Updated Jun 29, 2022 10:10 PM
If you’re wondering just how broad the personal audio market has become, consider that one decade after Apple EarPods helped make on-the-go music commonplace you can find earbuds ranging from less than $25 up to well over $1,000. While wired earbuds still exist, True Wireless, or TWS, earbuds, have become the most popular option, thanks to improvements in micro-sized receivers that can deliver huge sound. Bluetooth technology has evolved to the point it can all but guarantee seamless connections, while an array of microphones and sensors help keep music and conversations clear. That means TWS earbuds are no longer a luxury item made by a select few companies. But there are still times when a wire is the way to go. With such a range, how do you find the best earbuds for you? Whether you’re an audiophile or devout Apple buyer, in the market for sports or gaming earbuds, we’ve compiled what you need to know to find the best earbuds that’ll match your needs.
From a secure fit to fabulous sound, the best earbuds can provide what you need. Here are the main things to consider when shopping:
How can I ensure a good fit?
TWS earbuds have become so popular, in part, because companies have been able to develop earbuds that won’t fall out. The best wireless earbuds include ear tips (typically sized S, M, L, but sometimes including middle sizes like SM or ML) that fit snugly and comfortably in the canal of your ear. Some models offer wings or fins that fit the concha and make the earbuds feel locked in place, while other models come with hooks or malleable wires that curl over the top of your ear to secure things. Deciding on the best design is a personal choice but, thankfully, many models come with multiple ear tip options—most often a mix of silicone (better for quick insertion/removal), and foam (better for isolation)—to give you a good chance of finding a fit that’s right for your ears.
What if I might get caught in the rain?
The best earbuds offer some water resistance, and you can even find waterproof earbuds with IP68 ratings—meaning they can be fully submerged in over 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes without damage. If you live in a wet climate or work up a prodigious sweat on the treadmill, look for models with higher water-resistance ratings. But if you just need earbuds that can withstand a little drizzle or a few drops of sweat, an IPX4 rating could suffice. Many charging cases for the best wireless earbuds offer their own amount of water and dust protection, but some of the best budget wireless earbuds sacrifice that added security to bring down the cost.
What if I’m a music-first type?
TWS earbuds can work for audiophiles. The best earbuds have high-resolution receivers, digital audio converters, custom-tuned drivers, and amplifiers that combine to deliver sound that replicates the original recording as closely as possible. Look for codecs (the digital format that compresses and transmits the sound) that match your device to your earbuds. Everyone supports SBC, but Apple prefers AAC, Sony promotes LDAC, and Android devices are more likely to support aptX/aptX HD (various formats operate at varying bitrates, from basic to high-resolution). Information like frequency response can tell you how well the earbuds reproduce low tones to high notes—20Hz to 20kHz is the baseline on which to expand—while the maximum decibel output tells you its capability. At the end of the day, the surest test is to see how the buds sound in your ears, but some of the best earbuds offer detailed EQ customization that almost ensures they’ll play music tailored to your tastes. And if you’re looking for the purest signal, it’s always going to come wired.
What if I need some peace and quiet?
Almost all earbuds provide some amount of passive noise isolation, which means that they are designed with snug-fitting tips that can mute the outside world. Many of the best earbuds, however, offer active noise-canceling (ANC), which means microphones measure surroundings and speakers emit sound waves to neutralize the ambient noise in your environment—the effect makes listeners feel like they are in a cocoon of silence (though some users report a pressurized sensation). Some high-end earbuds step it up to adaptive noise-canceling, which adapts the noise-canceling algorithm based on the sound levels/types or location, and this is often accompanied by a transparency mode, which lets in (and sometimes amplifies) ambient sound when you want to listen to music but also need to hear external announcements, the traffic coming up behind you, etc.
Yeah, what if I still have devices with a headphone jack?
If you’re an audiophile needing the most full-spectrum sound or a gamer needing the lowest lag, or maybe you’re just traveling and want to plug into the in-flight entertainment, shop for the best wired earbuds. While Bluetooth 5.0 should provide a fairly seamless connection, the only way to entirely eliminate lag or frequency response loss is to plug in—although the best Bluetooth earbuds limit these shortcomings to the point where most users can’t even notice it.
What if I’m taking a lot of calls?
If you want to talk to your helpful virtual assistant or want to handle work calls with your staff, you’ll need earbuds equipped with microphones (and if the earbuds have features including ANC, it’s safe to assume there are mics to spare). Beamforming microphones will focus on your voice rather than the sounds around you, while cheaper microphones may mean your listener will get lost in the chatter if you’re in a busy place. Earbud microphones are typically protected by fabric designed to limit wind noise, but if you have the buds in an amplifying mode rather than a noise-canceling mode, you may find the wind distracting.
What if I need my earbuds to last all day?
Earbuds offer playtimes anywhere from a couple of hours to the length of a workday. Charging cases add additional hours—or even days—of battery life before needing to be plugged back in (typically with a USB-C connection). While average earbud life is anywhere between four and eight hours, recharging them typically takes 1.5 hours to 3.5 hours. And many of the best earbuds offer quick-charging options that let you gain an hour or so of playtime in a tiny fraction of that time.
Related: Sharing is caring, and when it comes to sharing music it’s easier with one of the best portable Bluetooth speakers.
The best earbuds
Whether you’re heading out on a trail run, an open-world quest, or just locked in a work groove, there’s a pair of earbuds for you. These are some of the best options for a variety of users.
For dialing in when you’re out: Sony WF-1000XM4
When you’re on the bus or in a noisy gym or cafe, industrial-strength ANC is a welcome feature to eliminate all of the distractions. But when you’re in an airport and need to hear the boarding call, or when you’re gardening and want to hear if family or friends are calling to you, noise-canceling gets in the way. Sony makes some of the best Bluetooth earbuds for on-the-go listeners because its WF-1000XM4 earbuds offer adaptive noise-canceling that adjusts to the situation and, through your paired phone’s GPS, they can even learn to dial the noise-canceling up or down in places you frequently visit.
Internal feed-forward and feed-back microphones catch ambient sound and a processor gauges in real-time how to minimize it, while a 6mm driver converts a mix of those inverted, offsetting noise-canceling waves and your music into rich audio (up to 96kHz, 990 kbps via LDAC) that doesn’t skimp on the energetic low end, making them some of the best sounding wireless earbuds. Beamforming microphones (aided by a bone-conduction sensor) let you handle calls clearly or talk to your digital assistant. And, despite all this tech under the tiny hood, the battery lasts up to eight hours (add 16 more hours with the Qi-equipped case), fully charges in 1.5 hours, and offers a quick-charge option that generates an hour of playtime in five minutes.
For that iconic Team iPhone look: Apple AirPods Pro
Every company has its loyalists, but Apple really has its ardent evangelists. If you’re a Cupertino convert, definitely consider the well-equipped AirPods Pro. At more than $200, they are among the pricier TWS earbuds (though still cheaper than the $279 Sony WF-1000XM4), but they are also some of the best wireless earbuds. They offer many of the same features as other top earbuds—including ANC, a Transparency Mode, and a custom fit via tapered silicone eartips. They also have an adaptive EQ system that uses an inward-facing microphone to adjust frequencies depending on what you’re listening to, as well as amplification designed to generate distortion-free sound.
Meanwhile, there is seamless pairing with and swapping between Apple devices thanks to the integrated H1 chip, which also assures limited latency. And a force sensor integrated in the stem offers easy controls, whether you want to switch tracks or switch between ANC/Transparency modes. Additionally, with the introduction of iOS 14.6, the AirPods Pros support Apple Music’s Spatial Audio for multidimensional listening (with head-tracking features to come in a later update, adding to some of the best sounding wireless earbuds). The batteries deliver an adequate 4.5 hours per charge, with the case bringing the total up to 24 hours of charging and, of course, Apple delivers all this with its distinct design language. (If you want a taste of Apple tech but at a lower price point and more Android-friendly, the new Beats Studio Buds don’t have the H1 chip or stems, aren’t gleaming white, but do offer ANC and Transparency Mode at only $149.)
For athletes (or anyone training to be one): Jaybird Vista 2
If you’re up for a sweat, some of the best wireless earbuds for working out are the Jaybird Vista 2, and this bird can sing. The $199 Vista 2 sport earbuds have a comfortable secure fit, thanks to silicone tips and rubber wings that help lock the earbuds in place (and come with three size options). These waterproof earbuds also have an IP68 rating, which means they can easily withstand dust, sweat, and rain and can even survive being dropped in your water bottle or the shallow end of the pool. But the high note of the Vista 2 is the detailed sound control available through the app.
You can test how well you hear tones of varying frequencies and generate a customized EQ mix, or you can choose from a seemingly limitless supply of available blends. The app is also user-friendly—as are the touch-button controls on the earbuds—letting you easily toggle between mixes, depending on whether you’re listening to bass-heavy pop music or the softer tones of NPR. ANC lets you tune out ambient sound while listening to the 16-bit stereo audio. Or switch over to the SurroundSense mode to amplify ambient noise, which is something you want in the best earbuds for running so you can hear traffic to stay safe or hear nature as you navigate the trail. Beamforming microphones let you handle calls while you’re out for a jog, and long battery life—eight hours on a charge, with an additional 16 hours coming from the charging case—give you the option of turning that jog into an ultrarun.
For keeping your head in the game (and the game in your head): Epos GTW 270
Many gamers are understandably reluctant to switch to wireless earbuds, because Bluetooth connectivity inherently comes with some amount of latency. But the Epos GTW 270 Hybrid earbuds make that lag time almost entirely imperceptible, using an aptX LL single-channel connection from your gaming device (an included USB-C dongle makes this connection possible). This $199 set is compatible with PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, PCs, and any standard Bluetooth-compatible device with the appropriate port. Amazingly, the low latency doesn’t inhibit sound quality too much. Many users report a resounding performance from the bass to the high notes. However, if you opt for a standard two-channel Bluetooth 5.1 connection in order to use your microphone, you’ll be able to talk trash but you won’t experience the same lag-free connection.
Importantly, these gaming earbuds can handle marathon sessions. The low-profile shape and soft eartips provide a comfortable, noise-isolating adjustable fit suited for long long hours on a quest. Meanwhile, the batteries last 5 hours per charge, with 15 additional hours coming from the case. And no worries if you want to go play outside—an IPX5 water resistance rating means these earbuds can handle some sweat and rain.
For anyone who loses things easily: Skullcandy Dime
If you’re prone to leaving things on the bus, or you simply need an extra set of TWS earbuds to keep in your gym bag, the Skullcandy Dime earbuds are a perfect choice. With three silicone eartip sizes, they should fit snugly and comfortably, offering effective noise isolation (though no ANC). Plus, the IPX4 rating means they won’t be bothered by a little sweat and rain. For just $25 (barely more than a pair of those wired Apple EarPods you used to tangle in your pocket), these are some of the best budget wireless earbuds, offering detailed sound quality (20Hz to 20KHz) and surprisingly clear microphones that even let you connect to your virtual assistant.
The battery life is about half that of other best earbuds out there—3.5 hours of playtime, with the charging case boosting it to 12 hours. And the plastic charging case (about the size of a three-button car remote) is cheaply made—and provides no waterproof protection on its own—while the buttons on the stem of the earbuds are difficult to press. Still, for the price, these earbuds definitely impress and are a great budget back-up for adults or a cheap choice for kids.
For Android users (and avid travelers) who want a quiet space: Bose QuietComfort 20
For many, Bose is synonymous with the best in noise-canceling. And the Bose QuietComfort 20 absolutely helped establish that standard for the best noise-canceling earbuds you can find. They are wired, so anyone looking for TWS earbuds should consider other options (some of our favorite ways to put Google Assistant in your ear include the Jabra 75t for athletes or Jabra 85t for executives). But many Android handsets from Google, Samsung, LG, Sony, OnePlus, and more still come with a 3.5mm headphone jack. Additionally, airplanes aren’t completely wireless-friendly just yet (and you know you want to blissfully watch some bad, bad movie). And, I mean, retro is cool?
While they may require tethering, these $249 Bose earbuds do deliver that signature, noise-silencing tranquility, and your music will be deeper and clearer thanks to an active EQ that adjusts the frequency mix based on what you’re listening to. If you need to hear what’s around you, switch to the mode that lets ambient noise in, or answer calls with the controls and microphones integrated in the cord. Meanwhile, the QuietComfort Bose earbuds should live up to both parts of their name thanks to soft, cone-shaped ear tips designed to keep the gear in place and the noise out—handy since the noise-cancellation can go for 16 hours on a full charge and, if the battery dies, you can continue to listen without it indefinitely (a perfect trait for the best wired earbuds).
For audiophiles who have a quiet space: Audeze LCDi3
No, you certainly don’t have to spend $900 on a set of earbuds (or “in-ear headphones,” as the company calls them), but, in case you’re curious, here’s what you get at that price point: sound that promises to amaze even the most skeptical audiophiles, assuming you can use them in an appropriate environment. Here’s what the Audeze LCDi3, which uses an ultrathin 30mm diaphragm behind a magnesium grill, can provide: rich bass and superior transients (a 10Hz to 50KHz response), plus astonishingly imperceivable distortion even at 130dB (but don’t try listening at that volume, even if you’re curious). Here’s something it cannot provide: any noise isolation.
An open-backed design, which gives the music its amazing sense of air (without sacrificing energy) means your surroundings are always intruding; plus, with the LCDi3 secured with the included ear hooks you look like you’re wearing tiny Tie Fighter wings, which is never cool sitting in Starbucks or popping into stores. So, even though an aptX HD-equipped Bluetooth cable comes with the LCDi3, you ultimately want to use it or the 3.5mm aux cable anywhere but on the go. Still, hearing anything is a small price to pay for hearing everything.
Q: Are cheap wireless earbuds good?
Cheap wireless earbuds can be good, especially if you’re just looking for a pair to pump some tunes on jogs or make your commute more bearable. For less than $50, don’t expect superior audio quality. Still, cheap earbuds can offer surprisingly dynamic and detailed sound, and you should be able to find a pair (even True Wireless earbuds) that will fit comfortably, resist sweat, and even handle phone calls.
Q: What should I look for when buying wireless earbuds?
There’s a lot to look for when buying wireless earbuds, and your price point and purpose can go a long way toward determining what features you should prioritize. For example, gaming earbuds need to limit latency, while the best wireless earbuds for working out need to stay in place and repel moisture. Audiophiles may want to spend more for earbuds with high-end processors and/or analog connections that can deliver exceptionally rich and customizable sound, while shoppers on a budget may be perfectly happy with a set of cheap wireless earbuds that still manage to provide adequate audio quality.
Q: Why are wireless earbuds so expensive?
By now, the technology has developed enough so that wireless earbuds don’t have to be so expensive. Still, building water-resistant earbuds that stay snugly in place and have tiny 6mm drivers and Bluetooth chips that can convert digital data into rich stereo sound does cost money to make, so many of the best earbuds cost more than $100. But at a certain point, wireless earbuds are so expensive because the market allows companies like Apple to charge a premium. Therefore, you’d be wise to compare features and see what it is that you’re really paying for.
Related: Prefer bigger sound and don’t mind bigger gear? Choose from the best Bluetooth headphones.
In many ways, the best earbuds are earbuds that you don’t even think about. They fit in your ear without coming loose and they deliver a sound quality as good as live music. Still, shopping for the best earbuds leaves you with much to consider. Set your price point and go from there. Then, determining whether you need features like ANC, transparency, low latency, and customizable sound depends on how you plan to use them and the sharpness of your ear. With the array of earbud options available, you can definitely find the best earbuds for you. Here’s to making a sound choice.