Wireless earbuds

The Best Wireless Earbuds in 2021

By Patricia Rey Mallén Sound2 Comments

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When Apple debuted its AirPods, we weren’t convinced of their value for, well, just about anyone. Earbuds with average sound quality that needed charging every few hours and could be easily lost? No thanks. Were true wireless earbuds actually something the world needed?

Skip forward a few years, and it looks like they’re here to stay. It’s impossible to walk through an airport or down the street these days without seeing those odd-looking white accessories dangling from someone’s ears, and the Airpods’ runaway success spawned many imitators.

Several other major headphone manufacturers have brought high-quality versions to market, and while the AirPods remain a good option, they’re no longer the only or best choice for most people. Other models provide higher sound quality, better noise cancellation, longer battery life, and lower prices than Apple’s version.

If you’re looking for wireless earbuds, these are the best ones to buy in 2021.

Best Overall: Sony WF-1000XM4
  • Earbud Weight: 7.5 g / 0.3 oz
  • Case Weight: 40 g / 1.4 oz
  • Battery Life (Earbuds): 8 hours
  • Battery Life (Case): 16 hours
  • Noise Cancellation: Yes

Best for Noise Cancellation: Bose QuietComfort
  • Earbud Weight: 8.5 g / 0.3 oz
  • Case Weight: 77 g / 2.7 oz
  • Battery Life (Earbuds): 6 hours
  • Battery Life (Case): 18 hours
  • Noise Cancellation: Yes

Sale
Best for Making Calls: Apple Airpods
  • Earbud Weight: 4 g / 0.1 oz
  • Case Weight: 38 g / 1.3 oz
  • Battery Life (Earbuds): 5 hours
  • Battery Life (Case): 19 hours
  • Noise Cancellation: No

Sale
Best for Comfort: Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus
  • Earbud Weight: 6.3 g / 0.2 oz
  • Case Weight: 40 g / 1.4 oz
  • Battery Life (Earbuds): 7.5-11 hours
  • Battery Life (Case): 11 hours
  • Noise Cancellation: No

Best on a Budget: Anker Soundcore Liberty Neo
  • Earbud Weight: 5.6 g / 0.2 oz
  • Case Weight: 50 g / 1.8 oz
  • Battery Life (Earbuds): 5 hours
  • Battery Life (Case): 15 hours
  • Noise Cancellation: No

Best for Bumpy Rides: Beats Powerbeats Pro
  • Earbud Weight: 20.3 g / 0.7 oz
  • Case Weight: 109 g / 3.8 oz
  • Battery Life (Earbuds): 9 hours
  • Battery Life (Case): 14+ hours
  • Noise Cancellation: No

Best Overall: Sony WF-1000XM4

Sony WF-1000XM4 Industry Leading Noise Canceling Truly Wireless Earbud Headphones with Alexa Built-in, Black

For the last couple of years, Sony’s over-ear noise-canceling headphones have been the best on the market. The company’s first attempt to do the same for wireless earbuds was a bit of a flop, but more recent models hit all the right notes, and never was that more true than with 2021’s version, the WF-1000XM4.

With impressive battery life, some of the very best noise cancellation in its class, and fantastic sound quality, they’re our top wireless earbuds pick in 2021.

The understated design of the buds and charging case is stylish in a way that most others aren’t. They’ve both been slimmed down compared to the previous model, the case dramatically so (around 40% smaller), the buds themselves only a little. Available in either black or silver, both are an attractive option.

Sony has also taken a different approach to the earbud tips this time around. While the earlier model came with half a dozen different tips come in the box, that’s been whittled back to three this time around. The small, medium, and large tips are made from a tacky memory foam that does a better job of deadening outside sound even before the active noise cancellation kicks in, and increases the comfort levels even when you’re wearing them for several hours.

Wearing them for hours is something you’ll actually be able to do, since battery life on the WF-1000XM4’s is about as good as it gets for noise-canceling wireless earbuds, both in the brochure and the real world. You’ll get around eight hours per charge with noise cancellation turned on, and up to 12 hours if you turn it off. That’s dramatically better than pretty much anything else on the market.

The case holds two extra charges, giving a total 24+ hours of listening time before you need to find a power socket. It takes around 1.5 hours for the earbuds to go from empty to full, with a five-minute quick charge giving an hour of listening time. A new addition this time around is wireless charging, meaning you can use either a USB C cable or Qi-compatible pad to juice the case back up.

Noise-cancellation has long been hit or (mostly) miss on wireless earbuds, because of the small size and limited battery life. While the WF-1000XM4’s still won’t block out quite as much low-end sound as the equivalent over-ear models, they’re getting closer and closer with each new release.

Will they entirely eliminate the engine drone on an overnight flight? Probably not, but they do an exceptional job of blocking outside noise in almost all situations, and will still make a huge difference to your enjoyment of long plane rides. We’re (just) going with the Bose QuietComfort as our top noise-canceling earbuds pick, but honestly, in a noisy environment, you’ll be thrilled with either.

Sound quality, too, is remarkably high for a set of wireless earbuds. Bass is strong and distinct, while mid notes are crisp and clear for both music and podcasts. Whatever you’re listening to is likely to sound great with these earbuds, whether you’re taking advantage of the inbuilt LDAC codec support or not.

Other useful features from the over-ear model make their way into these earbuds. There are adjustable levels of Ambient Sound (which lets in some noise when you want to hear it,) for instance, plus a “Quick Attention” mode that lets you long-tap the left-hand earbud to pull in outside sound like boarding calls.

Take either earbud out, and playback pauses automatically. Stick it back in, and your music, podcast, or audiobook resumes where it left off.

Pairing is seamless via either NFC or Bluetooth, and connections remain reliable even at some distance. Each earbud maintains its own Bluetooth connection to the source device, making for better audio syncing when watching a video.

Phone calls have never been the strong suit of Sony’s flagship earbuds, and while the new beamforming microphone system is a noticeable improvement, these still aren’t our top pick for those planning to make hours of calls a day. They do a good job in quiet environments, but as with many other wireless earbuds, wind noise and loud rooms pose more of a problem.

New this time around is (finally) proper sweat resistance, the IP42 rating meaning you can safely wear these buds during a heavy workout or sudden rain shower without worrying that they’ll stop working because of it.

Do the WF-1000XM4’s get everything right? No, but they’re damn close. The only obvious missing feature is the inability to connect to two audio sources at once and automatically switch when (eg) a phone call comes in. The ongoing lack of multipoint Bluetooth, as its known, is becoming less forgivable for high-end earbuds like these as more (and cheaper) competitors start to include it.

If you can do without the multipoint, though, there’s precious little else to complain about. The 1000XM4’s are a premium set of noise-canceling wireless earbuds, and when you consider everything they do well, are reasonably priced for what you get. This latest model seems set to keep Sony at the top of the category for another year.

Pros
  • Strong, reliable connection
  • Fantastic battery life
  • Excellent noise cancellation
  • Great sound quality
  • Sleek design
Cons
  • Call quality still needs improvement
  • No Bluetooth multipoint support
Buy on Amazon

Best for Noise Cancellation: Bose QuietComfort

Bose QuietComfort Noise Cancelling Earbuds - True Wireless Earphones, Triple Black, the World's Most Effective Noise Cancelling Earbuds

Bose took a long time to get into the noise-canceling earbud game, but the QuietComfort was worth the weight. Debuting late in 2020, they immediately set the bar for how good active noise cancellation could be from a set of wireless earbuds.

Crank the adjustable ANC up to 10, and the outside world just disappears. We’ve experienced the same thing from the best noise-canceling headphones in the past, but until this model (and later, the above Sony’s) came along, it just didn’t seem possible from a set of earbuds. City streets, noisy neighbors, and even rumbling plane engines are no match.

While fit is a subjective and personal thing, Bose does what it can to ensure the buds sit comfortably yet tightly in your ears. Three different-sized tips come in the box, and there’s a silicone “wing” on each earbud to ensure that once it’s in place, it stays that way even during active movement.

Speaking of being active, the earbuds are IPX4 rated. They’ll survive sweat and splashes, but not much more. Since many wireless earbuds don’t have any kind of official water resistance at all, though, we’ll take what we can get here.

Sound quality is typically Bose, by which I mean that music usually sounds great, if somewhat bass-heavy. That’s how many people like to listen to their favorite tunes, but if you’re a purist about these things, you may need to look elsewhere: there’s currently no manual EQ option in the accompanying app.

Call quality is very good, both for the wearer and the person on the other end. You can dial the volume of your own voice up and down, and there’s impressive background noise reduction even in difficult environments.

Given all the above, the QuietComforts could have been our overall pick for the best wireless earbuds, but a few things just keep them from the top spot.

First up, the earbuds themselves are relatively large, and the case even more so. At 18 hours, you don’t get any more battery capacity with that extra case size, but you do get wireless charging. That’s a real benefit, but is it worth the noticeable bulge in your jeans pocket? It will bother some people immensely, and others not at all.

While you can do things like start and pause playback, answer phone calls, check battery levels, and skip tracks by tapping on the earbuds, you can’t go back to a previous track or change the volume without reaching for your phone. That’s an odd decision by Bose, and hopefully one that’ll be changed in a future update.

Finally, these ain’t cheap. They’ve been out for a few months now, but the price hasn’t budged from what it was at launch. That makes it a harder sell compared to the more recent Sony XF-1000WM4 mentioned above, which has better battery life, similar noise-cancellation, and arguably better audio for most listeners.

Even so, these are undeniably great wireless earbuds, and if noise cancelation is your top priority, it’s basically a two-horse race between these and the Sony’s. If you can manage to pick the QuietComfort’s up on sale, it’s a no-brainer.

Pros
  • Some of the very best noise cancellation in its class
  • Comfortable fit for most people
  • Good audio
  • Handles calls well
Cons
  • Earbuds quite large, case even more so
  • No volume control on earbuds
Buy on Amazon

Best for Making Calls: AirPods

Apple AirPods with Charging Case

The originals, the trailblazers, the ones that started the craze. Despite increasing competition, Apple's Airpods are still extremely popular. It feels like you can’t walk a block in most cities without seeing someone wearing a pair.

Now in their second generation, there are good reasons for the Airports to be as ubiquitous as they are. They succeed with the technical aspects where many others fail, from battery life to connectivity and call quality, and most of their wearers love them as a result.

Connectivity is very reliable. The Airpods immediately connect to other Apple devices, and stay connected from up to 100 feet (30 meters) away. Non-Apple devices won’t get the fast pairing, but they’ll still get strong, reliable connections.

You can also use Apple’s “Find my iPhone” feature to track down a missing earbud if it’s nearby and out of its case, or to at least see where it was last used.

One of the improvements in the latest model is swapping between devices, which now happens twice as fast as before. If you’re someone who regularly streams music from your laptop when you’re working and your phone while on the move, you’ll appreciate the upgrade. 

Battery life is pretty good, although it’s been bested by some more recent models. You’ll get five hours of play time from the earbuds, and up to 19 more from the charging case. An upgraded case with Qi wireless charging is also available: most people don’t travel with a wireless charging mat, but they work well at home, and we’ve regularly seen them in hotels and cafes around the world.

Sound quality is similar to the basic Apple earbuds, which is to say, nothing special. Ambient noise is a problem in noisy environments, since there’s minimal noise isolation.

If you regularly make calls, however, you and your caller will be impressed with the clear, lag-free conversations. When it comes to call quality, the Airpods are consistently better than any other true wireless earbuds out there.

Even though they work with both Android and iOS devices, they’re noticeably better with Apple gear. Android users will miss out on some features, such as pausing and restarting when buds are inserted and removed, listening via a single earbud, and virtual assistant support.

Setup and pairing are also slower on Android since it uses the standard Bluetooth approach, and transition from device to device may be slower. 

In terms of design, the fit can be awkward and feel uncomfortable for some users (me, for example, although I’ve had this problem with Apple earbuds from day one). Let’s also not forget the elephant in the room: they’re not the most stylish of accessories, with long stems dangling out of each ear canal.

The look is an unusual miss for design-crazy Apple, a company that has always bridged the gap between fashion and tech. Not in this case, unfortunately. If you can get over the look and so-so sound quality, however, there’s still an awful lot to like about the Airpods.

Note: if you’d prefer a version with active noise cancellation, the Airpods Pro version is also worth checking out. You’ll pay noticeably more, but they do a much better job of keeping outside noise at bay, and are more subtle in their design as well.

Pros
  • Strong, reliable connection
  • Excellent call quality
  • Good battery life
  • Optional wireless charging
  • Fast pairing and device switching
Cons
  • No Android support for some features
  • Fit can be a problem
  • Average sound quality
  • Minimal noise isolation
  • Awkward design
Buy on Amazon

Best for Comfort: Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus

Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus, True Wireless Earbuds (Wireless Charging Case Included), Black – US Version

As far as rivals to AirPods go, you can’t get much closer than Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Plus. Now on their third version, they’re an excellent cross-platform choice, working well with Android devices, iPhones, and iPads.

The standout feature for the Buds Plus is their subtlety: they’re hard to notice, both for the wearer and anyone else. Much smaller than AirPods, they don’t have that long, dangling stalk, so are almost invisible to onlookers.

The buds ship with small, medium, and large tips to fit different ear canals, along with three sizes of optional plastic “wings” to keep them secured in your earlobe. The end result is a firm, comfortable fit for almost anyone, even on long bus or plane rides when you may wear them for several hours.

Advertised at up to 11 hours of runtime, these earbuds get close to that in the real world. That makes the battery life of these earbuds very impressive, coming second only to our top pick, Sony’s XM4’s (with noise-cancellation turned off.) The charging case only provides a single extra charge, though, which is a little disappointing versus the competition. 

On the upside, if you have the latest Samsung Galaxy phone or a compatible wireless charging mat, you can wirelessly juice up the charging case with it. If not, the case also has a standard USB C charging port. You can buy the Buds Plus in a bundle with a charging mat if you prefer.

Audio performance is good, with well-defined highs and lows. Like any wireless earbuds they aren’t audiophile-quality, but they don’t disappoint either. There’s also an adjustable “ambient sound” option, letting in outside noise to keep you safe and avoid missing that final boarding call.

There’s only basic IPX2 water resistance, which seems like an oversight. The buds will likely handle a bit of sweat or a rain shower, but if you drop one in the toilet, you’ll be heading to the store for a replacement.

The Galaxy Buds Plus have three microphones, an upgrade from the dual-mic approach of the previous model. This allows them to cut out background noise when you’re making phone calls in noisy environments, and they do a pretty good job of it. These still wouldn’t be our top pick for making calls, but they’re a lot better than earlier versions.

Being so small, the buds are easy to misplace, so Samsung has included a “find my buds” option in the companion app. It won’t tell you where the buds are, but they’ll start making a loud chirping noise that helps you track them down as long as they’re within earshot.

Samsung has also released a noise-canceling model, the Galaxy Buds Pro. While we’d go for the Sony or Bose options above if noise cancellation was our primary concern, you’ll pay noticeably less for the Buds Pro, so they’re definitely worth considering if you’re happy to swap battery life for a little extra peace and quiet.

Pros
  • Attractive design in a tiny package
  • Good audio quality
  • Comfortable to wear for hours
  • Wireless charging
  • Impressive battery life
Cons
  • Limited iOS support for certain features
  • Case battery life is somewhat disappointing
  • Minimal waterproofing
Buy on Amazon

Best on a Budget: Anker Soundcore Liberty Neo

Upgraded, Anker Soundcore Liberty Neo True Wireless Earbuds, Pumping Bass, IPX7 Waterproof, Secure Fit, Bluetooth 5 Headphones, Stereo Calls, Noise Isolation, One Step Pairing, Sports, Work Out

If you’re on a budget but prefer the security of a well-known brand, check out Anker's Soundcore Liberty Neo wireless earbuds. We’re big fans of this company’s battery and charging gear, and it’s recently starting turning out some great-value speakers and headphones as well.

IPX7-rated, the water-resistant and sweatproof Neo earbuds will keep working even when you get caught in the rain or after long, hot walks in the tropics. Unusually for inexpensive wireless earbuds, music sounds crisp and clear, with solid bass performance.

Comfortable even for long periods, the four different sizes of rubber tips and “earwings” help ensure a firm fit for a wide range of wearers. Both the earbuds and case are somewhat larger than the more expensive alternatives, however, so don’t expect much subtlety from either.

Battery life is ok, with five hours from the earbuds and up to 15 extra hours from the case. That’s about what we’ve come to expect from budget wireless earbuds these days. It’s possible to use one earbud while the other charges if you need to, which is a useful touch.

Connection quality is generally very good, with few dropouts. Unlike some wireless earbuds, you’ll also get stereo sound during phone conversations. Some users report problems with delays during voice calls, however, so bear that in mind if you make a lot of them.

Oddly, there’s no way of controlling the volume from the earbuds themselves, with any changes needing to be made through the device. Other features like pause/restart and answering calls are available, however.

Pros
  • Good value
  • Clear, crisp sound
  • Comfortable fit
  • Water and sweat resistant
Cons
  • Somewhat bulky
  • No volume control on the earbuds
  • Average battery life
  • Can lag during calls
Buy on Amazon

Best for Bumpy Rides: Beats Powerbeats Pro

Powerbeats Pro Wireless Earbuds - Apple H1 Headphone Chip, Class 1 Bluetooth Headphones, 9 Hours of Listening Time, Sweat Resistant, Built-in Microphone - Black

If you’re anything like me, there’s one big gripe you’ll have with most wireless earbuds: they just won’t stay in your ears (especially my left one, for some reason). If that’s you as well, you’ll want to check out the latest true wireless earbuds from Beats: the Powerbeats Pro.

These buds will, quite simply, stay put. No matter how high you jump, how fast you run, or how excruciatingly bumpy your next long-distance bus ride is, they’ll stay firmly lodged in place thanks to the adjustable over-ear hook and choice of four sizes of tip. 

Built to handle light abuse, they’re IPX4-rated, and can easily deal with a little rain or sweat. It would have been nice if they could survive full immersion, though, given the challenges travel can throw at electronics.

The earbuds remain comfortable to wear for long periods, even if they’re fairly large and not very subtle. The charging case, too, is huge by current standards. On the upside, all that extra bulk means you get great battery life.

It’s not unusual to get close to nine hours out of a single charge, and the case pushes that up to over a full day. A quick-charge feature gives the Powerbeats Pro 90 minutes of extra listening from five minutes back in the case.

A full set of volume and playback controls can be found on both earbuds, letting you use one or the other if you don’t want to wear both. Like the Airpods and Sony’s WF-1000XM4, removing the bud from your ear pauses playback, and putting it back in restarts where you left off.

Pairing is fast and easy, especially if you have an Apple device, and the connection remains strong and reliable until you get a long way from the output device. Stuttering and audio lag, two common concerns with true wireless earbuds, aren’t a problem here.

Beats headphones have long had a reputation for big, bass-heavy sound, but that’s not the case with the Powerbeats Pro. If anything, the treble can overwhelm the mix at times, and you’re going to have to really mess with the EQ settings if you want a thumping low end.

Coupled with only average levels of noise isolation (and no active noise cancellation), these aren’t the best-sounding wireless earbuds by quite some margin. That’s a bit disappointing for the price, but not entirely surprising given they’re marketed at active users rather than audiophiles.

In a world that’s moving to USB C, Apple (owner of the Beats brand) has insisted on putting a Lightning socket on the charging case. That’s great if you’re carrying around an iPhone or iPad, but not if you’ve got the latest Macbook, iPad Pro, or pretty much any non-Apple device you can think of.

Still, if you’re looking for earbuds that can handle tough travel days and sweaty workouts, and have enough battery life to get you through the longest plane rides, the Beats Powerbeats Pros are definitely worth a look.

Pros
  • Sturdy and durable
  • Easy, reliable connections
  • Snug fit stays firmly in your ears
  • Great battery life
Cons
  • Large earbuds and massive case
  • Sound quality not great for the money
  • Average noise isolation
  • Charges via Lightning socket rather than USB C
Buy on Amazon

Title image via Kārlis Dambrāns, others via Amazon

About the Author
Patricia Rey Mallén

Patricia Rey Mallén

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A roaming writer and tech enthusiast, Patricia has been wandering the globe for 10-odd years. A passionate Apple lover, she is familiar with Genius bars from Sydney to Reykjavík to Mexico City. She only vaguely remembers life before the Internet, but will forever long for the days in which mobile phone batteries lasted for over a week.

Comments

  1. Avatar

    Samsung had TWS earphones before apple did so might wanna edit out about others following apple ( icon gear X )

    1. Dave Dean

      Thanks — to be fair we didn’t say that Samsung had ‘followed’ Apple, just that it had also got into the wireless earphone game. I’ve tweaked that bit of the text though, so Samsung isn’t specifically mentioned now.

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