While Oppo was the first major smartphone brand to ditch the 3.5mm headphone jack, Apple famously got rid of the staple port in 2016 with the iPhone 7, when it forced users to use their phone’s Lightning port for either charging, or the included wired earphones. No longer were we able to listen to our music and juice up our phone’s battery at the same time, which many took issue with, making it one of the pettiest technological hurdles of that time. Soon after, Apple placated us with the very first Apple Airpods, and since then various other brands like Sony, Samsung, Sennheiser, Bose, and Jabra have been climbing over each other in a race to produce the best wireless earbuds on the market.
The market for wireless earbuds is ridiculous now, and as companies keep tinkering with battery life, Bluetooth codecs, sound quality, comfort, and active noise cancellation, that fierce competition isn’t about to flitter away anytime soon.
Truly wireless Bluetooth earbuds are the lightest and most unobtrusive form of personal audio to date, making them an easier, more portable, and more pocket-friendly alternative to bigger and bulkier Bluetooth headphones. There’s no questioning how essential they are to your daily tech kit, you just need to make the right choices, since there are a hell of a lot out there.
To help, here’s a deep dive into the features and aspects of the best wireless earbuds, and a look at some of the better options on the market, at all price points. We’ve already looked at the best sports earbuds, which place more emphasis on rugged outdoor use, protective IP ratings, and situational awareness, but now we’re going a bit more broad and working through the best wireless earbuds for all lifestyles.
First, it’s important to be aware of a few terms before you go shopping around for the best wireless earbuds. You need to make sure your source (eg, a phone) matches your sink (the earphones) so the two can communicate as freely and efficiently as possible, leading to better sound quality and a more seamless overall experience.
How To Choose The Best Wireless Earbuds For You: From Battery Life To Noise Cancellation
A Bluetooth codec is a tricky thing to wrap your head around; it’s not always necessary to do so. Consider them complex algorithms, which determine how the audio signal is compressed and transmitted between devices. A codec essentially determines how audio data is compressed into smaller, more manageable bits so it can be sent wirelessly to your earbuds and decompressed there.
Obviously the less data that needs to be sent over Bluetooth, the more stable and efficient the connection will be.
Codecs determine the nuances of Bluetooth and are responsible for the more subtle effects of the streaming experience. The codecs don’t always make a huge difference, but it’s still important to be aware of a few so you can make sure your devices will work together as efficiently as possible. No one wants to be watching Netflix out of sync, nor do they want high quality audio to stutter endlessly as the signal attempts to compress from the source and decompress into your ears.
A lot of people still prefer wired earbuds and wired headphones because it’s much easier for an audio signal to sound true-to-source when the data has a wire to play with. That’s why Bluetooth is often seen as vastly inferior way to listen to music, because despite the convenience, there was just no way airless communication could be perfect. Bluetooth has improved drastically over the years.
That’s why it’s worth making sure that not only your earbuds support the latest Bluetooth codecs, but your source does too. That way they can work together harmoniously without having to transfer heaps of data, economically stripping away unnecessary details from the source to make things work faster. More advanced codecs, however, don’t need to strip away as many details, and work with higher data rates to for deeper, richer wireless sound
The latency of these codecs is also important to consider. This describes the time it takes for the audio data to be encoded and decoded. Basically, lower latency means faster performance, and this is often best demonstrated by lip-sync issues when watching content on the best streaming services. If there’s lip-sync problems, the latency is too high.
aptX Low Latency, for example, is a codec with a latency roughly below 40ms. If both your source and your sink supports AptX Low Latency, you’ll virtually have no issue with lip-sync. Conversely, AAC is another codec that has higher latency, because while it prioritises conserving data and boosting sound quality over speed, it uses more memory hence takes longer to transfer.
A lot of users don’t seem to realise this, but you can activate certain codecs via your smartphone’s settings. A lot of the time the standards like SBC and AAC will be activated. If you’ve got a higher-end pair of earbuds, you may want to activate the more advanced codecs on your phone like Sony’s LDAC, which is only for Android phones and boasts 3 times the speed of SBC, and Qualcomm aptX HD Audio – assuming your sink supports them.
You can’t do this on iOS, but here’s how to do it on an Android phone.
- Go into Settings -> About Phone.
- Scroll down to “Build Number” and press on it about 7 times. This will activate “Developer Options”
- “Developer Options” will now be an option in Settings. Go into this and scroll down to “Bluetooth Audio Codec”
- You’ll see that your default codecs are selected, but there are options to toggle on higher-end codecs like Sony’s LDAC and Qualcomm aptX HD Audio for a better experience. This is how you can make sure you’re getting the more out of your wireless earbuds.
A problem unique to the best wireless earbuds, compared to Bluetooth wireless headphones, is finding the right seal. If the silicone ear-tips attached to your earbuds don’t seal your ears properly, the sound won’t be as good and you’ll leave plenty of gaps for external noises. Passive noise cancellation (noise cancellation without the use of any microphones) will also be poor, so all that traffic or office noise is going to sneak under that new Dua Lipa jam you’re trying to vibe to.
Most earbuds these days come with a range of differently sized silicone ear tips so you can find the right seal for better comfort, more effective noise cancelling, clearer call quality, and greater performance.
Almost all truly wireless earbuds now come with a carrying case that doubles as a power bank. Once the buds are placed inside, usually with a satisfying magnetic lock, and the lid is closed, the case tries to boost them with some extra juice to get your through the day. You’ll obviously want earbuds with the longest battery life possible, but there’s also a problem. A lot of these charging cases don’t really consider how empty a battery actually is before they charge it up, which messes with the charge-deplete cycle in the long run and can actually ruin a battery’s longevity.
A few companies have attempted to fix this, by introducing smarter charging cycles. Take Apple for example; with iOS 14 introducing Optimised Battery Charging, the case can actually learn an individual user’s charging routine and keep the case from charging past 80% until it’s absolutely necessary. This will be better in the long run.
So it’s worth checking if your pair of earbuds make use of any feature that helps extend the life cycle of the battery, rather than just charge it up.
Active Noise Cancellation
Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) earbuds represent the biggest leap in the market over the past few years, and the most meaningful one. Now it’s a matter of being able to completely control how much noise cancellation you want, so you can either let ambient sound come through when you need situational awareness, or completely block the world out when you want to be in your own little echo chamber.
It’s important to note that, as far as earbuds have come, they just won’t be as effective with ANC as a bigger pair of wireless headphones. This is because active noise cancellation requires tiny microphones that constantly listen out for ambient sounds, recording sound waves and then using software to produce their own to cancel them out immediately.
Some of these earbuds are obviously better and more efficient at blocking out a wider range of sound waves, although the most common waves that will be locked are low-frequency sounds so like the roar of an engine or the buzz of office chatter.
The problem here is then maintaining situational awareness. You probably don’t want to be flattened by a bus while crossing the road, and you want to be ready for those random conversations while you’re out. The best wireless earbuds that use active noise cancellation, will also include something like a transparency mode, where you can quickly listen out for ambient sound without disturbing your listening sesh.
Look for a pair of earbuds that play around with active noise cancellation and allow you to quickly control how much sound you want to block out at any given time. Some of the more expensive true wireless earbuds, like the new Sony WF 1000xm4, are even smart enough to automatically pause active noise cancellation (and music) when you start a conversation.
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Our Favourite True Wireless Earbuds For 2021
Apple AirPods Pro
Best for iPhone users
Since Apple were kind of responsible for creating this insanely competitive market, it makes sense that they would put plenty of emphasis on making some of the best wireless earbuds money can buy. Although the Airpods haven’t been iterated on as much as some other established brands, the Apple Airpods Pro introduce some incredibly efficient active noise cancelling to what is already one of the best sounding pair of earbuds on the market.
Compared to their predecessors, the Apple AirPods Pro generously ship with a range of ear-tips so you can find the perfect seal, reiterating the renewed focus on noise cancelling along with better sound quality thanks to a spatial audio mode, and better integration with Siri thanks to the more efficienct H1 Chip.
However, they do have that ugly stem design, which makes implementing touch controls a bit more difficult. Instead, you squeeze the stem to activate Siri so you can command your device’s smart assistant to do things like answer calls, skip tracks, and adjust volume. This adds an extra step to playback control.
You’re also only getting 4.5-5 hours on a single charge, although the charging case can give you an extra 19 hours of battery life with just 5 minutes giving you enough juice for 1 hour. The IPX4 water resistance also isn’t too impressive when compared to other, more activity-friendly rivals.
Pros: Some of the best noise cancelling around; works seamlessly in the Apple ecosystem; very comfortable fit with the right tips; great for phone calls; nicely balanced sound and great audio quality; charging case supports Qi-based wireless charging.
Cons: There’s better sound and battery life on other rivals; only an IPX4 rating, so not as water resistant and sweat resistant as some alternatives.
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
Best design & touch controls
The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 are some of the best wireless earbuds I have tested to date. A warm, mature sound signature that’s perfectly balanced with the lows, mids, and highs raises the bar for how earbuds should sound in the modern day. There’s also a really great, slim design, with responsive, rounded touch-sensitive pads on each earpiece that can be used to quickly control playback, summon a voice assistant, and adjust active noise cancellation.
The active noise cancelling is also some of the best to date, on par with Sony’s gold standard earbuds, but with a more comfortable fit. Pair that with a generous battery life – 7 hour battery life with a single charge, and 28 hours in total with the charging case – and I’m confident in recommending these are one of the absolute best wireless earbuds you can buy. That is, if you can justify the price.
I only have one real major issue with Sennheiser’s most expensive pair of wireless earbuds, and that’s latency. These wireless earbuds don’t support AptX Low Latency, so expect some lip-sync issues when watching your favourite movies and TV shows on Netflix and Prime Video.
If these are too expensive for you, try the Sennheiser CX True Wireless. At $199, they are some of the best budget options on the market.
Pros: Excellent sound quality; exceptionally comfortable design; touch controls work perfectly and can be re-mapped on the companion app, active noise cancellation works like a charm.
Cons: No support for AptX Low Latency or Adaptive AptX means occasional sync issues with streaming content; expensive; wireless charging case is a bit bulky.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro
If you just want a clear, decisive answer to the best wireless earbuds, you’re down the three choices. The Sony WF100xm4 (listed below), Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 (listed above), or these beauties, the incredibly high-performance Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro. Of course, if you’re an iOS user, it’s probably best to go with Apple or Beats wireless earbuds, but for all others, Samsung is tough to beat.
Unlike Sony’s best buds, Samsung had the smarts to throw in IPX7 waterproofing, meaning these can withstand your sweaty gym workouts, you won’t need to worry about rain, and sweat shouldn’t be much of an issue. Pair this up with a solid sound signature that’s balanced at all levels and volumes, and features like Voice Detect which will immediately turn on ambient sound mode (that is, turn active noise cancellation off) as soon as the mics detect that you’re speaking.
Although to get the full functionality for all it’s many features, you’ll need to have the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro connected to a Samsung Galaxy smartphone running OneUI 3.1 or later. This is mostly to make use of 360 Audio, which widens the soundstage and is noticeably more immersive.
Battery wise, these buds can’t be beaten. All up you 26 hours with ANC turned on, and 28 hours with it turned off. The harmony between software and hardware couldn’t be any tighter for Samsung’s best buds yet.
Like the Sennheiser Momentum’s they do lack AptX Low Latency, chipping away at value for gamers and anyone planning on using them with a smart TV or PC to watch content.
Pros: Some of the best sound quality you’ll get from any pair of earbuds; smart and responsive noise cancellation at all levels; seamless touch controls; great design; best battery life out there; great at shrugging off sweat and water.
Cons: Poor latency issues with used with TV or PC; need to use Samsung Galaxy smartphone to get the most value.
Sony WF 1000xm4
Best overall sound
When Sony’s award winning WF1000xm3 true wireless earbuds were released a few years ago, they immediately shot to the top of the market. Best sound, best active noise cancelling, best overall experience. It was hard to see how Sony’s superior processing could be bested, but the company has managed to do it this year with the long-awaited follow-up.
As such the Sony WF 1000xm4’s are the best wireless earbuds you can buy right now, at least when it comes to sound and noise cancelling. With a stable connection using the modern Bluetooth 5.2, and fast processing thanks the Sony’s LDAC codec, it’s safe to expect a sound signature that bring out the best in both the low, mid, and high frequencies, maintaining an exquisite sense of balance and composure even at full volume.
Sony’s battery is a top performer as well, with 8 hours of battery life on a single charge, plus another 16 from the charging case, and that’s with active noise cancelling turned on. In addition to USB C, you can also use Qi wireless charging to keep the case topped up.
Chipping away at perfection is a paltry IPX4 water resistance rating, which places it in the same league as the Apple Airpods Pro when it comes to shrugging of water and sweat. This means Sony’s new standard isn’t quite as nifty when it comes to your everyday gym workouts, when compared with superior offering from the likes of Jabra and Beats.
Pros: Best sounding wireless earbuds to date; perfect noise cancellation at all levels; exceptional design and comfort fit; no latency issues; very stable Bluetooth connection; great battery life.
Cons: Poor sweat resistance and water resistance; call quality could be better.
Best for value
JBL have really come out swinging with the JBL LivePro+ wireless earbuds, not only remaining competitive with price, but throwing in a tonne of features and offering a very generous 28 hour battery life (with ANC turned off).
JBL have more recently toned down their excessive love of bass for something a bit more balanced, and you can tell from the sound signature that the brand is maturing. The sound quality you can expect from these buds is nicely balanced with a lot of detail in the mids and highs. Throw in some great adaptive noise cancelling and you’ve got a product that stretches beyond it’s reasonable price point.
There is plenty of upside if you’re going for the JBL LivePro+. Surprisingly, these buds feature some of the best call quality you’ll find in this price range, they work so seamlessly that they instantly pair to your device as soon as you open the charging case, and there’s a Smart Ambient mode which accentuates external noise so you can still hear your surrounds clearly even with a perfect seal.
Think of these are strictly lifestyle buds though. Although the comfort and fit is fine, they only feature an IPX4 rating which mean they don’t deal with sweat and water as well as others on this list.
Pros: High-end features for a lower price; some of the best battery life you’ll find; pairs instantly for a more seamless experience; nicely balanced sound; adaptive noise cancelling; great call quality.
Cons: IPX4 rating pales in comparison to competitors; bass can be a bit too thin at times.
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
Best for noise cancellation
Bose have taken pretty much everything that has made their QuietComfort Headphone series such a staple in the world of personal audio, and reduced it down for these well-designed lightweight buds. The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds place a lot of value on allowing you full control over the performance, with the companion app offering plenty of options when it comes to customising various features and controls.
As you could probably tell from the name, Bose put a great deal of emphasis on noise cancellation and comfort, and while Sony and Samsung can compete just as well. Bose’s first ever earbuds do the best job at actively cancelling out external noise beyond more than just the typical low-frequency nuisances.
Sound is very bass forward and full-bodied, able to milk out a lot of detail in the lower ends of the spectrum, but still maintaining a good amount of vibrancy in the mids and highs. As such, consider these more suited for styles like hip hop, modern pop, and electronica.
Battery life isn’t as strong as that offered by Samsung, but you’ll get a decent 6 hours from a single charge, and 18 hours in total when combined with 2 additional charges from the charging case. Not the best, but not the worst.
Pros: Incredible noise cancellation at all levels; perfect for bass lovers; very comfortable fit and design; great call clarity.
Cons: Battery life falls behind competitors; only IPX4 rated.
Harman Kardon Fly TWS
Best for travellers
Harman Kardon Fly TWS is the brand’s purpose built wireless earbuds aimed mostly at those who are constantly on the move. With commuters in mind, the focus is then on offering complete control over noise cancellation without interrupting any aspect of the daily commute. Thanks to the fully responsive touch-sensitive surface of each bud, it’s easy to flick through TalkThru and AmbientAware mode so you can control the amount of passive noise cancellation when you need it. Note that the buds don’t feature active noise cancellation, and are offered at a more budget-friendly price as a result.
The real kicker here may be great noise cancellation at this price point, but the sound is respectable too. Harman Kardon is nothing if not super reliable when it comes to fine-tuning a sound signature that pays equal attention to all aspects of the profile, as well as lets in those smaller details that are surprisingly replicated despite the buds not offering any high fidelity Bluetooth codecs.
A decent IPX5 rating means that travellers could take these down the hotel gym without having to worry about sweat being an issue. Although there are some down sides too; there’s no AptX support at all so don’t bother using these to stream Netflix, and the battery isn’t quite as impressive with only a total of 20 hours with the charging case. Granted, that’s still enough for a long-haul flight, which is obviously what these buds were designed for.
Pros: Shows that you can have great noise cancelling without a gold-standard active noise cancelling mode; keeps costs low but offers great features; well balanced sound profile; easy to use and very comfortable; decent IPX5 rating.
Cons: Disappointing if you were expecting the more solid active noise cancellation; no support for any AptX codec.
Jabra Elite Active 75t
Best for exercise
As I said in our round-up of the best sports earbuds, the Jabra Elite Active 75t is the ultimate option for runners and gym junkies who want something purpose built for fitness. Jabra have a newer option with the Elite 85t and the Elite 75t is just as good, but the Elite Active 75t is the best when it comes to balancing price and performance.
The sturdy IP57 rating not only competes with the Samsung Galaxy Bud Pro’s incredible water resistance, but also adds solid dust resistance on top of that – something none of the other earbuds on this list can really claim. The reliable build also fits well enough not to jolt around so runners need not worry about these falling out before they hit that 10km marker. The downside here is that they can feel rather bulky in the ear, so longer listening sessions could be a bit irritating.
A recent firmware update has introduced better active noise cancelling that can be activate with the touch of a button, but for the most part of Active 75t’s are focused on letting in just enough ambient noise so anyone outdoors exercising is still aware of their surroundings, despite being locked inside their own audio chamber.
As for the audio, it’s rich and detailed even at max volume, and can stand side-to-side against the more lifestyle-focused Elite 75ts. Rounding that out is one of the most reliable batteries in the game, with 28 hours in total when considered with the extra boosts from the charging case. This places them over the likes of the otherwise solid Beats Powerbeats Pro and Jaybird Vista when it comes to the best wireless earbuds for exercise.
Pros: Solid IP57 rating shrugs off sweat, water, and dirt; some of the best battery life available; great sound signature at all volumes; active noise cancelling which can be controlled seamlessly; stable fit.
Cons: Can be a bit uncomfortable; some lag issues when watching streaming services; not as good with call clarity because wind can be an issue.
The Best Wireless Earbuds – Frequently Asked Questions
What are the best wireless earbuds to buy now?
Right now, the best wireless earbuds considering all factors would be the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2, and the Sony WF 1000xm4.
What are the best wireless earbuds for working out?
The Jabra Elite Active 75t is still the best pair of truly wireless earbuds for all kinds of exercise, with a sturdy IP57 rating and excellent active noise cancelling.
Are active noise cancelling earbuds worth it?
You’ll need to pay a bit more if you want a pair of earbuds with solid active noise cancellation. It’s worth the extra cost to make sure you’re listening to music outdoors on your own terms, whether that’s letting ambient sound in, or completely blocking those annoying noises out from your listening session.