The Best Earbuds (In-Ear Headphones) for 2020
If you’re a music lover, chances are you’re not happy with your phone or media player’s bundled earphones. Most of the time, they sound pretty dismal. Some devices don’t come with any earphones at all, but even the models that do include them tend not to offer a high-quality listening experience. Your music and video can definitely benefit from an upgrade.
Technically speaking, earbuds are not earphones, as they don’t enter your ear canal. Instead they sit just outside of it, where it’s easy to become loose and cause problems when it comes to accurate stereo imaging (in which both ears get the same amount of audio) and bass response. Earphones, meanwhile, fit in the ear canal and form a seal inside your ear, blocking outside noise while piping sound directly into your ears. They’re much smaller and lighter than headphones, since they don’t need to fit on or over your ears and don’t require any outside support (though some have stiff wire sections or flexible fins to keep them in place without getting in the way). Plus they won’t mess up your hair.
That said, the term earbuds has become synonymous with earphones and in-ear headphones, so the difference is ultimately academic. Whatever you call them and whatever they say on the box, you should look for earphones that form a good seal inside your ear with silicone or foam eartips. They’ll sound much better than plastic-covered drivers cupped against your ear canal.
Wired, Wireless, or Wire-Free?
Earphones can connect to your smartphone through a 3.5mm cable or wirelessly over Bluetooth, depending on the model. Wired earphones are generally less expensive, and you don’t need to worry about keeping them charged. Bluetooth earphones are more convenient because you don’t have to physically connect them to your smartphone, but they need battery power to work. For the most part, you won’t find a 3.5mm port and removable cable on Bluetooth earphones; when they’re out of power, they’re out of commission until you charge them again.
There’s also true wireless earbuds, which we also call wire-free. These are essentially Bluetooth earphones, but with no cable connecting the individual earpieces. It took a solid year for the bugs to get shaken out of this category, with issues like short battery life and awkward design plaguing early devices.
We’re starting to see some very compelling wire-free earphones now, with companies like Bose and JLab offering sets with the power, longevity, and intuitive controls necessary for us to recommend them. Typically wire-free earphones were more expensive than conventional wireless earphones, but there are now several compelling sets available for under $150 or even under $100.
Good for Workouts
Earphones might not be as eye-catching as headphones, but they can be much more convenient. Besides their size and weight, earphones are often more resilient than headphones when dealing with moisture. This is important if you want to listen to music at the gym. Earpads can get soaked and worn with a solid sweat, and they aren’t built to withstand the regular, constant friction that comes with working out. Earphones can be built to be water- and sweat-resistant, and hold up much better to activity.
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Besides the rugged factor, earphones are also much better for staying on your head while you’re in motion. A good set of headphones will feel comfortable when you’re sitting or walking around, but when you start running or biking they can easily shake free of your ears. Fitness-oriented earphones often have stabilizing fins built in to them to ensure that they’ll stay in place no matter what you do at the gym. For the best options, check out our list of The Best Headphones for Running.