While a comfortable pair of over-ear headphones are great for kicking back with, some of the best in-ear headphones and earbuds give them a run for their money - especially if you're going to use them on your daily commute, morning run or to the gym for a workout.
For the most part, they're discreet and easy to stash away before and after use and take up less space than a traditional set of headphones, some of which are more suited to home use. However, don't think that just because they're tiny they're lacking in big sound, as the selection of earbuds and in-ear headphones you'll find below deliver where it matters most: great audio. And with noise cancelling tech getting better all the time, some in-ear headphones also offer awesome ANC.
Below, you'll find a selection of my favourite in-ear headphones and earbuds - both wireless and wired - and there's also buying advice to making choosing a perfect pair a little bit easier.
Tom Parsons is a music and film fan who's been testing audio kit of all varieties for around 15 years - from turntables and headphones, to speakers and TVs - most of those at What Hi-Fi? He also loves rock and metal and is a particularly big fan of Coheed and Cambria.
Scott has spent more than 30 years in journalism covering everything from audio tech and video games, to travel, sport and news. He's written more than 11,000 articles across Louder, Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Prog and reviews headphones, speakers, books and more.
Best in-earheadphones: Quick list
Best all round earphones
I think the Sony WF-1000XM4 deserve the top spot on our list tanks to their awesome audio delivery, sleek design and excellent noise cancelling. I've been wearing these for more than a year and I'm still loving listening to music old and new through them. They're also in my lugs on my weekly runs and perform a whole lot better than I do!
Best for Apple fans
No list of the best in-ear headphones would be complete without something from Apple. The third generation of AirPods fit the bill in our list, not only because they sound the business, but because of their price. You can't go wrong with these, and if you have an Apple Music subscription, you can experience all the audio frills it offers.
Best for flexibility
Another nice set of noise cancelling earbuds, this time from Bose. What makes these different from some others in the list is the fact they have 11 levels of noise cancelling on offer. They're also excellent if you're a runner as they're IPX4 rated so they'll deal with sweat and raindrops. Batter life is around six hours, so not the best, but these remain good earphones.
Best green option
Another excellent earbud option are the bamboo-finished House Of Marley Redemption ANC 2. I alternate these with the Sony WF-1000XM4 when I'm out and about thanks to the Redemption ANC 2's lovely warm sound and comfortable fit. They're made from recyclable materials and you'll get six hours of music from a single charge.
Best for detailed sound
The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 might not be the newest kids on the block, but that doesn't mean these in-ear headphones can't hold their own against the competition. Active Noise Cancellation is decent, while the audio delivery, as you'd expect from Sennheiser, is detailed and enjoyable. Bass is a little lacking, but it's not a huge issue.
Best budget Sonys
While the Sony WF-1000XM4 take the top spot in this list, let's not forget about the older, but still excellent WF-1000XM3. They don't pack quite the same punch as newer Sony in-ears and the noise cancelling isn't as good, but the price is spot on and you'll still get beautiful audio playback through these. If you're on a budget and looking for Sony in-ears, then pick these.
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Best for the gym
JBL might be better known for their range of speakers, but they're no slouch when it comes to their headphones, which come in many shapes and sizes. Their Reflect Flow Pro are a top choice - especially if you like to listen to music while out running or at the gym thanks to their IP68 waterproof and sweat-proof rating. Comfortable too and offer great sound.
Best for balance
Soundmagic specialise at the budget end of the in-ear headphones market, but don't write them off as these robust tethered earbuds strike a brilliant balance between treble and bass, making them instantly likeable. They're a great option to fling into a backpack after use and they won't get tangled due to their silver-plated copper cable.
Best budget option
If you're after a good set of earbuds and you're on a serious budget, or are looking for a second pair of in-ears that won't break the bank, then the Skullcandy Smokin' Buds come highly recommended. The audio delivery is pretty good for the money you're paying and perform way better than many others at this price. Don't expect anything earth-shattering and you'll be happy.
Our top pick
Until recently, the Sony WF-1000XM3 were my top choice of earbuds. However, in 2021 the excellent Sony WF-1000XM4 were unleashed upon the world, which I think are a significant step up from the older model.
That’s because these feature an Integrated Processor V1 and new mics with “Noise Isolation Earbud Tips” that help deliver better noise cancellation. The sound, as you would expect of a Sony product in this price range, is pretty wonderful as a result of the new changes.
With ANC activated, you’re looking at a battery life of eight hours and around the 12 hour mark with noise cancelling off. A neat little detail is that if you’re in a rush to get out the door to catch the train but haven’t charged your Sony WF-1000XM4, then a swift five-minute charge will give you an hour of audio playback – making your journey that bit more bearable.
Google Assistant and Alexa are enabled while the Sony headphone app allows you to fine-tune your listening experience on the fly. The earbuds also carry an IPX4 water resistance rating, meaning drops of rain or sweat won’t hamper your listening pleasure – perfect for a workout down at the gym.
With their excellent audio and punchy bass, the Sony WF-1000XM4 are an excellent choice. Throw in top drawer noise cancelling, and you have a in-ear headphone which can go toe-to-toe with any of the competition.
Read our Sony WF-1000XM4 review
Best for Apple fans
When it comes to in-ear headphones, it’s hard not to immediately think of Apple’s audio wonders. They’ve been a massive hit for the tech giant since they first launched back in 2016 with, it seems, most of the music-loving world gravitating towards them.
Sound quality on the AirPods Pro (3rd Gen) is pretty smart and the active air cancelling technology – while not the best – is reassuringly solid. Battery life is decent, but I think it could be better, while a few colour options would be very welcome. All in all, a dependable and great choice for your lugs - especially if you have a subsription to Apple Music.
Read our Apple AirPods review
Best for flexibility
Bose have a great reputation in the audio world, and their rock-solid QuietComfort Earbuds are proof of that, if any were needed. The noise cancelling tech really comes into its own here thanks to the 11 levels on offer, while the crisp sound simply shines.
The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds are comfy thanks to three eartip sizes, while IPX4 integration means they are also sweat and weather resistant - making them ideal for outdoor runs or trips to the gym. Like some other options in this list, I'd like the battery life to be a little better, but with six hours on a single charge, that’s only a small quibble.
Best green option
House Of Marley's latest foray into the in-ear headphones market has been a success, as the Redemption ANC 2 are a step up from the previous model. As with everything House Of Marley produces, these earbuds are crafted using recycled plastic and finished in bamboo.
The Active Noise Cancelling is more than adequate and the sound delivered is warm and dynamic. You can also tweak EQ settings, update the firmware and adjust the touch controls through the House Of Marley app.
You'll get six hours of music with ANC activated from a single charge, while eight hours is achievable while in ambient mode. The included charging case boosts that to 24 hours, while a quick 15-minute fast charge will give you around two hours of playback – perfect if you're running late for the train.
Best for detail
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 are an updated version of the audio firm’s original Bluetooth earbuds. The main difference? Active Noise Cancellation has been added, while they also offer a snugger, more comfortable fit.
Touch controls enable you to skip through your favourite tracks with ease, while Transparent Hearing is used to activate both Google Assistant or Siri depending on your smartphone of choice.
While good, noise cancelling could be a little better, but I can’t ding it too much for that – especially when you also take into consideration the lush audio delivery. Battery life, however, could be a little bit more generous.
Best budget Sonys
While the Sony WF-1000XM4 above are our pick for the top spot, it's hard for me not to include the older Sony WF-1000XM3. The noise cancelling doesn't quite match the XM4, but that doesn't mean it's not up to scratch, while its Bluetooth chip sharpens up music synchronisation.
The in-ear grip is on point and they still sound fantastic, with the Sony WF-1000XM3 delivering clear, rhythmic and detailed sound and have all the musical energy you could need.
Read our Sony WF-1000XM3 review
Best for the gym
JBL have been making a lot of noise when it comes to the loudest Bluetooth speakers, but the US company are no slouch when it comes to something a bit smaller. The wireless JBL Reflect Flow Pro are aimed towards the sporty end of the market and are sweat and waterproof thanks to their IP68 rating. But even if an hour on the treadmill or pounding the pavement in the rain fills you with dread, there’s still plenty to get excited about here.
The big difference between the JBL Reflect Flow Pro and the original model is the introduction of Adaptive Noise Cancelling which the older model lacked. They’re more comfortable, with the headphones coming with three eartip sizes and four Powerfins for a secure fit. Battery life is decent at 30 hours with the bundled charging case, and a 10-minute charge will net you an hour’s worth of sound.
Best for balance
A relative newbie in the audio world, SoundMagic has quickly established itself as one of the top dogs in budget headphones land.
This version of the company’s award-winning affordable in-ears boasts an updated driver and a silver-plated copper cable that’s twisted to help reduce tangles. There’s also a mic and three-button remote for taking calls and controlling your music.
What makes the E11Cs special is the sound. The excellent tonal balance means nothing sticks out and all of your music sounds as it should, from deep bass to twinkly treble, and there’s energy to the sound that makes everything fun. There’s really nothing not to like.
Read our SoundMAGIC E11C earbuds review
Best budget option
Ignore the cringeworthy name and these bargain buds are some of the best in-ear headphones you can get for the price. There’s a fairly hefty neckband that helps to keep them in place while you wear them, but it can be removed if you think it’s too chunky, leaving behind a fairly lightweight pair of buds that are tethered together by a thin cable that includes a remote and microphone.
Sound quality is good, particularly for the money, and while the battery life and wireless signal aren’t the best, you can’t have the moon on a stick when you’re paying this price.
They may be dinky and – in the case of wired models – relatively simple, but there’s a lot to consider when choosing a pair of the best in-ear headphones. So if you’re sitting comfortably, let’s begin.
What features do in-ear headphones offer?
This is very much dictated by price and brand. If you’re looking for in-ears for sports, look for models with ear clips that will better anchor the buds to your head. Water resistance is well worth having too. More expensive earphones will often pack more processing power, and boast algorithms that elevate lower quality streams to something approaching hi-res audio.
Noise cancelling is perhaps the ultimate feature differentiator. Very low cost in-ears will probably not offer noise cancelling, but step up the price ladder and you’ll find some models with excellent Active Noise Cancelling.
When you’re going wireless, also consider which version of Bluetooth is being used. The latest versions, we’re now on 5.0, are more battery-friendly. AptX Bluetooth indicates that sound quality has been prioritised. It can transmit music at 16-bit/44.1kHz, often described as CD-like.
Aptx Bluetooth HD is a significant step up the performance ladder. Developed by Qualcomm, this Bluetooth codec is able to transmit 24-bit hi-res audio, between compatible hardware.
Some brands, for whatever reason, snub aptX HD in favour of a rival technology, known as LDAC. Invented by Sony, it has been adopted by various makers. LDAC allows high-res audio streaming over Bluetooth, up to 990 kbps at 24 bit/96 kHz.
The most recent wrinkle in the codec story is aptX Adaptive. It’s a mix of aptX HD and aptX Low Latency, the latter having been developed for gaming applications and video playback with improved syncing (said to be less than 40 milliseconds).
What’s better? Wired vs wireless vs True Wireless
Some might suggest that wired headphones sound a little better than wireless headphones as there’s inevitably a loss of sound quality incurred during wireless transmission - but when it comes to usability, wireless clearly has the edge.
Before going for a wired pair, do check that your smartphone – assuming you intend to listen to tunes on your phone and have one of the best phones for music - actually has a standard 3.5mm socket as many newer handsets simply don’t offer one.
Also bear in mind that wireless in-ears with a cable or neckband between the two buds tend to have a bigger, longer-lasting battery than true wireless pairs, but the case that comes with True Wireless in-ears usually carry three or more extra charges for the buds.
Wireless headphones are not the same as True Wireless models. Wireless Bluetooth headphones don’t physically attach to a smartphone or music player, but the cups or buds are connected. This could be via a traditional headband or necklace.
True Wireless earbuds are completely separate from one another, with no physical tether between left or right, or indeed your music source. This makes them extremely convenient to wear. True Wireless buds ship in a small storage case that will act as a recharging station. Pop the buds into their magnetic holders, and they’ll recharge from the juice in the case. This case can typically hold three to four times as much charge as the buds themselves.
Can in-ear headphones damage your ears?
If you’re sensible about usage and volume, then in-ear headphones don’t present a greater threat to your hearing than on-ear or over-ear models. Indeed, you might even be tempted to run them at lower levels, as the level of outside interference will be reduced due to the isolation offered by the buds themselves.
The generally recommended volume for prolonged listening is between 60 and 85 decibels. Most headphones won’t go louder than 100db, so a simple rule of thumb is to ensure you’re not listening at 100 percent volume! That said, if you like to crank it, check out our round-up of the loudest headphones around.
How secure are in-ear headphones?
Generally, very secure. As long as you take advantage of the various tips offered. Fit matters a huge amount with in-ears, so experiment for the best purchase. Our ears are all different, and failing to ensure that your chosen headphones fit yours correctly could result in them not only falling out, but also sub-standard sound – something we’re fully against here at Louder.
If you don’t feel as though you’re getting the fit or sound that you should from your chosen pair, return them and find an alternative.
How good is noise cancelling?
Noise cancelling is a standard feature on mid and high-end earbuds and earphones, so there’s plenty of choice. In many cases it’s as good as you’ll find in over-ear models, or no less than one generation removed from the ANC offered in flagship wireless over ear models.
How we test
Freedom of movement is a huge part of the appeal of diminutive in-ear True Wireless headphones, but it also provides them with an assortment of performance hurdles to overcome. Stereo cohesion, dynamics and battery life all fall under the spotlight when we’re testing.
Wireless playtime is a key criteria. Just how long will a pair of in-ears last before a top-up charge is required, and what power reserves are held in that portable charging case?
In-ear headphones are a marvel of engineering, and there’s nothing more fun than pushing them to extremes. Are their dynamic drivers nimble enough to keep pace with Kirk Hammett’s relentless riffing on Metallica's Enter Sandman? Is James Hetfield’s whispered prayer easy to follow?
We also listen out for stereo cohesion, and a sense of scale. Live performances are good for this. Go-to concert test albums include the Ramones It’s Alive, The Rolling Stones Get Yer Ya-Yas Out and Alive by Kiss.
You can trust Louder Our experienced team has worked for some of the biggest brands in music. From testing headphones to reviewing albums, our experts aim to create reviews you can trust. Find out more about how we review.
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