Your choice of headphones is as much about your lifestyle (and even personal brand) as it is about your wallet. Some people buy different types for different uses—one, say, for working out and another for relaxing. The lines, however, are blurring. You’ll now see people on the street or on the train wearing larger models that used to be reserved for home use, while others are attached to their earbuds 24/7, even while watching movies or TV.
Anker is known more for its value headphones, but it's trying to step into more premium territory with its Soundcore Liberty 2 Pro earbuds, which carry a list price of $150. From a design standpoint, they share some similarities with Sony's WF-1000XM3, although this model doesn't have active noise-cancellation. Anker says they have large 11mm drivers combined with Knowles Balanced Armature, with up to 8 hours of battery life on a single charge (32 total hours of playtime with the case) and noise-cancellation microphones to help reduce ambient sound so callers can hear you better. They charge via USB-C and also support wireless charging.
Cable dressing and length: Most stereo headphones have just one cable, usually attached to the left earpiece (sometimes called single-sided cabling). Some models -- and all earbuds -- use a Y-cable that connects to both earpieces (double-sided). The actual cable plug, meanwhile, is usually one of two designs: a straight I-plug or an angled L-plug; the latter may be useful if your portable player has a side- or bottom-mounted headphone jack.
You don’t need to worry about being caught in the rain, either, because these earbuds are IP55 rated, which means they can take dust, rain, and some light sweat without breaking. You can tote the Elite 75t to the gym if you are doing a mild workout; however, if you sweat heavily, you may want to consider our workout headphones pick, Jabra’s Elite Active 65t, which has an IP56 rating. Although Jabra backs the Elite 75t with a two-year warranty against water and dust damage, this wireless earbud model isn’t covered for intense sweating. The Active edition is more sweat and dust resistant, but those earbuds are a little bigger and have a shorter battery life per charge. If you want to read more about our picks for working out and running, check out our guides to the best workout headphones and the best running headphones.
Although we were able to find a sound profile that made us happy by adjusting the Elite 75t via the Jabra Sound+ app, we wished that the bass and treble had been a little more reined in right out of the box. Before we made our tweaks, we had found the bass to be a bit loud and the highs a touch icy. It’s not a huge deal, but it would’ve been nice to have a sound we loved without the need to make any adjustments.
The best cheap earbuds we've tested so far are the Anker SoundBuds Curve. They perform better than a lot of the more premium wireless earbuds we've tested for a fraction of the price. They're surprisingly well-built, with a very comfortable fit for in-ear headphones, and even come with a nice hard carrying case, which is a welcome addition at this price point. They have an excited, bass-heavy sound that will help bring out the thump and rumble of a hip-hop track without drowning out the vocals and lead instruments of a folk-rock song.
Apple AirPods Pro: These earbuds are a major step up over the basic AirPods, in both sound quality and versatility. If your heart is set on a pair of AirPods, get the Pro version. The added bass response, improved fit, mild water and sweat resistance (rated IPX4), and active noise cancellation make these the best earbuds Apple has made. The easy pairing process (thanks to Apple’s H1 chip) is still nifty, the small charge case is handy, the wind-noise-reducing microphones are effective, and the iOS interface is pretty. However, although the AirPods Pro earbuds are good for Apple fans, they may not be worth the price for everyone else. In our tests, they were much better than the basic AirPods in sound quality but equaled by less-expensive options such as the Jabra Elite 75t.
Everything about the JLab JBuds Air Icon is fantastic except the sound. These earbuds pair easily, fit comfortably, and have an intelligently designed charging case with a USB cable built in. They’re water and sweat resistant, too. But even with three EQ options, they can’t compete with our picks sonically. In our tests, the “balanced” mode produced soft and blurry bass and sibilant highs, the “bass boost” option was crazy-loud and reverby in a way that obliterated every other instrument, and the “signature” mode had bloated, woofing bass that covered male voices. If you listen only to podcasts, these earbuds are excellent, but music fans would likely be disappointed.
Master & Dynamic MW07 Go: This pair offers a lot of positives. The earbuds are very comfortable and stable in the ears, and we like the separate volume and track controls, although the volume buttons are a tad small for those with larger fingers. The 10-hour battery life and 30-meter Bluetooth range are impressive for this category. The small fabric-wrapped case and the earbuds themselves feel well made. However, although the sound was rather good in our tests, the bass was boosted in a way that could veil male vocals on bass-heavy songs. And we wished the Go had a transparency mode so we didn’t need to take these earbuds out to have a conversation. But if those aren’t dealbreakers for you and you aren’t turned off by the $200 price, they’re solid earbuds.
Sony hasn't been much of a player in the true wireless (AirPod-style) headphone arena, but its new WF-1000XM3 model may change that. While this pair of headphones isn't cheap, as far as sound quality, they're the best wireless earbuds at this price, matching and perhaps even exceeding the quality and performance of pricier competitors from Sennheiser, Beats, Master & Dynamic and Bang & Olufsen. It also has a feature that those wireless earbuds don't have: active noise cancellation technology to reduce ambient noise.
We're starting to see some very compelling wire-free earphones now, with companies like Bose and JLab offering sets with the power, longevity, and intuitive controls necessary for us to recommend them. Typically wire-free earphones were more expensive than conventional wireless earphones, but there are now several compelling sets available for under $150 or even under $100.