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Whether you’re listening to music, watching videos, or actually talking, your phone has become an indispensable part of modern life. Earbuds are one of the most popular ways to facilitate our ever-connected lives. They’re highly portable for the time you spend in public, yet give you a small oasis of privacy, providing an excellent way to catch your favorite podcast, enjoy your music, or listen to an audiobook while you go about your day. There are a lot of earbuds out there in different colors and designs, and finding the right pair can seem like a daunting task.
That’s where we come in. Here at BestReviews, we strive to provide honest, unbiased reviews. We test products, consult experts, and read through consumer feedback so you don’t have to. Every product we test is purchased off the shelves, from the same stores where you shop. We do not accept free samples from manufacturers, so we can give you objective opinions. Be sure to check out our top five earbud picks, above. We’ve also provided you with a shopping guide to help you decide which features are most important.
Before we jump into the different types of earbuds, it’s worth taking a moment to go into the earbuds versus in-ear headphone debate.
At BestReviews, we put earbuds and in-ear headphones into the same category, though some people do make a distinction between the two.
Earbuds don’t technically enter the ear canal; they rest outside it on the outer ear. In-ear headphones block sound by entering the outer portion of the ear canal.
We categorize both as earbuds for the purposes of this shopping guide.
Earbuds with a collar prevent tangled cords, and store the earbuds when not in use. The collar also holds the battery and other necessary electronics, so the earbuds themselves are smaller and lightweight.
Corded earbuds have a cord connecting the earbuds directly to the device producing the sound.
Corded models tend to have better sound quality, but can get tangled and limit mobility.
Wireless earbuds usually use Bluetooth to connect to a TV, smartphone, laptop, or other device. They offer the most head mobility, but sometimes the sound quality can suffer.
Some users have found that wireless earbuds lose volume and become muffled the further from the sound source you travel.
Using earbuds at high volumes can cause hearing damage. Music should never be played at more than 85 decibels.
Comfort is a big issue with earbuds. Some people find them uncomfortable to wear for even short periods of time, while others don’t have trouble with them at all. It’s best to look for a pair that comes with variable ear pads or canal tips. Preferably, a pair that has one size larger and one size smaller than the installed pads. That way, if one ear is a different size than the other, you have options to tailor the fit.
Round earbuds that sit outside the ear canal do not offer much, if any, noise canceling features. In-ear headphones sometimes offer some noise cancellation. Noise can be reduced by creating a tight fit in the ear canal, blocking unwanted sound. More expensive models use counter frequencies to reduce outside noise. Some models allow you to turn off noise canceling features, but still listen to music if you want to.
Noise reduction usually means a tighter fit in the ear canal to block out noise. Noise cancellation features involve tiny microphones that detect specific frequencies, which they cancel out by emitting out-of-phase frequencies.
Some of the more expensive earbuds come with a contoured collar that wraps around the back of the neck. The collar can be used to control all the earbud functions, including volume, track changes, and balance. They resist movement and give you control of sound without using a smartphone, laptop, or another device.
Corded earbuds may have a few on-cord controls, such as volume and microphone adjustment. A microphone on the cord allows you to talk on the phone hands-free.
Wireless earbuds most often use Bluetooth to connect to a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or TV. Without cords to tangle, they provide great mobility. If you buy wireless earbuds, check that they are compatible with the device with which you want to connect them.
Bluetooth-capable earbuds can have a range of up to 30 feet. In an office environment, that lets you move around and get work done without having to take off your earbuds. At home, you can do housework or study without being tethered to your device.
Y-Exit cords are what you might consider the standard cord design; a wire exits each earbud, and the two wires come together to connect to your device.
Asymmetric cords are a bit lower profile. A wire is attached to one earbud, comes around the back of the neck to the other bud, then over the shoulder, to connect to your device. This arrangement works for those who don’t like a cord dangling down the front of the neck.
Some wireless earbuds come with a remote control that allows you to control volume or change tracks while away from your device.
For less than $15, you can find corded earbuds with a few extra features, like noise reduction and on-cord microphones. The sound quality and durability tend to suffer at this range.
From $20 to $50 are earbuds made of more expensive materials like wood and metal. Some have special features, including bass enhancement, extended battery times for wireless models, and noise reduction.
Earbud tips can be made from foam, rubber, or silicone.
In the $50 to $100 range, you’ll see more wireless earbuds with more impressive noise reduction, and some true noise cancellation features. There are also earbuds with collars that include microphones for phone calls.
At $100 to $200 are custom-fit, corded and wireless options with HD sound. Many are water- and sweat-proof. Some of the wireless models are small enough to be nearly undetectable, while others are designed with a extra bars for a secure fit.
Earbuds can be cleaned by dry brushing to remove any built-up earwax. If there is still debris, you can use a small amount of rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab to clean the rest.
With so many earphone options, you may wonder if earbuds are right for you when some features like noise isolation are easier to achieve in an over-ear model.
Earbuds are lightweight and compact. You can throw them in a carry-on or backpack without taking up much space. If you use public transportation for work, you can use them to watch streaming video or listen to an audiobook during your commute.
Nathaniel Baldwin manufactured the first modern headphones in his kitchen. He sold them to the U.S. Navy.
Listening to music can make your gym time fly by. Some earbuds have special tips or bands that help them stay secure during rigorous exercise. For those who run outside, there are many earbuds that allow some noise through, so you can still be aware of your surroundings while running.
Many high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools require earbuds for test taking and quizzes. They’re small enough to fit in a backpack and aren’t as easily damaged as earphones.
Q. I want to use earbuds to talk on my phone hands-free. What kind of features do I need?
A. Earbuds with controls on the cord give quick access to volume and answering features. If you spend a lot of time on the phone, you may want to consider a wireless pair of earbuds, so you aren’t tethered to your device while you talk. Bluetooth-capable wireless earbuds have to be controlled with either your device or a remote control.
Q. Do I really need noise reduction if I only use my earbuds at home?
A. Probably not, unless you have a noisy home environment. It also depends on how sensitive you are to outside sounds. For those who need or want to block out their environment, say on a commute to and from work, noise reduction or cancellation features would make a big difference. For the ultimate in noise control, look for cancellation features that emit frequencies to block out extraneous noise. This type of control can be disorienting at first, but offers the best noise control.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.