Stimulus Check Up | Apr 8, 2022 | 0
Best true wireless earbuds of 2021
Apple may have ushered in the wire-free craze with its now-ubiquitous AirPods, but these days, there seems to be an endless influx of wireless earbuds looking to help you cut the cord. Amazon has Echo Buds; Samsung has Galaxy Buds; Google has Pixel Buds; Beat has Powerbeats Pro. The list goes on and on…
With so many options out there, CNN Underscored set out to find the best, much like we’ve done with on-ear, over-ear and ANC headphones. Following the beat of our own testing, we discovered the best true wireless earbuds out there:
Apple’s AirPods Pro ($219, originally $249; amazon.com) hit all the marks, especially for those in the Apple ecosystem. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. And they play especially nice with iPhones, iPads and Macs, with instantaneous pairing and the ability to switch between Apple devices without missing a beat.
If you want a similarly great experience on an Android phone, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Pro ($199; samsung.com) are among the best in their class. These earbuds offer up a ton of great software features that let Android users fine-tune the audio and customize the controls, and deliver some very solid noise cancellation in addition to a fantastic Ambient Sound mode that lets in the outside world when you need it.
For those not looking to spend a ton, the EarFun Air ($59.99; amazon.com) are the best budget earbuds we’ve tested. These buds can rival the AirPods Pro on sound quality in the right environment and have a reliable microphone for taking important work calls. Factor in a waterproof design and long battery life, and they’re a ridiculous value. These buds have been selling out fast as of late, but if you’re looking to save big, they’re worth waiting for.
Looking to get your sweat on? The Jabra Elite Active 75t ($139, originally $179; amazon.com) are our favorite earbuds for working out. These buds are secure, comfortable and durable enough for high-intensity training and have enough battery life to get you through a long day at the gym. They also have a best-in-class companion app and very strong ANC — a rarity for a pair of earbuds at this price.
The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds ($279.95; bose.com) have all the necessary tropes of true wireless earbuds (no wires, multiple ear tips, a carrying case that doubles as a charger and easy pairing), but they also have an X factor: the Bose legacy. While that does come at a premium, it also comes with the expected balanced sound and class-leading noise cancellation that blocks out way more sound than AirPods Pro.
The AirPods Pro are the ultimate earbuds for those in the Apple ecosystem, providing seamless pairing with iPhones, iPads and MacBooks complete with a few handy exclusive features (but don’t worry — they still sound great on any device).
As soon as you open the lid on the AirPods Pro case, the true wireless earbuds start casting a connection to iOS devices; with non-Apple devices you’ll head over to Bluetooth in order to manually connect to the AirPods Pro when first pairing. After that, opening up the case and placing them in your ears will have them connect. While it may be quicker for iOS devices, in our testing we found the connection to be sturdy and stable with 38 different devices, many of which were not Apple-made. We didn’t experience any dropouts, and using non-Apple devices didn’t affect battery life.
Those pairing with an iPhone also get the “Ear Tip Fit Test” during the initial pairing process. Essentially, this uses Adaptive EQ and pulsating tones to measure which size tips are correct for your ear. Those on iOS devices can also take advantage of Spatial Audio, which delivers immersive 360-degree sound for supported shows and movies (such as those with Dolby Atmos). This feature made films such as “Avengers: Infinity War” even more engrossing, as the sounds of Thanos’ chilling voice and Iron Man’s explosive rockets would come from a consistent direction even as we turned our head. The Ear Tip Fit Test and Spatial Audio are exclusive to those on Apple devices, which makes the AirPods Pro especially ideal for iPhone owners. But they sound excellent regardless of where you listen.
The AirPods Pro seamlessly reproduce every note, strum, hit or keypress on a track. The sound output is custom-tuned in real time using Adaptive EQ. While other earbuds may come with a manually controlled equalizer, the AirPods Pro work in real time to analyze drivers, amplifiers and microphones on both the outside and inside of the ear in an effort to reproduce tracks as true to the artist’s intent as possible. Alongside that tech, Apple amped up the bass on the Pros to a thumping degree compared to the regular AirPods.
This all comes into play on songs like “Ex’s & Oh’s” by Elle King, a pop track with a variety of instruments that earbuds often have a hard time deciphering between. The mixture of instruments across similar frequencies can at times lead to a tinniness or, worse, a crackling effect on the lower tones. With Adaptive EQ, AirPods Pro showcase each element of the track in a way that doesn’t overwhelm you or sacrifice a portion of the mix. With the microphones and H1 processor analyzing the playback, it makes each instrument clear and eliminates harshness.
“I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen has fewer instruments but an equally wide soundstage. On this track, AirPods Pro properly place instruments around you before swelling together to provide an experience that feels as if you’re in the studio. Snares are clear and sharp on the left, rich guitars are at mid to high frequencies on the right and vocals sit in the center. AirPods Pro don’t add any extra vibrancy to the track by upping tones, but rather present it in a balanced environment with an emphasis on placement of sound.
For a more powerful test that encompasses drums, pianos, multiple vocals, guitars and a saxophone, we opted for “Born to Run.” With the AirPods Pro, you can clearly hear each instrument on the track as the Adaptive EQ works to mix the track in real time.
The volume produced at 50% is loud enough to block out most sound, even with noise cancellation turned off — that’s a baseline that most earbuds can hit, as long as the seal is proper. AirPods Pro really show off a pro feature when you turn ANC on. Their noise-canceling ability rivals even the best over-ear headphones and are only bested by Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds, creating a truly immersive, studio-like listening experience. While flying with AirPods Pro in and the ANC turned on, the engine noise and plane environmental sounds are brought down to a whisper with the volume at 50%; turning the volume up to 70% sounds almost the same as when you were still on the ground.
Regardless of what media you’re playing, AirPods Pro are more road-worthy than previous models. They’re still not waterproof, but they are water- and sweat-resistant with an IPX4 rating. You can safely wear them during a workout, and the ear tips make them much more comfortable for activities like running or cycling in our testing, but you shouldn’t go swimming with them. And no, don’t shower with them.
When it comes to call quality, the AirPods Pro are just about the best buds we’ve tested. Apple’s earbuds made our voice sound bright and true to life in voice recordings, offering better clarity than the more expensive Bose QuietComfort Earbuds and just barely edging out the Galaxy Buds Pro and Jabra Elite Active 75t.
You can comfortably wear these for long stretches, thanks to their design and long battery life — specifically five hours of it (you can quick-charge via the case for an additional five hours) even with ANC turned on. You can stretch that with ANC or transparency modes turned off.
AirPods Pro really land at the top of the mountain both in feature set and in price. At $219 (originally $249), these earbuds aren’t cheap, but the sound quality, battery life, connectivity and class-leading noise cancellation will blow you away.
PHOTO: Michael Andronico/CNN
Galaxy Buds Pro
Thanks to the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, Android users have a worthy AirPods Pro alternative built specifically for those not tied up in the Apple ecosystem. While these Buds will work fine with an iPhone, they offer a ton of useful features exclusively for Android phones — not to mention strong active noise cancellation (ANC) and the ability to let in outside noise when you need it.
While not quite on the level of the AirPods Pro, the Galaxy Buds Pro’s noise cancellation is solid for a pair of earbuds that undercuts many of its ANC competitors in terms of price. In our head-to-head tests against the AirPods Pro, the Buds Pro noticeably dampened the sounds of nearby cars, trains and street chatter. It helped make our everyday walks around the neighborhood more pleasant, though it didn’t quite stack up to Apple’s buds, which all but silenced those noises by comparison.
However, the Buds Pro really shine when it comes to letting in the outside world. Like the AirPods Pro’s Transparency mode, the Buds Pro’s Ambient Noise feature uses the earbuds’ microphones to amplify sounds around you so you can better hear things like incoming vehicles or someone in your home trying to talk to you. And if you’re on Android, you can switch between four different levels of noise based on how well you want to hear your surroundings.
That ability to customize your ambient noise is very handy — and something that other buds like the AirPods Pro can’t do. While both earbuds let in a comparable amount of ambience on default setting, the Galaxy Buds Pro were able to amplify way more nearby noises (such as the sounds of people talking or our dog tossing a toy around in the next room) with Ambient Noise cranked up.
Better yet, the Buds Pro have a neat Voice Detect feature that allows Ambient Noise and ANC to work in tandem. With this feature activated, the Buds will automatically switch from ANC to Ambient Noise as soon as you start talking, and switch back after a few seconds of silence. This worked as advertised in our testing, and made it easy to do things such as order from our favorite cookie shop without having to fumble with any controls.
Other handy features exclusive to Android owners include the ability to switch between multiple sound presets, customize the Buds Pro’s touch controls and activate the Bixby virtual assistant with your voice on Samsung devices.
Fancy features aside, the Buds Pro are simply a great pair of wireless earbuds. They’re the most stylish and comfortable buds Samsung has made to date, with a sleek, curvy design that comes in Phantom Black, Phantom White and an especially gorgeous Phantom Violet. They also formed a secure but soft seal in our ears that made it easy to forget we even had them on after long hours of use. And thanks to their IPX7 rating, they endured splashes of water and kept on ticking.
The Buds Pro sounded great with a variety of music genres, providing deep bass, crisp guitars and vocals as well as a solid soundstage that allowed us to hear every component of our favorite songs clearly. Colleagues and friends had no issues hearing us when we used the Buds Pro to make calls, and voice recordings sounded similar in quality to that of the AirPods Pro.
The Galaxy Buds Pro fared well in our call quality tests, producing clear voice recordings that were largely on par with the AirPods Pro in terms of overall clarity. Our voice sounded bright and crisp on Samsung’s buds, though a little more distant than they did on the AirPods.
Samsung’s earbuds lasted roughly five straight hours with ANC on, and close to two days of on-and-off mixed use with the charging case. That’s largely in line with Samsung’s own estimates of four and a half hours with ANC on and up to 28 hours with extra features turned off while using the case.
Overall, if you’re looking for a great pair of premium ANC earbuds that play especially nice with Android, it’s hard to do much better than the Galaxy Buds Pro.
PHOTO: Michael Nuñez/CNN
We’ll make this really simple for you: If you want to spend less than $100 on wireless earbuds, you won’t find a better pair than the EarFun Air. We know it might seem almost too good to be true, but these earbuds have almost everything you can ask for.
Let’s start with the sound, which is just as good as the Apple AirPods Pro in controlled, quiet, indoor settings. The sound is expansive, deep and about as good as any high-end options. Keep in mind, though, the EarFun Air don’t have any active noise cancellation and depend entirely on sound isolation created by the soft plastic tips when inserted into your ear canal. So, it was no surprise to us when these buds fell short of providing the clarity and quality sound that other leading noise-canceling buds do in noisy settings. Still, there was enough passive soundproofing that we could enjoy our favorite songs.
We tested these earbuds across a wide variety of musical genres, including classical, rock, pop and dance. In every single category, the EarFun Air shined. Songs like “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish and “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk were driven by punchy bass lines and electronic rhythm sections. Other iconic songs like Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” were balanced, with moments of clarity on both the high and low end. We struggled to find any song that didn’t sound great in these earbuds — and could discern no difference compared to Apple’s AirPods Pro in controlled, quiet settings.
For most people, the high-quality sound is probably a big enough selling point, but in case you’re looking for extras, the EarFun Air feature plenty. One of our favorite additions is an IPX7 waterproof rating, meaning they can be submerged into about 1 meter of water for about 30 minutes. We don’t often see waterproofing on devices this cheap, so of course this came as a huge plus and one we gladly accepted. In terms of practical use cases, this means you can wear them in light rain or even while working out. Heck, you can even wash off these earbuds under the faucet without much worry. It’s not the flagship feature, but we think it works as a great insurance policy for protecting your investment.
Another major benefit to these headphones is the four-way microphone, which assists in much better sound isolation during phone calls and video conferencing. The sound isolation is not as clean as other high-end over-the-ear headphones like the Bose Noise-Canceling Headphone 700, and the controls are nowhere near as easy to manage as the competing Apple earbuds, but we still found these earbuds to be formidable during work hours. We used the EarFun Air during regular work hours for more than a week with no problem. Some colleagues even commented at how great they looked and sounded. Put simply, they can perform everyday tasks just as well as many earbuds that cost twice their price.
Beyond sound and microphone quality, the EarFun Air earbuds had impressively long battery life with a full seven hours of playback, as advertised, with an extra 28 hours in the case. Although we were skeptical they’d last as long as the company promised, our weeks of testing proved these claims to be true. The EarFun Air rarely needed to be charged and typically lasted the full duration of their marketed battery life. In comparison to other budget options, EarFun Air stretched an hour longer than the next closest (the EarFun Air Pro) and blew the most affordable option in the group by more than two hours.
So what’s the catch to such a great-sounding, affordable pair of earbuds? We found that the connectivity and controls were nowhere near as intuitive as the AirPods Pro but just as intuitive as most other budget models. Across the board, connectivity between sub-$100 earbuds and devices wasn’t as instantaneous as Apple AirPods. Luckily, you only need to pair the earbuds once per device, so this should not be a deal breaker unless you’re frequently switching between devices.
By comparison, the Apple AirPods Pro and Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro both offer fast pairing and easy switching between devices made by the same company. The touch controls on the EarFun Air were simply less useful than either of the more expensive Apple and Samsung options we tested them against, but we found that we could still very easily control the sound through our phones. Still, we wouldn’t have minded seeing a companion app to let us customize and equalize the sound, but for half the price of the competitors with audio that’s just as good, we really couldn’t complain.
For most people, pressing a couple of extra buttons during the setup is well worth the savings — and we promise you will not be able to tell the difference in audio and performance. The EarFun Air are really that good, and at just $59.99, they stand as the best budget earbuds.
PHOTO: Mike Andronico/CNN
Jabra Elite Active 75t
Despite their name, the Jabra Elite Active 75t are some of the best earbuds you can buy even if you’re not hitting the gym every day. But these buds truly shine once it’s time to break a sweat, thanks to their secure fit, strong battery life and extra features that put much more expensive earbuds to shame.
Once we found the right ear tips for our liking (the Elite Active 75t includes three), Jabra’s earbuds formed a cozy and secure seal and never felt like they were going to fall out of our ears during days of heavy use in and out of the house. The Elite Active 75t have an attractive, understated look that won’t raise an eyebrow at the gym while still letting you express yourself with six slick color options, including navy, mint green and sienna orange.
We’re also big fans of the Elite Active 75’s compact charging case, which is much more pocket-friendly than the giant case that Apple’s Powerbeats Pro come in. Jabra’s buds offer some of the best on-ear controls we’ve tested, with physical buttons that prevented us from making accidental presses, and voice alerts that will tell you exactly which sound mode you’ve activated. (The Buds Pro and AirPods Pro use somewhat indistinct chimes by comparison.)
The Elite Active 75’s design is as practical as it is good-looking, with an IP57 rating that makes them fully waterproof enough to be dunked in a few feet of water. The $249 Powerbeats Pro, our previous pick for best workout buds, carries only an IPX4 rating for surviving splashes by comparison.
But that’s not the only area where Jabra outclasses more expensive earbuds. Thanks to a post-launch software update, the Elite Active 75t now support active noise cancellation — and it’s good. In fact, the 75t performed neck and neck with the AirPods Pro when we tested both against a recording of airport sounds, nearly silencing the noises of wind, chatter and footsteps that played over our speakers.
Earbuds with quality ANC at this price range are extremely rare — the $169 Samsung Galaxy Buds Live technically offer ANC, but it’s not very noticeable, and our favorite noise-canceling buds, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, are usually $100 more than the Jabras. This also gives the Elite Active 75t a big edge over more expensive workout buds like the Powerbeats Pro and $199 Bose Sport Open, allowing you to silence your noisy surroundings when it’s time to focus on your workout. You also get six levels of HearThrough (think Transparency mode on the AirPods Pro), which made it easy for us to hear nearby cars and pedestrians when roaming around.
Speaking of workouts, the Elite Active 75t serve up more than enough high-quality audio to keep you motivated while at the gym or on the track. Music sounds loud and lively on Jabra’s buds, with a nice balance of bass and treble that made drums, bass, guitars and vocals shine with equal aplomb. The Powerbeats Pro sound a bit brighter and do a better job separating various instruments, but you’re not sacrificing much for the lower price here.
Better yet, you can tweak the Elite Active 75t’s sound output via the Jabra Sound+ app for iOS and Android, which is one of the best audio companion apps we’ve used. Jabra’s app provides six total sound presets (including neutral, speech and bass boost), and also lets you manually adjust the bass, midrange and treble yourself to find the perfect balance. You can also toggle ANC or HearThrough on the app as well as save up to three different profiles with your preferred noise and audio mix options. As a nice bonus, you can use the app to play ambient sounds, such as white noise for focusing on work and ocean waves for cooling down after a workout.
The Elite Active 75t’s built-in microphones are some of the better ones we’ve tested for calls, producing a mostly warm and accurate rendition of our voice during recordings and work chats. Jabra’s earbuds offered similar call quality to the Powerbeats Pro and made the Bose Sport Open sound distorted and fuzzy by comparison.
Jabra rates the Elite Active 75t as having five and a half hours of playback time on a charge with ANC on, and they actually gave us closer to six in our own testing. When you factor in the charging case, Jabra says to expect up to 24 hours of juice with ANC on and 28 hours with it off. That largely lines up with our tests, as Jabra’s buds lasted through a full weekend of heavy use with a mix of ANC on and off without even giving us a low battery warning.
With a retail price of $179 (and often on sale for less than that), the Jabra Elite Active 75t are an incredible value, offering tons of workout-friendly features for far less than the competition. And with awesome sound quality, software and ANC, these are some of the best buds for the money period.
PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
The QuietComfort Earbuds are, quite frankly, the best noise-canceling earbuds we’ve used to date — even better, in this regard, to the AirPods Pro. They fully block all background noise from a room in an instant.
In an apartment with a noisy central air system that was set to high, putting the QuietComfort Earbuds in and setting noise cancellation to 10 resulted in serenity. The QuietComfort Earbuds remove all tones, while AirPods Pro allow some noises to pass through.
There are also levels to the noise cancellation — 11, to be precise — and as you go up on the scale, the earbuds, microphones and algorithms work to block out environmental noise. You can even have no music playing and noise cancellation turned on to help you focus (a pretty handy work-from-home hack if we say so ourselves). Level zero is a transparency mode, similar to the mode on AirPods Pro, as it allows environmental noise in.
But fret not: That powerful noise cancellation doesn’t hamper battery life. QuietComfort Earbuds fall slightly ahead of other earbuds with six hours of battery life, no matter if noise cancellation is on or off. Higher volumes and higher levels of noise cancellation do result in that falling closer to five hours and 30 minutes, though. The battery case provides two additional full charges, and it delivers a neat quick-charge function. A quick 15-minute journey in the case delivers two hours of playback. For comparison, AirPods Pro delivered five hours with no noise cancellation and four hours and 30 minutes with noise cancellation on.
Expectedly, sound quality from the QuietComfort Earbuds is in line with previous Bose earbuds and headphones. It’s a rich and balanced mix that doesn’t shy away from delivering an energizing audio experience, which is ticked up a few notches here with a more powerful bass and focus on lower tones.
EDM and pop genres absolutely shine with the QuietComfort Earbuds. “Wake Me Up” by Avicci starts with a simple guitar strum that sounds quite wide, with deep vocals overlaid. It comes through clear, with no distortion or cracking, even at full volume. About 38 seconds in you get a strong kick drum, which delivers a rousing bass beat that delivers in full force before more instruments, higher vocals and an electronic beat mask over the track.
The remastered version of “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen comes through vibrantly, and the QuietComfort Earbuds deliver an invigorating wall-of-sound effect, allowing you to clearly hear the drums, piano and guitar at the opening. All in all, it’s one of the best mixes Bose has produced, and those who like EDM, pop or strong bass will be exceptionally happy here.
Bose’s earbuds worked fine for calls over services such as Skype and Microsoft Teams as well as on FaceTime chats, so you can count on them for getting you through everyday meetings. However, the QuietComfort Earbuds weren’t quite as clear and rich as the AirPods Pro in our tests.
Our biggest qualm is with their design, which is, summed up in a word, noticeable. They’re quite large and have a long oval build that sticks out of your ear. While overall the buds are comfortable, you’ll definitely notice them in your ears, as they’re pretty heavy for true wireless earbuds. Each bud is 0.3 ounces, or 8.5 grams. AirPods, for instance, are nearly 3 grams lighter, and the same goes for Galaxy Buds Live. It’s harder to forget these are in your ears; after the first few wears, you’ll also feel that something was in your ears after removing them.
But if you can look past the not-so-discreet design, along with the $280 price tag, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds bring a lot of features. Namely, they deliver the best noise cancellation on any pair of true wireless earbuds — besting the AirPods Pro and the Sony WF-1000XM3.
We listened to a wide range of genres from pop to classic rock, focusing on bass as well as soundstage and sound clarity. We charged each pair to full and let them drain. We wore them for hours at a time to get a feel for how they fit. We also analyzed and rated the nuances of each device’s control scheme.
Read on for a thorough breakdown of each and every testing category.
- Overall: We assessed general sound quality using a number of tracks. Core songs we tested include “Born to Run,” “Domino,” “I’m on Fire,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “What A Man Gotta Do,” “Ex’s & Oh’s,” “Rosalita,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Dance Tonight,” “Higher Love,” “You Make My Dreams” and “Get Down Tonight,” among others.
- Low, mid, high: During the lower, midrange and higher tones in songs, we listened to how each pair addressed each range.
- Bass: We listened to how well buds could reproduce the depth and kick of bass in a variety of songs.
- Soundstage: Musical soundstage is the three-dimensional feeling provided by high-quality stereo sound. Strong soundstage shows off the instrument and vocal positions in 3D space.
Design and comfort
- Build quality: Testing a number of physical properties of each pair of buds, we determined how heavy they felt in our ears as well as whether they used an ear hook to hold them in place. We also tested whether they bent, and to what degree, as well as the sturdiness of the build, and rated how soft or firm each pair was, a factor that affects comfort and ear size flexibility.
- Fit in ear: On multiple days, we wore each of them from three to eight hours at a time to determine how these fit in the ear, namely in the form of comfort or if pressure was added. We tried them out at various times during the day to account for varying ear canal tension. We also monitored fit with different genres at different volumes. If any additional ear tip sizes were included, we tried them to find the best fit.
- Stays in the ear: With buds inserted, we took a walk, went on a run, did a 45-minute Peloton workout and wore them around the house to test their ability to stay put. We also tried lying down and tilting each ear toward the floor.
- IP rating: An IP rating is an international standard scoring electrical devices on how well they resist elements like dust and moisture. We tested each device to the fullest extent of its rating, spraying them with water and wearing them in the rain and during intensive workouts. With dust, we tried to get a bit dirty running outside in a number of environments and tested removing the dust.
- Connectivity: We tested three connectivity functions: VoIP calls (specifically FaceTime, Google Hangouts and Skype), latency and fast pairing. For VoIP testing, we simply rang people up and recorded real-time feedback on quality. To test latency, we looked into how quickly on-device controls registered with each device — for example, how long it took to pause music when we used the pause function on a pair of buds. Finally, we checked whether buds could fast pair, such as Apple-made pairs quickly being recognized by and pairing with Apple devices. We tested these on an array of devices, including iPhone 12, 12 Mini, 12 Pro, 12 Pro Max, 11, 11 Pro, 11 Pro Max, SE (2020), 8 and XR; Google Pixel 5, 4a 5G, 4a, 4, 4 XL and 3a; Galaxy S21, S21 Ultra, S20, S20+, S20 Ultra, Note 10+, S10e, S10 and S10+; TCL 10 Pro and 10L; OnePlus 8 Pro; Fire HD 8; Galaxy Tab S6; 16-inch MacBook Pro, 13-inch MacBook Pro (2020), 2018 and 2020 MacBook Air and M1 MacBook Air; Apple Watch Series 3, Series 5, SE and Series 6; iPad (7th Gen/8th Gen), 10.5-inch iPad Pro, 11-inch iPad Pro (2018) and 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2018/2020); HP Zenbook; Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon; and Surface Pro 6, Surface Book 2, Surface Laptop 3 and Surface Go2.
- On-device controls: We learned every control on each device, looking at how intuitive functions like playback, calls, volume adjustments and Bluetooth pairing are. We noted which controls required holding our finger down versus one or several presses. We also listened for voice narration of controls or information such as battery life.
- Off-device controls: We determined whether a device had a companion app or if it had native support on a specific device (e.g., AirPods Pro and Apple devices). If they did, we sussed out how much control they provided and what value the experience brought to the table.
- NC: Noise cancellation is measured by how well a device cancels environmental sounds. Some devices feature active noise cancellation (ANC), which uses microphones to listen to and cancel the frequencies of these sounds. To test NC, we put on buds with and without music under a variety of environmental conditions. This includes outdoor running and Peloton workouts, taking a walk on a windy day, listening to a dog barking, commuting on public transportation and flying in an exit row and at the front of a plane.
- Voice control: We tested numerous commands in a variety of conditions. These included dictating messages or emails, sending payments, asking for inquiries and dialing a number.
- Call quality: We made numerous calls to people across various devices via VoIP and mobile calls. We listened to the sound quality of the calls and noted any artifacts like crackling or poor compression. We also took feedback from recipients on how we sounded.
- Battery life: We matched how long each pair’s battery lasted against how long they are purported to last.
- Battery life + case: We performed the same test comparing each pair’s battery life, plus the additional battery life provided by its case. This included testing with and without the additional battery life provided by charging cases.
- Charging time: We recorded how long it took to charge the buds from dead to full, how long they gained percentage after being dead and quick-charge functions.
- Warranty: We determined which warranty/warranties were provided with each device.
Every pair of earbuds received a score for each subcategory. The combined scores of each tier comprised each category’s max score. For our workout pair, we put an emphasis on subcategories such as battery life and fit in-ear. Naturally, our top pick for battery life required the best score under the battery life category.
Check out how we broke down the points below.
- Sound quality had a maximum of 25 points: overall (10 points), low, mid and high (5 points), bass (5 points) and soundstage (5 points).
- Design and comfort had a maximum of 25 points: build quality (10 points), fit in-ear (5 points), stays in the ear (5 points) and IP rating (5 points).
- Connectivity had a maximum of 10 points: connectivity (10 points).
- Controls had a maximum of 10 points: on-device controls (5 points) and off-device controls (5 points).
- NC (noise cancellation) had a maximum of 5 points: overall (5 points).
- Microphones had a maximum of 10 points: voice control (5 points), call quality (5 points).
- Warranty had a maximum of 5 points: warranty (5 points).
Amazon Echo Buds ($129.99; amazon.com)
PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN
Amazon Echo Buds
Echo Buds hit the scene last fall and aimed to pack a punch with a price of $129.99 that undercut nearly all the other core wireless earbuds. These ended up being average across the board, but they’re a solid option as a value pick. Their very focused in-ear design lacks some of the stability offered by the likes of the Galaxy Buds+. Given their size, you might expect a similar battery life, but the longest usage period we got with these was 4½ hours. Sound was balanced across the board but lacked some vibrancy and loudness.
Anker Soundcore Life P2 ($33.99, originally $44.99; amazon.com)
Anker Soundcore Life P2
We generally love Anker products and really wanted to recommend this pair of affordable earbuds, but after hours of testing, we simply couldn’t in good conscience. The Soundcore Life 2 earbuds fell just a bit short in all of the most important categories. The sound quality isn’t exactly bad and it was generally well-balanced with decent range.
When you compare them to other earbuds in the category, though, they just weren’t quality enough to stack up against some of the best in the category, namely the Earfun Air. With only two microphones dedicated to noise cancelling and 6 hours of battery life, we found that they fell just short of earning an enthusiastic recommendation. They’re good earbuds for the price, but they fell short of being considered the best.
Apple AirPods (starting at $128.99, originally $159; amazon.com)
PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN
Apple’s second-generation AirPods provide a really close experience to the AirPods Pro, but these lack some of the wideness for sound quality (as well as bass) and feature no noise cancellation. You get the classic AirPods design with a white finish, and there are no gel tips — these just go right into your ears. You still get five hours of battery life on each charge, fast pairing and hands-free “Hey Siri” access.
Beats Powerbeats Pro ($199; amazon.com)
PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN
The Powerbeats Pro enjoyed a long reign as our favorite workout earbuds, largely thanks to their comfortable earhook design that kept them secure in our ears during intensive exercise. They also sound fantastic with especially satisfying bass, and pair effortlessly to Apple devices. The Powerbeats Pro are still a great buy if you prefer workout buds that wrap around your ears, but the Jabra Elite Active 75t are our new favorites due to their active noise cancellation, superior durability and cheaper price.
Bose Sport Open Earbuds ($199; bose.com)
Bose Sport Open Earbuds
The Bose Sport Open Earbuds are the most unique workout earbuds we’ve tested, with a unique open design that pumps out quality audio while leaving your actual ears free to better hear your surroundings while you’re out on a run. While the Sport Open Earbuds deliver big for their very specific audience — people who want exercise buds that don’t actually go in your ears — their rigid design and lack of a charging case makes them a tough sell for most folks.
EarFun Air Pro ($79.99, originally $99.99; amazon.com)
EarFun Air Pro
You would think that the Earfun Air Pro buds would be better than their predecessors because they have “Pro” in the name — but you’d be wrong. They do technically have some better capabilities such as active noise cancelling, three microphones per earpiece instead of just two, and a new 10mm driver, all of which is supposed to provide better sound quality than the original Earfun Air models. They also have the same level of battery life and generally the same sound. Heck, we can barely tell the difference between the two.
When it comes down to it, though, the original Earfun Air buds edge out this model in terms of sound, waterproofing and wireless charging to boot. You won’t be upset if you buy the Earfun Air Pro earbuds — they are some of the best available for this price — but we think you’ll feel slightly happier jamming out to the EarFun Air.
EarFun Free Earbuds ($49.99; amazon.com)
EarFun Free Earbuds
We need to emphasize: Not all EarFun earbuds are created equally. The Earfun Free have decent sound quality and a reasonable 6 hours of battery life with 24 extra hours available in the charging case. But we found that sound quality and comfort were not as nice as the higher priced counterparts.
All of the Earfun earbuds we tested consistently ranked among some of our favorite budget earbuds, but we think the slight differences in sound quality and comfort in the other models, make the other models a better option.
Google Pixel Buds ($179; bhphotovideo.com)
PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN
Google Pixel Buds
The Pixel Buds feature solid sound, battery life and a stealthy design. On the whole playing field, these sit in the middle across the board. For Android users, these deserve a look after the Galaxy Buds+, especially if you want a deep integration with the Google Assistant. The Pixel Buds offered some of the best voice pickup we experienced.
Jabra Elite 85t ($229; amazon.com)
PHOTO: Mike Andronico/CNN
Jabra Elite 85t
The Jabra Elite 85t offer good overall sound and tons of customization via Jabra’s excellent Sound+ app, including 11 levels of active noise cancellation. However, the Elite 85t’s design is a little bulky for our liking, and its semi-open design makes its ANC less pronounced than that of the cheaper Elite 75t Active.
JLab Audio Go Air True ($29.99; bestbuy.com)
PHOTO: Best Buy
JLab Audio Go Air True Wireless
We challenge you to find a worse pair of earbuds on the market. Let’s start with the case, which doesn’t even come with a lid. Yes, you read that right. The JLab Audio Go Air True uses magnets to connect the earbuds to the charging case, with the assumption that you’ll never drop or jolt them hard enough to knock them out. We should be clear: We never dropped or lost the earbuds during our testing period, but it frankly seems like a disaster waiting to happen.
Let’s assume you don’t drop them and you want to set them up with your phone. Well, good luck! We had to reconnect these headphones several times just to get them working properly. What should have been a 30 second setup turned into a 5 minute operation. When they finally connected, we were disappointed to realize it was all for naught. These earbuds practically ruined Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” for us. There was a complete lack of soundspace, depth and range. We’re not sure we’ve ever heard anything as truly terrible and unenjoyable as these earbuds. Please, no matter what you decide, avoid these earbuds at all cost. You deserve better.
JLAB JBuds Air ANC True Wireless ($40; target.com)
PHOTO: JLab Audio
JLab JBuds Air
You’re not going to find anything groundbreaking in these ‘buds, but for most people, that’s probably just fine. The sound quality is middling at best, with an active bass boost option and decent EQ modes when you click a button on the earbuds.
The battery life is also weak at just three hours — but, on the bright side, they offer good sound isolation from the wind and come with IP55 dust- and water-resistance, which make them a great choice as workout earphones. Plus at only $40, you won’t miss them if you forget them in your gym locker. If you can afford it, we’d recommend spending a little more for the Earfun Airs.
Marshall Mode II ($179; marshallheadphones.com)
PHOTO: Mike Andronico/CNN
Marshall Mode II
There’s a lot to like about the Marshall Mode II earbuds, including rich overall sound quality and an attractive design that evokes the iconic amplifiers the company is known for. However, with no ANC and a so-so companion app, the Mode II simply don’t do enough for a pair of earbuds that cost this much — especially compared to the similarly priced Jabra Elite Active 75t.
Microsoft Surface Earbuds ($199.99; microsoft.com)
PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN
Microsoft Surface Earbuds
The Surface Earbuds performed well in our testing and real-world usage. You’ll get stable connectivity, a unique circular disc-like design, and eight hours of battery life. But for $199.99, you’re going to be left wanting more, especially when you compare them with our top picks. Microsoft super fans who use the 365 suite daily will be impressed by dictation and other integrated features.
PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN
Samsung Galaxy Buds+
If you want a pair of true wireless earbuds that won’t break the bank, Samsung has you covered with the Galaxy Buds+. These lasted 11 hours on one charge — that’s six more hours than AirPods Pro and two more hours than Powerbeats Pro. That long runtime is paired with an equalizer in the companion app for iOS or Android, so you can up the bass or increase high tones as you see fit, which means you’ll get good sound quality that holds its own against more expensive options.
PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN
The Galaxy Buds Live are our former pick for the most comfortable earbuds, and they still largely live up to that moniker. These buds have a unique bean-shaped design that’s ergonomic, stylish and easy to forget about during long hours of listening to music and podcasts. However the arrival of the superior Galaxy Buds Pro, which offers an even more comfortable design in addition to superior audio and active noise cancelling, makes the Buds Live less enticing these days. Still, the Buds Live are worth considering if you’re on a tighter budget.
SkullCandy Sesh True Wireless ($38; amazon.com)
SkullCandy Sesh True Wireless
For all of the marketing and celebrity endorsements that go into Skullcandy headphones, you’d think they’d provide better-sounding earbuds. Unfortunately, the Skullcandy Sesh True Wireless earbuds were a disappointment. Usually it’s easy to justify the lack of performance because Skullcandy headphones typically look cool. But these earbuds are so small and hard to see they’re far from a fashion statement.
The sound was fine—not terrible—but lacked bass on some of our favorite dance and disco songs. The highs were also a little too high creating an overall lack of balance in sound quality. Add poor battery life and a terrible microphone, and you have yourself yet another pair of earbuds made for the clearance rack.
Sony WF-1000XM3 ($178, originally $229.99; amazon.com)
PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN
We once ranked Sony’s WF-1000XM3s as the top in true wireless, but nearly a year later, we’ve found some clear areas where they fall short, notably in design. We don’t like how much they stick out of and weigh down the ear. Additionally, there is no type of resistance, which makes them harder to recommend for wear in a variety of situations. Sound is still good, with a wide soundstage and an app for customization.