What’s clear is that everyone has their own style preferences, along with very different opinions on what matters most between performance, convenience, and cost.
In general, while over-ear headphones offer better sound quality than comparable earbuds, the latter are much more compact, easy to travel with, and ideal for exercise. Wireless earbuds are particularly convenient, but you need to charge them regularly and again, deal with reduced sound quality.
For many people, wired earbuds offer a middle of the road approach that balances portability and convenience with audio quality they’re happy with. Today we’re sharing our favorite wired earbuds, including the best wired earbuds for working out, those with with noise-cancelation, and the ideal pick for those on a budget.
- Microphone? No
- Inline controls? No
- Official water resistance: None
- Other features: Range of ear tips, detachable cable, travel case
- Microphone? Yes
- Inline controls? Yes
- Official water resistance: None
- Other features: Wide range of accessories
- Microphone? Yes
- Inline controls? Yes
- Official water resistance: None
- Other features: Detachable cable, travel case
- Microphone? Yes (some models)
- Inline controls? Yes, for calls (some models)
- Official water resistance: None
- Other features: Wide range of colors
- Microphone? Yes
- Inline controls? Yes
- Official water resistance: IPX5
- Other features: Earbuds magnetically clip together
What to Look For
You wanted to make a simple purchase – wired earbuds – how hard can that be?
Like with buying just about everything else nowadays, the answer is: surprisingly difficult.
You basically need to become an audio expert, reading dozens of reviews and trying to learn all the specialist jargon so you can decipher out what the hell those people are talking about.
That’s about the point that you get overwhelmed with all the information and decide to just buy the prettiest color that fits your budget. Pink is good, right?
To prevent that from happening, we’ve put together a simple list of criteria you should take into consideration before going for that bubblegum-pink cable.
We won’t tell you that sound quality is important, as you already know that (if not, sound quality is important!).
Instead, let’s explain those technical terms that actually tell you more about the sound quality (did we mention it was important?) of the earbuds you buy:
- Frequency response: in simple terms, the wider the frequency range (measured in hertz, or Hz), the better. One end of the range is deep bass, the other is high treble. The wider the range, the more accurate the sound will be, as earbuds with greater range can reproduce sounds you won’t hear with a narrower frequency response. 20-20,000Hz is the usual standard here.
The type of music you prefer also has in impact here. If you like bass (maybe you listen to a lot of hip-hop and electronic music, for instance), it’s most important for earbuds to support lower frequencies, with the higher end of the range being less significant.
- Sensitivity: higher sensitivity means higher volume, and is measured in decibels. More is better, although to avoid hearing damage, you don’t want to listen to anything at volumes higher than around 85db for any length of time.
- Impedance: impedance is a measure of electrical resistance. Put simply, the higher the resistance, the more power is needed to produce sound at a given volume, but the better that sound will be. Because they’re usually used with battery-powered devices like phones and tablets, most earbuds have low impedance (usually around 16ohms) to keep the power requirements minimal.
Higher impedance is something you typically find in headphones, with some models (typically those used in a studio) requiring an amplifier to deliver enough power for reasonable volume. If you plan to use your earbuds with your mobile device, low impedance is better.
- Noise isolation: this one is important, and you typically want your earbuds to block external noise as much as possible so you can focus on the music rather than the barking dog next door. However, this does depend on other factors like fit, which we discuss below.
Although we factor all of the above into our recommendations, in the interests of not boring you with endless technical data, we don’t reproduce all the specifications in the article below. They’re all laid out in the product listings, however, so if you’re interested, be sure to compare the detail before you buy.
So, not only that you know that sound quality is important (because it is!), but now you know why that is and how to access it.
Comfort and Fit
This one is hard to figure out from online reviews, but comfort and fit are absolutely crucial.
If you pick earbuds that are too wide or sit too deeply in your ear canal, you’ll find them uncomfortable to wear for long periods. Get the size really wrong, and you risk bruising or cuts on the delicate skin inside the ear canal.
On the other hand, if you choose earbuds that are too narrow and shallow, you’ll have problems with them slipping out, especially during physical activity. Most earbuds also rely on a tight seal to block outside noise; if they don’t fit properly, you’ll get far more sound leaking in.
In general, soft, silicone tips work best for both fit and comfort. The better models come with tips in a range of sizes, so you can try different ones until you get the best fit for your ears. Don’t be afraid to try a different size in each ear: many of us don’t have identical ear canals!
Weight plays a role too, but not as much as with headphones or wireless earbuds, so don’t dwell too much on it.
While we test models with a range of designs and mention any comfort issues we encounter, it’s best to double-check user reviews as well. With a wide cross-section of people using them, it won’t take much digging to find complaints about discomfort for a particular size or shape of ear if they exist.
Build Quality and Durability
Whether they come to an abrupt end thanks to yanking the wire too hard, or a slower end due to gradual wear and tear (especially near the 3.5mm jack), the cable is the weakest link for almost all wired earbuds. Even so, that doesn’t mean build quality isn’t important when it comes to durability.
Thicker cables are more durable, and harder to tangle. That means less snagging and untangling, reducing the amount of wear and tear. Some models even have magnetic clips, or even carry cases, which further reduce tangling and damage.
While most earbuds can handle a little water as they sit in your ear, consider water-resistant models if you’ll use them in more extreme conditions. Look for an ingress protection (IP) rating like IP67: the second number relates to liquid. 5 generally means sweat-proof, while earbuds with a 7 or 8 can withstand complete immersion.
Connectors and Accessories
While there are earbuds with other connection types (USB and Lightning, for example), we’ve focused on those with a 3.5mm (1/8″) jack in this article. Also known as a headphone jack, it’s the standard connector, and you’ll be able to connect it to almost any audio equipment and get good sound quality.
If making and taking calls is important to you, be sure to look for earbuds with a decent microphone on the cable. Taking your phone out of your pocket and unplugging the earbuds just to take a call is annoying, and there’s no reason to go through that extra hassle every day just to save a few dollars.
Noise Cancelation and Isolation
While Bose and others used to make wired earbuds with proper active noise cancelation (ANC) built in, they’re almost impossible to find these days. With fewer phones coming with headphone jacks, wireless earbuds and headphones have become much more popular, and that’s where you’ll find ANC now.
That leaves you stuck with passive noise isolation, which as we mentioned earlier, relies on tight-fitting foam or silicone earbuds to block outside noise. It’s not as effective as true noise cancelation, but depending on how well it’s implemented, can still work quite well and doesn’t require any battery power.
The degree of sound reduction is typically measured in decibels, with somewhere between 25 and 35dB being relatively common. These numbers are hard to verify, however, since they are so dependent on the fit inside your ear canal. Everything else being equal, though, higher is better.
The price range for wired earbuds is huge, literally hundreds of dollars. Yes, you get better earbuds when you pay more money, like everything else in life. As far as we’re concerned, however, that doesn’t mean you should go for the priciest model.
Even though there are some very durable models on the list, no wired earbuds are indestructible. Yanking the cable too hard, stuffing them in your pocket alongside keys, stepping on them accidentally, leaving them behind at a cafe or (like me) on the plane: one wrong move and they’re gone.
Therefore, while it’s worth getting a pair of reliable earbuds that sound good and can handle a bit of rough treatment, don’t stretch your budget to the max. They’re just too easy to break or lose, and you want to be able to replace them when the time comes.
Best Wired Earbuds: Etymotic Research ER2XR
Our top wired earbuds pick right now is Etymotic Research's ER2XR, which provides remarkable value for what’s on offer. This particular model sits towards the lower end of the company’s range, while sharing many of the features of the more-expensive versions.
One of those features is the extended tips, which reach further into your ears than most other earbuds. The major upside of this is that you’ll likely end up with a more secure fit than usual, especially given the wide range of tips that come in the box (four sizes of silicon tips, plus a set of foam tips as well).
The downside for some people can be comfort: the additional length of these buds just doesn’t suit some smaller ears. If you don’t find them particularly comfortable to start with, it’s definitely worth experimenting with the various tip options to see if a different one fits better.
Once you do get a comfortable fit, these buds are a good option for active outdoor use: they’re unlikely to fall out even when you’re moving rapidly. I’d be careful using them in built-up areas, though: at up to 35dB, the noise isolation can be a little too effective, blocking out the sound of vehicles and other urban hazards.
That level of noise reduction does make them a good option for travel, though, especially long-haul flights, overnight bus rides, and anywhere else that has a lot of background noise when you’re trying to get some sleep.
There’s a handy travel case, and like the Shure SE-215’s mentioned below, the buds also have a detachable cable. If (or when) the wires inside get crushed or frayed, it’s a simple matter of replacing the cable rather than throwing out the entire earbuds.
The ER2XR have a pretty flat, neutral frequency response, without the boosted bass you often find in consumer earbuds. Whether that’s a good thing or not comes down to personal preference: they’re great for listening to podcasts and audiobooks, perhaps less so for bass-heavy tunes.
Note that these buds don’t include a microphone or controls on the cable; they’re focused entirely on providing a great listening experience. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, you’ll likely be better off with our runner-up pick below.
Otherwise, these are an impressive set of buds, providing great value and useful features for a range of different wearers. They’re not the cheapest you’ll find, but they’re far from the most expensive, and should last well as long as they’re treated with even a little bit of care.
Runner-Up: 1MORE Quad Driver
It’s tough to match the value of the 1MORE Quad Driver In-Ear Earphones. Costing around the same as our top pick, they offer similar sound quality to some earbuds that cost two or three times as much.
The Quad Driver earphones have four drivers in each ear (hence the name) to help ensure clear highs, crisp mids, and rich bass, which means they’ll sound good no matter your music preferences. The frequency response isn’t entirely neutral (the bass and mids are boosted a little), but that’s as likely to be a benefit as a downside for many.
Unlike the ER2XR above, this 1MORE model has an inbuilt remote and mic for controlling calls, voice assistance, playback, and volume. The remote works well, making these some of the best wired earbuds with mic controls if that’s what you’re after.
1MORE has done a great job with the unboxing experience: there’s a lot more than just a simple pair of earbuds on offer here. Along with nine different ear tips to ensure the perfect fit, you get an airplane adapter, a ¼” adapter for amplifiers, and a shirt clip to stop the cable from flapping around.
If you’re happy to sacrifice a little sound quality, the 1MORE Triple Driver, as the name suggests, only has three drivers in each earbud. We’re not as impressed with the audio, but they otherwise offer many of the same features and are notably less expensive. If you’re on a budget, they’re definitely worth a look.
Best for Travel: Shure AONIC 215
Travel is a particular challenge for wired earbuds, with durability and noise isolation being even more important than usual. Comfort, too, can be a big issue: you could easily wear your buds for many hours at a time, and if they’re not comfortable to start with, they’ll be a lot worse by the time you take them out.
Wired buds do have two major advantages over their wireless cousins here, though: you don’t need to worry about running out of battery, and the extra bulk of the cable and physical attachment to your phone or tablet makes them harder (although not impossible) to lose.
Put simply, the Shure AONIC 215 wired earbuds offer impressive durability and comfort, great sound quality, and effective noise isolation without breaking the bank. That combination is hard to find, and makes them our top picks for travelers right now.
Given they don’t have active noise cancelation, these earbuds are surprisingly good at reducing background noise thanks to their dense silicone tips. They’re not quite on par with the ER2XR mentioned above, but they’re not far off.
In relatively quiet places, you don’t even need to listen to music to block out the sounds around you; the earbuds themselves are enough. In louder environments, listening to music on low volume is more than adequate to drown out the worst of the surrounding din.
Sound quality is impressive, with deep, controlled bass and rich tones. Although the treble could be crisper and the soundstage is somewhat narrow, for the price these earbuds offer excellent sound quality, especially if you prefer a strong bass kick to your music.
They come with thick, durable cables that can be detached (and replaced if they break), a small carry case, and three different sizes of foam earbuds. I used them on the road for years, and they ticked all the boxes: comfortable, well-made, good at reducing outside noise, and affordable to replace when I stupidly left them on a plane in Bangkok.
With the standard foam tips, I found these buds comfortable to wear for at least a couple of hours at a time. When they eventually wore out, I replaced them with softer tips from Comply, which were even more comfortable and also blocked out a little more outside noise. It was a worthy and inexpensive upgrade!
The AONIC 215’s have an inline remote and mic that controls everything from voice commands and phone calls to media playback and volume. The call quality doesn’t compare to over-ear headphones like the Bose 700, but these are some of the better wired earbuds for phone calls if cabled buds are a must.
I’d recommend them at twice the price, but since they’re often available for under a hundred bucks, the 215’s are an excellent option for travel. If sound isolation and unboosted bass are most important to you, go for the ER2XR, but otherwise (or if you don’t find them comfortable) these buds deserve a place in your carry-on.
Best on a Budget: Panasonic ErgoFit
If price is your number one concern, the best cheap wired earbuds are Panasonic’s ErgoFit headphones. These earbuds cost less than going to see whatever Marvel movie is in theatres right now, and they’ll last a lot longer than a couple of hours.
The sound quality is decent for what you’re paying, and superior to a number of earbuds that cost three times as much. It lacks some detail when listening to soft genres like folk music with a lot of acoustic guitar, but if you’re looking for something inexpensive to take to the gym or on a plane, these are easily the best option for the money.
The Ergofits come with three sets of silicone ear tips in small, medium, or large to comfortably accommodate most ear sizes. When the earbuds are fitted properly, the silicone tips help to reduce background noise a little as well. Not a lot, but better than nothing.
If you like a little color in your life, the Panasonic ErgoFit Headphones come in 15 different colors and shades, including plain old black and white. A long, albeit thin 3.6ft cord comes included, and while it’s easily tangled, the extended length lets you easily thread it through your bag or clothing to help keep it from getting caught up.
Best for Sports and Exercise: JBL Endurance RUN
If you plan to listen to music while exercising, you need audio gear that’s durable and sweatproof. For the price, the JBL Endurance RUN are the best wired earbuds for running, sports, and other workouts. These IPX5-rated wired earbuds are well-made, but if you lose, break, or otherwise need to replace them, you can do so without breaking the bank.
The earbuds deliver good sound quality given how little they cost. They’re not what an audiophile would look for, but the deep bass response and clarity are impressive for such a low-cost sport headphone, and works well for high-energy workout tracks.
The earbuds can be worn one of two ways, either in-ear or behind-the-ear, depending on your preference and what you’re doing at the time. The earbuds magnetically clip together for simplified storage and to prevent the cable from getting tangled.
There’s a control button to activate the inline microphone for hands-free calling or voice assistance. It’s convenient for quick calls on the go, but the quality isn’t great, so set your expectations accordingly. The controls can also pause and play music and skip tracks, but you can’t adjust volume this way.
Main image via Alexander Image/Shutterstock.com, product images via Amazon