Once an expensive convenience reserved only for premium headphones, completely wire-free options are now the norm. If you haven’t already, now’s a great time to upgrade, because the headphone jack is disappearing from more and more devices, and it’s not ever coming back. How you plan to use your headphones will determine which option is best for you, and we’ll help you find the model that best suits your needs.
Whether you’re looking for an amazing listening experience for your music, a way to shut out the world around you for some peace and quiet, or a much-needed distraction while out for a long run, there’s a pair of wireless headphones for every preference, need, and budget.
Buying forecast for holiday 2021: The ongoing pandemic continues to be a challenge for electronics makers, with chip shortages threatening to make it even harder for companies to get new products out the door. But despite the challenges of the past year, there’s been no shortage of new headphone debuts, including the arrival of Apple’s over-ear AirPods Max, a new version of Sony’s amazing noise-cancelling earbuds in the impressive WF-1000XM4s, cheaper alternatives to the AirPods with Beats Studio Buds, and surprisingly solid wireless buds for less than $100 with the Google Pixel Buds A-series.
But that’s not all: Both AirPods and AirPods Pro are a few years old now, and rumors strongly point to Apple also releasing new versions sometime this year. By the time you get around to getting your holiday shopping done, there should be plenty of new reasons to upgrade.
You spend a lot of time on airplanes, working in coffee shops and open-plan offices, or commuting to and from work on noisy public transit. You’re after a little more peace and quiet and a way to enjoy your music or podcasts while you feel like you’re in your own little world.
Our Pick: Apple AirPods Max ($473)
Apple’s over-ear headphones are polarizing. The $473 AirPods Max are extremely expensive compared to the competition. And the design is a little weird—the earcups are heavy, and the smart case, which puts the headphones into an ultra-low-power mode, exposes the headband and earcups to the elements. But the audio and integration with your Apple devices are so good that those drawbacks fly out the window. The ANC is just as good if not better than Sony’s latest, and built-in sensors enable dynamic head-tracking for a feature Apple calls Spatial Audio. That enables you to listen to Dolby Atmos content is if it were coming in via a surround-sound system. It’s pretty incredible. The AirPods Max can also seamlessly switch between your Apple devices, and they know where sound is coming from even if you’re using both. If you have the cash, these are worth the splurge.
A lot of the benefits and features of the AirPods Max are exclusive to devices in the Apple ecosystem. If you’re looking for a headphone alternative that’s more device-agnostic while providing equally excellent noise-canceling performance and functionality, the Sony WH-1000XM4 continue to impress.
The WH-1000XM4s are also lighter than the AirPods Max, can connect to two devices at the same time and will automatically switch to the one that needs your attention most, and they offer an ambient sound-boosting mode that will switch on whenever you start talking, so you can enjoy a conversation without having to take them off. At $350, Sony’s latest and greatest are also $200 cheaper than Apple’s wireless headphones. If you’d rather go with the company that’s been doing noise-canceling headphones longer than anyone, the Bose 700 remain a solid choice with a stylish design and excellent ANC performance. You won’t be getting quite the same sound quality as you do with Sony and Apple’s offerings, but given they’re now almost two years old, they’ve seen a price drop to $300.
You spend a lot of time on airplanes, working in coffee shops and open-plan offices, or commuting to and from work on noisy public transit, but don’t want to have to carry a big set of over-ear headphones everywhere you go, and definitely don’t want to have to wear them most of the day. You’re looking for a less conspicuous way to shush the world, and a noise-canceling device you can easily slip into a pocket.
Sony was the first company to introduce genuinely effective active noise cancellation on wireless earbuds that were truly devoid of wires, and the company’s recent WF-1000XM4s continue to prove that no one does tiny ANC earbuds as effectively as Sony. Thanks to the inclusion of memory foam ear tips instead of silicone, the earbuds do an astoundingly good job at blocking and eliminating unwanted sounds, while also improving how well the WF-1000XM4s actually stay in your ears.
If there’s one thing that Sony struggles with, it’s making tiny ANC earbuds. The WF-1000XM4s aren’t monstrous, but if you’re willing to drop an extra $20, the $300 Master & Dynamic MW08 True Wireless Earbuds are a close second to Sony’s latest and greatest.
The noise cancellation on the MW08s is equally impressive, while the buds are smaller and feel much more comfortable in the ear, despite including 11-millimeter drivers that make your music sound even better than Sony’s do. They also offering a staggering 42 hours of battery life when paired with their charging case, while Sony’s top out at around 24 hours instead.
If you’re all in on Apple, the $250 AirPods Pro, despite being almost two years old at this point, remain an excellent option for noise-canceling buds. Pairing them to your iOS devices is effortless, they’re lightweight and comfortable to wear, and you still won’t find a smaller and more pocket-friendly charging case. Alternatively, if you’re invested in Samsung’s Galaxy ecosystem or have an Android phone, the $200 Galaxy Buds Pro are very much a worthy rival to Apple’s AirPods Pro, boasting active noise cancellation, an ambient noise mode, and a compact design for $50 less.
The $230 Jabra Elite 85t are also an excellent option, and while not cheap, are our most affordable recommendation that still offers effective ANC, an adjustable EQ, multi-device connectivity, and a very natural-sounding transparency mode.
You’re excited to rid yourself of the inconvenient tether between your headphones and mobile device, but without breaking the bank on a tiny pair of electronics that can be easily lost.
Our Pick: Beats Flex ($50)
If you want a pair of earbuds that aren’t exactly wireless—either because you don’t want to spend the money or because you prefer a pair that offers more stability for your workouts—then Apple’s Beats brand has a near-perfect pair. The Beats Flex are lightweight with solid audio quality for the price, plus the seamless iPhone integration we’ve come to expect from Beats earbuds.
If you’re looking for capable active noise-canceling earbuds on a budget, the $150 Beats Studio Buds delivers another seamless iOS pairing experience, with the added bonus of equally excellent compatibility with Android devices.
The Beats Studio Buds are also small—much smaller than the Powerbeats Pro—and offer a comfortable fit without sacrificing battery life or noise-canceling capabilities which often require undesirable added bulk to accommodate additional microphones in each ear. At $120 (or $140 with a highly recommended wireless charging case) the Amazon Echo Buds (Gen 2) offer solid active noise-canceling at the cheapest price point yet, with an unobtrusive design and easy access to the Alexa smart assistant.
Apple’s original $160 AirPods remain a solid option if you’re completely bought into the Apple hardware ecosystem, but five years after their debut it’s expected that Apple is going to upgrade them sometime before the year is out. But if you’re genuinely worried about losing a pair of even $50 headphones, and want to spend the absolute bare minimum on a pair of truly wireless earbuds that won’t punish your ears, the $20 Skullcandy Dime earbuds deliver very decent sound given the price—just don’t expect much else. There’s no active noise cancellation, and the built-in mic quality is not great, so keep that in mind if making calls is important to you.
And while their battery life could be better, Google’s Pixel Buds Series-A for those in the Android camp deliver great value for the money, a super simple design, and are some of the most comfortable earbuds we’ve ever tested—all for just $100.
You like going to the gym, where you tend to sweat—and sweat tends not to agree with electronics. What to do?
Our Pick: Jabra Elite Active 75t ($180)
The sweat-resistant model of the last-gen version of Jabra’s all-around amazing wireless earbuds are now cheaper than ever, and with a software upgrade, they even offer a digital version of active noise cancellation that is almost as good as the one offered by the ANC Elite 85t. They also fit better than the 85t do, and have a higher IPX rating to withstand sweat and water while you work out. Jabra’s HearThrough feature lets you filter in ambient noise on the go, which you can toggle on in Jabra’s app or by pressing the left earbud while you run. With a customizable equalizer that lets you personalize the audio to your preferences, Jabra’s workout earbuds are the best you can buy.
The $250 Powerbeats Pro sport a unique design compared to most Bluetooth earbuds, with ear hooks that ensure the buds stay put while doing high-impact exercise. The fit is definitely comfortable, but you won’t get a tight seal, which means there’s no noise cancellation (if that’s important to you). The charging case is also absolutely ginormous—good luck fitting it in any type of pocket. But with Apple’s H1 chip making iOS integration seamless, and the sound and stable fit making intense workouts easier to get through, Powerbeats Pro are A+. For a more durable alternative, the $180 Jaybird Vista 2 is a solid option for klutzes and outdoors enthusiasts alike. In our testing, the Vista 2 survived a cat, sweaty workouts, and a thunderstorm thanks to its IP68 rating and military-grade materials. Just don’t expect crystal clear audio quality. It’ll do for workouts but its ANC isn’t quite up to par as other buds.
You need music to help you power through a workout, and headphones that can survive an onslaught of sweat, but you struggle to keep tiny earbuds actually in your ears while you’re pounding the pavement, and want headphones that will securely stay clamped onto your head.
Our Pick: Skullcandy Crusher Evo ($150)
The Skullcandy Crusher Evo were not only the most comfortable headphones we tested when trying to find the best workout headphones, they also boasted the longest battery life, pumping out tunes for an impressive 40 hours before needing a charge. They also featured the best design amongst the headphones we tested, with an easy to reach power button, and volume buttons that were easy to distinguish while doubling as playback shortcuts, even while bouncing around during a jog or a run.
6/25/21: Completed a full revamp of the best wireless headphones list with a number of updated picks and info.
3/15/19: Added the Samsung Galaxy buds to “Also consider” for truly wireless earbuds.
8/20/19: Added the Jaybird Vista wireless earbuds as “The best athletic earbuds” and added “Buying Forecast for Summer/Fall 2019.”
11/25/19: Added the Jabra Elite 75t as “Best truly wireless earbuds” and added the PowerBeats Pro to “The best athletic earbuds.” Added the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless to “The most superb sound” and added the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 and PX5 to “Also consider” for best sound. Updated “Buying Forecast for Winter 2019.”
4/2/20: Added Jabra’s Elite Active 75t as “The best athletic earbuds,” Powerbeats 4 as “The best not quite wireless wireless earbuds,” and Samsung’s Galaxy Buds+ to “The best wireless earbuds.” We also updated the 2020 buying forecast.
8/7/20: Added Sony’s WH-1000XM4 as “The best noise canceling headphones” and updated the buying forecast for fall 2020.
11/30/2020: Added Jabra’s Elite 85t as “The best wireless earbuds” and the $50 Beats Flex as “The best cheap not quite wireless wireless earbuds.” We also updated the holiday buying forecast.