Earbud-style headphones range from the disposable models you get on a plane to the ones that are included with your smartphone to high-performance buds that offer sonics rivaling full-size models. Their tiny earpieces rest on the outer ear or need to be inserted into the ear canal, and some models, particularly sport buds, include wings or fins for a more tailored, secure fit.
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In addition to reviewing gear for AV magazines, I’ve been in and out of top recording studios for over a decade, first as a radio producer and on-air talent, then as a professional voice actor. My articles have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, and Time, and on Good Morning America, the BBC World Service, and NBC Nightly News.
The trade-off is that most wire-free earphones have inferior battery life compared with tethered models, forcing you to pop them in their charging case fairly often. Their small size also means on-earphone controls are generally limited, and their price is usually significantly more than similar tethered wireless earphones. Our reviews go into greater detail about these benefits and limitations, and highlight how certain models are starting to overcome these growing pains.
Plantronics BackBeat Go 410: This affordable pair reduces a decent amount of noise, sounds pretty good, and fits comfortably. The flexible collar that connects the two earbuds is lightweight and comfortable, and it folds up easily into an included pocket-sized bag. The rated eight-hour battery life with noise cancelling activated (10 with ANC off) isn’t as long as we’d like, but it will get you through a long flight or a full workday. Unlike the vast majority of Bluetooth earbuds, the BackBeat Go 410 also supports a wired connection to your device (the charging cable doubles as a wired ⅛-inch jack) so you can keep using these earbuds when the battery runs out. However, the active noise cancellation won’t work when you’re using them in wired mode.
Unfortunately, there have been reports that the neckband build quality isn’t the best, as the rubber casing starts peeling off after a few months of usage. The Bose Connect app also doesn’t offer many customization options and doesn’t provide an EQ, unlike the highly customizable Sony WI-1000X Wireless. Nevertheless, these are versatile, comfortable earbuds that are likely to please, especially for commute and travel.
The Elite 75t has a sealed, noise-isolating design that helps to block out distractions around you. But if you need to have a conversation or prefer to hear your surroundings, just single-tap the button on the left earbud—this activates “transparency mode,” which uses the mics to send external sounds through the wireless earbuds themselves. Using the free Jabra Sound+ app, you can set this action to either pause your music or continue to play it at a lower volume, which allows you to hear a mix of your music or call and the external noise. Additionally, the 75t protects your hearing, so if something very loud passes by, the transparency shuts off until the noise ceases rather than blaring feedback into your eardrums. (I found this out during a wind-noise test involving a hair dryer.)
1More Stylish True Wireless: This pair is a solid choice for those who have smaller ear canals or who have difficulty keeping earbuds in place. The multiple wing and tip options combined with a lightweight chassis make the Stylish True Wireless more comfortable to wear long-term than similarly priced competitors. At six and a half hours, the battery life is solid, too. After this pair’s release, 1More added the ability to control volume with the buttons, but you’ll need to update the firmware to take advantage. In our tests, the sound leaned toward being bass-heavy and blurry on male vocals; if not for that, we may have named this pair as a pick.
The Crossfade Wireless are available to customise on the V-moda website so that’s great if you are looking for headphones with a personal touch. They can also be used wired if you run out of battery and they have the ability to connect to 2 devices at once which is great if you are someone who switches between listening on phones, tablets and laptops.
While the JLab JBuds Air Executive isn’t as good as the Jabra Elite 75t or the Beats Powerbeats Pro, it is solid for the price. The microphones are quite clear for calls, the six-hour battery life between charges is good, and the diminutive charge case’s built-in USB cable is handy. However, we found that these earbuds didn’t feel as secure in our ears as our top picks, the sound was somewhat blurry in the lower ranges, the “hear through” option had a slight delay and a compressed sound that could be off-putting, and the touch controls were easy to trigger when we were adjusting the earbuds in our ears.
The Sesh does a lot of great things for the price, but battery life isn’t one of them. Three hours per full charge is on the lower end for true wireless earbuds, and about average for the sub-$75 price range. In our tests, at 70 percent volume, the Sesh just barely squeaked out the claimed three hours. Of course, taking calls, pausing your music, and using different volume levels will affect the performance, and the charge case means you can always get more juice without plugging into the wall. But in a perfect world, we’d like our earbuds to last a little longer.
These come in two types. The “closed back” models have sealed ear cups, which keep in more sound and muffle ambient noise. But they might also block out some things you want to hear, such as a doorbell or a ringing phone. “Open back” headphones have openings in the ear cups, which are intended to give the audio a clearer, more natural feel. They’ll let in more external sound, but noise can bleed out as well—perhaps enough to disturb someone nearby.
The treble and the mid-range performance sets the best wireless earbuds apart from their rivals. It will help you enjoy the vocals, as well as the finer details in a song's instrumental accompaniment to the fullest. Bass is typically the easiest audio bit to reproduce. But, especially in affordably-priced headsets, it might come at the expense of the mids and the highs.
Jabra claims the Elite 75t has a battery life of seven and a half hours per charge, which should get you through most of a workday. I personally got even more when I listened at a moderate volume and made only a few phone calls under 10 minutes each. Of course, your volume level and call duration could mildly impact your results. The charging case is petite enough to fit in a jeans coin pocket yet capable of providing an additional 20 hours of battery life. Even better, the earbud batteries have an initial rapid charge that gives you one hour of use after 15 minutes docked in the case. The case itself charges via USB-C.
The Phiaton BT 150 NC offers a lot to like, including retractable earbuds, easy-to-use swipe controls, and a lightweight, comfortable neckband. The sound quality was better than that of most earbuds in this range. Plus, this set offers decent ANC and the ability to work with a cord. But the neckband felt flimsy to us and doesn’t fold up, which can be a hindrance when you’re traveling.
Although they're not truly wireless earbuds, the in-line controls are easy to use if you're not a fan of touch controls. On the back of the in-line remote is where you'll find the connection pins for the proprietary charger. The latter is a bit of a letdown. Fortunately, you can leave your charger at home, because the battery life on these earbuds are great, coming in at around 13.3 hours of continuous playback.