I’ve maintained the wired version of this review for a few years, but times have changed: with iPhones no longer having headphone jacks, Bluetooth has gone from a bonus to a requirement.
My criteria for this review is what someone seeking good all-around headphones today probably wants:
- Closed-back for isolation, ideally with active noise cancellation (ANC)
- Portable enough to fit in a small bag; suitable for listening at a desk, bringing on an airplane, and wearing outside
- Definitely under $500, and ideally under $300
I consider each of these the “best” for someone, depending on needs:
Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2: $200
Excellent all-around package, with great sound, comfort, and controls at a great price. Lots of convenient features like simultaneous two-device pairing, auto-pause when you take them off, a mute button during phone calls, and switchable ANC. The sound is a crowd-pleaser: strong treble and bass, but with the midrange still present and clear — I’d only warn that the treble may be too strong for some. They have my favorite controls of the group, with reliable, easy-to-feel buttons on the left earcup for play/pause, seeking, and volume. The only drawbacks are that the ANC itself is mediocre, they don’t fold very small, and they’re not very attractive.
Best for: Sound, control, features, value.
Bad for: People who want stronger ANC or a more attractive design.
Bose QuietComfort 35 (QC35): $350
The king of air travel: the best ANC I’ve ever tested, with a nice travel case, multi-device pairing, and a decent set of buttons that mimic the Apple wired headphone clicker. But sound is mediocre: better than the QC25 and good enough on a plane, but subpar for everyday use, with a distorted midrange, low detail, and very weak bass (especially at higher volumes). And the ANC can’t be switched off unless you go wired.
Best for: ANC, airplanes.
Bad for: Sound, anyone not wanting ANC all the time.
Apple AirPods: $160
The king of portability: nothing else even comes close. They sound pretty good (for earbuds), and they integrate with Apple devices to simplify pairing and multi-device sharing. But they don’t isolate outside sounds at all, making them nearly inaudible on airplanes, and controls are limited and frustrating. The best headphones are the ones you have with you, and these can pretty much always be with you, but I’m glad these aren’t my only headphones.
Best for: Portability.
Bad for: Physical controls, airplanes, comfort (for some).
I also tested these, but found them too lacking in significant areas to recommend, or they’re bested at their strengths by another model above:
B&O H9: $500
Almost great, but with noteworthy flaws. My top pick for comfort and appearance, but with frustrating touch controls that often don’t work or trigger accidental actions. Sound is mediocre (and nothing like the amazing H6, my favorite wired portable headphone), although I was able to get them to sound better (though still not great) by tweaking the EQ in the Beoplay iOS app. The above-average ANC can be turned off easily, which is nice, but the weak earpad isolation undermines its effectiveness. And in practice, the controls are so annoying that I have a hard time recommending these, especially at their price.
Good for: Comfort, appearance, setting money on fire.
Bad for: Controls, value, and people who want better ANC.
B&O H7: $400
Effectively identical to the H9 but without ANC.
Good for: Comfort, appearance.
Bad for: Controls, value, and people who want ANC.
B&O H4: $300
A cut-down model of the H7/H9 series without touch controls or ANC. Looks and feels great, but the sound is noticeably worse than the H9 — no trace of the excellent H6’s sound here. It can be EQ’d with the Beoplay iOS app, but it doesn’t help nearly as much as with the H9. The iPhone-clicker-style control buttons are much more reliable than the H9’s touch controls, but I’m not sure it’s worth the poorer sound quality in an already mediocre wireless B&O lineup.
Good for: Comfort, appearance.
Bad for: Sound, value, people who need ANC.
Plantronics BackBeat PRO (first version): $140
An amazing value and great for their time, but the updated Backbeat PRO 2 is significantly better in physical design, and noticeably improved in sound quality, ANC, and controls. Since the price difference isn’t huge, go for the new ones.
Good for: Value, sound, controls, features.
Bad for: ANC, attractiveness, bulk.
B&W P7 Wireless: $400
Great sound overall, with excellent smoothness and slightly bass-heavy tone, but with one noticeable flaw: there’s always a quiet hiss whenever music is playing, although it’s only noticeable during quiet passages. Decent physical controls mimic the iPhone clicker, and they’re pretty attractive. But they don’t fold flat, they lack ANC, and I found their clamping force to be quite uncomfortable.
Good for: Sound, appearance.
Bad for: Comfort, value, people who need ANC.
Sony MDR-1000X: $350
Decent features and comfort, but with extremely poor sound. Very Bose-like in physical design and focus on air travel, although the touch controls are finicky and frustrating. Good ANC that’s less effective than Bose’s, but with more features. But the sound quality is awful, with overwhelming bass, barely-audible vocals, and muffled treble, forming a more muddy and dull sound than most headphones above $50.
Good for: People who fly a lot and tried the QC35 already, but thought, “I need to hear far more bass and far less of every other part of music.”
Bad for: Sound, controls.
Headphones not included
- Most earbuds and in-ear monitors (IEMs), since I can’t wear them without pain.1
- Most on-ear models, since sound and comfort usually suck.
I’ve bought or been loaned all of the headphones in this review and spent significant time with them. Testing was done with an iPhone 7.
I listened to what you probably think is terrible music, but it’s well-recorded, it spans a wide range of tones and recording types, and I know the details extremely well. When possible, I’ve also weighed feedback from my wife, friends, and other reviewers.
I’ll update this article and the rankings as I try newer models in the future.
No, I haven’t tried custom-fitted IEMs molded to the shape of my ear with the help of an audiologist. The extreme expense of such an attempt doesn’t seem worth the very high risk that I’ll still find it too painful to use, given my experience with literally every other IEM I’ve tried. (I also won’t accept a promotional freebie custom-fit IEM for the same reason.) My ears just aren’t compatible with IEMs. ↩︎