Earbuds rest in the bowl of the ear, outside the ear canal, though a portion might extend into the canal itself. Earbuds are fairly common because they often come with smartphones and portable audio players. Insert-style models are inserted into the ear canal, often forming a seal that can help keep out more extraneous noise. Most come with additional earpieces (canal tips) of varying sizes to ensure a secure fit.
On the downside, their default sound lacks a little bass. Since their companion app is only available on Android, iOS users who are fans of bass may be a bit disappointed. They also don’t have onboard storage like the Samsung Gear IconX Truly Wireless, which are harder to find, and are only rated IPX2 for minimal water resistance. That said, the Galaxy Buds feel better-built and have far superior battery life. If they suit your needs, they’re fairly versatile truly wireless headphones that are worth considering.
One thing to consider is how this affects the sound quality. Wired headphones generally dollar for dollar sound better that wireless headphone. This is because making a signal wireless involves some degradation either via codec choices of cost saving measures in the hardware. The good news is that in recent years we have seen a shift away from standard wireless technology and headphone companies are introducing better bluetooth (5.0) and APTX lossless codec which go a long way to making your music sound better. If you are looking to buy a set of wireless headphones make sure you look out for those features.
Newer models manage to strike a balance between operability and layout. Some use actual tactile buttons to control playback, call management, track navigation, and volume. Some others cleverly divide controls between the two earpieces with touch panels—tapping the left ear, for instance, will skip a track backward, while tapping the right will skip forward. Despite needing to do a little more thinking before you tap, eventually the division of controls between the two earpieces reveals itself to be intuitive. So on-ear control panels are getting more creative and user-friendly, but there's still a ways to go before they catch up with traditional wireless models.
Surprisingly, many of these wire-free models can be used at the gym and even get wet, despite the fact that each earpiece has an exposed charging contact on the inside. Check the IP rating of these; some workout-friendly earphones are only IPX4-rated, so they can stand up to sweat but might be hard to wash. Others are IPX7-rated, which means they can survive getting rinsed and dunked.
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.
Case in point: the Koss PortaPro headphones first hit the market in 1984 and have become such a favorite with audiophiles that the company leaves the design (and the price tag) untouched. You can still pick one up for less than $50, and they come with a lifetime warranty, no receipt necessary. Check out our favorite budget headphones for more selections.
If you want in-ears that have ANC but can also be customized with your smartphone, then get the Sony WI-1000X. They have a more traditional in-ear design, so they’re not as comfortable as the Bose QuietControl 30/QC30 Wireless, but they feel much more durable and are highly customizable thanks to their compatibility with the Sony | Headphones Connect app. Their neckband is very rigid, though, and they also don’t come with as nice a carrying case as the Bose, which is a bit disappointing considering they’re generally very similarly priced.
If you don’t quite have AirPods money, Anker’s Soundcore Liberty Air let you fake the funk for a fraction of the cost. Don’t be mistaken, though — these budget earbuds pack quite a punch. The bass-heavy Soundcore Liberty Air even take after the AirPods design a bit with a golf tee of their own. Whether that’s enough to fool the informed is a toss-up, but regardless, you’re getting decent sound and features for your money.
The Elite 75t offers more controls than many sets of true wireless earbuds. Each earbud has one large button, and through different combinations of taps or holds, you can control play/pause, volume, track skip, call answer/end, and digital-assistant activation. We found this new button configuration to be easier to manipulate than that of the Elite 65t. And unlike with many of the touch-sensor-based earbuds we tested, the 75t’s buttons don’t trigger accidentally if your hand happens to brush one of the earbuds. We like that the buttons don’t click loudly when depressed, and they are sensitive enough to pressure that you don’t have to mash the earbuds painfully into your ears to get a response. The Elite 75t is compatible with both iOS and Android and certified for use with Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant.
If you want a pair of earbuds under $100 for working out, go with the JBL Reflect Mini 2. They aren't truly wireless like the Anker SoundCore Liberty Air Truly Wireless, but they have a more stable fit and their physical controls are easier to use while exercising. They have a well-balanced sound profile which has a slight bump in bass, making them good for getting you pumped during a workout. Unfortunately, their 10-hour battery doesn't have an auto-off feature, so you need to remember to turn them off when you aren't using them.
You won’t need to worry about the Powerbeats Pro earbuds falling out of your ears, as the flexible stabilizing hook over each ear does a fantastic job of keeping these earbuds in place for most ear shapes. I took our test pair to the gym for a 90-minute high-impact workout involving a lot of jumping and diverse movement, and the Powerbeats Pro set didn’t budge. It’s one of the most comfortable earbud styles we’ve tested. For once, an ad with celebrity athletes (video) promising a secure earbud delivers on that promise. However, this design makes the Powerbeats Pro far less discreet than other true wireless earbuds, and it does feel reminiscent of the commuter Bluetooth single-ear headsets of, say, 2007. That said, if people can get accustomed to walking around with the AirPods’ trendy white-cigarette-in-the-ear look, we suspect they’ll be completely fine with the Powerbeats Pro look, too.
The active noise cancellation is decent, but it’s not adjustable at all and may cause “eardrum suck” for some people (you can read more about this phenomenon in our best noise-cancelling headphones guide). Because of the vented earbud design, the Pro earbuds don’t provide much noise isolation without the ANC activated, but they still produce some mild occlusion effect. With battery life of four and a half hours, they won’t last a cross-country flight or a full workday without a charging break. The Pro earbuds are water resistant, but the design is far less secure for high-impact activities than that of the Powerbeats Pro and less durable than that of the IP55-rated Jabra Elite 75t. While we like that Apple did away with the tap-based controls, the squeeze controls are fiddly (we often play/paused when we wanted to skip tracks) and still lack volume controls (which both the Jabra Elite 75t and Powerbeats Pro have).
That said, the term earbuds has become synonymous with earphones and in-ear headphones, so the difference is ultimately academic. Whatever you call them and whatever they say on the box, you should look for earphones that form a good seal inside your ear with silicone or foam eartips. They'll sound much better than plastic-covered drivers cupped against your ear canal.