A good pair of wireless headphones frees you from being physically tethered to a phone, computer, or stereo system without costing you any sound quality. And in this time of working from home, one will grant you the flexibility to take your TV watching, tunes listening, and video chat collaborating from the kitchen table to the couch. Those meant for exercise will resist sweat and rain while holding a steady connection to your phone or watch for uninterrupted motivational music and podcasts. That’s a lot to demand from headphones, so we set out to determine which are the best across a range of constructions and uses.
Take a look at five of the best performers from our test, then scroll down for buying advice and more in-depth reviews of these and other headphones.
Features to Consider
Active Noise Canceling (ANC): Headphones or earbuds with active noise cancelation will have a microphone in them that’s dedicated to picking up low-frequency sounds around you. As those sounds reach the microphone, it picks them up and the headphones emit a sound that’s 180 degrees out of phase with them, canceling them out. This will tamp down outside noise without ruining the music you do want to hear.
Ambient Mode: With ambient modes, headphones can tune out noises as you’re listening to your music while still piping in certain ones that you may need to hear. Like with noise cancelation, a microphone in the headphones or earbuds picks up ambient sounds, but instead of automatically canceling them out with opposite waves, it will pump ones of certain frequencies through so you can hear them alongside your music. With the noise cancelation, music volume, and cups physically blocking your ears, it can be difficult to hold a conversation or clearly make out what someone’s saying. But ambient modes are most useful for knowing when someone is talking to you so you can pause the music, picking up announcements when you’re on a train or airplane, or remaining aware of your surroundings on busy city streets. Some high-end headphones allow you to fine tune the level of ambient noise they pass through.
Ingress Protection: This rating consists of two numbers. The first indicates dust protection, the second is for water protection. “X” in place of either number means there’s no data (so an “IPX” rating means dust protection wasn’t evaluated). The second number, for liquid ingress, is the one that matters most to runners. A score of one or two means an earbud can withstand dripping water; Scores of three to six mean it will survive increasing amounts of rainfall for longer periods of time. The gold standard is a score of seven to nine, meaning the earbud can be submerged in varying depths of water without failing. Most sport earbuds in this test have an IP rating, and most were IPX4 or above.
How We Tested
Every pair of headphones on this list has been thoroughly vetted and evaluated by our test editors. We research the market, survey user reviews, speak with product managers and engineers, and use our own experience listening to music, podcasts, movies, taking calls, and running with them to determine the best options.
For the headphones geared toward more casual use, we started by charging them up and connected them via Bluetooth to our phone and laptop, gauging ease of use and setup. We then ran them through the gamut of sound testing, listening to streaming music and podcasts. To get a wide range of bass and effects, we watched the opening sequence from 2015’s Mad Max, a clip often used to demonstrate the depth and power of speakers, on our laptop with the headphones synced. We cycled through all the settings and modes using the given controls while taking stock of how responsive buttons or touch was, if the headphones had noise canceling and how effective it was, and if ambient modes let in enough sound for decent awareness of our surroundings. Finally, we factored in call quality, voice assistant compatibility, battery life, comfort, and looks.
For the sport earbuds, we and a crew of testers compared the sound to others we’ve tried and judged the way the test buds made our favorite songs and podcasts sound. We factored in each device’s IP rating. When it came to battery life, we checked manufacturer’s claims against our experience and noted discrepancies where they occurred. In two weeks of testing, we encountered few quality issues, but we also asked our testers to discuss how the earbuds felt—you’d expect a $200 set of buds to feel premium compared to a $40 pair. For long-term quality assessment, we checked user reviews from Amazon and other retailers looking for persistent issues, and we’ll update our findings if any issues crop up as we continue to run with these models.
We also asked testers to evaluate how quickly and easily the buds connected to their phones, and how far they were able to get from their phones before the signal cut out. And we recorded any mid-run connectivity issues.
How an earbud fits affects how much outside sound it lets in, and there’s no ideal balance for everyone. Some runners like buds that fit deep in their ears and block all outside noise, allowing them to focus on the tunes, while others prefer lots of environmental sound from a looser fit. (The latter is safer for running outside and among other people.) So although we didn’t rank the earbuds by ambient sound, we did rank them based on whether they stayed in our testers’ ears.
For Work, Travel, and the Office
Noise Canceling: Yes | Battery Life: 38 hours (with ANC off) | Controls: Buttons and touch | Voice Assistant: Google and Siri
The WH-1000XM3 was one of the headphones we tested last, and after listening to the other models, their superior sound was apparent. As we listened to songs, podcasts, and the opening scene of Mad Max, the headphones produced clear distinction between vocals, highs, and lows, with pleasant bass depth, while some of the others could sound flat. Sony also built in what it calls “360 Reality Audio,” which is akin to surround sound in a theater. Listening to a sample track on the accompanying app of “regular audio,” we could hear a clear difference when the sound was coming from either cup or both. But during the 360 Reality track, the headphones seemed to also pump sound from different angles and distances within each cup, as if we were in a room with the instrument producing the music and it was rotating around us. It was as immersive as we can say about listening to music through headphones. The downside to this is that the WH-1000XM3 can’t take any old song and adapt it to 360 Reality Audio; you need to have an account or sign up with a streaming service like Deezer, Nugs.net, or Tidal that already has songs formatted to work with it.
The cups formed a comfortable seal and blocked out most sounds without the noise canceling turned on. With it on, this pair tuned out almost everything, creating blessed silence that we appreciated when we were trying to focus and noisy delivery trucks buzzed by out on the street. And the ambient mode was excellent at bringing in outside sound when we needed it.
Which brings us to the controls. The WH-1000XM3 only has two buttons, both on the left ear cup: one controls the power and Bluetooth pairing and the other switches between noise-canceling and ambient modes. We were able to control everything else—like pausing the music, skipping tracks, and turning the volume up and down—via touch controls on the right cup. These were pretty reliable, and the headphones beeped as confirmation that they registered our command—a nice touch (that the others didn’t have) that didn’t leave us wondering if the music was going to start playing again or not. Our favorite touch control was how, when we covered the right ear cup with our palm, the volume dropped and ambient mode kicked in, handy when we needed to hear something quickly or hold a short conversation without cycling through the modes with the button.
Connecting was simple, but for this price we wish the WH-1000XM3 could sync with more than one device at once like the Bose 700. (If you’re running low on battery or want to connect to the TV on a flight, these cans also come with a standard headphone cord.) The Sony Headphones Connect app is robust. We found it a bit overwhelming at points with all the settings to tweak and functions to customize, like taking pictures of our ears to fine tune the 360 Reality and how the headphones tune themselves to the atmospheric pressure. But those who like to take the wheel with their audio will appreciate being able to mess with the equalization profiles or set their own. And we were impressed with how the WH-1000XM3, with help from the app and our phone’s location, could tell when we were sitting or walking and automatically switch between noise-canceling and different levels of ambient modes depending on if we needed to hear our surroundings. (It can also tell when you’re running or using public transportation.)
For sheer audio chops and putting the controls at your fingertips, the WH-1000XM3 can’t be beat.
—GREAT ALL-AROUND EARBUDS—
LG Tone Free HBS-FL7
Noise Canceling: No | Battery Life: 21 hours (with charging case) | Controls: Touch | Voice Assistant: Google
LG’s little buds impressed us with their all-around capability. They look sleek and fit unobtrusively in our ears. LG calls it a “semi-open design,” and the comfort was good enough that we felt we could keep these in for long listening sessions without any pressure. The fit is reasonably snug, but the buds really rest in the ears and don’t form any kind of seal. (Though we took them running without them thumping around or jostling free, they’re better for more casual use.) Without that seal or any kind of noise canceling, the Tone Frees let in plenty of ambient sound. And while that lent us better awareness of our surroundings, the audio from the buds could be overpowered in particularly noisy settings or when we were walking along a busy street. But when there wasn’t much interference, the sound came through crisply, with plenty of variation and differentiation between tones and distinct sounds. Audio quality was similarly good when we took calls through the Tone Frees, with clear sound and the person on the other end having no trouble hearing us.
The Bluetooth connection and controls are solid as well. We never experienced any stuttering of the sound, and pairing was as simple as opening the charging case. The Tone Frees don’t have any buttons and, unlike some buds that try to pack too much functionality into too simple a design, there aren’t so many touch controls that they’re hard to remember. One tap on either bud pauses or resumes the music, two taps prompts Google Assistant to read new notifications, and three changes the EQ setting between normal, bass boost, flat, and treble boost (which you can also control through the app). Holding a finger on a bud activates Google Assistant for you to ask a question or enter a command. An additional function we would have liked is the ability to skip tracks. The pressure needed to activate the controls took a little getting used to; these LGs are sensitive, requiring less of a tap and more just a touch. We found it was often easier to just pull one bud out of an ear, which also pauses the music, if we needed uninterrupted hearing, then placing it back to resume listening.
Back to the app, it was serviceable but didn’t offer a ton of utility. Yes, you can cycle through the sound settings—which we didn’t think had much difference between them, though treble boost was pretty good for listening to podcasts. And if you misplace one of the earpieces, you can find it with help of the app, where tapping “Find my Earbud” will start the bud beeping. And they are tiny. Other than that, you can see the charge in each earbud, adjust the volume, and peruse the user guide.
Yes, these are expensive for a pair of earbuds without noise cancelation, but if you prize ease of use, solid sound, sleek looks, and lots of ambient noise, they could be worth the investment.
—BEST VALUE BUDS—
JLab Go Air
Noise Canceling: No | Battery Life: 20 hours | Controls: Touch | Voice Assistant: Google and Siri
The most striking thing about JLab’s Go Air is the price; 29 bucks is by far the cheapest of the models we tested. But after putting them through their paces, we were surprisingly pleased. Of course some significant tradeoffs come with earbuds this affordable, yet the bang for the buck is unmatched.
Connecting via Bluetooth was seamless and reliable, and pulling one bud out of the case let us use it alone if we wanted. When we did pull out the other, it joined in connecting to the phone or computer (with a slight delay), no fussing or tapping around in Bluetooth menus required. And there’s no noise cancelation, but the Go Airs formed a nice seal in our ears, providing some buffer against ambient sounds. Both buds work together with touch controls, like tapping on the right to raise the volume and the left to lower it. That leaves a lot of controls to remember, and the response was somewhat inconsistent if we didn’t tap relatively hard or one tap was slightly softer than the others. That said, we appreciated having everything at our fingertips. Unlike with the Tone Frees, pulling one Go Air out of our ear didn’t pause the music. Neither did dropping one of the earbuds into the case—the other kept playing.
Regarding the sound, JLab built in three different modes here: bass boost, balanced, and JLab Signature. We left the Go Airs on Signature most of the time, since it had the richest sound of the three, but bass boost did provide a satisfying bump in the lower tones when we wanted it. Still, sound was relatively flat compared to the other headphones, and the audio took on a tinny quality at higher volumes. On calls, the person we were talking to had no problem hearing us, but we had to crank the volume up to get their voice to a comfortable level.
The second most striking thing about the Go Airs is the case. It doesn’t have a lid. The buds are left exposed all the time, held in place solely by magnets. This had us concerned that they would be easy to lose, but the magnets are strong, and we had to shake the case as hard as we could before they flew out. We’re still wary about what would happen if you tossed the case in a gym bag or backpack and something else in there bumped up against a bud and nudged it out, but the Go Airs are recessed fairly deep and it would be little more than an inconvenience.
If you can get past the inconsistent touch response and weird case design or want a pair of earbuds to get the job done as you occasionally listen to music or a podcast, don’t overlook the Go Air. You’ll get a lot—EQ settings, a good fit, and OK sound—for the money.
Noise Canceling: Yes | Battery Life: 20 hours | Controls: Buttons and touch | Voice Assistant: Google, Amazon Alexa, and Siri
The closest contender to the Sony headphones, Bose’s 700 stand out for their ease of use and good looks. Like with the WH-1000XM3, we were able to use touch controls on the right ear cup, tapping, swiping, and holding down to change the volume, pause and resume music, skip tracks, answer calls, and check the battery level. There was no beep to confirm the headphones registered our commands, but the response was consistent and reliable. And we had to be deliberate; during our testing, they didn’t log commands if we accidentally brushed the right cup.
Avoiding unintentionally pressing the buttons was a different issue, though, as we picked up the 700 and switched them off by hitting the power button on the right cup at least once. (Here’s where we would have appreciated needing to hold the button to power the headphones instead of it immediately turning them on or off.) In addition to the power button, the voice assistant button lives on the right cup. On the left is the ANC button, and pressing it cycles through three preset levels of noise cancelation, which you customize in the accompanying app. You can go as high as 10 and as low as zero. Whether we need 10 different strengths of noise canceling remains to be seen, but the button is a quick way to adjust how much ambient noise you hear. And holding it turns on Conversation Mode, where the music pauses and noise canceling shuts off. Pressing and holding again returns to where you left off. It’s almost as quick as covering the right cup on the WH-1000XM3.
Sound and noise cancelation were great, second only to the Sony. During the Mad Max sequence, effects and reverberations were deep and rich. Vocals in songs were clear and distinct. And with noise cancelation on and music playing, our roommate moved around the apartment behind us without us even noticing or hearing a peep. On calls, we could hear the person on the other end clearly, but they reported that our voice sounded a bit muffled compared to the other headphones.
That said, the mobile app is simple, affording control over volume, noise cancelation levels and favorites, Bluetooth connection, and other settings like an auto-off timer. One frustration was that we needed to have the connected phone’s location turned on at first to get the app to discover the headphones were connected. (Once we were in, we could then turn location off.) Bose says this is so the app can use Bluetooth Low Energy, but since operating the headphones is so easy from the headset, we didn’t find ourselves needing to use the app that often and it didn’t noticeably affect battery life during our testing. The multi-point connection is nice, though, letting us keep the 700 connected to both our phone and laptop at the same time. Pairing was reliable and easy, and on startup, the headphones tell you the names of the devices it’s connected to and how much battery life is left in hours and minutes (a bit more helpful than a percentage). If you find yourself out of battery or on a flight looking to plug in, the 700 comes with a standard headphone cable.
House of Marley Redemption ANC
Noise Canceling: Yes | Battery Life: 20 hours (with charging case, and ANC on) | Controls: Touch | Voice Assistant: Google and Siri
Fitting right within House of Marley’s signature look, the Redemption ANCs have a classy bamboo finish on the outer edge of the buds. And they fit well; when we first put them into out ears, we were impressed with the seal they formed, almost to the point that we didn’t feel the need to turn noise canceling on. But the Redemptions do have it, and because of the naturally great fit, the difference between when it was on and when it was off wasn’t as stark as with some of the other models. And the sound was still excellent. The 8.6mm drivers pumped out good deep bass with clear separation between the different tones. And the ambient mode did a decent job of letting in outside noise and voices without diminishing the quality of the music or podcast we were listening to.
Like with many of the other earbuds, the Redemptions don’t have any buttons, and we paused and resumed music, cycled through noise-canceling and ambient modes, and activated the voice assistant by tapping on the sides. It seemed like we need to tap a bit harder on the Redemptions than on some of the other buds, and this led to some inconsistent response. There’s also no accompanying app, meaning that if the controls prove too frustrating, you have no other recourse for operating the headphones. Except for pulling a bud out of one ear, which, as with the Tone Free, paused the music.
Initially connecting the buds to our phone was easy, and they paired to each other without any extra work from us. There were some issues on subsequent attempts to pair the Redemptions, like the buds taking a long time to sync to each other. Placing calls through them worked well, but there were some weird audio effects: The person on the other end said that background noises were oddly amplified, and we could hear some feedback and static coming from their end. The effects persisted when we switched roles.
Still, the Redemptions are solid all-around earbuds, and worth considering for anyone looking for powerful sound and sustainable materials.
—BUDS WITH THE LONGEST BATTERY LIFE—
Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus
Noise Canceling: Yes | Battery Life: 40 hours | Controls: Buttons | Voice Assistant: Google and Siri
The most expensive buds we tested, the MW07 Plus needed to perform well to justify the $300 price tag. And they did. They have looks to rival the Redemptions and the longest playtime of any of the buds we tested, plus the fit was the most comfortable. That’s thanks to the wings Master & Dynamic includes that rest inside a ridge of our ear and, along with the tip options, kept the buds snug without any uncomfortable pressure. And there was no shifting or thumping as we walked to distract from the music.
A seemingly buy-down feature—and unique among the buds we tested—is the buttons; there’s no touch control on the MW07. But we appreciated having something that provided clearer tactile feedback when we pressed them to enter commands. This meant consistent results as we used the single button on the right bud and toggle on the left to cycle between noise-canceling and ambient modes, adjust the volume, activate voice assistants, and pair to new devices. The buttons are small, but because of the excellent fit of the earbuds that didn’t require us to jam them in our ears to keep them snug, they were easy to reach and operate.
Powerful for their size, the MW07 has 10mm drivers. We kept the volume at roughly 33 percent and could hear the distinct sounds well. (A small feature we appreciated was that the headphones talked over the music to tell us which mode we were entering, instead of muting it completely, so we didn’t miss anything.) The effects and separation during the Mad Max sequence were pretty good, the best of any earbuds we tested.
Master & Dynamic didn’t give the MW07 a companion app, but kudos for being the only company here to include full USB-C charging cables with its headphones. This means that charging off of many newer devices doesn’t require an adapter, whereas the other models only came with the more old school USB-A cords. And with 10 hours of playback in the buds and another three full charges in the case, these offer the longest listening time, matched only by the Life Q20.
—BEST VALUE OVER-EAR HEADPHONES—
Anker Soundcore Life Q20
Noise Canceling: Yes | Battery Life: 40 hours (with ANC on) | Controls: Buttons | Voice Assistant: Google and Siri
When using the $60 Life Q20, we kept expecting to hit their functionality ceiling, sure that Anker would have had to make some significant sacrifices to get the price that low. And don’t get us wrong, there are some. But these headphones surprised us again and again during testing as we discovered new features—ones we presumed to find only in the higher-end, pricier models.
Take the multi-point connection. We were able to pair the Life Q20 to both our phone and laptop at the same time, versatility only the Bose 700, which are six times as expensive, offered. However, we did notice some stuttering in the connection while watching Mad Max, and the headphones could lag a bit (as much as 10 seconds) when we switched playing audio from one device to playing it from another. But when the sound is coming through, the bass is great, so deep and immersive on normal mode that it sometimes overwhelmed everything else. Anker also gave the Life Q20 a BassUp mode, which made the lower tones more pronounced but mostly seemed to somewhat mute the other sounds. Overall audio quality wasn’t quite as good as the Bose or Sony. And though we got the full effect during Mad Max, we had to turn the volume very high, while the other two over-ear headphones produced rich sound without getting near their total output. The noise canceling wasn’t as powerful either, letting more outside sound in than the others.
On calls, the sound of our voice seemed lower to the person on the other end, as did theirs. But there was no weird feedback or amplified background noise. Forty hours of battery life (at 60 percent volume, but with ANC on) is impressive, as is 60 hours with ANC off. And unless the noise canceling is on, the headphones will automatically shut off after two minutes of no Bluetooth connection.
Controls are all via buttons, which felt a little cheap and could fail to register our presses if we were too quick. But the Life Q20 are an excellent deal. You’re sacrificing some noise-canceling prowess, build quality, and a smidge of overall sound, but you would be hard pressed to find another pair of cans with this feature set that works so well.
For the Gym and Working Out
—BEST FOR RUNNING—
Jabra Elite Active 75t
Battery Life: 7.5 hours (28 with charging case) | Ambient Mode: Yes | IP Rating: IP57
Jabra nailed the shape on the Elite Active 75t—these truly wireless buds fit test manager Dan Roe better than any others he’s tried. Credit that to the angular build that nests snugly in the outer ear canal, without giving you that tightly sealed, high-pressure “thud” with each foot strike. The sound quality is crisp, dynamic, and full, rivaling Apple’s AirPods Pro—but these Jabras will cost you less and offer about 90 more minutes of battery on a single charge. (However, the hear-through mode isn’t quite as impressive.) For dust and water protection, they’re rated IP57, meaning they should withstand a sandstorm or a monsoon; that’s especially good news for Roe, who killed a pair of AirPods in six short months with his sweaty ears. Competing earbuds from Apple, Bose, Jaybird, and others may offer even better sound or superior comfort or exceptional ambient awareness modes, but none do all of those things better than the 75t.
Anker Soundcore Spirit SweatGuard
Battery Life: 8 hours | Ambient Mode: No | IP Rating: IPX7
Assistant digital editor Jessica Coulon has been using the Anker Spirit SweatGuard for the past eight months, and the $33 buds haven’t ceased to impress. The sound quality is better than you get from a cheap pair of wired Skullcandy headphones, Coulon says, although the SweatGuard could use a bit more bass. The earbuds stay in place, thanks to four included ear tip sizes and two wing sizes, and the connecting cord wasn’t distracting, save the occasional snag. The metrics are impressive, too: An IPX7 waterproof rating and eight-hour battery life rival earbuds at the $100 level. The quality and lack of ambient sound leave something to be desired but, for $33, there’s a lot to like about this offering from Anker.
—BEST TRUE WIRELESS WITH HOOKS—
Beats Powerbeats Pro
Battery Life: 9 hours (24 with charging case) | Ambient Mode: No | IP Rating: IPX4
The Powerbeats Pro is the complete package—both well-rounded as wireless sport headphones and literally a large box that contains the earbuds and an additional 15 hours of juice. Not that you’re likely to need it; the buds last for nine hours on a single charge. “The sound you get from the Powerbeats Pro is really expansive,” said senior test editor Jeff Dengate in his full review. “Every song sounds like you’re listening in a larger room, with speakers positioned away from you.” Ambient noise starts out minimal but increases as sweat causes the earbuds to lose some of their seal. The music gets a little hollower, but the awareness means you’ll pick up loud environmental noises like sirens and horns. Bluetooth pairing is immediate with an iPhone, and a five-minute quick charge delivers 90 worth of playback. The Powerbeats are rated IPX4 so they’ll withstand a rainstorm (but not submersion), and despite their large size, the buds keep a low enough profile to be comfortable with a hat and sunglasses.
—MOST AMBIENT SOUND—
Aftershokz Trekz Air
Battery Life: 6 hours | Ambient Mode: No | IP Rating: IP55
For road runners who aren’t comfortable jamming an earbud in as cars whiz past, there’s the Trekz Air. These headphones use bone conduction technology to transfer sound through your cheekbones, leaving your ears open to hear potential hazards before they sneak up on you. Compared to in-ear designs from Jaybird and Bose, the sound is “admittedly thinner and quieter, but I find it totally suitable for the occasion,” Dengate wrote in his full review. The headband is lighter and slimmer than the previous model, which allows you to wear sunglasses with the headphones. A six-hour battery life and a sweat-resistant IP55 rating puts the Trekz Air on par with truly wireless buds of a similar price—you’re losing an in-ear headphone’s full sound but gaining total awareness.
—BEST SOUND FOR THE MONEY—
JBL Reflect Mini 2
Battery Life: 10 hours | Ambient Mode: No | IP Rating: IPX5
The JBL Reflect Mini 2 also isn’t the newest pair of headphones, but a price drop to $60 (down from $100) makes them an attractive value proposition. And there’s a lot more to like than the reasonable price: The buds form a tight seal in your ears and don’t move after you’ve started to trot. The downside for outdoor runners is the lack of ambient sound, which also isolates your tunes from the outside world. Image editor Jimmy Cavalieri also used them while mowing his lawn. “Although I could still hear my lawnmower, the earbuds blocked out enough engine noise that the quality of the audio still sounded good without having to max out the volume,” he said. “The sound quality was clear enough that if you concentrate and really listen to the music, you can identify each instrument.” The connecting wire between the buds is lightweight and hardly noticeable mid-run, and the Reflect Mini 2 connected via Bluetooth fast and stayed connected up to 100 feet away. The earbuds also sport reflective cables for nighttime visibility, an IPX5 water-resistant rating, and an impressive 10 hours of battery life.
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