Earbuds have become the most convenient way to enjoy music, movies, and games. Whether you go for traditional wired, or completely wireless, you won’t find a simpler way to connect to your sound. However, there are quite literally thousands of earbuds available, and if you want to choose a pair you'll love, making the final decision can be a daunting task. Unless you've got us to help, of course. For more background information on earbuds, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Category: True Wireless
Battery Life: 11 Hours (3 Hours on Earbuds, Additional 8 Hours in Charging Case)
Waterproof: Yes - IPX8
What We Like: Solid sound quality, fully waterproof, comfortable for long periods.
What We Don’t: Huge charging case.
If you’re looking for a pair of earbuds that offer supreme convenience, great sound, and enough battery to last you through a long work day, then we strongly recommend the TOZO T10. We’re often asked about less expensive alternatives to the Apple AirPods, and we think the TOZO T10 really fit the bill. They even have some significant advantages over the AirPods, aside from the price. The TOZO T10 have a waterproof rating of IPX8, making them adventure-proof and gym-ready. They’re comfortable to wear for long periods of time, with multiple tip sizes included to make sure you get a good fit. We were also impressed with the sound quality; for the price, it’s quite impressive. The sound is big, bassy, fun, and addictive - perfect for a hard workout or making a noisy commute much more enjoyable.
The main downside to this model is the charging case. Compared to cases from other true wireless earbuds, like the AirPods and the Jabra Elite Active 65T, it’s huge, making it difficult to slip into a pocket. And as good as they are, the TOZO T10 buds do have some competition in this price range. The SoundPEATS True Wireless Earbuds, for example, are almost as good and cost roughly $17 less. If you’re prepared to spend a little more, however, then the TOZO T10 are the way to go. They are excellent all-round earbuds that we think most people will love.
See the TOZO T10
Best Budget Earbuds
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: The sound you get for the price is off-the-charts.
What We Don't: Flimsy build, no in-line microphone.
Other sites won’t tell you about the Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus. They’d rather steer you towards pricier options. But here’s the thing: 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 no model has surprised us more than the VE Monk Plus. Even cheaper earbuds from big name manufacturers can’t compete. We like the $12 Panasonic ErgoFit, below, but they just aren’t as good as the VE Monk Plus. The sound feels open and detailed, with a level of realism that other earbuds can't even hope to match. They don’t have the true wireless convenience of the more expensive TOZO T10, above, but they are superb pair in their own right - a real gem that a lot of other buyers will pass by. If you’re on a budget, and want to quickly and effectively improve your sound, then the Monk Plus are the way to go.
Of course, there are downsides to these earbuds. There's almost no modern technology to speak of – you don't even get controls on the cable - and the build is predictably plasticky. Then again, does this really matter? If they break – and ours haven't yet, despite being knocked around in a dozen different backpacks and jacket pockets – you can just buy another pair. The VE Monk Plus are comfortable, sound absolutely brilliant, and cost less than what you’d spend on your lunch break. You should buy them just on principle.
See the Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus
Best High-End Earbuds
Category: True Wireless
Battery Life: 16 Hours (4 Hours on Earbuds, Additional 12 Hours in Charging Case - Measured with Noise-Canceling On)
What We Like: Excellent noise-canceling, stunning sound.
What We Don’t: No water resistance, charging case feels way too large.
Noise-canceling and earbuds haven’t had a great history, with plenty of manufacturers trying and failing to make them work together. Then Sony came along and absolutely crushed it. The WF-1000XM3 not only offer true wireless convenience and stunning, world-changing sound, but they also do a superb job of blocking out the world around you. Their cancelation easily measures up to that offered by over-ear headphones from Sony and Bose. Despite being expensive, they cost only marginally more than the $199 Apple AirPods, and offer much better performance. If you want to invest some money in your sound, then look no further than the WF-1000XM3.
These earbuds certainly aren’t flawless. For one thing, the charging case is enormous – much bigger than we would expect for a pair of true wireless earbuds at this price. It’s also surprising that these earbuds have no water resistance whatsoever. For comparison, the Bose SoundSport Free, at $199, are quite comfortable in a sweaty gym session or a sudden downpour. If these are issues for you, then you may want to look at alternatives, like the aforementioned Bose or the Jabra Elite Active 65t. If not, then you’ll find a lot to love about the WF-1000XM3, which remain a remarkable high-end pick, and an ideal one for anybody wanting to spend some money on their audio. Although, for the record, that name has got to go.
See the Sony WF-1000XM3
Best of the Rest
Category: True Wireless
Battery Life: 24 Hours (4 Hours on Earbuds, Additional 20 Hours in Charging Case)
What We Like: Intuitive, easy-to-use, great call quality.
What We Don't: The AirPods lack bass, no waterproofing.
We weren’t sold on the Apple AirPods when they first launched, but we’ve learned to love them. The AirPods are an excellent pair of true wireless earbuds that lead the pack in terms of call quality. If you find yourself taking a lot of phone calls on the go, these earbuds should be your number one pick. Although they may seem expensive, this is one of the few cases where we recommend buying the newer model over the previous generation. Apple have improved the battery life significantly, and added wireless voice assistant access and charging. If you have an iPhone, they’re the recommended choice, as they pair seamlessly with the phone in seconds. That's something Android users can't do, however; they will have to rely on Bluetooth.
The one downside to the AirPods is the sound quality. Although there’s a fair amount of detail, you definitely lose some bass in comparison to other models. These earbuds are less energetic and enjoyable than the Jabra Elite Active 65t, for example, which cost $10 less. It’s frustrating that Apple didn’t improve the sound quality with the updated version, but if you do want truly great sound, we recommend spending a little more and buying the $250 Beats by Dre Powerbeats Pro (below). Regardless, the Apple AirPods are a solid pick.
See the Apple AirPods (2nd Generation)
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Surprisingly good sound for the price.
What We Don't: Suspect waterproofing, cable tangles easily.
The Panasonic ErgoFit are the ideal earbuds to buy if you want a pair of quick and dirty buds for the gym or for a run. They’re significantly more rugged than others in this price range. The Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus, our top budget pick, may sound better and be slightly less expensive, but they’re no good for active use. The ErgoFit, however, offer a no-frills way of getting great sound for workouts or on-the-go. We particularly like the sound isolation, which does well with reducing outside noise. It feels tight and clean, aiding in surprisingly decent sound. At least, much better than you’d expect for a mere $15.
There are a few caveats worth bearing in mind, however. The first is that the Panasonic ErgoFit have no waterproof rating. While ours have stood up to a good deal of sweat in the gym, we wouldn’t want to be caught outside in the rain with them and we definitely wouldn’t want to drop them in a puddle. You’ll also have to be content with a cable that tangles quite easily. This can be frustrating, and if you want something a little more convenient, we recommend the SoundPEATS True Wireless Earbuds. They’re a little more expensive, at $33, but are undeniably free of tangled cables.
See the Panasonic ErgoFit
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Incredible sound for the price.
What We Don't: Quite low-tech, finicky controls.
The 1More Triple Driver In-Ears sport a fairly minimal design, lacking modern features that most of the earbuds on this list offer. However, even though they may not have Bluetooth or offer access to Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, the reason we’ve put them in the top ten is their incredible value. For under $70, the sound and build quality are simply unbelievable. For our money, the TDIEs (as we call them) are easily a better pick than the more expensive Bose SoundSport Free and Jaybird Vista. If sound quality is your top priority, these buds should be your first pick.
We’re talking rich, crisp, dynamic audio that will flatter any song or artist, and for $120 less than the Jabra Elite Active 65t. 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. The only downside we found was that they suffer from very finicky controls, which can be a real pain to use. While that could be a deal breaker for some people, the TDIEs are an absolute joy and you owe it to yourself to hear them...Read our in-depth review
See the 1More Triple Driver In-Ear
Category: True Wireless
Battery Life: 36 Hours (4 Hours on Earbuds, Additional 32 Hours in Charging Case)
What We Like: Solid sound and price, good fit, spectacular battery life.
What We Don't: Dull design, bulky case.
The SoundPEATS True Wireless Earbuds have two huge advantages over other models. The first is the extraordinary battery life. You’ll get four hours of listening before a recharge is needed, and the charging case holds an enormous 32 hours of power before needing a recharge itself. That’s far more powerful than models like the Apple AirPods, which are not only significantly more expensive, but offer less battery life (24 hours). The second advantage that the SoundPEATS offer is their bang for buck. If you don’t want to spend the money demanded by the top-ranked TOZO T10s, but you’re also prepared to spend a little more than the Panasonic ErgoFit, then the SoundPEATS are the way to go.
Unfortunately, with great power comes massive charging cases. The one for the SoundPEATS is even larger than the TOZO case, so there’s no way you’ll be slipping it into a pocket. We also have to say that the looks of the SoundPEATS buds are quite poor, with some of the dullest design we’ve seen yet. Regardless of their design flaws, these earbuds offer good sound and extraordinary battery life at a great price.
See the SoundPEATS True Wireless Earbuds
Category: True Wireless
Battery Life: 14 Hours (4 Hours on Earbuds, Additional 10 Hours in Charging Case)
Waterproof: Yes - IPX4
What We Like: Some of the best workout earbuds available.
What We Don't: Minimal battery life, not as waterproof as we'd like.
The Bose SoundSport Free are ideal for working out. These light, comfortable earbuds have stood up to multiple gym sessions in our tests, as well as a couple of decent runs. While they aren’t quite as waterproof as we’d like – the IPX4 rating means they can’t be completely submerged in water, for instance – they more than stand up to a bit of sweat. The SoundSport Free sound neutral and balanced, with enough isolation that you won’t miss the music while you’re working out. We also found that they adjusted to less active situations well, performing splendidly on commutes and while working.
We do have some issues with them, however. Chief among these is the battery life, which is significantly less than other true wireless earbuds. The Jabra Elite Active 65t are not only less expensive, but boast a slightly longer battery life. We also think that, for this price, the waterproofing should be more advanced. However, the Bose SoundSport Free remain an excellent and comfortable pair of earbuds for working out, as well as everyday use.
See the Bose SoundSport Free
Battery Life: 7 Hours
Waterproof: Yes - IPX7
What We Like: Friendly price tag, decent sound quality.
What We Don't: Reliability issues.
Cheap wireless earbuds can often be problematic, but the LETSCOM SP604 are one of the few pairs that passed our tests. While they may lack frills, they have a lot to recommend about them. Not only is the price affordable for most people, but the sound quality is surprisingly decent. You won’t get powerful bass, but if you’re looking for a simple and straightforward pair of workout earbuds, the SP604 will do the trick. We are also impressed with the level of waterproofing. The IPX7 rating easily beats the IPX4 boasted by the far more expensive Bose SoundSport Free.
However, unlike similar models in this price range – we are thinking of the VE Monk Plus – the LETSCOM SP604 have some reliability issues and slightly flimsy construction. It must also be said that the battery life is barely acceptable and we aren’t wild about the audible warnings the earbuds give you when they’re about to run out. If you can look past these issues, however, you’ll find a decent pair of earbuds that will suit all budgets.
See the LETSCOM SP604
Category: True Wireless
Battery Life: 16 Hours (6 Hours on Earbuds, Additional 10 Hours in Charging Case)
Waterproof: Yes - IPX7
What We Like: A rugged and effective pair of workout earbuds.
What We Don't: Unsatisfying sound quality.
Jaybird have never quite had the name recognition of Bose and Jabra, but they’re constantly fighting to stay in the race. The Vista earbuds are the replacement for the Run XT, and they have a lot to recommend about them. They offer excellent waterproofing, exceptional battery life – up to 16 hours when combined with the case – and a rugged design that makes them quite durable. We also really like the looks, which have a ton of personality.
They are not, however, our first choice for either working out or listening to music while commuting. The sound quality just isn’t up to our standards. Compared to the Bose SoundSport Free, it feels unsophisticated and clunky, lacking the detail we’d expect for this price. If sound quality isn’t a priority, then these will still be a good buy, but their deficiencies here place them slightly lower on the list than other models. They’re worth testing out, but may not be a first choice unless you demand a rugged build.
See the Jaybird Vista
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Clean and accurate sound, beautiful design.
What We Don't: Very old-school.
The Tin Audio Hi-Fi T3 are a decidedly old-school pick that may divide listeners. We think they’re worth considering for their clean and accurate sound, which ranks among some of the best on this list – especially at this price. At the moment, only the 1More Triple Driver In-Ear can beat them for sound quality. We also approve of the design, which recalls far more expensive earbuds, including several ultra high-end models that you’ll find on our high-end list. For only $69, the Tin Audio Hi-Fi T3 really impressed us.
However, these are certainly not wireless earbuds. There are no in-line controls, no microphone, no waterproofing, no battery. If you’re looking for convenience, these are absolutely not the earbuds to go for. And as good as they are, at least in terms of sound quality, we do think that the aforementioned 1More Triple Driver In-Ear are a better choice. However, if you prefer the intricate design, the Tin Audio Hi-Fi T3 are an excellent alternative.
See the Tin Audio Hi-Fi T3
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Comfortable, good fit, decent sound for the price.
What We Don't: Poor isolation.
We certainly aren’t against including older models on this list, as we’d much rather save you a bit of money than direct you to the newest, flashiest buds. That’s why we have no trouble recommending the Bose SoundSport In-Ear. Even at $99, they remain a great value, and often see dramatic discounts, which is a big plus for anyone on a budget. What you get for the price is an old-school set of wired earbuds that perform well during workouts and on runs. They’re comfortable to wear for long periods and offer decent sound for the price. It’s true that the Bose SoundSport Free are much more convenient, but they’re also significantly more expensive.
If there’s one issue we’d like to point out about the Bose SoundSport In-Ear, it’s the isolation. In noisy environments, these earbuds really struggle. This may or may not be a problem for you, depending on how noisy your gym is, or how much yelling there is in your office. Regardless, there’s a lot to recommend about these, and you can expect further price drops as new models are released. By the way, make sure you buy the right model – there are different options available for both iPhone and Android devices. The cost for both should be the same.
See the Bose SoundSport In-Ear
Category: True Wireless
Battery Life: 15 Hours (4.5 Hours on Earbuds, Additional 10.5 Hours in Charging Case)
Waterproof: Yes - IP56
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.
The Jabra Elite Active 65t have begun to age now, and are being bested at their own game by the likes of the Jaybird Vista, at $180. However, they remain a terrific pair of true wireless earbuds that are perfectly at home in the gym, on a commute, or working in an office. Their discrete build helps, and although the Elite Active 65t don't magnetically attach to the charging case like the Apple AirPods, the additional charges the case provides allow for extended use.
The sound quality is excellent, but not quite as good as that found on the $199 Bose SoundSport Free. Ultimately, you go for these if you’re prepared to spend a little money, but don’t want to stretch to the stratospherically expensive Beats by Dre Powerbeats Pro, below. We know that Jabra have some new models in the works - we’ll be testing those soon - so check back to see if they’re good enough to warrant replacing the Elite Active 65t on this list...Read our in-depth review
See the Jabra Elite Active 65t
14. Betron B25 ($13)
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Good build, nice range of accessories, friendly price.
What We Don't: Other models beat the B25 on sound quality.
The Betron B25 surprised us. They may not sound as good as the Venture Electronics Monk Plus, and they certainly don’t have the rugged build of the Panasonic Ergofit. But for $13, we weren’t expecting a pair of earbuds with a build this good or a design this classy. They feel and look like they should cost much more, and we love the range of accessories, including the cloth carry bag. If you want something a little classier than most mass-market earbuds, we’d strongly recommend the Betron B25.
You shouldn’t expect great sound quality with them, however. Especially when compared to the aforementioned Monk Plus, which also cost five dollars less. The audio quality is very heavy on the bass, with distortion at higher volumes. If you’re prepared to forgive the Betron B25 for this – and you really should, because the price tag is quite friendly – then you’ll find a very capable pair of traditional wired earbuds here. And ones that look much nicer than many similarly priced models.
See the Betron B25
Category: True Wireless
Battery Life: 13 Hours (6 Hours on Earbuds, Additional 7 Hours in Charging Case)
What We Like: Great bass, simple operation.
What We Don't: Issues with touch controls, and Samsung Bixby is terrible.
The Samsung Galaxy Buds are a huge leap forward from their predecessors. Samsung hooked up with AKG to tune the Galaxy Buds, and the result is that they sound fantastic. They feature excellent bass that far outstrips anything Apple has ever released, easily besting the more expensive AirPods. What the Apple AirPods are to iPhones, the Samsung Galaxy Buds are to the Galaxy series. While the Galaxy Buds have a more traditional true wireless earbud shape, they have the same proximity pairing as the AirPods, and the same wireless charging feature.
Go deeper, however, and you'll encounter noticeable differences. The AirPods have better battery life - 24 hours versus 13 for the Galaxy Buds. The Galaxy Buds also rely on Samsung Bixby, which is not exactly the best virtual assistant available. We also aren’t fans of the hit-and-miss touch controls. However, the Galaxy Buds are clearly a premier choice for those who have a Samsung smartphone.
See the Samsung Galaxy Buds
Category: True Wireless
Battery Life: 24 Hours (8 Hours on Earbuds, Additional 16 Hours in Charging Case)
What We Like: Very good sound, superlative design and controls, great battery life.
What We Don't: Volume issues, large charging case.
We never in a million years thought that we’d put a Beats by Dre product here. Historically, their products have been awful. But the Powerbeats Pro true wireless earbuds are genuinely an exception. Not only do they offer balanced and clean sound quality that’s surprisingly nuanced, but the design is impeccable. The Powerbeats Pro are easy-to-use with clear controls, and offer extensive battery life. At 24 hours, only the Apple AirPods and SoundPEATS True Wireless Earbuds can compete with them.
However, their huge price tag – easily one of the most expensive on this list – makes them a poor choice for most people. While they do offer a lot of value, we can’t put them higher on the list without a major price drop. And as good as the Powerbeats Pro are, they do have some significant downsides. Despite being water resistant, there’s no official IP rating, which means it’s hard to tell just how much water they can take. The charging case is also one of the largest we’ve seen. While that’s not necessarily a huge problem, it could be a factor if you habitually slip your charging case into a pocket...Read our in-depth review
See the Beats by Dre Powerbeats Pro
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Stunning sound quality with rich detail.
What We Don't: Huge price tag.
While their enormous price tag will put them out of the range of most people – and we can’t, in good conscience, recommend you buy them over something as assured as the Sony WF-1000XM3s – the Shure SE846 are easily some of the best earbuds you can get. The company is known for its precise sound quality, and that’s very evident here. The SE846 deliver superlative sound quality, with rich detail and clarity that is unrivalled. If you’re prepared to spend the money, and sound quality is important to you, then we strongly recommend going for the Shure thing. You can even adjust the type of sound you get, via switchable inserts.
You should be aware of what you’re buying here, however, and it’s not convenience. These are not true wireless earbuds, by any stretch of the imagination, and are far more at home in a static listening set up, such as at a desk. As long as you’re okay with that, and don’t mind selling a kidney to afford them, the Shure SE846 will make you quite happy.
See the Shure SE846
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Good functionality, classic design, reliability.
What We Don't: Very basic design.
The classic. The legend. The Apple EarPods may be positively prehistoric now, but we’re all in favour of including them on this list. If you want to save some money, and get a pair of earbuds that are reliable and efficient, we strongly recommend the EarPods. Unlike the AirPods, you don’t need an iPhone to use them – you can buy them at a reduced price with a regular 3.5 mm connector, as well as a Lightning connector for newer iPhones (which is the model we’ve linked to above). The sound quality is good, if unspectacular, but the EarPods certainly get the job done.
That being said, they have been outstripped by just about every other pair of earbuds on this list in terms of design. We also hate how quickly the cable tangles, and we genuinely think that Apple went for the true wireless design for the AirPods because not even the best engineers could figure out how to fix this one. The EarPods are never going to occupy the top numbers on this list, but as a basic, no-frills alternative that have proven their worth over again, they deserve a spot here.
See the Apple EarPods
Battery Life: N/A
What We Like: Excellent sound, in-line controls.
What We Don't: Doesn’t offer anything that rivals don’t have.
The KZ ATE are a direct competitor to the VE Monk Plus - our pick for the best budget earbuds of this year. The KZ ATE don’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 they do 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 to 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 Triple Driver In-Ear, they remain examples of what can be done with a little bit of ingenuity. We dig both of them, and at these prices you can buy both and compare them yourself. It must be said that the Panasonic Ergofit are arguably a more rugged and versatile option - we aren’t sure we’d take the KZ ATE to the gym.
See the KZ ATE Copper
|TOZO T10||$50||True Wireless||11Hrs||IPX8||None||Unknown||Unknown|
|VE Monk Plus||$9||Wired||N/A||No||None||64Ω||113dB|
|Sony WF-1000XM3||$228||True Wireless||16Hrs||No||Google, Alexa||Unknown||Unknown|
|Apple AirPods (2nd Gen)||$169||True Wireless||24Hrs||No||Siri||Unknown||Unknown|
|SoundPEATS TW||$33||True Wireless||36Hrs||No||Google, Alexa||Unknown||Unknown|
|Bose SoundSport Free||$199||True Wireless||14Hrs||IPX4||Google, Siri||Unknown||Unknown|
|Jaybird Vista||$180||True Wireless||16Hrs||IPX7||None||23Ω||103.5dB|
|Tin Audio Hi-Fi T3||$69||Wired||N/A||No||None||16Ω||95dB|
|Bose SoundSport In-Ear||$99||Wired||N/A||No||None||Unknown||Unknown|
|Jabra Elite Active 65t||$190||True Wireless||15Hrs||IP56||Google, Alexa, Siri||16Ω||103dB|
|Samsung Galaxy Buds||$130||True Wireless||13Hrs||No||Bixby||Unknown||Unknown|
|Beats Powerbeats Pro||$250||True Wireless||24Hrs||No||Siri||Unknown||Unknown|
|KZ ATE Copper||$12||Wired||N/A||No||None||Unknown||Unknown|
*WP. = Waterproofing
**Imp. = Impedance
***Sens. = Sensitivity
- Comfort and Fit
- Sound Quality
- Earbud Types
- Battery Life
- Call Quality
- Voice Control: Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant
- Working Out with Earbuds
- Music vs. Video vs. Gaming
- Are Earbuds Bad for Your Ears?
- Noise-Canceling Earbuds Explained
- Impedance vs. Sensitivity
- Stepping Up From Your Phone to a DAP
It's absolutely essential to make sure that your earbuds fit snugly in your ear canals. After all, if they don’t fit well, what’s the point? You want a pair you can wear comfortably for hours at a time. 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. Sometimes, you’ve got many different options: just take a look at the $70 1More Triple Driver In-Ear headphones, which come with eight different tip sizes. More commonly, you’ll get at least three different tip options. We suggest experimenting to find what works, and remember, you can have a different size tip for each ear.
We also highly recommend taking a little bit of time to make sure you know the best way to insert your chosen earbuds into your ears – it’s not as simple as just squashing them in. A pair of true wireless earbuds, like our top-ranked TOZO T10, will need to be inserted in the ear with a screwing motion to lock them in place.
In addition, a good fit will mean good isolation, a term that refers to the earbud’s ability to block out the noises around you by sealing your ear canal. Good isolation also means that you don't need to pump the volume so high, and also improves bass. 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 ear tips. These are made from squashy memory foam, and we absolutely swear by them. They always provide an excellent fit and are dirt cheap. Buy multiple pairs, and you can thank us later.
You should know what sound quality to expect when you’re buying a pair of earbuds, and the trade-offs you make when you opt for in-ear headphones over larger over-ear models. Firstly, the good news. Assuming you can get a good isolation – see the section above this one for useful tips on this – even smaller, less expensive earbuds can give you some truly superb sound quality. Getting a good seal with your ear canal means that no sound will be lost to the outside world, which will give you punchy bass and crisp treble.
It’s worth being aware of what you’ll get for your money, however. Very obviously, a pair of sub-$100 earbuds is not going to be able to compete with something like the $200-plus Sony WF-1000XM3 noise-canceling buds. The Sony’s offer better sound quality. You get what you pay for, after all, and much of what you’re paying for here is the quality of the components and the research that goes into tuning them. More expensive earbuds will often offer greater detail in the sound, whereas less-expensive models tend to sacrifice detail for energy, particularly in the bass. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it just means that you need to be aware of what you’re getting.
And the great part about the world of earbuds is that you can often get very expensive models that sound fantastic. Case in point: the Venture Electronics Monk Plus, our top budget pick, with a staggering price tag of $9. They sound far better than you’d expect them to, and even if Venture Electronics aren't super well-known, we think they are easily the best budget earbuds you can buy. Ultimately, what it comes down to is that price is often misleading – you can frequently get great sound from less expensive earbuds, if you’re prepared to look. And by look, we mean check out our handy list above.
There are three main types of earbuds available, and it’s worth talking about the ones you’re likely to encounter. We also break down the advantages and disadvantages of each, so if you’re pondering whether to buy a pair of true wireless or go for a more traditional wired model, this is where you need to be.
True wireless earbuds are what the future looks like. They are quickly becoming the most common type of earbuds available and with good reason. They’re convenient, simple to use, and sound terrific. To qualify, 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 2. Given that most smartphone manufacturers are ditching their headphone jacks, wireless earbuds – and true wireless earbuds in particular – are going to be the standard within a year or so.
They operate via tiny batteries, and to charge them, you insert them into a specially designed case, itself often small enough to slip into a pocket. The case can hold a good deal of power once it’s charged – enough to not only fully charge the buds themselves, but to do so two or three times. Although they are getting cheaper, true wireless earbuds do tend to be a little more expensive – as anybody who has bought a pair of $199 Apple AirPods (2nd Gen.) can confirm.
There are downsides to true wireless earbuds, as well. It is much easier to lose them than traditional wired buds, and if you misplace one, you may be in trouble. Plus, they are expensive to replace - Apple charges about $79 per AirPod replacement. Controlling true wireless earbuds can often be tricky. Right now, the industry hasn’t quite figured out how to approach this, with awkward solutions ranging from touch controls to sketchy voice activation. Having said that, some models – like the incredible Beats Powerbeats Pro (full review here) – have figured it out. The Powerbeats use a simple physical control system which is mirrored on each bud, and it works very well.
Traditional wireless earbuds are becoming less common over time. After all, why would you settle for an additional cable connecting your two earbuds when you could easily go for a true wireless model? But despite their old-school style, there are some definite advantages to traditional wireless earbuds. The biggest one is that they are often significantly cheaper – for example, the LETSCOM Bluetooth Headphones in our list of picks above cost a mere $20, offering a very convenient and affordable way to listen to music. Another advantage is that it’s a lot harder to lose a pair of wireless earbuds than a pair of true wireless earbuds or their charging case.
Like true wireless earbuds, traditional wireless earbuds connect via Bluetooth. As long as your device offers it – and we’d struggle to find a smartphone or tablet on the market that doesn’t – you’ll be able to connect within seconds.
It is so tempting to just kiss wires goodbye and grab yourself a pair of wireless or true wireless earbuds. There are plenty of good reasons for doing so – you can read some of them above - but before you do that, it's worth considering why wired earbuds (and wired headphones in general) have been around for so long, as well as the advantages they have. The biggest advantage is sound quality. While Bluetooth is quite good, and improving 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. You will never run out of battery life, or have any issues with laggy audio thanks to dodgy Bluetooth connections. You just have to plug them in, and go.
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 Triple Driver In-Ear, which cost less than $70 and do an incredible job.
Manufacturers love to trumpet the battery life of their earbuds. It’s one of the main deciding factors for anybody who chooses to pick up a wireless or true wireless pair. 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...shall we say, 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, making it easy to carry them around and 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 almost right away. The $199 Apple AirPods (2nd Gen.) 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 24 hours of battery, which is pretty damn good.
While it’s obviously good to have a pair of wireless earbuds with a long battery life, you should be aware that you always pay more for the privilege. If all you plan on doing is using your earbuds on a commute, then you probably don’t need to spend the money for a huge battery life – especially when you’ll have a chance to recharge your buds regularly. But if you do a lot of travelling, and are on flights or in airports frequently, then you may want to invest in a pair that has an extended battery life.
Everybody is unlucky enough to get caught in a downpour sometimes, so it’s worth knowing if your earbuds will stand up to a little bit of water. Fortunately, there’s a very simple measurement for this: the IP rating. IP stands for Ingress Protection, and gives you an idea of just how resistant a pair of earbuds is to water and dust. You’ll see it listed as the letters IP followed by two numbers. The first number refers to dust protection, and the second to water. The higher the numbers, the better the protection.
You’ll often see earbuds with ratings that read something like IPX7. What that means is that the earbuds do not guarantee any dust protection, but have a high water resistance. For the most part, it’s that last number you want to worry about – unless you bury your earbuds in sand, you’re not likely to damage them with a little bit of dirt. Here’s a full breakdown of what IP ratings mean, but we can summarise it all for you in a couple of sentences.
Generally speaking, we wouldn’t recommend going below IPX4, which means that your earbuds will be protected from a couple of splashes of water. If you can, try and go for a pair of earbuds that rated at least IPX7. This means they can be submerged for up to 30 minutes, down to 3 feet. Although we probably wouldn’t recommend going swimming with a pair of earbuds, this level of rating does mean that you won’t suffer for getting them wet. The excellent Jabra Elite Active 65t (full review here) have a rating of IP56, which is more than enough for most people – and definitely enough to take a little bit of sweat in the gym, or a sudden downpour.
However, there’s no guarantee that any earbud manufacturer will actually list an IP rating. If you don’t see one, you should assume that your earbuds are not waterproof, and keep them away from any moisture. Generally speaking, you can get by without an IP rating, especially if you don’t plan on using your earbuds in the gym. The more waterproof a pair is, the more expensive it will be. Keep that in mind when buying.
There’s no denying how convenient earbuds are for taking phone calls. If you regularly find yourself on conference calls with work colleagues, especially ones that go on for quite a while, then comfort and call quality become paramount. A lot goes into determining the quality of the audio you’ll get on a call, and only some of it is actually contained in your earbuds. The buds have to not only pick up your voice with the utmost clarity and transmit it, but they have to reject any ambient noises, like wind or your boss farting as he walks by.
Almost all the choices on our list above have a built-in microphone, so they should be able to take calls. This is an absolute guarantee if the buds in question are true wireless. Right now, the unquestioned, all-time champion of call quality are the Apple AirPods (2nd Gen.). They’ve never let us down, and if crystal clear phone calls are something you value, you should seriously consider them. One word of warning, however: wireless and true wireless earbuds, including those AirPods, do depend on a Bluetooth connection to work. If you can’t risk Bluetooth interruptions or lag, then we strongly recommend getting a pair of wired earbuds. Even a simple pair, like the Panasonic Ergofit ($15) offer decent call quality.
Several of the earbuds on our list allow you to access smart assistants. At the time of writing, there are three major ones that people use: Apple Siri, Amazon 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, or you're able to access the assistant by holding the play/pause button on the earbud controls. A good example? The Bose SoundSport Free, which allow you to access both Siri and Google Assistant at the touch of a button.
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. As a general rule, Google Assistant is the smartest, and best at answering follow-up questions. Amazon Alexa is close behind, and Siri a distant third. Bear in mind, however, that using any of these will mean speaking aloud - something you may want to avoid in a crowded place, unless you don't mind looking a little silly! Speaking quietly can work, but only if the surroundings aren't too loud.
There’s a firm belief we used to have here at TMS: true wireless earbuds for the gym, traditional wireless for roadwork and trail running. This is because of a funny story where we were running with a pair of true wireless earbuds and one came loose and bounced into traffic and found itself under the wheel of a passing car. Here’s a pro tip: replacing one side of a pair of true wireless earbuds is expensive.
But the thing is, true wireless earbuds have improved since our little traffic incident. As long as you select the right tip size – more on this here – you can get a sufficiently good fit that will take quite a lot for the earbuds to dislodge themselves. If you’re investing in a pair of earbuds for working out – be it running, cycling, or in the gym – we strongly recommend a pair of true wireless earbuds. They are greatly convenient and eliminate the chance of being bothered by wires tickling the back of your neck.
The top workout buds on our list are probably the Bose SoundSport Free. While they are pricey, at $199, they also have a rock-solid fit, and offer excellent sound quality. They are also resistant to water, with an IPX4 waterproof rating, meaning they can withstand a little sweat and a few drops of rain (more on IP ratings and waterproofing here). If you want to spend slightly less, and are OK with a wire joining your two earbuds, we recommend the SoundPEATS True Wireless Earbuds. They may not sound quite as good as the Bose buds, but they are a bit more water resistant, with an IPX5 rating, and they will stay locked in your ears throughout a heavy gym session.
The good news about buying a pair of earbuds is that all models on the market are incredibly versatile. In terms of audio quality, they’re able to deliver the goods whether you’re listening to music, watching a YouTube video, or gaming. But those activities do lend themselves to certain types of earbuds, and if one or more of those is particularly important to you, it’s worth going in with a little more information.
The best way to think about this is in terms of the stress each activity puts on a pair of earbuds. Listening to music on Spotify, for example, isn’t a particularly stressful activity for a pair of buds. All it is is a regular, steady stream of audio, transmitted either through wires or Bluetooth. It’s not particularly demanding, and so it’s suitable for just about any type of earbud. But if you are playing a PC game, for example, you need to make sure that any audio you hear arrives at the same time as the action on screen. You want to avoid latency or lag – essentially, a technical glitch whereby your audio arrives late, or drops out entirely. For this reason, we would advise buying a pair of wired earbuds if you plan to do any gaming. Something like the Tin Audio Hi-Fi T3 would be ideal. They are relatively inexpensive, at $69, and will give you excellent sound quality and a stable wired connection.
Video occupies the middle ground. Latency and lag are more of a problem here for music, but less so than they would be for gaming. You can probably get away with whichever type of earbuds you are most comfortable with, be they wireless, wired, or true wireless.
We used to think that this actually didn't matter. No pair of earbuds or headphones were 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 spoke with 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 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 regular 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 more careful. Always listen at a lower volume than you normally would – a good tactic 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 damage, 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 lot of work needed before the trend catches on.
By the way: Bluetooth earbuds won’t give you cancer. This is a popular online conspiracy theory, buoyed by a series of reports about a year ago. The idea behind the theory was that Bluetooth is a type of radiation, and radiation is bad – especially so close to the brain. But the thing is, the amount of radiation Bluetooth devices such as wireless earbuds emit is far less than the amount you’d need to cause even mild damage. Don’t believe us? Just check out the info in the link above.
Noise-canceling earbuds used to be absolutely terrible, as anybody who has heard the old Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23 QuietPoint can attest to. Fortunately, we’ve advanced quite a bit since those were released, and excellent noise-canceling earbuds are now well within the grasp of most people.
That doesn’t mean the technology is widespread or particularly cheap at the moment. You’ll find exactly one pair with noise-canceling on our list: the high-end Sony WF-1000XM3. Those cost over $200, and although they deliver genuinely excellent cancelation, you’ll definitely pay for the privilege. Ultimately, what you should expect from any pair of earbuds that promises cancelation is a strong, even reduction in outside noise – especially with particularly low, steady sounds, like airplane engines. As time goes by, you’ll almost certainly see more earbuds with noise-canceling appear on this list. At the moment, we know that Bose have a pair in the works.
In the meantime, however, if affordable noise-canceling is important to you, you may want to look at a pair of wireless over-ear headphones. It’s much easier to incorporate good quality cancelation into larger headphones, so the technology is much more prevalent in that particular category. However, there’s one saving grace about earbuds. If your isolation is good enough – as in, if the earbuds fit cleanly into the ear canal and seal well – you won’t need any cancelation technology. The outside world will be very effectively blocked off.
Most people can probably skip this section. It's good to know, and occasionally useful, but if all you want is a pair of convenient wireless or true wireless earbuds, there’s no need to worry about it. It concerns two particular headphone specs, called 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 you aren’t particularly interested.
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 100Ω, and you’ll need a separate headphone amplifier to make things run smoothly. Fortunately, most earbuds on the market today require very little power to run. Even the earbuds with the highest impedance in our list, the Venture Electronics VE Monk Plus, only have a rating 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 extra power to sound their best. 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.
If you want to take the next step, there are plenty of ways to increase the level of audio quality you experience. Though most of the options on this list are highly affordable, we’ve included a couple with noticeably higher prices, which will give you much better audio quality. We are thinking of models like the Shure SE846-CL, which cost well under $1,000. You can also look at our list of the best high-end headphones to get a peak at some particularly brilliant earbuds.
You may ask: do you need to spend four figures to get seriously advanced sound quality? The answer is that you do not! You’ll have to imagine our Morpheus voice here, but what if we told you that it was possible to dramatically boost your sound quality for a very small outlay? What if we told you that you could replace your phone with a Digital Audio Player (DAP) – a dedicated device for playing music, with significantly better audio quality than even the most advanced smartphones on the market? And what if we told you that it’s possible to buy a great DAP for around $100?
A DAP is one of the fastest and most enjoyable ways to take your sound to the next level. There are so many good ones available these days, and at fantastic prices. If you’ve ever operated a smartphone, then you’ll be up and running in moments, as some of them even use Android interfaces. For many people, this will be the most affordable and most accessible way of boosting your sound quality, and we think it’s well worth looking at. Check out our list of the best DAPs of this year to get a sense of what’s available.