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Buyer’s Guide: The Best On-Ear Headphones At Any Price

After testing 53 sets of headphones over a period of 45 hours, The Wirecutter determined the best on-ear headphones to buy.

Buyer’s Guide: The Best On-Ear Headphones At Any Price
[Photos: courtesy of The Wirecutter]

The $180 Bose SoundTrue offer the best combination of sound quality, portability, and comfort, of any on-ear headphone. If you don’t like in-ear headphones, or need something more portable than bulky over-ear headphones, the SoundTrue are the ones to get.

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Why Should You Trust Me?

We came to this conclusion after dozens of hours of research and, with three other audio professionals, testing 53 different pairs back-to-back. The SoundTrue were the clear winner among our panel.

When it comes to on-ear headphones, we focused on three necessary features: size, comfort, and sound quality. The Bose SoundTrue excel at all three. Incredibly light and compact, they have pillowy soft ear pads that are like wearing nothing at all on your head. Not only are they comfortable, but they fold up and fit into one of the smallest cases in all of our testing, so they’re truly portable.

None of the competition even came close to the SoundTrue’s compact build, and light, hands-down most-comfy fit.

Who Should Buy This?

On-ear headphones should only be seriously considered by people who want something more portable than over-ear headphones, yet can’t seem to find a comfortable fit with in-ear headphones. For everyone else, chances are you can get a better deal for the same or better sound quality out of a pair of over-ear or in-ear headphones depending on your priorities.

Check out our $150 over-ears article for similar priced headphones to our top pick here, or $300 over-ears article for something even higher quality. I’d say our $200 in-ear pick sounds just as good as the Bose, but are even more compact.

Also worth mentioning is these headphones aren’t sweat-proof, so if you’re looking for something for the gym or running, check out our Best Workout Headphones article.

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How Did We Choose What To Test?

How did we review 53 headphones? We split the finalist headphones into three price ranges: Under $50, $51-$149, and over $150. We tested each category separately, comparing all the headphones in each group to one another, and choose our top three. We took into account sound, fit, size, and build quality. Then we took the winning headphones from each price group and tested them against each other. It was at this point I told the panelists the prices of their top picks. Then we asked ourselves two questions:

1) If I were spending my own money, which headphone would I buy?
2) If money were no object (if for example, they’re a gift) which headphone would I want to use?

Based on those answers, we came up with overall winners for the category as well as runners-up in each price range.

On-ear headphones should only be seriously considered by people who want something more portable than over-ear headphones, yet can’t seem to find a comfortable fit with in-ear headphones.

Our Pick

The Bose SoundTrue are our top pick because they strike the perfect balance of being extremely comfortable, lightweight, and compact—plus they sound really good. This isn’t something other headphones could claim. Many pinched our ears, squeezed our heads, sounded terrible, or had HUGE cases. Every one of the panelists gave the SoundTrues top marks for fit and comfort.

The ear pads are soft, like little clouds on your ears. The headband is lightweight, and fit our panel’s varying head sizes and ear shapes well.


The SoundTrue have a boosted upper-bass and mids, and the highs are delicate and lower in the mix, so the overall effect can be mildly muted sound for those accustomed to headphones more even across all frequency ranges, or high-end-heavy headphones. What this means is the rhythm guitar and electric bass in rock songs might sound louder than you might be accustomed to, and female vocals might sound somewhat softer. Are the SoundTrue the best sounding example of anything we tried? No. That would be the KEF M500 mentioned below as our high-end pick. That said, if the KEF are a 10 sound-wise, the Bose are solid 7 or 8; so the SoundTrue are far better sounding than average, at almost half the price of the KEFs (and way more portable), which is what ultimately made them the pick.

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Flaws But Not Dealbreakers

The SoundTrue aren’t perfect. They have a proprietary cable you can only replace with one from Bose. Also, all that lightness comes at the price of headphones that feel more breakable than those made out of all metal. Try to avoid sitting on them too often. That said, nothing in this range comes anywhere close to the fantastic combination of great sound, portability, and comfort like the Bose SoundTrue. If you take a trip with them, we’re sure you’ll love them.

The Runner-Up

Our panel also liked the slightly cheaper $135 Samsung Level On. They’re not as small as the Bose while in their carrying case, nor as light when on your head, but the Level On have a detachable cable with three button remote that works with Samsung phones, a rarity in an Apple-or-nothing world, and sound pretty great.

We think Urban Ears were on the right track, but if you want on-ear Urban Ears, go for the Plattan ADVs: they’re only $11 more, sound better, fold up, are flexible, have a detachable cord, and still have the washable headband.

High-End Audio Pick

If you’re less concerned with compactness, and more with sound, the $300 KEF M500 are your best choice. Featuring a much bigger soundstage, clear detailed highs, and a slight mid/bass boost, the KEF were our panel’s overall pick in terms of sound. Every kind of music sounds amazing on the M500: voices are clear and natural with delicate consonants, guitars and piano sound natural and accurate, and the bass lines aren’t muddy, but clear and rich.


They also have an impressively sturdy-feeling build, with stylish metal housing and cushy ear pads. However, despite costing the same as our pick for best $300 over-ear headphones, the sound quality isn’t quite as good. Still, they are more portable than similarly priced over-ears—albeit less so than other on-ear headphones (like the Bose) due to a somewhat large hard-sided carrying case.

The Budget Pick/The Headphone Abuser’s Pick/An Even Cheaper Budget Pick

In addition to these picks, in the full article, we have a more rugged pick, and some even cheaper options, one as low as $25.

What Else Did We Test?

We tested dozens of headphones, and eliminated dozens more, including models from brands like Shure, Sony, Sennheiser, Philips, Grado, B&W, and others. If you want to read about all the ones we tested, and why they didn’t win, check out the full article, which is more than 12 times as long as this condensed version.

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Wrapping It Up

So if you can’t stand in-ears, but you need great sounding headphones that travel light, the Bose SoundTrue are the standouts in a very, very large field. Take them along on your next journey. You (and your ears) will be glad you did.