Woman in bed trying to sleep

The Best Earbuds for Sleeping in 2021

By Dave Dean Sound7 Comments

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From noisy neighbors and snoring partners to rumbling traffic and all-night parties, the list of things that can stand between you and a good night’s sleep seems almost endless. Especially when you’re lying awake at 3am listening to them.

I suffered from insomnia for years, falling asleep only to wake up an hour later to the slightest noise. A passing car or distant conversation would jolt me awake, and I’d stay that way for the rest of the night. Things have got much better in that regard, but I’m still a light sleeper even now.

As a result, when it comes to ways of keeping sound out of my ears while sleeping, I’ve used pretty much every approach out there. Foam, silicone, and other types of earplugs, earbuds in many different shapes and sizes, white noise machines, cotton wool, even several pillows pulled forlornly over my head in one particularly loud and miserable hotel.

None have been perfect, but in general, I’ve found certain makes and model of earbuds better than the alternatives. Note that I’m using “earbuds” in a generic sense here, to cover traditional in-ear buds, flat over-ear versions, and anything similar that pushes sounds or silence into your ear canals while you’re desperately trying to get some rest.

What I’m not including in that definition, however, is headphones. I’ve tried sleeping while wearing a variety of brands and models over the years, and because I lie on my front with one ear on the pillow, none were small or comfortable enough for anything beyond a quick nap.

That said, headphones offer the best noise cancelation that money can buy, and can still be useful in certain situations. If you lie on your back and don’t move all night, for instance, or want something that’ll help you sleep while sitting upright on planes, headphones may still work for you.

If so, the high-end noise cancelation of the Sony WH-1000XM4 or Bose 700 will eliminate all but the noisest neighbors or loudest snorers, and the pads are comfortable enough not to pinch or squash your ears when worn for hours.

If you sleep on your front or side or move around while you sleep, however, earbuds or thin earphones are the way to go. These are the best of them in 2021.

Best Overall: QuietOn 3
  • Type: Wireless earbuds
  • Battery Life: Up to 28 hours
  • Connection: None
  • Noise-Canceling? Yes

Best Bluetooth Headband: SleepPhones
  • Type: Wireless headband
  • Battery Life: Up to 12 hours
  • Connection: Bluetooth
  • Noise-Canceling? No

Best Wired Headband: CozyPhones
  • Type: Wired headband
  • Battery Life: n/a
  • Connection: 3.5mm
  • Noise-Canceling? No

Best on a Budget: Panasonic RP-HS46
  • Type: Wired earphones
  • Battery Life: n/a
  • Connection: 3.5mm
  • Noise-Canceling? No

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Best Wireless Earbuds: Apple Airpods Pro
  • Type: Wireless earbuds
  • Battery Life: Up to 5 hours
  • Connection: Bluetooth
  • Noise-Canceling? Yes

Best Overall: QuietOn 3

QuietOn 3 case and buds on bed

QuietOn is one of the few technology companies out there fully focused on the sleep-deprived. Its noise-canceling earbuds don’t play music or podcasts, or connect to your other devices at all. They just cut out the noise to help you get a better night’s sleep, and do so surprisingly well.

Extremely small and lightweight, these are deceptively simple devices. The smarts are inside, with noise-canceling technology that does a good job of suppressing lower-frequency sounds like snoring and rumbling traffic. It’s important to get the fit right to maximize the effectiveness, though, and there are four earbud tips for that purpose.

I reviewed the QuietOn 3 buds for a few weeks, and found they were more comfortable than other earbuds I’ve used, and most earplugs as well. Even so, when sleeping on my front or side, it could be difficult to position my “lower” ear in a way where it stayed comfortable all night as I moved around. It’s less of a problem than with other in-ear buds, though, and if you sleep on your back, that concern disappears.

What surprised me while and after writing that review, though, was how effective the QuietOn 3’s are with just one earbud inserted. When I’m woken up at night by loud traffic or noisy conversations on the street outside, I’ll pop in one of the earbuds, put my other ear on the pillow, and drift back to sleep straight away.

As I say in the review, the QuietOn 3 earbuds may not be the perfect solution for everyone, but the small size, long battery life, and effective noise reduction makes them a good choice for many. They’re the best way I’ve found of drowning out the world while sleeping, and are our top overall pick as a result. You’ll get 10% off with the code TMA10.

Quick update: it looks like QuietOn is running a Black Friday special that’s live now, and gives close to 20% off the standard price. The above coupon code should give a further 10% discount as well.

Best Bluetooth Headband: SleepPhones

New SleepPhones Wireless Sleep Headphones by AcousticSheep | Bluetooth Headband Headphones for Sleeping & Travel | Original and Most Comfortable Sleeping Headphones (Medium, Soft Gray (Fleece))

If you’re wanting to drift off to music, white noise, or something else without disturbing other people, you’ve got two basic choices: something with wires, and something without. There are pros and cons to both: wired versions are cheaper and won’t run out of battery, wireless ones won’t strangle you in the night.

The SleepPhones, made by the delightfully-named Acoustic Sheep, offers both options. One of the pioneers of headbands that help you sleep, the basic approach is similar regardless of which version you get. A fitted headband holds a pair of flat speakers, which can be moved around to align with your ears as needed.

Headbands like these are typically the most comfortable option for people who sleep on their side or front, and you can also pull them down over your eyes to block out the light in bright rooms. SleepPhones come in a choice of two fabrics (fleece for comfort, moisture-wicking for hot climates,) three sizes, and a range of colors.

The Bluetooth module also sits inside the headband, and has a battery life of up to 12 hours. To charge, you either remove it from the band and connect it to a USB charger, or buy the Effortless version with a wireless charger and just place it on top.

I reviewed the wired version of the SleepPhones a few years ago, and passed them onto my girlfriend when I was done. She got a lot of use out of them, at least until the cable broke after a year or so of tossing and turning in her sleep. If you move around a lot in bed, wireless is the way to go.

Don’t expect exceptional audio quality: the small flat speakers are designed for comfort over crisp midrange or booming bass. The goal is helping you sleep, after all, not appreciating the nuances of Handel’s Messiah.

There also isn’t much in the way of noise isolation, so you’ll struggle to drown out very loud environments without turning up the volume so high that it’ll keep you awake anyway. In quieter rooms, however, there’s no such problem.

Easy to use and comfortable to wear, the SleepPhone Bluetooth headband is probably the most practical sleep “earbud” option for the widest range of insomniacs.

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Best Wired Headband: CozyPhones

CozyPhones Over The Ear Headband Headphones - Sleep Headphones - New Contour Series with Cool Mesh Lining & Thin Earphones - Gray

Like the idea of a headband that helps you sleep, but don’t have the budget for SleepPhone’s Bluetooth version? Acoustic Sheep makes a wired model as mentioned, but several other companies do as well, and charge noticeably less for them. The best example I’ve come across so far? CozyPhones.

Around half the price of the SleepPhone equivalent, CozyPhones come in three fabrics and a wide range of colors and designs. At 52″ the braided cord is slightly longer than the SleepPhones, but everything else is pretty much the same.

Two small, flat speakers slip into the headband, that can be moved around as needed and taken out before washing the band. There’s a small travel bag in the box, which is useful for storing your CozyPhones on the move.

The band only comes in a single “one size fits most” version, which may be something to bear in mind. My girlfriend and I have used a couple of pairs of CozyPhones over the years, and while they fitted both of us to some extent, they were much looser on her head than mine.

As well as adult versions, the company also makes smaller child-friendly sizings with appropriate designs and a volume limit. Licensed versions are also available, featuring characters from Paw Patrol and Sesame Street.

If you move around a lot in the night, the usual issues that come when sleeping with wired earbuds apply here as well: the cord can end up wrapped around you by morning, which can lead to a loose connection or broken cable after a while. Wireless is the way to go if this is a concern.

Buy on Amazon

Best on a Budget: Panasonic RP-HS46

Panasonic- Rp-hs46e-k Slim Clip On Earphone - Black

If you’re on a super-strict budget and are just looking for a set of cheap earphones to listen to music while you fall asleep, it’s hard to go past the Panasonic RP-HS46. They don’t have great sound, extra features, or a catchy name, but they do have two other things: flat speakers and a very low price.

The slim design of the speakers makes them at least somewhat appropriate for side sleepers. While you’ll likely still feel them pressed between your ear and the pillow, they’re more comfortable than most earbuds or (especially) headphones. They clip onto each ear to hold them in place, and there’s a four-foot headphone cable.

The design means you shouldn’t expect much in the way of sound isolation, however, either coming in or going out. These earphones work best in a somewhat quiet environment, and if you sleep with a partner, you may need to keep the volume relatively low to avoid disturbing them.

As a result, these wouldn’t be my first pick for anyone looking to block out a lot of outside noise while sleeping. If you just need to listen to a bit of white noise or a really boring podcast to help you drift off, however, these are an easy, low-cost way of doing so.

Best Wireless Earbuds: Apple Airpods Pro

Apple AirPods Pro

Recommending general-purpose wireless earbuds for sleeping is tricky, as you’ll need to compromise somewhere. You can have small size, long battery life, strong noise cancelation, or decent comfort levels, but right now, you can’t have them all. A dedicated device like the QuietOn 3 (above) is still a better option if sleep is your main concern.

If you want something that can play music and podcasts as well, though, Apple's Airpods Pro are the best (or least-worst) noise-canceling earbuds for sleeping. That’s mainly because they’re smaller and more comfortable to lie on than most of the competition, and the noise cancelation is pretty good.

They’re obviously also an impressive set of true wireless earbuds in their own right. I’m not going to go into a full review of their features here since that’s not the purpose of this article, but suffice it to say that they’ve been near the top of most best-of lists since they were released.

The biggest downside for sleeping, however, is the battery life: at 4-5 hours, they simply won’t last all night. To make matters worse, they announce their low-battery situation with a loud tone that may wake you up… just in time to need to charge them again.

If you sleep on your back and don’t move around much, being able to comfortably lie on your earbuds for long periods is less of a concern. In that case, it’d be worth considering Sony's WF-1000XM4 instead. Their larger size corresponds with a larger battery, and you’ll get a full 8 hours of use before they go flat.

Buy on Amazon

Tip for Side Sleepers: Use a Pillow With a Hole!

The Original Pillow with a Hole - Your Ear's Best Friend [Made in England]

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, having anything sitting in or on your ears can be a problem for those of us who sleep with an ear on the pillow. Even the smallest earbuds designed specifically for sleeping can still be uncomfortable when pressed firmly into your ear canal.

One inventive solution? A pillow with a hole in it. Originally intended for those recovering from ear surgery or dealing with painful conditions, the circular hole in the middle works just as well for dealing with the discomfort of lying on an earbud for several hours.

Hypo-allergenic and with removable stuffing to adjust the height and firmness, the P.W.A.H. (as it’s known) is comfortable and works surprisingly well despite its odd appearance.

Traveling and can’t fit a pillow in your carry-on? A fabric-lined travel version like this offers similar benefits in a smaller, cheaper package. It isn’t as comfortable as a normal pillow, though, so be sure to test it out before relying on it during a trip.


Main image via S L, QuietOn 3 image via QuietOn, other images via Amazon

About the Author
Dave Dean

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a traveler for 25 years, and a geek for even longer. When he's not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken-down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.

Comments

  1. Avatar

    I’ve got a pair of cheap Encafire wireless earphones from Amazon that I use for sleep.

    They aren’t noise cancelling but they are small and snug and do stay in for a while.

    I normally fall a sleep listening to an audiobook and use the sleep timer to automatically pause it after xx minutes.

    If I wake in the night I usually tap the Earbud to start the story again.

    It’s not perfect h but it sort of works!

  2. Avatar

    I sympathize, but am surprised you made no mention of one of the oldest sleep aids ever, the Marsona Sound Conditioner. I’ve been using one since 1987 and my biggest fear while traveling is that I’ll forget to pack it (I have several, so I actually pack one days ahead of a trip). The basic ones start around $65 and they come with dual voltage power for use anywhere. In fact, they even have a battery option if one gets stuck without electricity. I crank mine up on the waterfall setting and there’s little noise that it can’t block.

    1. Dave Dean Author

      I’ve used a couple of different devices like this in the past, although not this specific one — I didn’t mention them in the article because it was focused on earbuds/earphones rather than standalone devices. I’ve found them somewhat good for blocking out low to moderate amounts of noise (obviously while sleeping alone or with an understanding partner rather than in a shared dorm etc), but the lack of noise isolation or canceling meant they didn’t really work for me in loud environments. Glad to hear they work for you though — and especially that they work well enough to justify owning several!

  3. Avatar

    Thanks for writing this article, Dave.

    Do you know if Sony WF-1000 XM4 or XM3 ear tips can be used on the QuietOn 3? I frequently disinfect my silicone XM3 ear tips with rubbing alcohol with no problem, and I don’t see how I can do that with the stock foam ear tips QuietOn 3’s.

    1. Dave Dean Author

      I don’t have any of the Sony tips to hand to check, but I’d be a bit surprised if you could use them on the QuietOn 3. It’s probably best to contact the company via their website to ask that question.

  4. Avatar

    I have a variety of headphones for all ocations and at the end I found out that the Jabra 75t with software based anc and a good fitting tips are my favorite , they are small enough for side sleepers , the battery goes for longer time than apple pro and you can find them for a relative good price. I set a Spotify playlist for sleeping and usually has piano music and Narada collection new age music

    1. Dave Dean Author

      They look relatively large for side sleeping, so I’m a bit surprised you find them comfortable, but it’s great that you do. The rated battery life is a bit better than the Airpods Pro, but still not long enough to get through the night — please tell me that Jabra is smarter than Apple, and that the 75t’s don’t make an annoyingly-loud low battery sound!

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