Best wireless headphones 2021: the best over ear Bluetooth headphones and in-earphones

Cut the wires and keep great sound quality, with the best wireless headphones – over ear, on ear and in ear

Best wireless headphones Best Bluetooth headphones
(Image credit: Audio-Technica)

If you're looking for the best wireless headphones, your quest is over. Our guide looks here looks mainly at over-ear Bluetooth headphones, but you'll also find the best on-ear and in-ear headphones. Ever since phones started losing their headphone sockets, wireless headphones and buds have taken a leap from being a nice upgrade to being the default.

Mercifully, Bluetooth audio sound quality has drastically improved as well in recent years, as has the stability of connections, and how easy and fast it is to put your headphones on/in and get straight to listening. We're in the golden age of cable freedom, people!

It means that the top wireless headphones and best wireless earbuds are more far sought after than the best wired headphones. And it means that the best running headphones all tend to be wireless, since freedom is more important than ever there.

What are the best Bluetooth headphones and earbuds?

Lots of quality choices here, before you even get on to the noise-cancelling and true wireless options below…

If you favour the larger headphone, the best over-ears are Audio-Technica's ATH-M50XBT, which have a fairly neutral (but nicely bassy) tone. If you prefer a more rockin' sound,  Marshall Monitor are excellent. Best on-ears are AKG's Y50BT. 

For in-ears, I recommend either the Optoma Nuforce Be Live5, which is great value for money, or the pricier Sennheiser Momentum Free. 

If you like the 'necklace' style of headphone, try SoundMagic's excellent E11BT – an incredible bargain. Though for more bargains keep an eye on our Amazon Prime Day page.

The only good example of a wireless in-ear monitor I've come across is Flare's extraordinary Flares Pro 2HD – an in-ear monitor that can either connect via a cable or via an included, small Bluetooth DAC. 

The finest noise cancelling cans (also wireless of course, but not included in this Top 10)

We've got an entire list dedicated to the best noise cancelling headphones. They tend to be more expensive, but that certainly doesn't put people off buying them. 

My favourite is, by a narrow margin, the Sony WH-1000XM3, which has possibly the best noise cancelling of the lot, and also the most musically rewarding audio. However, rivals such as Bowers & Wilkins PX7, or the excellent call quality of Bose's NC 700 and Beats by Dr Dre Studio 3 Wireless all run it close. 

The best true wireless headphones (also Bluetooth)

Also known as 'Apple AirPods and Apple AirPod rivals', true wireless are in-ear buds with no wires whatsoever, whereas traditional Bluetooth buds are joined by a single wire, with a remote control and battery/charging port mounted along its length.

Again, we have a specific guide to the best true wireless earbuds, because they are quite a different proposition to 'traditional' wireless headphones. The best you can get are Beats Powerbeats Pro, but there are plenty of other great options that are smaller.

 Apple AirPods remain omnipresent, of course, and both the standard model and Apple AirPods Pro are both excellent in their own ways.

Bluetooth headphones: what you need to know

If you want the absolute best audio quality, you'll still have to get wired cans, but Bluetooth cans are now far better than they were at providing great sound. 

• What are aptX and AAC? 

Without getting mired in too much technical detail, these 'codecs' allow for higher-resolution music playback than standard Bluetooth (sometimes referred to as SBC, although seldom by members of the general public). Apple iOS products support AAC and most Android mobile devices support Qualcomm's aptX. 

The most important thing to remember is this, readers. Do you use an iPhone or iPad for music? Then aptX is useless to you, no matter how big the logo is on the headphones box. You need AAC compatibility. Mystifyingly, despite many iPhone owners being music fans with lots of disposable income, an awful lot of quite premium audio brands seem to have absolutely no idea what AAC even is.

If you have an Android phone, most likely it supports aptX, so dive right in. There's also aptX HD, which claims to offer better than CD quality sound but is not very widely supported as yet. And aptX Low Latency, which is for watching films wirelessly (Bluetooth can otherwise introduce lag that makes for lip-synch issues akin to watching a 1970s, dubbed kung-fu movie).

Although they won't usually support it out of the box, you can force both Windows and Apple laptops to support aptX. I have no idea why this is as unnecessarily hard as it is, but there we go. Trust me, it can be done. 

Apple laptops can also be made to support AAC, although again this is way less straightforward than you'd expect. You need to pretend to be a developer and download the Bluetooth Explorer app from Apple's dev site (or cheat and get it from 'elsewhere on the web'.)

In general, on most headphones, audio sent via either aptX or AAC sounds better than when sent without. 

It's not totally cut and dried: I've heard certain headphones (and Bluetooth speakers) that just use the standard SBC Bluetooth format, that sound better than certain other ones with AptX and AAC. They're not a magic formula for great audio on their own, but on average, headphones with support for AAC and aptX tend to sound better when paired with a device that also does.

Although aptX and AAC offer sound quality roughly the same as CD, obviously that only applies if your source is putting out CD quality (or better) audio in the first place. 

Bluetooth cans today are generally far more stable in terms of connection than they were just a few years ago, and battery life has improved, too. As well as a norm of 4-5 hours for true wireless, 8-10 hours for in-ear buds and easily 20+ on over-ears and on-ears, a lot of newer headphones also charge rapidly, giving you several hours of playback for 15-30 minutes of charge.

If you keep your phone in your hip pocket, and especially if you then contort your body by looking around you, you may find the signal still cuts out as your bones and guts are very adept at blocking radio signals. 

However, from your hand, a breast pocket, placed on a desk or in one of those weird arm holster things for runners, you should rarely get any interference from these headphones. You can usually walk between 20-30 metres away from wherever the sound is coming from, although you generally can't leave the building and expect to still receive audio. Why would you do that anyway?

I recommend paying a bit more – £100/$100/AU$150 to £300/$300/AU$400 – to get the kind of over-ear, wireless headphones that'll give pleasure for years. However, particularly if you prefer in-ears, you can get very solid Bluetooth headphones for WAY less.

The best Bluetooth headphones (not true wireless, not noise cancellers) in order

Audio-Technica ATH-M50XBT

1. Audio-Technica ATH-M50XBT

Best Bluetooth over-ear headphones

Specifications
Battery life: 40 hours
Wired option: Yes
aptX: Yes
AAC: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Sound fantastic+Very comfortable
Reasons to avoid
-Sweaty ears are likely in summer

Most of the headphones atop this list could be described as being best for using on the streets or on the bus, and present a big, bassy, upbeat performance. That's because outdoors is where Bluetooth comes into its own – at home, you might want to chill out with a pair of superior, wired over-ear headphones

However this Bluetooth version of the classic Audio-Technica ATH-M50 retains a more 'hi-fi' sound, designed for long-term listening indoors, but also excellent when used outdoors and while travelling. In terms of quality, they're more like very premium, noise-cancelling, wireless headphones such as those from Bose, Bowers & Wilkins and Sony.

They can be a bit funny to pair and very occasionally lose connection when you're out and about, but it's easy to forgive those technological foibles because the ATH-M50xBT sounds so damn good. I don't think they're excessively 'audiophile' in tone either – the bass is definitely hyped a bit, and the result is very pleasing. They can be subtle and quiet, but they can also rock the house.

Another bonus is that the battery lasts for 40 hours – almost long enough for a Pink Floyd box set. They're also comfortable enough for that kind of duration, although your ears may get a tad warm during summer listening sessions. The build quality maybe doesn't suggest decades of use to come, but it's not overtly flimsy either. 

Having had time to get to know these over-ears, I've come to conclude that they're the best non-noise-cancelling, Bluetooth headphones you can currently buy…

AKG Y400

(Image credit: Samsung/AKG)

2. AKG Y400

Best on-ear Bluetooth headphones

Specifications
Battery life: 20 hours
Wired option: Yes
Bluetooth version: 5.0
Reasons to buy
+Enjoyable, cheery sound+Light and fairly stylish+Good features
Reasons to avoid
-More padding would be welcome-Average battery life

AKG's expertise when it comes to well-priced headphones is second to none. As our review says "if you were to judge the best wireless headphones purely on an ‘enjoyment per pound’ basis, the AKG Y400 would come very near the top of the list." Which is why it's here, very near the top of the list.

They're minimalist and light, but still feel solidly built and comfortable (though just a little more cushioning for the gentle-of-skull would be nice), and offer a nice range of colours. Battery life of 20 hours is pretty standard, and Bluetooth 5.0 is welcome – connectivity really stable and it means high-res music can be beamed to it to make the most of the excellent audio quality.

"They offer impressive scale, excellent detail levels and a very naturalistic attitude towards the way the whole of the frequency range, from the deepest sounds to the highest, knits together," says our AKG Y400 review, which is full of equally gushing praise for how easy they are to listen to for long periods, and how well they handle lower-quality audio just as well as the good stuff.

Optoma NuForce BE Sport4


3. Optoma NuForce BE Sport4

Our favourite in-ear Bluetooth headphones – made for sport but great for music

Specifications
Battery life: 10 hours
Wired option: No
aptX: Yes
AAC: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great sound+Very light+Gym- and run-friendly as well

These are a surprise package because, being designed specifically for gym and running, you'd think they wouldn't necessarily sound very good. But you would be incorrect in that assumption. 

That's because not only do the BE Sport4 have all the usual virtues of the best running headphones – water and sweat resistance, a secure but comfortable fit, not too pricey – they're also sound easily good enough to use outside of workout duties. 

They're very musical with well-weighted bass and excellent noise isolation because of the secure fit. Audio quality is further helped by support for both AptX (for Android) and AAC (for iOS).

The battery life of 10 hours obviously can't compare with the big over-ear cans in this list, but it's not bad at all. Connectivity is also very solid, although they do have one major quirk: they take about 10 seconds to connect to your phone. That's really their only major flaw, and pretty forgivable given the price. I've been using these for over a year now, and keep coming back to them despite having vastly more costly headphones at my disposal.

Although they take a little longer to pair and perhaps sound slightly less excellent than the Sport4, the older Optoma BE Sport3 are still worth considering, because they can often be found going very cheap indeed.

SoundMagic E11BT

4. SoundMagic S20BT

Best cheap wireless in-ear buds

Specifications
Battery life: 25 hours
Wired option: No
Bluetooth version: 5.0
Reasons to buy
+Extremely low price+Impressive sound+Good fit and battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Struggles with dynamic range

The SoundMagic S20BT are truly impressive buds for the price. Our review says "They combine a willingness to focus on the broad strokes of a digital audio file without losing sight of the finer details, and they’re not picky in the slightest about the quality of audio stream they’re asked to deal with."

Connectivity is rock solid, and Bluetooth 5.0 means that they're futureproofed for high-res music becoming more common from more sources, as well as the services that are around today. 25 hours of battery life is also great for the price.

This kind of necklace design feels like its days are numbered with true wireless headphones just becoming more and more dominant, but right now true wireless can't manage this kind of balance of audio quality and price, so if that's your priority too, jump into these SoundMagic headphones – our full SoundMagic S20BT review has more about why we rate them so highly.

Marshall Monitor Bluetooth

5. Marshall Monitor Bluetooth

Best over-ear Bluetooth headphones for ROCKIN'

Specifications
Battery life: 30 hours
Wired option: Yes
aptX: Yes
AAC: No
Reasons to buy
+Really involving, dare we say, 'rocking' sound+Attractive finish and solid build+Unusually good on-ear controls
Reasons to avoid
-Like all Marshall headphones, a little on the tight side

Marshall headphones always seem to attract slightly half-hearted praise from audio reviewers, because their sound is not what you could call neutral, and they're not made in the same factories as Marshall's legendary guitar amps. Well of course they're bloody not. 

For sure, the sound is pretty bassy and puts a premium on making the music sound exciting and rocky, rather than how it would sound through a pair of audiophile, uncoloured headphones. However, they're not as bad as Beats' older headphones in those respects and to my ears, I must admit that they generally sound fantastic. They're near perfect headphones for rock, hip-hop and electronica, but that is not to say that they render anything more delicate than Slayer unlistenable.

The Monitor Bluetooth sits at the top of the Marshall range, although discounting means it can ofter be had for around £150 (RRP is over £200). They are attractive, sound great, and are more comfortable than the cheaper Marshall headphones, although glasses wearers may still find they become a bit testing after prolonged use. They score bonus points for the very long battery life, and the simple and effective, 'joystick' control for volume and track selection.

Flare Audio Flares Pro 2HD

6. Flares Audio Flares Pro 2HD

Best Bluetooth in-ear monitors for sound quality – can also be used wired

Specifications
Battery life: 12 hours
Wired option: Weirdly, yes
aptX: Yes
AAC: No
Reasons to buy
+Incredibly good audio+Can also be used wired
Reasons to avoid
-Eccentric appearance-Not supporting AAC is mad-High-ish RRP (although look out for DEALS)

My usual position with Bluetooth headphones is, yes, great for convenience but the sound is never as good as wired headphones, although they have been steadily improving in the last couple of years. Well, no longer! 

Flares Pro might look like they've been knocked up in a shed by a keen amateur electrician, but they're comfortably the best Bluetooth headphones I've heard. That's especially true with Apt-X compatible players and hi-res files, but even when used to listen to MP3 from an iPhone, audio is a revelation. 

That's because the comfortable, minimalist buds are actually attached to an external wireless DAC. This does a fantastic job of wringing the most out of your digital music. However, for reasons known only to Flare, the cord it's on is so short that you have to clip it to your lapel, like a policeman's walkie-talkie. 

If you can put up with that sartorial no-no, I wholeheartedly recommend the Flares Pro.

Admittedly, they are also a touch expensive compared to most in-ear Bluetooth headphones, but the size of the sound stage, plus the impeccable clarity and quality of the audio more than justifies what you pay. The only thing I can really think of to compare it to is Ifi's superb xDSD Bluetooth portable DAC, plugged into a pair of decent IEMs – and that will set you back the best part of 600 quid, in all.

The Flares Pro serve up real stereo rather than the channel-blurring mush of most wireless cans, and bass is taut and engaging without overwhelming the middle and upper registers. From electronic dance music to delicate classical, everything sounds like what you'd expect from comparably priced, wired headphones. For Bluetooth, it's mind blowing. Connectivity seems rock solid, too.

Curiously, you can also disconnect the buds from the Bluetooth DAC and plug the ends into a supplied cable running to a 3.5mm jack, and use them as wired headphones. From a phone, they actually sound worse in this form, but use a music player or headphone DAC and results again veer back toward mind-blowing.

Other than the odd design, my only reservation with these is that even with the choice of approximately 9 billion silicone and memory foam tips provided, it's hard to make them stay in place during a run or cycle. So, I guess, don't wear them while running or cycling would be my advice (use some of these instead) – the Flares Pros are headphones to be savoured at leisure, anyway.

One significant minus point for some will be the absence of AAC compatibility, for getting the best possible Bluetooth sound out of an iOS device. When you're trying so hard to make an 'audiophile' wireless product, it almost beggars belief that you'd leave it out, from a marketing perspective, though I can confirm the Flares Pro still sounds excellent when using an iPhone. The presence of aptX means it tends to sound even better from compatible Android devices, though.

These are now at an excellent price, in my opinion, having been heavily discounted since launch. It's worth noting, however that the new and improved Flares Pro 2 has just emerged at £300 – we'll have a review of that one shortly…

Sony WH-CH510

(Image credit: Sony)

7. Sony WH-CH510

The best cheap Sony wireless headphones

Specifications
Battery life: 35 hours
Wired option: No
Bluetooth version: 5.0
Reasons to buy
+Giant battery life+Good features and comfort+Assertive and full sound
Reasons to avoid
-Maybe to assertive for some-Cheap-feeling plastic

Sony's sound expertise needs no introduction, and while the price of these headphones means you're not getting the latest and greatest audio technology, you're still getting truly remarkable quality for something so cheap. 30mm drivers deliver sound that's powerful and upfront. Too many cheap headphones will lose an area – weak bass, or underwhelming mid-range, or shy treble – but here they're all present and potent.

The 35 hours of battery life is a plus too – you'll barely have to think about charging them. And if you do ever run out, 10 minutes of charging promises 90 minutes of sound.

The cheapness comes through in the plastic material (though the build quality feels perfectly up to snuff), and the sound might not be as refined as the more expensive headphones here, but for the price, these are extremely tempting indeed. Our full Sony WH-CH510 review has more about where they excel, and where the price shows.

Audio-Technica ATH-DSR9BT

8. Audio-Technica ATH-DSR9BT

'Full digital' wireless headphones with aptX HD Bluetooth

Specifications
Battery life: 15 hours
Wired option: Yes (USB C, no analogue)
aptX: Yes and also aptX HD
AAC: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Premium build+Premium audio
Reasons to avoid
-Bizarre controls-Does sound very 'digital'

These are a touch more expensive than most of the options here, but they are future-proofed and audiophile-friendly, with the addition of 'better than CD quality' aptX HD (as well as the currently more commonplace aptX and AAC codecs, which are about the same as CD quality).

The DSR9BT employs a fully digital drive system with no digital to analogue conversion. For that reason, there's no analogue, wired option but you can attach to compatible equipment – laptops, for instance – with a USB-C cable. What's the sound like? Not surprisingly, it sounds very 'digital'; accurate, rhythmically sure-footed and able to go very loud, but maybe a bit on the cold side, for me. 

They're good looking and reassuringly expensive-feeling cans, although the volume and pause/play controls are as bad as any I've ever encountered. The volume slider is hard to locate and feels clonky, and it's much too near the ridiculous touch sensor that Audio-Technica has seen fit to employ here. 

Nuraphone

9. Nuraphone

Best headphones for dance music

Specifications
Battery life: 20 hours
Wired option: Yes
aptX: Yes
AAC: No
Reasons to buy
+Excellent noise isolation+Surprisingly comfy considering how weird they look+They undeniably sound good
Reasons to avoid
-They also undeniably look and feel weird

There is something ever so new-agey and ravey about these headphones and that's reflected in both their bizarre design, their marketing, and their excellent reproduction of banging dance choons. Actually, Nurafone sound great with all sorts of music but the amount of bass available definitely makes them most suited to those who like to 'have it large' whilst 'getting on one'.

As you probably know if you have used Facebook or been to any website that has adverts on it in the past year, Nuraphone claims to adapt to your hearing, to give 'magical' results that will make you weep tears of joy. Yeesh. Do me a favour.

It's impossible to prove or disprove the validity of Nuraphone's claims. Although I can say with some certainty that with the adaptive setting turned off, they sound like crap. With it turned on, I did not weep tears of joy, but I found them highly enjoyable to listen to. 

This was especially true, I found, with early 90s jungle, deep and glitchy electronica from the likes of Autechre, 70s reggae, and dance-influenced rock from the likes of The Clash and LCD Soundsystem.

Essentially I came to try Nuraphone with a great deal of cynicism, but they do sound good. Also, despite looking like something from an HR Giger sketch – with their bizarre, combined in-ear/over-ear design, they both smother and penetrate – they're not uncomfortable by any means.

On the other hand, they do cost quite a lot, and the 'Immersion' setting, which makes the headphones vibrate when turned right up, is preposterous. Still, good to see someone doing something different in the headphones field.

Marshall Mid Bluetooth

10. Marshall Mid Bluetooth

Aptly-named, mid-market wireless headphones from Marshall

Specifications
Battery life: 30 hours
Wired option: Yes
aptX: Yes
AAC: No
Reasons to buy
+Excellent, if unsubtle sound+Humungous battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Decidedly on the tight side

Marshall has taken a similar approach to Beats with its headphones: distinctive look, tuned sound. It's done it better, at least to my ears. 

This pair takes the rockin' sound of the Major II Wireless and adds better audio – Apt-X is supported this time – better padding on the ear cups, and notably less ropey build quality. It also tones down the novelty of the design, although the faux leather look is still clearly not going to appeal to everyone.

What makes the Mid such a winner – for me, at any rate; I know these things are subjective – is that the audio is bloody great… if you play it loud like a mother. WOAH YEAAH!

The Mid has power, but it also has a decent dollop of precision. There's plenty of bass, but not to an obnoxious degree. With rock, anything electronic and hip-hop/R&B, it does a cracking job. Same with pop and heavier classical. 

I wouldn't buy a Mid to listen solely to light jazz – or anything quiet in fact. However, unlike the Major II, the Mid does at least make a half decent fist of playing more subtle sounds. 

The battery life is a little shorter than the Major II, presumably due to larger drivers and introducing the Apt-X connection… But it's still 20+ hours, so hardly to be sniffed at.

The one criticism I have is that they are on the tight side, to the extent that wearing them with glasses verges on painful. Presumably they will loosen over time, but people who wear specs (or have large heads) should look elsewhere.

There is also now a version of the Mid with active noise cancelling. It is called, logically enough, Marshall Mid ANC. It sounds exactly as good as the standard Mid, and while the noise cancelling is not on par with the likes of Bose, Sony and Bowers & Wilkins, it does shut out enough extra ambient sound to make the listening experience even more enjoyable.

Optoma NuForce Be Live5


11. Optoma NuForce BE Live5

Great in-ear wireless buds

Specifications
Battery life: 8 hours
Wired option: No
aptX: Yes
AAC: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Superb sound for the price
Reasons to avoid
-Seem to have sold out across the board

These are very similar to the BE Sport 4, but with the emphasis more firmly on sound quality – BE Sport4 are a great-sounding pair of gym buds, but these are more, for want of a better word, 'musical'.

Improvements are wrought by having better drivers and also a different tuning which puts less emphasis on bassy pumpin', and more on long-term listenin'. You could probably listen to these for their entire 8-hour battery life without feeling fatigued.

The fit is actually quite similar to its sportier sibling, with a choice of tips and optional hooks to keep the buds in place, and there is also IPX5 water resistance, but these are much less suitable for workouts because the way they sit in your ear is more about comfort than security, and also because they're noticeably larger.

With a good selection of tips 'n' hooks and a price that's comfortably below £100, these great-sounding headphones happily gobble up and spit out everything from classic rock to pounding electronic dance to winsome classical numbers and acoustic plucking, and deserve to fly off the shelves, once they arrive on them.