When Jerry Del Colliano wrote the original version of this buyer’s guide back in 2018, the headphone jack was becoming an endangered species. Apple had just done away with the 3.5mm audio output on its iPhone 7 the year before, ushering into the era of wireless portable listening for Cupertino-philes. In the two years since, wireless headphones (and even earphones) have only become a more essential element of everyone’s travel (or even commuting) kit.
Since then, Bluetooth 5 has also taken over the market, meaning that today’s wireless headphones perform better than ever before, offer better battery life, a more reliable connection, and less latency. Simply put, if you’re still dangling a cord between your mobile device and your cranium, you’re missing out on some of the most compelling new products from some of the most revered names in headphone manufacturing.
Major mainstream brands like Beats, Bose, Sony and other mass-market brands obviously dominate the market. But even more boutique, professional, and/or audiophile companies like Bowers & Wilkins, Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, Audio-Technica have fully embraced Bluetooth as the preferred connection for on-the-go listening.
So, assuming you haven’t departed the over-ear headphone train entirely for the upstart “True Wireless Earphone” category, how do you pick between the multitude of wireless cans on store shelves these days? It really comes down to what your needs and preferences are. But before we dig into the specifics…
While the wireless aspect of this guide was driven by market pressure, the over-ear part may not seem so obvious. We decided to concentrate our efforts there because over-ear cans offer the best mix of comfort and — just as important — performance. On-ear headphones, while more compact, aren’t generally as comfortable and don’t always provide as much sound isolation, nor can they support drivers as large as most over-ears can. And in-ears just don’t work for all listeners.
Most of the over-ear wireless headphones released since we last updated this guide rely on Bluetooth 5, as mentioned above, which not only improves connectivity but also speeds up the pair process and allows for features like multi-point, meaning you can connect your headphones to more than one device. You might have your laptop and mobile phone connected simultaneously, for example, so you can enjoy Netflix or your favorite games from one device, but switch over to the other at the touch of a button when a call comes in.
Some headphones support NFC pairing and others don’t. Some smartphones support NFC pairing and others don’t. But even if you’re in the “don’t” category, it’s really as easy as putting the headphones into pairing mode (which generally involves holding down the pairing button or a dedicated sync button for a few seconds and listening for some sort of Vegas-like chime), navigating to your settings or system preferences on your mobile device, finding the headphones, then pairing them. After that initial pairing is made, connecting your headphones to your mobile devices is often as simple as turning them both on.
At least, that’s true in principle. More and more wireless cans these days actually require that you bring an app into the pairing process, which may be seen as a minor inconvenience. The best of these apps, though, add essential features like custom EQ settings and other sound-tuning features, as well as multiple levels of customizable active noise cancellation.
Battery life on today’s over-ear wireless headphones is generally awesome. 20-plus hours is more common than anything less. Some headphones can last 30 hours or more, but that can sometimes come with added weight, which over time can be somewhat fatiguing or lead to uncomfortable temperatures, neither of which is preferable.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at our recent favorite wireless over-ear headphones, starting with what matters most to Home Theater Review readers: sound quality.
If your attitude toward wireless headphones could mostly be described as “seething resignation” and you’re simply looking for the best sound you can get from the current crop of mobile-friendly over-ears, we think your best bet is the Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise-Canceling Headphone (reviewed here). It’s hardly the sexiest headphone you can buy right now — far from it, in fact — but in terms of sheer audio quality, it’s difficult to beat. Mind you, that’s not a reference to the out-of-the-box sound of the XM4, which is a little lacking in the upper-midrange to mid-treble. Thankfully, though, the custom EQ built into the Sony Headphones Connect app allows you to dial in absolute sonic perfection in just a few seconds. Tweak the 2.5K and 6.3K bands just a smidge, and what you’re left with is one of the most sonically neutral (not to mention detailed and expansive) portable over-ear headphones on the market, wireless or not.
The WH-1000XM4 is also super-light and incredibly comfortable, and its noise-cancellation is, in some ways, better than the reigning ANC champion, the Bose 700. But we’ll dig into that a bit more in the next section.
If the Sony is a little too drab for your tastes, we also really like the sound of the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless (reviewed here), which is a lot more stylish to boot. By default, the sound of the Momentum 3 is in a lot of respects very similar to that of the WH-1000XM4, just with a bit more low-bass (a little too much for some of us) and a little less consistency at the high end. Depending on your taste in sonic profiles, you may actually prefer the sound of the Sennheiser overall, especially if you’re into bass-heavy tunes.
That said, the Sennheiser Smart Control app only offers three bands of graphic EQ to the Sony’s five bands, which means you can’t dial in true sonic neutrality with as much precision on the Momentum 3. The app also offers a sort of amorphous tonal balance EQ function that you might like, but we preferred the graphic EQ.
So, in the end, while we prefer the sound of the WH-1000XM4 overall, the Sennheiser is a very close second place in this category, and its styling and build quality might make up for the differences in sound quality, if that’s important to you. The Sennheiser also offers pretty decent active noise cancellation, but if that’s high on your list of priorities when shopping for over-ear wireless cans…
For the longest time, this category was dominated by headphones that didn’t exactly sound great, but nonetheless ruled on airplanes and subways for obvious reasons. In recent years, though, ANC headphones have gotten much better in the sound-quality department, so much so that you can actually use them for music listening rather than just binging your favorite podcasts on cross-country flights.
Unsurprisingly, Bose is still the first name in noise-cancellation, and with good reason. Its NC Headphones 700 offers truly incredible ANC, while also sporting a design that’s a far cry from older Bose models, along with fidelity that won’t make you cringe. If you’re looking to block out the drone of a jet engine while not looking like an absolute dork — and while actually getting some enjoyment out of your music — the Bose 700 is hard to beat.
That said, in the past we would have had to give any competition in this category a patronizing “runner up” prize. But in recent years, other companies have really started to catch up to Bose in the ANC department. And in some ways, they’ve gotten better. The Sony WH-1000XM4, for example, may not be able to best the Bose 700 when it comes to blocking the very lowest of low-frequency noise. But when it comes to cancelling out the midrange and low-mid-frequency sounds like the hustle-bustle of traffic, the chatter of crowds in a coffee shop, or the constant background din of a packed office environment, the XM4 actually manages to top the Bose. (Granted, we know those things aren’t necessarily as much of a concern in the midst of our current pandemic, but 2021 ain’t that far away!)
So if you’re looking for a great set of ANC cans, the first question you need to ask is what sort of noise you want to cancel. Are you a frequent flier? The Bose is probably still the better pick. But if you’re looking to put the kibosh on more pedestrian noises and background chatter, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is our current favorite.
The mere existence of this category is likely to send audiophiles into fits of apoplexy, but for the rest of the world, saying that headphones are a style accessory falls deep into “Well, duh!” territory. So if you’re not as persnickety about sonic perfection and you want to look good while rocking out on the go, we’ve got you covered as well.
For our money, there simply isn’t another wireless over-ear headphone on the market that’s as stylish, luxurious, and well-built as the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 (reviewed here) — especially the new Carbon Edition. The materials, the design, and the tasteful but eye-catching accents all speak to a headphone that looks like it costs way more than its $399 sticker price. True, it’s not quite as portable as other offerings in this list. And its app lacks EQ functionality, so you can’t tailor the sound to your tastes. But the PX7 has a laid-back vibe that works great with Yacht Rock music and hip-hop alike. It also has pretty good noise-cancellation — not up to par with the Bose 700 or Sony XM4, but still good enough to knock the edge off the world around you.
If the B&W PX7 is just a weensy bit too flashy for your style, we also love the somewhat more traditional look of the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless (reviewed here). Don’t mistake “traditional” for “boring,” though. The metal arms of the M3W, combined with the genuine leather headband and exposed wiring, combine to create a look that’s equal parts retro and luxurious. The Sennheiser also folds down into a super stylish hatbox-shaped carrying case that takes up less room in your bag, backpack, or carry-on. Given the choice between the two, we would have to give the edge to the B&W overall in terms of look and feel, as well as durability. But the Sennheiser delivers better and more consistent sound quality overall, and its looks just may fit your preferences better.
The “for now” caveat in the subheading above is important, because we’ve all just witnessed the brouhaha surrounding the release of Apple’s new AirPods Max, which many early reviews are touting as the upstart king of the hill in terms of over-ear sonic performance and noise-cancelling alike.
That said, until we can actually get our hands on the AirPods Max (no easy task given that Apple is out of stock for at least the next 12 to 14 weeks and retailers like Crutchfield aren’t expecting stock until mid-January at the earliest), we think the Sony WH-1000XM4 is the all-around best wireless over-ear headphones you can actually buy right now. And it’s seriously debatable whether the AirPods Max will be better enough to justify their $549 price tag.
Simply put, the Sony XM4 ($350 retail, $278 street price most days) can be dialed in to nigh sonic perfection, and its active noise-cancellation is in some respects a close second to that of the Bose 700, and in other respects actually better. The XM4 is also one of the lightest and most comfortable wireless headphones on the market, and its 30-hour battery life potential is class leading. We also love its fold-down design and its touch-sensitive controls, which manage the near-impossible task of actually being intuitive. The only real downsides are the fact that you need to tweak the EQ settings to achieve all of that sonic perfection mentioned above (details about which you can find in our full review), plus the fact that the WH-1000XM4 looks meh and feels plasticky.
Granted, we’ve been using the XM4 daily for nearly four months now and it still looks like it did straight out of the box, so we have no durability concerns. It’s just that if you’re picky about how your headphones look, you might want to dress the XM4 up with a custom skin.
A slightly more objective criticism is that the Sony XM4 doesn’t stack up to the Bose 700 in terms of call quality, either. But other than that, we love everything about the WH-1000XM4, and we can’t imagine that the AirPods Max will be a smarter purchase, even if it does sound and look a little better. But we’ll have to wait and get our front paws on Apple’s new flagship cans next year to know for sure. And you probably won’t be able to buy them before then anyway.
Of course, new wireless over-ear headphones are hitting the market at an ever-increasing rate as more companies embrace our wireless future. So be sure to keep an eye on our Headphone + Accessory Reviews page if you’re not quite ready to buy right this moment. As new offerings become available, we’ll also keep this guide updated.