Just because the headphone jack is under attack doesn’t mean that you should give up on earbuds. It’s hard to beat the convenience of the best earbuds since you can roll them up and stuff them back into your pocket. You don’t get that kind of utility from over-ears. While the AirPods are convenient, they don’t sound nearly as good. Whether you want wired or wireless, we’ve got you covered with some of the best earbuds currently available.
Editor’s note: this post was updated on November 27, 2019, to include the Creative Outlier Gold and Tin Audio T2
The best earbuds are the 1More Quad-Driver in-ears
If you couldn’t tell by the name these contain four different drivers in each earbud, each tuned specifically to handle a different frequency range. Yeah, these best earbuds are already off to a strong start. The extra drivers mean less overlap between frequency ranges, as there isn’t just a single driver trying to do everything at once. Now it’s worth mentioning, these aren’t cheap. However, you get a good bang for your buck with these ‘buds.
Quad Driver in-earsFull Review
Though the sound quality definitely favors the low-end, it’s not an overbearing experience. They keep the fun sound that many of us like without overdoing it—or forgetting about the mids and the highs. The treble, in particular, has good detail but they do get kind of harsh at high volume. Luckily they also get pretty loud. Just don’t crank them up too loud if you want to avoid noise-induced hearing loss.
You’ll get the same top-notch quality that was available in the previous Triple-Driver in-ears with an all-metal housing and Kevlar cable. Speaking of which the Triple-Drivers make a great pair of ‘buds too if you want to save some cash. Overall, we enjoy the sound of the Quad-driver and think most consumers will, too. There’s a reason these remain the best earbuds.
Save a buck without cutting corners and get the Creative Outlier Gold
The Creative Outlier Gold are the complete true wireless package for less. These earbuds support both AAC and aptX Bluetooth codecs. This means you benefit from high-quality streaming regardless of what platform you have. The capsular charging case houses a USB-C input and comes in a slick gold color which isn’t nearly as “in your face” as it sounds.
Jaybird TarahFull Review
While there aren’t any ear hooks as seen with the Beats Powerbeats Pro, you can still work out with the Outlier Gold. The IPX5 rating means they’re impervious to nearly all water contact, save for submersion. Outdoor athletes may enjoy mono-listening by placing one earbud back into the case. We highly recommend doing so. If you’re in a busy area as it’s important to remain aware of your surroundings.
There are a few drawbacks to the earbuds, though. For one, it takes a bit of force to depress the button on either earbud. This can make playback controls an actual pain to operate. However, you are afforded virtual assistant access which is a nice touch.
Sound quality, while not accurate, is fun and follows what most general consumers enjoy. The bass-heavy sound sacrifices clarity and causes some auditory masking. While it’s not quite an equal exchange, the reproduction of perceived three-dimensional space is quite impressive. Instrumental separation is perceptible, which is to be expected from the maker fo the Super X-Fi amplifier. Speaking of which, these have Super X-Fi holographic, meaning that they can reproduce a somewhat realistic 3D sound. Of course, take that with a grain of salt, but we found it to sound pretty good in our full review. If you’re looking to save some extra dollars, you can always go with the Creative Outlier Air which don’t have the Super-X-fi holographic audio.
The Etymotic ER4SR are the best earbuds for sound quality
If you’re going to be monitoring or mixing (or doing any kind of professional work really) with audio, a pair of in-ears with a flat response might be a worthy investment to make. And if you want accuracy, look no further than the Etymotic ER4SR in-ears.
Etymotic ER4SRFull Review
These have a thin, smooth aluminum housing and triple flange ear tips so you can be confident that they won’t fall out. The minimalist design doesn’t allow any room for playback controls, but we’ll get these a pass. After all, these are specifically for professionals that work with audio, or anyone who doesn’t like to have an emphasis on certain aspects of the frequency range.
Save some cash with the Linsoul Tin Audio T2
If you want a good pair of ‘buds that aren’t going to break the bank, check out the latest par of earbuds that have been making the rounds in the audio community: the Linsoul Tin Audio T2. These small earbuds are machined entirely from metal which gives them a build that won’t break or snap in your pockets. They’re also rocking MMCX connectors so if you have a favorite cable that you prefer, or even if the cable snaps at some point in the future, you can just replace it without needing to go out and buy a whole new pair of earbuds. That said, at just $49 these aren’t going to break the bank anyway and will also make a great for anyone that prioritizes good sound on the go.
Tin Audio T2
The sound quality is also better than what you pay for, and while these don’t have a truly flat frequency response they emphasize all the right parts. There’s some underemphasis in the low end, but the mids really get some extra juice so vocals and podcasts will sound great. If you want a pair of ‘buds for your commute these are the way to go.
Get fit with Jaybird Tarah
The Jaybird Tarah provides nearly everything the company’s flagship model has to offer but at a much cheaper price point. These IPX7 water-resistant earbuds can withstand full submersion for up to 30 minutes. That said, it’s a matter of durability. You can’t swim and listen to your music at the same time as Bluetooth is far too limited. For that, you’ll need dedicated swimming earbuds with on-board storage.
Creative Outlier GoldFull Review
The control module features a whimsical, bubbled design. The buttons are large and spread out, making them easy to use when exercising. The Tarah earbuds are accompanied by three hybrid ear tips (small, medium, and large). If you want memory foam ear tips, you’ll have to pony up for the Jaybird X4, or invest in a third-party pair.
For better or worse, Jaybird retains its proprietary charging cable with the Tarah earbuds. It’s a lot to fumble around with the cradle compared to just plugging in a USB-C, or even standard microUSB, cable. Gripes aside, battery life is just ok. You get about six hours of listening on a single charge with the Tarah, while the X4 Bluetooth earbuds grant eight hours of playback. You do benefit from quick charging, though, whereby 10 minutes of charging yields one hour of playback.
- OnePlus Type-C Bullets: If you have an Android phone that is no longer rocking a headphone jack, then you might want to check out the Type-C Bullet earbuds from OnePlus. For only $20, they offer a decent option that won’t break the bank. Alternatively, the OnePlus Bullets Wireless 2 are an excellent wireless option.
- 1More Triple-Driver In-Ear: The 1More Triple-Driver in-ears have their faults, but for the price, they make one hell of a good pair of earbuds. You can use these every day to enjoy your music without worrying about whether they’ll survive your pockets.
- V-Moda Forza Metallo: These are without a doubt an incredibly solid pair of all-around headphones. If you’re looking to make an investment on a pair of in-ears and have prioritized a fashionable design, it’s easy to recommend Forza Metallo ‘buds.
- NuForce/Massdrop EDC in-ears: These may not be the be-all-end-all of in-ear monitors, but this collab between NuForce and Massdrop is certainly one heck of a bargain. It’s just gravy that their design is so smart; plus, they isolate sound really well.
- Shure SE-215-K: Shure makes plenty of audio equipment, but the Shure SE-215-K ‘buds just might be a classic.
- RHA MA390: The RHA MA390 formerly reigned as the best bang for your buck option. They still stand as an excellent pair of affordable wired earbuds with a sophisticated design.
- RHA T20 Wireless: These are some of the most versatile earbuds on the market. You get two pairs of earbuds for the price of one as they can go from wired to wireless in a snap. RHA also provides three pairs of sound filters, which effectively attenuate or emphasize different frequency ranges.
- Thinksound ts03+: If you want a solid low end and a unique wooden pair of ‘buds, then look no further.
- KZ ATE copper in-ears: If you’re not looking to spend too much but prioritize sound quality over all else, then these might do it for you. The Kz ATE Copper in-ears are not going to outperform your favorite pair of expensive ‘buds, but for less than $20, they’re good enough. This means that you can leave your expensive headphones at home. Better yet, just leave these in your bag for when you forget your main pair and know that you have something solid to fall back on.
What if you don’t have a headphone jack anymore?
Unfortunately, more and more phones are ditching the standard headphone jack in favor of USB-C. Besides not being able to charge and play music at the same time, this also means that your options are fairly limited if you want a good pair of earbuds to use every day. Of course, you could always use any of the earbuds on this list with a dongle, but if dongles aren’t your style then don’t worry. We have a list of the best USB-C earbuds you can get so make sure to check that out if none of these piqued your interest.
What you should know about the best earbuds
Chances are you’ve been using earbuds for years, but there are still things that you should be aware of when making a purchase decision. First and foremost: safety.
Though we usually say you should try and get your hands on a pair of headphones to try for yourself before buying, it’s a little harder with in-ears. You don’t want to be going to local electronics and just sticking things in your ears. Who knows who’s tried them out before you. It’s kind of gross if you think about it too much, but there are also infections that can be passed along that way. So, while it’s usually okay to go trying out over-ear headphones, you should take some precautions when it comes to in-ears like alcohol swabs or even your own pair of ear tips.
Look at Bluetooth codec compatibility
Although there are plenty of wired picks listed, some companies have cut the cord. If you’re looking to do the same, get the most out of your Bluetooth streaming by investing in earbuds with high-quality codec support.
If you don’t have time for a detailed breakdown of how codecs work, here’s the abridged version: they determine how data is transmitted from your smartphone to your wireless headphones. Different codecs make different compromises in quality and efficiency. SBC is the lowest common denominator of the Bluetooth codecs. Its support is required by all Bluetooth audio products.
iPhone users should get earbuds with AAC support, while Android users should look out for aptX-compatible wireless earbuds.
Android users shouldn’t settle for AAC support as its performance is dubious at best unless used with an iPhone. Additionally, LDAC isn’t as high-res as we’re lead to believe. Ultimately, though, if you’re short on cash and can’t afford wireless earbuds with aptX or AAC support, you can rest easy knowing that most of our ears are too old or damaged to perceive a difference.
Isolation plays an important role
Which brings us to the next thing that you should know when buying a pair of ‘buds: fit. Regardless of whether you’re using in-ears or over-ears, isolation is extremely important. In the case of earbuds, you don’t have the luxury of large cups and leather to block out sound. If the earbud tip isn’t a good fit, you’re not only going to have a hard time keeping them from falling out of your ear, but you’re going to be letting in all kinds of outside noise.
Isolation is extremely important when it comes to enjoying your music
Luckily, earbuds usually come with a few different options so you can mix and match until you get the perfect fit, but one thing I’ve learned in my experience is just to invest in a good set of comply memory foam tips for yourself. Not only are they super comfortable and keep the ‘buds in your ears, they also do a solid job of blocking outside noise. This is of course not possible with true in-ears like the Etymotic ER4SR, but those also don’t have this problem because of how far into your ears they sit.
One thing about wired earbuds that gets overlooked is just how damn good sound quality is. Sure, Bluetooth is more convenient and has plenty of benefits but dollar-for-dollar, some of the best earbuds blow away their wireless competition. Bluetooth sound quality is OK, and there are plenty of options out there—but wired headphones aren’t limited by data transfer speeds in the same way that Bluetooth ones are. Plus if you happen to keep your source files on the device, it’s actually not limited by data transfer speeds at all.
Noise-induced hearing loss
Unfortunately, we as humans don’t hear perfectly. The typical human range of hearing is 20Hz-20kHz. Depending on your age or how often you’ve been subjected to loud noises (like going to concerts), you might not be able to hear everything in that range. There really isn’t any way to avoid this as we’re surrounded by loud noises and are aging by the minute, but you can prevent the worst of it.
If the damage is done there’s nothing that can currently undo it. On the bright side, you can learn more about how hearing loss occurs by reading our explainer piece. You can still take care of your remaining hearing by limiting volume levels to 85dB. That’s the recommended limit for safe-listening, and because earbuds are much closer to your ears than the speakers at a concert it’s even more important to keep that limit in mind.
How we chose
Disclaimer: Regardless of what we put on this list, we definitely missed some great options. That isn’t because we decided to ignore them, but because there are hundreds of great ‘buds out there. Picking five came down to a few main things. First was affordability. You can go deep down the rabbit hole when it comes to in-ear headphones.
Spending hundreds of dollars on a pair of ‘buds isn’t an easy decision and we don’t take it lightly, but when the alternative is spending thousands on insanely high-end IEMs we consider these relatively affordable. At the same time, you’ll eventually get to a point of diminishing return. It’s true you’ll find some amazing headphones if you spend upwards of $1,000, but are they really $800 better than our top pick? We don’t think so.
After price, the most important feature quickly becomes sound quality. Luckily, there are plenty of options here. Unlike Bluetooth headphones, in-ears are all about the hardware rather than software. And companies have had decades to fine-tune the sound for the best experience, resulting in plenty of great sounding ‘buds that won’t cost you too much.
Comfort is important too, but there are a lot of variabilities there. Not all of our observations are going to hold true for everyone. Consequently, we didn’t spend a ton of time waxing poetic about this feature, because your experiences will differ from ours; you have different ears, after all! Additionally, there remain some third party foam tip options for you to consider—offering even better isolation and fit than the standard silicone tips. Good ear tips will make even the best earbuds sound even better.
Why you should trust us
The team at SoundGuys come from all walks of life, but they involve audio. Chris spent years testing products for the likes of USA Today and Reviewed.com. Lily also spent years reviewing headphones independently on her own time before joining the team, as well as working in and out of radio stations where she was surrounded by equipment. Adam has been a SoundGuy for almost four years now and has tried or listened to most of the major products to come out in that time. Robert holds a BSc (Hons) in Sound Engineering and has years of experience repairing, building, and testing all manner of audio gear. Add all that together, we just might know what we’re talking about.
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