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The best earbuds and in-ear headphones 2021: From wireless to wired, we've got everything you need

The best earbuds and in-ear headphones 2021: From wireless to wired, we've got everything you need
(Image credit: Westend61/Getty)

While the choice of headphones available is staggering, the best earbuds and in-ear headphones on the market have become the go to option for music fans who want to take their music with them on the daily commute, morning run or to the gym for a workout.

After all, they're discreet and easy to stash away before and after use and take up less space than a traditional set of cans, 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.

You'll also find buying advice so you can choose which earbuds and in-ear headphones will fit your particular needs, while our price comparison tags feature the best prices available online right now.

Looking for brilliant Black Friday music deals? Then check out our Black Friday wireless headphones deals page for all the latest bargains and offers on a wide range of headphones.

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Product guide

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Sony WF-1000XM4

(Image credit: Sony)

1. Sony WF-1000XM4

Sony's much-loved earbuds get an upgrade to achive sonic bliss

Launch price: $278/£249 | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise cancelling: Yes | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 8 hours (24 hours with case) | Connector: USB-C

Until recently, the Sony WF-1000XM3 were our top choice of earbuds. However, earlier this year the excellent Sony WF-1000XM4 were released which 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 8 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.

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Sony WF-1000XM3

(Image credit: Sony)

2. Sony WF-1000XM3

The best in-ear headphones you can buy

Launch price: $270/£220 | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: Yes | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 6hr (+18 hours from case) | Connector: USB-C

Gloriously open, detailed sound
Quality sound
No volume controls

A one-two punch from Sony, then. While the Sony WF-1000XM4 above are our pick for the top spot, second place goes to their older sibling – the still excellent 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. The Sony WF-1000XM3 deliver clear, rhythmic and detailed sound and have all the musical energy you could need. To listen is to fall in love with your tunes all over again.

Read our Sony WF-1000XM3 review

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus

(Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

3. Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus

Cambridge Audio step up once again with a great bang for your buck product

Launch price: $120/£120 | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes/App | Battery life: 36 hours with charging case, up to 9 hours without | Connector: USB-C

Great value
Excellent battery life
There is better audio quality out there
No noise cancelling

The Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 remain a solid choice when it comes to an audio fix, but the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus are a significant step up and are well worth considering due to the excellent value they offer. 

The Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus boast a high performance audio mode, are comfortable thanks to the variety of silicone tips which come bundled, while the charging case will see you through 36 hours of your favourite tunes, with a single charge lasting an impressive nine hours. 

The earbuds are compatible with the Melomania phone app which brings new features to the table, such as the neat Find My Earbuds feature should you ever misplace the dinky blighters, and you can also upgrade the firmware through your phone when needed.

Read our Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 Plus review 

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Bose QuietComfort Earbuds

(Image credit: Bose)

4. Bose QuietComfort Earbuds

11 levels of noise cancelling are just the tip of the iceberg for these Bose belters

Launch price: $279/£250 | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise cancelling: Yes | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes/Touch | Battery life: 12 hours with charging case, up to 6 hours without | Connector: Lightning

Great noise cancelling
Crisp sound
Sweat/weather resistant
Battery life could be a bit better

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 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. We’d like battery life to be a little better, but with six hours on a single charge, that’s only a small quibble.

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: SoundMagic E11C

(Image credit: SoundMagic)

5. SoundMagic E11C

A huge upgrade on bundled buds and the best in-ear headphones you can buy on a budget

Launch price: $62/£50 | Bluetooth: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: N/a | Connector: 3.5mm

Authentic but fun sound
Excellent value for mone
Nothing at this price

A relative newbie in the audio world, SoundMagic has quickly established itself as one of the top dogs in budget headphones land.

The latest version of the company’s award-winning affordable in-ears boast an updated driver and a silver-plated copper cable that’s twisted to help reduce tangles. There’s 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.

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Bose SoundSport Wireless

(Image credit: Bose)

6. Bose SoundSport Wireless

The best wireless headphones for fitness fanatics

Launch price: $129/£120 | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 6hr | Connector: MicroUSB

Comfortable, secure fit
Lively, weighty sound
Battery life isn’t great

If you’re after a set of wireless earphones that are a perfect choice for working out at home or for when you're on your morning run, Bose’s SoundSport Wireless are the pair to get.

Sweat resistant, lightweight and with extra in-ear scaffolding to stop them falling out while you’re pushing to beat that 10K PB, these wireless in-ears are a better bet than even the Sonys at the top if you’re the active type.

Bluetooth reliability is good too and while battery life could be better, they sound nice and lively, with a decent thump of bass to make you feel like Rocky.

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Apple Airpods Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

7. Apple AirPods Pro

Apple deliver once again with their popular earbuds

Launch price: $249/£249 | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise cancelling: Yes | Mic: Yes | Controls: Siri/Phone | Battery life: 24 hours with charging case, up to 5 hours without | Connector: Lightning

A quality listening experience
Spatial audio is great
Force Sensors provide easy control
Battery life could be better
More colours please

When it comes to in-ear headphones, it’s hard not to immediately think of Apple’s audio creations. 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. 

The AirPods Pro joined the growing range in 2019, with Apple cramming even more tech into the dinky earbuds than ever before. Not only that, but they look much better than older versions and are more comfortable thanks to soft silicone tips.

Sound quality is pretty damn smart and the active air cancelling technology – while not the best – is reassuringly solid. Battery life is decent, but it could be better, while a few colour options would be very welcome. All in all, a dependable and great choice for your lugs

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2

(Image credit: Sennheiser)

8. Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2

Great audio and fab battery life make the TW2 well worth your consideration

Launch price: $279/£279 | Features: Bluetooth, Active Noise Cancelling, Transparent Hearing | Battery Life: 7 hours

Lush mid-range detail
Touch sensitive controls
Generous battery life
Bass isn't quite up to scratch
Noise cancelling could be better

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 we can’t ding it too much for that – especially when you also take into consideration the lush audio delivery and superb battery life, which will see you through a prog playlist with ease.

Read our Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 review

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Beyerdynamic Soul Byrd

(Image credit: Beyerdynamic)

9. Beyerdynamic Soul Byrd

A brilliant pair of wired in-ears for not a lot of money

Launch price: $85/£69 | Bluetooth: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: N/a | Connector: 3.5mm

Balanced, detailed sound
Comfortable to wear
SoundMagics are even better value

Yes, you can buy a pair of wired in-ears for a tenner these days, but they’ll sound as pleasant as stepping on an upturned plug and will last as long as a Buzzcocks song. The same can be said for whatever buds came with your latest phone – if it came with any at all. It really is worth paying more, particularly if you do most of your listening on the move.

That’s where the weirdly named Soul Byrds come in. Easy to listen to but interesting and captivating, too, they’re great for all genres of music - from ferocious metal to sprawling prog epics.

They’re also very comfortable to wear, burrowing into your ears far less than most rivals, and have an integrated mic and controls that work with iOS and Android phones alike.

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: JBL Reflect Flow

(Image credit: JBL)

10. JBL Reflect Flow

JBL's robust earbuds are a great fit when working out

Launch price: $150/£125 | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Touch/voice | Battery life: 20 hours with charging case, up to 10 hours without | Connector: USB

Great for working out
Good battery life
Comes in a variety of colours
No noise cancelling

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 are aimed towards the sporty end of the market and are sweat and waterproof. But even if an hour on the treadmill fills you with dread, there’s still plenty to get excited about here. 

They’re comfortable to wear for long stretches and, more importantly, pump out impressive sound. A charge will give you 10 hours of playback, with 20 hours recharge from the case – which is included. They come in a variety of colours too, including black, turquoise, blue and green, they're sturdy little things and for the price, they’re a great option.

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Sennheiser CX Sport

(Image credit: Sennheiser)

11. Sennheiser CX Sport

Some of the best in-ear headphones for fitness fanatics

Launch price: $165/£119 | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 6hr | Connector: MicroUSB

Punchy, powerful sound
Sturdy fit
Short battery life

If you’re after a pair of budget wireless headphones to soundtrack your runs or home workouts but can’t stretch to the Bose SoundSports, the Sennheiser CX Sports are definitely the way to go. Those rather garishly coloured fins do a great job of keeping the buds comfortably nestled in your ears regardless of how much you throw yourself into your exercise.

The cable between the two earphones runs around the back of the neck and includes a control unit and mic, as well as the six-hour battery. That might not be great longevity, but at least charging them up is quick – 10 minutes of juice-up time gets you a whole hour of music. Not too shabby, eh?

Audio is weighty, solid and punchy, perfect for delivering that extra bit of musical motivation.

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Shure SE425

(Image credit: Shure)

12. Shure SE425

Band-approved in-ears combine authenticity and durability

Launch price: $269/£230 | Bluetooth: No | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: No | Controls: No | Battery life: N/a | Connector: 3.5mm

Tougher than a tank
Glorious midrange
Not the bassiest
No fancy frills

If a pair of headphones is good enough for Megadeth, it’s got to be good, right? Not that Dave Mustaine’s outfit are the only musicians to use Shure headphones – it seems that practically every band in existence uses the company’s in-ear monitors when on stage.

There are two big reasons Shure’s earphones are so prevalent: they’re supremely tough and durable and they sound neutral and authentic.

The SE425s are the highlight of the current range, offering a supreme sound that, while a bit bass-light, is brilliantly detailed and textured through the midrange. There are no frills here – no mic, no controls, and certainly no Bluetooth – but that’s because they’re serious, pro monitors, and they're all the better for it.

Read our Shure SE425 Wired earbuds review

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Jaybird Vista

(Image credit: Jaybird)

13. Jaybird Vista

These completely wireless in-ears sound energetic and love going running

Launch price: $179/£159 | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 6hr (+10 hours from case) | Connector: USB-C

Runner-friendly fit
Meaty and energetic sound
Can be beaten for detail

No longer the stuff of sci-fi fantasy, truly wireless in-ear headphones are now a reality. In fact, they’re all over the place, which can make it a bit tricky to choose a pair. If you enjoy running, you should definitely check out the Jaybird Vistas.

Like most in this category, they consist of two entirely wireless buds and a case that doubles up as a charger. You get six hours of use out of the buds, and an extra 10 hours from the case. The fins, meanwhile, keep the earphones snug and secure as you lumber around the park.

Best of all, the sound has all of the energy you need to keep motivation levels up as you gasp for air, and there’s plenty of meaty bass to keep the blood pumping.

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Skullcandy Smokin' Buds 2 Wireless

(Image credit: Skullcandy)

14. Skullcandy Smokin' Buds 2 Wireless

Get past the moronic name and these extremely affordable in-ears work well

Launch price: $49/£50 | Bluetooth: Yes | Noise-cancelling: No | Mic: Yes | Controls: Yes | Battery life: 7hr | Connector: MicroUSB

Exceptionally affordable
Full, fun sound
Weak battery
Some wireless drop-out

Ignore the cringeworthy name and these bargain buds are some of the best in-ear headphones for anyone with less than £50 in their back pocket to spend.

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 just £30.

Best earbuds and in-ear headphones: Buying advice

Best in-ear headphones and earbuds: pair of headphones connected to a smartphone

(Image credit: Olly Curtis - Getty)

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. 

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Tom Parsons is a music and film fan who's been testing audio kit of all varieties for around 13 years, most of those at What Hi-Fi? He also loves rock and metal and is a particularly big fan of Coheed and Cambria.