some of the questions you can use to guide your purchasing journey, but don’t get overwhelmed. With each of our picks below, we’ve done the research and testing to answer them for you, all to help point you to your personal best pair of headphones or earbuds.

Best noise-cancelling headphones: Bose 700

Read our full review of the Bose 700 headphones.

Who it’s for:

Many headphones with active noise cancellation have at least one level of noise cancellation, plus a transparency mode, so you’re not completely unaware of the world around you in every situation. The Bose 700s amp that up tenfold, giving you ten different adjustable levels of ANC, plus one level without, for the ultimate customization experience. If you’re picky about how your ANC works, these are your headphones.

Why we picked this:

When Mashable tech reporter Alex Perry tested out these headphones, he found they worked effortlessly in multiple loud scenarios: “I’ve tried these out in the lively Mashable office, on the busy streets of New York City, and even in a particularly noisy bar. In every scenario, I couldn’t hear much, except for what I chose to listen to.”

To cycle through the different levels, you can use the app or cycle between three favorite settings directly on the headphones. As they’re being phased out of Bose’s lineup (the Bose QuietComfort Ultras are serving as their replacement, though they only have one level of ANC and transparency mode), they are on sale — you’ll just want to grab them while they’re still around.

Battery life: 20 hours | Colors: Black, soapstone, silver luxe | Bluetooth range: 33 feet

Best sound-first headphones: Sony WH-1000XM5

Read our full review on the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones.

Who it’s for:

The Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones deliver top-notch ANC and audiophile-level sound quality, with an incredible 30-hour battery life. Their design offers a less expensive alternative to the AirPods Max, for those who like their headphones to sound and look good.

Why we picked this:

If you’re into Bose headphones but aren’t totally sold on Sony, we’re willing to bet you’ll see something you like in the WH-1000XM5s.

Often, people herald Bose as having the superior ANC but Sony as owning the sound space. Deputy Reviews Editor Miller Kern definitely noticed these headphones excelling in the latter when she tested them out: “[The sound] is full and clear, and feels like surround sound. I’m a big fan of power ballads (I’m not allowed to pick the music at parties), and Brandi Carlile’s “Right on Time” sounded like it was meant to be listened to on these headphones. The vocals and instruments all got to shine, and the headphones made it feel like I was there in the studio. These are probably the best-sounding headphones I’ve ever tried.” We wish they folded up so they weren’t so bulky to take on the go, but it’s a relatively small con compared to the pros, especially if you’re planning on wearing these headphones most of the time.

Battery life: 30 hours | Colors: Black, blue, silver | Bluetooth range: 30 feet

Best noise-cancelling earbuds: Apple AirPods Pro

Read our full review of the second-generation USB-C AirPods Pro.

Who it’s for:

If portability, active noise cancellation, and balanced sound are what you’re looking for, your search ends with the AirPods Pro. It’s not uncommon for earbuds to have active noise cancellation, but the AirPods Pro deliver an impressive performance. Plus they’re versatile — whether you like to wear your headphones around the house, on a run, or as you’re falling asleep at night, the AirPods Pro fit the bill.

Why we picked this:

Last year, Apple finally gave their AirPods Pro a much-needed upgrade in the biçim of a USB-C charger. Other than the charging port, they’re identical to the second-gen Pros released in 2022, which Mashable Senior Editor Stan Schroeder described as “the first pair of earbuds I’d actually consider taking on an airplane (instead of my much larger and clunkier over-ear headphones).” He went on to say “In some aspects, the active noise cancelation was even better than on my daily drivers: B&W’s excellent PX7 over-ear headphones.”

Despite their size and enhanced ANC, the Pro’s battery still lasts for up to six hours on a single charge and 30 hours overall with the case. However, it is worth noting that the battery life will noticeably decline after a few years.

Battery life: 6 hours per charge (30 hours with case) | Colors: White | Bluetooth range: 30 to 60 feet

Most comfortable option: Bose QuietComfort 45

Who it’s for:

Over-the-ear headphones are ideal for an immersive listening experience with top-tier ANC, but they’re more likely to sacrifice comfort in the process. With the Bose QuietComfort 45 headphones, you get the best of both worlds — stellar audio, and no ear fatigue.

Why we picked this:

Lead Shopping Reporter Haley Henschel uses the Bose QuietComfort 45 on a daily basis and praises them as the most comfortable headphones she’s ever owned. Until she found the QC 45s, the on- and over-ear cans from Bose, JBL, and Beats that she tested kept making her head ache. “That wasn’t the case with the cushiony and lightweight Bose QuietComfort 45 headphones, which feel secure but not overly snug — I can wear them for an entire workday, no sorun. The cherry on top is their fantastic noise cancellation, which is a godsend for my eardrums when my parrot (who lives in my office) decides to randomly scream.”

Lead Shopping Reporter Bethany Allard also found that the QC 45s wear easily over an entire workday, even while she wears glasses. Besides the comfort factor, the audio comes through well-balanced with minimal distortion, though the Bluetooth connection can be a little spotty when it hits the higher end of its 30-foot range.

Battery life: 20 hours | Colors: Black, blue, grey, white | Bluetooth range: 30 feet

Best budget-friendly ANC earbuds: Beats Studio Buds +

Who it’s for:

If you’re into earbuds with good ANC but less into shelling out $249 for those earbuds, you’ll find your happy medium in the Beats Studio Buds +.

Why we picked this:

The AirPods Pro are great, but they’re not in everyone’s budget. These Beats will run you about $80 less (or an even greater discount, if you catch them on sale), give you some more leeway with color options, integrate just as well into an Apple ecosystem as AirPods, have the same battery life as AirPods, and still deliver pretty good ANC. If you’re into a more bass-heavy sound, you’ll definitely be happy with these. While we didn’t find them to be a one-to-one experience during our testing — you should expect the AirPods to block out more, and you won’t be able to wirelessly charge them — they were still incredibly comfortable. We also found them to fit better than AirPods, so if those Apple earbuds usually slip out of your ears, you’ll want to try these Apple earbuds. And for Android users, Google Fast Pair makes these earbuds a much better option than AirPods.

We do want to mention that if $169.95 is still fairly steep, you can also get ANC through Amazon’s Echo Buds for just $119.99. They were our former budget pick, but we found the Beats to have more to offer all-around.

Mashable Deals

Battery life: 6 hours with ANC, 9 without (27 hours with charging case) | Colors: Ivory, black, transparent, silver | Bluetooth range: 30 feet

Best workout headphones: Beats Fit Pro

Read our full review of the Beats Fit Pro.

Who it’s for:

When it comes to workout headphones, you need a pair that’ll actually stay in your ears. Motivating yourself to get through a set of push-ups is hard enough without an earbud popping out. The Beats Fit Pro earbuds are more than up to the task, and they deliver exceptional battery life, sound quality, and a few extras.

Why we picked this:

Earbuds designed for exercise typically have some sort of wingtip to help hold them in place, but those wingtips can often squeeze uncomfortably on your ears, especially with longer-term use. The small wingtip of these Beats hit the sweet spot — they’re large enough to provide hold, and small enough to be undetectable. Mashable tech reporter Alex Perry writes that the wingtips “result [in] a pair of earbuds that never feel like they’re going to fall out and, more importantly, never intrude on your comfort. I’ve worn these bad boys for six straight hours without any problems. It’s hard to ask for more than that.”

Beyond comfort, these earbuds provide an impressive sound profile, including that deep bass that Beats are known for. And of course, as any workout earbuds should be, these earbuds are sweat and water-resistant with an IPX4 rating.

Battery life: 6 hours (24 hours with case) | Colors: Black, white, coral, gray, pruple, blue, yellow, tan, brown, beige | Bluetooth range: 30 feet

How we tested for the best headphones

Over the years, we’ve tested out a lot of headphones at Mashable. To determine the best of the best, and not just pick what’s trendy at the moment, we went back through our reviews from former and current tech reporters, editors, and shopping reporters, then compared our notes to what people are buying these days. As always, we did our research to make sure we left no major headphone stone uncovered, and the result is this list — our favorite headphones of 2024 (so far).

In making our selections, here’s what we weighed:

  • Sound: Since headphones are first and foremost a way for you to listen to audio, if a pair of headphones didn’t sound good, they didn’t make the list — that goes for our budget pick, too.

  • Noise cancellation: These days, some biçim of noise cancellation is near-essential for any pair of headphones. We prioritized models that feature solid noise cancellation.

  • Comfort: What’s the point of a great pair of headphones if they’re too uncomfortable to wear?

  • Customization: Whether it be for ANC levels, transparency modes, or touch controls, headphones that allow you to adjust the settings will make them feel like they were made for you.

  • Battery life: Most wireless headphones on the market rely on Bluetooth connectivity, so having a battery you can rely on for at least a few hours of listening time is key.

  • Special features: When testing headphones and earbuds, we also take into consideration any other special features they offer. For headphones in the $200-plus price range, we expect at least a few special features.

You might notice that the AirPods Max are missing from our top picks. It’s not that we don’t like them — in fact, we think they sound and look great. But when we reviewed them, we found that they didn’t have a practical storage option, they never really turn off (thus draining the otherwise long battery life), and are just too expensive to justify a wholehearted recommendation. We understand if you like them regardless, but personally, we think there are better options at lower price points.

As of Feb. 2024, two of our former recommendations, the Skullcandy Sesh Evo earbuds and Sennheiser IE 300 have been discontinued. We’re in the process of testing new budget and wired headphones to take their place.

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