Three best earbuds
Although smartphones can easily cost hundreds of dollars, they don't usually include great headphones with them. So if you're a music buff -- or just very picky about audio quality -- you're going to need to buy a better pair. While some retro fans are bringing back the Princess-Leia-style cans, most people are buying earbuds: tiny headphones that fit comfortably in and deliver audio directly to each ear.
Earbuds have gotten exponentially better over the last few years, so if it's been a while since you invested in a good set of headphones, it may be time to check out the market again. Here's everything you need to know before you start looking.
Considerations when choosing earbuds
The perfect earbuds for you depend heavily on your individual tastes and needs. Here are the three most important factors to think about before you start shopping.
Wired, wireless, or truly wireless?
There are three kinds of earbuds available. First, there are the traditional wired headsets that plug into headphone jacks. Second, there are wireless Bluetooth headphones. These don't need a wire to connect to your phone, but they do need a wire to connect the earpieces to each other. Third are "truly wireless" earbuds, which wirelessly connect to both your smartphone and each other. Wired earphones are typically the most affordable, although Bluetooth models are becoming equally inexpensive. Good pairs of truly wireless earbuds can cost anywhere from $160 to $400.
Battery life for wireless earbuds
If you're buying a set of wireless earbuds, you'll need to recharge them occasionally -- but it pays to find out just how occasionally before you buy. Depending on how much you use them,, high-end earbuds can maintain a charge for anywhere between four and eight hours. Low-quality sets will need to be recharged at least every couple of hours.
Most earbuds are platform-agnostic and will work wherever you plug them in or wirelessly connect. But some models offer extended functionality with smartphones. For example, Apple's Airpods, when connected to an iPhone, can work with Siri, their digital assistant. Similarly, Samsung's Gear line of earbuds can work with the S-Health app that's only available on Android phones. As you're comparing earbuds, be on the lookout for extended smartphone-based functionality. With the right pair, you'll be able to use your phone to control everything from the EQ settings to phone calls.
Our favorite earbud features
Earbud makers are constantly trying to one-up each other with new features and benefits. Here are the three "extra" earbud features we love most.
Noise cancellation: Noise cancellation is one of the biggest innovations in personal audio in recent years. With noise cancellation, the headphones analyze ambient noise and play a frequency that cancels it out sonically. The result: you hear your music and only your music. If you're a frequent commuter, or if you listen to headphones in a lot of noisy environments, consider investing in earbuds that have noise cancellation. Expect a good set of noise-cancelling earbuds to cost at least $160.
Over-the-ear hooks: If you've ever fought with a pair of earbuds to stay in your ear and don't want to deal with that again, you're in luck. Many modern earbuds include adjustable hooks for keeping them seated correctly. Over-the-ear hooks are perfect for anyone who's active -- or just prone to dropping their headphones. Earbuds with hooks are available at all price points.
An in-line microphone: If you'll be using your earbuds with your smartphone to take phone calls, you'll need a pair that has an in-line microphone. Microphone quality can vary on different earbud models, but a good microphone will drive up the cost -- so if you see cheap headphones with an in-line mic, don't expect to sound incredible on your calls. For the best results on phone calls, look for earbuds in the $50 to $100 price range at a minimum.
Q. How long does it take to charge a pair of wireless earbuds?
A. It depends on the model, but most wireless earbuds can go from empty to a complete charge within two to four hours. Once you've narrowed your search down to one or two models, look through user reviews to get a sense of how long it takes to recharge them in real-world conditions.
Q. Do wireless earbuds ever need firmware updates?
A. Sometimes, but it's not common. Most wireless earbuds rely on basic Bluetooth connectivity, so there's no need for any updates -- but some high-end models manage firmware updates through their associated smartphone apps. The bottom line: if you buy a pair of earbuds that come with a smartphone app, open the app periodically to see if any updates or new features are available.
Q. If I'm a swimmer, can I get waterproof or water-resistant earbuds and swim with them?
A. You can get a dedicated headset for swimming, but don't expect miracles in terms of sound quality. Earbuds on their own aren't designed for swimming, so if you want to take your tunes with you while you swim laps, you'll need to get a waterproof headset with a built-in MP3 player instead. Swimming headsets such as the "SwiMP3" line of devices are useful, but they don't sound great, and they typically require you to manually load your music files using a computer.
Earbuds we recommend
Best of the best: Bose QuietControl 30 Wireless Headphones
Our take: Finally, earbuds with good noise cancellation! Bose's earbuds are a lot smaller than their traditional headphones, but they sound just as big. This is the pair to get if you can spend a little more on headphones or if you're looking for the perfect balance between comfort and sound quality.
What we like: The "optimized EQ" constantly adjusts audio so it sounds perfect no matter where you are. The earbuds can connect via NFC, which makes pairing much easier for users with Android smartphones. Call quality with the built-in microphone is outstanding.
What we dislike: They're incredibly expensive, even when compared with other Bose headphones.
Best bang for your buck: Symphonized NRG 3.0 Earbuds
Our take: Earbuds made with wood are catching on, and they're finally affordable. If you've been curious about trying out the increased warmth and bass found in handcrafted earbuds, this is a good pair to start with.
What we like: The NRGs come in multiple colors and include a built-in microphone for making phone calls. They also offer the best sound quality in their price range.
What we dislike: The buttons are extremely sensitive, which can make for a lot of accidental volume changes or track skipping. They're so light that they feel somewhat flimsy.
Our take: The Jaybird X3s are the perfect earbuds for athletes. They sound great by default, but they sound even better when you use their smartphone app to customize the EQ settings.
What we like: The sweat-proof design actually works, and the built-in hooks keep them secured to your ears, so no matter how hard you work out, you'll always have your music.
What we dislike: They're expensive when compared to other sports-oriented earbuds. The water-resistant coating chips easily.
Jaime Vazquez is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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