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The best earbuds for 2021

Published by Simon Cohen on DigitalTrends

Whether you go wired for an old-school experience or wireless for cordless freedom, picking the right earbuds can be tricky — there are so many choices out there. But we’ve tried hundreds of models from a wide variety of manufacturers so you don’t have to.

Want a set of true wireless Bluetooth earbuds? We think Jabra’s $200 Elite 7 Pro represent the very best overall value, combining a super-comfortable fit with a huge array of features like waterproofing, active noise cancellation (ANC), and great sound too.

If you’re looking for a set of wired earbuds, look no further than the 1More Triple Drivers, which offer a sweet mix of style and performance at a reasonable price.

But there are tons of great models out there, some of which really excel in specific areas. So if the Jabra and 1More models aren’t quite what you’re looking for, we’ve got several awesome alternatives.

Don’t forget, we also keep updated lists of the best true wireless earbuds, the best cheap true wireless earbuds, and the best noise-canceling true wireless earbuds, in case you’re looking for something specific.

The best earbuds at a glance

The best true wireless earbuds: Jabra Elite 7 Pro

Why you should buy them: They’re tiny, comfortable, and have an incredible array of features that leave nothing out.

Who they’re for: Those who want an outstanding set of true wireless earbuds for a reasonable price.

Why we picked the Jabra Elite 7 Pro:

If you’ve been following this list for a while, you know our previous pick for best true wireless earbuds was Sony’s WF-1000XM4. The XM4 are still superb, and we highly recommend them, but for a lot of folks, the Jabra Elite 7 Pro are going to be a much better value.

Why are the Elite 7 Pro such a good value? It comes down to what they give you for the money, which, in a word is “everything.” If you can think of a feature that would be desirable to have in a set of true wireless earbuds, the Elite 7 Pro are guaranteed to check that box. Active noise cancellation? Check. Transparency mode? Check. Wireless charging? Check. Waterproofing? A fit test? Adjustable EQ? Check, check, and check. They’re so good, we gave them a rare 10/10 rating in our review.

Now if you cruise the seemingly endless list of true wireless Bluetooth earbuds on Amazon, you’ll find plenty of models that make similar claims. But this is Jabra, not some Tier-B or -C brand you’ve never heard of, and that means these features are also well-executed, which is more than we can say for some of those other companies.

Better yet, Jabra has somehow managed to make the Elite 7 Pro even smaller and lighter than its predecessors, the Elite 75t and 85t. So in addition to having all of those features, the earbuds are also incredibly comfortable, even after many hours of continuous use.

But do they sound good? Absolutely. They don’t deliver quite the performance of Sony’s WF-1000XM4 or our pick below for music (the Master & Dynamic MW08) but they’ve got generous amounts of bass and very clear midranges and high frequencies, which makes them flexible enough to handle all kinds of music genres.

The physical multifunction control buttons are the best in the industry, and you can modify what each gesture controls within the Jabra Sound+ app if you don’t like the default arrangement. Misplaced your buds? The app can also help you locate them. And with an IP57 rating (which makes them effectively waterproof and dustproof), there are very few places you can’t take them.

They get about 7.5 to 8 hours of battery life per charge, and their charging case extends that to roughly 30 hours, which is very good for the true wireless category. As a comparison, Apple’s more expensive AirPods Pro only give you about 4.5 hours per charge and just 24 hours of total playtime.

On top of all this, the Elite 7 Pro are stellar for phone calls. Your voice will come through loud and clear, with barely a hint of compression even in windy or very noisy conditions. They’re the first set of true wireless earbuds that give the Bose QC Earbuds a run for their money in this area.

The only downside — and it’s a minor one — is that they don’t have Bluetooth multipoint for connecting two devices simultaneously. Jabra’s previous models all include this, and Jabra says it’s working on bringing it to the Elite 7 Pro too.

Read our in-depth Jabra Elite 7 Pro review

The best earbuds for running: Sony WF-SP800N

Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: With astonishing battery life, sound quality, and noise cancellation, they’re great workout companions.

Who they’re for: People who want total wireless autonomy for demanding workouts.

Why we picked the Sony WF-SP800N:

Sony has a reputation for making stellar audio products, and the WF-SP800N take all of Sony’s know-how and squeeze it into a compact set of workout-friendly earbuds. Their IP55 water- and dust-resistant rating means they can take pretty much whatever you can throw at them, and their battery life is enormous: Nine hours if you leave their active noise cancellation on and 13 hours if you turn it off.

Though bulkier than some other workout Bluetooth earbuds like the Elite Active 75t, the SP800N won’t budge once they’re sitting in your ear thanks to their silicone wingtips that provide a secure three-point anchor in your concha.

Sound quality, as you would expect, is excellent, and the Sony Headphones app lets you tweak the equalization to your heart’s content, including turning on and off the ExtraBass feature. If you’re curious about Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format, which can give you the feeling of being at a live performance, the WF-SP800N are compatible with the streaming services that offer it, like Deezer and Amazon Music HD.

The adjustable ANC is also a high point, though this feature tends to work best in non-windy environments. You can engage a transparency mode any time you need it or simply use the quick-attention mode, which automatically switches to transparency and lowers your music volume temporarily while you press the left earbud.

Call quality is very good, whether indoors or outside. Our only real complaint about the WF-SP800N is their charging case. It’s definitely on the bulky side and doesn’t offer wireless charging.

Looking for alternatives to the WF-SP800N? These models are all excellent options:

  • Jabra Elite Active 75t
  • Powerbeats Pro
  • JBL Reflect Mini NC
  • Jaybird Vista 2

Read our in-depth Sony WF-SP800N review

Best earbuds for bass: JVC HA-XC90T

Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: Their enormous bass is matched with the longest battery life we’ve ever seen.

Who they’re for: Those who want big bass, clear sound, and a battery that will outlast anything else out there.

Why we picked the JVC HA-XC90T:

While some true wireless earbuds attempt to offer something for everyone, JVC’s HA-XC90T (also known as JVC XX) are unapologetic about their mission to provide the biggest bass you’ve ever heard.

The black earbuds with the red rings deliver what can only be described as a subwoofer-grade bass response, and that’s before you engage their bass boost mode, which makes them downright thunderous.

Amazingly, this powerful low end doesn’t prevent the mids and highs from taking their place on the soundstage, though make no mistake: If you’re not a fan of deep notes, the JVC XX are not the buds for you.

Along with that incredible boosted bass is a boosted battery. The JVC XX can go a whopping 15 hours on a single charge, making these earbuds the stamina kings of the true wireless world. The charging case holds another two full charges, which means you can use the JVC XX for almost 48 hours before needing to plug the case into a power cord.

Speaking of the charging case, it’s a big, solid affair made of aluminum. The slide-out tray feels sturdy and locks into place with a satisfying click. There’s no wireless charging option, but given how infrequently you’ll need to grab a USB-C cable, that’s not such a bad thing.

Other caveats include no app for customizing the equalizer or button controls, no active noise cancellation, and no auto-pause when you remove an earbud.

Those are a lot of missing features on a set of earbuds at this price, but they have IP55 protection from dust and water and a “touch and talk” feature, which gives you a temporary transparency mode when you need it.

When you consider that, plus the JVC XX‘s two big benefits (bass and battery), these earbuds still manage to justify their asking price for those who value what they offer.

Read our hands-on impressions of the JVC HA-XC90T

Best earbuds for swimming: Sony Walkman NW-WS413

Why you should buy them: You want a water-safe device so you can listen to your favorite tracks while hitting the lap lanes.

Who they’re for: Swimmers and athletes who prefer to leave their phones at home.

Why we picked the Sony WS413 Walkman W-Series:

It doesn’t matter how waterproof you make them, true wireless earbuds won’t be able to play your tunes when you dip below the surface. It’s simple physics: Bluetooth can’t travel through the water like it can through the air. And should an earbud become dislodged while you’re swimming, your odds of retrieving it are slim to none.

That’s why the Sony W-Series Walkman Sports MP3 player wins this category, even though they don’t possess any wireless capabilities at all. Not only can they be completely submerged and continue to play music, but they can operate in salt or fresh water at depths of up to 2 meters — so go ahead and jump in the deep end.

They’ll even stay on after that cannonball, kept in place by both around-the-ear hooks and a tiny band that snugly stretches around the back of your head. The headphones also feature unique earbuds that are designed to keep water from entering the driver casing — which would otherwise ruin the headphones for good.

The Sony WS413 Walkman WS Series is an all-in-one device that doesn’t need to be connected to a phone or other playback source; instead, it has 4GB of storage to hold your music, and you can load up songs and playlists on your PC via the included USB cable.

Sure, 4GB might not sound like much space, but that adds up to about 1,000 to 2,000 tracks, depending on their file size. All playback is controlled with tiny buttons on the sides of each earbud. Speaking of charge, the W-Series Walkman will last up to 12 hours per charge, and Sony claims you’ll be able to charge them in no time via their quick-charge feature.

The WS413 is perfect for swimmers who want total immersion in both the water and their tunes, but sometimes we need to be more aware of our surroundings. Whether it’s being able to hear a swim coach’s instructions, a lifeguard’s warnings, or just other swimmers, earbuds that block out the outside world aren’t always the best tool for the job.

In these circumstances, the $150 Aftershokz Xtrainerz are the way to go. They offer the same 4GB capacity as the Sonys, but they use bone conduction to transmit sound to your ears, which leaves your ear canals open. That means you can hear everything going on around you and your music, plus you can insert your favorite swimming earplugs if you want — and they won’t interfere with the audio.

The best earbuds for iPhone: Apple AirPods Pro

Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: As long as they’re synced to an iPhone, the AirPods Pro have features few other devices can match.

Who they’re for: Apple die-hards who want a fully wireless option.

Why we picked the Apple AirPods Pro:

The truth is, there are better-sounding earbuds out there that can work with iPhones, but even so, we still think the AirPods Pro are the best iOS-specific choice thanks to how Apple they are.

For better or for worse, AirPods Pro have all the hallmarks of an Apple product: They’re sleek, feature-rich, and extremely easy to use. The design includes simple controls and no-fuss compatibility with other Apple products. That last point is probably the most important reason why the AirPods Pro are our pick for the best wireless headphones to use with iPhones. Unlike other Bluetooth devices, AirPods Pro are designed to automatically sync with your device.

Perhaps most importantly for Apple users (apart from the iconic style), these earbuds couldn’t be easier to pair and set up. Just open the case, hold the new AirPods next to your iPhone, and you’re ready to listen. Once the AirPods Pro are paired, they’ll also show up automatically on any of your iCloud-connected Apple devices, including a companion iPad or MacBook. Switching can be done with a single click, but if you’re on the latest versions of iOS and macOS, that switching can even happen automatically.

The main difference between the AirPods Pro and the AirPods 2 with Wireless Charging Case, which used to hold this spot, is the addition of noise-canceling. They also offer a more discreet, fitted design that makes use of silicone tips to, A) keep the Pods firmly fixed to your ears during intense exercise, B) make them more pleasant to wear for extended periods, and C) create the seal that’s required for noise-canceling to function as intended.

They’re also IPX4 sweat-resistant and offer much better sound quality. Earlier in 2020, Apple added spatial audio to the AirPods Pro, making them an intriguing companion for watching movies on Apple’s devices. When iOS 15 launches in the fall of 2021, the AirPods Pro will also be able to offer hearing enhancement in situations where conversations may be more difficult due to competing sounds.

For all these reasons, the Apple AirPods Pro are a solid choice for Apple’s products, especially the iPhone.  But we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that every other pair of fully wireless earbuds work great with iPhones too. And you can find a pair that sounds just as good as the AirPods Pro for a bit less money. It’s a big world out there, so before you just jump into the most obvious Apple pairing, we suggest shopping around a bit.

Read our in-depth AirPods Pro review

The best earbuds for Android: Samsung Galaxy Buds 2

Samsung

Why you should buy them: They’re chock-full of the latest features like ANC and wireless charging, but cost way less than the AirPods Pro.

Who they’re for: Android fans looking for comfortable, great-sounding buds with noise cancellation.

Why we picked the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2:

Our previous pick for this category was the Google Pixel Buds A-Series. With their $99 price and virtually all of the features from the $179 Pixel Buds, they were an obvious choice.

But Samsung’s Galaxy Buds 2 have forced us to change things up. For an extra $50, they offer ANC, transparency mode, and wireless charging — three very desirable features you won’t find on the Pixel Buds A-Series. What’s more, the Galaxy Buds 2 are even comfortable and secure than the A-Series, making them a welcome change for folks who have traditionally struggled to find a good fit.

Sound quality is very good if not quite up to the standard set by the Sony WF-1000XM4 or the Master & Dynamic MW08, and you get several EQ presets within the Samsung Wearables app. That app also provides a fit test to make sure you’ve got the right size of ear tips installed, and there’s a Find My Buds feature for when they inevitably go missing.

Battery life is solid: Five hours per charge and 20 hours total with the charging case if you keep ANC on, and that rises to 7.5/29 hours if you turn the feature off. An IPX2 rating means you probably shouldn’t expose them to much water, but they’ll at least be able to handle a bit of rain and sweat without incurring any damage.

Our only real caveat with the Galaxy Buds 2 is their touch controls. They’re a bit too easy to accidentally trigger when inserting or adjusting the earbuds, but we do appreciate that you can customize these controls or even turn them off entirely within Samsung’s app. Why do we only recommend these buds for Android users? That awesome app just isn’t available for iOS, which drastically reduces the Buds 2’s value to iPhone owners.

Read our in-depth Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 review

The best earbuds for listening to music: Master & Dynamic MW08

Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: They have huge battery life, sound incredible, and have a unique, stylish design.

Who they’re for: Anyone who wants a no-compromises listening experience in a set of true wireless Bluetooth earbuds.

Why we picked the Master & Dynamic MW08:

When it comes to true wireless earbuds that deliver audiophile-grade sound quality, it’s a small crowd. Leading that pack are the Master & Dynamic (M&D) MW08, a beautifully crafted set of buds that sound as good as they look.

M&D is no stranger to the true wireless space. Its MW07 and MW07 Plus models were both very well received for their top-notch sound, and the MW08 take the design even further. They’re smaller and more comfortable than the previous models and their battery life is incredible, with up to 12 hours between charges when you turn off active noise cancellation (ANC) and keep the volume level under 50%.

Their stainless steel charging case provides another 30 hours of capacity, for a total of 42 hours before you need to plug them back in using a USB-C cable.

But the real story here is the MW08‘s sultry sound. Across the frequencies, from the lowest lows to the highest highs, these earbuds deliver a crisp and precise response, letting you appreciate each element of a song. Whether it’s the booming bass of hip-hop or the delicate resonances of jazz and classical, the MW08 sacrifice nothing.

M&D has used some pretty exotic materials on the MW08 including ceramics and aluminum, which give them a sophisticated, high-end look and feel that stands apart from the all-plastic designs from Sony, Bose, Apple, and Sennheiser. They also feature physical control buttons instead of touch controls, which are becoming ubiquitous. These controls give you access to every feature, from volume to voice assistants, and have a very precise operation.

Our only real critique of the MW08 is that their ANC isn’t as good as what you’ll find on the AirPods Pro, WF-1000XM3, or Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. However, when you consider just how good the MW08 sound, we think it’s worth the tradeoff.

If wireless charging is a big feature for you, the Master & Dynamic MW08 Sport edition adds that capability in a much lighter weight Kevlar-wrapped charging case.

Read our in-depth Master & Dynamic MW08 review

The best earbuds for Amazon Alexa fans: Amazon Echo Buds 2

Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: They’re very affordable, sound great, and let you summon Alexa whenever and wherever you like.

Who they’re for: Folks who love Amazon’s virtual assistant and want an affordable set of true wireless Bluetooth earbuds.

Why we picked the Amazon Echo Buds 2:

We were already big fans of the original Amazon Echo Buds, so when Amazon released the next version (technically named Echo Buds 2nd Gen) for the same price, but with some nice upgrades, we knew they’d be a solid pick.

What sets the Echo Buds 2 apart from other earbuds (other than Alexa, which we’ll get to) is the sheer value they offer. For $120 ($140 for the version with wireless charging), you get a small and comfortable set of buds, with an equally small charging case. They have active noise cancellation (ANC) and a transparency mode, they auto-pause the music when you pull an earbud out, they can be used independently, and they even have a basic workout tracking feature.

Using the Alexa app (which you pretty much need for all of the advanced features) you can adjust their EQ settings, fine-tune the side-tone (how much of your own voice you hear during calls), and even locate your earbuds if they go missing.

To put that in perspective: A feature set like this would normally cost $180 — the price of the Jabra Elite 75t — so $120 feels like a bargain.

The sound quality is very good. Not quite what you’d get from pricier earbuds, but close enough for folks who just want great tunes or podcasts for their daily commutes.

Being able to simply say “Alexa,” followed by hundreds of different commands (including all of the earbud and playback functions like ANC and call answer) is a major convenience, and the Echo Buds 2 are the only earbuds (other than the original Echo Buds) that let you do this.

Battery life on the buds themselves, at five hours with ANC and Alexa turned on, and 6.5 hours with these features off, is a little better than Apple’s AirPods Pro, but nothing stellar when compared to other earbuds at this price. Unfortunately, the case only holds two full charges, so you may have to adjust your habits accordingly.

We didn’t think that Amazon’s ANC was a big improvement over the previous generation’s Bose tech but given how much more comfortable the new design is, it’s not a deal-breaker by any means and we definitely recommend the Echo Buds 2.

Read our in-depth Amazon Echo Buds 2 review

The best wired earbuds: 1More Triple Driver

Why you should buy them: They’re a sweet mix of style, performance, and shocking affordability.

Who they’re for: The discerning listener who craves quality but hasn’t yet landed that corner office.

Why we picked the 1More Triple Driver:

We could have gone many ways for this pick, but 1More’s unassuming Triple Driver just wouldn’t stop popping up into the picture. The 1More in-ear headphones aren’t at the top of the class in performance, but what they do have going for them is unrivaled quality and value at their (very reasonable) price point. The company has created plenty of iterations since, including the recent Dual Driver ANC Pro Wireless, the Quad Driver, and even an over-ear version, creatively called the Triple Driver Over-Ears. But when it comes to value for the money, we always come back to the original wired earbuds.

China-based upstart 1More blew our minds when we discovered how little the company wanted for the Triple Driver headphones, the first pair we’d ever heard from the brand. For this kind of build quality and performance, we’d expect to pay at least double. And while these aren’t wireless earbuds, if you don’t mind some strings attached, they more than make up for their wired constraints with sweet sound for the dough.

So what specifically do the Triple Driver offer your ears? A gorgeous aesthetic, solid construction, and — you guessed it — three drivers within each earbud for excellent sound. That includes one dynamic driver for warm and full bass and a balanced armature driver for both the midrange and treble to create clear and articulate sound. It’s an intriguing design that one might think is a gimmick, but we can assure you that when it comes to the results, it’s anything but.

Along with the earbuds, you get a carry case, an airplane travel adapter, a cable clip, and a huge assortment of silicone and foam ear tips to help you find the perfect fit.

The 1More Triple Driver’s sound signature provides sparkling clarity, smooth and powerful bass, and balanced sound that outdoes everything we’ve heard at a similar price point. These headphones provide exceptional sound for anything you listen to, from electronica to acoustic folk. Unlike many dedicated wired earbuds, the Triple Drivers include an inline mic and playback controls. Oh, and if you’re rocking a new iPhone and you using Apple’s headphone adapter, there’s a Lightning version, too.

If the 1More Triple Driver appeal to you, but you want to spend less, check out the Strauss & Wagner EM205. They sound almost as good but cost half the price. They’re also tiny and very lightweight — perfect for tossing in a backpack. If, on the other hand, you want to level up your wired listening, both the $159 Final Audio A4000 and $199 Campfire Audio Satsuma will deliver gorgeously detailed audio. The only caveat: As true in-ear monitors (IEMs), they do not have a mic for calls or buttons for music control.

Read our in-depth 1More Triple Driver review

Research and buying tips

Can earbuds damage your ears?

Yes, because of their isolation and because the drivers are closer to your eardrums, it is not recommended to listen at higher volumes for extended periods of time. Check out our helpful noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) explainer for how to avoid this from happening.

Are earbuds waterproof?

Many are water-resistant, few can be fully submerged. We recommend checking for an IP rating if you want to make sure you are treating them properly.

Can earbuds sound as good as over-ear headphones?

Yes, at the high end, in-ear monitors can sound as good as virtually any headphones on the market. That said, you’ll have to pay a hefty premium to get top-tier sound.

How should earbuds fit?

Comfortably and securely. You may want to find a pair with ear fins or ear clips if you are planning on working out.

Should I use earbuds when driving?

No. It is dangerous and illegal in many regions.

Glossary

  • Driver: The unit that produces sound in a headphone, made up of magnets, voice coils, and other materials. Typically, the larger the driver, the more power a headphone has, and bigger drivers inside in-ear headphones generally indicate that a better range of frequencies can be reproduced.
  • Dynamic driver: A single driver capable of covering the entire frequency range. The diaphragm is connected directly to a voice coil in the headphone, with the voice coil moving between magnets to produce sound.
  • Balance armature driver: In a balanced armature driver, the headphone’s diaphragm is connected to the armature, with micro-vibrations producing the sound. Most balanced armature drivers are best within a specific frequency range, which is why many headphones contain multiple balanced drivers, with certain frequencies divided between drivers for full-spectrum sound.
  • Soundstage: The perceived size and depth of the sound coming through the headphones.
  • Passive noise isolation: Noise that is blocked out by the headphone or earbud based on its physical shape and size in your ear.
  • Frequency response: The spectrum of frequencies that a headphone can reliably reproduce. Typically, this is 20Hz-20kHz — a spectrum that is widely regarded as the limits of human hearing. However, some models claim a frequency response as high as 40kHz, which some regard as necessary to reproduce hi-res audio.

How we test

We test headphones and earbuds the way normal people live.

We run every pair of earbuds through a rigorous process over several days. That includes playing them in all sorts of scenarios — be it on a bus, in the listening room, or at the office — and playing back from a wide array of sources. We know most people use their headphones with a smartphone, often with lower quality MP3 resolution tracks, so we test that, too.

We also move up to high-resolution audio files, as well as a wide variety of sources, including plugging in directly to a PC or Mac, using USB DACs (digital-to-analog converters), and employing high-quality dedicated portable players and amplifiers. Finally, we compare the earbuds to some of our go-to models, both in their class and price point, as well as a level or two above, to find out if they can punch above their weight.

Source: DigitalTrends


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