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What makes a good set of in-ears?

Let's figure out the best pair of earbuds for your needs.

Published onApril 30, 2021

The Noble Kaiser 10 Massdrop IEMs in red inside a Pelican carrying case with the text "What makes a good pair of earbuds" overlaid.

Like a good pair of jeans, a good set of earbuds is hard to find and once you get the “holy grail,” you’ll never want to let go. No matter what you demand from your next pair of in-ears, this guide should streamline your research process. Athletes, audio enthusiasts, commuters, and more: it’s time to gather ‘round and see what makes a great set of earbuds for you.

What type of in-ears do you want?

As with headphones and speakers, different types of earbuds abound. Your intended usage will be the compass that guides you through your shopping journey.

Most people should get true wireless earbuds

The Google Pixel Buds in the open case next to the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro.
The Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro and Google Pixel Buds (2020) are both great sets of true wireless earbuds, specifically for Android handsets.

While there are plenty of reasons to hate Bluetooth audio, there are just as many reasons to love it. If you need a simple, cable-free solution for your daily commute, your search ends with a good pair of true wireless earbuds. Unlike traditional wireless in-ears, true wireless earbuds cut the cord completely. These in-ears typically include their own charging case, charging cable, and a handful of ear tips. Standalone battery life averages somewhere between 4-6 hours, while the case provides an additional one or more charge cycles.

True wireless technology has improved rapidly over the years. There are even quite a few great active noise canceling (ANC) true wireless earphones, and more affordable picks that accommodate $50 and $100 budgets. Still, true wireless earbuds have one fatal flaw: they’re not made to last for more than a few years because the small battery cells degrade very quickly. If you want an investment that really lasts, you need wired headphones or earbuds with replaceable cables.

What are some of the best true wireless earbuds?

The Apple AirPods Pro in a man's left hand (foreground) with an iPhone and the AirPods Pro wireless charging case in the background.
The redesigned AirPods Pro have dedicated nozzles that insert into the ear.

The Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus and noise canceling Galaxy Buds Pro are two pairs of top-shelf true wireless earbuds. Both feature a comfortable, ergonomic design with a water-resistant build, and the Pro model can even withstand full submersion. The Galaxy Buds Plus is the best true wireless headset for most people, as it works seamlessly with Samsung devices and is generally OS-agnostic, save for features like direct Spotify access.

If you own an iPhone, we recommend the AirPods Pro or Beats Powerbeats Pro for the easiest setup. Apple’s AirPods Pro have noise canceling, Spatial Audio, and an IPX4 rating. The case supports both Lightning and wireless charging, and the earbuds immediately pair to your smartphone when you open it. Athletes are usually more drawn to the Beats Powerbeats Pro since they have a more stable earhook shape.

Athletes should get durable wireless earbuds

The UA True Wireless FLASH X by JBL on a Google Pixel 3 smartphone, next to the open charging case and a Leatherman Wave+ on a white surface.
The FLASH X offers incremental improvements over the original JBL UA FLASH.

Whether you prefer to exercise in a community gym, at home, or at your neighborhood park, wireless earbuds are the most convenient way to keep you motivated. Wired earbuds are generally cheaper, but not everyone wants to run a cable under their shirt, or seal their phone in an armband.

Nearly all workout headsets have some form of sweat resistance, whether it’s a basic coating or a complete Ingress Protection rating (IP). The standard IP rating for workout in-ears is IPX4—the “X” is just a placeholder for a dust-resistance rating. Other features to pay attention to are fast charging, a workout-friendly design with either wing tips or an ear hook shape, and operable controls—no one wants to interrupt their workout by fumbling around to skip tracks.

What are some of the best true wireless workout earbuds?

The Bose Sport Earbuds true wireless workout earbuds sit outside of the closed charging case, all objects are covered in sprinkles of water.
Lily Katz / SoundGuys
The Bose Sport Earbuds boast an IPX4 water-resistance rating.

The best true wireless workout earbuds for most athletes are the Jabra Elite Active 75t. These noise canceling earphones feature an IP57 dust- and water-resistance rating, support Bluetooth multipoint, and have a comprehensive app with a custom EQ module. Jabra’s compact buds stay in place because each earpiece’s underside has a rubberized finish that grips your ear. This design keeps the earbuds looking sleek in or out of the gym.

Another great, premium pair of earbuds are the Bose Sport Earbuds. Bose’s true wireless earphones are less durable than Jabra’s with an IPX4 rating, but they provide a more comfortable fit. You can’t EQ the frequency response, but the microphone quality is very good for a set of in-ears.

There are also quite a few cheap options available like the JLab GO Air and the pricier (but still affordable) Anker Soundcore Spirit Dot 2.

What are some of the best wireless workout earbuds?

The Apple Beats Powerbeats on top ofo a red bike tire.
Athletes of all sorts will be drawn to the bass-heavy sound of these exercise earbuds.

If you want a great pair of traditional wireless earbuds for working out, pick up the Jaybird X4. These earbuds feature an IPX7 rating, comfortable wing tips, and a well-defined control module. If you own an iPhone, go ahead and pick up the Beats Powerbeats; these are just like the Pro but a wire joins the earpieces.

Athletes on a budget should grab the Jabra Elite Active 45e. These earphones have an IP67 rating, and don’t seal to the ear. At first read, that design may seem like a fault, but it keeps you aware of your surroundings at all times.

Keep things simple with wired earbuds

1More Triple-Driver Over-Ear review: The three headphones jacks on the 1.35-meter long cable.
Wired earbuds have their benefits too.

If you’re one of the lucky few whose smartphone still has a headphone jack, congratulations, you can nab a pair of wired earbuds without the need for a dongle. It’s easy to brush off wired earbuds as a thing of the past, but they’re a great grab-and-go option for anyone.

You can find great consumer-oriented wired earbuds for less than their Bluetooth counterparts, and you don’t have to worry about batteries or compatibility. At the very least, a pair of your favorite wired earbuds (and maybe a dongle) serve as a great backup option.

What are some of the best wired earbuds?

The Beyerdynamic Soul Byrd wired earbuds in black against the backrest of a black backpack.
These compact earbuds are ideal for on-the-go listening and cost less than $70 USD.

The best wired pick for general consumers are the 1MORE Quad Driver In-Ear Earphones, which retail for just over $100 USD. Each earbud houses three balanced armature drivers alongside a dynamic driver. An arrangement like this yields clear audio with a slight bass bump. For a better value but similar design, get the 1MORE Triple Driver In-Ear Earphones.

Anyone who wants a solid pair of wired earbuds with a very good microphone should listen to the Beyerdynamic Soul Byrd. These earbuds lie flush against your ear, making them the perfect bedtime podcast companion.

Budding audiophiles should pay attention to in-ear monitors

The Qobuz music streaming service app's Listening tab open on a Samsung Galaxy S10e smartphone next to a pair of Massdrop x Noble Kaiser 10 IEMs and a cup of coffee.
Lily Katz / SoundGuys
If you’re committed to hi-fi audio, you may need a specialized pair of IEMs.

Wired playback is still king when it comes to audio quality, and there are plenty of specialized, expensive In-ear monitors (IEMs) for you to add to your wishlist. To get the most out of lossless audio from a music streaming service like Amazon Music HD, you need a wired connection. There’s plenty of snake oil when it comes to high-resolution audio products, you don’t have to spend a fortune on cables, DACs, or amps to get good audio.

Wired in-ear monitors are great for more than just audio enthusiasts. They’re also good for anyone who wants their earbuds to last for years to come. Virtually all IEMs include detachable cables (typically MMCX or 2-pin connectors), and it’s easy to replace a cable once it breaks or frays, rather than shell out for a completely new set of earphones—it’s also better for the environment.

What are some of the best IEMs?

Fiio FH5 in-ears on bedside table
As part of your everyday essentials, the Fiio FH5 really adds quality sound to your daily routine.

For the best isolation performance, you should look at Etymotic’s line of earbuds, specifically the Etymotic ER4SR. These earphones take on a unique shape, but the triple-flange ear tips effectively keep out external noise. You can even replace the filters to extend the life of these earphones, making them a great buy for the long haul.

Listeners who have a bit more cash to burn should look at the FiiO FH5. These earbuds slightly amplify bass notes but have an otherwise accurate frequency response. You can swap out the included ear tips to alter the sound profile a little, or you can just use your phone’s EQ. Have even more money to burn? Feast your eyes on the Massdrop x Noble Kaiser Audio 10.

Alternatively, you can save a bit of cash and get the Massdrop x MEE audio Pinnacle PX which features a detachable MMCX cable, an over-the-ear design, and accurate frequency response. These earphones are a great value for anyone who’s just begun to step into IEMs.

Earbuds buying guide: What features should you look out for?

Each pair of earbuds comes with a unique feature set, and here some of the most important things to keep an eye out for during your research.

Wireless earbuds are only as good as their battery life

An image of the Jaybird Vista earbuds in charging case which is open and on a Chrome backpack.
The Jaybird Vista charging case is compact and holds 10 hours of additional battery life.

If you’re set on a pair of wired earbuds, you can skip this section. If you plan to get a pair of Bluetooth earbuds, you should pay close attention to battery life. Bluetooth earbuds that only last a few hours aren’t all too useful, but fortunately, most true wireless earbuds have at least a 4-hour battery life, and traditional wireless earbuds usually last at least 7 hours. Most wireless earbuds also feature some level of fast charging, which is a must-have feature for anyone who’s forgetful.

Another question to bear in mind as you find the right in-ears for you is how you charge the earbuds. Most modern wireless earbuds and their cases charge via USB-C, but some still use the outdated microUSB input, or worse yet: Lightning, which isn’t quite as bad as a completely proprietary dock (looking at you, Jaybird and Bose). Anyone with a bunch of wireless charging mats scattered around the apartment will likely prioritize true wireless earbuds with wireless charging cases.

Microphone quality matters if you plan to take hands-free calls

The Jabra Elite 85t noise canceling true wireless earbuds microphone holes next to a Gameboy Color speaker grill.
Tiny microphone holes enable clear call quality and noise cancellation with the Jabra Elite 85t.

When people think of taking hands-free phone calls, they probably think of their favorite Bluetooth headphones, but Bluetooth earbuds have tiny embedded microphone systems too. The sound quality isn’t as good as a headset with a dedicated boom mic, but it will get the job done in a pinch.

iPhone and Android owners should watch out for different Bluetooth codec support

In layman’s terms, a Bluetooth codec is how your audio transfers from your smartphone to your wireless earbuds. Think of a Bluetooth codec as a language, and in order for the earbuds to receive the message from your phone, both devices must speak the same language. Every Bluetooth audio product supports SBC, so at a base level, any two devices can communicate, albeit with varying degrees of data loss.

A OnePlus 7 Pro, iPhone 7 Plus, Macbook Pro, and Surface Book Pro all stacked on top of each other to demonstrate how to use Bluetooth across a range of devices.
Android, Windows, and Apple devices all play differently with different Bluetooth codecs.

To achieve optimal Bluetooth audio quality, you need to keep an eye out for high-quality Bluetooth codecs like AAC, aptX, or LDAC. AAC works best with iPhones, but the quality across Android devices is inconsistent. LDAC and aptX work well with Android devices, but aren’t supported by Apple hardware.

If you commute or fly often, you should save for noise canceling earbuds

Noise canceling earbuds are expensive, but frequent flyers and daily commuters know the value of a quiet ride. ANC earbuds come in a variety of forms, from neckbuds to true wireless earbuds. Unfortunately, effective noise canceling technology isn’t something you can cheap out on. If you really want to hear a difference during your morning train ride, you should be ready to part with at least $180 USD.

The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2.0 on a white table next to a glass of whiskey.
If there are luxury true wireless earphones, the Sennheiser MOMENTUM True Wireless 2 definitely fit the bill.

The Sennheiser MOMENTUM True Wireless 2 has the best noise canceling for a pair of totally wireless in-ears, and they sound great too. Listeners who want to keep track of their earbuds while remaining untethered should look into the Sony WI-1000XM2, or the 1MORE Dual Driver ANC Pro for a more affordable pick. The Bose QuietComfort 20 is the overall best pair of wired noise canceling earbuds and they fit extremely well.

Do your wireless earbuds come with a mobile app?

A woman uses the The Bose Sport Earbuds true wireless workout earbuds' mobile app, the Bose Music app.
Lily Katz / SoundGuys
The Bose Music app is slick but offers varying degrees of functionality for each Bose headset.

Most wireless consumer audio products come with a free app to augment your listening experience. Typically these apps let you choose from a number of EQ presets (or create your own), locate your earbuds, switch source devices, and more. The most important reason to invest in a pair of Bluetooth earbuds with a mobile app is access to firmware and software updates. These can extend the life of your product by adding modern features down the line.

Learn more: Headphones are collecting too much personal data

What tech specs matter when you pick out a pair of earbuds?

Features aside, some universal technical specifications are assigned to each pair of earbuds. While they don’t tell the entire story of how a pair of earphones will perform, they give you a good idea of what to expect before you hit that buy button.

What is frequency response?

Most headphones and earbuds’ frequency responses range from 20Hz-20kHz, and these numbers aren’t random: it’s the accepted threshold of human hearing. This range doesn’t tell you about how the headset actually sounds, though, as it only informs you of what frequencies the drivers inside are able to recreate. If you want to get a better understanding of how your earbuds will sound, you need to look at some charts.

The charts above depict two very different frequency responses, the one on the left is consumer-friendly (amplified bass and treble notes) and the other aligns more closely with the platonic ideal. A perfectly neutral, or “flat,” frequency response is virtually impossible to achieve because of various physical variations, and actually most of us actually seek out music with a bit more bass and treble.

That said, if a pair of earbuds amplifies bass notes too much, it will be hard to hear vocals and subtle detail from your tunes. When a train pulls up as your friend is talking, and it suddenly becomes hard to hear their voice, that’s auditory masking. It’s not that your friend decided to whisper at that very moment, but rather that the low, loud sound of the train grinding to a halt made it hard for your brain to process the sound of your friend’s voice.

Should you get in-ears with dynamic or balanced armature drivers?

Balanced armature driver diagram from Wikipedia Commons.
JA.Davidson at English Wikipedia The balanced armature rests on a pivot and makes small rotations due to the surrounding magnetic field, causing the diaphragm to create sound waves.

All in-ears house drivers which, to oversimplify things, are what transmits sound from the source device to your eardrums. But not all earbuds use the same kind of drivers. Most earbuds and headphones use dynamic drivers, which are the cheapest and sturdiest, but others use balanced armature drivers or fancier still, planar magnetic ones.

You can dig into the nitty-gritty of it all right here, but all you really need to know is that dynamic drivers occupy the housings of cheap and expensive earbuds alike, and you’ll never find a pair of cheap earbuds with planar magnetic drivers. Balanced armature drivers are often used in concert with dynamic drivers to reproduce natural bass notes, and accurate, clear treble frequencies.

Well, that was quite a lot to soak in for a pair of tiny earbuds. Hopefully, this article helped you discern what does and doesn’t matter in your next pair of in-ears. If you have any questions, drop them in the FAQ section below!

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