The best audiophile headphones deliver top-tier sound quality and get you closer to your favorite artists no matter what your music tastes.
You may think that the best-sounding headphones would cost a fortune, but choose wisely and that needn’t be the case. While the highest of high-end headphones justify their price tags though carefully honed luxury finishes, mid-market models such as the ones in this list often benefit greatly from the flagship model’s developments.
All the models here major on the best sound quality we’ve heard. Some let the music shine and are pretty low on extra features, others have a strong feature sets and also include desirable tech such as active noise cancellation (ANC) and fast charging.
So read on for the best audiophile headphones available today. And if you’re looking for a specific headphone style, then check out our best over-ear headphones or best wireless earbuds buying guides. And don’t forget our best cheap earbuds buying guide, too.
What are the best audiophile headphones?
The top spot in our best audiophile headphones list goes to Sony’s WH-1000XM4 for their exceptional sound quality, elite active noise cancellation, and high levels of comfort. Something of a bargain even without the regular discounts, the special feature count extends to a flexible companion app with EQ customization, and Sony’s LDAC wireless tech means these headphones handle high-resolution streaming, delivering superior sound quality for your hi-res music library.
In second place, Bowers & Wilkins’ PX7 over-ear headphones aren’t quite as well equipped in terms of special features, but deliver attention-grabbing levels of bass energy and expression in the way they go about playing music, making them a highly recommended purchase.
The Grado GT220 earbuds hit the top spot in this category for the sheer joy they bring to listening to music. These buds deliver bass that’s terrifically engaging yet manage to avoid pulling the listener’s attention away from other elements further up the frequency range. Every nuance of a recording is effortlessly conveyed, making these among the best earbuds we’ve ever heard.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 take second place here. Much like the Grados, they bring an immersive quality to recordings and bass is more subtle than is usual for the brand. Throw in ANC, impressive battery life and a stack of special features, and you have a remarkable earbud package with audiophile credentials.
Best audiophile headphones: Wireless on-ear headphones
Sony’s flagship over-ear headphones outperform every competitor for their exceptional sound delivery, active noise cancellation performance and special features. The dynamic soundstage delivers plenty of energy and detail to give songs a full-bodied presence without sounding unbalanced right from the off — although listeners can also use the Sony Headphones Connect app to personalize audio with several well-engineered presets or by manually adjusting the EQ to their liking.
The Sonys deliver everything you could want from an audiophile on-ear headphone, and their long battery life and comfortable design mean these are one pair of headphones you won’t want to take off.
Read our full Sony WH-1000XM4 review.
If it’s the fundamentals of sound quality that appeal to you most of all, the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 are a compulsory audition. With a 1.7-inch full-range dynamic driver in each earcup serving up sound, the most immediately striking aspect of the PX7 sound is its energy and animation. No matter if you’re listening to a poverty-spec stream from Spotify’s free tier or a full-on, full-fat MQA-powered Tidal Masters file, the overall impression is of exuberance and enthusiasm.
Bass sounds have weight and momentum, while the midrange itself is chock-full of detail and delivers bags of character and expression where vocalists of all kinds are concerned. The soundstage is big, well-organised and easy to follow, and rhythms are expressed in a naturalistic and persuasive manner. At $400, the PX7s have plenty of competition, but they deliver enjoyably explicit sound quality that deserve your full attention.
Read our full Bowers & Wilkins PX7 review.
The Momentum 3 is the perfect example of Sennheiser’s commitment to hi-fi sound quality. This classic design combines great sound quality and active noise cancellation in a handsome headphone that delivers music with finesse. The strong and infectious bass blends well with mids and highs in the frequency range and does a superb job of delivering driving rhythms that’s thoroughly engaging and addictive.
The Sennheiser’s advanced ANC modes have a tendency to alter the sonic signature of the Momentum’s output, but switch these off and you’re rewarded with indulgent hi-fi-quality audio that allows listeners to catch the slightest nuances in recordings. Battery life may not be one of the longest we’ve seen, but if you can ignore the Momentum’s shortcomings you’ll be rewarded with amazing sound in a beautifully crafted headphone design.
Read our full Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless review.
Best audiophile headphones: Wireless earbuds
Grado’s GT220 true wireless earbuds are not overburdened by features such as ANC or a control app to tinker with the sound output. Compared to rivals listed here, these are a very straightforward design indeed that simply goes about the business of connecting you to your favorite music and as such, are one of the best-sounding earbud designs we’ve heard.
Offering decent battery life and recharge time, they’re perfectly pitched for music listening on the move and the sound quality delivery will also appeal to those who want to enjoy more serious listening at home from a compact earbud. Aimed at audiophiles looking to hear Grado’s signature sound in a true wireless product with top audio quality as a priority over everything else, the lack of extra facilities really shouldn’t be seen as a deal breaker at the price.
Read our full Grado GT220 review.
The Sony WF-1000XM4 packages elite sound, noise cancellation, and awesome features. Pricing might be a deterrent, but the fact that this set of buds offers great functionality makes it well worth the splurge. Add in longer battery life and great sound quality across the board and you can see why it’s a top contender in these rankings.
The stereo imaging on these buds is phenomenal, with instruments accurately placed and localized on tracks. It brings an immersive quality to recordings and makes you believe musicians are actually playing right in front of you. Vocal detail is so clear on recordings, you can almost feel the passion and emotion in the artist voice. The low end is engineered with balance in mind, which translates to a pleasant blend of lows, mids, and highs that enables listeners to pick up on sonic characteristics that would go unnoticed on other wireless earbuds and makes them an excellent audiophile choice.
Read our full Sony WF-1000XMF review.
If sound quality is your main concern and you have no need for ANC, Shure’s Aonic Free earbuds are a gloriously capable pair of earbuds. These wireless earbuds sound fantastic and deliver on their promise to decrease ambient noise to a satisfying level without the need for ANC.
Shure has a strong audio history and the earbuds sound accurate and detailed, letting listeners hear subtle nuances, along with a fine mix of lows, mids, and highs. The Free’s full-range dynamic driver reproduces the deeply textured instruments and multi-layered vocals superbly. Infectious bass riffs stimulate head nods, and even small characteristics sound prominent and captivating.
Read our full Shure Aonic Free review.
Bose set its sights on creating the best noise-cancelling experience in the true wireless space, and the QuietComfort Earbuds accomplish this with gusto. You get delightful sound and a well balanced frequency response, too.
Vocals sound crisp and prominent and aren’t overshadowed by other elements in the music, delivering remarkably satisfying results. Detail and resolution are superb, with every background instrument accounted for; from lightly plucked double bass to steady hi-hat, every element is accounted for and nicely pronounced in the presentation.
Bass is tame and more considered compared to some rivals. But we were impressed by the dynamic range on display, which lets your hear the loudest and quietest parts of the music with precision.
One thing to note, is that the volume adjuster on the app doesn’t reach max level, which we guess is Bose’s way of telling us the buds can go higher but are capped at one level lower to protect hearing. Some might call this thoughtful, but the buds could certainly benefit from higher volume, even if it’s just one notch higher.
Read our full Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review.
Headphone types explained
Over-ear (circumaural) headphones
The largest headphone type, over-ear headphones surround or cup your ears. A classic, old-school style, over-ear headphones come in either a closed-back or open-back design. Closed-back headphones contain playback sounds within the earcup enclosure and are better at passively isolating wearers from external ambient noise. The effect of listening to music on closed-back models is often less expansive, and the stereo soundstage can feel contained within the head, but does prevent sound from leaking out and irritating anyone nearby.
Open-back headphones often have a more natural and spacious sound thanks to their vented design that allows the back of the earcups to be open to the outside world. This design does mean that there’s less passive isolation from external noise and more sound is able to leak out.
On-ear (supra-aural) headphones
On-ear headphones are generally smaller and lighter than over-ear headphones. Sometimes called ‘earpad’ or ‘earmuff’ headphones, these lighter and more flexible designs also come in open and closed variations, but as a rule, on-ear will let in more ambient noise and have greater sound leakage than over-ear headphones.
Often called earbuds or even earphones, these tiny headphones fit into the ear canal. The majority of models today are wireless and despite their tiny size, often come loaded with features and tech. Earbuds are the largest growing area of the headphone sector, with just about every headphone maker recognizing the love music fans have for these compact, hands-free designs and introducing increasingly more competitive models to their ranges.
Wireless technology has revolutionized the headphone market in recent years, breaking listeners free from being tangled with wires that’s physically tethered to a playback device.
Bluetooth wireless technology has made this freedom possible, while aptX codecs have improved audio signal handling for better sound quality with each new iteration of the wireless short range tech. And there’s the promise of a further sound quality boost to come via Snapdragon Sound-compatible devices to deliver true CD-quality (16-bit/44.1kHz) lossless audio over the latest Bluetooth wireless connectivity.
How to choose the best audiophile headphones
When shopping for audiophile headphones, you’ll want to decide on whether you go for either a on-ear or over-ear headphone style, or earbuds.
It’s difficult to try out headphones before you buy, so make sure you read our full reviews and look out for areas where the reviewer mentions factors like the headband shape and any spring tension it places on your head or ears, or the amount of earcup padding for long-term comfort. Don’t be afraid to pass on headphones you don’t like the aesthetics of, too.
With earbuds, many of the over-ear factors mentioned above should also be considered. Additionally, check reviews for mentions of different sized ear tips so you can adjust them to fit your ear canal size. Water and sweat-resistance is another factor for consideration.
Sound quality is clearly important and all these models provide a balanced sound from the outset. That said, several models have mobile apps that let you tweak the EQ to your liking.
Think about battery life too so that you don’t need to recharge too often. And keep in mind that ANC will reduce battery life.
How we test the best audiophile headphones
We thoroughly test every pair of headphones based on a variety of factors, and employ a consistent testing approach so any comparisons with other pairs are trustworthy and fair.
In this case, every pair of audiophile headphones and earbuds have been used over the course of a week for 2 hours at a time. This allows the tester to both gauge the sound quality across a mix of genres and volumes, and to see how comfortable the headphones are when worn for extended periods. We’ll listen to hip-hop, rock, jazz, classical, pop and more to see how each pair performs, and will do the same with movies, podcasts and games, where applicable.
We also test the effectiveness of features like noise-cancelling in real-life situations, and will make sure manufacturer claims about battery life and Bluetooth range are accurate. Build quality, the ease of setup and any control schemes — including those involving an app — will also be judged.
We rate all our headphones and earbuds on a 5-point system (1 = worst, 5 = best). Products that excel in one or more particular fields and that’s rated 4 stars or above may also receive an Editor’s Choice award.