You don’t have to spend a lot to get decent Bluetooth over-the-ear headphones. Here are four models, all $200 or less, that go easy on your budget but fit well and sound great on your ears.
Best Value Priced: Anker Soundcore Life Q20
The other headphones in this review all sell at the $200 price point or close to it. The Anker Soundcore Life Q20s are the exception. Sometimes you want a less expensive set of phones that you can travel with, and if they are broken, lost, or stolen, it won’t be the tragedy of losing a more expensive set of headphones.
And while Anker is best known for its terrific power products, the company also has several other product lines, including security, home cleaning, and the Soundcore line of headphones, earbuds, and speakers.
At this price point, you don’t get a hardshell case, just a soft vinyl case. But you do get two cables—a USB to MicroUSB charging cable and an audio cable with 3.5mm plugs on both ends. The headphones themselves fold up, so they are compact enough to throw in a carry-on, and have soft fake leather padded earcups labeled for the left and right ears.
Unlike many of the headphones I’ve tested recently, the power button is on the left earcup rather than the right one. Anker claims a 60 hour listening time on a full charge when Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) is not being used, and 40 hours if you’re using the ANC feature. I ran out of patience timing them after about 25 hours. There is, however, no indication of how much battery charge is left until you’re down to two minutes, at which time you get a voice every 30 seconds until the charge is completely depleted, reminding you to recharge the phones.
Listening-wise, the difference between a $200 set of headphones and the $60 Life Q20s is immediately apparent. The Life Q20s don’t sound bad—response is mostly flat, though, on some songs, the treble is a bit more shrill than sharp. Bass was audible, but not emphatic, and the mid-range didn’t seem to have much presence with the test selections from my Spotify and YouTube playlists. The phones are Siri-enabled and responded to commands when paired with my iPhone Xs through Bluetooth, answering calls, making calls, and moving through the Spotify playlist.
One negative I noted during testing is that the headband pressed the earcups to my head fairly tightly, and this pressure became noticeable and uncomfortable to me after a few hours. The headband is adjustable, and extending it to its maximum point on both sides relieved most of the pressure, significantly increasing the comfort when used for several hours at a time.
If I were traveling for a typical transcontinental or shorter flight, I would probably be pleased with the Live Q20s, especially given the reasonable cost. But if you’re frequently going to be using these for hours at a time, day after day, I’d recommend that you try a pair on before making the purchase, just to make sure that you won’t feel that your hearing is in a vise after three or four hours of listening.
Anker Soundcore Life Q20 Hybrid Active Noise Cancelling Headphones, Wireless Over Ear Bluetooth Headphones with 40H Playtime, Hi-Res Audio, Deep Bass, Memory Foam Ear Cups and Headband for Travel,Work
They're inexpensive, but sound good. And if you damage or lose them, it isn't the end of the world.
Best All-around: Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT
Audio-Technica has had great success with its monitor-quality ATH-50x headphones. Those, however, are wired-only—they have to be plugged directly into the audio source. With its latest refresh of the model, Audio-Technical added Bluetooth to create the ATH-M50XBT model I tested. The headphones can still be used in wired mode, but they can also be paired with a Bluetooth device such as a tablet or smartphone and used wirelessly.
The phones come in a large box which, when opened, has the headphones mounted in an injection-molded platform covered with satin fabric. It’s fancy, but I wish they had spent the money on a hard-shell case rather than the vinyl pouch that accompanies the phones. Also included underneath the platform are two cables: a short 12-inch USB-charging cable and a wired 3 foot 9 inch-long cable to use with a tablet or smartphone that has a 3.5mm audio/headphone jack. You can use the cable with phones lacking a headphone jack, but it requires an adapter, and it’s easier to just pair the headphones with Bluetooth.
The headphones themselves are large and a bit heavier than the others I tested, but not uncomfortably so. I felt the headband was a little bit tight, but it was really only noticeable after wearing them for several hours, and I have a relatively large head. The earcups are nicely padded and covered with fake leather, a common approach in phones at this price point. The drivers are 45mm, which is on the large side—many headphones in this price range use 40mm drivers. The larger drivers give a bit better bass response. I found the bass to be clear and distinct without being boomy. Overall, the response was even across the frequency range, with excellent mid-range and treble that was sharp without being shrill.
A nice feature is that ATH-M50xBTs fold up, so they take very little space and fit comfortably in the compact vinyl carry pouch. One thing that I dislike is the placement of the controls. They are all located at the bottom edge of the left earcup, a location I find awkward to use. With continued use, finding the right control will become easy, but during my testing, I continuously had to remove the headphones to access the controls. Fortunately, there are limited controls you’ll have to master. A three-position rocker controls the volume and works as a play/pause button or two answer calls.
Next to this is the port for the 3.5mm audio cable, and to the left of this jack is the micro USB charging port. The downloaded documentation for the ATH-M50XBTs cautions you only to use the cable supplied, but I had no difficulty using a longer cable to charge the phones. A full charge takes upward of seven hours, one of the longer charging times among the tested headphones, but results in a playtime of 40 hours of continuous use.
Other than a small LED that blinks red while charging and white while in use, there’s no real indication of how much charge remains in the battery unless you use the Connect app on an iOS or Android device. If you use a direct wired cable connection, you’re on your own. The headphones remain off while charging, so you can’t use them with the charging cable connected. The final control is a power switch that also tuns on the Bluetooth if the phones are not directly connected to an audio source.
What’s missing? Active Noise Cancellation. The earpads offer a good amount of sound isolation. Still, ANC would be a nice feature to have, especially if you wear the phones while traveling, commuting, or in other noisy environments.
One last feature that you will find convenient is the ability to activate a voice assistant such as Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, depending on what’s available on the phone or tablet you are using. To do this, you simply tap the side of the left earcup and hold it for two seconds. There’s a built-in mic so you can speak your command, or place or answer a call.
Aside from a few quirks, I really like the ATX-M50xBT headphones. They fit and feel like the quality phones they are, and the audio quality is excellent. If you can live without Active Noise cancellation, they may be a great choice.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT Wireless Bluetooth Over-Ear Headphones, Black
Great sound, good fit, good price. You can't go wrong with these phones.
Best Sport: Plantronics BackBeat Fit 6100
Earbuds are the most popular type of earphones for many active people. They’re out of the way and partially protected if it starts to rain while you’re out training. But earbuds aren’t the only option.
The Plantronics BackBeat FIT 6100s are headphones designed for the same demographic. They’re sweat-resistant (though not waterproof) and designed to hug your head, so they don’t fall off whether you’re running or doing yoga. At the same time, they are targeted towards a user who enjoys good sound while they are working out. The FIT 6100s have large drivers and a three-position EQ setting from the iOS or Android app, which lets you emphasize bass, provide a balanced response, or boost the treble.
In my testing, I preferred the balanced setting, and found the response excellent, with clear bass and crisp treble. There was also a noticeable amount of presence in many of the tracks I listened to, which is nice in a headphone at this price point. While the BackBeat FIT 6100s are designed for active use, you won’t need a second set of phones to enjoy music when not exercising. The headphones are just as usable at home on the couch as they are while running a marathon.
In operation, the headphones have only a few controls. They lack true ANC, though the comfortable earpads provide a high degree of isolation, and there is an “Awareness” setting in the iOS and Android apps. If you want more awareness of your surroundings, you can toggle the Awareness mode. This lets you create your own mix of sound from the audio source and that from the surrounding environment
To access this and several other features, such as setting the EQ, you’ll need to download the BackBeat app for iOS or Android. When launched, this app also displays the amount of listening time still available on the battery charge. Some indication is also provided when you power on the headphones, but this limited to a simple voice announcing whether the charge is high, medium, or low. Some other Plantronics headset models other than this one have a five LED array that gives you a better idea of the current battery charge.
Increasing the effectiveness of the earpads, the BackBeat FIT 6100 provides the ability to control how tightly the headphones hug your head. There’s an elastic string that has two positions. In the first position, the headband is a bit looser, while stretching the string and placing it over a second post on the headband puts more inward pressure to hold the headphones more tightly on your head. I found this second position to be uncomfortable, but someone with a smaller head will appreciate the capability. In the default position of the string’s tension, the headphones were comfortable to wear for hours.
And, as with other Plantronics headphones I’ve tested, the BackBeat FIT 6100s have a very decent battery duration. Plantronics claims 24 hours on a charge when in Bluetooth mode, and my testing yielded just about that long. Using the supplied audio cable lets you operate the headphones indefinitely unless you’ve powered them on to enable the “Awareness” option.
If you’re an active person who likes to listen to music or podcasts while exercising, you might appreciate the BackBeat FIT 6100 headphones. They’re comfortable to wear, won’t slip off of your head, and sound great.
BackBeat FIT 6100 Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, Sport, Sweatproof and Water-Resistant, Pepper Grey
If you like to listen to music or podcasts while you exercise, and don't care for earbuds, these on-ear headphones are a great choice.
Best Premium: Sennheiser Momentum 2
I’ll be honest. For several decades my go-to headphones were a pair of Sennheiser Pro HD over-the-ear model. I wore them out, with the headband finally completely disintegrating, and the earcup pads held together uncomfortably with duct tape. But until they became too uncomfortable to wear, I used them for hours a day listening to all genres of music.
While the Sennheiser Momentum 2 headphones may or may not last as long as that pair of old Sennheisers, they are still very much worth the $200 or so they usually sell for. The response is flat over the range of the headphones, with clear treble and crisp bass. Mid-range is even, and the headphones add very little color to the music I tested them with. For a set of headphones at this price point, the Momentum 2s sound really good. And if you want more bass or treble, most audio devices have an equalizer that lets you tweak the response.
The ANC works very well. There are three control settings: off, partial noise canceling (it lets loud noises through), and complete noise cancelation. Sennheiser claims a 22 hour run time with Bluetooth and ANC activated. I got around 20 hours, which is still impressive and long enough to entertain you on a trip from New York to Tokyo.
Opening the box, you’ll find a round semi-rigid case that houses the headphones. The earcups are folded inward to not only fit the case, but that’s how you turn the phones’ Bluetooth on and off. When the phones are folded, the headphones are off. When you unfold them, the Bluetooth is active.
Underneath the morass of control buttons on the right earcup is the USB-C charging port and a small jack that looks like a standard 3.5mm audio jack, but is actually a 2.5mm jack. Standard 3.5mm audio cables don’t fit. The Momentum 2 comes with a set of cables—USB-C for charging so you can use a standard wall wart USB charger and an audio cable with the small plug on the headphone side and a standard 3.5mm audio plug on the other.
If I have any criticism of the Momentum 2, it’s that I found the controls inconveniently placed and clustered vertically along the edge of one earcup. Out of the box, there’s a paper “guide” glued on the earcup, with the idea being that once you’ve gotten familiar with the phones that you’ll simply peel it off and toss it.
Testing the headphones for a few hours didn’t leave much time to become really familiar and comfortable with which buttons did what operations. Many other headphones spread the controls over both earcups. It’s increasingly common to put the ANC controls on the left earcup and most of the other controls on the right earcup. But I suspect you’ll get used to the location of the controls after using the Momentum 2s for a while.
Given the quality of response that the Momentum 2 provides, having to fiddle with the controls for a while as you gain familiarity isn’t going to be a deal-breaker. The Momentum 2s are comfortable when worn for hours at a time, and sound great. The combination of these two makes the Sennheiser Momentum 2 headphone the premium Choice.
Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless with Active Noise Cancellation- Black
At this price point, you can't go wrong with a pair of Sennheisers. These are comfortable for hours of listening and sound great.