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The headphones to avoid buying

Looking for headphones that deliver both great sound and silence? Listen to our experts and give these a miss.

noise cancelling headphones to avoid red cross
Last updated: 18 July 2024

Need to know

  • Our experts tested more than 115 headphones (including noise cancelling and standard headphones) from popular brands including Sony, Apple, Bose, Huawei and more
  • We assess key factors such as sound quality, noise-cancelling listening, comfort, durability ane battery life 
  • Become a CHOICE member for exclusive access to our detailed headphone reviews, as well as reviews for over 200 product categories and services 

Poor-quality headphones can make even Led Zeppelin sound more like your kid brother's garage band. 

Whether you're enjoying your carefully curated playlists, catching up on podcasts or watching YouTube videos on the go, a decent pair of headphones can be a lifesaver. 

But if you pick a poor pair, you can say goodbye to the sound of silence – and they can even affect the quality of the audio you're listening to. 

This is why it's worth doing your research, especially given how expensive some brands can be. 

Fortunately, we've done the hard work of testing them so you don't have to. Our audio experts have reviewed the most popular products on the market from Apple, Sennheiser, Skullcandy, Sony, Beats, Bang & Olufsen, JBL, Jabra and more.

"Our sound tests always reveal some surprising results," says CHOICE audio expert Peter Zaluzny

"We've seen $500 products that rate worse than cheaper pairs half their price – sometimes from the very same brand. Paying more doesn't guarantee a better quality product, so it pays to shop carefully."

We've recently remastered our headphone testing, so our review covers all headphone types, from petite in-ear models through to noise-cancelling over-ear cans with all the features. 

You can filter by type (in-ear, over-ear), price, brand, noise cancellation options and more to find the perfect pair for you. Whichever type you're looking for, we don't want you to end up with a dud buy, so here are the products that scored lowest in our lab test. 

We don't want you to end up with a dud buy, so here are the products that scored lowest in our lab tests. Consider becoming a CHOICE member to see the best performers.

Noise-cancelling headphones to avoid

"A good pair of noise-cancelling headphones can provide a great listening experience while you're on the go, as they're designed to filter out environmental noise," says Peter. 

"But just because some headphones have this feature doesn't necessarily mean they sound good. 

"In fact, poorly implemented noise-cancelling technology can actually make your music sound worse, which is why we test audio quality with it turned on and off."

These noise-cancelling headphone models might look rock'n'roll, but they're less Rolling Stones and more elevator music. Here's why we don't recommend them. 


JBL Live Flex

1. JBL Live Flex

  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 51%
  • Sound quality score: 50%
  • Price: $199
  • Type: In ear

The low price for 'noise cancelling' earbuds sets off a few alarm bells here. These earbuds performed so poorly they should be called ear-duds.

While they received a very good durability score (95%), which means they're more likely to last a longer time, the sound quality is so bad you might find yourself wishing they 'accidentally' broke and gave you an excuse to buy a different pair.

The sound quality is so bad you might find yourself wishing they 'accidentally' broke

Their active noise cancellation ability received the lowest score out of every model we tested at 34%. We assessed how they performed in a number of environments, including one with continuous noise, a restaurant where people are talking, and a silent location – our testers were underwhelmed in all three locations.

These ear buds also fall down in comfort (with a score of 44%) which means they may cause you pain in more ways than one.

See our full JBL Live Flex review.

beats studio buds

2 Beats Studio buds

2. Beats Studio buds

  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 60%
  • Sound quality score: 59%
  • Price: $229
  • Type: In ear

These Beats buds are slightly better at noise cancelling than the JBL buds above, but have significantly less battery life.

At $229, they aren't at the upper end of the price range for noise-cancelling ear buds, but we tested plenty of cheaper models that performed better than these.

We tested plenty of cheaper models that performed better than these

If someone offers you a pair of these buds, make like Michael Jackson and Beat It. 

See the full Beats Studio buds review.


Huawei FreeBuds 5

3. Huawei FreeBuds 5

  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 60%
  • Sound quality score: 74%
  • Price: $289
  • Type: In ear

With their Apple Airpods-style 'dangly' design, these earbuds certainly look the part and their sound quality score is a good 74%.

However their noise cancelling abilities are nothing to shout about, receiving a poor score of 40%. Adding to the woes, the battery life is just passable.

We would expect a good battery life for an in-ear headphone to be up to 660 minutes but in our testing we found the battery life of these to be just 330 minutes.

And although they're at a relatively low price point, they're outscored by the other Huawei noise-cancelling headphones in our test – Huawei FreeBuds Pro 2 ($349) and even the cheaper Huawei FreeBuds 5i ($159) – as well as several other brands of noise cancelling earbuds and headphones in our review. You'd be better off looking at other options.

See the full Huawei FreeBuds 5 review


Yamaha YH-E700B

4. Yamaha YH-E700B over-ear headphones

  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 60%
  • Sound quality score: 61%
  • Price: $499
  • Type: Over ear

There's actually a few things to like about these Yamaha over-ear headphones – notably that they have excellent durability and are easy to clean, plus they have good markings for the visually impaired.

But they fall down in two of the main areas that matter for noise-cancelling headphones – sound quality and, erm, noise-cancelling ability. They receive a score of 61% for sound quality which is not as good as similarly priced products in our review. And while our recommended models receive noise cancellation scores of 86%, these headphones languish around the 65% mark.

Plus, while the manufacturer claims up to 32 hours of use on a 3.5 hour charge, our experts measured 25 hours of battery life after a full charge, the lowest battery life of all the other over-ear noise cancelling headphones in our test (some of which reach up to 40–50 hours).

See the full Yamaha YH-E700B review.

Standard headphones to avoid

Don't need to shut the world out? We've got you covered. Scratch these non-noise cancelling headphone models off your list before you hit the shops. 

jbl tune 225tws

JBL Tune 225TWS

1. JBL Tune 225TWS

  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 54%
  • Sound quality score: 47%
  • Price: $180
  • Type: In ear

Repeat offender JBL is back with yet another pair of headphones that'll leave you disappointed. They're the lowest scoring buds of their kind that we tested. 

Don't write the whole brand off though; they do produce some good headphones – but these aren't among them.

These are the lowest scoring buds of their kind that we tested

For your money, you'll get just 3 hours and 45 minutes of battery life, ordinary sound, and only OK microphone quality. They're comfortable to wear and easy to clean, but they don't have much else going for them. 

You don't need to pay a lot for a good pair of earbuds: seven of the top performing in-ear headphones in our test come in at well under $300 – and some of them are noise cancelling. 

So if you have $200 to spend on a pair of earbuds, do your research before you buy to make sure you don't get stuck with ear-duds.

See the full JBL Tune 225TWS review.

marshall minor iii

Marshall Minor III

2. Marshall Minor III

  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 54%
  • Sound quality score: 52%
  • Price: $229
  • Type: In ear

Minor by name, minor by score. Despite their good-looking exterior, these dud buds don't have much going on where it counts. 

They don't sound great, they're not comfortable, their battery life is poor, they don't clean up well, and their microphone isn't great quality… so, they're lacking pretty much everything you'd want in a pair of earbuds. 

Despite their good-looking exterior, these dud buds don't have much going on where it counts

There isn't much to commend these on, so our experts had to dig deep to find a good point: they have left and right inscriptions on each earphone so you know which ear to put them in. 

But with such ordinary sound quality and comfort, it probably wouldn't make much of a difference if you did put them in the wrong ear.

See the full Marshall Minor III review.


Oppo Enco Air earphones

3. Oppo Enco Air

  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 54%
  • Sound quality score: 54%
  • Price: $149
  • Type: In ear

Oppo might do nicely in the budget mobile phone category, but when it comes to in-ear headphones it struggles to say the least. These wireless earbuds scored poorly in almost every area of CHOICE's testing, but particularly in two of the most important categories: battery life and sound quality.

Battery life is perhaps the biggest concern. We clocked the Oppo Enco Air at four hours on a full charge, which might seem reasonable, but we've tested similar products that stayed charged for over twice as long. When you consider those models also scored higher on every possible metric, the Oppo Enco Air is tough to recommend.

See the full Oppo Enco Air review.


Skullcandy Push Active True Wireless ear buds

4. Skullcandy Push Active True Wireless

  • CHOICE Expert Rating: 57%
  • Sound quality score: 55%
  • Price: $179
  • Type: In ear

These Skullcandy wireless earbuds are a testament to an adage that's literally been tried and tested here at CHOICE: just because a brand has some good products, doesn't mean everything it produces is worth buying.

While Skullcandy does have decent sets of headphones in its range, the Skullcandy Push Active True Wireless do not fall into that category.

The major issue here is battery life. These wireless earbuds don't do too badly on a full charge, but struggle on the shorter charges you often need to do at the last minute – particularly when compared to a strong set of competitors in the marketplace. We suggest you steer clear.

See the full Skullcandy Push Active True Wireless review.

The difference between on-ear and over-ear headphones

On-ear headphones don't look especially different to the over-ear variety, but they don't completely surround your ears. Instead they rest on the outside of your ears, allowing more airflow around them. 

This generally makes them smaller and therefore easier to store and transport, but they don't block as much ambient noise. They also press on your ears, so poorly made models can get uncomfortable pretty quickly. 

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.