First, let’s start with the basics and take a look at the major types of headphones. You’re probably already aware of these and if you’re not, keep reading. We’ll go through some of the pros and cons of each kind of headphone so you can understand which one would best suit you. It’s worth mentioning that there are always exceptions to the rules so these pros and cons apply to most, but not all of the products in any particular category.
Amazon Echo Buds: These earbuds will appeal to folks who primarily rely on the Amazon ecosystem. When they’re connected to your phone, the Echo Buds’ always-listening Alexa function makes them an Echo device you can wear. But unlike other Alexa-enabled devices we’ve tested in the past, the Echo Buds avoid duplicating voice requests when you’re near other Echo devices. They’re also solid earbuds: Their size is small and they’re comfortable to wear, the sound quality is good, the controls are easy to use, and the price is reasonable. You can use each bud independently, and music pauses automatically when you remove one or both earbuds. They get a respectable five hours of battery life when fully charged, and the case provides an additional 15 hours of playback. The downsides are that you must leave the Alexa app open on your phone for Alexa to function, and the earbuds lack physical volume controls. The Bose noise reduction will diminish the low hum of an air conditioner or plane, but it isn’t as powerful as the noise cancellation you get with the Bose 700 headphones on the highest setting. (We’d say it’s about half as effective, which might be good news for those who are prone to “eardrum suck.”)
The sounds quality of these earbuds scored high marks with our testers. “They have a really crisp, clean, sound,” one reviewer explained. “I'm almost surprised by the nuance it adds to my listening experience.” Our testers also appreciated the variety of ear tips that were included to ensure they found their perfect fit. One thing our reviewers weren’t as psyched about, though, was the fact they didn’t block outside noise as well as other earbuds. One tester also had an issue with the volume buttons not working when she used the earbuds with her phone.
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.
Otherwise, Plantronics delivers on better-than-average sound quality with a pair of 5.8mm drivers that make the BackBeat Pro 5100 perfectly acceptable for music. Their tap controls are backed by the BackBeats app that grants cool functionality like one- or two-tap access to playlists, EQ settings, and handy stopwatch and time functions. Couple those last two goodies with IP54 water resistance and 6.5 hours of battery (plus an extra 13 hours from the case), and they can even pull double duty as your workout buddies.
The best wireless earbuds for iPhone that we've tested so far are the Apple AirPods Pro. Apple’s newest iteration on what is now an almost iconic design brings some minor design changes and improvements over their predecessors. As you may recall, the last AirPods were earbuds, which sat outside of the ear canal. But on the Pro, Apple transformed them into in-ears, requiring a deeper insertion. That said, they’re not so deep as to be uncomfortable. This does help with passive isolation and Apple has succeeded in what they set out to do. The noise isolation on these earbuds are great, with an overall attenuation of -23db. The overall sound profile is also different, as Apple opted for a closed-back design this time around. Lacking a bit of bass, they have a fairly neutral sound but lean more towards the brighter side.
Built-in microphone/control module. If you’re not fond of pulling your phone out of your pocket, some headphones have control modules and mics on the wire or built into the headphones that let you do a number of things. You can answer phone calls, access Siri or Google Now, and control your music. Always check what the controls are and see if they match your preferences.
All headphones are technically “portable,” but we use the term to describe small, lightweight models, some of which can be folded and tucked away in a pocket or purse when not in use. This category also includes earbuds for use with smartphones—those that come with a microphone and in-line controls for volume, skipping tracks, and connecting or disconnecting calls. Note that while smaller, lighter headphones are often more comfortable than their bulkier brethren, you might trade sound quality for comfort.
Unfortunately, these earbuds come with a proprietary charging cradle that’s a bit restrictive, since it means you can’t just borrow a friend’s micro-USB cable if you leave yours at home. They also can’t connect to two devices simultaneously like the regular Jaybird Tarah Wireless can. That said, they’re still a solid upgrade on the regular model, especially in terms of battery life. They’re well-rounded wireless in-ears that are not only the best wireless earbuds for running that we’ve reviewed so far, but they're also versatile enough for more casual use.
If you want truly wireless earbuds that are more suited to running or sports, get the Jaybird Vista Truly Wireless. They don't isolate background noise nearly as well as the Samsung Galaxy Buds Truly Wireless, but they have a better-built sportier design that's rated IPX7 for waterproofing. Their sound profile out-of-the-box is decent, but they're compatible with Jaybird's great MySound app for both iOS and Android which gives you access to an excellent parametric equalizer. Unfortunately, their microphone performance is poor and it'll be hard for the person on the other end of the line to hear you if you're in a busy environment due to its poor noise handling.
When choosing Bluetooth headphones, consider where you'll be listening to your device. Different styles are ideal for different settings. Over-the-ear headphones and earbuds are lightweight and portable, making them a good choice for use while you exercise or for carrying with you on a regular basis. Large headphones, on the other hand, usually offer the best sound quality and noise reduction, making them a good choice for listening on planes, trains and in cars. For everyday listening at home or in the office, medium-sized headphones are a good choice.
Our writers spent 253 hours researching and testing the most popular wireless earbuds on the market. Before making their final recommendations, they considered 10 different earbuds overall, screened options from 10 different brands and manufacturers, and read over 45 user reviews (both positive and negative). All of this research adds up to recommendations you can trust.
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.