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We Tested the Newest Wireless Earbuds, and These Are Our 8 Favorites

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

One benefit to having spent an entire year cooped up in my house following the same simple morning routine (placing my earbuds into my ears, pressing play on a new album or podcast, and then staring at my screen until it was time to break the monotony with a drink or a snack) is that it provides the perfect opportunity to test earbuds. There’s no subway noise or street preachers, and no co-workers doing interviews nearby. In the relative quiet of my home office, I can really focus on the sound.

I tested more than a dozen of the newest and most popular headphones, incorporating them into my life and routine for at least three weeks. I tried earbuds from Apple, Sennheiser, Google, Samsung, Sony, JLab Audio, Audio-Technica and Jabra. When I wasn’t on Zoom calls, I spent hours laughing with Desus and Mero and playing Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, all while juggling different earbuds and an endless list of Bluetooth connections. My testing focused on five features: sound, comfort, connection quality, size, and price. For a great set of earbuds, you really need to hit all of them. After all, if you spend a ton of money but always have connection issues, you are going to be frustrated. And if your new earbuds sound great but are uncomfortable, that’s just as bad.

After months of testing, I was encouraged by how dramatically earbuds have improved over the last few years. The technology is at the point where you shouldn’t have to worry too much about a dodgy Bluetooth connection or a dropped signal. You can also get decent sound, battery life and noise canceling at a variety of different price points. What might ultimately be the deciding factor for you is the convenience of the setup process and how much you care about premium sound quality.

Below are eight of the best options you can buy, all extensively tested and categorized to help you find the best pair for you with as little effort as possible. As Jay-Z once said, “Hov did that, so hopefully you won’t have to go through that.”

Best earbuds for iPhone users

$119

AirPods started off as kind of a joke, thanks to their oblong shape and relatively high price, but public perception gradually changed and now you see them everywhere. Teens, athletes, and tech experts love them, and for good reason: They’re portable, they sound good, they’re comfortable in the ear even after long listening sessions, and the set up process is basically seamless — just open up the AirPod case and your iPhone starts connecting. I appreciate that easy connection more than ever after all this testing, when often the most frustrating parts of my experience was getting certain wireless earbuds synched. The fact that Apple made the set up process so easy is something we can all appreciate, but it will be especially welcome for people who aren’t tech savvy.

The controls are simple and intuitive. You simply tap or double tap the sides of the AirPods to pause, play, or skip songs, and to activate Siri. There aren’t many options for customization on the tap function—unlike the Jabra, Sony and Sennheiser (all below), which allow you to pick and choose which earbuds activate the controls— but Apple’s standard controls work well in most situations. And although some people have had issues with the AirPods’ fit, that can often be solved with an inexpensive accessory. Once they’re in your ears, the buds should provide 5 hours of listening time, based on my testing. And you can always top off the battery by dropping them in their case for 15 or 20 minutes. One warning: the all-white case tends to attract dirt and grime no matter how clean you think you are.

Best earbuds for android users

Jabra Elite 85t
$180

I’d already reviewed most of the other earbud options when I received the 85Ts, and when I first put these in my ears, I was shocked at how small and comfortable they are. When I wore them for a jog, they did jiggle a bit, but after a quick adjustment, they stayed perfectly snug. Even after a particularly long meeting, they weren’t pulling at my ears like cinderblocks. They’re also sweat and water resistant, and have a 5.5-hour battery life with Active Noise Canceling (ANC) activated and a 7-hour battery life without (28 hours if you count the extra charges you can get from the case).

The noise-canceling worked perfectly during my testing, which is to say, it was able to mask the Zoom calls of my Covid-lockdown officemate (my mom). For those moments when you do need to hear someone talk, there is a convenient button that you hit to activate hear-through mode, a feature on every noise-canceling earbuds I tested that temporarily pauses the ANC. (I wish more brands used physical buttons like these, as opposed to touch-sensitive panels, which are never as responsive.) This was especially useful on runs, where I had to quickly hit the hear-through button so I could figure out if my running partner was trying to get my attention.

The 85T also had some of the best sound out of all of the earbuds I tried. The bass really delivered during a listen to Nicolas Jaar’s Space Is Only Noise, and the heavy synth and bass on “Space Is Only Noise If You Can See” managed to flow beautifully as the track hit a peak in the beginning of the song, instead of falling apart into a muddied mess. If you don’t like the way they’re tuned out of the box, or if you’re switching from a podcast to a bass-heavy playlist, adjusting the settings is easy in the app. Maybe most important, pairing is easy. The Jabras have a reliable Bluetooth connection that I set up once and never had to think about again.

Best noise-canceling earbuds for Android users

The Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds were already exceptional, and the newest model, the Sony WF-1000XM4s, are even better. Using Sony’s new V1 chip, they block out sounds so efficiently I had a hard time hearing my own breathing. When I wore them on a flight, even the low hum of the plane’s engine was barely noticeable. The ANC is so good that it feels like these tiny earbuds are now competing with their class-leading big brother, the over-ear Sony WH-1000XM4.

The biggest problem I found with the XM3s was their size. Both the earbuds and the case were huge. (I could barely fit the case in the front pocket of my jeans.) The case for the XM4s, however, is one-third smaller, and the buds themselves weigh only 41 grams — compared to the XM3’s 79 grams. The XM4 has an IPX4 rating, meaning it can withstand sweat from your most intense workouts and even light rain, something that the older model lacked. Just as important, they stay in, thanks to all new form-fitting memory-foam ear tips that expand to contour to the inside of your ears. They also have some of the best battery life of any earbuds I tested. With ANC enabled, the battery will last up to eight hours (compare that to the five hours of the AirPods Max, below). And if you don’t want noise-canceling on, the XM4s will last for a stunning 12 hours.

Best noise-canceling earbuds for iPhone users

Apple AirPods Pro
$199

The AirPod Pros borrow many of the same features that made the OG AirPods great: a simple set-up process, a seamless connection to your iPhone, a compact size and a relatively comfortable design. (Thanks to the rubberized tips, which come in three sizes, this one should fit in your ears, even if you struggled with the original.) They have ANC and they are a significant step up in sound quality, with richer and better balanced bass. Plus Apple added these little black vents to the outside of the Pros to alleviate that completely sealed-off, underwater feeling that some earbuds can give you.

Apple swapped the touch sensor for a disappointing “force sensor” that allows you to trigger Siri or noise canceling with a long press, or play/pause, skip or rewind tracks with a quick squeeze. The AirPods have the most intuitive touch controls of any of the earbuds I tested, so I’m not sure why you’d want to mess with them. Thankfully you can do the most important thing the force sensor does (switching between noise cancellation and transparency mode) fairly quickly in your phone’s control center if, like me, you don’t like using the sensor itself.

They have a somewhat average 4.5-hour battery life that should be fine for most people, but you’ll definitely be charging them more often than the Sony or Jabra earbuds. I also found that sometimes my left AirPod Pro earbud wouldn’t charge. Once in a while, even after leaving them in the case overnight, I’d pull them out to find my left earbud completely drained, but the problem has happened less after a recent update.

Best budget earbuds

$69

The JLab has a 12 hour battery life, the longest of any of the earbuds I tested. That could get you through Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring four times, including some of the bonus footage. On top of that, the case can provide an additional 36 hours of listening time. The noise cancellation isn’t top of the line like the Sonys or Sennheisers (below), but it’s excellent for the price, and it does a decent job of blocking out people talking and other ambient sounds. With the variety of included eartips, you shouldn’t have trouble finding the perfect seal. My favorite was the “cloud foam tip,” which you squeeze down before inserting it into your ear, where it expands for a tight grip. It’s similar to Sony’s tips, and makes the seal (and the earbuds) feel a little more luxe.

Best earbuds for audiophiles

These are excellent earbuds, with incredible, studio-quality sound. They’re also a huge headache. When I went to configure the touch sensitive settings — I wanted to be able to trigger noise canceling with the left ear and play/pause on the right — I almost gave up. It just took forever for the earbuds to figure out that the commands had been adjusted. After I paired my phone with the earbuds it managed to work out but it was a learning curve some people might not be able to forgive at this price point. Once I managed to get them set up, though, they were exceptional. In terms of fit, when I wore them for a run, they were incredibly comfortable. With ANC activated, the battery life is a decent 6 hours. The sound really managed to shine when I turned up the volume while listening to tracks from James Blake’s album, Unluck; its crackling snare hits managed to stand out without overwhelming the soulful vocals. When I listened to the popular track, “Grindin” from the Clipse’s Lord Willin, I was reminded of why every student would bang the beat on every public school table in 2002. The earbuds managed to balance the vocals and bouncy drums all without any sense of the grimy harshness you might expect from lesser headphones.

Best earbuds for simple setup

These well-made earbuds have one of the more seamless setup processes I’ve experienced. To connect them to your phone, all you do is hold the tiny button on the side of each earbud for a few seconds. When you hear a chirp, you’re done. I also like that they’re real buttons, with a satisfying click, instead of the unintuitive touch controls of many other options. I didn’t have to worry about mistakenly skipping a song or triggering my smartphone assistant every time I tried to adjust them, like I did with the other earbuds. Audio-Technica’s noise canceling is impressive — and made even better by the fact that the form-fitting earbud tips really seal in sound. They’re incredibly comfortable, too, despite the somewhat clunky shape. My only complaint was that a couple of times I noticed a low-sounding ring after pausing a podcast, but it passed after a few seconds both times.

In terms of music playback, these earbuds balanced vocals and bass really well. While listening to British rapper Slowthai’s song “MAZZA,” the low ends came through clearly without muddying up the vocals or drums. Like most of the other earbuds I tested, these have a hear-though function. Like the setup process, it was easy to operate. You simply click the left earbud button once, and after about two seconds, the volume lowers and makes it easier to hear conversations or any other outside sounds. The ATH-ANC300TWs have a 4.5-hour battery life and the charging case adds an extra 13.5 hours of battery power, which is about average for the category. The case is a little large — not as large as the Sonys — but big enough that you won’t easily be able to slide them in and out of your pockets.

Best earbuds for runners

I have not tested these myself, but David Siik, a long-distance runner and the founder of the running class Precision Run by Equinox, told us they are his favorite. “I’ve tried every single pair of headphones — and there are some good ones out there — but the Jaybird Vista headphones are the only ones that have literally never fallen out of my ears once, no matter how hard I run,” he says. They have a battery life of six hours (and an extra ten with the charging case), plus they’re waterproof, so they can stand up to even the sweatiest of ears. (When Strategist contributor Paul Schrodt tested the best waterproof headphones, the Jaybird Vistas were a favorite. He even “luxuriated in a post-run shower listening to Sade” with them without causing any damage.)

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We Tested the Newest Earbuds and These Are Our 8 Favorites