It may not have been the most important thing that happened, but 2021 was really the year when wireless earbuds came into their own, evolving from a flawed novelty gadget into a product offering excellent value, jaw-dropping performance and, in some cases, both. Now you see people wearing wireless earbuds everywhere, in all shapes, sizes, brands and colors.
But just because brands have started to figure out this burgeoning, Bluetooth-powered technology doesn’t mean that the nuances don’t get a bit confusing when trying to find the best wireless earbuds. You can decide to go for affordable options and choose one of the best wireless earbuds under $100, or you can go for audio quality with the best noise-canceling earbuds, which are more expensive.
Aside from sounding great, the best wireless earbuds tend to have some common qualities. These include:
- Quick and easy pairing, along with solid connection quality
- Voice assistant integration
- Battery life of at least five hours
- Microphones that provide good call quality
- Noise-cancelling and transparency/ambient mode
- Spatial or 3D audio support
- Secure fit and water and/or sweat resistance for working out
When it comes to getting the best audio quality out of your earbuds, one thing you may want to look out for is which hi-res Bluetooth audio codecs they support (yes, there are different kinds of Bluetooth audio).
A Quick Note on AAC vs aptX
Without getting too deep in the weeds, the two most common hi-res audio codecs supported over Bluetooth are AAC and aptX. Think of it like the difference between Dolby Vision and HDR10 for enabling HDR content on current TVs (or VHS vs Betamax, if you’re a boomer).
Apple devices, such as the iPhone and iPad, only support the AAC audio codec as a hi-res Bluetooth standard. Luckily most wireless earbuds also support this standard, and since Apple developed this codec back in the days of the iPod, it’s not too surprising that AAC encoding sounds great on an iPhone.
Android devices also support AAC as a Bluetooth codec, but testing has shown that Android struggles to get the best quality out of audio encoded with AAC. Audio encoded with aptX, on the other hand, sounds great on Android devices when you have a compatible pair of earbuds.
So for those in search of the best audio quality, here’s a rule of thumb: If you own an iPhone, buy earbuds that support AAC (which, luckily, are most earbuds). If you have an Android phone, buy a pair of earbuds that support aptX (or at least feature some sort of custom processing to improve AAC sound on Android). Aside from audio quality, having the optimal codec support will also help if you’re watching video content, ensuring that there’s not a delay between what you hear and what’s happening on the screen.
Editor’s Note: If this is making your head spin a little or you’re not obsessive about the finer points of audio quality, don’t fret. Whatever pair you settle on will ultimately work with whatever Bluetooth-enabled phone you have and it will sound fine. In the grand scheme of things, the difference in audio quality between these codecs will be minor (or indistinguishable) for most of these earbuds. Just go with the pair that has the other features you like the most — design, comfort, battery life, noise-canceling, ease of use — and you will probably be thrilled with them.
Okay, Okay, But What Which Wireless Earbuds Should I Buy?
There are a dizzying number of wireless earbuds to choose from in 2021, including plenty of premium products from Sony, Apple, Beats, Jabra, Master & Dynamic and Google. Luckily for you, we’ve rounded up 10 excellent pairs of earbuds that support all different sorts of devices, budgets and other needs, so keep reading to get all the details.
1. Best Wireless Earbuds of 2021: Jabra Elite Active 75t
BEST WIRELESS EARBUDS OVERALL
The Jabra Elite Active 75t are about as close to a compromise-free experience as you can get with wireless earbuds in 2021, which is why we recently named them one of the year’s best Christmas gifts for men. While these have been designed as a workout-friendly version of the Elite 75t, Jabra sacrificed nothing in the way of audio quality, battery life, fit or functionality when making these IP57 dust-resistant and waterproof.
These are earbuds that are built to excel in a variety of different scenarios (work, fitness, entertainment, outdoors, etc.) and they deliver on that promise. While there is no single feature of these that is “the best,” the Elite Active 75t are among the best at nearly everything they do. When taken in aggregate, that makes them the best all-around wireless earbuds, all while coming in at a price lower than its closest competitors.
Pros: The design is compact, and unobtrusive, which is really all you need from a pair of earbuds. The companion app not only allows you to customize the sound via EQ but also provides noise-canceling capabilities. Microphones provide clear, crisp audio for calls and Zoom meetings. Battery lasts between 5 and 8 hours on a single charge, with another 28 hours of playback stored in the case. Works with Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant.
Cons: These earbuds don’t support the aptX Bluetooth codec, which means that your only hi-res audio option is AAC.
2. Apple AirPods Pro
The main selling point for Apple devices over the years has been that ‘they just work.’ That has never been more true than with the AirPods Pro . . . provided you use them with an Apple device, of course. From the second you pull them out of the case, they quickly connect to your iPhone (or iPad or MacBook) and maintain a solid connection as long as they’re within range. Little details, such as automatically pausing when you pull an earbud out provide a level of fit and finish that no other earbud maker can compete with. But the AirPods Pro also delivers on more substantial features, such as excellent noise-canceling, a transparency mode that will let you hear your surroundings without removing your AirPods and support for spatial audio when watching compatible video content.
At 4.5 hours, the AirPods Pro battery life is fine, but not amazing (this is not a huge deal since they only take 30 minutes to fully charge). While they are IPX4 water-resistant, they are not rated to survive extreme scenarios such as a dust storm or complete submersion in liquid. Android owners should be aware that most of these great features (which you will pay a premium for) won’t work with your phone. Still, if you’re able to take full advantage of everything the AirPods have to offer, they are an incredible pair of wireless earbuds.
Pros: Offers some of the best audio quality around when used with an Apple device, with sound that is detailed and balanced. Solid call quality and option to use a single earbud. Siri can be activated with a voice command.
Cons: Battery tops out between 4.5 and 5 hours. Lack of aptX support means that sound quality isn’t as good on Android devices. Not as durable as the Jabra Elite Active 75t. Lack of options for customizing the sound, which may not satisfy those looking for more bass. Every month it seems we find more great AirPods alternatives.
3. Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2
BEST BUDGET BUY
While there is no shortage of cheap earbuds under $100, few provide an audio experience that rises above just being “good for the money.” Anker’s Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Wireless Earbuds bridge the gap between cheap and premium wireless earbuds offering core features that stand up to the top wireless earbuds while eschewing some of the luxuries in the name of affordability, such as noise-canceling and a transparency/ambient mode.
That said, the Liberty Air 2 delivers solid audio quality that can be tuned to your liking via a companion app, battery life that will nearly get you through an entire workday on a single charge, and crystal-clear voice calls thanks to the four microphones which are packed into the body.
Pros: The battery life hits that sweet spot of providing just the right amount of charge without being overkill.
Cons: Sound quality lacks some of the nuance and sophistication of other top picks. Controls revolve around touch-sensitive taps, which can be difficult to use.
4. Sony WF-1000XM3
BEST FOR AUDIOPHILES
If audio quality is the end-all, be-all for you, the Sony WF-1000XM3 should be the first (and maybe) last pair of wireless earbuds you look at. Sony has taken many of the same sensibilities from its best-in-class, wireless noise-canceling headphones and packed them into a pair of wireless earbuds that offer the best audio around. Despite the fact that these earbuds don’t support aptX (like so many on this list), the use of its proprietary DSEE HX audio upscaling technology ensures that AAC files still sparkle on Android devices (although it would be interesting to hear what these would sound like in combination with aptX).
But these aren’t just utilitarian buds for audiophiles, and the premium features here go toe-to-toe with Jabra and Sony’s best offerings. Given the success of their over-ear WH-1000X line, it should come as no surprise that the noise-canceling on these earbuds is some of the best you will find in a pair of wireless earbuds. Rounding out the features is a battery that lasts 6-8 hours on a single charge, an ambient mode feature that can be activated by placing your hand over one earbud to let you hear the outside world, 3D audio support and a fully-customizable EQ.
Pros: Thanks to Sony’s proprietary audio processing, you won’t find a better-sounding pair of wireless earbuds. Sound is fully customizable thanks to a companion app. Battery life is solid. Google Assistant compatibility.
Cons: These are not the smallest earbuds, so you’ll look like you’re wearing mini-Bluetooth headsets from the 2000s. aptX support would still be nice for Android users despite DSEE HX support.
5. Master & Dynamic MW08
We loved the sound quality, battery life and overall design of the Master & Dynamic MW07 GO when we reviewed them last year. So it’s no surprise that the MW08 have taken nearly everything great about their predecessor and made them better. This includes the latest Bluetooth 5.2 technology, bigger 11mm audio drivers, improved battery life, a slightly smaller form factor and active noise cancellation, which brings the MW08 up to par with other premium and high-end wireless earbuds when it comes to features. These buds also feature aptX support, the hi-res Bluetooth codec that isn’t usually found in premium wireless earbuds, which leaves Android users out in the cold when it comes to audio quality (Read our full review of the MW08 earbuds.)
Pros: A rare pair of wireless earbuds with pristine audio geared towards Android owners, thanks to aptX support ( . . . finally). Dedicated volume controls are a nice (and uncommon) luxury to have. Active noise cancellation is a welcome addition, and works well. Supports Google Assistant and Siri.
Cons: No AAC support could cause issues for iPhone owners, such as audio-video lag. The boxy earbud design might not be everybody’s preferred look.
6. Jabra Elite 85t
After knocking the proverbial ball out of the park with the Jabra Elite Active 75t earbuds, the company faced the unenviable task of trying to follow that up with something better. And while Jabra may not have hit a grand slam Elite 85t, the fact that these wireless earbuds offer a more comfortable fit and improved noise-cancellation while not taking any major steps backward makes them a success.
But is it enough of an improvement to warrant the step up in price? For audiophiles, the move to a more balanced sound profile will be a welcome addition compared to the bass-heavy sound of the Elite 75t. But the fit and overall lack of waterproofing will mean that these are not as well-suited for fitness-based activities as some other earbuds.
Pros: The redesigned shape of these buds means that they don’t rest as deep in your ear canal as other buds, which in turn means they don’t make your ears feel as plugged up over time. Dedicated hardware for noise cancellation makes them more effective at cutting out unwanted noise.
Cons: The redesigned form has also led to a less secure fit and a reduction in the overall bass, which some people won’t love. The IPX4 water-resistance rating means these are a step down compared to both the Elite 75t (IP55) and the Elite Active 75t (IP57).
7. Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro
Ever since the release of the first Soundcore Liberty Air wireless earbuds, Anker has increasingly grown to become a force in the wireless earbud space. And its latest effort, the Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro, is its most serious effort yet to compete with Apple and Jabra in the battle for mainstream appeal.
For a budget pair of earbuds, there’s a lot to love about the Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro. Whether it’s the customizable EQ, active noise-cancellation, streamlined design or call quality, the all-around package has a premium look and feel to it. And while the sound was not tuned with audiophiles in mind, many will find the bright, bass-forward sound to be appealing.
Pros: Active noise-cancellation is great for a pair of wireless earbuds at this price point. There is a trove of audio customization options offered in the app.
Cons: Price is a little too high. Audio quality can be noticeably bad with some Android phones due to a lack of aptX support.
8. Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
If you were judging audio performance and nothing else, the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 would be a shoo-in for the best wireless earbuds. And this should come as no surprise, given Sennheiser’s history-making audiophile-grade products. And thanks to the quality of its 7mm dynamic drivers, along with its support of the AAC and aptX audio codecs, these Bluetooth earbuds sound amazing on any device you’re using, whether it’s running iOS, Android, MacOS or Windows.
When you add all the high-end features, such as noise-cancellation, transparency mode, smart pause and a customizable EQ, there are few pairs of earbuds with a better all-around feature set.
Pros: Top-notch audio quality that comes as close to audiophile-grade as a pair of Bluetooth headphones can get.
Cons: These buds may be quality, but they’re also the most expensive on this list. Compared to other options on this list, the design isn’t the most stylish or exciting.
9. Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro
Samsung has made some decent pairs of wireless earbuds over the past few years, but the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro is their best effort yet. It not that these earbuds have a single standout feature as much as they are built to do everything well. If you are into fitness (or have a habit of dropping things in water) these earbuds are IPX7 waterproof. If you’re looking to make a fashion statement, you may appreciate the polished look. And if you’re into cutting-edge functionality, these not only support spatial audio but there’s a mode called voice detect that will lower the volume and turn on transparency mode whenever it hears you start talking.
But those features would mean nothing if these buds weren’t built atop a solid foundation, and the Galaxy Buds Pro gets the basics down too. The two-way dynamic driver ensures that these earbuds bring the bass (if that’s your thing), while active noise-cancellation will eliminate all the distractions around you.
Pros: The combination of premium features (IPX7, voice detect, spatial audio, ANC) is as good and useful as any pair of earbuds on this list.
Cons: At 4-5 hours with ANC and hands-free voice assistant turned on, battery life is not spectacular by any means.
10. Apple Beats PowerBeats Pro
The Apple Beats PowerBeats Pro have been around for a while now, so it speaks volumes they’re still a viable fitness-oriented option for iPhone owners. A big reason for that is the adjustable ear hooks which help to keep these buds in place during the most demanding of workouts. But also, they have Apple’s H1 chip inside, which means that they will pair quickly and easily to your iPhone and come with many of the same special features, including automatic ear detection.
Pros: The adjustable ear hooks make these not only some of the best-sounding buds around but also some of the most secure-fitting earbuds.
Cons: These only offer IPX4 water resistance. A bit pricey for what these offer in terms of functionality and audio quality. No active noise-cancellation.