The 9 Best Wireless Earbuds of 2021

Never deal with tangled wires again

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The best wireless earbuds free you up from wires while at the same time delivering sound that is top quality. Wireless earbuds connect to your phone or media player via Bluetooth. That's a standard protocol for compressing and transmitting sound between devices, and it has improved a lot. Now, you can really great audio wirelessly from your phone to your ears without wires. Most people listen to music or podcasts with their phones, and most high-end smartphones have removed the 3.5mm headphone jack from their design. That means if you have a premium smartphone, you need Bluetooth headphones to listen to your audio.

There are a few things to look for in wireless earbuds. The first is connectivity. If you like to move around while listening, such as working around the house or working out, you'll want rock-solid connectivity to give you as few interruptions as possible. Speaking of working out, if you work out, sweat and water resistance will be important. Your musical taste will help you determine what sound profile to look for. If you like music with heavy bass, look for earbuds that thump; if you're into classical music, you will want a more balanced profile.

Whatever the case, there are a lot of options out there. Our experts have looked at dozens of headphones and rounded up our picks for you.

The Rundown
Apple's AirPods Pro are an easy top pick for us.
These are a great pair of TWS that deliver great sound for the budget conscious.
Best Noise Cancelation:
Sony WF-1000XM3 at Amazon
If you're looking for a nice set of earbuds with best-in-class noise cancellation, these are a great pick.
Best for Sound Quality:
Sennheiser Momentum True at Amazon
If you’re an audiophile first and foremost, you should definitely consider the Momentum True Wireless earbuds
Some people I spoke with on the phone commented that they heard more detail on the call than they usually do, and it was a bit distracting.
The Galaxy Wear app gives you a choice of six different equalizer settings meaning you can find the right sound depending on what you're listening to.
Best for Running:
Beats Powerbeats Pro at Amazon
The main reason we like these for runners is because of the ear hooks built into the buds.
Best for Outdoors:
Jabra Elite 85t at Amazon
The Elite 85t earbuds are quite possibly Jabra’s best foot forward into the audio space.
Best for Audiophiles:
Grado GT220 at Amazon
If you're someone who likes to hear the music that the artist intended, these earbuds are probably for you.

Best Overall: Apple AirPods Pro

AirPods Pro
What We Like
  • Great Active Noise cancelation (ANC)

  • Quality sound

  • Water/Sweat resistance

  • Simple pairing with iPhone

What We Don't Like
  • Inconsistent touch controls

  • Subjective design

Apple's AirPods Pro are an easy top pick for us.  Apple has an iconic earbud design that it had stuck with for years. All that changed with the AirPods Pro which have silicone ear tips that get inserted into your ear canal. This provides much better isolation and gives you a better quality of sound. The addition of ANC helps considerably, allowing you to keep noise levels low which is great for long-term hearing.

Apple's sound quality has always been very good, but the aforementioned change in design makes a world of difference. The addition of ANC allows you to really enjoy your music and podcasts without outside noise interference. To be frank, it's about time. Apple also added an ambient hearing mode that allows outside noise when appropriate, such as when you're in the world jogging, or talking with others.

If you have an iPhone, AirPods are really easy to pair. Just open the case next to your iPhone and tap pair. There's no fiddling with Bluetooth settings of pairing codes. It's extremely simple. Touch controls on the small touchpads are a little on the tricky side, and the stems that stick down from your ears are quite subjective. But if you're ok with them, these are great headphones not only for iPhone users but for everyone.

Type: TWS | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: Yes  | Water/Sweat Resistant: Yes

Best Budget: Anker SoundCore Liberty 2 Pro

Anker Soundcore Liberty 2 Pro Earbuds
What We Like
  • Good sound quality

  • Included Wireless charging

  • Premium build

What We Don't Like
  • Charging case is bulky

Anker is a company that works with products in a lot of different areas. One of those areas is true wireless earbuds. Anker has a reputation for quality at a low cost. Jason, our reviewer, loves the sound quality. "I can confirm that these earphones sound amazing, and that’s before you even factor in their budget-friendly price tag...Soundcore has put two separate speaker drivers (a standard 11m and a Knowles balanced armature driver), aligned on top of each other, inside each earbud. One driver is focused solely on the bass side of the spectrum, while the other driver takes care of mids and detail." The multiple drivers allow the headphones to deliver great sound quality by focusing each driver on what it does best.

Jason goes on. "What I found most surprising is that the battery case itself supports Qi-enabled wireless charging—meaning you can just drop that case onto the same wireless charger you use for your phone and it should work. This is actually a highly sought-after feature for true wireless earbuds because even the best in the business (from Sony to Apple’s entry-level AirPods) leave this option out." Wireless charging makes a lot of sense in the TWS industry now for two reasons. First, TXS batteries tend to be small, so they won't take as long to charge wirelessly. Plus, many premium phones offer reverse wireless charging which allows you to top off your TWS from your phone's battery. It's not the preferred way to charge, but in a pinch, they can get you a little extra runtime.

All told these are a great pair of TWS that deliver great sound for the budget-conscious. Add in the premium build quality, and this is a set of earbuds that punch way above their weight class. We'd love to see ANC here, and if they had noise cancellation, they might well have been our top pick. As it stands these are pretty great on their own.

Type: TWS | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: No | Water/Sweat Resistant: Yes

"In terms of durability, I’m a little concerned about the lifespan of these earbuds. The sliding lid of the case, while nifty, does feel like it is susceptible to dirt scraping and perhaps even failure after a ton of repetitions of opening and closing it." — Jason Schneider, Product Tester

Soundcore Liberty Pro 2

 Lifewire / Jason Schneider

Best Noise Cancelation: Sony WF-1000XM3

Sony WF-1000XM3
What We Like
  • Great sound quality

  • ANC is impressive

  • Very good battery life

What We Don't Like
  • No official IP rating

  • Connectivity issues

  • Pricey

Sony has a well-established reputation in high-quality audio and the WH-1000XM3's are no exception. Jason, our reviewer came away quite impressed with the earbuds. He writes, "As is the case with the WH-100XM3 over-ears, the sound quality of the WF-100XM3 earbuds is virtually best in class. The closed 0.24-inch driver is a very capable little speaker that provides an impressively rich response across the full 20–20kHz range. This is not common in earbuds by any stretch, and I can say in practice, these earbuds took everything I threw at them completely in stride, from bass-heavy hip-hop music to the lightest acoustic tunes." 

One of Jason's biggest issues with the headphones was something that will become more and more common as we start to head back to offices. When in crowds of people, Jason suffered connectivity issues. It's not an uncommon problem for the Bluetooth protocol, but we would have hoped, considering the price tag, that Sony would have solved that problem.

These earbuds also do not have an official IP rating, another big downside to earbuds that are this expensive. Jason writes, "This could actually be a dealbreaker for some users, especially those who want earbuds for working out. While I did bring these along for a gym session and they didn’t seem to be harmed by any sweat, I can’t say with any firm confidence that they’d survive a long, strenuous session, or even some light precipitation. Just take note of this if you want an all-around pair of earbuds."

Despite that, if you're looking for a nice set of earbuds with best-in-class noise cancellation, these are a great pick.

Type: TWS | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: Yes | Water/Sweat Resistant: Yes

"Sony is widely regarded as having some of the best noise cancelling in the business, giving former industry leaders like Bose a run for their money." — Ajay Kumar, Tech Editor, Lifewire

Sony WF-1000XM3

Lifewire / Jason Schneider

Best for Sound Quality: Sennheiser Momentum True

Sennheiser Momentum TWS
What We Like
  • Sound quality is excellent

  • Full-featured Bluetooth codecs

What We Don't Like
  • Pricey

  • Poor battery life

  • Lack of ANC

Sennheiser has been one of the top names in sound for a long time and it's bringing its sound chops to TWS. Reviewer Jason Schneider calls them "the best-sounding true wireless earbuds on the market." Jason continues, "One spec Sennheiser lists is the harmonic distortion, which measures at less than 0.08 percent on the Momentum earbuds, and is about the same as you’ll get on the Sennheiser HD 600 studio earbuds...you’ll find Qualcomm’s aptX and aptX low latency, both of which give you higher resolution compression and seamless transfer speed. This allows for better sound quality and better sync with videos and games."

However, Jason was not as impressed with the build quality, calling them just "middle of the road." Battery life is another concern. Sennheiser advertises around 5 hours per charge which is consistent with our testing, but charging from the case only yields an additional five hours for a total of ten. That's enough to get you through a single workday with a completely depleted charging case at the end, so it's not terrible. Often, Jason took the buds out only to find them dead. Not a good experience.

Bottom line, our reviewer sums it up best. "If you’re an audiophile first and foremost, you should definitely consider the Momentum True Wireless earbuds, but if you want an all-around product, look elsewhere." That's not necessarily an indictment. Indeed, Jason says the sound quality is almost good enough to compensate for its other shortcomings. So if you're willing to compromise in some other areas for exquisite sound, these are your pick.

Type: TWS | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: No | Water/Sweat Resistant: Yes

"Even when switching the eartips, I found the fit to be just a little too tight—a choice most likely made to have the sound isolation as clean as possible." — Jason Schneider, Product Tester

Sennheiser Momentum

Lifewire / Jason Schneider 

Best for Phone Calls: Plantronics BackBeat Pro 5100

PLANTRONICS BackBeat PRO 5100
What We Like
  • Call quality is solid

  • Solid sound response

  • Battery life is impressive

What We Don't Like
  • Fit and finish not the best

  • Firmware update issues

Plantronics got its start in consumer audio but has since pivoted over to headsets geared toward phone calls. The Plantronics BackBeat 5100 represents those ideals quite well with a utilitarian design that is still very comfortable. The ear tips have an oval shape which more correctly conforms to the ear canal and provides great isolation and a more comfortable fit.

As for the sound, our reviewer, Jason writes, "What impressed me most about the sound quality on the Backbeats was how balanced they sounded. Many earbuds I’ve tried that offer a lot of volume tend to suffer in the midrange, giving you an ultimately muddy sound. Whether I was listening to podcasts, heavy bass music like hip-hop or EDM, or was winding down with delicate folk tunes, the Backbeat Pros were right at home. This is also consistent with Plantronics' focus of late. The balanced sound is great for all kinds of music, but especially for phone calls (and podcasts). 

As for microphones, here's Jason again, "with four microphones, a degree of DSP to help isolate your voice during calls, and what Plantronics calls WindSmart technology, I can report that call quality is great. It is, perhaps, more detailed than you might expect, however. Some people I spoke with on the phone commented that they heard more detail on the call than they usually do, and it was a bit distracting. I also found that in noisy environments like the subway, the WindSmart tech seemed to be working hard, and this caused a bit of distortion. But overall, I was impressed."

Type: TWS | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: No | Water/Sweat Resistant: Yes

"The large, perfectly round construction of the Backbeat Pros gives me a bit of a clue as to why the sound quality is so excellent on these earbuds." — Jason Schneider, Product Tester

Plantronics BlackBeat Pro 5100

Lifewire / Jason Schneider

Best EQ Settings: Samsung Galaxy Buds Live

Samsung Galaxy Buds live
What We Like
  • Comfortable

  • Good ANC

  • Multiple EQ options

  • Case charges quickly

What We Don't Like
  • Not for all ears

  • Outside buttons are touchy

Samsung recently brought its Galaxy branding to TWS and since then has made great strides in the area. The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, also known as "the beans" due to their unusual shape, are one such example. 

The Galaxy Buds Live fit into your ear, outside your ear canal, but their unique shape creates a solid seal for great sound isolation. ANC adds the final slice of sound isolation you're looking for in a great set of earbuds. The Galaxy Wear app gives you a choice of six different equalizer settings meaning you can find the right sound depending on what you're listening to. If you're listening to some bass-heavy tracks, Buds Live can handle that. You can also set a neutral sound for podcasts. Whatever your taste, the Buds Live can accommodate. 

The Galaxy Buds Live are not Samsung's latest earbud; that goes to the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro (View on Amazon), which debuted in early 2021. While the Buds Pro are not too much more expensive, we're giving the nod to the Buds Live because of their unique fit and finish. If you're ok with silicone tips that go into your wear canal, the Buds Pro are a great choice. Otherwise, these are a great choice.

Type: TWS | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: Yes  | Water/Sweat Resistant: Yes

"When I was walking across campus, the Buds actively reduced traffic and other background noises for a more focused listening experience." Rebecca Isaacs, Product Tester

Samsung Galaxy Buds Live

 Lifewire / Rebecca Isaacs

Best for Running: Beats Powerbeats Pro

Powerbeats pro
What We Like
  • Excellent sound quality

  • Physical controls are great

  • All day battery life

What We Don't Like
  • Pricey

  • No noise cancelling

  • Charging case is large

The Powerbeats Pro turned out to be Apple's precursor to the AirPods Pro, our top pick. That should give you a good idea as to what the Powerbeats Pro can do. Put simply, they're fantastic. They have great sound, easy physical controls, and really awesome battery life. Our reviewer, Danny, tested these and got an average of 12.5 hours on a single charge which is just unheard of in TWS. The case is fairly bulky, but it has to be because the buds themselves are bulky. But the case also carries even more juice and can charge the earbuds in just 45 minutes. 

The physical controls are also easy to use and intuitive. Included are one-touch assistant access, "Hey Siri" for iPhones, track skipping, and individual volume controls for each side. It gives you a much more balanced and personalized sound than typical earbuds. The earbuds have great passive isolation, but no active noise canceling, which is probably ok since they're our pick for runners.

The main reason we like these for runners is because of the ear hooks built into the buds. The ear hooks are adjustable and can custom fit your ears. Danny writes, "This ensures that they never fall out, no matter what you’re doing. From working out to taking a walk around town or even hanging upside down, once the Powerbeats Pros are in your ear, they’re staying there until you take them out." The downside is the earbuds can be tough to put in, especially one-handed. We consider that a small price to pay knowing that your expensive earbuds aren't going anywhere, once they're in.

Type: TWS | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: No  | Water/Sweat Resistant: Yes

"During our testing, we had the Powerbeats Pro continuously playing music, audiobooks, podcasts, videos, and more. It took a lot longer than nine hours to drain the battery." — Jeffrey Daniel Chadwick, Product Tester

Beats by Dre PowerBeats Pro Headphones

Lifewire / Jason Schneider

Best for Outdoors: Jabra Elite 85t

Jabra Elite 85t
What We Like
  • Build quality

  • Awesome battery life

  • Decent sound

  • Case has Qi charging

What We Don't Like
  • Uncomfortable

  • No aptX codec

For those of you who are outside a lot, try the Jabra 85t earbuds. These are Jabra's latest generation of earbuds and they're much more of a refinement of the Jabra 75t's which is a good thing. They have the same durability and ruggedness which is a good thing. Plus, our reviewer Jason says, "the Elite 85t earbuds are quite possibly Jabra’s best foot forward into the audio space...the "massive 11mm drivers they’ve managed to squeeze into these earbuds. The frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz isn’t the widest I’ve seen but is certainly enough to cover the full spectrum of human hearing."

Jabra grew up in the headset space and moved over to the consumer audio space. What's good about that is Jara brings over its expertise in voice technology into the 85t's as well. A lot of that has to do with the software. Jason explains, "Jabra is one of my favorite companion apps for headphones because it tows a nice line falling short of too complicated but still enough to be called full-featured. It’s really user-friendly, and it’s a huge selling point for these earbuds."

The main reason we love these for the outdoors is because of the long battery life; you get up to 30 hours including the charging case. These buds have an IP rating of IPX4 for splash and sweat proofing. Plus, they have a really solid and rugged build, but if you get caught outside in the rain, be sure to stow these buds.

Type: TWS | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: Yes  | Water/Sweat Resistant: Yes

"The battery case is also a real selling point on the design front as it’s one of the sleekest cases I’ve seen to date—even smaller and simpler than Apple’s Airpod cases." — Jason Schneider, Product Tester

Jabra Elite 75t

Lifewire / Jason Schneider 

Best for Audiophiles: Grado GT220

Grado GT220
What We Like
  • Audiophile sound quality

  • Excellent battery life

  • Wireless charging case

What We Don't Like
  • No IP rating

  • Finicky touch controls

  • No app

It's not often that the words "wireless" and "audiophile" belong in the same sentence. Grado disagrees. Grado's GT220 earbuds offer the best sounding earbuds you can find on the market today, and Grado has tuned them to the flattest sound possible. Audiophiles tend to prefer flatter, more natural sound, as opposed to earbuds that have deep bass or a built-in V-shaped equalizer designed to make music "pop".

Jason, our reviewer, notes, "the focus is placed on providing detail and support in the mid-range. This section of the spectrum is usually the weakest part of consumer earbuds and can get fairly muddy if not treated well. The Grados let you hear all of your music." The earbuds also have really good battery life with an initial 4-5 hours of music and another 30 hours or so in the charging case. They don't have ANC, relying instead on passive isolation in the ear canal.

Where the earbuds come up short is in the controls. The controls on the headphones are not responsive enough and the earbuds have no app whatsoever. Jason writes, "Each earbud has touch controls that should, in theory, allow you to skip tracks, adjust volume, pause music, answer calls, and all the usual parameters. I found these controls not to be nearly as responsive as I’d like, and the one control I did want access to (putting the headphones into pairing mode by holding a touch panel when the earbuds are off) didn’t work every time."

In short, if you're someone who likes to hear the music that the artist intended, these earbuds are probably for you.

Type: TWS | Connection Type: Bluetooth | ANC: No | Water/Sweat Resistant: No

"The brand touts more than seven decades of audio experience, and that experience comes in the form of truly impressive headphone drivers." Jason Schneider, Product Tester

Grado GT220

Lifewire / Jason Schneider

Final Verdict

Overall, if you're an iPhone user, it's hard to go wrong with the AirPods Pro (view at Amazon).  It took Apple a while to get there, but once it did, it nailed it. From the easy pairing to the comfortable fit to the active noise cancellation, Apple really hit a home run with its wireless earbuds. They sound great and easily switch between devices if you pair more than one.

If you don't have an iPhone, check out the Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds (view at Amazon). They're small and comfortable, and they have some of the best noise-canceling you've ever (not) heard. It's hard to go wrong with either of these pairs of earbuds.

How We Tested

Our expert reviewers and editors evaluate wireless earbuds based on design, audio quality, connectivity, fit, and features. We test their real-life performance in actual use cases—commuting, working out, or at our desks at home or in the office. We also consider each unit as a value proposition—whether or not a product justifies its price tag, and how it compares to competitive products. All of the models we reviewed were purchased by Lifewire; none of the review units were furnished by the manufacturer or retailer.

About Our Trusted Experts

Quentyn Kennemer is a freelance writer covering all facets of consumer technology, such as wireless earbuds.

Jason Schneider is a musician who's been working in tech media for nearly a decade. With a degree in Music Technology from Northwestern and expertise in audio equipment, he's tested almost every audio device Lifewire has to offer.

Ajay Kumar, Tech Editor at Lifewire has worked in the tech industry for nearly a decade and has personally used the wireless earbuds from Anker, Jabra, and Sony. He particularly likes the noise-cancellation Sony has to offer.

Rebecca Isaacs has been writing for Lifewire since 2019. She tested the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live and praised their EQ options and noise cancellation.

Danny Chadwick is a tech writer specializing in consumer and mobile audio technology, including wireless earbuds.

FAQs

What are the best wireless earbuds for the iPhone?

For iPhone users, the best wireless earbuds are going to be the Airpods Pro due to their seamless integration with iOS. The H1 chip allows instant pairing and switching between devices, and there's also noise-canceling built-in helping dampen a significant amount of background noise. Sound quality is also great, with improved bass, crisper highs, and numerous quality of life improvements.

What are the best wireless earbuds for Android?

Android users have plenty of options when it comes to wireless earbuds. Brands like Anker, Sony, Sennheiser, Plantronics, and Samsung will all work with Android devices. We favor the Anker SoundCore Liberty 2 Pro for those on a budget and the Sony WF-1000XM3 for its excellent noise cancellation that's some of the best you can get in the industry.

What does TWS even stand for?

True wireless earbuds are often abbreviated as "TWS" which you'll notice is not the first letter of "true wireless earbuds." What TWS Stands for is "true wireless stereo." Since true wireless earbuds come in pairs and work in stereo, they're abbreviated as TWS. It's a bit clumsy, but it caught on, and now that's the standard abbreviation in the industry.

What to Look For in Wireless Earbuds

Wireless earbuds command a massive section of the audio market for several reasons. First, since more and more smartphones are doing away with the headphone jack, Bluetooth-connected headphones are a virtual necessity for those who listen to music on the go. Second, wireless earbuds are just a lot more convenient than pulling a tangled nest of wired headphones out of your bag.

Since Apple released the first generation of AirPods in 2016, flagship wireless headphones have largely gone the way of “true wireless”, so much of this guide will focus on the features and considerations when purchasing this style of headphones. These kinds of earbuds cut the cord completely, untethering each earbud so they fit into your respective ears. Others usually sport earbuds, might keep a neckband for a secure fit, larger battery, and added features like water and/or sweat proofing along with various ear tip sizes.

Does Wireless Compromise Sound Quality?

One other thing to consider before we jump into wireless specs: wired headphones are still where you’ll find the true audiophile headphones. While there are tons of amazing options in the wireless space, there is one thing that will naturally hold the audio quality back, and that’s the presence of Bluetooth transmission. That’s because with Bluetooth your audio is compressed in a way that makes it easier to transmit, but will naturally lose some information in the original file.

"Standard Bluetooth audio is compressed and doesn't offer a high-fidelity experience. That’s why you need to look for devices that support AAC and AptX Codecs for a high-quality audio transmission with nearly lossless compression to get the same quality as if you were using wired earbuds." — Vlad Perianu, Founder of NOVA Products (Audio Earrings)

That doesn't mean wireless earbuds can’t sound amazing—they certainly can with lossless protocols like aptX and LDAC. On top of that, there’s the fact that earbuds like the Airpods Pro come with noise-cancellation, letting them blot out background noise to improve your overall listening experience. It’s a feature that you rarely get on a wired pair of earbuds, and best-in-class noise canceling from companies like Sony and Bose are only available through their Bluetooth offerings. 

AirPods Pro
Apple's new AirPods Pros have a lot more technology, silicon tips, and ANC, so it's no surprise they're a little biger and heavier than the last models.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Form Factor: How Much Cord to Cut?

Before getting into the nuts and bolts, it’s important to ask yourself this first question: how important is “true wireless” to you. Before true wireless even existed, consumers could purchase wireless headphones where a wire still remained to connect the two earbuds. That is still the case, and can in fact give you much more bang for your buck. If you don’t mind having a short wire between the earbuds, you’ll get amazing sound quality from options like the Bose SoundSport wireless earbuds or the Jaybird Tarah or X lines. 

Many true wireless users are prone to a poor fit in the earbud department, so a non-true wireless earbud pair might be ideal. That way, if the headphones fall out, they will still be draped around your neck rather than falling to the ground. However, you tend to lose out on battery life with non-true-wireless earbuds because most don’t include the charging case so common with true wireless units.

Design: Keep Profile in Mind

The look of a pair of earbuds can go in a few directions: you’ll have the bud-and-stem design made popular by Apple, or you’ll have the oblong oval design seen on earbuds from Sony and Anker’s Soundcore brand. You can also get earbuds that are so low-profile that they virtually disappear into your ear, sticking out only marginally.

While many brands stick to a darker color for their earbuds, some brands stand out with a ton of color options (think: Samsung Galaxy Buds or the M&D MW series). While earbuds are, on some level, always earbuds, this is a category that has a striking amount of versatility. But this is subjective, so we recommend considering a lot of brands to find your style.

Samsung Galaxy Buds+
The new Galaxy Buds+ come in stylish colors including blue, black, and white.  Lifewire / David Kukin

Comfort: A Snug Fit Matters

One common gripe about AirPods is that they don’t fit snugly into your ear—a fact that Apple responded to with the silicone-tipped AirPods Pro. The stakes for earbud fit become much higher too when you consider that true wireless earbuds can fall out of your ear and suffer actual damage when they hit the pavement or get lost.

In general, most earbuds will come with interchangeable silicone tips (some even including additional foam options), so it’s important to really try out all the sizes before wearing them outside. Another consideration of fit and comfort is whether there is a second point of contact outside of that eartip. 

While some of the most popular brands (Sony and Apple included) rely solely on a snug ear tip fit, other brands like Bose and Samsung offer an additional rubber wing that actually grabs the cartilage of your outer ear. This is a game-changer for those who can’t find a proper fit and is an important consideration.

One last point is on snugness: on the one hand, you want to make sure the earbuds are snug enough that they stay in and provide a good seal for better sound quality. However, this can be a little stifling for some listeners. If you don’t love a snug fit, and want a little breathability, you might consider Bose SoundSport’s pinched, breathable eartips, or the afore-mentioned Apple-style fit.

Jaybird X4 Wireless Sport Headphones
Dotdash/Jason Schneider.  Lifewire

Build Quality and Durability: Protect Against Water and Sweat

The build quality of wireless headphones is paramount for two reasons: first, it ensures that this often-premium purchase will last you a reasonable amount of time, and second, it ensures that the headphones feel fancy and premium, just like their price tag. Most products are made of a soft-touch plastic and a softer-touch silicone ear tip design. Many of the more budget options will tend to lean on a plastic build—so if you want a premium-feeling product you’ll have to shell out for it. 

The other key factor here is waterproofing and dust resistance. This is not a given. Most will sport an IP rating. The letters, followed by a number denote the "ingress protection" or how well the devices keep out dust and water.

You will often see earbuds sport IPX4 or IPX5 (the 4 and 5 denoting mid-to-moderate levels of splash and drip resistance, but very limited resistance to full immersion into water). When it comes to water resistance, the higher the number, the better. An IPX4 device is resistant to splashes from any direction, while IPX5 can resist low-pressure water (being run under a sink for instance). IPX6 can handle higher pressure water sprays, while IPX7 means the earbuds can survive full immersion in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes. 

Most earbuds don’t fill in a number for that X, meaning there’s no dust resistance, though there are a few exceptions. What this amounts to is that most true wireless earbuds are water-resistant enough to survive a sweaty gym workout or moderate precipitation on a run, but might not survive if dropped into a pool.

Samsung Galaxy Buds+ in author ears
Samsung Galaxy Buds+ offer a great fit and decent, if not always excellent sound.  Lifewiwre / Lance Ulanoff

Controls: Buttons or Gestures

On-board controls sit in two categories: push buttons and touch gestures. The former is more common in low-to-mid-priced models and tends to be clunkier as they require you to physically push the earbud into your ear. Touch gestures can be a little tricky to get the hang of but will give you much more powerful onboard control of your earbuds.

Expanding that control, many manufacturers offer a significant and robust accompanying smartphone app. An app can add functionality like allowing for EQ controls, battery monitoring, and smart assistant adjustment. Some earbuds allow you to adjust commands for the touch area using the app. In short, a well-made app can be the difference between a good experience and a great one.

Audio Quality: Your Biggest Considerations

From an audiophile perspective, there are common specs across all headphones that you should keep in mind. First, what is the frequency spectrum covered by the headphones? Usually displayed in hertz/kilohertz, this number represents the frequency range (bass through treble) that is actually reproduced by the headphones.

The widest range the human ear can hear is 20Hz through 20kHz. Most earbuds will cover slightly less than this, usually skimping on the bottom end, but that ends up being a tradeoff for portability. That’s largely due to the driver size of the earbud speaker itself—usually measuring only a few millimeters, and therefore, less able to produce a truly bolstered bottom end. 

As a result of all this, most manufacturers choose to include a lot of software audio processing to artificially boost bass or clarify the midrange of earbuds. Therefore, if you really like that flatter Bose sound, your ear will likely prefer Bose’s wireless earbuds. If you prefer Sony or Sennheiser, go for their earbuds. You aren’t getting a perfect representation of audio like you would in a pair of wired studio monitors, but you’re getting a top-tier manufacturer’s best attempt at molding a quality sound spectrum for your ears.

Drivers: Size Matters But Isn't Everything

In general, the size of a pair of headphones drivers (the tiny speaker that’s inside each ear piece), mostly affects its power across the frequency spectrum. At its simplest form, the larger the driver the more capable it is at performing at a high level on the low end of the sound spectrum. Earbuds across the board have much smaller drivers (usually around a quarter-inch) than over-ear headphones, and as a result, they will tend to perform better in the high/mid range of the spectrum.

This is why cheap earbuds tend to sound tinny and thin. On the premium side of the market, brands use techniques like ported enclosures and digital EQ processing to give you additional low-end for the smaller drivers. But for truly bass-heavy performance, go for earbuds that sport slightly larger drivers, when possible.

Audio Codecs: How Do They Improve Sound Quality?

The other side of this conversation is the Bluetooth codecs available on the device. A codec is basically the compression format the Bluetooth device uses to send the data, often making a trade-off for file size vs. speed.

"An efficient codec that can be quickly processed is ideal for producing the minimum delay in delivering the audio. This becomes significant if you are using wireless earbuds to watch video images, as a bigger delay will mean the audio is noticeably out of sync with the picture." — Stevie Haywood, Film and TV Sound Mixer

There are basically three codecs at play here: SBC, AAC, and aptX/aptX HD. The Bluetooth standard requires at least compatibility with SBC. Both SBC and AAC are very common across most modern headphones, and they also happen to require the most compression of your file. It's oversimplifying the technology to say that more compression means more degradation to the file so you get less sound quality.

AptX and its HD counterpart employ a proprietary compression algorithm developed by Qualcomm that aims to give you a better-represented source audio file while still maintaining quick transmittance. Many higher-end earbuds feature this protocol and use it to achieve truly impressive sound quality. While the codec is only half the story (the headphone hardware and digital processing are the other half), it’s an important consideration if sound quality is high on your list.

Bose SoundSport Wireless Headphones
Lifewire/Jason Schneider

Noise Cancellation: Blot Out Background Sound

The only other major feature you’ll likely find on a pair of wireless earbuds is the presence of active noise cancellation and active pass-through of outside sounds. The top brands, like Jabra, Sony, and now Apple all offer perfectly serviceable noise cancellation, and reversing those microphones and passing through sound from outside is helpful for maintaining awareness of your surroundings while wearing the headphones.

This does tend to be a premium feature only, so don’t expect to find these marquis functions or a robust app with anything under $100. You’ll also generally find better quality noise canceling on over-ear headphones rather than earbuds. 

Connectivity and Software: Staying Connected While Listening

The setup process for Bluetooth earbuds sits in two camps: basic Bluetooth pairing, and software-based connectivity. To be clear, in both cases, your phone or computer will connect to the earbuds via Bluetooth, but some device manufacturers have chosen to develop software-based walkthroughs to make it easier.

The most prevalent example of this is with Apple AirPods. Thanks to Apple’s S1 chip in each earbud, when you unbox headphones that include this protocol, all you have to do is snap open the battery case and there will be a popup on your iPhone asking you to pair. This essentially skips a few steps, making it a much more seamless pairing experience.

Other earbuds require you to make sure they’re in pairing mode (most earbuds, if charged, will be in pairing mode automatically upon their first powerup) and then enter your device’s Bluetooth menu to find the device to pair. Once initially paired, turning on your headphones should automatically reconnect them to the most recent device.

The two most common Bluetooth versions you’ll find in today’s market are Bluetooth 4–4.2 or Bluetooth 5.0. The former allows your headphones to remember multiple devices, but only play music via one at a time, while the latter allows you to actually play dual music on multiple devices. In practice, for headphones, you’re still going to want to switch between host devices manually, but we’ve found that Bluetooth 5.0 allows jumping between computers, phones, etc. to be much easier.

Range and Stability: How Far Can You Wander?

Carrying on the connectivity conversation, Bluetooth versions aren’t just about connected devices. There’s a lot of detail that goes into the workings of Bluetooth 4.0–4.2 and 5.0 (the most common Bluetooth protocols you’ll see on modern Bluetooth headphones), but the two that are most important to the average listener are range and stability of connection. The Bluetooth 4 family allows for about 10 meters or 33 feet of coverage in most environments, though that range can extend through line of sight when outdoors. 

While this is likely plenty for the average user, Bluetooth 5.0 gives you more than 40 meters or over 130 feet of indoor coverage. While most of us don’t have rooms that require this much range, what it means is that you are likely never going to push a Bluetooth 5.0 pair of headphones to their range limit. And because Bluetooth 5.0 transfers data much faster (virtually double the speed of 4.0), you’ll get a much more reliable connection with your device and slightly less lag when it comes to syncing with video.

AirPods Pro in case
The new AirPods Pros look different and the case is redesigned, too.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Battery Life and Charging Cases: How to Stay Charged on the Go?

The final piece of the puzzle here is the charging case that comes with the earbuds. Because the onboard batteries for the earbuds have to be small to keep the device small, manufacturers have opted to put a larger rechargeable battery into the case. Interestingly, this is the feature where you’ll see the widest swing of difference, with some devices giving you only about 12 hours of use even with the case, and some devices provide closer to 30 hours.

Even more interestingly, a high price tag doesn't always guarantee battery life—we’ve seen some budget pairs clocking in at over 36 hours and some premium brands really lacking. Most cases charge via micro-USB, but we’re seeing a strong push in the market toward USB-C charging cables. Some charging cases even support wireless charging, letting you get rid of the cables entirely.

Price: How Much Do You Want To Spend?

The price of wireless earbuds ranges from sub $20 all the way to $400+. What’s more is when you get into the premium side of the price range, you’ll still have to make some trade-offs. Bose SoundSport Free earbuds, for example, have excellent fit and solid sound quality, but don’t offer very much battery life. Soundcore Liberty headphones, on the budget end, are very capable in the battery department but feel cheaply made. In short, you can spend as much or as little as you want in this category, but research is paramount.'

Popular Brands: An Increasingly Crowded Market

Apple: Probably the most popular, Apple’s AirPods come in three options: the original without a wireless charging case, the second-gen with a wireless charging case, and the Pro model with more battery life, better silicone eartips, and active noise cancellation. The price here sits firmly premium and the design is virtually ubiquitous.

Bose: Definitely in the top three for all-around audio brands, Bose offers two versions of the SoundSport—a standard Bluetooth with wire and a true wireless option (labeled SoundSport Free). Their offering tends to be sturdy, comfortable, and sports that rich, Bose sound. It is lacking in battery life and the fit and finish leans much sportier than it does premium.

Jabra: Jabra was an early adopter of the true wireless market, and the 65T and 75T offerings are truly impressive. The 75T is at the top of its game with active noise cancellation and impressive phone call and sound quality.

Sony: The other king of the Bluetooth audio game is Sony, and the WF-1000 series is an exercise in a brand trying to cram every single feature under the sun into one pair of earbuds. For a hefty price tag over $200 you’ll get noise cancellation, insane battery life, even more insane feature control through an app, and a really nice build quality.

Samsung: The electronics giant does have a pretty humbling offering in this space, largely because their headphones act as an accessory to their smartphones. The Galaxy Buds and Buds+ are small, premium, and totally inoffensive, but they don’t have as many bells and whistles as other brands.

Anker Soundcore: There are a lot of budget earbuds out there, many of which seem like the same earbuds labeled with different brand names overseas. Soundcore (a sister company to Anker) provides some of the best low-cost earbuds out there, offering tons of designs, tons of different models and feature sets, and nothing that really breaks the bank.

Conclusion: How to Pick the Best Wireless Earbuds

The best tip to get you started is to prioritize your hopes and dreams for the spec sheet. If you want great sound quality first and foremost, that really narrows down the list. If your on-the-go life requires solid battery life, you’ll be able to count out a few. If you need waterproofing or an extra wingtip for a better fit, that narrows things further. While brand loyalty can play a part (if you’re a Bose fan, for example, you might forgive the lackluster battery life), it’s important to know the limitations of the brand you love. Thankfully, once you start narrowing down the list, the crowded field of wireless earbuds gets much smaller, and the decision will likely become obvious.

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