Best headphones 2020: your definitive guide to the latest and greatest audio

The best headphones of 2020 combine incredible audio fidelity an stunning design, and come packing in tons of cool features like noise cancelation, AI voice assistants, and wireless connectivity.

A great pair of headphones are a necessity for many of us – aside from breathing new life into our favorite songs, they keep us entertained with music, podcasts, and audio books when we're working out, commuting, or just trying to disconnect from the world around us.

We spend a lot of time with our headphones – and if you're looking for some new cans, you're going to want a pair of the best headphones you can find that your budget allows. 

There's so much choice out there these days, and there could be even more on the way, with rumors of the first-ever Apple over-ear headphones and the AirPods Pro Lite circling. With all that choice, making the right buying decision can be tricky – it's our mission to hook you up with the perfect headphones for your needs (and your budget).

We encourage you to take a look at all the headphone lists here on TechRadar – however, if you're in a hurry and just want to find the best headphones your money can buy, check out our top picks below.

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sony wh-1000xm3

The Sony WH-1000XM3 Wireless Headphones are the best headphones you can buy in 2020 – for now, anyway. 

They're pretty consistent with what Sony has released in the last two years in the form of the Sony WH-1000XM2 and Sony MDR-1000X, improving on some already fantastic models. 

A dominant noise-cancelling pair of headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM3 can beat anything Bose has with ease.

That’s because, while Bose has done a tremendous job working out its noise cancellation algorithm over the years, Sony has spent that time perfecting audio playback while simultaneously creating an adaptable algorithm that doesn’t just create a single sterile sound barrier, but multiple kinds that can tailor itself to whatever situation you’re in. 

Beyond being exceptional at keeping external noises at bay, these impressive Sony headphones are Hi-Res Audio-ready, sporting aptX, aptX HD and LDAC codecs, and offer the smarts of Google Assistant right on-board. If you need a pair of headphones that can live up to any challenge and excel in any environment, these are the pair for you.

We could soon see a new contender for the top spot though; rumors of an imminent Sony WH-1000XM4 release date have been circling since an FCC filing from Sony revealed the model number of what could be a brand new pair of noise-canceling headphones

Read more: Sony WH-1000XM3 review

1More Triple Driver In-Ear Headphone

After spending a few weeks with both the 1MORE Triple Driver in-ear headphones, we were blown away by the great value for money they represent.

For $100 / £100 (about AU$168), it’s hard to think of a better-sounding and more well-built pair of earphones than the 1MORE Triple Drivers. (That said, if you want just that little extra refinement and luxury materials, the 1MORE Quad Drivers are still a bargain at twice the price.)

There’s very little we can fault the Triple Drivers for. Sure, the inbuilt remote feels a little cheap, but that's more than made up for by the lush sound quality offered by these luxe-looking earbud.

For the price, it’s impossible to do better than 1MORE's Triple Driver in-ear headphones. 

Read more: 1More Triple Driver In-Ear Headphone review

rha s500u

If you have a tendency to lose or break headphones, but you still value sound quality, it’s hard to think of a better value pair of earbuds than the RHA S500u. 

These in-ear headphones have no business sounding so good for $40 / £30 / AU$52, sporting a balanced soundstage with a slight mid-bass bump to power you through your workouts and make your music sound great. 

Bass is slightly emphasized but not egregiously and features good impact while maintaining good control – and highs, while sibilant at times, makes music sound more exciting. In short, these are the best earphones you can buy if you're on a strict budget.  

Read more: RHA S500u review

grado sr60e

For your money, you can't do any better than Grado's SR60e. The third-generation of the Brooklyn, NY-based company's Prestige Series are its best and most refined yet. 

The SR60e in particular are a smart choice if you're looking for an entry-level pair of headphones that sound far more expensive than they really are.

Their open-backed earcup design makes them feel more breathable than most on-ear headphones, delivering a wide, natural soundstage. In a few words, they're our gold-standard when it comes to on-ears.

(Our review is for the SR60i, but the newer SR60e headphones are largely similar in design and performance.)

Read more: Grado SR60e review

Urbanears Plattan II

While the original Plattan headphones were just fine for a pair of on-ear headphones, Urbanears wasn’t satisfied with being mediocre. The company took customer feedback to heart and addressed many complaints about comfort, sound quality and isolation. 

For the most part, Urbanears succeeded, making the Plattan II a worthy sequel to the company’s most popular headphone.  

In short, these are basic headphones without a ton of features. But, because they're feature-light, you get a good-sounding pair of wired headphones for significantly less than you would otherwise. 

Read more: Urbanears Plattan II review

best over ear headphones

While Beyerdynamic may not be as well known as its German brother, Sennheiser, the audio company has a history of creating some of the best sounding audio gear on the market – the company’s DT770DT880 and DT990 were renowned for their excellent build and sound quality. 

Above them all, however, stand the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro, an open-back version of the Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro, which won our Editor’s Choice for its imaging, design and value for the money. Both headphones are priced the same ($599 / £589 / AU$1,159), so you won’t find a deal picking up one over the other. The difference here comes down to sound. 

As they’re open-back, the DT 1990 Pro are meant to be used at home or in the studio for serious analytical listening. Sound is able to get in and out, but the good news is that the open-back design gives the DT 1990 Pro a great sense of space. The soundstage is quite wide, too, allowing even the most lackadaisical listener to pinpoint the exact location of where each instrument is playing.  

If you've been searching for a pair of high fidelity cans that are used by some of the world's leading audio engineers, these are the best headphones for you.

Read more: Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro review

JBL Live 650BTNC

At $200 / £180 / AU$250, the  JBL Live 650BTNC punch above their weight in terms of sound quality, build, and features. 

They offer a choice of either Google Assistant or Amazon's Alexa voice assistant, and sport an adjustable EQ thanks to the JBL Headphones app.  Battery life is rated at 20 hours with ANC and wireless enabled, while wired listening will get you upwards of 30 hours from a single charge.

If you don’t want to splurge on the Bose QC35 II or Sony WH-1000XM3, you’ll be satisfied with the JBL Live 650BTNC knowing that you’re getting 80% of the performance at 50% of the price tag.

JBL has just launched a new pair of noise-cancelling headphones, the JBL Tune 750BTNC – stay tuned to find out if they make it into this round up. 

Read more: JBL Live 650BTNC review

Bose headphones

If the Sony WH-1000XM3s are the true king of noise-cancelling headphones, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are next in line for the throne – and for the sake of offering an alternative, we've included them in this list.

Traditionally, noise-cancelling headphones have been designed to block out the environmental sounds around you, so that you can hear your music more clearly (or catch some shut-eye on a noisy flight). 

This can be really effective if you’re listening to music. If you’re making a phone call however, the person you’re speaking to can still hear everything that’s happening around you, whether you’re standing on a busy street or trying to speak on a rumbling train.

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 seek to remedy this, by applying noise-cancelation to phone calls as well as music. The sound quality is undeniably good, with a vibrant, lively character and well-balanced soundstage.

If you’re trying to decide between buying the Sony WH-1000XM3s and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, we’d recommend going for the former because of that lower price and better battery life. That being said, you wouldn’t be making a mistake if you opted for the Bose cans instead (and we wouldn’t blame you if you did) – they sound great, look stunning, and the noise cancellation is out of this world. 

Read more: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review

sennheiser hd 450bt

Sennheiser is well-known for its great-sounding noise-cancelling headphones, and its latest, the $199 / £159 (about AU$280) Sennheiser HD 450BT, offer a cheaper alternative to previous models like the Momentum 3 Wireless and class-leaders like the Sony WH-1000XM3

With a minimal design and built-in noise cancellation, these fully-foldable wireless headphones are aimed squarely at the commuting crowd. Their well-balanced profile should appeal audiophiles and bass-hunters alike. 

Battery life and connectivity are both very good, and the noise-cancelling works well enough, although you might find that these headphones don’t quite block out all external noise. 

Read more: Sennheiser HD 450BT review

wireless headphones

Again, the Sony WH-1000XM3 are our true winners in this category, but if you want an alternative, the Jabra Elite 85h are a fantastic choice. 

Offering class-leading battery life, stylish design, and plenty of personalization when it comes to sound profiles, the Elite 85h are easy to recommend. That said, purists will bemoan the lack of high-end codec support and there are punchier headphones on the market at this price point. 

When you consider that Jabra’s Elite 85h headphones are the company’s first attempt at premium wireless ANC headphones, the result is quite commendable. We can’t wait to see what the company’s next premium ANC headphones will accomplish.  

Read more: Jabra Elite 85h review

Plantronics BackBeat Go 810

For years, the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 were among our favorite wireless headphones because of their excellent sound, build quality and features. Unfortunately, they were also kind of expensive. 

For a lot less ($150 / £140 / AU$240), Plantronics now sells the brilliant BackBeat Go 810, which use less premium materials but sound nearly identical to its more expensive predecessor – and sport an equally chic design. 

With that in mind, the BackBeat Go 810 are an affordable pair of ANC headphones that will please travelers and commuters who don’t want to spend too much money on headphones.   

Read more: Plantronics BackBeat Go 810 review

focal stellia

The Focal Stellias are perhaps the best-sounding headphones on the planet. Their wide-open soundstage and detailed, accurate sound treatment means they make any genre of music sound brilliant.

If you listen to songs you think you know inside out, the Stellias' precise separation of the frequencies means that you will probably hear details you’ve never noticed before.

If you like to keep things minimal in the headphones department, you probably won’t like the showy, opulent design of the Focal Stellias, and they can feel a little chunky for wearing on the commute into work. 

But if luxury is your thing, the full-grain leather cups, woven cables, brushed copper accents, and matching carrying case are likely to appeal. 

That luxury feel is translated right down to the presentation of the user manuals in a neat little leather-style wallet – and you may well expect to find this level of detail in exchange for parting with $3,000. Ouch. 

Read more: Focal Stellia headphones review

Optoma NuForce BE Sport4

The NuForce BE Sport4 wireless earbuds are a rare find: earbuds that are grear for basically all situations, whether you're looking to take them out on a run or just wear them around town. 

They're ideal for exercise, although any urbanite will also find their lightweight functionality and impressive sound isolation highly appealing when traveling on crowded trains or navigating busy streets. 

If you want proof that wireless earphones can now compete with the best wired earphones, look no further.

Read more: Optoma NuForce BE Sport4 review

Sony WF-1000XM3

Considering it's still rare to get noise-cancelation in wired earbuds at all, the fact that Sony has managed to pack it into a pair that are not only wireless, but true wireless is very impressive indeed. 

The Sony WF-1000X manage to offer a level of noise-cancelation that's very good for a pair of earbuds – they won't offer the same isolation as a pair of over-ear cans, but if you're after a sleek form factor then the compromise is worth it. 

That being said, in spite of a few minor problems we feel that Sony has knocked the ball out of the park with the WF-1000XM3: not only are these hands-down the best-looking true wireless earbuds out there, but they also combine serious noise cancelling tech with fist-pumping musicality. 

If you don’t want the inconvenience of carrying full-size cans, they’re a persuasive and smart alternative.

Read more: Sony WF-1000XM3 Wireless Earbuds review

The best headphones of 2020, at a glance

Choosing the right headphones for you can be an agonizing decision – but it doesn't have to be if you look for a few key features. 

Above all, sound quality is the most important thing to look for. That doesn't mean you have to buy the most expensive audiophile headphones on the market; it just means that you should have an idea of what kind of sound you like. 

How you define good sound quality depends on your personal taste. Do you like a warm, well-rounded sound, or do you prefer ultra high-fidelity that allows you to hear every single detail of your music? Are you a dedicated bass head or a classical music junkie?

If you're all about that bass, you'll want to look out for dynamic drivers that displace lots of air, leading to a bassy soundstage. If detail is everything, look for large frequency ranges – 20Hz to 20 kHz is the standard, so anything larger than this may allow for more detail in the highs and lows. 

It's also important to consider the soundstage as a whole; if you love a wide, open sound, try a pair of open-back headphones. Worried about sound-leakage when you're in the company of others? Try a pair of closed-back cans with a secure fit to stop your tunes bothering the people around you.

You also need to consider the design of your new headphones. Do you want the freedom of true wireless earbuds or the security of a pair of sturdy over-ear headphones?

Wireless or wired is also an important consideration. A few short years ago, we may have tried to dissuade you from buying a pair of wireless headphones (the technology had issues with wireless connectivity over Bluetooth and sound quality took a dive as a result). 

Nowadays however, advances in Bluetooth technology means that wireless headphones can sound fantastic and rarely experience annoying dropouts. If you're going for wireless headphones, make sure the battery life is decent, too.

You should also think about what you'll be using your new headphones for; if you need to soundtrack your workout, you'll want to look at headphones specifically designed for running or swimming.

Lastly, you need to consider price. You don't have to break the bank when your buying a pair of headphones, as evidenced by our guide to the best cheap headphones of 2020.

Press on to page two to see how to pick out a good pair of headphones along more of our recommendations.

Check out our videos below for a roundup of the best headphones available.

There's usually more to a set of headphone than meets the eye. As such, we've provided a breakdown of what you can expect to find in each kind of headphone.

Not only will learning more about headphones help you make a more informed purchase, but you'll know when you're really getting your money's worth.

What headphones should you buy? Check out our video below for everything you need to know.

In-ear headphones

1More Triple Driver In-Ear Headphones

This type of headphone, more commonly referred to as an earbud or earphone, is usually the cheapest and easiest way to pump audio into your ears. If you've purchased an MP3 player, or more recently, the new iPod touch (7th generation), it's likely that a set was included with the purchase.

Earphones rest in or just outside the ear canal, creating a tight seal to keep air out and sound in. Compared to other types of headphones, these are the most discreet ones you'll find. Their small form-factor also makes them the king/queen of portability and the prime choice for athletes.

You're not likely to find strong performers at the low-end of the price spectrum. Their sound delivery is generally muddled, lacking bass and overcompensating for that with harsh mids and highs. That said, it won't cost you much money at all to find a value-packed option complete with inline controls and a microphone.

On-ear headphones

Grado’s GW100 Wireless on-ear headphones

While similar to over-ear headphones in appearance, they fit to your head a little differently. Instead of enveloping your ears with a soft cushion, on-ear headphones create a light, breathable seal around your ear. Thus, the noise isolation is much less effective than in-ear or over-ear options. This might be a dealbreaker for some, but there are big benefits to consider here.

On-ear headphones are usually more portable than their over-ear brethren, and as such they appeal to travellers and the fitness crowd. Taking a walk or a jog around town is also safer, as you can hear traffic go by and be aware of potential hazards.

Over-ear headphones

The Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro headphones

This ear-muff style of headphone generally provides greater richness and depth of sound, which allows listeners to pick apart the instruments and sounds much easier. Additionally, over-ear, or circum-aural headphones, go around the ear and offer a generous amount of padding.

The price range for a set of on-ear headphones begins around $100 and from there, the sky's the limit. For example, the Oppo PM-1, while excellent, are priced exorbitantly at $1,099. It's definitely not necessary to spend that much. That said, you tend to get what you pay for.

If your headphone budget is in the $2-300, you'll start getting into options that have excellent build quality, premium materials and amazing sound and features like ANC (active noise cancellation.)

Wireless headphones

The OnePlus Bullets Wireless 2 

Wireless headphones can be split into three different categories: wireless earphones connected via a neckband, wireless on-ear headphones, and wireless over-ear headphones – all are battery-powered and use Bluetooth to connect to your smartphone, laptop, portable music player, or even your turntable. 

For wireless over-ear and on-ear models, you simply lose the wire connecting them to your device – otherwise, they look pretty much the same as your regular pair of wired cans, and give you the noise-isolating prowess of over-ears without the need for cumbersome wires to connect to your device.

Wireless in-ear models, earphones, or earbuds (depending on your preferred vernacular), have a neckband connecting each earbud, making them ideal for runners who want the freedom of a wireless connection with the security of a wire keeping their earbuds firmly around their neck. 

Opting to go wireless will cost you a premium of anywhere between $50-100 over the price of wired cans. Going futuristic isn't cheap. One important thing to consider is that your music player must support the Bluetooth wireless protocol, as it's required to use this type of headphone.

Speaking of Bluetooth, it has become exponentially more reliable over time, but it's always susceptible to disturbances in the force.

True wireless earbuds

True wireless earbuds on the other hand, have no cord whatsoever; no wires to get caught in your zipper, and nothing to keep each bud connected to each other. For some, this means true freedom; for others, untethered true wireless means constant danger of losing their expensive audio kit down the drain – or terrible connections. 

The latter, at least, has changed now – thanks to advances in Bluetooth technology like aptX HD, the best wireless headphones have never sounded better.

These advances have also paved the way for true wireless earbuds to dominate the audio market. You just have to look at the popularity of the Apple AirPods (2019)Beats Powerbeats Pro, and Samsung Galaxy Buds, to understand how successful the true wireless market has become in recent years. 

Noise-canceling headphones

Bose’s QuietComfort 35 II headphones

This category, like wireless headphones, isn't limited to a form factor. You can find this clever mix of technologies integrated into the ear pieces of in-ear and over-ear headphones alike.

Many companies falsely claim to offer true noise cancelation with just the padding included around the ear cups. Don't believe it. This is PNC (passive noise cancelation), and it doesn't amount to much. You can even replicate this effect by cupping your hands around your ears, so why shell out the big bucks for it?

On the other hand, ANC (active noise cancelation) is the real deal. This technique employs a set of external microphones, which detect the decibel level outside. Once it has an idea of the incoming noise level, the headphone speakers inside transmit a noise generated to dampen the racket. The end result is an effect that hushes the outside noise, allowing you to focus.

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Source: techradar.com

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