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Earbuds have become the most convenient way to enjoy music or movies. Whether you go for traditional wired, or completely wireless, you'll never find a more simple way to get connected. However, there are quite literally thousands of earbuds available, and if you want to get yourself a pair you'll love, picking one could be a daunting task. Unless you've got us. In which case, it's easy. For more background information on earbuds, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
 

How We Choose

Earbuds are constantly coming in and out of The Master Switch offices. We review dozens of them, and we're always looking to see what's coming next, and whether they're going to be as good as what's come before. We have a ton of experience with wired, wireless, and true wireless earbuds, and we dove deep to come up with the list below.

To make things easier, we decided to place earbuds into several categories, from the Best Overall and Best Budget, to Best High-End and more. We looked very closely at sound quality, value-for-money, and how easy the earbuds were to use. Once we picked winners, we then looked at the ones that didn't quite make it, and weighed out their pros and cons. You'll find those listed below, too. Worth noting: throughout this list, and the subsequent buying advice, we'll use the terms in-ear monitors, or IEMs, and earbuds interchangeably. For our purposes here, they mean the same thing.
 

Best Overall Earbuds

1. Jabra Elite Active 65t ($190)

Jabra Elite Active 65tCategory: True Wireless
Battery Life: 5 Hours
Smart Assistant: Google, Alexa, Siri
What We Like: Terrific sound, intuitive, great for both workouts and day-to-day use.
What We Don't: Case can be a little fiddly.

How do you make the best pair of earbuds out of the thousands currently available? You be really, really good at almost everything, and offer the result at a very attractive price. True wireless earbuds – where there are no wires connecting the buds – are still in their infancy, but there's a real sense that Jabra have a handle on what makes a great pair. The Jabra Elite Active 65t feels like a culmination of everything the company knows about creating audio gear, and it's an easy top choice for us.

What really impressed us with the Elite Active 65t, more than anything else, was how easily they moved between different situations. They were perfectly at home in the gym, on a commute, or working in an office. Their discrete build helped, and although the Elite Active 65t don't magnetically attach to the charging case, like the less-expensive Apple AirPods, below, the additional charges the case provides proved super helpful. The sound quality was excellent - although not quite as good as that found on the $199 Bose Soundsport Free. That's not a huge issue, as it beats the Bose in so many other areas. More importantly, they feel like they should cost a lot more than they do; $190 is pretty low to pay for the amount you get. These earbuds hit almost every mark, and we unhesitatingly recommend them...Read our in-depth review
See the Jabra Elite Active 65t
 

A Close Second

1More Quad Driver In-Ear2. 1More Quad Driver In-Ear ($150)

Category: Wired
Battery Life: N/A
Smart Assistant: None
What We Like: Incredible sound for the price.
What We Don't: Quite low-tech.

The 1More Quad Driver In-Ears - the improved version of the Triple Diver In-Ears - still don't have a ton of advanced features. They don't have Bluetooth, and the don't give you access to Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. You know why we've put them in the top three? Because for under $200, the sound and build quality are simply unbelievable.

We are talking rich, crisp, dynamic audio that will flatter any song or artist, and for much less than our High-End pick. We would even go so far as to say we prefer them to the more expensive Brainwavz B400, which cost $200. Not to mention the fact that this gorgeous sound is wrapped up in what looks and feels like a premium package. The value here is absolutely astonishing, and these remain one of the most astounding pairs of earbuds we've ever tested. Very obviously, they won't be of interest if you're in the market for wireless earbuds, or true wireless; the Jabras beat them because they offer so much, and do it all so well. But these are an absolute joy to use, and you owe it to yourself to hear them.
See the 1More Quad Driver In-Ear
 

Best Budget Earbuds

3. Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus ($10)

Venture Electronics VE MONK PlusCategory: Wired
Battery Life: N/A
Smart Assistant: None
What We Like: The sound you get for the price is off-the-charts good.
What We Don't: Flimsy build, almost no modern technology whatsoever.

You read that price right. We didn't leave off a zero, we promise. The dirty little secret about the world of in-ear headphones is that the super-cheap ones can, on occasion, beat out models nearly twenty times the price. Take it from us when we say that nothing – but nothing – has surprised us more than the VE Monk Plus. They are considerably better, in just about every way, than something like the $120 urBeats3. We would pick these over those any day. Listening to the Monk Plus for the first time, with expectations set firmly at zero, is a startling experience. The sound feels open and detailed, with a level of realism that other earbuds can't even hope to match. Admittedly, they can't beat models like the 1More Quad Drivers, which sound even better, but they more than hold their own.

Of course, there are downsides. There's almost no modern technology to speak of – you don't even get controls on the cord - and the build is predictably plasticky. Then again: so what? If they break – and ours haven't yet, despite being knocked around in a dozen different backpacks and coat pockets – you can just buy another pair. The VE Monk Plus are comfortable, sound absolutely brilliant, and cost less than what you spend on your lunch break. You should buy them just on principle.
See the Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus
 

Best High-End EarbudsVega.jpg

4. Campfire Audio Vega ($1,099)

Category: Wired
Battery Life: N/A
Smart Assistant: None
What We Like: Incredible sound quality, stellar sale price.
What We Don't: Don't offer the same technology as true wireless buds.

While the Noble Audio Kaiser Encore, below, are objectively better in-ear headphones, our heart belongs to the Campfire Audio Vega. The futuristic design might not be for everyone, but we adore them, and they were a lock for this list from the moment we started planning it.

They will never match the value of the 1Mores or the do-it-all brilliance of the Jabras, but they might be the most impressive in-ears ever made. With non-crystalline diamond drivers, we can understand their steep price tag. Fortunately for those interested, they're currently on sale at $1,099 - making them relatively cheap for high-end earbuds. They offer audio quality that feels punchy and powerful, with fantastic mids and vocals that will reach deep into your soul. These will never offer the technology of models like the Jabras, but if Campfire ever do try their hand at true wireless earbuds, other designers had better watch out.
See the Campfire Audio Vega
 

Best Earbuds for Running

5. Jaybird X4 Sport ($130)Jaybird X4

Category: Wireless
Battery Life: 8 Hours
Smart Assistant: Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa
What We Like: Good sound, easy-to-use, no price increase on the previous model.
What We Don't: Slightly flimsy build.

True wireless earbuds are brilliant for the gym, but when it comes to actual running, we much prefer straight wireless models. If they happen to fall out, they aren't going to bounce into the gutter! We go into this in a little more detail in our buying advice, below, and for our pick for the best running earbuds, we decided to go for Jaybird's brilliant X series. The X3 was already impressive, and the latest model, the X4, adds some advanced waterproofing and app control.

The X4 – brand-new at the time of writing – makes at least one significant improvements to the old X3. They are now fully waterproof, with an IPX7 rating, which means they can be immersed in water down to three feet for 30 minutes. No more excuses about not going running because rain might damage your earbuds. You can customize your sound with a handy app, and we can confirm that the earbuds stay in place during a long run. The sound is good, if not spectacular, but it must be said that we think the plastic build doesn't feel strong as it should. We much prefer these to the Optoma NuForce BE Sport4 – those may be cheaper, at $79, but you definitely get more for your money with the Jaybird X4s.
See the Jaybird X4 Sport
 

Best of the Rest

6. Bose Soundsport Free ($199)

Category: True WirelessBose.png
Battery Life: 4 Hours
Smart Assistant: None
What We Like: Some of the best-sounding true wireless earbuds available.
What We Don't: Minimal battery life, not as waterproof as we'd like.

The Bose Soundsport Free, in our opinion, are the best-sounding true wireless earbuds available. They are better than the Jabra Elite Active 65t on that score, and even go toe to toe with several other models on this list, including the $199 Periodic Audio Titanium - a model renowned for its tight, compact sound quality. They also offer excellent call quality, meaning they are perfect for chatting to people at the gym, or even during the rest of the day.

However, they also have a couple of issues worth mentioning. With four hours of battery, and a piddly IPX4 waterproof rating, the Bose Soundsport Free aren't going to beat the other true wireless models on this list. The charging case does give you additional power, but even so, these aren't the true wireless earbuds to take on a long trip. In our opinion, they are easily beaten out by the cheaper Jabra Elite Active 65t, above. If you want a pair of true wireless earbuds for the gym, those are the ones you should go for. However, for a pair of comfortable earbuds that will work in slightly more sedate situations, these are a good choice.
See the Bose Soundsport Free
 

7. Optoma NuForce BE Sport4 ($79)

Optoma NuForce BE Sport4Category: Wireless
Battery Life: 8 Hours
Smart Assistant: Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa
What We Like: Very decent sound quality for the price.
What We Don't: They don't do anything spectacular.

These aren't quite as advanced as the Jaybird X4s, above. For one thing, the X4s have better waterproofing than the BE Sport4s - IPX7, compared with the IPX5 on offer here. But the BE Sport4s are cheaper, and if you know your earbuds aren't going to deal with heavy water immersion, you may want to spend a little less. The BE Sport4s aren't quite as good as the Jaybirds, but they still deserve their place here. At $79, they remain one of the better pairs of earbuds under $100, and we've had a lot of fun with ours.

You get a solid eight hours of battery life, and sound quality that feels very good for the amount of money you pay. The 1More Quad Driver In-Ears are better in this area, but aren't nearly as good in the gym. Ultimately, while these earbuds will do the job just fine, and offer good value, they don't quite offer enough to make it into the top five.
See the Optoma NuForce BE Sport4
 

8. Apple Airpods ($159)

Apple AirpodsCategory: True Wireless
Battery Life: 5 Hours
Smart Assistant: Siri
What We Like: Intuitive, easy-to-use, store a ton of extra charges in their case.
What We Don't: Sound quality can't compete.

Match these against the Bose Soundsport Free and the Jabra Elite Active 65t sound quality, and they are going to lose. Both of those earbuds are more expensive, and both do a better job with the music. But that's OK, because the Airpods hold their own in plenty of other ways. While earbuds like the Jabras only offer 15 hours of battery life when additional charges from the case are taken into account, the Airpods offer around 24. That's huge, and it makes them a great choice if you are going to be out and about for a while, or are travelling. They also feel more intuitive, and of course, if you have an iPhone, they are absolutely the number one choice, as they pair seamlessly with the phone in seconds. That's something Android users can't do; they will have to rely on Bluetooth.

All the same, they feel like something you'd settle for, rather than actively decide to use. While they are perfectly capable, they are also – dare we say it? A touch boring. As such, we strongly recommend you check out the Bose Soundsport Free and the Jabra Elite Active 65t if you're looking for a great pair of true wireless earbuds...Read our in-depth review
See the Apple Airpods
 

9. Brainwavz B400 ($200)

Brainwavz B400Category: Wired
Battery Life: N/A
Smart Assistant: None
What We Like: Great sound, good range of accessories.
What We Don't: Horrible cable tangles.

Brainwavz aren't as well-known as Bose or Jabra, but they definitely should be. Their B400 wired headphones are excellent, and definitely deserve a place on this list. They didn't wow us quite as much as the 1More Quad Driver In-Ears, which matched outstanding sound quality with a decent price, but their rich midrange and solid soundstage mean that their price is pretty good, too.

We prefer these to models like the RHA T20i; they have a little bit more personality, and a slightly more engaging sound. Their shaped housing means it's easy to get a good fit, and even if you can't, they come with multiple tip sizes. They also have a brilliant range of accessories, including an excellent carry case. You will, however, have to put up with some serious cable tangles - these are not earbuds you want to own if you get frustrated easily. All the same, Brainwavz make excellent earbuds, and these are no exception...Read our in-depth review
See the Brainwavz B400
 

10. Shinola Canfield ($195)

Shinola Canfield In EarCategory: Wired
Battery Life: N/A
Smart Assistant: None
What We Like: Durability, excellent bass.
What We Don't: Awkwardly-placed controls.

Shinola make watches. Yes, we know, we were surprised too - especially when it turned out that their Canfield in-ear headphones were awesome. While we prefer the Brainwavz B400s, which have slightly more exciting and involving sound, the Canfields' build, design, and style make them more than worthy of inclusion on this list.

You may not get advanced features like smart assistant functionality - unusual for such a relatively-new pair of buds - and we really didn't like the awkward placement of the in-line controls, but you do get good sound. It's bassy and compact, with a reassuring solidity that matches the build of the all-metal earbuds. They have a far superior construction to the much-pricier Shure SE535, which are $499 to the Canfields' $195. In addition, the accessories are great, and include one of the best carry-cases we've ever used...Read our in-depth review.
See the Shinola Canfield
 

11. Shure SE535 ($499)

Shure SE535Category: Wireless
Battery Life: 6.5 Hours
Smart Assistant: None
What We Like: Outstanding fit, isolation is often better than noise-canceling headphones.
What We Don't: Different variations for different phones are confusing.

Shure take an unusual approach to product development, that's for sure. Instead of releasing a brand-new version every year, they keep a design that works, and just release models with minor variations and new tech. The SE535s have been around since 2010, and are now available in versions for iPhone, versions for Android, and as straight wired earbuds. It's an interesting approach, but the confusing naming scheme means you need to be careful not to order the wrong one. We've linked to the iPhone-compatible model here.

Put up with this, though, and you're in for a great time. The isolation these provide - meaning, the way they block out the outside world - is often better than some headphones with active noise-canceling. They are certainly better at this than the Campfire Audio Vega, which are nearly double the price. To go with the superb isolation and fit, you'll get excellent, balanced sound quality, making these more than worth the asking price. The bass, in particular, has a ton of impact - helped along by the isolation.
See the Shure SE535
 

12. Samsung Gear IconX ($131)

Category: True WirelessSamsung.jpeg
Battery Life: 5 Hours
Smart Assistant: Google Assistant
What We Like: Affordably priced, good isolation, subtle design.
What We Don't: Not as good as the Jabras, not waterproof.

The Samsung Gear IconX are some of the newest true wireless earbuds to join the runnings. Acting as solely Android-friendly buds, these are designed for the active Android user - sorry Apple fans! The Gear IconX are equipped with an app that gives you access to training and exercise programs - like the Jabra Elite, above - and they have easy-to-use tap controls like the Bose SoundSport Frees. They are affordable, at $131, in comparison to other true wireless earbuds, and their sleek design makes them perfect for someone looking for a discrete pair of buds. They also have a 4GB internal memory that allows you to save up to 1000 songs for on-the-go listening - a feature we usually only see in over-ear headphones.

While they are a great value, the downside of the Gear IconX is that they don't have the sound quality we like to see in our earbuds. In comparison to the Bose SoundSport Frees, the Gear IconX are lackluster, and miss the warmth we prefer. The Gear IconX are also not waterproof, which is a big downside for exercise buds. If you're looking for a waterproof pair of earbuds for swimming or running in the rain, see the Jabras at the top of our list.
See the Samsung Gear IconX
 

13. RHA T20i ($146)

RHA T20iCategory: Wired
Battery Life: N/A
Smart Assistant: None
What We Like: Fun and vivacious sound, super-comfortable.
What We Don't: Android users need not apply.

For a pair of earbuds to do really well on this list, they need to make sure that the maximum amount of people are able to listen to them, with as few obstacles as possible. That kind of rules the THA T20i out of contention; Android users will not be able to use the controls, which makes for a frustrating listen. You'll have no problem if you're an iPhone person, but if not, then these will make for a poor buy.

Which is a shame, because they have a lot to recommend about them. They are one of the few earbuds with interchangeable filters, meaning you can customise the sound. What you end up with is a fun, exciting audio signature that brings life to music like EDM and hip-hop. They are also extremely comfortable, with housings that feel moulded to your ears. In this price range, we think the Brainwavz B400 do a better job, and they should be your first port of call. But if you can't find them, RHA are an excellent second choice...Read our in-depth review
See the RHA T20i


14. Periodic Audio Titanium ($199)

Periodic Audio TitaniumCategory: Wired
Battery Life: N/A
Smart Assistant: None
What We Like: Great soundstage, simple and elegant design.
What We Don't: High-end (treble) could use a little work.

The Periodic Audio Titanium earbuds were a wonderful surprise when we heard them. Their elegant, straightforward design was hugely attractive, and they felt extremely comfortable, even for long periods. We also really got into their sound. In particular, we loved how wide they felt, producing a soundstage that put us right in the middle of the music.

That being said: the 1More Quad Driver In-Ears do everything these do, at a much cheaper price. They have design that is just as elegant, and sound that is almost as good, for under half the price ($80). They are definitely our main recommendation. But, if you can't find them, or you want to try something a little bit different, then this indie company is an excellent alternative. We are really looking forward to what Periodic do next – if they can pull off something similar to what 1More did, they are likely to climb the list very quickly...Read our in-depth review
See the Periodic Audio Titanium
 

15. Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear ($100)

Sennheiser Momentum In EarCategory: Wired
Battery Life: N/A
Smart Assistant: None
What We Like: Good sound for the price.
What We Don't: Phone-specific versions, iffy mids.

While these definitely deserve to be on this list, they are about to undergo an upgrade at the time of writing. Sennheiser are about to release the Momentum True Wireless, and although they aren't even available to reviewers yet, they are likely to compete with the Bose, Jabra, and Airpods true wireless models. For now, the Momentum In-Ear remains a good, if unspectacular alternative to the 1More Quad Driver. They are slightly cheaper, and don't perform nearly as well, but they are still worth looking at.

The sound quality is decent, with sophisticated detail and reasonably tight bass. However, we did have an issue with the mids, with elements like vocals receding into the background. While we are on the subject of problems, we also don't like how you have to buy a specific version depending on which phone you have – iPhone, or Android. This is because Android phones take many different forms, and they won't all have the same operating components. It's a problem shared with the more expensive Shure SE535, and it's something we'd like to see consigned to the scrapheap. Fortunately, if you're prepared to wait for the $300 Momentum True Wireless, it will no longer be a problem.
See the Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear
 

16. KZ ATE ($13)

KZ ATECategory: Wired
Battery Life: N/A
Smart Assistant: None
What We Like: Excellent sound, in-line controls.
What We Don't: Beaten out by the amazing VE Monk Plus.

The KZ ATE are a direct competitor to the VE Monk Plus, our pick for the best budget earbuds of this year. It doesn't sound quite as good, with a soundstage that doesn't reach the same width and depth, and overall audio signature that doesn't have the surprising realism the Monk Plus provide. However, what it does have – if you go for the $13 option - is an in-line control segment. Something the Monk Plus does not have.

Any complaints we could offer would feel rude in the extreme. Both the Monk Plus and the ATE punch way, way above their weight class. Although both are beaten out by the more expensive 1More Quad Driver In-Ear, they remain examples of what can be done with a little bit of ingenuity. We dig both of them, and frankly, at these prices you can buy both and compare them yourself.
See the KZ ATE
 

And For When You Get Your Book Deal

17. Noble Audio Kaiser Encore ($1,850)

Noble Audio Kaiser EncoreCategory: Wired
Battery Life: N/A
Smart Assistant: None
What We Like: Glorious audio quality.
What We Don't: No specs, mind-blowing price tag.

The VE Monk Plus, above, may cost less than a sandwich, but the Noble Audio Kaiser Encore costs quite a bit more than a Michelin Star meal, even with wine thrown in. This pair of earbuds is proof of the sheer range of products available, and if you can afford the absolutely stunning price tag, you'll be in for one of the best audio experiences around.

The earbuds are based on the company's amazing K10 model, and feature ten balanced-armature drivers in each bud. This type of driver is unique to in-ear headphones, and almost always delivers superb clarity. You certainly get that here: the Kaiser Encore's sound is extraordinary, with massive dynamic range and a ton of detail. It also helps that they look fantastic. One thing worth mentioning: the company does not supply specs, meaning if you want to match these with a headphone amp – as you should, with a pair this good – things may be a little tricky. At the time of writing, they hadn't responded to our email requesting these; we will update if they do.
See the Noble Audio Kaiser Encore
 

Earbuds Comparison Table

Earbuds Price Batt.* Smart Assistant Controls Imp.** Sens.***
Jabra Elite Active 65t $190 5 Hours Google, Alexa, Siri On-Bud 16Ω 103dB
1More Quad Driver In-Ear $150 N/A None In-Line 32Ω 99dB
VE Monk Plus $10 N/A None None 64Ω 113dB
Campfire Audio Vega $1,099 N/A None None 17.5Ω 102dB
Jaybird X4 Sport $130 8 Hours Google, Alexa, Siri In-Line 16Ω 99dB
Bose Soundsport Free $199 4 Hours Google, Siri On-Bud Unknown Unknown
Optoma BE Sport4 $79 8 Hours Google, Alexa, Siri In-Line 32Ω 92dB
Apple Airpods $159 5 Hours Siri On-Bud Unknown Unknown
Brainwavz B400 $200 N/A None In-Line 30Ω 115dB
Shinola Canfield $195 N/A None In-Line 16.5Ω 104dB
Shure SE535 $499 6.5 Hours None In-Line 36Ω 119dB
Samsung Gear IconX $150 5 Hours Google Assistant On-Bud 16Ω Unknown
RHA T20i $146 N/A None In-Line 12Ω 45dB
Periodic Audio Titanium $199 N/A None In-Line 32Ω 95dB
Sennheiser Mom. In-Ear $100 N/A None In-Line 18Ω 118dB
KZ ATE $13 N/A None None Unknown Unknown
Noble Audio Kaiser Encore $1,850 N/A None None Unknown Unknown

*Batt. = Battery Life
**Imp. = Impedance
***Sens. = Sensitivity

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Those damn cords would not stay straight... | The Master Switch
Those damn cords would not stay straight... | The Master Switch

Earbuds Buying Advice

Earbud Types: Wired vs. Wireless vs. True Wireless

Wired Earbuds

It is so tempting to just kiss wires goodbye, and grab yourself a pair of wireless earbuds. There are plenty of good reasons for doing so – you can read some of them below. But before you do that, it's worth considering why wired earbuds (and wired headphones in general) have been around for so long, and the advantages they have. The biggest advantage is sound quality – while Bluetooth is very good, and getting better every year, the most efficient way of sending sound from one place to another is still to use regular wire. It means you won't lose any audio quality on the way – or less than you would with wireless. In some cases, you can even swap out the cable for one of the higher grade, meaning improved audio quality. Of course, having wires means an extra thing to look out for, as well as the potential dangers of tangles. If you're prepared to put up with that, and want the best sound possible, then we'd strongly suggest a wired pair of earbuds – perhaps the amazing 1More Quad Driver In-Ear, which cost less than $200 and do an incredible job.

Wireless Earbuds

It used to be that wired headphones would connect with absolutely everything, from your phone to your car. Since Apple ditched the headphone jack for its iPhones, that's no longer the case. The advantage of wireless earbuds - two earbuds joined by a single, flexible cable - is that they will connect to any Bluetooth enabled device (although some devices will be specific to a certain operating system - Apple or Android). When you don't have to worry about what type of connector you need to get your headphones to work, life becomes very simple indeed. The best wireless earbuds around, in our opinion, are the Jaybird X4 Sport. At $130, they do cost a little bit more than traditional wired earbuds, but they are superbly convenient and offer you access to a ton of tech. As with all wireless earbuds, you will need to sacrifice a little bit of quality, but for most people, it's barely noticeable. Note that wireless earbuds are different from true wireless earbuds – we explain those in the next section.

The Jabra Elite Active 65t are the best earbuds you can buy | The Master Switch
The Jabra Elite Active 65t are the best earbuds you can buy | The Master Switch

True Wireless Earbuds

The Jaybirds mentioned above are wireless earbuds, but they are not true wireless. To qualify for this lofty title, earbuds need to be connected by absolutely nothing at all. They should be two separate pieces, one for each ear, which communicate with each other and with your phone via Bluetooth or Apple Airplay. True wireless is still relatively new, and if you absolutely despise wires and want the most convenient earbuds available, then you should check them out. Our best overall earbuds, the Jabra Elite Active 65t, are true wireless. Like all true wireless earbuds, they are a little more expensive than other models, at $190. But they excel at just about everything, from sound quality to convenience. Of course, there are downsides to true wireless earbuds, as well. They tend to have less battery life than traditional wireless earbuds - although some carry additional charges in their storage cases. It is also a lot easier to lose them, and if you misplace one, you may be in trouble. That's why we recommend the aforementioned Jaybirds for running; the Jabra model may be great in the gym, but if one bud bounces out of your ear while you're jogging down the road, you might never see it again. Plus, they are expensive to replace - Apple charges about $100 per AirPod replacement.

The Apple Airpods have solid battery life | The Master Switch
The Apple Airpods have solid battery life | The Master Switch

Earbud Battery Life Explained

Manufacturers love to trumpet the battery life of their earbuds. It is one of the main deciding factors for anybody who chooses to pick up a wireless or true wireless pair. So, we can understand why. But the key thing to bear in mind is that you should be sceptical about what manufacturers tell you. While we certainly don't mean to suggest that you're being lied to, official battery specs are often drawn from testing that is favorable to the model the manufacturer is trying to sell, and which doesn't always equate to real-life usage. Battery life is dependent on volume, among other things, and testing is sometimes done at a slightly lower volume than many of us would like. To give you an example, the $199 Bose Soundsport Free can manage four hours of battery before they require a charge, whereas Bose claim that you will get five. In our picks above, we've always done our best to give you an accurate picture of the battery life.

Note that things get a little more complicated when you take true wireless earbuds into account. While they may have less battery life than traditional wired models, they also come with carry cases that can also be charged. The cases store these charges, and carrying them around means you can slot your earbuds into them for a quick boost, vastly extending your battery life. In many cases, this not only means that you get a lot more battery life, but also a quick recharge that will give you an hour or two of extra battery. The $159 Apple Airpods (full review here) only need 15 minutes in the case to give you up to two hours more listening time - although taking calls will drain this much faster, and we've had mixed results. In total, a fully-charged set of Airpods with a fully-charged case will give you a full 24 hours of battery, which is pretty damn good.
 

Smart Assistants and Earbuds

Several of the earbuds on our list allow you to access smart assistants. At the time of writing, there are only about three major ones that people use: Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, and Google Assistant. Others exist, like Samsung Bixby and Microsoft Cortana, but the former can be considered the big three.

It's very rare for wired earbuds to have access to smart assistants; it's far more common for wireless and true wireless earbuds. Generally, this happens in one of two ways: either there is a dedicated button or touch control to give you access to a particular smart assistant - like on the aforementioned Apple Airpods - or you're able to access the assistant by holding the play/pause button on the earbud controls. A good example of this are the Optoma NuForce BE Sport4 earbuds, which cost $79, and allow you to talk to the assistant of your choosing. That's generally better than the former option. When there's a dedicated button for an assistant, it often restricts the kind of assistant you can use. The AirPods only allow you to access Siri, where as the BE Sport4s don't care who you talk to. If you do rely on a smart assistant, and like bossing an artificial intelligence around, it's worth finding out which ones your earbuds are compatible with before you buy. We've given you a handy list in our comparison table, above.

Wired earbuds like the BeatsX are best for running | The Master Switch
Wired earbuds like the BeatsX are best for running | The Master Switch

Running Earbuds vs. Gym Earbuds

Try as we might, we couldn't find any stats to tell us how many people who buy earbuds buy them for working out. But we'd bet that it's a very large chunk. Earbuds are light, convenient, usually sweatproof, and serve the very important function of completely blocking out the annoying dudebro lifting weights behind you. But if you are going to buy a pair for running, or for the gym, there are a couple of things worth bearing in mind.

It's very tempting to get a pair of true wireless earbuds, and call it a day. After all, they are the most convenient, and convenience is everything… Right? That's certainly true if you're working out in the gym, making the annoying dudebro look bad with your amazing weightlifting form, or on a stationary bike or treadmill. But if you're out running or cycling in the real world, we would very strongly recommend you get a pair of wireless earbuds, with an actual wire connecting the two buds - like the amazing Jaybird X4 Sport. True wireless earbuds have a nasty habit of becoming detached at the worst possible moment – and once they do, there is no wire to keep them from bouncing away into oblivion. You really don't want to lose one side of your true wireless earbuds, or have them run over by a car. This may or may not have happened to us already.

The Optoma NuForce BESport4 come with a ton of different tips to get a good fit | The Master Switch
The Optoma NuForce BESport4 come with a ton of different tips to get a good fit | The Master Switch

How to Get a Good Fit With Earbuds

It's absolutely essential to make sure that your in-ear headphones fit snugly in your ear canal. A good fit will mean good isolation, which not only means that you block out more of the outside world, but that you don't need to pump the volume so high. Isolation also improves bass, and if you're a basshead, that's super-important. In addition, it helps to prevent the earbuds from falling out – also super-important, we think you'll agree. In addition, you'll need to make sure that the fit isn't too tight, or you'll get some serious ear pain. The good news is, manufacturers often take this into account, and frequently supply different-size tips and wings designed to help you get an exact fit. This is true even for less expensive models: just take a look at the $150 1More Quad Driver In-Ear headphones, which come with eight different tip sizes.

Sometimes, however, the tips supplied by the manufacturers won't cut it. In that case, we strongly recommend you invest in a pair of Comply eartips. These are made from squashy memory foam, and we absolutely swear by them. They always provide an excellent fit, and they are dirt cheap. Buy multiple pairs, and thank us later.
 

Noise-Canceling Earbuds Explained

Noise-cancelling is one of the greatest leaps forward in headphone technology ever. We are not going to explain how it works here, however, for the very simple reason that earbuds that claim to offer noise-canceling technology are almost always terrible, as anybody who has heard the old Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23 QuietPoint can attest to.

They are terrible because noise-canceling technology, for the most part, is reasonably bulky. Not overly so – the amazing Bose QuietComfort 35 II over-ear headphones (full review here) are light, and comfortable enough. But it's still far too bulky for the svelte profile of most in-ear headphones. Some earbuds do include it, but they often have to have a bulky additional unit attached to the cord (they are never true wireless). And honestly, the effect just isn't worth the extra money you pay to have the weight you'll be toting around. More importantly, you simply don't need it. A good pair of earbuds should seal the ear canal off, giving you effective isolation and blocking out the outside world. If you get the fit right – and most earbuds come with multiple tip sizes to allow you to do just this – you will never have to pay money for noise-canceling technology. If you trust us on nothing else, trust us on this: steer clear.

The in-line controls on the Shinola Canfield In-Ears | The Master Switch
The in-line controls on the Shinola Canfield In-Ears | The Master Switch

Touch Controls and In-Line Controls Explained

It's weird to think of the concept of controls - play, pause, volume, track skip – as controversial. But if we have one complaint that we make over and over again when reviewing earbuds, it's about that simple little control segment. It occupies an awkward spot on the cable, or has horrible buttons, or doesn't act like it should. This is one of the major complaints we had about the Beats by Dre BeatsX (full review here). Well, we had many complaints about them, least of all the fact that paying $150 for them was absolute daylight robbery. But we really hated the control module, which had buttons that were fiddly and annoying.

When you're buying a pair of earbuds, it's worth making note of a) whether they have track and volume controls, b) where they are, and c) how they actually work. For most wired and wireless earbuds, the controls should be on a small, cylindrical or flat segment on the cable itself - these are known as in-line controls. You should be able to find them without looking, and you should be able to quickly press the buttons to achieve the desired result. Ditto for true wireless earbuds, which often have a single button on the outside of the housing, or use touch controls. They should respond smoothly and accurately. If any of the earbuds in our picks above had issues with the controls, we've noted it. It also must be said that the above manufacturers are getting better, and there are far more problems than they used to be.

One other thing to note – and this is super important. If you have an Android phone, you may not be able to use the in-line controls on your chosen pair of earbuds. This is because Android is an open-source operating system, unlike iPhone, which means that there are dozens of different phones with different designs, particularly in their microphones. If you have a pair of wired earbuds and use Android, you'll either need to make sure that you buy a model specifically designed for Android phones, or pick another pair of earbuds. As an example of this, the RHA T20i (full review here) do not work with Android phones.

The Shinola Canfield In-Ears have a relatively low impedance of 6.5Ω | The Master Switch
The Shinola Canfield In-Ears have a relatively low impedance of 6.5Ω | The Master Switch

Earbud Impedance and Sensitivity Explained

Most people can probably skip this particular section. It's good to know, and occasionally useful, but if all you want is a pair of convenient wireless or true wireless earbuds, no need to worry about it. It concerns two particular headphone specs, impedance and sensitivity. While they do give you insight into the kind of earbuds you're looking at, you certainly don't need to concern yourself if it's not your thing.

Now that that warning is out of the way, here's how it works. Impedance is a measure of how much power a pair of earbuds requires to actually function. It's measured in ohms (Ω). Very simply, the higher the number, the more power will be required. Anything over about 100Ω, and you need a separate headphone amplifier to make things happen. Fortunately, most earbuds on the market today require very little power to run – even the players with the highest impedance in our list, the Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus, only have an impedance of 64Ω.

Sensitivity is a measure of how much power is needed at a given voltage (usually one milliwatt) to generate a listenable volume. It's measured in decibels (dB), and the higher the number, the more volume is generated at a given power output. This can be important to know, because less sensitive earbuds may require a little bit of extra power to work, which means bumping the volume control up a little, which can result in distortion. But honestly? For almost all models on the market, you can pretty much ignore this. It's very rare to find a pair of earbuds that won't be driven to a respectable volume by a smartphone, or, in cases where you have super efficient models like the Campfire Audio Vega (102dB), by a good headphone amp.

A pair of earbuds from Campfire Audio, who make buds that are pretty pricey | The Master Switch
A pair of earbuds from Campfire Audio, who make buds that are pretty pricey | The Master Switch

Are More Expensive Earbuds Worth It?

This is not as simple a question as you might think. Like most types of audio equipment, there are huge price variances in the world of earbuds. On our list alone, you can spend as little as $10, and as much as $1,850, if you really feel like buying the amazing Noble Audio Kaiser Encore. But what does all this extra money give you? When it comes down to it, aren't the $10 earbuds and the $1,850 earbuds doing the same thing?

Well, yes and no. They both convey sound, but – and forgive us if this sounds obvious – the $1,850 earbuds are really good at it. So, why not just buy the Kaiser Encores? Because sound quality is only one factor. It's a weird truth that the more expensive earbuds get, the less likely they are to have advanced features. That means no wireless / Bluetooth, no smart assistants, no waterproofing or sweat resistance, and no controls. If you're looking for any of those, then the good news is you should probably be spending less, not more. If all you want is outstanding sound, then pull out your wallet.

Could these earbuds help avoid hearing loss? | The Master Switch
Could these earbuds help avoid hearing loss? | The Master Switch

Are Earbuds Bad For Your Ears?

We used to think that this actually didn't matter. No pair of earbuds or headphones was inherently good or bad – it just depended on how loud they were. Pushed past a certain level, depending on the tolerance of the person, and you risked short or long-term hearing loss. As we recently found out, the answer is a little more complicated.

We were at CanJam NYC a while back, which is a big headphone meetup for headphone enthusiasts in New York City. One of the people we got chatting to there was Stephen Ambrose, the man who literally invented in-ear headphones. You read that right. What he told us was a little scary. Ambrose said that headphones, by their very design, compress air. They have to do this to make the sound waves move through it. With normal headphones, there's a little bit of space between the actual headphone driver and your eardrum, but with earbuds, there is far less space. That means there is a ton of pressure in the ear canal, and that means your eardrum is absorbing that pressure. There's also a phenomenon known as acoustic reflex, where your ear canals and eardrum swell up to prevent damaging sound waves from passing through. It helps you get used to louder volumes over time, but it is not good for your ears.

The result is that earbuds are far more likely to damage your hearing than plain old headphones, or speakers. Does this mean you should throw your earbuds out with the trash? No. Simply because they are more likely to do damage doesn't mean they are bad; it just means that you need to be a little bit more careful. Always listen at a lower volume than you normally would – a good tactic, we found, is to start at a comfortable listening level, and then decrease the volume every five minutes. You'll be amazed at how quickly your ears get used to the reduced sound. If you can, try and limit the amount of time you listen for. A couple of hours is probably fine, but if you're listening to music for eight hours straight, your ears are going to hate you.

As a fun side note, Ambrose has developed a type of earbud with a little inflatable bag in place of the tip. The bag absorbs the pressure, instead of your eardrum, meaning you are able to listen for much longer without any risk of hearing, and you don't need to pump the volume nearly as loud. We tried them, and they worked very well. However, given that the model we tested came with a very unsexy-looking syringe, and the bags needed inflating every time you listen, we think there's a little bit of work needed before it catches on.

Back to Our Earbuds Picks Back to Our Comparison Table

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