With headphones improving in virtually every category throughout 2020, it can be tough to give the title of ‘the absolute best’ to any one product. The biggest changes we have noticed are the adoption of noise cancellation technologies, wireless connectivity, and unique features like breathable mesh (for closed-back headphones).
Noise cancellation, more specifically, is being pushed as a key feature by flagship headphones and the price tag is dramatically going down. Bose no longer lays claim to noise cancellation technology as it once did a few years ago. Now you have Sony, Sennheiser, and even Marshall butting in.
So without further ado, here’s our pick of the best headphones of 2020.
Performance comes at a price and the Focal Stellia is all about performance. It comes with a supremely luxurious build and extraordinary colors (that may not be everyone’s cup of tea). Aside from the obviously superior sound quality, the headphone has a comfortable padded headband that feels soft to the touch and fits just about all head sizes. The earpads feature clamping pressure for extra stability but don’t go overboard.
In terms of sound quality, the Focal Stellias leave no stone unturned. The sound quality really shines when you start comparing it to other high-end headphones. You can follow individual instruments in complex electronic songs with great ease and are made aware of how each strand fits together.
The sound is refined to prevent things from hardening up, yet it doesn’t take anything away from the music. The Stellias come with powerful 40mm Beryllium drive units that are closely aligned based on the typical stereo speaker set-up, which just means that the sound is perceived more from the front than from just between the ears.
The Focals come with powerful bass, which is the main strength of most closed-back designs, and these headphones do predictably well. You get those fat, meaty low-ends that are authoritative but without all the overtones. Their drivers feature the complete frequency range – at 5hz to 40kHz – which definitely helps their case.
The Focal Stellia has a smartphone-friendly impedance (at 35 ohms) which means you need very little power to deliver high-quality sound. Now it’s really pricey at just under £3000, so we don’t recommend wearing them when you’re out and about.
Why the Stellia Made it to Our List
This is a high-fidelity headphone that took the high-end market by a storm. It offers unrivalled sound quality, clarity, and dynamics.
- Superior sound quality that is hard to beat
- Buttery leather pads
- Comfortable ear pads
- 40mm Beryllium drive
- Low impedance
- It’s expensive
- Over the top colors
- A bit heavy at 435 grams
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
Bose builds up on the legacy of their QC headphones to deliver a unique one-of-a-kind noise cancelling experience. The QuietComfort features true wireless tech that has benefitted from the ginormous technological strides made last year. It boasts unparalleled active noise cancellation along with a true wireless option.
It’s worth pointing out that the wireless experience is not comparable to other high-end flagship headphones, not that you would know
As usual, the main draw here is the noise cancellation. Bose managed to effectively block out external sounds with their over-ear headphones, but achieving the same results with true wireless earbuds is a whole new challenge. Many companies try to pack ANC into tiny buds, but most of them don’t do a thorough enough job. Sometimes the noise cancellation just isn’t effective enough, and in others, the construction of the earbuds and ear tips don’t facilitate a good seal – it’s a mixed bag.
Both problems can completely derail Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) performance. Bose knows this all too well and found an innovative way to circumvent this problem with their StayHear Max technology for a ‘soft-yet-tight’ seal.
The StayHear Max tips are effective at securing a closed seal as they flare out and extend away from the driver, this allows them to cover a greater surface area in your ear canal.
In terms of sound quality, the QuietComfort earbuds continue to impress as usual. They have crisp clarity that reveals all the finer details in most music tracks in including the subtle snare drum rattle, synth grunge, and guitar noise. The audio feels big and full, especially if you crank up the volume to the max.
Bose promises six hours on the buds with another two full charges that come with the case. This is a bit of a bummer because similar headphones at this price point come with over 10 hours of playtime. That does not take away from the overall experience if you keep your case fully charged.
Why the QuietComfort made it to our list
It features a stellar combo of ANC and true wireless like never before seen in the market. It’s a bit on the expensive side, but it’s a one-time investment that keeps giving back over the course of its lifetime.
- Superior sound quality
- Active Noise Cancellation
- True wireless not as comparable to other companies
- Only 6 hours of playtime
Sony’s WF-1000XM3 is a true wireless headphone that boasts noise canceling, superior noise suppression, and look great from a design perspective. You can go for either the silver or black version, either way, the earbuds scream sophistication. Their pill-shaped design comes with three contact points to distribute pressure along the outer ear. This allows the earbuds to be comfortable and can be worn for longer sessions.
They also come with touch controls. You can double-tap the left earbud to alternate between ambient sound and noise canceling. Double tapping the right earbud will skip tracks. The touch control also lets you trigger the voice assistant of your choice. These functions are fully customizable using the Sony Headphones Connect app.
The earbuds come with about 4 to 5 hours of constant playback with noise canceling on. This may sound bad until you realize that they can be charged in under 10 minutes to support 1.5 hours of playback.
In terms of sound quality, there’s nothing to complain about. The bass frequencies and the mids do receive a bit of a bump but that’s only detectable if you really, really pay attention. Sony uses DSEE HAX processing to render clear audio that will let you pick up complex sounds from different tracks.
Why the Sony WF-1000XM3 made it our list?
Superior sound quality, touch control, quick charge, and true wireless make the WF-1000XM3 an obvious choice for anyone. It comes at less than £250, which gives you more value for your money. At this price tag, the earbuds blow the competition out of the water (maybe with the exception of QuietComfort).
- True wireless earbuds
- Comfortable fit
- Noise cancellation is better than most earbuds
- Sound quality is pristine
- Only 4 to 5 hours of battery usage
- Lack of hands-free Google Assistant access
Sennheiser HD 450BT
The Sennheiser HD 450 BT is affordable given that it comes with active noise canceling as well as pristine sound quality at just under £150. The main talking point for the HD 450 BT is the 30-hour battery life that is more than enough for most travel sessions. Once the battery is drained you can easily top-up via the USB-C cable (provided separately). There’s no fast charging so you’ll to wait a bit.
Sennheiser never holds anything back in terms of sound quality and you can always trust them to deliver every time. The headphones provide support for all genres of music and deliver accurate and engaging sound. There’s a small bump in the 20 to 100 hertz range that makes the bass notes a bit louder than the mids, but that doesn’t take away from the audio experience.
Why the Sennheiser HD 450 BT made it to our list
In terms of all the features that the Sennheiser brings to the table, it really out delivers in this price tag. Its closest competitor would be the Sony WH-1000XM4 (also in this list) but it costs a good £150 more and comes with a lower battery life.
There’s not much to complain here.
- Durable construction
- Stylistic design
- Active Noise Cancelling
- 30-hour battery life
- Pristine sound quality
- Bass could have been better
- The noise cancellation is not industry-leading
If you’re willing to drop the buck bucks, go for the Focal Stellia because the sound quality is impeccable and if you’re an audiophile, you really wouldn’t regret your decision. If you care about noise-canceling, definitely go with the Bose QuietComfort – it outdoes the competition for earbuds. And if you want everything in between at an affordable price tag, check out the Sennheiser HD 450 BT.
Let us know if you liked our list. We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Blog Article Written By Rishi Sawhney – Headphone’s geek!