We are not claiming that these are the absolute best sounding headphones in the world. You can spend thousands of pounds on a pair of high-end audiophile headphones, and there is a fair chance you won't be able to tell the difference unless you have exceptionally good hearing.
Our choices here are about everyday use, and practicality. Often you can’t control your listening environment, so one of the biggest considerations is minimising background noises from your surroundings, be that travel noise, conversation from nearby people or next-door’s endlessly lawnmowing! Getting rid of these is far more likely to improve your listening enjoyment than perfectly rendered treble notes using custom engineered tweeters treated with a nano-coating made from unicorn horn and crystallised Octarine. Unless you have a soundproof listening room in which to wear your new headphones, in which case this is not the article for you.
Sony’s all conquering WH-1000-XM4 Noise Cancelling Wireless Headphones. Widely regarded to be the best available noise-cancelling headphones.
If you are in a hurry and need to buy some headphones now, say just before you set off on some long-haul travel, you can stop reading now and just buy these, secure in the knowledge that you are getting something great.
Want to know more? The Sony WH-1000XM4 are an over-ear style headphone, to provide the best possible isolation from the outside world even before you switch on the active noise cancelling electronics. While this works very well, it is also a possible downside for some, as they are over-ear they are not as compact as some offer offerings (see below if size matters to you). The Sony's offer a solid 30 hours battery life, and are optimised for Alexa and the Google Assistant - with a built-in mic for phone calls too. They are available in a Black or White finish.
If you can still find the Sony’s previously version the WH-1000XM3 is also fabulous and if you can find them for a significant saving over the XM4s then grab them.
The Bose QC-35-IIs. These headphones used to be Bose’s flagship active noise-cancellers and arguable the best available before Sony knocked them off the top spot. QC is short for quiet-comfort and they live up to their name. Another safe bet if you want peace and quiet to enjoy your music in, or even if you just want to turn the volume down on the outside world for a while. They also feature a mic for phone calls and can Bluetooth pair with two devices, say a phone and a laptop at the same time. They fold flat for travel and slot into the provided hard case neatly.
The most likely reason is that you want something more compact to carry around all day. To achieve that we have to stop looking at over-ear designs and consider on-ear designs or supra-aural headphones to give them their technical name. These are the smaller designs that sit on your ear rather than completely enclosing it inside the headphone. These designs are usually lighter, but due to the laws of physics, can’t offer noise isolation that is as comprehensive as the ones above.
Our choice here is all about everyday carry, they need to be fairly compact, but also sturdy to take the abuse of being dropped in a bag and taken everywhere.
Enough of this noise-cancelling and wireless nonsense, I want some proper headphones to plug in and listen to the way the music was originally recorded! OK, OK, if you insist, here is our recommendation and you won’t even have to spend a fortune on those high-end audiophile headphones we mentioned earlier. Oh, and they have good passive noise isolation, even though they don’t feature any active noise-cancelling electronics and are an on-ear design.
The HD 25 is iconic, it was originally developed by Sennheiser for use as the headphones provided on Concorde. The supersonic airplane was notoriously noisy, but the well-heeled passengers expected good quality in-flight entertainment, not some throwaway headphones. Sennheiser worked with British Airways to develop the HD 25 just for Concorde. They were lightweight, yet provided good isolation from outside noise sources, but also the passengers, who included lots of people from the music business, liked them so much they developed a version for sale to the public and the rest is history.
The lightweight and comfortable HD 25 went on to become the preferred monitoring headphones for many cameramen, studios and DJs. Their true professional nature means they are not only well built, but they are also repairable, and you can even get different cables (straight, angled or coiled) and alternative ear-pad covers (faux-leather or velour, we recommend the latter!) You can read more about the history of the HD 25 here: Shape the Future of Audio - HD 25 - From the Concorde to the Clubs - the Legend of HD25 (sennheiser.com)
Three versions are available of the HD 25, all with the same audio quality:
The HD 25 Lite is the entry level with a single, slim headband and fixed earcups.
The HD 25 standard that we tested, with a split headband and a rotating ear cup.
The HD 25 Plus is the standard bundled with an extra cable, spare earpads and a storage pouch.
Sennheiser apparently do not make a hard case for the HD 25s. We found this DURAGADGET Black Case Compatible with Sennheiser HD25-1, HD 25-1 II, Adidas Originals and many more worked perfectly for our standard pair of HD 25s.