Apple may have ushered in the wire-free craze with its now-ubiquitous AirPods, but in 2020, there seems to be an endless influx of wireless earbuds entering the market. Amazon has Echo Buds; Samsung has Galaxy Buds; Google has Pixel Buds; Beats has Powerbeats Pro. The list goes on and on…
With so many options out there, we figured we’d simplify the choice for you by finding the best. So as CNN Underscored has done with on-ear, over-ear and ANC headphones, we decided to tackle the final frontier (for now) of portable listening: true wireless earbuds. Following the beat of our own testing, we discovered the best true wireless earbuds out there:
Apple’s AirPods Pro ($220, originally $249; amazon.com) hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.
For those looking for earbuds to power their workouts, there’s no better option than the Powerbeats Pro ($199.95, originally $249.95; amazon.com). The ear hooks are malleable and will conform to your ear after just a few wearings, so there’s no worry about these falling off even during the toughest of workouts. Additionally, these have an IPX4 resistance, which means neither rain nor sweat storm will kill these buds’ vibe, and a bass-heavy (but not overly heavy) sound performance to boost your workouts.
The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds ($279.95; bose.com) have all the necessary tropes of true wireless earbuds (no wires, multiple ear tips, a carrying case that doubles as a charger and easy pairing), but they also have an X factor: the Bose legacy. While that does come at a premium, it also comes with the expected balanced sound and class-leading noise cancellation that blocks out way more sound over AirPods Pro.
If you value comfort above all else, the funkily designed Galaxy Buds Live are your best bet. These bean-shaped earbuds proved to be significantly more comfortable than traditional buds. They don’t protrude far into the ear like others we tested — instead sitting rather flush with the ear — so there was no added pressure to any part of the ear. Because they don’t seal the ear quite as much as AirPods Pro, though, you do give up a bit in terms of sound quality. But at $169.99, you’re getting earbuds that, in terms of comfort, you’ll forget are even in your ear, and ones that pack pretty hefty bass in a small package.
As it should be with any pair of quality earbuds, the first thing you notice about the AirPods Pro is their sound quality, which is second to none.
The latest AirPods seamlessly reproduce every note, strum, hit or key press on a track. The sound output is custom-tuned in real time using Adaptive EQ. While other earbuds may come with a manually controlled equalizer, the AirPods Pro work in real time to analyze drivers, amplifiers and microphones on both the outside and inside of the ear in an effort to reproduce tracks as true to the artist’s intent as possible. Alongside that tech, Apple amped up the bass on the Pros to a thumping degree compared with the regular AirPods.
This all comes into play on songs like “Ex’s & Oh’s” by Elle King, which starts off strong with a leading bass tone and background snares. Sharp vocals are overlaid with guitars and a constant bass remains strong throughout. On some earbuds, this leads to unintended reverb or a crackling sound that creates a less than stellar experience. But not with the AirPods. While the roaring electric guitar is meant to have some reverb, the AirPods’ Adaptive EQ didn’t lower or raise it and left it as the track intends it to be played back, so you can still clearly make out each instrument and its tones.
For a wider soundstage, we went back to the ‘80s with “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen. The soundtrack starts with a constant snare on the left side with guitars mixed in on the right. Then, as if Springsteen is stepping up to the center microphone, you hear his voice smack-dab in the middle. It’s not a very energetic track, but it’s a tough mix with instruments and sound switching from left to right and swelling together. AirPods Pro don’t add any extra vibrancy to the track by upping tones, but rather present it in a balanced environment that focuses on vocals.
For a more powerful test that encompasses drums, pianos, multiple vocals, guitars and a saxophone, we opted for “Born to Run.” With the AirPods Pro, you can clearly hear each instrument on the track as the Adaptive EQ works to mix the track in real time.
The volume produced at 50% is loud enough to block out most sound, even with noise cancellation turned off. But turning on the ANC really shows the power of the AirPods Pro. Their noise-canceling ability rivals even the best over-ear headphones, creating a truly immersive, studio-like listening experience. While flying with AirPods Pro in and the ANC turned on, the engine noise and plane environmental sounds are brought down to a whisper with the volume at 50%; turning the volume up to 70% sounds almost the same as when you were still on the ground. These beat out any other passive or active noise-canceling abilities of all the earbuds we tested, and the experience is consistent whether you’re connected to an iPhone, a Google Pixel, a Mac or even a Surface Go2.
One small imperfection with the AirPods Pro is that, as an Apple-made product, connectivity to iOS devices is prioritized. As soon as you open the lid on the AirPods Pro case, the true wireless earbuds start casting a connection to iOS devices; with non-Apple devices you’ll head over to Bluetooth in order to manually connect to the AirPods Pro when first pairing. After that, opening up the case and placing them in your ears will have them connect. While it may be quicker for iOS devices, in our testing we found the connection to be sturdy and stable with 38 different devices, many of which were not Apple-made. We didn’t experience any dropouts, and using non-Apple devices didn’t affect battery life.
Those pairing with an iPhone also get the “Ear Tip Fit Test” during the initial pairing process. Essentially, this uses Adaptive EQ and pulsating tones to measure which size tips are correct for your ear.
You can comfortably wear these for long stretches, thanks to their design and long battery life — specifically five hours of it (you can quick-charge via the case for an additional five hours) even with ANC turned on. You can stretch that with ANC or transparency modes turned off.
AirPods Pro really land at the top of the mountain both in feature set and in price. At $220 (originally $249), these are the most expensive, but the sound quality, battery life, connectivity and class-leading noise cancellation will blow you away.
No matter how fast we ran or how hard we pedaled, the Powerbeats Pro didn’t so much as wiggle in our ears.
And that’s thanks to the design of their earhooks, which are a bit more compact than others we tested and keep the earbuds more snug to the ear. The earhooks are malleable, allowing them to easily slide over the top of the ear and rest behind it; they’ll even mold to your ear (and you can conform them to the fit you want).
The buds’ IPX4 rating for dust and water means they can withstand a rain shower without fail — or a shower of sweat, be it from a 45-minute Peloton ride, a 5-mile run or just general wear on a sweaty, hot day. While the AirPods Pro share this rating, the Powerbeats Pro’s matte finish allowed the sweat to bead and drip off more quickly than the AirPods’ glossy finish.
Most critically, the Powerbeats Pro also sound great. They produce a balanced sound that puts an emphasis on bass, but it’s not overemphasized as we’d seen in the past with Beats. The mid and high tones are still clear and intact.
For example, “I’m on Fire” isn’t a bass-heavy song, but one that clearly separates the left and right sides. With the Powerbeats, the drums and guitar are separated accurately, and seamlessly blend together as the track concludes. Springsteen’s main vocals come through the center, making you feel as if you are at a concert.
“Born to Run” was even more vibrant on the Powerbeats Pro than on the AirPods Pro: The blast at the beginning with nearly every instrument sounded arena-like. The buds presented the track in a crisp form where you could clearly hear each instrument, which results in a terrific audio experience.
With Jessie J’s “Domino,” you start with vocals that quickly range and harmonize, reaching high tones with a basic backing beat. Guitar is then layered on top with synthesizer sounds as accompaniment. The Powerbeats Pro delivered a crisp mix that didn’t introduce any artifacts or extra noise onto the track. Simply put, they emphasized vocals and the main beat, but not in an overpowering way.
Powerbeats Pro are powered by the same hardware as the AirPods Pro. That means fast pairing with Apple devices and a less magical but still zippy experience with Android. Beats eases this a bit with a companion app for Android that enables a faster connection and quick pairing. Regardless of the device (Apple, Android, Windows or Google Chrome), we found it to be a stable connection with no latency.
Another fitness-centric bonus is the on-device controls, which let you easily manage playback, engage voice assistance and even adjust the volume. And you won’t have to worry about these calling it quits before you’re done with your workout: We averaged almost nine hours on the Powerbeats Pro.
With earhooks and a matte finish, Powerbeats Pro are not only up to the task of handling sweat or a downpour, but they’ll last nine hours. For $199.95 (originally $249.95), you’re getting the same sound quality as AirPods Pro, and at times even more vibrant.
The QuietComfort Earbuds are, quite frankly, the best noise-canceling earbuds we’ve used to date — even better, in this regard, to the AirPods Pro. They fully block all background noise from a room in an instant.
In an apartment with a noisy central air system that was set to high, putting the QuietComfort Earbuds in and setting noise cancellation to 10 resulted in serenity. The QuietComfort Earbuds remove all tones, while AirPods Pro allow some noises to pass through.
There are also levels to the noise cancellation — 11, to be precise — and as you go up on the scale, the earbuds, microphones and algorithms work to block out environmental noise. You can even have no music playing and noise cancellation turned on to help you focus (a pretty handy work-from-home hack if we say so ourselves). Level zero is a transparency mode, similar to the mode on AirPods Pro, as it allows environmental noise in.
But fret not: That powerful noise cancellation doesn’t hamper battery life. QuietComfort Earbuds fall slightly ahead of other earbuds with six hours of battery life — no matter if noise cancellation is on or off. Higher volumes and higher levels of noise cancellation do result in that falling closer to five hours and 30 minutes, though. The battery case provides two additional full charges, and it delivers a neat quick-charge function. A quick 15-minute journey in the case delivers two hours of playback. For comparison, AirPods Pro delivered five hours with no noise cancellation and four hours and 30 minutes with noise cancellation on.
Expectedly, sound quality from the QuietComfort Earbuds is in line with previous Bose earbuds and headphones. It’s a rich and balanced mix that doesn’t shy away from delivering an energizing audio experience, which is ticked up a few notches here with a more powerful bass and focus on lower tones.
EDM and pop genres absolutely shine with the QuietComfort Earbuds. “Wake Me Up” by Avicci starts with a simple guitar strum that sounds quite wide, with deep vocals overlaid. It comes through clear, with no distortion or cracking, even at full volume. About 38 seconds in you get a strong kick drum, which delivers a rousing bass beat that delivers in full force before more instruments, higher vocals and an electronic beat mask over the track.
The remastered version of “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen comes through vibrantly, and the QuietComfort Earbuds deliver an invigorating wall-of-sound effect, allowing you to clearly hear the drums, piano and guitar at the opening.
All in all, it’s one of the best mixes Bose has produced, and those who like EDM, pop or strong bass will be exceptionally happy here.
Our biggest qualm is with their design, which is, summed up in a word, noticeable. They’re quite large and have a long oval build that sticks out of your ear. While overall the buds are comfortable, you’ll definitely notice them in your ears, as they’re pretty heavy for true wireless earbuds. Each bud is 0.3 ounces, or 8.5 grams. AirPods, for instance, are nearly 3 grams lighter, and the same goes for Galaxy Buds Live. It’s harder to forget these are in your ears; after the first few wears, you’ll also feel that something was in your ears after removing them.
But if you can look past the not-so-discreet design, along with the $280 price tag, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds bring a lot of features. Namely, they deliver the best noise cancellation on any pair of true wireless earbuds — besting the AirPods Pro and the Sony WF-1000XM3s.
Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live are James Bond-like in their stealth. The bean-shaped earbuds sit in, and are flush with, the ear. No stem sticking out like the AirPods. No speaker tunneling into your ear canal like the Amazon Echo Buds. No hook wrapping itself around your ear like the Powerbeats Pro. In short: No part of the Galaxy Buds Live will cause any pressure, pinch or poke your ear, or cause any other discomfort. Instead, they sit comfortably, and somewhat unnoticeably, in your ears.
The top portion of each bud does feature a small rubber circle out of the box — although it can be swapped for a larger tip — to ensure the Buds Live stay in place, but you can barely tell that tip is there. Despite the lack of earhooks or stems, the Buds Live stay put. No matter if we were sitting at our desk or out for a jog, the Buds Live didn’t budge.
Aiding in the comfort is an air vent near the speakers on each earbud. Essentially, this acts as a way for air to flow into the ear, alleviating any pressure buildup on the eardrum. Other earbuds, AirPods Pro and Galaxy Buds+ included, use an ear tip around the speaker to create a seal, which does wonders to block passive outside sound. But it also creates more pressure on the ear, leading to a kind of boxed-in feeling that some might find uncomfortable.
The small size of the Buds Live belies their sound quality. While they don’t seal the ear like the AirPods Pro — leading to some sound leakage — the Galaxy Buds Live do pack some powerful audio. Samsung managed to keep a 12mm speaker (tuned by AKG) in each bud, which means sound is strong and on par with our other top picks.
The Buds Live deliver a balanced mix that lets each instrument category stand out, as opposed to the more nuanced sound of the AirPods that let you hear individual instruments. With a song like “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen, it’s not muddied, but you hear more groups of instruments rather than each individual melody produced. The Buds Live do shine with lower-end and bass tones, though. Drums in “Born To Run” have a noticeable bop to them. “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish features a prominent bass beat that keeps the song going, and the Buds Live present it strong with no crackling or other artifacts. And similar to the Buds+, you get some control over the playback mix with a companion app that allows you to create a custom EQ or pick from a number of presets.
Thankfully, Samsung does not waste the comfort of these earbuds with lackluster battery life. You’ll be able to rock out for hours. In our tests, we got six hours with ANC turned on (eight with ANC turned off). Though that still falls behind the insane 11 hours of listening with no ANC that the Galaxy Buds+ offer, these beat the AirPods Pro by an hour.
The main takeaway with the Galaxy Buds Live is that you’ll forget they’re in your ears, and you’ll walk away after six or eight hours with no ear pain. That’s a high bar for any true wireless earbud, let alone one with a unique design and solid sound. At $169.99, these undercut our top pick and are more comfortable to boot.
We listened to a wide range of genres from pop to classic rock, focusing on bass, as well as soundstage and sound clarity. We charged each pair to full and let them drain. We wore them for hours at a time to get a feel for how they fit. We also analyzed and rated the nuances of each device’s control scheme.
Read on for a thorough breakdown of each and every testing category.
- Overall: We assessed general sound quality using a number of tracks. Core songs we tested include: “Born to Run,” “Domino,” “I’m on Fire,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “What A Man Gotta Do,” “Ex’s & Oh’s,” “Rosalita,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Dance Tonight,” “Higher Love,” “You Make My Dreams” and “Get Down Tonight,” among others.
- Low, mid, high: During the lower, mid-ranged and higher tones in songs, we listened to how each pair addressed each range.
- Bass: We listened to how well buds could reproduce the depth and kick of bass in a variety of songs.
- Soundstage: Musical soundstage is the three-dimensional feeling provided by high-quality stereo sound. Strong soundstage shows off the instrument and vocal positions in 3D space.
Design and comfort
- Build quality: Testing a number of physical properties of each pair of buds, we determined how heavy they felt in our ears, as well as whether they used an earhook to hold them in place. We also tested whether they bent, and to what degree, as well as the sturdiness of the build, and rated how soft or firm each pair was, a factor that affects comfort and ear size flexibility.
- Fit in ear: On multiple days, we wore each of them from three to eight hours at a time to determine how these fit in the ear, namely in the form of comfort or if pressure was added. We tried them out at various times during the day to account for varying ear canal tension. We also monitored fit with different genres at different volumes. If any additional ear tip sizes were included, we tried them to find the best fit.
- Stays in the ear: With buds inserted, we took a walk, went on a run, did a 45-minute Peloton workout and wore them around the house to test their ability to stay put. We also tried lying down and tilting each ear toward the floor.
- IP rating: An IP rating is an international standard scoring electrical devices on how well they resist elements like dust and moisture. We tested each device to the fullest extent of its rating, spraying them with water, and wearing them in the rain and during intensive workouts. With dust, we tried to get a bit dirty running outside in a number of environments and tested removing the dust.
- Connectivity: We tested three connectivity functions: VoIP calls (specifically FaceTime, Google Hangouts and Skype), latency and fast pairing. For VoIP testing, we simply rang people up and recorded real-time feedback on quality. To test latency, we looked into how quickly on-device controls registered with each device — for example, how long it took to pause music when we used the pause function on a pair of buds. Finally, we checked whether buds could fast pair, such as Apple-made pairs quickly being recognized by and pairing with Apple devices. We tested these on an array of devices, including iPhone 11, 11 Pro, 11 Pro Max, SE (2020), 8, XR, Google Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL, Pixel 3a, Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20+, Galaxy S20 Ultra, Galaxy Note 10+, Galaxy S10e, Galaxy S10, Galaxy S10+, TCL 10 Pro, TCL 10L, OnePlus 8 Pro, Fire HD 8, Galaxy Tab S6, 16-inch MacBook Pro, 13-inch MacBook Pro (2020), 2018 and 2020 MacBook Air, Apple Watch Series 3, Apple Watch Series 5, 7th-Gen iPad, 10.5-inch iPad Pro, 11-inch iPad Pro (2018), 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2018/2020), HP Zenbook, Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, Surface Pro 6, Surface Book 2, Surface Laptop 3 and Surface Go2.
- On-device controls: We learned every control on each device, looking at how intuitive functions like playback, calls, volume adjustments and Bluetooth pairing are. We noted which controls required holding our finger down versus one or several presses. We also listened for voice narration of controls or information such as battery life.
- Off-device controls: We determined whether a device had a companion app or if it had native support on a specific device (e.g. AirPods Pro and Apple devices). If they did, we sussed out how much control they provided and what value the experience brought to the table.
- NC: Noise cancellation is measured by how well a device cancels environmental sounds. Some devices feature active noise cancellation (ANC), which uses microphones to listen to and cancel the frequencies of these sounds. To test NC, we put on buds with and without music under a variety of environmental conditions. This includes outdoor running and Peloton workouts, taking a walk on a windy day, listening to a dog barking, commuting on public transportation, and flying in an exit row and at the front of a plane.
- Voice control: We tested numerous commands in a variety of conditions. These included dictating messages or emails, sending payments, asking for inquiries and dialing a number.
- Call quality: We made numerous calls to people across various devices via VoIP and mobile calls. We listened to the sound quality of the calls and noted any artifacts like crackling or poor compression. We also took feedback from recipients on how we sounded.
- Battery life: We matched how long each pair’s battery lasted against how long they are purported to last.
- Battery life + case: We performed the same test comparing each pair’s battery life plus the additional battery life provided by its case. This included testing with and without the additional battery life provided by charging cases.
- Charging time: We recorded how long it took to charge the buds from dead to full, how long they gained percentage after being dead, and quick-charge functions.
- Warranty: We determined which warranty/warranties were provided with each device.
Every pair of earbuds received a score for each subcategory. The combined scores of each tier comprised each category’s max score. For our workout pair, we put an emphasis on subcategories such as battery life and fit in-ear. Naturally, our top pick for battery life required the best score under the battery life category.
Check out how we broke down the points below.
- Sound quality had a maximum of 25 points: overall (10 points), low, mid and high (5 points), bass (5 points) and soundstage (5 points).
- Design and comfort had a maximum of 25 points: build quality (10 points), fit in-ear (5 points), stays in the ear (5 points) and IP rating (5 points).
- Connectivity had a maximum of 10 points: connectivity (10 points).
- Controls had a maximum 10 points: on-device controls (5 points) and off-device controls (5 points).
- NC (noise cancellation) had a maximum of 5 points: overall (5 points).
- Microphones had a maximum of 10 points: voice control (5 points), call quality (5 points).
- Warranty had a maximum of 5 points: warranty (5 points).
Amazon Echo Buds ($129.99; amazon.com)
Echo Buds hit the scene last fall and aimed to pack a punch with a price of $129.99 that undercut nearly all the other core wireless earbuds. These ended up being average across the board, but they’re a solid option as a value pick. Their very focused in-ear design lacks some of the stability offered by the likes of the Galaxy Buds+. Given their size, you might expect a similar battery life, but the longest usage period we got with these was 4½ hours. Sound was balanced across the board but lacked some vibrancy and loudness.
Apple AirPods (starting at $129, originally $159; amazon.com)
Apple’s second-generation AirPods provide a really close experience to the AirPods Pro, but these lack some of the wideness for sound quality (as well as bass) and feature no noise cancellation. You get the classic AirPods design with a white finish, and there are no gel tips — these just go right into your ears. You still get five hours of battery life on each charge, fast pairing and hands-free “Hey Siri” access.
Google Pixel Buds ($179; bhphotovideo.com)
The Pixel Buds feature solid sound, battery life and a stealthy design. On the whole playing field, these sit in the middle across the board. For Android users, these deserve a look after the Galaxy Buds+, especially if you want a deep integration with the Google Assistant. The Pixel Buds offered some of the best voice pickup we experienced.
Microsoft Surface Earbuds ($199.99; microsoft.com)
The Surface Earbuds performed well in our testing and real-world usage. You’ll get stable connectivity, a unique circular disc-like design, and eight hours of battery life. But for $199.99, you’re going to be left wanting more, especially when you compare them with our top picks. Microsoft super fans who use the 365 suite daily will be impressed by dictation and other integrated features.
Sony WF-1000XM3 ($178, originally $229.99; amazon.com)
We once ranked Sony’s WF-1000XM3s as the top in true wireless, but nearly a year later, we’ve found some clear areas where they fall short, notably in design. We don’t like how much they stick out of and weigh down the ear. Additionally, there is no type of resistance, which makes them harder to recommend for wear in a variety of situations. Sound is still good, with a wide soundstage and an app for customization.
Samsung Galaxy Buds+ ($130, originally $149.99; amazon.com)
If you want a pair of true wireless earbuds that won’t break the bank, Samsung has you covered with the $130 Galaxy Buds+. These lasted 11 hours on one charge — that’s six more hours than AirPods Pro and two more hours than Powerbeats Pro. That long runtime is paired with an equalizer in the companion app for iOS or Android, so you can up the bass or increase high tones as you see fit, which means you’ll get good sound quality that holds its own against more expensive options.