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What makes a good set of in-ears?
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?
Most people should get true wireless earbuds
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 cancelling (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 Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus and noise cancelling 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 cancelling, 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
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 best true wireless workout earbuds for most athletes are the Jabra Elite Active 75t. These noise cancelling 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.
What are some of the best wireless workout 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
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 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
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?
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
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
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.
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 cancelling earbuds
Noise cancelling 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 cancelling 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 has the best noise cancelling 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 cancelling earbuds and they fit extremely well.
Do your wireless earbuds come with a mobile app?
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 and environmental limitations, but this is fine since 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 harmonic detail from your tunes. This is called auditory masking, and it’s something we experience regularly. 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?
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!