The hottest development in consumer electronics these days is as close as your ears. Headphone engineers are using some of the coolest cutting-edge technology to create portable earphones that are totally free of wires (finally!). They’ve designed some noise-canceling headphone models that deliver excellent sound. They’re also adding fun features and functions to sports models, such as heart-rate and activity monitors, and “coaches” that will talk you through your workout routine. There are even models that you can pop into your ears to listen to your favorite songs while you’re swimming laps.
We’ve separated headphones into the three most buzzworthy categories: true wireless earphones, noise-canceling, and sports. Read our rundown on what you need to know about each type and then consult our ratings to find a pair that's sure to bring music to your ears.
True Wireless Earphones
Wireless headphone sales exceeded sales of wired models last year for the first time. No wonder: Eliminating the need to plug them into a smartphone or other music source also eliminates the irritation of snagging the cord or accidentally yanking them out of your ears at the gym. Until recently, though, wireless earphones were wireless in name only. The earpieces were still connected by a cord that usually hangs behind the head or is worn in a plastic “collar.”
That all changed when the first “true wireless” or totally wireless earphones came onto the market in late 2015. (Apple got a lot of attention a year later when it announced its totally wireless AirPods.) As the name suggests, true wireless earphones have no external wires at all. The two untethered earpieces fit very much like a pair of hearing aids. Some, like the Apple AirPods, follow voice commands to do such things as pause or skip to the next song.
The early versions we tested were glitchy. The volume levels didn’t always match up in both ears, the sound wasn’t always in sync, and the controls were finicky. Manufacturers have been working out the bugs, and we have seen some glitch-free models, including the Jabra Elite Sport, Apple AirPods, Bragi Dash, and Bragi The Headphone.
Advantages: Because there are no wires, there’s nothing to tangle or knot and nothing hanging behind your head, running under your chin, or worn around your neck. The models we’ve seen so far tend to fit securely.
Drawbacks: The earpieces of true wireless earphones contain all of the electronics, so they’re larger and heavier than most other types, which can take some getting used to. Most hold a charge for only 3 or so hours, which is about half as long as standard wireless models. Several are controlled by tapping and swiping the earpiece, which can be awkward. One tested model had an app that would work only with an Android phone, so be sure to check before buying.
Frequent flyers have appreciated the welcome dose of serenity delivered by noise-canceling headphones ever since Bose introduced the first pair almost 20 years ago. (They were used by pilots for at least a decade before that.)
“Noise-canceling headphones are outfitted with microphones that pick up surrounding sound, invert it, and add it back, which cancels out the more constant background noises, to a greater or lesser degree, for the listener,” explains Maurice Wynn, a senior tester in our labs.
Many models do well at canceling sound, but most don't deliver top-notch audio. But there are exceptions. “The best of the noise-canceling wired and wireless models that we’ve tested have sound quality that edged into the excellent range,” Wynn says. One of these, the new Bose QuietControl 30, is the first wireless portable noise-canceling headphone model to be rated Excellent in noise reduction and sound quality. Two wireless home/studio-style models, the Bose QuietComfort 35 and Sony h.ear MDR-100ABN, also scored Excellent in both categories.
Advantages: Some do a good job of dampening sounds and creating a measure of quiet even in the noisiest environments. Although none we tested delivered the clarity and fine sonic detail of the very best headphones, a handful are now good enough to satisfy demanding audiophiles. Some of the newer models, including the Bose QuietControl 30 and Parrot Zik 3, allow you to adjust the amount of ambient sound that can be heard, meaning you can set them to allow you to hear in-flight announcements while still blocking out a lot of the sound of the jet’s engines.
Drawbacks: They’re best at canceling steady, constant sound, so they won’t eliminate the wail of the crying baby in the row behind you or the horns honking outside your window when you're in a car. But the better models will do a decent job of muffling both.
Almost everyone likes at least the idea of getting in shape, which might be why well over half of all wireless portable headphones we’ve rated are sports models. (That includes five of the seven true wireless models.) “Sports headphones are popular because they’re useful and versatile,” Wynn says. “They’re typically designed to stay in the ear and not shake loose, a lot of them claim to be moisture-resistant, and many of the ones we’ve rated have very good sound. There’s nothing preventing you from using them when you’re not working out.”
The newest sports headphones are being designed with features more typically found in a sports watch or fitness tracker, including heart-rate monitoring, step counting, distance tracking, and the ability to calculate calories burned. The Jabra Elite Sport, a recommended true wireless model that rates Very Good overall, and the Jabra Sport Coach, a CR Best Buy model that rates Good overall, count reps and steps, and talk you through your workout while running through your playlist. The Bragi Dash true wireless earphones, which rate Good overall, are designed to be waterproof to a depth of about 3 feet. They can be used by swimmers, though the company cautions that prolonged exposure to salt water and chlorine can damage the earpieces. A built-in player lets you download songs or other recorded files to listen to without pairing the earphones to a smartphone.
Advantages: Generally secure-fitting and light, with some capable of producing very good sound, sports headphones can be a versatile choice.
Drawbacks: They’ll track your steps or other activity only while you’re wearing them, which can make them impractical to use in place of a fitness tracker. Most of the sports earphones we’ve rated are isolating designs, which fit snugly in the ear to block out surrounding noise, and can be dangerous when running or walking on roadways (see “Sound Safety Advice”).
More on Headphones
- Headphone Safety Tips
- Headphone Buying Guide
- Best Headphones for Under $100
- The Problem With Truly Wireless Earbuds
- More Headphone Users Will Cut the Cord in 2017
- New Vi Headphones Use Artificial Intelligence to Make You a Smarter Runner
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