Best in-ear headphones 2021: Great wired, wireless and wire-free earphones

4 weeks ago 14
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(Pocket-lint) - Our Top Pick is currently the Beats Flex. Other in-ear headphones worth considering include the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, Powerbeats Pro, AirPods (2nd-generation) and Audeze iSine 10


When you bought a smartphone in the past, it came with a pair of wired in-ear buds. In 2021, that's not as commonplace as it used to be, with many companies opting to reduce electronic waste. 

Missing out isn't necessarily a disaster, either - and not just because it's better for the environment. Cheap buds found in phone boxes were often poor quality, and so you'd always need to buy another pair to get a good experience. 

So, how do you choose the best earphones for you? There are a few things to consider. Firstly, there's comfort. You're not going to want to wear a pair of buds if you don't like the way they feel in your ears, no matter how good they sound. Plus, a good fit is essential for effective passive noise cancelling and blocking out the world around you. 

Then, of course, there's sound quality, reliability, durability and battery life to consider. That's without mentioning high-end features like ANC for a more enhanced noise-cancelling experience. 

And how do you decide whether you want true wireless, neckband wireless or wired earphones? Typically speaking, great sound is available at lower prices with wired earphones, but, if your phone has no 3.5mm port, those are out the window. 

In this list, you'll find a range of different kinds of in-ear buds at different prices, each with individual pros and cons. And with so many companies now selling true wireless buds, you'll find a bit of crossover between this list and those in our best wireless earbuds buyer's guide.

Whether you want something convenient, something cheap and easy, something that sounds great and cancels noise, or a great pair of wired buds, we round up our favourites below. 

Our Top Pick

Pocket-lint

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Beats Flex

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For

  • Flexible and durable design
  • Lightweight and convenient to wear
  • Sound is genuinely brilliant for the money
  • W1 chip for easy iPhone pairing

Against

  • In-ear feel a bit pressured at times
  • Fit sometimes needs adjusting as no ear fins
  • No official waterproof rating (although is weather-resistant)

Beats revamped the tried-and-tested Beats X with the new-generation Flex, slashing the price, upping battery life and creating what we believe is a seriously compelling package.

With a flexible, lightweight and durable design, they're convenient and comfortable to wear in almost every scenario. Except perhaps in and around rainstorms, since these are just weather-resistant and not waterproof.

Compared to more expensive picks, they also sound much better than we expected; there's good clarity to vocals and details, with lower bass notes also recognised even when volume dips. 

For iOS users, the W1 chip also means fast and efficient pairing, offering pretty much the same experience that's present with the AirPods line.

Our only real gripe is that the fit, as with other in-ear models, can sometimes feel a bit pressurised - and that's something that isn't helped by the lack of ear fins.

All in all, though, these are an easy choice for anybody on a budget who need all-day audio performance. And perhaps it might even tempt those who aren't penny-pinching.

Other in-ear buds we also recommend

Here are four other excellent pairs of in-ears: 

Pocket-lint

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Bose QuietComfort Earbuds

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For

  • Great noise-cancelling
  • Fantastic sound quality
  • Fit is secure and comfortable for long periods

Against

  • Design is quite chunky
  • Case could offer more charge
  • So-so battery life

Bose specialises in comfortable, premium headphones, and this true wireless set is no different. In fact, from a pure listening experience perspective, it sits at the top of our pile when it comes to in-ear testing.

Not only is it one of the few to provide adjustable active noise cancelling (ANC), helping eliminate any ambient sound in your environment, but it does so with excellent sound, too. 

We love the natural balance Bose has managed to strike with the QC Earbuds, as it often does with its over-ear options, too.

The bass sits perfectly and doesn't look to sacrifice any clarity or feel from the higher frequencies or mid-range. And the result is all our favourites sounding better than in any other buds we tested.

All this, of course, while the fit remained secure and comfortable for use in long periods at our desk, with the wireless charging case on hand if you do run out of charge.

Our only real issue with the overall package here is the actual design of the bud, as it's slightly on the chunky side. Other than this, though, this is a thoroughly excellent offering from Bose. 

For those with a budget on the higher end, this is tough to ignore. 

Pocket-lint

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Beats Powerbeats Pro

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For

  • Great fit, tips and sound quality
  • Really long battery life
  • Brilliant for running/exercise

Against

  • Noise isolation/cancellation isn't great on loud trains
  • Case lid feels a bit flimsy when open
  • No wireless charging case

If you're looking for a pair of completely wire-free earphones, Beats' Powerbeats Pro are probably the most versatile pair we've ever tested.

Not only are they cheaper than most of the big-name rivals, but they last longer on a full charge, sound exceptional and are super comfortable to wear. 

Of course, the big draw for most is the performance during exercise. And, in our view, the hype is justified - these are the best in-ears for your workouts. The lightweight, cable-free feel is perfect for long runs and hard sessions in the gym, and the redesigned shape makes them a lot comfier than previous Powerbeats models. 

Add that to the fact that the sound is very enjoyable, and they have that H1 Chip found in the AirPods, and you have a very well rounded pair of in-ears. 

Our only concerns during testing were the noise cancellation in loud environments and the general experience with the charging case. Not only is this a little flimsy, but it also isn't a charging case, which feels like a missed opportunity.

Pocket-lint

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Apple AirPods 2

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For

  • Quick to charge using the included case
  • Now offers Hey Siri for voice control
  • Easy to connect thanks to H1 chip

Against

  • Not great in noisy environments
  • The same polarising design
  • Many premium competitors

The AirPods did what other Apple products have typically done in the past; take something that's already out there, evolve it, and make it popular.

They weren't the first completely wireless pair of in-ear headphones, by any means, but they were the first to introduce the W1 chip, allowing for instant pairing with iOS devices. That represented a game-changer, and it's still something that works beautifully.

With the second generation, W1 has been replaced by the smarter H1 chip - as well as the option for a wireless charging case. Neither of these can be classed as essential upgrades for those who own the original AirPods, but they do still qualify as handy improvements, too.

And while the look of the AirPods themselves may still divide opinion, they're unmistakably Apple, and blend into a crowd as well as any model on the market. The sound quality is also decent, although we wouldn't say it rivals the best on this list by any stretch.

For the majority of on-the-go listening, and even bits of exercise here and there, they'll do the job extremely well.

Pocket-lint

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Audeze iSine10

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For

  • Audio is very well balanced
  • Surprisingly comfortable to wear despite the size
  • Highly adjustable equaliser

Against

  • Only iOS users get built-in DSP/DAC/Amp via 24-bit Lightning cable
  • Expensive
  • Much better listening experience at home

If you want a pair of in-ear monitors unlike any other, the Audeze iSine10 will suit you down to the ground.

Particularly if you're happy with the "TIE Fighter docked in your ear" look. The planar magnetic drivers mean they can achieve balance and clarity that you just don't normally get from tiny in-ears.

They also mean that the outer housing is much bigger than most rivals, and that they also need internal or external ear hooks to keep them on your ears. 

For iOS users, there's also a version that ships with a Lightning connector, which has a built-in 24-bit DAC/amp processing system to make your music sound even better than it would through a 3.5mm jack. What's more, it also means it can be controlled by the Audeze app to adjust EQ presets using 10-bands. 

The long and short of it is that they look weird, but sound amazing, and are surprisingly comfortable to wear.

Other products we considered

The Pocket-lint editorial team spends hours testing and researching hundreds of products before recommending our best picks for you. We consider a range of factors when it comes to putting together our best guides, including physically testing the products ourselves, consumer reviews, brand quality and value. Many of the devices we consider don't make our final best guides, ut that doesn't mean they're no good. 

These are some of the products we considered that ultimately didn't make our top 5: 

How to choose a pair of in-ear headphones

In-ear headphones come in all different shapes, sizes and styles. You can get completely tether-free, tiny compact buds in a case, or ones you wear around your neck all day. Some you even plug in manually. They should all - ultimately - do the same thing: let you listen to your music or answer calls in the environment you need them to do so.

So, what should you look for?

Why buy a pair of in-ear headphones?

In-ear headphones are great for a few reasons. Primarily, though, they're extremely portable. You can easily fit a pair of in-ears in your pocket, purse or a pouch in your bag and they don't take up any space. And when you put them in your ears - if you have a pair with a good seal - they naturally cut out external noise better than big over-ear headphones. Being lightweight and small also makes them ideal for exercising. 

What will you use the earbuds for?

Are you going to use your earphones predominantly for making and receiving voice/video calls, or are you music-obsessed and can't make it through the day without listening to hours of your top playlists and albums?

This can determine the way you want them to fit, what style you need, what the sound should prioritise and - even - how long the battery lasts. This is the one thing you need to consider before anything else. 

What style of earphones should you buy? 

Most people these days buy TWS (true wireless) earbuds, and there's great appeal to those. They're tiny, can't get tangled up (because there's no cable) and they usually come with their own tiny, dedicated case which also has a battery in it for charging them up when they're flat. 

Neckband earphones can be really convenient, too, if only because you can wear them all day around your neck, and then just put them in your ears when you need/want them. They're usually lightweight and don't get in the way, especially if the buds are equipped with magnets that snap them together. 

Wired earphones are great - if you can use them - because they don't have their own battery power, so they never run out of power. They're completely passive and will work reliably, often feature better latency (more on that below). 

But there are other things to consider. For instance, if you want to get effective noise cancellation - whether active or passive - you need a tip that's snugly and securely fits in your ear. For comfort, also look out for buds that come with memory foam tips. These expand to fit perfectly inside your ears. 

What about in-ear fins and over-ear hooks? 

For the most part, earphones these days are designed to stay in your ears without any additional support. However, there are times when you need something extra to keep them in your ears, particularly if you use them to work out. Some will come with built-in over-ear hooks that fit over the top of your ears to keep them held in place, or with softer silicon 'fins' that hug the inside of your ear. 

Do you like lots of bass, or not?

Some people love bass more than others, and you might find it's because of how you want to use the earphones. In a workout, you might want more impact and presence from bass to drive you on, whereas listening to music at home in the quiet you find it overpowering. 

How important is the general audio quality?

That's an obvious one: very. If you want to enjoy your music more than anything else, you want a pair of earphones with really good audio quality. More often than not, this is enabled by a pair of high-quality drivers and normally means you can't skimp. You need to spend some money to get a pair that sounds really good. One with good bass control, but also with clarity and detail in the higher frequencies. The best buds let you hear subtle elements in the track that cheaper buds don't, while the bass keeps its texture and shape, even if it's loud and low. 

There are other factors to look out for here too. Some earphones are equipped with HiRes or Lossless audio support. This allows a much higher bitrate than standard streaming quality, and will give you even clearer, more detailed and natural sound. Look out for aptX HD in the spec list to find it on a pair of wireless buds. 

What about call quality and using them for Zoom calls?

Some earphones are wonderful for listening to music, and are tuned to make your favourite playlists sound immense, but might not be as good for voice calls. If what you're looking for is a pair to make regular calls with throughout the day you want a pair that has a good set of external mics and - if wireless - beam-forming to pick up your voice clearly during calls. 

Did you consider battery life?

Battery life is vital to consider once you know what you're going to use them for. For instance, if you're using them a lot for video or voice calls, you're going to want something with a really good battery life. Since it's using more power to use both the microphone and the speaker. Also, if you take long journeys semi-regularly and want earphones that last the whole trip, you'd perhaps want to consider a wired pair or a pair of neckband earphones rather than true wireless buds. 

What do you mean by latency? 

Latency is essentially the speed and time it takes for a signal to go from the source (your phone) to the earphones in your ear. With older Bluetooth earphones, this was an issue when watching videos. They had poor latency, and so when watching a movie it would sound like the audio wasn't synced with the visuals. These days that's not a problem, especially with earphones that feature Bluetooth 5+ and technologies like AptX. However, because it's physically connected, a wired pair of headphones will always give you a more consistent lag-free experience. 

What about cross-platform compatibility?

Some earphones work better with some platforms than others. For instance, Apple AirPods are great for people with multiple Apple devices like iPads, iPhones and Macs, because they are connected to your account and immediately available to all of your devices. Similarly, to get the best out of others - like earphones with aptX technologies - you're going to want to use them with a compatible Android phone. 

Still, most of them will at the very least let you pair with any device that features Bluetooth, so you can use them with your phone, tablet or laptop. But they won't all let you pair to multiple devices. 

Do you need waterproofing?  

Some earphones are going to be bought for working out, or wearing during runs. That means - unless you don't sweat or it never rains - you're going to want to check out for a waterproof rating of some description. Usually, sports-focused buds will feature splash and sweat resistance, which you will need. 

More about this story

Every product in this list has been tested in real-life situations, just as you would use it in your day-to-day life.

In the case of in-ear headphones, we put each pair through its paces indoors in the quiet, and in noisy environments and - often - even during workouts or running sessions. 

They're tested with Android phones, iPhone, iPads, Macs and various other products, and we listen to a multitude of different musical genres to see how they handle different types of music. They're also tested making phone calls and Zoom calls. Each pair gets many hours of listening to see how the battery performs over time, too. 

Since we started reviewing headphones years ago, technology has advanced a lot. Over that time, we've seen them get smaller, sound better, last longer and - now - they come with no wires at all. Sometimes, they even come with ANC equipped, which seemed almost unthinkable just a few years back. 

In our guides, aren’t interested in pointless number crunching or extraneous details - we just want to provide an easy to understand review that gives you an idea of what it's going to be like to use. And don’t for a second think that the products aren't tested fully because the reviews are concise.

We’ve been covering tech since 2003, and, in many cases, have not only reviewed the product in question, but the previous generations, too - right back to the first model on the market. There is also plenty of models we've considered that didn't make the cut in each of our buyer's guides.

Writing by Cam Bunton. Editing by Conor Allison. Originally published on 25 April 2017.

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