On-ear and over-ear headphones sound great and come with all sorts of conveniences, but there’s no way you’re fitting them under your bike helmet, and you know they’re going to bounce right off your head anytime your workout (or yard work) gets busy. Whether you’re a commuter, an athlete, or simply an all-around active sort, in-ear headphones are a must-have for keeping the soundtrack going without getting in your way.
We’re not talking about those muffled Storm Trooper-looking Apple EarPods or whatever came with your phone, though. You deserve better. Something with quality performance, stability, and maybe a bit of individual style. As such, we’ve collected a few of our favorite recent additions to the wide world of in-ear headphones. Some cost a mint (though not nearly as much as the world’s most expensive headphones), while others will barely bend your budget. But all of these earphones will make you a happy camper next time you hit the pavement.
1More Triple Drivers
Why you should buy them: They are a sweet mix of style, performance, and shocking affordability.
Who’s it for: The discerning listener who craves quality, but hasn’t yet landed that corner office
How much will they cost: $100
Why we picked the 1More Triple Drivers:
We could have gone many ways for this pick, but 1More’s unassuming Triple Drivers just wouldn’t stop popping up into the picture. The 1More aren’t at the top of the class in performance, but what they do have going for them is unrivaled quality and value at their (very reachable) price point.
Sure, we could recommend Ultimate Ears Pro’s custom molded RM’s, or even Shure’s mind-blowing electrostatic KSE 1500, but at $1,000 and $3,000 respectively, we may as well recommend a summer home at Cape Cod for stress relief — most people just can’t pay those premiums. More to the point, China-based upstart 1More blew our minds when we discovered how little the company wanted for the Triple Drivers. For this kind of build quality and performance, we’d expect to pay at least double.
So what specifically do the Triple Drivers offer? A gorgeous aesthetic, solid construction, and you guessed it, three drivers for excellent sound. That includes one balanced armature driver each for the bass, midrange, and treble. The result is sparkling clarity, smooth and powerful bass, and balanced sound that outdoes everything we’ve heard at the $100 line. Need we say more?
The best earbuds for audiophiles
Why you should buy them: Gorgeous design, top musicality
Who’s it for: The person who is looking for spectacular fidelity in a concise, beautiful package.
How much will they cost: $500 – $550
Why we picked the Audiofly AF180:
Yes, they’re expensive, but these in-ear beauties from Audiofly are among the best you can get, and that kind of quality begs a pretty penny. The mention of in-ear monitors might conjure up thoughts of a rock show, which is appropriate given the Audiofly AF180 take center stage on almost all accounts. The high-end headphones swap standard dynamic drivers for a four-pack of tiny balanced armatures, and in doing so, manage to deliver warm mids and vividly-accurate treble without sacrificing any bass in the process.
Perhaps most importantly, these babies smooth over the snappy bite commonly associated with balanced-armatures, yet still deliver glorious detail and brilliant dynamic expression. The AF180’s glossy, wrap-around design is one of the most attractive in their class, too, offering an admirable level of passive noise isolation and comfort to match. The deep spacing and clear detail across the sound stage make them as apt at rendering Radiohead as Ray LaMontagne.
Few earbuds sound this good, and none we can find that come any cheaper than these.
The best iPhone EarPod alternatives
Why you should buy them: Excellent sound and iOS functionality for a very low price.
Who’s it for: Those looking to trade out their muddy white factory earpods for something with better sound.
How much will they cost: $50 – $60
Why we picked the Shure SE112m+:
It’s fantastic that Apple includes earbuds with every iPhone, but if you really like audio quality you’re going to want to invest in some better buds.
At a mere $60, Shure’s SE112m+ offer some of the best bang for your buck in our roundup. The dynamic drivers are capable of an admirable 102 dB SPL with a claimed frequency response of 25Hz to 17kHz, allowing for an open sound stage that brims with taut bass and finely focused mids. They don’t have the kind of fluid detail or laser-like treble response you’ll get from the Triple Drivers, but sound quality is eons above most smartphone buds.
The robust build and above-average passive noise isolation of the SE112+ help mask the melange of sounds peppering the outside world as well, and though the upper register can come off as a tad snappy at times, we adamantly prefer that over the muffled competitors you’ll find at this price.
Simply put, if you’re not happy with the sound from your budget buds, but you’re not the type to throw down a full Benjamin on headphones, this is your ticket to ride.
Note to iPhone 7 owners: We are looking, but don’t yet have a recommendation for a top pair of Lightning earbuds. We will add a pair as soon as we can. These earbuds will work fine with your audio jack adapter, and we also suggest perusing our wireless options.
The best fitness tracking earbuds
Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless Special Edition
Why you should buy them: They have great sound quality, heart-rate tracking, and step tracking, all for a good price.
Who’s it for: Those looking for a solid mix of fitness features and good sound for an affordable price.
How much will they cost: $160
Why we picked the Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless Special Edition:
Good sound quality, an in-ear heart rate monitor, and solid app functionality make the Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless Special Edition the best fitness headphone we have tested thus far. Smart features like workout mode and voice coach mode — which tells you your time elapsed, current heart rate, step count, and what training zone you are in — make it easy to get info while on the go, and these buds will even call out particular workout milestones and awards while you’re mid-sweat.
Beyond the bells and whistles, the Sport Pulse Wireless SE offer good passive noise isolation and a good boost of bass, while three sizes of foam tips mean you can all but guarantee a comfortable fit. The sound is improved over the previous Jabra Sport Pulse, and at four hours per charge, these earphones are also more than capable of lasting through all but the most lengthy workout sessions.
While there are certainly better sounding headphones on our list, these earbuds are a killer way to keep your workout going strong, while offering just the right balance of noise isolation and a kick of bass to keep you on that routine, day in and day out.
The best noise canceling earbuds
Bose QuietComfort 20
Why you should buy them: Comfort, decent sound quality, and the best noise cancellation tech on the market.
Who’s it for: Those looking for the lowest-profile way to block out the outside world.
How much will they cost: $250
Why we picked the Bose QuietComfort 20:
The DSP suite that accompanies the amplified sound engine of the QC20 might render music a little synthetic and over-digitized on occasion, but the resounding hallmarks of Bose’s signature noise-canceling in-ears will likely outweigh any negatives. And while the battery pack is a little cumbersome, it affords you full control over the system in an ergonomic design, while also serving up as much as 16 hours of noise cancellation.
Outfitted with dense plastic dimpled with silver accents, the solidly built earphones absolutely shine when it comes to active noise cancellation (no surprise here), making effective use of Bose’s proprietary ANC technology to drown out the unwanted hum of the outside world into a peaceful murmur. We’re talking about full on, walking-on-the-moon style silence, even if you take them into a crowded bar or for a jaunt through a busy supermarket.
The comfortable ear tips keep the earbuds in place in almost any situation, yet they also manage to deliver clear sound across genres, with a host of features that complement the first-class noise cancellation.
The best wireless earbuds
Jaybird X3 Sport
Why you should buy this: Comfort, versatility, and affordability make the Jaybird X3 our favorite wireless earbuds.
Who it’s for: Those looking to cut the cord without sacrificing battery life, sound quality, or functionality.
How much will it cost: $130
Why we chose the Jaybird X3 Sport:
The third entry in Jaybird’s X Sport series improve upon their predecessor in nearly every way, offering some of the best value available in a pair of wireless earbuds, period. The fact that they’re perfect for working out just raises their value quotient.
The sweat-proof X3 are sleeker and more attractive than the X2, and the company does a lot to make sure they’ll be comfortable in multiple settings thanks to added ear fins, silicone gel, and Comply Foam tips — all in three different sizes — to guarantee a great fit.
In terms of sound, the 6mm drivers inside each bud deliver resonant, impactful audio quality with an impressive soundstage. Jaybird does also offers a companion app that allows you to create custom audio equalizers, which is nice for those of us who bounce around between genres, and you’ll also be able to enjoy your tunes for a long while, as the battery life (pegged at around 8 hours per charge) outlasts much of the competition.
The built-in remote is simple and easy to use (even when taking calls), and the sound isolation is awesome. In fact, if you’re using them while running around town, you may have a tough time hearing traffic and ambient noise, so be careful.
Though they lack the sport tracking features we lauded in the Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless SE, the Jaybird X3 are an excellent and well-rounded pair of earbuds that get the job done (and done well) in virtually any scenario.
The best fully wireless earbuds
Bragi The Headphone
Why you should buy them: You’re on the hunt for the best-sounding, most-comfortable, and most value-packed true wireless earbuds.
Who’s it for: People who want total wireless autonomy on a budget, without sacrificing battery life or audio quality.
How much will they cost: $150
Why we picked the Bragi The Headphone:
Known simply as The Headphone, the latest set of true wireless earbuds from Bragi look good, feel good, and sound great. Bragi’s first attempt at true wireless earbuds, The Dash, focused a bit too much on features, and not enough on reliability. The Headphone is the antithesis of that philosophy, and just what Bragi needed to get back in the game.
The Headphone drops a lot of Dash extras, eschewing features like internal storage and workout functions, and even shedding what has become a staple in the true wireless earbuds movement — a portable wireless charging case — all in favor of conciseness and functionality. And most importantly these no-nonsense earbuds deliver where it counts. That includes an industry-leading six hours of battery life — doubling many competitors — a smooth-and-easy fit, and impressive overall sound quality, all at a mid-range price. In fact, for its latest offering the company cut the price in half.
Our favorite thing about The Headphone is that they just work. No drop outs, no stereo sync issues — no problems. It may seem surprising, but that’s something that many of The Headphone’s pricier peers still don’t always get right. Those looking for a reliable pair of true wireless ‘buds that fit great, sound great, and outlast the crowd will find as much solace in The Headphone’s simplicity as we did.
The best ‘hearable’
Why you should buy them: You’re looking to take control of the sound around you.
Who’s it for: People with moderate hearing impairment who still want to enjoy the wide world of sound.
How much will they cost: $300
Why we picked the Nuheara IQbuds:
While they do play music and take phone calls, the real reason anyone should consider the Nuheara IQbuds is to augment the sounds around them. Whether looking to boost the volume of speech or filter out ambient noise, the IQbuds are the best on the market at helping separate the sounds you want to hear from those you don’t.
For people who are a bit hard of hearing, the IQbuds can automatically separate background noise from speech, even offering eight customizable location settings for when you enter different audio environments. Those with more hearing impairment in one ear than the other can also adjust the overall balance of the headphones so that the volume sounds even. A simple and straightforward app and touch controls on the side of the wireless earbuds allow you to quickly pick and choose what you want to hear.
Sound quality when listening to the headphones was among the best in their class. And perhaps most importantly, battery life — 3.5 hours for audio streaming and just over 5 hours for audio filtering — nearly doubles their closest competitor, Doppler Labs’ Here One.
Because the IQbuds do run about twice the price of many traditional fully-wireless earbuds, they won’t be for everyone. However, for those with moderate hearing loss who want to hear music and the world anew, these could be a must-have, and stand as a shining example of the future of wireless in-ear headphone technology.
The best rugged, tough earbuds
Why you should buy them: We’re not saying we ran these through the wash and they still worked perfectly, but we’re not not saying that.
Who’s it for: Someone looking for excellent sound in a virtually indestructible package
How much will they cost: $450 – $500
Why we picked the Westone W40:
Westone products don’t come cheap. Still, the company has a penchant for putting out headphones that are as precise as they are durable. The W40 are no exception, showcasing a streamlined, tough-as-nails build and the kind of unassuming matte-black finish you might find on headphones nearly a tenth of the price.
Don’t go for the Batman vibe? The black casings can be accented with red or blue interchangeable plates (show above) to mix things up. The 4-pack of balanced armature drivers provide superior clarity across the entire sound spectrum, providing accurate, vivid definition. These professional in-ears are also quite comfortable, though more apt for audiophiles than the casual listener.
These are a pricey investment, no doubt. But if you require the utmost accuracy and quality in your in-ears, yet don’t want to baby them, these are the earphones you’re looking for. They take a licking and keep on jamming, allowing you to play haphazardly when you want to, without sacrificing high-quality sound.
How we test
We test headphones and earbuds the way normal people live.
We run every pair of earbuds through a rigorous process over the course of several days. That includes playing them in all sorts of scenarios — be it on a bus, in the listening room, or at the office — and playing back from a wide array of sources. We know most people use their headphones with a smartphone, often with lower quality MP3 resolution tracks, so we test that, too.
However, we also move up to high-resolution audio files, as well as a wide variety of sources, including plugging in directly to a PC or Mac, using USB DACs (digital-to-analog converters), and employing high-quality dedicated portable players and amplifiers. Finally, we compare the earbuds to some of our go-to models, both in their class and price point, as well as a level or two above to find out if they can punch above their weight.
- Driver: The unit that produces sound in a headphone, made up of magnets, voice coils, and other materials. Typically, the larger the driver, the more power a headphone has, and generally bigger drivers in in-ear headphones indicate better range of frequencies can be reproduced.
- Dynamic Driver: A single driver capable of covering the entire frequency range. The diaphragm is connected directly to a voice coil in the headphone, with the voice coil moving between magnets to produce sound.
- Balance Armature Driver: In a balanced armature driver, the headphone’s diaphragm is connected to the armature, with micro-vibrations producing the sound. Most balanced armature drivers are best within a specific frequency range, which is why many headphones contain multiple balanced drivers, with certain frequencies divided between drivers for full-spectrum sound.
- Sound Stage: The perceived size and depth of the sound coming through the headphones.
- Passive Noise Isolation: Noise that is blocked out by the headphone based on its physical shape and size in your ear.
- Frequency Response: The spectrum of frequencies which a headphone is able to reliably reproduce.