In-ear headphones or earbuds are kinds of win and loss for the people. Some love their compact design and the fact that you can comfortably wear them under a hat or helmet, while others do not like to have something in your ears. Light and compact enough for the gym without sacrificing audio quality, in-ear headphones are perfect for more or less any situation you can think of to throw at them – running, cycling, walking, or just walking around town.
Ideally, the best earbuds (often referred to as in-ear headphones or earphones) should be particularly comfortable to wear for long periods. Newer models can be completely wireless, but if the lifetime of the battery is essential to you, you might want a pair of wired buttons.
List of the best earbuds of 2021
We are continually evaluating new pairs of earphones, so we always update this list because we find it better. Also, for wireless options, check our list of Best True Wireless Earbuds
1More Triple Drivers
The best wired earbuds
We could have chosen many ways for this choice, but 1More’s unobtrusive Triple Drivers simply would not show up in the picture. The 1More are not at the top of the class in terms of performance, but what they do for them is unrivaled quality and value at their (very accessible) price.
So what do the Triple Drivers offer specifically? A beautiful aesthetic, solid construction, and you guessed it, three drivers for an excellent sound. This includes a dynamic driver for the bass and a balanced armature driver for both the midrange and the treble. The result is sparkling clarity, smooth and powerful bass, and a balanced sound that exceeds everything we’ve heard on the $100 line. Should we say more? How about a Lightning version?
The best true wireless earbuds
Sony’s previous flagship, the WF-1000XM3, was already among our favorites, so when the company released its successor, the WF-1000XM4, we knew they’d be hard-pressed to top it. And we were right. With the XM4, Sony has improved essentially every aspect of the XM3. The design, battery life, ANC and transparency are all better than before. Meanwhile, Sony has kept the price the same, while the price of the XM3 has dropped, giving buyers two great choices.
At the top of the list of improvements is the new, compact form. Although only 10% smaller than the XM3, the XM4 fits almost entirely in your outer ear, making it appear much smaller. The new shape makes the touch controls easier to use, but some with particularly small ear openings will find them less comfortable. The earbuds are also more robust, with an official IPX4 rating for water resistance. Don’t go swimming with them, but don’t worry about sweat, rain or the occasional splash.
The charging case has also been put on a diet. It is 40% smaller and can also be charged wirelessly, something the XM3’s case did not offer. Overall battery life has remained the same at 24 hours with ANC on and 36 hours with ANC off, but the earbuds can now be charged for longer: Eight hours with ANC on, and a whopping 12 hours when off.
Sound quality is also better overall, but not across the board. Low-end bass response has improved, with an uncanny ability to reproduce small details of the lowest frequencies. However, there is a bit of power loss at the high end of the spectrum compared to the XM3. We attribute this to Sony’s decision to ship the XM4 only with foam earbuds, which may affect the sound.
The best earbuds for running
Sony has a reputation for making excellent audio products, and the WF-SP800N take all of Sony’s know-how and squeeze it into a compact set of workout-friendly earbuds. Thanks to their IP55 water and dust resistance, they can withstand just about anything you throw at them, and the battery life is tremendously long: nine hours if you leave active noise cancellation on and 13 hours if you turn it off.
Although the SP800N are more bulky than some other workout earbuds like the Elite Active 75t, they don’t budge once they’re in your ear, thanks to the silicone wing tips that provide a sturdy three-point anchorage in your ear canal.
Sound quality is, as you’d expect, excellent, and the Sony Headphones app lets you adjust the equalizer to your heart’s content, including turning the ExtraBass feature on and off. If you’re curious about Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format, which can make you feel like you’re at a live performance, the WF-SP800N is compatible with the streaming services that offer it, such as Deezer and Amazon Music HD.
The adjustable ANC is also a highlight, although this feature works best in environments where it’s not windy. You can turn on a transparency mode when you need it or simply use the quick-attention mode, which automatically switches to transparency and temporarily lowers the volume of your music while pressing the left earbud.
The best bass earbuds
Some wireless earbuds try to offer something for everyone, but JVC’s HA-XC90T (also known as JVC XX) is a full-throated advocate for the biggest bass you’ve ever heard. The black earbuds with the red rings deliver what can only be described as a subwoofer-grade bass response, and that’s even before you turn on their bass boost mode, which makes them downright thunderous.
Amazingly, this powerful low doesn’t prevent the mids and highs from taking their place on the soundstage, but make no mistake: If you’re not a fan of deep notes, the JVC XX are not the earbuds for you. Along with that incredibly amplified bass is an amplified battery. The JVC XX can last a whopping 15 hours on a single charge, making these earbuds the endurance kings of the truly wireless world.
The charging box can be fully charged twice more, which means you can use the JVC XX for almost 48 hours before you have to plug the box into the power cord. Speaking of the charger, it’s a large, sturdy aluminum case. The slide-out tray feels solid and snaps into place with a satisfying click. There’s no option for wireless charging, but given that you won’t need a USB-C cable very often, that’s not such a bad thing.
Sony Walkman NW-WS413
Best earbuds for swimming
No matter how waterproof you make them, true wireless earbuds won’t be able to play your music if you dive under the surface. It’s just physics: Bluetooth can’t travel through water like it does through air. And should an earbud become detached while swimming, the chances of getting it back are slim to none. That’s why the Sony W-Series Walkman Sports MP3 player wins this category, even though they have no wireless capabilities at all.
Not only can they be fully submerged and continue to play music, but they can also work in salt or fresh water down to a depth of 2 meters – so just jump in at the deep end. It even stays put after that cannonball, as it’s held in place by both around-the-ear hooks and a small strap that sits tightly around the back of your head. The headphones also feature unique earbuds that are designed to prevent water from entering the driver housing – which would otherwise ruin the headphones forever.
The Sony WS413 Walkman WS Series is an all-in-one device that doesn’t need to be connected to a phone or other playback source; instead, it has 4GB of storage for your music and you can transfer songs and playlists to your PC via the included USB cable.
Apple AirPods Pro
The best earbuds for Apple fans
The truth is, there are better-sounding earbuds that can work with iPhones, but even then, we still think the AirPods Pro are the best iOS-specific choice, thanks to how Apple they are. For better or worse, the AirPods Pro have all the hallmarks of an Apple product: They’re sleek, feature-rich and extremely easy to use. The design includes easy operation and no hassle with compatibility with other Apple products.
That last point is probably the main reason why the AirPods Pro are our choice for the best wireless headphones for use with iPhones. Unlike other Bluetooth devices, AirPods Pro are designed to automatically sync with your device. Perhaps most importantly for Apple users (aside from the iconic style), these earbuds couldn’t be easier to pair and set up. Just open the box, hold the new AirPods next to your iPhone and you’re ready to listen.
Once paired, the AirPods Pro also automatically appear on all your Apple devices connected to iCloud, such as a companion iPad or MacBook. Switching can be done with a single click, but if you’re using the latest versions of iOS and macOS, it can even be done automatically. They are also IPX4 sweat proof and offer much better sound quality. Earlier in 2020, Apple added spatial audio to the AirPods Pro, making them an intriguing companion for watching movies on Apple devices.
Master & Dynamic MW08
The best earbuds for listening to music
When it comes to true wireless earbuds that deliver audiophile-quality sound, it’s just a small group. The Master & Dynamic (M&D) MW08 is one of the leaders, a beautifully designed set of earbuds that sound as good as they look.
M&D is no stranger to the truly wireless world. The MW07 and MW07 Plus models were both very well received for their excellent sound, and the MW08 takes design one step further. They are smaller and more comfortable than the previous models, and the battery life is incredibly long, up to 12 hours between charges when you turn off active noise cancellation (ANC) and keep the volume below 50%.
The stainless steel charging casing offers another 30 hours of capacity, for a total of 42 hours before you need to plug them back in with a USB-C cable. But the real story here is the MW08’s sultry sound. Across all frequencies, from the lowest lows to the highest highs, these earbuds deliver a crisp and precise response so you can appreciate every element of a song. Whether it’s the thumping bass of hip-hop or the delicate resonances of jazz and classical, the MW08 doesn’t sacrifice anything.
M&D has used a number of exotic materials for the MW08, including ceramic and aluminum, giving them a sophisticated, high-end look that stands out from the all-plastic designs of Sony, Bose, Apple, and Sennheiser. They also have physical control buttons instead of the ubiquitous touch controls. These buttons give you access to every function, from volume to voice assistance, and have very precise controls.
Amazon Echo Buds 2
The best earbuds for Amazon Alexa fans
We were already big fans of the original Amazon Echo Buds, so when Amazon released the next version (technically called Echo Buds 2nd Gen) for the same price but with some nice upgrades, we knew they would be a solid choice.
What sets the Echo Buds 2 apart from other earbuds (other than Alexa, which we’ll get to in a moment) is the sheer value they offer. For $120 ($140 for the version with wireless charging) you get a small and comfortable set of earbuds, with an equally small charger. They have active noise cancellation (ANC) and a transparency mode, they pause the music automatically when you pull out an earbud, they can be used independently, and they even have a basic workout tracking feature.
Using the Alexa app (which you actually need for all the advanced features), you can adjust the EQ settings, adjust the sidetone (how much of your own voice you hear during conversations), and even find your earbuds if you lose them. To put that in perspective: Such a set of features would normally cost $180-the price of the Jabra Elite 75t-so $120 feels like a bargain. The sound quality is very good. Not quite what you’d get from more expensive earbuds, but close enough for people who just want good music or podcasts for their daily commute.
The battery life of the earbuds themselves is slightly better than Apple’s AirPods Pro at five hours with ANC and Alexa enabled and 6.5 hours with these features turned off, but nothing special compared to other earbuds in this price range. Unfortunately, the box can only be fully charged twice, so you may have to change your habits.
Things To Know Before Buying the Best Earbuds
- Driver: the unit that produces sound in headphones, consisting of magnets, voice coils, and other materials. Typically, the larger the driver, the more power a headset has, and generally, the more significant drivers in in-ear headphones indicate that a better range of frequencies can be reproduced.
- Dynamic Driver: a single driver that can cover the entire frequency range. The diaphragm is directly connected to a voice coil in the headphones, whereby the voice coil moves between magnets to produce sound.
- Balanced Armature Driver: In a balanced armature driver, the diaphragm of the headphones are connected to the anchor, with micro-vibrations that produce the sound. Most balanced luminaire drivers are best within a specific frequency range. That’s why many headphones contain multiple balanced drivers, with particular frequencies divided over drivers for full-spectrum sound.
- Sound phase: the perceived size and depth of the sound coming through the headphones.
- Passive noise isolation: noise that is blocked by the headset based on the physical shape and size in your ear.
- Frequency range: the spectrum of frequencies that a headset can reliably reproduce.