10 best wireless headphones 2021: Lose yourself in the music with a top-rated pair of noise-cancelling cans

·21-min read
Over- or on-ear headphones are less intrusive – and usually have better battery life – than in-ear versions (iStock/The Independent)
Over- or on-ear headphones are less intrusive – and usually have better battery life – than in-ear versions (iStock/The Independent)

In recent years, wireless earbuds have overtaken wireless headphones to become the dominant product in personal audio. No one wants to lug around a heavy pair of cans when you can slot a couple of un-intrusive buds into your ears instead, right?

While wireless earbuds now offer up stellar active noise cancellation (ANC) and battery-boosting charging cases, they just can’t compete with the sound quality, raw power and comfort afforded by over-ear or on-ear models that don’t dig into your poor lugholes.

Wireless technology is getting better and better. Thanks to new Bluetooth codecs like aptX adaptive providing an overall lower-latency, lower bit-rate and higher-quality audio experience, it’s no longer necessary to buy a pair of wired headphones if you want premium sound.

We’ve sat by and watched as the headphones market has become swamped with more and more wireless cans, all boasting that killer new feature. So we know it can be a struggle trying to figure out how good a pair of headphones really are if you can’t try them out before you buy.

To give you a helping hand, we’ve tested a smorgasbord of wireless headphones and have come up with a list of the best. We focused on their sound quality, comfort, design, features, price and overall ease of use.

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 (Alex Lee/The Independent)
(Alex Lee/The Independent)

How we tested

To test the headphones out, we listened to a wide range of audio genres – from gentle orchestral music to bouncy radio-friendly pop tunes, explosive audio dramas and a spot of Netflix, at home and in the wild. Ambient mode tests consisted of us rudely trying to have conversations with transparency toggled on, while noise-cancellation tests consisted of us attempting to drown out the noises of the tube when out and about.

While all of the headphones below have active noise cancellation, we also have a guide dedicated solely to finding the best noise-cancelling headphones on the market.

The best wireless headphones for 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Sony WH-1000XM4: £249, Currys.co.uk

  • Best for iPhone – AirPods max: £549, Apple.com

  • Best noise-cancelling headphones – Bose headphones 700: £219, Amazon.co.uk

  • Best Beats headphones – Beats solo pro: £249, Amazon.co.uk

  • Best luxury headphones – Bang & Olufsen beoplay H95: £700, Johnlewis.com

  • Best for the office – Technics EAH-F70N: £153.95, Amazon.co.uk

  • Best budget headphones – JBL tune 660NC: £84.99, Amazon.co.uk

  • Best for a pop of colour – Urbanista Miami: £99.99, Amazon.co.uk

  • Best for style – Master & Dynamic MW65: £449, Amazon.co.uk

  • Best for commuting – Sennheiser HD 450BT: £99, Argos.co.uk

Sony WH-1000XM4

Best: Overall

Rating: 10/10

  • Type: Over-ear

  • Noise cancellation: Yes

  • Weight: 254g

  • Battery life: 30 hours NC on, 38 hours NC off

  • Connection type: Bluetooth 5.0 with multipoint, NFC, 3.5mm jack

  • Voice control? Yes, integrated Google Assistant and Alexa

  • Included removable cable? Yes, 3.5mm

  • Waterproof? No – there’s no IP rating

The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are one of the best wireless pair we’ve ever tested, and we’d go so far as to say they’re our favourites. They’re a radiant follow-up to the already impressive XM3 headphones, but with splendid improvements.

First off, they’re so comfy. Wearing them is like sinking into a fluffy feather-filled pillow – and our ears normally get super clammy when using over-ear headphones. They have features like automatic head detection, which auto plays and auto pauses your music when you take the headphones off your head. There’s also “speak to chat”, which turns on the ambient mode when you start talking, cleverly assuming you’re about to have a conversation. Plus other nifty presets which adjust specific settings depending on your GPS location. One of the buttons on the side even analyses your surroundings to optimise the noise cancellation.

The touch controls are seamless and snappy, making it a doddle to skip back and forward and adjust the volume. As for sound, well it’s everything you’d want from a pair of wireless headphones – there’s hardly any latency and the sound is rich, full, and buoyant, with sparkling highs and moody lows. The noise cancellation, meanwhile, is absolutely impeccable.

The Sony XM4s sound great, feel incredible and have the features to back it up. Better yet, they’re frequently on sale. You can get them in “midnight” blue, “silent” white, silver and black.

Read the full Sony WH-1000XM4 review

Buy now £249.00, Currys.co.uk

AirPods max

Best: For iPhone users

Rating: 10/10

  • Type: Over-ear

  • Noise cancellation: Yes

  • Weight: 384.8g

  • Battery life: Up to 20 hours NC on

  • Connection type: Bluetooth 5.0 with multipoint, fast pairing with Apple H1 chip

  • Voice control? Yes, integrated Siri

  • Included removable cable? No

  • Waterproof? No

Like everything Apple makes with this moniker, the AirPods max are big, chunky, maximalist headphones. But despite being rather large, they’re also soft and comfy to wear thanks to the knit mesh ear-cups and flexible headband, which didn’t make our ears too hot.

They cover your ears so fully that you get an exceedingly good amount of passive noise cancellation without even having to turn ANC on – even better than some of the active noise cancelling headphones we’ve tried. This just takes this set to another level.

If you’ve got a pair of the AirPods pro, you’ll know exactly how good the transparency mode is. Plus they sound stellar – both rich and full – thanks to the Apple-designed 40mm dynamic driver. But our favourite feature has to be the spatial audio. The sound of your favourite tunes coming from all directions around your head is absolutely mind-blowing, and it will make you fall in love with your favourite songs all over again, giving you a new perspective on what you’re listening to. It’s even better when watching an action film or listening to an audio drama like QCode’s sci-fi epic From Now.

We love headphones that are able to detect when you’ve got them on your head and either pause music when you take them off and start playing it when you put them back on. We just wish the design was a little better. The case for the AirPods max is a little awkward, and doesn’t provide a whole lot of protection. If we’re being honest, we can’t tell if they look more like a bra or a pair of butt cheeks. But we love them either way.

Read the full AirPods max review

Buy now £549.00, Apple.com

Bose noise cancelling headphones 700

Best: Noise-cancelling headphones

Rating: 8/10

  • Type: Over-ear

  • Noise cancellation: Yes

  • Weight: 254g

  • Battery life: Up to 20 hours

  • Connection type: Bluetooth 5.0 with multipoint, 3.5mm cable

  • Voice control? Yes, integrated Google Assistant and Alexa

  • Included removable cable? Yes, 3.5mm cable included

  • Waterproof? Water-resistant IPx4

Finally, a brand that says it like it is. Bose’s noise-cancelling 700s are an excellent pair of – you guessed it – noise-cancelling wireless headphones. Most headphones have active noise cancellation these days, but Bose’s 700s are still one of the best at delivering that soundless experience while listening to music in a noisy environment.

They were excellent at cutting out the higher registers of the Jubilee line’s squeaky tracks, and we loved being able to adjust the level of the noise cancellation in the Bose app. Both Sony’s WH-1000XM4s (£266.32, Amazon.co.uk) and Bose’s 700s are admirable ANC players, so it’s really a toss-up between the two.

The ambient mode was also pretty impressive. When set to zero, we could have an entire conversation across the room, thanks to the new eight-microphone system, although there was a noticeable hiss in the background.

Sound wise, the 700s are great. They deliver heart-pumping bass and twinkly trebles. We can’t fault them, plus you can always adjust the settings to your liking with the Bose Music equaliser app.

The design is more intuitive than the 700s’ predecessors, with the cups sliding in and out rather than clicking into place. That said, the padding inside the earcups is rather firm and thick, and our ears became a little hot after an hour’s use – not great in a heatwave. They also clamp pretty tightly around your ears, so you may feel the pressure after some time.

The controls are extremely simple, too, with swipes and double taps increasing and decreasing the volume, skipping tracks and activating the voice assistant. Unfortunately, you only get around 20 hours of battery life while using ANC.

Read the full Bose NC 700 review

Buy now £219.00, Amazon.co.uk

Beats solo pro

Best: Beats headphones

Rating: 8/10

  • Type: On-ear

  • Noise cancellation: Yes

  • Weight: 267g

  • Battery life: 22 hours NC on, up to 40 hours NC off

  • Connection type: Bluetooth 5.0, Fast paring with Apple H1 chip

  • Voice control? Yes, integrated Siri

  • Included removable cable? No

  • Waterproof? No

The Beats solo pros are the company’s first pair of on-ear headphones, and they’re not only sturdier than any Beats that have come before them, thanks to a new headband and anodised aluminium sidearms, but they also sound great, too. We found them to be a little heavy on the ears, and they did begin to make our poor lugs ache after a couple hours of use, but the memory foam cups weren’t actually too warm.

They feature the company’s signature bouncy, upbeat, lively V-curve sound, with sparkly highs and deep, bassy lows. Pure ANC (active noise cancellation) is fairly good at blocking out the squeals of the tube, but there are better noise-cancelling headphones on this list. It’s probably an artefact of these being on-ear rather than over-ears, however. We do wish the transparency mode was a little better at letting in sound too.

The controls are easy to use, with clicks on the side of the headphone letting us switch between ANC and transparency modes, skip and rewind tracks, and activate Siri. Plus it’s all powered by Apple’s H1 chip, so pairing and switching between devices is a doddle. It’s a shame there’s no automatic head detection like on the AirPods max (£549, Apple.com), though.

The battery lasted roughly 21 hours on a single charge when we had noise cancellation turned on, but Beats says this can go up to 40 hours without noise cancelling. They come in light blue, dark blue, red, black, grey and ivory colourways.

Read the full Beats solo pro review

Buy now £249.00, Amazon.co.uk

Bang & Olufsen beoplay H95

Best: Luxury headphones

Rating: 9/10

  • Type: Over-ear

  • Noise cancellation: Yes

  • Weight: 323g

  • Battery life: Up to 38 hours with NC on, up to 50 hours with NC turned off

  • Connection type: Bluetooth 5.1 with multipoint, 3.5mm cable

  • Voice control? Yes, integrated voice assistant button

  • Included removable cable? Yes, included 3.5mm

  • Waterproof? No

If you’re a true audiophile, you’ll be extremely familiar with premium audio company Bang & Olufsen. And the brand’s H95 wireless headphones are the most premium, most luxurious pair of wireless headphones we’ve ever tried (and probably will ever try).

Released late last year, these over-ear headphones were launched to celebrate 95 years of sleek, sophisticated Danish sound and design. With a hard aluminium casing, lambskin leather earcups filled with memory foam and a leather headband and titanium 40mm drivers, they certainly look and feel the part, but, most of all, they sound it too.

The sound is full, broad and forward-facing, with a thick bass, luscious, twinkling highs and distinctive mids. Vocals come out crystal clear, orchestral music is glorious, and the app provides you with seven presets for the ideal listening experience. Plus, all the major codecs like aptX adaptive, SBC and AAC are all supported, so you’ll be able to play all your high-fidelity tracks.

Instead of controlling the volume and the level of active noise cancellation and transparency with a series of swipes or buttons (as on most modern headphones), you use a camera-like dial on either side of the cans to adjust both instead. The ANC also adapts automatically to your environment, made possible thanks to its eight microphones – two on the outside and two in each of the ear cups.

Battery life is absolutely astonishing, with the headphones lasting a whopping 38 hours with the ANC turned up to the max. The brand also says that you should be able to get 50 hours out of these headphones with ANC turned off.

The only downside? If you thought the AirPods max were expensive, you’ll gawk at the £700 price tag on these. But once you look at that gorgeous hardshell case and listen to that stellar sound – it might be forgiven.

Buy now £700.00, Johnlewis.com

Technics EAH-F70N

Best: For the office

Rating: 7/10

  • Type: Over-ear

  • Noise cancellation: Yes

  • Weight: 292g

  • Battery life: Up to 20 hours with NC turned on

  • Connection type: Bluetooth 4.2 with multipoint, 3.5mm cable

  • Voice control? Yes, integrated voice assistant

  • Included removable cable? Yes, included 3.5mm cable

  • Waterproof? No

Many headphones these days either lean to the overly bassy side or they’re just too bright and bouncy, but the Technics EAH-F70N get it just right. You won’t feel overwhelmed listening to an up-beat pop track, nor like your heart’s about to fall out of your chest when a deep trap track comes on shuffle. But you’ll still notice all the lows and highs from any finely produced tunes thanks to those 40mm dynamic drivers.

Similar to their sound, these headphones aren’t attention-grabbers in any sense of the word. They’re fairly inconspicuous, but in an understated and stylish way. There is a little bit of a creak to them due to their mostly plastic construction, but nothing overly noticeable, plus this makes them nice and lightweight when you’re wearing them around the office. The controls are a little fiddly, with the volume rocker doing most of the hard work, but you get used to them quickly.

The earcups are a little smothering, but that tight seal does give you a great level of passive noise cancellation without even having to turn on one of the three ANC modes. Just like the Sony XM4s (£279, Amazon.co.uk), if you cover the earcup, ambient sound will filter in. One slight quirk is that our music did pause itself a couple of times without us doing anything and despite the headphones still being on top of our head – this was probably due to the head-detection feature not working quite correctly.

That said, these are great headphones for everyday use, lasting a solid 20 hours with ANC tuned on, plus they have all the latest codecs like SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD and LDAC, for hi-res audio playback.

Buy now £153.95, Amazon.co.uk

JBL tune 660NC

Best: Budget headphones

Rating: 7/10

  • Type: On-ear

  • Noise cancellation: Yes

  • Weight: 166g

  • Battery life: 44 hours with NC turned on, 55 hours with NC turned off

  • Connection type: Bluetooth 5.0, 3.5mm cable

  • Voice control? Yes, integrated voice assistant

  • Included removable cable? Yes, included 3.5mm cable

  • Waterproof? No

It’s hard not to look at this list and think that you’re going to have to pay an arm and a leg for a great-sounding pair of wireless headphones. But we’d like to introduce you to the JBL Tune 660NCs. Design and comfort-wise, they don’t look as premium as, say, the AirPods max or the Sony XM4s – they feature a subtle matte black finish, for one, and, if we’re honest, they also have slightly warmer earcups than we’d like.

But, they do sound great for their price. There’s a button on the earcup to activate the voice assistant and an ANC toggle. If you’re a bass hunter, you’ll absolutely love the tone, with punchy lows and expressive-sounding pop tracks. The active noise cancellation is also pretty solid, tuning out a fair amount of the low frequencies. While ANC is far superior on the Bose 700s or the Sony XM4s, it’s still impressive here for the price.

The previous pair of JBL tunes lasted only 12 hours, but these over-ear versions will power on for a whopping 44 hours with ANC turned on. Take that, MW65s. Without ANC, they’ll last 55 hours. You can get them in black, blue, pink and white colourways.

Buy now £84.99, Amazon.co.uk

Urbanista Miami

Best: For a pop of colour

Rating: 8/10

  • Type: Over-ear

  • Noise cancellation: Yes

  • Weight: 310g

  • Battery life: 40 hours with NC turned on, 50 hours with NC turned off

  • Connection type: Bluetooth 5.0, 3.5mm cable

  • Voice control? Yes, integrated voice assistant

  • Included removable cable? Yes, included 3.5mm cable

  • Waterproof? No

These are Swedish audio brand Urbanista’s first ever pair of over-ear noise-cancelling wireless headphones and they’re a great starter pair for tweens and teens. They come in a range of stylish colours like “pearl white”, “midnight black”, “ruby red” and “teal green”, which will have any kid’s peers looking on enviously at their shiny aluminium plates.

They’re also pretty comfy thanks to a generous helping of earcup and headband padding. You can slide the earcups in and out to extend them, but, design aside, they sound pretty great for a fairly cheap pair of noise-cancelling headphones. They are a little bass-heavy and sound best when listening to pop anthems, but they’re solid nonetheless. The sound stage is nice and wide, with songs feeling round and broad. Vocals also come across crisp and clear. The highs could be a little richer, but overall we were impressed with the sound quality.

The ANC isn’t the best, with a large amount of sound still filtering through from most frequencies. The ambient mode was a lot better – we were still able to hold a conversation while Lorde was playing at 50 per cent volume, for example.

You get around 40 hours of battery life with ANC turned on and 50 hours if toggled off. That’s a huge amount of playback time, so you won’t be charging these up much at all. Ultimately, they’re a great pair of wireless headphones for their price.

Buy now £99.99, Amazon.co.uk

Master & Dynamic MW65

Best: For style

Rating: 7/10

  • Type: Over-ear

  • Noise cancellation: Yes

  • Weight: 245g

  • Battery life: 24 hours with NC turned on

  • Connection type: Bluetooth 4.2, 3.5mm cable

  • Voice control? Yes, integrated Google Assistant

  • Included removable cable? Yes, included 3.5mm cable

  • Waterproof? No

Master & Dynamic plays in the same league as Bang & Olufsen when it comes to designing and building luxury headphones. But while the MW65s look beautifully premium, they’re still cheaper than the AirPods max and the outrageously expensive beoplay H95s (£700, Johnlewis.com). Like the H95s, they have detachable lambskin memory foam earcups, a cowhide leather headband, a polished stainless steel exterior and those fine 40mm beryllium drivers, which reproduce sound impeccably.

They’re mega comfortable as well, feeling light on our head, and give Sony’s XM4s a real run for their money. That said, the controls are a little fiddly, owing to the fact they’re so small. Google Assistant support is also built into the headphones, which makes it a little awkward when you’re using an iPhone, as you’ll activate the assistant and get a message telling you that “the Google Assistant is not connected”. You’ll need to download the Google Assistant app if you want to use that functionality.

Active noise cancellation isn’t bad, with the headphones managing to dampen the sound of our noisy fan when turned up high, although there is enough passive cancellation to do this without turning it on. The sound is a refined, incredibly balanced audio experience. The rounded bass isn’t overwhelming, and the highs aren’t too murky, so if you want accurate, albeit a fairly sculpted sound, you’ll definitely enjoy these. Plus they support aptX adaptive and SBC codecs for those high fidelity listeners.

The MW65s should last around 24 hours, which is a little more than some of the other headphones on this list. You can get them in black, black and metal, brown and silver colourways.

Buy now £449.00, Amazon.co.uk

Sennheiser HD 450BT

Best: For commuting

Rating: 7/10

  • Type: Over-ear

  • Noise cancellation: Yes

  • Weight: 238g

  • Battery life: 30 hours with NC turned on

  • Connection type: Bluetooth 5.0 with multipoint, 3.5mm cable

  • Voice control? Yes, integrated voice assistant

  • Included removable cable? Yes, included 3.5mm cable

  • Waterproof? No

While the design of Sennheiser’s HD 450BT headphones is a little minimalistic and the controls are a little finicky, these are some fine headphones. Sennheiser isn’t really known for its premium design or its artistic flair, but its headphones really come into their own when we’re listening to music.

That’s especially so on the budget 450BTs. The sound is warm and the vocals are clear, with some nice fat bass and sub-bass and lively mids. It’s a pretty controlled sound that really makes you feel like you’re in your own little world when listening to them.

There is a small, low hiss in the background when active noise cancellation is turned on, but you won’t notice it when your music is playing. It isn’t adjustable, however, with one toggle being used to simply turn ANC on or off. They were pretty good at cutting out the low rumble of the train, but less so at zapping out the highs.

The headphones’ plastic construction means they’re nice and light as well, making them great for the commute, especially because they fold up pretty neatly for chucking into your bag. Sennheiser says you should get around 30 hours of playback with ANC turned on – that’s a lot better than more expensive headphones on this list. It comes in black or white variants, and a newer model with Alexa integration has just been released.

Buy now £99.00, Johnlewis.com

Wireless headphones FAQs

How do wireless headphones work?

Wireless headphones are usually battery operated and work by pairing with a device via a radio or infrared signal. Many devices are equipped with Bluetooth technology, meaning connection is easy and the audio is high quality.

Wireless vs true wireless: What’s the difference?

There are two types of wireless headphones: wireless and true wireless.

The latter means there is a complete lack of connector between the earphones – such as with the AirPods pro or Marshall mode II. Whereas, where ordinary wireless headphones are concerned, the earphones are still connected via a headband, like those we have reviewed here.

How to connect wireless headphones

Connecting wireless headphones differs depending on the device your using. For example, connecting to a TV will be different from a mobile phone. But, for the latter, make sure your Bluetooth and headphones are on and discoverable, then open your Bluetooth settings on your mobile phone and your headphones should appear there.

What are the disadvantages of wireless headphones?

Pretty much all consumer headphones are wireless these days, thanks to the departure of the 3.5mm headphone jack. Rest in peace – we miss you, old friend. But while we love being wire-free, there are a few minor disadvantages to wireless headphones.

First of all, there’s latency. Connecting via wireless modes like Bluetooth will always mean that there is a tiny delay between the audio playing on your device and the audio being transmitted to your headphones. This normally isn’t much of a concern unless you’re a gamer – and gaming headsets are the only part of the audio market where wires are still a prominent option.

The second disadvantage is battery life. With wired headphones, your music can run and run, but with wireless headphones, you might get a day’s use out of them. That said, wireless headphones are always being improved and the above issues are slowly becoming less of a problem.

The verdict: Wireless headphones

The top all-round wireless headphones are from Sony. The catchily named Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones offer up a whole host of neat features, absolute comfort and divine sound and noise.

Nipping at Sony’s heels are Apple’s all-dancing, all-singing AirPods max, which have some impressive spatial audio that makes your music sound next level.

For a decent budget pair, you can’t go wrong with JBL’s new Tune 660NC headphones or the Sennheiser HD 450BT headphones, which are great for the daily commute.

More headphone recommendations:

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If you still prefer the freedom a pair of earbuds give you, then check out our round-up of the best wireless earbuds for quality sound and noise cancellation

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