The winners of this year’s audio tests came from brands that range from three-year-old startups to longtime audio stalwarts, a testament to how dialed the technology has become. Each year we see more and more bargain models on the market that, if you didn’t check the price tag, you might think went for $100, or twice that. And every year brings more new and clever features, like in-ear detection and sound profiles to suit your taste for bass vs. treble. Then there’s active noise cancellation (ANC), which first came to earbuds some five years ago but has become commonplace, perhaps an indicator that the world around us really needs to shut the hell up, and that we all—whether running, doing yoga, or commuting—can best find our sweet spot when alone in our particular sound cave. One thing Outside readers can appreciate is the increasing ruggedness and water resistance in basically any pair of buds you might acquire—even those that don’t have high IP (ingress protection) ratings are likely able to survive a walk in the rain or a drop into a puddle and still keep doing what they do. With less and less to separate high-end products from low-end, the differentiators are becoming more a question of how much care and attention to detail are put into the product.
Read on for our winners, from deserving buds of all shapes and sizes to the best premium travel headphones.
The Winners at a Glance
Best All-Around: Marshall Motif II ANC ($200)
Pros: Top-notch, dynamic sound; Rockin’ design
Cons: Shorter-than-average battery life
The Motif II ANCs have the same popular stem design as Apple’s beloved AirPods Pro but cling to your ears even better. Like the AirPods Pro, they sound fantastic, with faithful, crystal-clear highs, mids, and lows (and no artificial, random bass boosting), and come with a versatile app that includes a custom equalizer (where, yes, you can add more bass). But unlike the AirPods Pro, the Motif II ANC earbuds carry Marshall’s pedigree classic rock aesthetic, which is actually very useful: the grippy metal stems make them much easier to handle, and the textured vinyl case feels indestructible. They even come in at $50 less than Apple’s counterpart. In testing, connectivity proved flawless, and their active noise cancellation (ANC) was very effective, though a step below Apple’s model. One tester did find that their robust design meant they needed occasional fit adjustment during runs, and their IPX5 protection means they’re not rated to keep out dust and solids, but they will do fine with heavy rain, sweat, or sea spray. Battery life is the only real downside: They play for just 6 hours with ANC engaged or 9 hours without (similar to the AirPods Pro but 2–3 hours less than competitors like Sony, Sennheiser, and JLabs) and the case holds four extra charges. But with the “best sound quality of all the buds in this test,” according to one tester, and a design that made everyone take notice, the Motif II A.N.C.s take home our top prize for their character and quality.
Best for Runners: Beats Studio Buds + ($170)
Pros: Easy to use; Secure fit; Consistently good sound
Cons: Limited grip area makes them easy to drop
The well-engineered Studio Buds + are our top pick for runners because of their light weight and small profile, staying in place well while you bob about. One tester, who even used them while paddleboarding, found that they “fit really well immediately out of the box and never fell out or needed adjusting.” They didn’t, however, boast the lockdown security of the “wingtips” that came built-in on the earlier (and still available) Beats Fit Pro. The Studio Buds + are an improvement over their predecessors (same name sans the +), with upgrades that include better ANC and longer battery life (6 hours with ANC on, 9 hours without). With an IPX4 protection rating, they held up against sweat and light rain. This model put extra oomph in our strides with bassier but nice ’n’ clear sound, similar to that of the Apple AirPods Pro. ANC on the Studio Buds + is only middle of the pack but did a decent job blocking out the chatter in a crowded coffeehouse, and Beats tripled the size of the microphones for a call quality that impressed testers. We also liked the push controls on the outside of each bud, which never accidentally paused tracks the way touch controls sometimes do. Similarly, they don’t have in-ear detection, a feature some of our testers find aggravating. Forgot to charge them? A five-minute plug-in adds a quick hour of playback time. While their diminutive size can make them hard to grasp when plucking them out of the magnetic case, we nevertheless found ourselves reaching for them routinely, especially when heading to the trail. And as you’d expect from the brand, the Studio Buds + look sleek and wholly of the moment—we especially approved of the transparent option, but the ivory and black/gold opaque models are also appropriately sporty.
Best for Smaller Ears: Raycon Fitness Earbuds ($120)
Pros: Extreme portability; Surprisingly bold sound
Cons: A bit on the fragile side; More likely to be lost
The magic in the straightforwardly named Fitness Earbuds lies in their barely-there size. Both the lightweight buds and the case—which fits in the palm of your hand and slips discreetly into any pocket—are tiny. This makes it all the more impressive that they can pump out rich, deep sound for 12 hours on a charge (with ANC off) and hold 44 more hours of recharging in the case. One of our testers, a runner with several ear piercings, said “these felt the most comfortable and secure in my ears,” a fact that is helped by the soft stabilizing fins that cleverly slip on and off depending on your preference. Folks with larger ears enjoyed them too but did have occasional trouble with them falling out. The Fitness Earbuds come with helpful touch controls for volume, ANC, and even three different sound profiles (more bass, etc.), and their multipoint feature lets you connect to both phone and laptop at the same time. IPX7 water-resistance means they can handle rain and even short periods of total immersion. One tester who works as a carpenter wore them at work and “never had any issues with them being affected by sweat or sawdust.”
Killer Value: JLab GO Air Sport ($30)
Pros: Exceptional value; Secure fit
Cons: Infrequent pairing issues; Some tunes can sound tinny
For those who put their buds through hell, there’s nothing to dislike in this smooth-sounding unit, given that they come with a replacement cost that is barely more than a pizza with all the toppings. Their comfortable, bendy, ear hooks all but guarantee a secure fit during workouts, even if your workouts involve handstands. With an IP55 rating, they can handle dust and moderate rain. “These were my go-to earbuds for durability,” said our Anchorage-based tester. “I tested them on trail runs and hikes during misty Alaska rains. They are very durable and did not fall out of my ears or seem to be affected by rain or sweat.” While one runner on the test crew found the relatively large case a bit cumbersome to carry in a pocket, the 8-hour charge was adequate for most workouts and daylong activities (and the case provides another 24 hours). As for that case: We like that it has its own built-in USB charging cord. The touch controls are nice to have but don’t always perform as expected, and the earbuds do not come with ANC, though at this price that shouldn’t be an expectation. Based on their durability, clear sound, reliable connectivity, and price, they make perfect sense for more rough-and-tumble activities or as a backup to pricier headsets.
Best Travel Headphones: Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2e ($399)
Pros: Excellent sound; Invitingly discreet design
Cons: Not suitable for adventures
“These are the best-sounding over-ear wireless headphones I’ve experienced,” one of our veteran testers exclaimed. In a category dominated by the likes of Bose, Sony, and Apple, it’s refreshing that this year’s most inviting travel headphones come from a legendary British audiophile brand, founded in 1966, known for its excellent but pricey and historically not rugged headphones. The Px7 S2e addresses both of those issues, quietly going about its business with a solidly built and thrilling-to-listen-to product at a price that is perfectly reasonable. We gave them style points for a nice range of beautiful, nature-based color options, from the standard Anthracite Black to Cloud Grey, Ocean Blue, and Forest Green. The active noise cancellation, while not best in class, does a decent job, using four microphones to adapt to your surrounding soundscape, and they come with a barebones but serviceable app. Battery life is a stellar 30 hours, and a 15-minute charge provides seven additional hours. While testers wished they could reach slightly higher volumes, bass-heavy head-bopping isn’t what these are made for. “If you want balance, resolution, accuracy, transparency, and deeply pleasurable naturalness, this one delivers,” a tester wrote. They do fall short in packability—one tester noted, “it would be nice if they folded”—and we wouldn’t advise wearing them in a downpour, but the Px7 S2e comes with a sturdy protective case that will stand up to a certain degree of rough handling. Just remember to pack it in your carry-on.
How to Buy
Earbuds are more like shoes than most other gear categories: so much depends on the right fit. What comfortably fits one person’s ears may not suit another’s, and there’s more to it than size. The internal anatomy of the ear makes certain designs actually sound better to one person than the next. If you can’t try them out at a store or borrow them from a friend, it may be best to buy them from a retailer with a good return policy. Once you have them in hand, do some real-world tests with the different tip sizes, and trade them in if you aren’t in love.
If you want to get serious about the perfect fit, consider aftermarket foam eartips, like these from Comply. In addition to helping with a more secure fit, they provide passive noise isolation, which can improve the experience with both ANC-equipped and ANC-less earbuds. Should fit issues persist, consider a model with behind-the-ear hooks, like the JLabs GO Air Sport reviewed here.
Also give some thought to which features do it for you: Some people like sleek touch controls, others prefer old-school push buttons; some like to tap for quick pausing, others would rather forgo that feature and pull out one bud to ask for directions, so as to avoid the annoyance of unwanted pauses every time your fingers go near them. And if you live in a rainy climate, be sure to choose ones with an IP rating ending in 4 or higher (as all the models here do).
Finally, be aware that there are more specialized designs emerging and getting better each year–like these earbuds for swimmers, others for cyclists and skiers, and open-ear designs for those who want to stay more tuned in to their surroundings.
How We Test
Number of Miles Run During Testing: 255
Number of Dogs Walked: 8
Yoga Sessions: 7
Hours of Podcasts Consumed During Travel: 28
Coldest Temp: –3, Anchorage, Alaska
Warmest Temp: 90, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Most Remote Testing Location: Antarctica
Most Listened-To Tracks: Japanese Breakfast: “Paprika,” Bob Marley and the Wailers: “Natural Mystic,” Wet Leg: “Chaise Longue,” Danger Mouse and Black Thought, feat. MF Doom: “Belize,” Kelly Lee Owens: “Moebius,” Brian Eno: “Discreet Music,” Sam Fender: “Hypersonic Missiles”
The first thing we do with any earbuds, headphones, or speakers is attempt to pair them with our phones without consulting the user manual: the quicker, more intuitive, and easier the Bluetooth setup, the more points scored. Then we put them through rigorous hours of testing doing the kinds of things Outside readers do—from dog walks to HIIT workouts, from fireside listening to our day jobs, which for one of us is at the local woodworking shop. Our testers, who range in location from Alaska to Berkeley to Santa Fe to New York City, spent hours in them, bouncing up and down on trails, treadmills, and trains.
Our team turns in reports on each product tested, providing a score from 1 to 10 for five different measures: sound quality, pairing and connectivity, fit and comfort, rain and drop protection, and user friendliness. Scores are averaged, with more weight given to sound quality and (knowing our audience) how well they stand up to the elements. Note: Battery life estimates in these reviews are based on manufacturer specs; it’s difficult to confirm those numbers, given the time involved and variances among user habits (different volumes, different uses, different functions enabled). Actual results may be 10 to 20 percent lower, judging from averages experienced in general testing.
Meet Our Lead Tester
Will Palmer has been testing gear for 20 years for Outside, where he was managing editor and copy chief for nine years. Based in Santa Fe, he has been a runner since 1984, and while the mile counts have decreased over the years, he’s kept motivated to head out the door on the hottest, coldest, and wettest days by the opportunity to test the best new products—and to commune with the junipers and piñons.