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The best on-ear headphones of 2020

On-ear headphones have come a long way since their flimsy, ‘80s-style Walkman days. Now, with big names — think Beats, Bang & Olufsen and Skullcandy — making a slew of quality devices that bump some serious sound quality, the field has blossomed into one ripe with choice.

So we’ve cut out the guesswork and found the best on-ear headphones on the market — in terms of sound quality, comfort, design and value. After poring through numerous expert reviews, checking out the most popular brands and using our knowledge of the headphones market, we decided on a pool of eight on-ear headphones to put to the test, ranging from $40 to $400. We tested across six categories, including sound quality, comfort and battery life.

Best on-ear headphones 2020

Sound quality was the most important criterion in our testing. And we did consider active noise cancellation (ANC) as another element, but it was weighted lower, as that feature is found less in on-ear headphones. (You can read up on our top picks for noise-canceling headphones here.)

Over the course of a few months, we spent more than a week with each pair. And after a fair share of head-bopping playlists and too many drained batteries to count, we settled on three standouts. As is always our aim, we wanted to ensure the headphones we highlight here provide the most value in terms of quality across all categories. In our testing, we found that while the sub-$100 headphones have highlights in one or two areas, none of them provide the overall quality we were looking for, and therefore we think you’re better off spending a bit more for some truly great on-ear headphones.

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

For an additional $100, the Bowers & Wilkins PX5s also have terrific sound quality and particularly shine with their deep, satisfying bass. But, most importantly, they also include strong noise-canceling abilities, a feature absent in our overall pick. They’re made of quality materials and have a respectable battery life, and the only factor that kept them from creeping up into our top spot was their somewhat lofty price of $298.98.

We wouldn’t normally highlight headphones with such an exorbitant price, but the $400 Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H8is sport some unusually luxurious touches that we wanted to point out for those willing to splurge. Among them: a cowhide headband and cozy lambskin ear cups along with superlative sound quality and ANC. If your budget allows, these are worth considering.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3
PHOTO: Benjamin Levin/CNN

The Beat Solo 3s were released back in 2016, which in headphones years means they’re basically living their golden years. But despite their age, they consistently held their own during our testing. They were often neck-and-neck with headphones twice their price, if not flat-out surpassing them.

The Solo 3s produced sound you’d expect from a much more expensive pair of headphones. Instrumental and vocal clarity were among the best we’ve heard. The drums, saxophone and synthesizers of “Jazz Crimes” by Joshua Redman came through with amazing clarity. Every drum beat popped, even during the song’s busier moments with multiple instruments playing simultaneously. During “Your Best American Girl,” you might swear you were in the recording studio with Mitski as she sang and strummed the guitar.

The Solo 3s put on quite a performance when it came time to bring the bass, actually besting their successors, the Beats Solo Pros. “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish had lots of depth as well as a nice physical kick to the audio. And while the PX5s and H8is topped the Solo 3s in this category, the scores were very close — primarily coming down to differences in their overall intensity. This was most apparent during “Modern Jesus” by Portugal. The Man, which relies more on subtle bass with a substantial kick rather than depth alone. Still, the Solo 3s provided bass we could rock out to. Their performance was close behind that of the PX5s and H8is, despite costing much less.

These headphones provide an invigorating sense of 3D sound, too. We could tell exactly where the instruments were in space while listening to “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen. The experience made us feel as if we were on stage with him, and his voice rang out with equally impressive resonance. Never did a song feel flattened or below its intended quality. This was true even during the intense saxophone peaks of Joshua Redman’s “Jazz Crimes.” And, as we discussed above, the Solo 3s could handle the unusually deep troughs of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” without issue.

These headphones can make and take calls, so we rang up some people to put them to the test, and what we found was good call quality overall. Our recipients generally described us as sounding “pretty good,” with reasonable vocal clarity. For comparison, our voices were much more muffled during calls with the Bowers & Wilkins PX5s, while the Beoplay H8is calls delivered a slightly higher voice quality than the Beats Solo 3.

The Solo 3s were also a breeze to operate. Most of the buttons reside on a cap atop the left ear cup. They are well integrated into the design, with a large center button performing most functions, including playback, track skipping, call control and Siri (holding the button down will summon her). Around this button is a ring; pressing in the top increases the volume, and vice versa on the bottom. The buttons do produce a noticeable clicking sound, but not enough to find distracting. The power button is on the opposite cup with a row of LEDs beneath it that indicate remaining battery life. The controls were easy to learn, and it’s not hard to find them with your hand while you’re jamming out.

The plastic employed in these headphones seems substantial — with material that feels higher quality than that used on most of the other devices we tested, but also decidedly lower in quality than the PX5s’ and H8is’ material. The inner skeleton is metal, but it doesn’t add much heft to the device. Overall, these headphones are slim and light. The ear cups also fold in so you can stow them in the included carrying case.

Visually, these headphones are remarkable across all nine colorways (including vibrant options). The plastic shell on the headband flows continuously toward the ear cups, becoming the circular caps on top of them. The cushion inside the headband merges seamlessly with the adjacent plastic as it, too, curves toward the ear cups. Though there’s not much cushioning to speak of, the device manages to be very comfortable. Not only are the ear cup cushions high-quality, but the headphones are also only about 7.5 ounces, so the device doesn’t put much pressure on your head.

Behind the beauty and power of the Solo 3s is an equally substantial battery: The Beats Solo 3 are capable of a little more than 40 hours of playback. That, in a word, is bonkers — you’ll rarely have to plug these in. And better yet, they feature a quick charge that’ll give you three hours of battery life from just a five-minute charge.

As we mentioned above, the Beats Solo 3 are rather old, having debuted back in 2016. The Bowers & Wilkins PX5s, on the other hand, were released in 2019, and the Beoplay H8is came out in 2018. Even so, it’s clear these headphones are still up to snuff. They also still contain Apple’s H1 chip, which powers AirPods (just not AirPods Pro) to this day and provides super fast Bluetooth pairing. Furthermore, Apple offers a one-year warranty, plus two years and two incidents of accidental damage coverage, with AppleCare+.

By the time we were done with the Beats Solo 3, we had even more respect for Beats. They’re capable of audio quality like few others, comfortable, and totally easy on the eyes. Even without ANC, these headphones scored on top of our list, deserving of the title of best on-ear headphones. At $199.95 (and often on sale for less), this pair continues to withstand the test of time.

Runner-up: Bowers & Wilkins PX5

Bowers & Wilkins PX5
Bowers & Wilkins PX5
PHOTO: Benjamin Levin/CNN

We had a great time with the Bowers & Wilkins PX5s. They look, feel and sound professional, doing well or best on about every test we threw at them. And while they were surpassed by the Beats Solo 3 in terms of comfort and most audio quality measures, they have a sleek control system and slightly better bass. And of course, these headphones feature great ANC.

The Bowers & Wilkins headphones produce considerable sound quality. Instrumentals and vocals had exceptional clarity. Complex jazz pieces such as “Jazz Crimes” by Joshua Redman showed off this quality with authentic saxophone playback and crisp drum medleys. And during “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish, it felt like she was whispering right in our ear, while a deep and punchy bass made it impossible not to head-bob.

Listening to “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen really provided a sense of 3D sound. The positions of instruments are authentically represented, and feel as if they’re surrounding you in real space. Bruce’s voice comes out clear as day, too. We did detect some minute overcompression, which slightly muted higher-pitched notes. For example, during “Jazz Crimes,” the highest saxophone peaks are slightly reduced in volume. It’s not enough to be distracting, but the discerning ear will detect it. What’s more, the accurate playback and masterful bass more than made up for that shortcoming. Overall, the PX5s’ sound quality very nearly matched that of the more expensive Beoplay H8is.

The only real crack in the armor was call quality. Recipients consistently reported a muffled voice quality coming through the PX5s microphone, and phone call voices heard through them sounded too loud at times.

The Bowers & Wilkins PX5s also delivered well on ANC. We tried them out with a noisy washing machine nearby, and they were able to cancel out a good range of bass and higher-frequency sounds made by the machine, as well as reduce the occasional sound of zippers clanking against the metal machine. Our other test involved playing a soundtrack of a noisy restaurant crowd from nearby speakers. This yielded similar results — deeper sound was cut out well, and higher-pitched voices and noises were dampened to a satisfying level. The Beoplay H8is proved able to dampen a wider range of low-frequency sound, but we were still happy with the PX5s’ ANC (and it’s worth noting that most of the on-ear headphones we tested don’t feature ANC at all).

The usability of these headphones was one of the qualities that set it apart from the others. On the right ear cup, you’ll find a row of three buttons for playback, call control and smart assistance activation (Siri and Google Assistant). The center button, which operates most of the device’s functions, is raised so you can tell you’re touching it without having to look. Beneath that is a switch, wherein the middle position turns on the headphones and the farthest position activates Bluetooth pairing. On the left ear cup is a button that lets you adjust the ANC strength. These are the only headphones on this list that let you change this. They can also be connected to multiple devices at once, a capability that the Beats Solo 3 lack. While most of the headphones we tested share one or some of these great features, the PX5s are the only pair with every single one.

Additionally, the Bowers & Wilkins companion app enables control over a number of the device’s features, like a standby timer, the ability to toggle voice prompts (which inform you of, for instance, battery level and pairing mode) and a number of relaxing soundscapes to listen to (we were partial to the crackling campfire, but others include a babbling brook, a seaside beach, and a waterfall).

The PX5s pack a respectable battery capacity that’ll last you an entire day. At 20 hours with ANC on and more with the feature turned off, you shouldn’t have to return to an outlet frequently. And when you do, you’ll enjoy a terrific quick charge. In just 15 minutes, these headphones will gain five hours of battery life. So if you forgot to charge them for a while, you won’t be left in silence for too long.

These headphones are built with quality materials, surpassing the Beats Solo 3 in construction. They feature a sleek, sturdy headband with minor cushioning inside. The headband arms are composed of a thick, high-quality plastic and extend to hold the ear cups, which are ovular with a metal section protruding on the outside and thick cushioning on the inside. Overall, they were fairly comfortable, though the ear cups tended to squeeze the head after some time if not adjusted. And though the build quality is high, these headphones are on the heftier side at about 9 ounces, so the headband was prone to applying more pressure.

In short, we had a great experience with the Bowers & Wilkins PX5s. Their audio performance, ANC ability and build quality are some of the best we’ve seen in on-ear headphones, with a professional, minimalistic design that we can’t help but gawk at. If you’re looking for powerful, attractive, ANC-capable on-ear headphones, and aren’t turned off by the $300 price tag, you’ve found your pair.

Best sound and most comfortable: Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H8i

Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H8i
Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H8i
PHOTO: Benjamin Levin/CNN

The Beoplay H8is had a sublime sound quality beyond what we could have imagined in a pair of on-ear headphones. Playback of “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen showed off exceptionally clear vocals and an authentic 3D soundstage. Like the Beats Solo 3s, the H8is could faithfully reproduce instrument positions. Along with amazing vocals, it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine yourself in the performance. The guitar in “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski, for instance, sounded like it was being plucked right next to us. The H8is also performed flawlessly on compression, handling the saxophone peaks in “Jazz Crimes” by Joshua Redman without muting them or making them shrill. Bass was a similar story; the H8is have an unmatched range of depth, able to play the bass in Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” with the thunderous intensity intended by the artist.

These headphones outperformed the Beats Solo 3s on bass by a good margin. The difference was primarily apparent in songs with subtler bass than in Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” such as Portugal. The Man’s “Modern Jesus.” The chorus takes advantage of bass as a strong, almost atmospheric beat that the H8is fantastically fulfill. The Solo 3s, on the other hand, have great depth, but not enough intensity to provide the same element.

The H8is put out the best call quality out of our top picks. Voices sounded notably less muffled than they did on competitors. It’s worth noting that call quality was only slightly better than the Solo 3s but far better than the muffled, poorly compressed calls on the PX5s.

The Bang & OIufsen app was another highlight. This companion app provides tremendous control over your device and music. You can toggle ANC, check battery life, hook up Google Assistant to your device and more. But best of all, you have access to a “mood wheel,” which works like an equalizer and enables you to tailor audio settings to match moods like “relaxed” or “energetic.” When you drag the mood toward “energetic,” for example, the treble and bass are both boosted, while a “commute” preset boosts the bass and “workout” lowers the treble slightly.

The H8is really blew us away when it came to ANC. During both of our tests, these headphones decimated deep, bassy sounds. They were better able to mute the rumble that accompanies the sound of a noisy washing machine than the PX5s. When we stepped up to the machine, it was hard to believe the difference with them on versus off. And when listening to a sound clip of restaurant crowd ambience on nearby speakers, we found the deep droning hum of the crowd was entirely muted. This is even better performance than many over-ear headphones, which don’t often cover as many deep frequencies.

The H8is’ volume-reducing prowess was equally clear to us. This was most apparent during the crowd sound clip, where a cacophony of voices was quieted to something more akin to a library conversation. Even the abrupt sounds of closing doors and clinking silverware were no match for this ANC. By the way, these headphones also feature transparency mode. This feature amplifies nearby sounds rather than dampening them so you can tune into your environment.

As the name implies, on-ear headphones rest directly on your ears, which can create some pretty uncomfortable squeezing without proper padding. And, in general, companies seem to have a difficult time coming up with a comfortable setup. Beoplay succeeded with flying colors, integrating materials and tech into the H8is that go a long way toward justifying their $400 price tag. They weigh in at just 8 ounces, which is light relative to headphones of similar quality, such as the 9-ounce Bowers & Wilkins PX5s.

The ear cups on the H8is are memory foam lined with lambskin, making them incredibly soft on the ears — almost unnoticeable, in fact, as they mitigate the pressure you might normally feel from on-ear headphones. The headband has fairly rigid cushioning, but the H8is are so lightweight the band simply rests comfortably on your head. Inside is a lightweight aluminum bar that makes the headphones both light and flexible. Across the top of the headband is genuine cowhide, resulting in a durable and visually stunning design. Beige, black and pink are your options for color on this device. And while the H8is don’t fold up for portability, they do include a carrying bag.

The controls on these headphones are sleek and intuitive. On the right earcup is a row of three buttons. The center button, which controls playback and track skipping, has a bump so you can differentiate it from the others; the top and bottom button control volume. On the left earcup is a switch that allows you to toggle ANC in one position and transparency mode in another — and the switch doubles as the power button, which we thought was a pretty clever consolidation of controls.

The H8is provide a great amount of battery life, to boot. With ANC on, they reached 30 hours, and exceeded that with ANC off. This is 10 more hours than the PX5s get with ANC on. The only downside was a lack of quick charge, which you get with both the Beats Solo 3s (three hours in five minutes) and the Bowers & Wilkins PX5s (five hours in 15 minutes).

In the end, the H8is produced better sound than the Solo 3s. They are more comfortable (thanks to materials seldom found on headphones) and scored slightly better on bass. And, naturally, they feature ANC while the Beats Solo 3s do not. The kicker, though, was the price. The Beats Solo 3s deliver a pretty similar experience on just about every aspect at half the price. Still, the Beoplay H8is are a luxurious and comfortable pair of headphones that take things to the max. If you can afford the $400 price tag, we recommend them on all accounts.

How we tested

We put each pair of on-ear headphones through a thorough battery of tests. We looked into comfort over time, learned every control and companion app, listened to various music genres, tested active noise cancellation where available, put the batteries through their paces and catalogued warranties.

Check out the breakdown of our categories below.

Sound Quality

  • Bass: To test bass frequency, we listened to “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish and “Modern Jesus” by Portugal. The Man. The former features intense, booming bass that pushes headphones to their limits and the latter uses it more subtly, which is a better analogue for the average song.
  • Compression: In music and audio, compression is used to balance sound by amplifying quiet sounds and reducing the volume of louder sounds. But too much can obscure higher-frequency tones and muffle deeper ones. We listened for the right amount of compression. If higher-frequency sounds became too shrill, or we heard audio artifacts, the compression was too low. If tones felt muted or bass was muddled or contained artifacts, there was too much. We listened to “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish to test super deep bass and “Jazz Crimes” by Joshua Redman to test very high-frequency notes and quiet, subtle instruments.
  • Soundstage: In music and audio, soundstage is that three-dimensional feeling brought on by high-quality stereo sound. When the soundstage is strong, you’ll really be able to hear the positions of instruments and vocalists during a song. To test this, we primarily listened to “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen. This song features instrumentals with a strong 3D element to them, as well as vocals that resonate as if you’re on stage or in the same room as the musicians.
  • Overall: This subcategory combined our notes about bass, compression and soundstage. We also examined call quality here, noting voice crispness, background noise and issues such as poor compression. We listened to “Let Me In” by Laminate Pet Animal and “Modern Jesus” by Portugal. The Man, songs that make use of all three properties, to get a better idea of how the above subcategories worked together.

ANC (Active Noise Cancellation)

  • Pure ANC: We came up with two noisy conditions under which to try the ANC on headphones that include the feature: sitting near an active washing machine and listening to a soundtrack of a busy restaurant crowd from some loud speakers. These aimed to test how well headphones could mute and eliminate deep, bassy sounds as well as how well they reduced overall volume.
  • Levels of control: We checked out how much control the user has over the level of ANC. Some devices simply allow you to toggle the feature on and off, while others give you the option to adjust the strength of ANC.

Design

  • Build quality: We looked at the quality of materials used to build each device, how the pieces fit together, and how the device looks. To test build quality, we fixed the headband as far as it would safely go and looked into what material composed the inner skeleton of each device. We also considered whether the ear cups fold inward and took a look at the quality of the buttons and how many were present. Finally, we accounted for each device’s bulkiness and weight.
  • Ears cups: We wore each pair for at least an hour at a time to determine whether the ear cups created any significant pressure. Ideally, we were searching for headphones so comfortable we forgot we were even wearing them.
  • Headband: While wearing each pair, we noted headband flexibility and whether it applied uncomfortable pressure over time.
  • Overall comfort: We took all of our comfort-related notes into account to determine where discomfort, if any, was coming from. For example, squeezing can occur where the ear cups and headband come together.

Features/Usability

  • Controls on-device: We learned and tested all the controls on each device to determine the intuitiveness of controls like playback, calls, volume, Bluetooth pairing and features like ANC toggling. We took note of whether there was a voice narrating the controls and/or providing information such as remaining battery.
  • Bluetooth connectivity: We measured the latency of controls between each pair of headphones and the device we paired them to. We also measured how quickly each pair reconnected to a device to which it was previously paired, and the latency of playback controls. Finally, we checked whether they could pair with more than one device at a time.
  • Companion app: We noted whether devices were supported by a companion app, and if so, the amount of control enabled by that app. For example, some apps provide complex options such as ANC strength adjustment, GPS headphone tracking and even custom sound profiles using an equalizer. Others simply display a device’s battery life or let you toggle ANC on and off.
  • Ports: We checked the ports to make sure they all functioned properly.
  • Controls off-device: We combined the notes from the Bluetooth connectivity and companion app subcategories. We also checked whether the device could activate smart assistants. Finally, we noted whether a device included an AUX cable and if the cable came with a control box attached to it. If it did, we determined how much control this provided.

Battery

  • Usage time: We put together a playlist with a variety of genres including jazz, rock, pop, rap, classical and EDM, among others, to measure each device’s battery life. Every pair of headphones was run through this playlist at 75% volume.
  • Quick charge: This is a feature wherein a device can receive a large amount of battery life from a short charge. Among devices that support this feature, we tested which headphones gained the most battery from the shortest quick charge.
  • Overall: We combined the notes from usage time and quick charge subcategories to determine the overall quality of a device’s battery.

Warranty

  • Warranty: We determined what warranty/warranties each device came with. Longer or more numerous warranties scored better.

How we rated

Each device received a score for every subcategory. The combined scores of each subcategory comprised its respective category’s maximum potential score. We didn’t place great emphasis on ANC, as many of the headphones we tested do not support this feature. Check out our exact point breakdown below.

  • Sound quality had a maximum of 40 points: bass (10 points), compression (5 points), soundstage (5 points) and overall (20 points).
  • Features/usability had a maximum of 30 points: controls on-device (5 points), Bluetooth connectivity (5 points), companion app (5 points), ports (5 points) and controls off-device (10 points).
  • Design had a maximum of 25 points: build quality (10 points), ear cups (5 points), headband (5 points) and overall comfort (5 points).
  • Battery had a maximum of 20 points: usage time (10 points), quick charge (5 points) and overall (5 points)
  • ANC had a maximum of 5 points: pure ANC (5 points) and levels of control (2 points).
  • Warranty had a maximum of 5 points: Warranty (5 points)

Notably, these points were assigned price-blind. We did not want a device’s cost to bias our ratings. Once every point was assigned, we layered in price to determine the value that each headphones provided.

Other on-ear headphones we tested

Beats Solo Pro, JLAB Studio ANC, Skullcandy Riff Wireless, Jabra Move Style Edition, Urbanears Plattan 2 Bluetooth
Beats Solo Pro, JLAB Studio ANC, Skullcandy Riff Wireless, Jabra Move Style Edition, Urbanears Plattan 2 Bluetooth

Beats Solo Pro ($299.95; amazon.com)

The $299.95 Beats Solo Pros were our runner-up pick for the best noise-canceling headphones. (Read our full review here.) Of course, ANC isn’t the only area where these headphones came through: Their sound quality was terrific, and they received the same score as the Bowers & Wilkins PX5s. Ultimately, they scored below the PX5s in bass performance, a subcategory we deem pretty critical. Design-wise, the Solo Pros are a masterclass in aesthetics, not to mention well built. However, they lost some points in comfort, plus their ear cup button controls are very loud when pressed, which detracted from our experience with them. So when we stripped away ANC as a primary criterion for this guide, the Solo Pros didn’t make the cut.

JLAB Studio ANC ($59.99; bestbuy.com)

The $59.99 JLAB Studio ANCs were disappointing overall. They had a light, generally comfortable design, with unique wireframe ear cup arms. They also sport ANC, which, though not very strong, is more than a number of headphones we tested in this lower price range can boast. Even the battery is quite good at over 34 hours of playback without ANC on. The primary issue with these headphones was sound quality. They served up a flat sound experience with inadequate bass.

Skullcandy Riff Wireless ($49.99; amazon.com)

The $49.99 Skullcandy Riffs are a wildly affordable pair of on-ear headphones. They really provide good bass, though we found the sound to be poorly compressed. They don’t support ANC, the battery life is just 12 hours and they feel cheap in both build and comfort. However, we think they provide decent value overall. This is made better by their easy control scheme and respectable quick charge. That being said, the sound clarity and build quality make these a questionable purchase.

Jabra Move Style Edition ($99.99; amazon.com)

The $99.99 Jabra Move Style Edition scored the best among our budget options. They put out surprisingly clear sound, but suffer tremendously on bass performance. On top of that, they do not support ANC and have a lackluster battery capacity of about 14 hours. Their build quality, however, is pretty high, with comfort that rivals more expensive devices — thanks in part to weighing less than 5.5 ounces in total.

Urbanears Plattan 2 Bluetooth ($70; urbanears.com)

The $70 Urbanears Plattan 2 Bluetooth weren’t much better than the JLAB Studio ANCs. They share a very similar design, but with lower build quality and comfort. And though they deliver pretty crisp sound, the bass is poor. These headphones do not feature ANC. On the upside, they have over 30 hours of battery life, which is quite good. We also enjoyed the controls, which took the form of a single joystick-like button: Pressing the button toggled playback and calls, while moving it left, right, up and down controlled volume and track skipping, respectively.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing:

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