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How to choose the best over-ear headphones: ZDNET's buying guide

Choosing the best over-ear headphones can be a challenge. Here's how to find the right pair for you, based on ZDNET's testing.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor

I always tell people that buying a pair of headphones is like buying a car. That comparison may sound outlandish, but it's true. It's hard to place most headphones on the "good" or "bad" binary because most headphones from trusted brands are "good."

Just because something is generally "good" doesn't mean it's good for you and your personal preferences, similar to a car. Before running your credit and driving off the lot, you consider a car's make, model, year, price, and mileage.

Also: The best wireless headphones

The same philosophy applies to headphones. Before you swipe your card, consider which features you value most, whether it be sound, design, noise-canceling strength, or price, and make your decision from there.

I'm going to warn you early on: AirPods Max are not my top choice or even one of my top three choices for best over-ear headphones. So, if you're only in the market for Apple headphones, you can skip down to the AirPods Max entry, read our AirPods Max review, or check out ZDNET's AirPods buying guide.

Also: The best headphones you can buy: Expert tested and reviewed

But if you're open to seeing what other brands can offer, you're in the right place. My top pick for the best over-ear headphones goes to the Bose QuietComfort Ultra due to its superior comfort, advanced ANC, and premium design. Beyond the Bose QuietComfort Ultra, I've tried many popular over-ear headphones and can say good things about all the options in this list. Some are brand-new 2023 releases, while others held their value over the last year or two.

Here are my top choices for the best over-ear headphones.

The best over-ear headphones of 2023

Pros & Cons
  • Superior comfort
  • Superior ANC
  • Premium design
  • Not ideal for outdoor activities
  • Short battery for the price
More Details

Bose QuietComfort Ultra tech specs: Weight: 8.96 oz (254 g) | Battery life: 24 hours | Bluetooth: Yes (5.3) | Multipoint: Yes

Who these are for: The Bose QC Ultra headphones are great for people who spend a lot of time working at a desk or commuting. Their ANC does a great job at blocking out office chatter and the low hums of a plane, train, or car. The QC Ultra's all-day comfort and versatile use for gaming, watching videos, taking calls, and listening to music make them the best over-ear headphones all around for people who like having one pair of headphones they can take anywhere.

Bose's latest release put the quiet in QuietComfort, as the QC Ultra headphones take the spot for best noise-canceling on this list. There's no hiss or hum, and only loud conversations in close proximity will cut through the Ultra's ANC. The QC Ultra's noise-canceling properties are a major high point, as it's more effective than any other headphones from Bose and is slightly stronger than the noise-canceling from Apple and Sony.

To go even further, the QuietComfort Ultra headphones are the best you'll get from Bose. The sound quality is clear, balanced, and detailed. Of course, the sound quality isn't as good as what you'll find in a pair of audiophile-centered consumer headphones like the Sennheiser Momentum 4. Still, Bose's QuietComfort Ultra's sound is definitely fuller than the XM5 headphones and clearer than AirPods Max.

Bose's QC Ultra takes the top spot in this list because you can take the over-ear headphones anywhere for any purpose. They'll perform at the office, on the road, on a plane, in a coffee shop, in a conference call, and at home when you're gaming, watching a movie, or having a chill jam session. The QuietComfort Ultra is a highly versatile headphone with perfected comfort, noise-canceling, and style.

Review: Bose QuietComfort Ultra

Pros & Cons
  • Best for your money's worth
  • Great audio quality
  • ANC not the best for the price
  • Mediocre portability
More Details

Sony WH-1000XM5 tech specs: Weight: 8.8 oz (249.5 g) | Battery life: 30 hours | Bluetooth: Yes (Bluetooth 5.2) | Multipoint: Yes

Who these are for: The WH-1000XM5 headphones offer every premium headphone feature you can think of. If you like highly personalized headphones, these are for you. If you want a pair of headphones that has it all -- and does it all well enough -- you'll want the XM5.

Despite their impressive and extensive internal audio components, the XM5 over-ear headphones remain light and comfortable for long-term wear. While Sony's headphones aren't my top pick for sound quality or noise-canceling, Sony gives you great quality all around.

Audio fanatics can access SBC, AAC, and LDAC codecs via Bluetooth for the highest-quality listening, no matter your device's operating system. AAC is reserved for Apple devices, while Android devices can access LDAC. 

Sony's XM5 over-ear headphones also have a useful companion app that's full of personalization features and future-proof software capabilities. There's one specific software feature that Sony has that other premium headphones from brands like Apple and Bose don't. Speak-to-Chat is a useful feature that will pause your music and turn on Ambient Sound mode when your headphones sense someone is speaking to you so you can hear them better.

Review: Sony WH-1000XM5

Pros & Cons
  • Superior sound
  • Marathon battery
  • Weak ANC
  • Mediocre portability
More Details

Sennheiser Momentum 4 tech specs: Weight: 10.3 oz (292 g) | Battery life: 60 hours | Bluetooth: Yes (5.2) | Multipoint: Yes

Who these are for: The Sennheiser Momentum 4 are the perfect headphones for anyone who likes to take high-quality sound on the go. Not to mention, their 60-hour battery life means you'll get through the week or through a days-long trek in and out of airports without needing to charge them.

Sennheiser's Momentum 4 over-ear headphones are the best option for listeners with a trained ear. Sennheiser is known for its professional-level audio equipment and implemented its higher-caliber audio technology into a pair of consumer headphones.

The Momentum 4 easily tops Apple, Bose, and Sony in the audio department but certainly falls behind all three in the noise-canceling category. The Momentum 4 will deliver incredibly clear and detailed audio and offers highly specific EQ settings on a five-band Hz equalizer.

However, with the Momentum 4's ANC at its highest level, you'll still hear the noises around you, especially conversational noises. The Momentum 4 can block out the lower pitches of droning noises, like a lawn mower or a running refrigerator, but the higher pitches of these noises will get past these headphones. I also found that the ANC doesn't degrade the Momentum 4's sound quality, something that's very common with other ANC-enabled headphones.

You'll get a comfortable and low-key pair of nicely-built headphones with a well-constructed case, but the Momentum 4 only folds flat -- not up -- so they're not very portable, and the case is bulky. Instead of multifunction buttons, you have tap, swipe, and pinch controls on the outside of the right ear cup. The tap/swipe controls are highly touch-sensitive, and any moisture on the outside of the ear cups will trigger the touch functions.

Review: Sennheiser Momentum 4

Pros & Cons
  • Superior ANC
  • Unique and stylish design
  • Spatial Audio
  • Expensive
  • Limited software capabilities
More Details

Apple AirPods Max tech specs: Weight: 13.6 oz (384.4 g) | Battery life: 20 hours | Bluetooth: Yes (5.0) | Multipoint: No, but connects to multiple Apple devices 

Who these are for: The Apple AirPods Max are the best headphones for Apple fanatics. If your tablet, smartphone, TV, and every gadget in between are made by Apple, these are for you. Their seamless integration with Apple devices makes them easy to use, but their hardware and software limitations might frustrate non-Apple users.

If you are deeply committed to the Apple ecosystem and you want to keep it that way, you'll want the AirPods Max. The sound quality is great, and Apple's Transparency Mode is easily the best out of all the headphones on this list. The AirPods Max noise-canceling is superior to Sony's XM5 over-ears and follows closely behind Bose's QuietComfort Ultra.

Their interesting design is widely recognizable, and I see many people use these headphones as both a fashion statement and a status symbol. However, in terms of functionality, the AirPods Max are not the best you'll find -- unless you have mostly Apple devices. 

To start, AirPods Max don't have any native EQ settings, and their almost five-year-old Apple H1 chip leaves them without the up-to-date software settings found in the AirPods Pro (2nd generation), like Conversation Awareness and Adaptive Sound Control.

You can seamlessly pair the AirPods Max to more than two devices, something Apple holds above other headphones with two-device multipoint connectivity. Still, seamless pairing won't work with AirPods Max unless they're connecting to other Apple devices. Should you connect AirPods Max to an Android or Windows device, you won't get Spatial Audio, wear detection, or access a virtual assistant.

Hardware-wise, AirPods Max don't have a headphone jack or a USB-C port for wired listening. You'll get the superior AAC codec when paired via Bluetooth to Apple devices and the standard SBC codec when paired with non-Apple devices. The lack of audio ports also means you'll have to keep them charged up, especially if you're likely to run down their short 20-hour battery life, which cuts down to 18 hours with ANC enabled.

Review: Apple AirPods Max

Pros & Cons
  • Superior bass
  • Marathon battery life
  • Comfortable ear cups
  • Bass can be tough to tame
  • Heavy
  • Weak ANC
More Details

Skullcandy Crusher ANC 2 tech specs: Weight: 11.7 oz (332 g) | Battery life: 60 hours | Bluetooth: Yes (5.2) | Multipoint: Yes

Who these are for:The Skullcandy Crusher ANC 2 are the best headphones for those who like a bass kick when they listen to music. I also recommend these to people who wear headphones to watch gaming streams or movies on the go. Their deep bass will get you fully immersed in whatever you're watching.

Skullcandy's Crusher ANC 2 headphones are reserved for the bass enthusiasts of the world. They're equipped with Skullcandy's patented Crusher Bass technology that delivers bass you can hear and feel. If you like all things bass, you're bound to find a lot of fun in the Crusher ANC 2. However, the Crusher Bass can be difficult to conquer, and it may be entirely too much for most people. 

Despite that, the Crusher ANC 2 handles low-frequency sounds very well, and the overall sound quality is good. At high levels, Crusher Bass will muddle a song's higher frequencies and will overwhelm you with songs that are already bass-heavy. You'll have to find the sweet spot in the EQ settings to get the most out of these, so be prepared to play with the sound for a few minutes.

The Crusher ANC 2's companion app is loaded with software, including Spotify Tap, voice assistants, and more. The only software feature Skullcandy omits from these headphones is wear detection.

Overall, Skullcandy's Crusher ANC 2 are not your first choice if you're looking for a practical pair of everyday headphones. They're bulky, and the bass can get out of hand. However, the Crusher Bass feature will make movie and video-watching more enjoyable than you can imagine.

Although I wouldn't recommend working out in over-ear headphones (more on that below), I can see why people would want to work out in these. The Crusher ANC 2 can reach and beautifully reproduce low-frequency sounds, and their sound is perfect for motivating you to lift some heavy weight or go on an intense run.

Review: Skullcandy Crusher ANC 2

Pros & Cons
  • Superior balanced sound
  • Great for wired listening
  • Solid build
  • Heat buildup
  • Tight fit
  • No ANC
More Details

Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2 tech specs: Weight: 10.6 oz (303 g) | Battery life: 60 hours | Bluetooth: Yes (5.0) | Multipoint: Yes

Who these are for: If you have a trained ear and like a balanced and clear sound, you'll enjoy Audio-Technica's ATH-M50xBT2 headphones. For those who mix and master music, whether you're learning about music production in college or running a business that requires you to professionally focus on audio editing, you should try these.

Audio-Technica's ATH-M50xBT2 headphones are the most no-frills headphones you can find in a world full of confusing buttons, capacitive touch controls, and lengthy software updates. If you don't believe me, you can stick to wired listening and never connect these headphones to your device's Bluetooth and still get the most out of them. Very retro. 

However, "BT" is in the product name, and their Bluetooth connectivity is easy and stable. Aside from modern button controls and Bluetooth capabilities, the BT2 headphones aren't much different from their ATH-line of successors from the early 2000s. These headphones' 45mm dynamic drivers deliver a very balanced and clear sound, as they're studio headphones made for mixing and mastering audio. The BT2 could definitely work as "baby's first studio headphones" since their $200 price tag is reasonable for what you get.

The BT2 headphones have a clear and balanced sound, so the highs aren't very high, and the lows aren't very low. Software isn't a priority here, as Audio-Technica's app only offers EQ settings, firmware updates, and Bluetooth codec options. So if your focus is mainly on music and audio, these headphones are for you. 

You'll get AAC, LDAC, and standard SBC Bluetooth codecs, and you can listen losslessly with a 3.5mm headphone jack. You can also use the headphone jack if you're low on battery, but the BT2 will stick around for 60 hours before the battery dies.

Review: Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2

Pros & Cons
  • Superior interoperability
  • USB-C audio
  • Great voice-calling capabilities
  • No wear detection
  • Tight fit
  • Poor build quality for the price
More Details

Beats Studio Pro tech specs: Weight: 9.52 oz (270 g) | Battery life: 40 hours | Bluetooth: Yes (5.3) | Multipoint: Yes

Who these are for: You'll maximize your money's worth with the Beats Studio Pro if you have a mixed-device ecosystem. They intuitively work well with both Android and Apple devices, leaving some features reserved for one operating system and other features for the other operating system. If you want a visually stunning pair of headphones that are uniquely compatible with your Android and Apple devices, the Beats Studio Pro are for you.

The Beats Studio Pro headphones play both teams very well, as they uniquely cooperate with both iOS and Android devices. 

For iOS users, you can add Studio Pro to your 'Find My' network. You'll also access Apple's Spatial Audio sound mode with your Apple devices. However, Apple users won't have access to USB-C wired listening or cable lossless listening and will miss out on EQ settings. This also means they will rely on Apple's straight-out-the-box signature sound, as there's no Beats companion app on iOS.

For Android users, you can charge and listen to the Studio Pro while they're connected to your smartphone via a USB-C cord. With USB-C listening, you'll unlock audio modes fit for gaming and movie-watching, as well as lossless listening.

The Studio Pro supports Android Fast Pair, and iPhone users can summon Siri hands-free. Bluetooth multipoint pairing is available for Android users, and the Studio Pro can intelligently and smoothly connect to multiple Apple devices. However, if you have a Chromebook and an iPhone, you can't seamlessly switch the Studio Pro's connection between the two.

The Studio Pro's sound quality is good. It's the best from Beats but not the best in this list. Noise-canceling abilities are great, and the best from Beats, but you can find better. These headphones are also comfortable, but if you're looking for big, oval ear cups, these aren't for you. Their circular ear cup shape blends an over- and on-ear fit, and their clamping force is just right to keep them secure on your head.

Review: Beats Studio Pro

Pros & Cons
  • Great bargain
  • Comfortable
  • Capable software
  • No carrying case
  • ANC struggles with low-pitch sounds
More Details

Anker SoundCore Space One tech specs: Weight: 9.3 oz. | Battery life: 55 hours | Bluetooth: Yes

Who these are for: I recommend the Soundcore Space One headphones for anyone looking for a backup pair of headphones to take on their daily commute or on long traveling stretches. I'd also recommend them to anyone who wants an affordable pair of headphones that don't skimp on the software features.

The Soundcore Space One headphones are a capable and comfortable pair of headphones that won't break the bank. When it comes to sound, the Space One sound is great for their $100 price tag, but you shouldn't expect out-of-this-world sound quality. 

Despite that, their build quality is surprisingly well-made for their affordable price. You'll appreciate their nice build because you don't get a hardshell case to carry them in for storage and protection. The Space One's plushy and thick headband and ear cup cushions also offer a great deal of comfort, and their relaxed fit is optimal for hours-long wear. However, the shallow ear cups interfere with sound quality and can cause discomfort for some.

The Space One also has many of the same software features you'll find in a pair of $400 headphones like the Sony XM5 over-ear headphones. Wear detection, conversation mode, EQ settings, software-to-hardware shortcuts, and ANC are included with the Space One. Their ANC, however, isn't anything to write home about, as it has a harder time blocking out the lower pitches of sounds like a running refrigerator, AC unit, or plane engine.

Review: Anker SoundCore Space One

What are the best over-ear headphones?

There's a saying that goes, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." That's how I feel about headphones. For every pair in this list, you can find reviewers and consumers saying your favorite pair of headphones are trash. But to you, they're the best thing since sliced bread.

There's no definitive answer to this question, even though I know I'm here to help you decide which pair of headphones are the best and which one you should spend your money on. However, keep in mind that there's no pair of headphones out there that can score a 10 all-around.

Some headphones are better at noise-canceling and don't have the best sound, while others have a longer battery life but may not be the most comfortable to wear for hours on end. So hopefully, this list helped you assess your audio wants and needs so you can make the best decision for what you want.

Remember that buying the right pair of headphones is a personal decision, and you should look for a pair that checks all of your boxes because you'll likely spend hundreds of dollars on them. 

This table gives a brief breakdown of important factors like price, battery life, and if the headphones have ANC. You can frequently find all of these headphones for a discounted price throughout the year, but what you'll see below are the standard list prices.

HeadphonesPriceBattery lifeANC
Bose QuietComfort Ultra$42924 hours (18 with ANC and Immersive Audio)Yes
Sony WH-1000XM5$40040 hours (30 with ANC)Yes
Sennheiser Momentum 4$38060+ hours (at least 60 with ANC)Yes
Apple AirPods Max$54920 hours (20 with ANC)Yes
Skullcandy Crusher ANC 2$22060 hours (50 with ANC)Yes
Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2$19960+ hoursNo
Beats Studio Pro$34940 hours (24 with ANC)Yes
Soundcore Space One$9955 hours (40 with ANC)Yes

 *Lowest price at the time of writing. Please note that prices may vary based on retailer and available promotions, sales, or discounts.

Which are the right over-ear headphones for you?

It can be confusing trying to choose between all the headphones out there, so here are ZDNET's suggestions to help you quickly decide which of our pick best suit your needs.

Choose these best over-ear headphones... If you want...
Bose QuietComfort UltraHeadphones with top-tier comfort and noise-canceling.
Sony WH-1000XM5Headphones with all the software you can think of.
Sennheiser Momentum 4Headphones with professional-level audio quality.
Apple AirPods MaxHeadphones that will seamlessly blend into your Apple device ecosystem.
Skullcandy Crusher ANC 2Headphones to satisfy your need for heavy bass.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2Headphones with clear and crisp sound quality.
Beats Studio ProHeadphones to accommodate your differing device operating systems.
Soundcore Space OneHeadphones that give you the most for an affordable price.

How did we choose these over-ear headphones?

To find the best over-ear headphones, we consider several factors that may also help you with your search.

  • Sound: The ability to properly filter and highlight sound is critical in a pair of over-ear headphones, especially where noise cancellation is concerned. The headphones in this list have internal audio drivers that range from 30mm to 45mm in diameter. Drivers are responsible for converting audio signals into sound waves, and usually, the bigger the driver, the louder the headphones will be. However, there are many internal components that dictate sound quality, and sound quality is subjective and varies from person to person.
  • Comfort: Nothing is worse than a pair of over-ear headphones that are too tight, heavy, or hot. We tried all the headphones in this list and tried to find the best options to accommodate everyone's audio needs. Most headphones are comfortable for hours-long wear. However, others may only be suitable for short-term wear based on what you're doing, like watching a movie or editing audio.
  • Battery: Battery life is important to help ensure your headphones are ready when you need them. In this list, Sony, Apple, and Bose offer headphones with the shortest battery life, while Sennheiser, Soundcore, Audio-Technica, and Skullcandy offer the longest. Sony, Apple, and Bose headphones have a shorter battery life because the ANC is stronger, and the bonus audio features run in the background, which takes more battery. 
  • Cost: Budget is a concern for most shoppers, so we shop for affordable models that won't break the bank. However, we recognize that some people want to spend extra money on headphones in hopes that more expensive headphones will deliver higher-quality sound, comfort, and noise-canceling capabilities.

What are the best over-ear headphones for working out?

It's my job to be honest with you. So, with that in mind, I would not recommend over-ear headphones for exercising. Over-ear headphones are simply not built for rigorous, strenuous, or super-sweaty workout sessions.

Consumer tech companies get their products independently tested to receive an internationally standardized IP rating. Most over-ear headphones don't have an official IP (ingress protection) rating. Your smartphone probably has an IP68 rating, which means it's fully protected from water and dust. This high rating is why you can fully submerge your smartphone in water for a short period, and it (hopefully) won't incur severe damage. 

On the other hand, your over-ear headphones most likely did not receive a formal IP rating. In fact, none of the headphones featured in this list have an official IP rating. The lack of an IP rating means the company did not formally test the headphones for dust or water ingress, meaning you should assume your over-ears are unprotected from solids (dust) or water splashes, droplets, and sprays.

Many over-ear headphones, especially ones with hybrid or active noise-canceling properties, have speakers and microphones on the outside of the ear cups. Water can easily pass through the openings that house the speakers and mics, which can hinder the device's performance.

If you choose to exercise in your over-ears or wear them in the rain, your sweat or rainwater may damage the ear cup fabric or the internal audio components. You also risk water seeping into the buttons or accumulating on the ear cups, which can hinder the buttons' functionality or interfere with any tap/swipe controls on the ear cups. Not to mention, you'll increase the heat buildup inside the ear cups if you choose to exercise in your over-ear headphones, which can make them uncomfortable to wear.

I suggest investing in a pair of earbuds for exercising, which usually have an IPX4 rating or higher. This rating makes them splash and sweat-resistant and more suitable for rigorous workouts.

What are over-ear headphones?

Over-ear headphones sit around the ear, rather than on or in the ear. They are designed to provide a more immersive listening experience by completely enclosing the ear and blocking out external noise. The ear cups on over-ear headphones are also typically large and padded, providing comfort for extended use. 

Over-ear headphones come in both wired and wireless versions. They are typically larger in size compared to other types of headphones, and they are often preferred by audiophiles, music producers, office workers, students, and gamers -- especially because some of the high-end models have active noise cancellation to further block out noise.

Which over-the-ear headphones are most durable?

Sony's WH-1000XM5, Bose's QuietComfort 45, Soundcore's Space One, and Apple's AirPods Max all have great build quality and durability.

However, Apple and Soundcore don't include a hardshell protective case in your purchase, so if you're traveling, you'll want to keep these headphones close to your person to avoid scratches and scrapes.

Which over-ear headphones are most comfortable?

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones are the most comfortable headphones on this list, as their ear cups and headband are padded by a soft, plushy protein leather material. I wore the QuietComfort Ultra headphones for at least six hours a day for a week with no discomfort. 

That said, Apple's AirPods Max, Sony's WH-1000XM5, and Soundcore's Space One are honorable mentions, as the ear cups sport soft, thick padding that can withstand an entire day's worth of wear.

Are there alternative over-ear headphones worth considering?

Yes! While the headphones listed above are what we consider the best over-ear headphones, there are plenty of other headphones on the market that may be worth a second look. 

Alternatives to consider

Sony WH-CH720N over-ear headphones

Best budget Sony alternative

Sony WH-CH720N wireless headphones

The Sony WH-CH720N headphones share much of the same DNA as the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones for a quarter of the price.

View at Sony Electronics
JBL black Tour One M2 headphones against white backdrop

Best JBL alternative

JBL Tour One M2 wireless headphones

JBL's Tour One M2 headphones have impressive adaptive noise-canceling technology and all-day comfort, making them great for long commutes or work-filled days in the office.

View at JBL
Bose QuietComfort 45 in Black in the headphones carrying case

Best Bose alternative

Bose QuietComfort 45 wireless headphones

The Bose QuietComfort 45 share many similarities with the QuietComfort Ultra headphones for $100 less. The QuietComfort 45 headphones deliver great noise-canceling and all-day comfort.

View at Bose
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