The best headphones and earbuds for students 2024: our top back-to-school cans

sony wh-1000xm4
(Image credit: Sony)

We know, it's not OK to talk about this before summer break ends, but if you’re starting to accept that heading back to school in 2023 will happen (daunting) and the back to school sales (OK less daunting) are all around us, you’ll need a decent pair of headphones to get you through those lengthy study periods… or late-night gaming sessions. (Or why not both?)

Testing the best headphones is our bread and butter, from over-ear noise-cancelling wonders to the best true wireless earbuds that are small enough to slip into your pocket. We've tested every conceivable kind of cans, for every kind of listener, at every price point. 

The options here don't just sound great, although of course that's important. They're also comfortable for long periods of time and boast stamina as well as additional perks such as active noise cancellation (because maybe your housemate just started playing drums. In a death metal band) plus access to your voice assistant for fast fact-checking. And because you're buying on a budget, they need to be exceptional value for money to boot. 

Plan on using your new headphones in busy communal study areas? Our guide to the best noise-cancelling headphones is another place to cross-reference the products listed here. And if you often hit the gym before hitting the books, our best running headphones roundup will give you the security and robustness you need. Studying at home? You'll need a decent onboard mic array so your teacher or lecturer can hear you on Zoom.

Buying tech for going back to school can be expensive, we know. And with so much stuff on your kit list, many students put price as their absolute priority – for example, one of the best student chromebooks is a wallet-friendly compromise over the MacBook Air (M2, 2022). That's just a fact. 

With this in mind, we've included some of the best budget headphones alongside class-leading models such as the Sony WH-1000XM5. Cash to splash? Great: high-spec headphones are here too. But if you’re on a strict budget, you’ll be pleased to know that some of the best earbuds for school, college or uni listed in this dedicated roundup won't break the bank. 

Our top picks

the sony wh-1000xm4 wireless headphones in black

(Image credit: Sony)
The best headphones you can buy in 2022

Reasons to buy

+
Improved noise-cancellation
+
DSEE Extreme audio upscaling
+
Multipoint pairing

Reasons to avoid

-
Not water-resistant

If you're looking for the very best headphones to buy, the Sony WH-1000XM4 still deliver excellent noise-cancellation and surprising sound quality all in a lightweight, comfortable design. 

While they don't look much different from their predecessors, the Sony WH-1000XM3 (which have now gone to the great gig in the sky) a number of extra features including multipoint pairing, DSEE Extreme upscaling, conversational awareness and auto-play/pause using a built-in sensor all helped the WH-1000XM4 claim the title of best headphones in 2021 – and because they're being discounted they're an even more attractive buy.

Their successors, the WH-1000XM5 (see below) are great, but the newer headphones are also a lot more expensive. 

The XM4s are brilliant all-rounders with great sound, support for Sony's 360 Reality Audio and impressive audio upscaling, and their exceptional noise cancellation that makes them ideal for studying in noisy communal areas. If you want value and performance, you've got it here. 

Read our full Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones review


JLab Go Air Pop

(Image credit: JLab)
The best budget earbuds with great sound quality

Specifications

Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 3.7g per earpiece
Frequency response: 20HZ-20kHZ
Drivers: 6mm drivers
Battery life (on-board): 32 in total (8 hours from buds)

Reasons to buy

+
Light design with small, comfortable earpieces
+
Reliable on-ear controls
+
Sounds better than anything else at this price

Reasons to avoid

-
Not the last word in sonic brilliance generally
-
Odd fitted charging cable

It is possible to purchase a set of budget earbuds without sacrificing your listening experience – and eardrums – in the process. The JLab Go Air Pop is a terrific cheap option that makes it possible for discerning listeners to enjoy solid sound at a budget price. 

The Air Pop don't just beat everything in their price range for sound; they punch way above their price tag, sounding far better than you'd expect for such a low price. Our testing of these wireless earbuds proved that vocals are relatively well handled through the mids, the bass is sensibly handled, and the soundstage is relatively expansive. And now, they even come in subtle skin-tone shades, if listening during lectures both helps you to concentrate and is a no-no. 

They might not beat flagship offerings from the likes of Sony, Apple, or Sennheiser, but they certainly outperform anything in their super-budget category for audio quality and features. They also come with reliable Bluetooth connectivity, killer battery life, lightweight earpieces, and a comfortable fit. Bargain! 

Read our in-depth JLab Go Air Pop review


The Sony WH-1000XM5 Wireless Headphones on a plain white background.

(Image credit: Sony)
The best Sony headphones if you don't mind paying full price

Specifications

Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 250g
Frequency response: 4Hz to 40kHz
Drivers: 1.18-inch dome-type
Battery life: 40 hours / 30 with ANC on

Reasons to buy

+
Superb noise cancelling
+
Excellent audio performance
+
Useful ambient features

Reasons to avoid

-
More expensive
-
Not a huge upgrade over the XM4s

These new Sonys would be at the top of our table if it weren't for the fact that right now the outgoing model, the WH-1000XM4, is substantially cheaper and does almost everything the newer Sonys do. These are better headphones, but at the moment the XM4s are the better buy.

In our Sony WH-1000XM5 review we said that the XM5s are "the best headphones in the world thanks to their class-leading noise-cancelling features and well-balanced audio". However, "a steeper price point and similar functionality to earlier models make the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones an ever-so-slightly tougher sell than before."

The new design is more elegant and contains slightly smaller drivers than before, and while there's less wind distortion the trade-off is that they don't fold neatly like the previous model did. The noise cancelling is best-in-class, doing an excellent job of muting the higher pitched sounds that ANC headphones tend to find challenging, and sound quality is exemplary. Your co-workers or fellow commuters won't take a dislike to you either: these headphones don't leak as badly as some over-ears do.

The other headline feature here is battery life, which is now 10 hours longer: expect up to 40 hours with the ANC off and 30 with it on. 

If you don't already have noise cancelling headphones, these are as good as it currently gets – but the older, cheaper model is almost as good and better value as a result.

Read more: Sony WH-1000XM5 review


Sony WF-C700N true wireless earbuds

(Image credit: Sony)
Best earbuds for $119 / £99? You're looking at 'em

Specifications

Acoustic design: Closed
Weight : 4.6g per earbud
Frequency response : 20Hz - 20kHz
Drivers : 5mm
Battery life: 7.5 hours (buds) 15 hours total (with case) with ANC on

Reasons to buy

+
The most detailed, immersive audio at the level
+
Incredibly comfortable and secure
+
Great app and 360 Reality Audio support

Reasons to avoid

-
No on-ear volume control
-
No LDAC support

Sony has taken everything its loyal fanbase loved in more expensive Sony earbuds and squirreled it into smaller earpieces (released in April 2023) at a lower price. You don't get lossless LDAC support, but for this money, the audio quality and effortless ANC cannot currently be beaten. 

Multi-point connectivity and adaptive sound control are here (you can select between 'Walking', 'Waiting', 'Travelling' or 'Registered places' in the app, which is frankly incredible at this level) as well as Sony's standard DSEE audio 'upscaling' engine, so Spotify tracks are going to sound a lot better. 

Look, it's the kind of tech people like us are more au fait with in the excellent – but quite a bit more expensive – Sony WF-1000XM4 wireless earbuds and flagship Sony WH-1000XM5 over-ears… whereas the WF-C700N are in what I like to call the budget-to-mid sector. 

The 'N' stands for noise cancellation and honestly, it would be churlish to ask any more from your earbuds for this money. If you subscribe to Tidal they're a no-brainer since Sony 360 Reality Audio is onboard – aka 24 object-based channels arranged in a 360-degree soundstage, which Sony launched back in 2019. 

Adaptive Sound Control is also here – yes, these headphones learn how you use them and try to help. Don't like that it deploys ANC when it knows you're 'Staying'? That's fine, tap the cog in the app's Headphone Settings, and you can deploy Ambient sound or turn off all noise profiles – and until you change it, that'll happen whenever you're sitting at your desk. Assignment mode: deployed! 

Read our full-fat Sony WF-C700N review


the 1More Triple Driver in-ear headphones

(Image credit: 1More)
Great sound and amazing value

Reasons to buy

+
Lush sound quality
+
Excellent build and design
+
Unmatched value

Reasons to avoid

-
Plastic remote feels cheap

The 1MORE Triple Driver in-ear headphones provide an amazing level of audio quality for their price, and with a choice of silver or gold accents, they look really slick, too. 

An inbuilt remote means you can subtly adjust your music playback without taking your phone out of your pocket (handy if you're sneakily listening to music during class), while triple-layered dynamic drivers mean your tunes should sound incredible.

These are a wired pair of headphones, so make sure your phone or MP3 player has a 3.5mm audio port – otherwise you may need to buy an adapter. Hate wires? Check out the best wireless earbuds for cable-free options.

Read more: 1More Triple Driver In-Ear Headphone review

AirPods Pro 2 on white background

(Image credit: Apple)
The best earbuds from Apple

Specifications

Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 5.3g
Frequency response: Not listed
Drivers: Custom Apple design
Battery life : 6 hours (earbuds) 30 hours (charging case)

Reasons to buy

+
Fantastic active noise cancellation
+
Very strong audio quality
+
Great features when used with iPhone

Reasons to avoid

-
Average battery life
-
No lossless support

The Apple AirPods Pro 2 are excellent earbuds, offering improved audio performance and fantastic ANC in Apple’s comfortable and familiar AirPods-esque design. But they're a much better choice if you have an iPhone – if you're an Android smartphone user, the notable cost might outweigh the audio quality and suite of available features. 

The Pro 2 buds are a significant step up from the original AirPods Pro, which were good to begin with. Design changes are subtle, but audio performance is upgraded with new drivers and amplifiers – and the stems can now alter volume quickly (if you've just arrived in a lecture, say). During our testing, we rated the sound on offer from the Pro 2 as excellent – there’s rich audio across genres and a wide and expansive soundstage. 

ANC is also vastly improved and performs remarkably well, blocking out almost all external noises. Transparency mode is now more useful because it’s adaptive, allowing you to have natural conversations (with classmates, say) even when you don’t want to remove your buds.

Battery life has had a boost. You get 6 hours from the buds with ANC on, and 30 hours from the charging case, which is now IPX4 water resistant—withstanding light showers and sweating – and has a speaker, handy if you lose them as you can activate a 'Find My' request.

We still rate the original AirPods Pro if you can find them at a lower price, but the Pro 2 are solid contenders in the crown for the best earbuds. ANC is top-tier and, if you’re an iPhone user, we’d even recommend the Pro 2 – if you can afford them. 

Read the full review: Apple AirPods Pro 2

Sony WH-CH720N product image

(Image credit: Sony)
Impressive, affordable noise-cancelling headphones

Reasons to buy

+
Great sound balance
+
Lots of detail in audio
+
Effective noise cancellation
+
Full of useful features

Reasons to avoid

-
Sound feels constrained
-
Noise cancellation leaks in low sounds
-
Plastic feels a little cheap

On a strict budget but want to telegraph "don't bother me" on campus with a big pair of Sony cans? OK, these Sony WH-CH720N pack in a lot of audio finesse and smart features for the price. Unlike Sony's mid-range earbuds, they're not stealing flagship-like performance from the gods – there are clear limitations compared to step-up models – but they're a comfortable, enjoyable listen, and the ANC does a good job of lowering outside noise (or your housemate's music). 

These spring 2023-release Sony cans do offer noise-cancelling and are a direct replacement for the previous CH710N model, adding new features, plus sound and noise-cancelling upgrades. 

And with an official price of $129 / £99 / AU$259, the Sony WH-CH720N are aggressively positioned, bringing some flagship-level features to lower budgets, including adaptive noise-cancellation, multi-point pairing, and app support.

Do they bring flagship-level performance too? Not quite – you're definitely getting more in line for what you pay for here. But come on, it would be churlish to expect them to really challenge the Sony WH-1000XM5, which cost more than three times as much – and the noise cancellation should still suffice for all but the noisiest of study environments. 

Read our fully star-rated Sony WH-CH720N review


Earfun Air Pro 3 true wireless earbuds

(Image credit: Earfun)
The budget ANC buds to beat

Specifications

Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 5.1g per earbud
Frequency response: N/A
Drivers: Not listed
Battery life : ANC off: 9 hours (buds) 36 hours (case); ANC on: 7 hours (buds) 37 hours (case)

Reasons to buy

+
Great all-rounders
+
Excellent battery life
+
Solid noise cancellation

Reasons to avoid

-
No wearing detection
-
Sound is fun but not fantastic
-
Stem design not for everyone

Quite simply, these January 2023-issue earbuds are the best noise-nixing buds on the market if your budget maxes out at $80 / £79 (sadly, Australian availability is thin on the ground). 

They feature Bluetooth 5.3 with support for next-gen Bluetooth LE Audio technology – a new Bluetooth standard that promises to upgrade how we listen to music, including improved sound quality and battery life – once the smartphones bearing it arrive… 

There’s also support for a feature called Auracast. This lets you jump between audio playing from different devices, so you can seamlessly listen to what your friends are listening to or what’s playing in a public space – again, there's no support in the wild yet, but it's coming. 

That’s not all. The buds also support Qualcomm’s aptX Adaptive audio codec, which is capable of delivering CD-quality 16-bit.44.1kHz audio over Bluetooth. This also provides low-latency performance when streaming from devices that support the Qualcomm standard.

All of this for budget money? I know. The ANC is good – again, for the money, but you’d need to significantly bump up your outlay to get noticeably better noise cancellation, and maybe you just don't have the cash right now. 

Read our extensive Earfun Air Pro 3 review 


the soundmagic e11bt wireless earbuds

(Image credit: SoundMagic)
Deceptively good wireless sound for a good price

Reasons to buy

+
Fantastic price
+
Elegant design
+
Comfortable

Reasons to avoid

-
Treble tones can sound harsh

The SoundMagic E11BTs are an extremely capable pair of wireless neckband-style in-ear earphones, and given their low price, it really is difficult to fault them – the audio quality is fantastic and they look very elegant thanks to their compact housings. 

They're comfortable to wear thanks to ergonomically designed eartips and a flat neckband that won't irritate the back of your neck.

Thanks to an IPX4 waterproof rating, these earbuds are suitable for both studying and working out, and should be able to withstand a sweaty run as well as a spot of rain on the way to class. 

Read the full review: SoundMAGIC E11BT 


Shokz openrun

(Image credit: Shokz)
Lightweight, super comfortable bone conduction headphones

Specifications

Weight: 26g
Water resistance rating: IP67
Battery life: 8 hours
Storage: No

Reasons to buy

+
Slim, light design
+
Good battery life

Reasons to avoid

-
Buttons very close together
-
Vibrate at higher volumes

The Shokz OpenRun (originally called the AfterShokz Aeropex before the company rebranded itself in December 2021) is a flagship headset that offers an impressively small and light design, plus a slight step up in sound quality over rival bone conduction headphones.

They’re 30% smaller and 13% lighter than the company’s Trekz Air headphones, and they have an IP67 water-resistance rating so they're an excellent option for exercise and use in the rain.

Despite their slender frame, they include two physical buttons to control volume, and the move to a proprietary charging setup helps them achieve that improved water-resistance rating. Dual noise-cancelling mics are available for those times you need to take calls, too.

On the sound front, Shokz has adjusted its approach to delivering audio to your ears to improve bass performance and offer less vibration and sound leakage than the brand’s other headphones.

The improvements in bass and clarity are slight but noticeable, and with an improved eight hours of battery life and the same quick-charge support as the Trekz Air, the OpenRun are still some of the best bone conduction headphones around.

Read our full Shokz OpenRun review

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