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Best Headphones: 2021 Holiday Buying Guide

Looking for the Best Headphones, Earphones and Bluetooth Earbuds of 2021? We have over 30 wired and wireless options for every budget.

Best Headphones

Everyone including your grandma seems to know that vinyl is back and that manufacturers can barely keep up with the demand for turntables, cartridges, and vinyl-related accessories. Our 2021 Holiday Buying Guide for the best headphones probably won’t excite grandma as much but the numbers tell a very different story.

What gets lost in all of this record hoopla is that consumers spent almost $15.9 Billion on wireless headphones in 2020. That global number is projected to grow to almost $45 Billion by 2026. U.S. consumers spent over $5 Billion on wireless headphones during the first 14 months of the pandemic. The overall global market including high-end headphones was $38.4 Billion in 2020 and is projected to grow to a staggering $126.7 Billion by 2027.

Smoke that in your carbon fiber tonearm tube.

It’s definitely true that headphones have become a commodity; you can find them everywhere including 7-Eleven, Canadian Tire, Five Below, and in almost every airport terminal on the planet.

That level of accessibility has also made headphones disposable which is probably not a good thing for the environment. I’ve seen an increasing number of broken headphones and earbuds on local streets and sticking out the trash.

During a recent stop for gasoline along the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, our EIC, Ian White, discovered that there were more varieties of cheap wireless earphones for sale than brands of cigarettes — which is probably a sign of progress in a weird way.

That projected $126.7 Billion in 2027 makes headphones and earphones the largest category in consumer A/V outside of mobile phones; high-end audio is not even 5% of that number in case you were curious.

So what do we recommend from the thousands of products available right now?

Wired Over-Ear Headphones

While this segment isn’t going to put a damper in wireless headphone sales, the reality is that the best headphones in the world exist in this category. There were a number of really interesting products released in this category over the past 12 months and not all of them are very expensive. Some of the more established headphones in this category are still better than 95% of the headphones out there and well worth a second look.

If you’re looking for inexpensive stocking stuffers or something to leave by the Menorah (our resident Rabbi, EIC Ian White insisted that I share the joy this year) this year, there are several inexpensive options that sound better than they should considering the price.  

JBL Tune 500 Headphones
JBL Tune 500

The Sony MDRZX110 and JBL Tune 500 can both generally be purchased for $25 and offer a lot of performance at that level.

The JBL Quantum 100 gaming is a bit more at $39 but with its boom mic is a better option for gamers. For those looking for an even less expensive option the Panasonic RP-HT161-K can usually be purchased for $15 or the JLAB Neon at $20 is also a good option.

Sometimes, the headphone is the gift rather than something that goes with it, so for those looking to buy the music lover on their list something a bit better but still under $100, the Sennheiser HD559 is available through most major outlets at $99 and the Phillips SHP9500 sells for $75 retail and has gone on sale for as little as $59 in times past so watch for sales as the holidays approach.

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HiFiMAN HE400se Open-Back Headphone Angle
HiFiMAN HE400se

Taking another step up, we have the Drop HE-X4 at $99.  Admittedly this is an option only for those in areas where Drop ships and where VAT or taxes don’t make it less of a bargain. For those outside the radius that Drop serves, The HiFiMan HE400se at $149 makes a good substitute. You can read Ian White’s HiFiMan HE400se review; we both agree that they are almost impossible to beat at the price.

Likewise the Meze 99 Neo can be had for $199 and is the bargain of the Meze Family.

Meze 99 Classics Over-ear Headphones in Walnut and Gold
Meze 99 Classics

For those that want something a bit more classic, the Meze Audio 99 Classics in walnut and gold or maple and silver trim retails for $309 and the wood cups do have a warmer tone than the Neo. You can read our review of these wonderful headphones handmade in Romania here. Our collective group are huge fans of these headphones.

The other option at roughly the same price is the Sennheiser/Drop HD6XX (again a Drop Exclusive). For over a decade, the HD600 and HD650 had commanded closer to $400 and $500 respectively so being able to purchase what amounts to an HD650 sound signature for $220 ( + tax and shipping of course) is a tremendous value proposition.    

For those in areas where the HD6xx is not available, the HiFiMan Deva wired version makes a good substitute at nearly exactly the same $220 price point.

Beyerdynamic T5 3rd gen Closed-back Headphones
Beyerdynamic T5 (3rd gen)

Much like the HD6xx, the Beyerdynamic T1 and T5 (3rd gen) headphones while not inexpensive, represent perhaps the best price/performance ratio on the market.   

Both the T1 open back and T5 closed back retail for $999 and offer performance only slightly behind some of their competitors’ multi-thousand dollar flagship models.  

The T1 offers a larger soundstage with its open back design but may not be appropriate for office, bed-time, or the commute.  

The T5 closed back offers a better choice for those situations and gives up surprisingly little in the process; the Beyerdynamic models generally don’t win a lot of style points, but are very solid and your $1000 purchase should last several lifetimes if treated with reasonable care. They also offer the best warranty in the business. Read our in-depth review of the Beyerdynamic T5 (3rd gen) here.

Focal Clear Mg Open-Back Headphones on Piano
Focal Clear Mg

Focal is another headphone manufacturer with some very solid options in the high-end headphone category. The French manufacturer has the R&D resources to make its own drivers and they have not released a single dud yet with multiple award-winning headphones in their lineup.

All of their headphones are extremely attractive and distinctive, and clearly belong to the same design family. The Focal Clear Mg headphones add yet another high-performance model to the family tree.

Have no illusions, the Clear Mg are not intended to be truly neutral, and they exhibit a distinctive sonic profile that is both laid back and intimate. These tendencies are well balanced by their ability to maintain clarity and cohesion, displaying a high-end delicacy that isn’t immediately obvious on first listen.

The more you listen to these, the little things that make them so good as a long-term headphone stand out. Read our in-depth review here. $1,490 USD

Available atAmazon | Audio46 | Crutchfield

Audeze LCD-5
Audeze LCD-5

At the top of the class are two newcomers this year; the Kennerton Rognir and the Audeze LCD-5. Both are cost-no-object items and will set the purchaser back at least $3500.

After you stop coughing, understand that these two new headphones are as good as it gets right now. Some will point to the Meze Audio Empyrean or Dan Clark Audio Stealth and say that they are superior but I’m comfortable with my choices.

I’ve already spent considerable time with the Audeze LCD-5 (review coming this week) and I would pick them in a heartbeat over the other two products.

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If you want a mastering headphone that resolves like no other, the LCD-5 is as good as it gets. If you prefer something that pulls you into the music and allows you to forget the world around you it’s hard to imagine a better choice than the Rognir.   

Kennerton Rognir Planar Magnetic Headphones in Bog Oak Wood Finish
Kennerton Rognir

I feel very privileged to have had both to review this year and both truly represent the best the market has to offer. The aesthetic design of both is second-to-none and the Rognir with its exotic wood options belongs in a museum.

True Wireless Earphones

This is the hottest segment at the moment with every major brand either releasing new models or updating their current models. Our recommendations read like a Murderer’s Row of the biggest names in portable audio.     

Sony WF-1000XM4 wireless earbuds silver
Sony WF-1000XM4

Perhaps fittingly, our overall favorite is the Sony WF-1000XM4 which took an already solid offering in the XM3 and completely re-imagined it to create the best all-around performer in the category. 

At $299, it isn’t inexpensive but when you hear the sound quality and the ANC on the XM4, you’ll understand the price. It easily outpaces the Bose offerings that have dominated the noise cancelling market.    

The Sony WF-1000XM3 is still on the market as well and is a great value today as prices have dropped now that the XM4 is out. The XM3 can now be found for roughly half the price of the XM4. It’s a deal if you can find a brand new pair.

Sennheiser CX Plus True Wireless Earphones in black charging case
Sennheiser CX Plus

Great budget options include the Sennheiser CX and CX Plus at $99 and $129 respectively. If you need ANC, the CX Plus is your choice. If you don’t, the CX will save you $29 and still sound better than the Apple AirPods.

Add to that good battery life, and Sennheiser’s warranty, and the CX models are an easy recommendation. I have recently reviewed both and these are among the gifts I’ve already purchased for some of my own crew.   

Bang & Olufsen Beoplay E8 Sport True Wireless Earphones Light Blue
Bang & Olufsen Beoplay E8 Sport

For those looking for a model to wear to the gym, the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay E8 Sport is about as good as it gets right now.

At $300, it is no less expensive than the other models mentioned but it does offer IP57 rated protection so is fully submersible, which most of its competitors cannot claim. I don’t think it is better than the Sony from a sonic perspective, but it’s one of my favorite in the category for its sonic performance and build quality.

For those who want more bass than the standard TWS offers, I recommend looking into the Sony WF-XB700 which offers good sound and battery life and more than a little bass punch. They carry an IPX4 rating for gym use, have roughly 9 hours of battery life for your work or school day, and at $130 are among the least expensive options with both bass boost and a clean sonic signature.

TWS Bling

Master & Dynamic MW08 Wireless ANC Earphones with Charging Case atop phone in White/Silver
Master & Dynamic MW08

If you are looking for something with a bit more style than the Sony XM4, you should really take a look at the Master and Dynamic MW08 which sounds great,  looks great, and is priced the same. The ANC performance is where it stumbles compared to the Sony and that matters a lot to some people who commute or travel on planes for work.

If you’re looking for a pair of TWS earphones that deliver exceptional sound quality, the best option are the Bowers and Wilkins Pi7 at $499. The $500 price tag isn’t low but these compare favorably to some of the wired earphones at the same price. Bowers and Wilkins are making some excellent wireless earphones and headphones in 2021.

Audiophile Wireless Headphones

This segment is packed with new product introductions this year and some of last years recommendations are still among the best options for this year as well. I have split my lists into travel companions that one would buy for ANC and general use models where the end user is not as concerned with noise cancelling.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones Black
Sony WH-1000XM4

In the ANC group, we see a couple of names that have dominated the category for years right at the top of our list. The top model is still the Sony’s WH-1000XM4 that sell for $348; the ANC is even better on this next generation wireless headphone from Sony and there are few people complaining about the sound quality.    

The CEO that wants something with a little more style will opt for the Bose 700 at $400 retail. The Bose look better, have excellent ANC, and the sonic performance is only slightly behind the Sony model at this point.

For those looking to save a little, the Sony WH-1000XM3 is still available and on sale in a lot of places for less than $250. They are a better option than the Bose QuietComfort models in my opinion.

For those not looking for noise cancelling, the market is much broader with prices starting as low as $50 and going well into the stratosphere. The cheapest models definitely offer some compromises in sound quality and their control apps.

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Anker Soundcore Life Q20 Wireless Headphones
Anker Soundcore Life Q20

The best inexpensive options are the Anker Soundcore Life Q20 ($50) for those looking for a near neutral signature (although these do have a ‘V’ sonic signature) and the OneOdio A70 for those looking for a bass boosted signature; and it will be obvious almost immediately.

Stepping up slightly in price nets very real gains in both usability and durability.  The Yamaha YH-E500A sounds great, offers good connectivity, and will only set you back $179.   

Another solid offering is the Cleer Enduro 100 with its ridiculous battery life (that is where the 100 comes from) and $100 price tag. A definite sleeper for some people.

Shure AONIC 50 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones in Brown
Shure AONIC 50

The Shure Aonic 50 has replaced our previous recommendation; the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless. The Momentum is starting to show its age and with the Aonic 50 offering LDAC, aptX Adaptive, and AAC support with a nearly 20-hour battery life as well. The Shure wireless headphones might actually sound better too which makes them a very compelling, and slightly more expensive option.

HiFiMAN Ananda Wireless Headphones
HiFiMAN Ananda

The HiFiMan Ananda continues to set the bar for what wireless is capable of in the full-sized headphone space. The issue is its $600+ asking price and the reality that it isn’t super comfortable for long listening sessions. The HiFiMan Deva Pro are probably going to pass it by in terms of price/performance. We have a pair incoming for review in December.

Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless Headphones
Beyerdynamic Amiron

A much safer option this year are the Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless. The wired second cousin (once removed) just missed our list of best audiophile headphones, but the wireless version is a definite class-leading model with aptX HD and AAC support; it works perfectly with Apple and Android devices and its sound quality leaves the overpriced Apple AirPods Max in the dust.

Related readingView all 2021 Holiday Buying Guides →

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Ian White

    November 15, 2021 at 1:19 pm

    The Meze Empyrean got shafted.

    • WJ

      November 15, 2021 at 4:28 pm

      Love the Empyrean but side by side with the LCD-5, I gotta go Audeze. I haven’t had an Elite yet to try and that may well outclass the LCD, time will tell.

      WJ

      • Ian White

        November 15, 2021 at 4:52 pm

        You get to play with all of the really nice toys.

        I’ll just edit and pretend to listen from afar.

        Ian White

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