Big on-ear and over-ear headphones look, feel, and sound great, 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 when your workout (or yard work) gets tough. Whether you’re a commuter or simply an all-around active person, in-ear headphones are a must-have for keeping the soundtrack going no matter what gets in your way.
We’re not talking about those muffled, Stormtrooper-colored Apple EarPods (or whatever came with your new smartphone), or even the fancier AirPods. You deserve better. Something with quality performance, stability, and maybe a bit of individual style. As such, we collected 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 dent your budget. There’s no doubt that any of these earphones will make you a happy camper next time you hit the road.
At a glance
|1More Triple Drivers||Best overall||Not yet rated|
|Jabra Elite Active 65T||Best fully wireless earbuds||4.5 out of 5|
|Jaybird X3 Sport||Best banded wireless earbuds||4 out of 5|
|Jabra Elite Sport||Best fitness tracking earbuds||4 out of 5|
|Audiofly AF180||Best earbuds for audiophiles||4.5 out of 5|
|Bose QuietComfort 20||Best noise-canceling earbuds||4 out of 5|
|Shure SE112M+||Best iPhone EarPod alternatives||4 out of 5|
|Nuheara IQbuds||Best “hearable”||4.5 out of 5|
|Westone W40||Best rugged, tough earbuds||4.5 out of 5|
1More Triple Drivers
Why you should buy them: They’re a sweet mix of style, performance, and shocking affordability.
Who they’re for: The discerning listener who craves quality, but hasn’t yet landed that corner office
How much they cost: $92 to $150
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 RMs or the UE18+, or even Shure’s mind-blowing electrostatic KSE1500, but at $1,000 to $3,000 apiece, 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 Driver headphones. 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 dynamic driver for the bass and a balanced armature driver for both the 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? How about a Lightning version?
Our 1More Triple Drivers video review
Jabra Elite Active 65t
The best fully wireless earbuds
Why you should buy them: You’re on the hunt for the best-sounding, most comfortable, and most life-proof true wireless earbuds.
Who they’re for: People who want total wireless autonomy on a budget, without sacrificing battery life or audio quality.
How much they cost: $190
Why we picked the Jabra Elite Active 65t:
Jabra’s Elite Active 65t may look like miniature versions of the Bluetooth headsets that helped put the brand on the map more than a decade ago, but don’t be fooled by the aesthetic. With solid battery life, great sound quality, and an IP56 waterproof rating, these little guys best Apple’s industry-leading AirPods as our favorite fully wireless headphones.
The Elite Active 65t feature an ergonomic design, with three different sets of eartips to guarantee a good seal. The excellent passive noise isolation means you get the most out of every note, and you can also lower the volume for less ear strain. Overall sound quality is good, coming through clear and balanced, with punchy bass response and a very dynamic treble register.
The Elite Active 65t offer five hours of battery life per charge — matching the AirPods and ranking among the best you’ll find at present — and the included charging case adds two refills before you need to find a Micro USB cable. That’s not as much as Apple’s buds, but it’s enough for the majority of use cases. The 65T also match many of the best features we’ve seen from other fully wireless models. Jabra’s Sound+ app lets you adjust settings like equalization, as well as allows you to use either your phone’s built-in smart assistant (Siri on iOS, Google Assistant on Android) or Amazon Alexa to respond to queries. Sensors built into the headphones can be set to play and pause music when you remove the buds, and the Elite 65t can even pipe in different levels of ambient sound, great for hearing cars on the road if you’re a cyclist, or announcements on the train or at the airport while you travel.
The IP56 rating means they are safe around high-pressure water jets and protected from limited dust ingress — and that you won’t have to worry about them while you sweat or run in the rain, adding to the overall conveniences of the headphones. All in all, it’s a great package at a great price.
Our full Jabra Elite Active 65T review
Jaybird X3 Sport
The best banded wireless earbuds
Why you should buy them: Comfort, versatility, and affordability make the Jaybird X3 our favorite banded wireless earbuds.
Who they’re for: Those looking to cut the cord without sacrificing battery life, sound quality, or functionality.
How much they cost: $100 to $130
Why we chose the Jaybird X3 Sport:
The third entry in Jaybird’s X Sport series improves 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 earfins, 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 earpiece deliver resonant, impactful audio quality with an impressive soundstage. Jaybird also offers a companion app that allows you to create custom audio equalizers, perfect for those of us who bounce around between genres. 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 sport-tracking features, the Jaybird X3 are an excellent and well-rounded pair of earbuds that get the job done (and done well) in virtually any scenario.
Our full Jaybird X3 Sport review
Jabra Elite Sport
The best fitness-tracking earbuds
Why you should buy them: They have no wires, great sound quality, and offer heart rate tracking.
Who they’re for: Those looking for a solid mix of fitness features and good sound for an affordable price.
How much they cost: $160 to $220
Why we picked the Jabra Elite Sport:
Though we still prefer wired sound in the vast majority of instances, one place where wireless headphones have a clear advantage is during workouts. That’s the time when any kind of cable — even the slim behind-the-head wires of many banded wireless headphones — has a knack for getting in the way
As such, our pick for the best workout headphone is the fully wireless Jabra Elite Sport. Based on Jabra’s Sport Pulse Special Edition, the headphones boast an embedded heart rate sensor in the left earpiece, as well as an IP67 rating that means they can be submerged in 3.3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. That means they can handle long runs on the hottest summer days, and even a short dip in the lap pool. Plus, they can be easily rinsed off after your grossest workouts.
The Elite Sport battery offers 4.5 hours of playback per charge, which is enough juice to last through just about every workout experience except a marathon, and an included charging case adds two extra charges to keep them at the ready in your gym bag. Jabra’s Sport Life app is the brains behind many of the headphones’ workout functions, and features activity tracking and voice prompts to go along with heart rate readings during your workouts.
The sound quality is solid, with a punchy bass response and tight treble that brings a good amount of clarity to your favorite inspirational tunes. Sure, the Elite Sport won’t offer the same vivid sound signature as more affordable wired in-ears like the V-Moda Forza, but the convenience of wireless audio should make up for the price difference.
Our full Jabra Elite Sport review
The best earbuds for audiophiles
Why you should buy them: Gorgeous design, top musicality
Who they’re for: Those looking for spectacular fidelity in a beautiful package.
How much they cost: $500 to $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 sometimes associated with balanced armatures, yet still deliver glorious detail and brilliant dynamic expression. The AF180’s glossy wraparound 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 soundstage make them as apt at reproducing Radiohead as Ray LaMontagne.
Few earbuds sound this good, and there are none we can find that come any cheaper than these.
Our full Audiofly AF180 review
Bose QuietComfort 20
The best noise-canceling earbuds
Why you should buy them: Comfort, solid sound quality, and the best noise-cancellation tech on the market.
Who they’re for: Those looking for the lowest-profile way to block out the outside world.
How much they cost: $250 to $300
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 in dense plastic and dimpled with silver accents, these 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 and replace it with 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 eartips 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.
Our full Bose QuietComfort 20 review
The best iPhone EarPod alternatives
Why you should buy them: Excellent sound and iOS functionality for a very low price.
Who they’re for: Those looking to trade out their muddy white factory earpods for something with better sound.
How much they cost: $50 to $60
Why we picked the Shure SE112m+:
It’s fantastic that Apple includes earbuds with every iPhone, but if you really crave 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 soundstage 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 the sound quality is far 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, and although the upper register can come off as a tad snappy at times, we adamantly prefer them 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 — or run.
Note to owners of iPhone 7 or newer: If you’re looking for Lightning earbuds, we suggest getting the Lightning version of the Triple Driver noted above, or simply going for one the wireless options on this list or those on our thorough Best Wireless Headphones list.
Our full Shure SE112m+ review
The best ‘hearable’
Why you should buy them: You’re looking to take control of the sound around you.
Who they’re for: People with moderate hearing impairment who still want to enjoy the wide world of sound.
How much 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 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’ now-defunct Here One.
Because the IQbuds do run about twice the price of many traditional fully wireless earbuds, they won’t be for everyone. For those with moderate hearing loss who want to hear music and the world anew, however, these could be a must-have, and stand as a shining example of the future of wireless in-ear headphone technology.
Our full Nuheara IQbuds review
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 they’re for: Those looking for excellent sound in a near-indestructible package
How much they cost: $400 to $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 (shown 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 aimed at 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.
Our full Westone W40 review
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 a 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.
- Soundstage: 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.