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Best wireless headphones for 2021

With many different wireless headphones to choose from, which ones are the best of the best? Here's a look at CNET's top picks -- from full-size noise-canceling models to tiny true wireless earbuds.

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There are three major categories of wireless headphones: true wireless earbuds such as AirPods and AirPods Pro, full-size wireless noise-canceling headphones (led by Bose and Sony, and the new AirPods Max), and all the budget wireless headphones that dominate the bestseller list at Amazon -- because there are plenty of consumers who are done with their wired headphones or earbuds but can't afford the more high-end models. These people are in search of cheap wireless headphones that deliver good value and great sound for lower prices.

Granted, with so many choices, it's hard to narrow things down into a best-of-the best wireless headphones list, especially since it's impossible to review every model on the market. But I'll give it a shot. These are my current favorites. I've considered factors such as sound quality, active noise cancellation and the comfort of the ear cup. I update this list often.

David Carnoy/CNET

No earbuds are perfect, of course, and not everybody will love the fit of the Sony WF-1000XM4 buds or be able to afford their high price. But if you're looking for great-sounding earbuds with great noise canceling, solid voice-calling capabilities and good battery life, these buds check all the boxes. Read our Sony WF-1000XM4 review.

Read our Sony WF-1000XM4 review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

Sony's earlier WH-1000XM3 model was great. But if it had a weakness, that was its voice-calling capabilities, particularly in noisier environments. The new WH-1000XM4 improves in that area and also adds multipoint Bluetooth pairing so you can connect to two devices -- such as your phone and PC -- at the same time. That means that if a call comes in while you're using the headphones with your computer, the audio will switch to your phone when you answer the call.

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 probably still have a slight edge for voice calls, but the 1000XM4 headphones are arguably a tad more comfortable and also have some other slight improvements to noise cancellation and sound that make this model a great all-around choice.

Read our Sony WH-1000XM4 review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

Yes, they're expensive, but the AirPods Max deliver richer, more detailed sound than lower-priced competitors from Bose and Sony, and work very well as a headset for making calls. While I wouldn't recommend them for Android and Windows users, they're the ideal work-from-home headphones for iOS and Mac users who want to switch easily between their devices. 

They also feature arguably the best noise canceling on the market, along with premium build quality and Apple's virtual surround spatial audio feature for video watching. While they're heavy, they manage to be surprisingly comfortable, though I did have to adjust the mesh canopy headband to sit a little more forward on my head to get a comfortable secure fit when I was out walking with them. They should fit most heads well, but there will be exceptions.

Read our Apple AirPods Max review.

 

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In many ways, Bose's $279 noise-canceling QuietComfort Earbuds are excellent true wireless earbuds, particularly when it comes to their sound and to their noise canceling, which is right there with the Sony WF-1000XM4's noise canceling. In performance they clearly have a leg up on Apple's best-selling AirPods Pro true wireless noise-canceling buds. However, the AirPods Pro's smaller design, somewhat more comfortable fit and superior voice-calling capabilities make it hard to declare the Bose the straight-up champ. Ultimately, it depends on what your priorities are.

Read our Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review.

 

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The Momentum True Wireless 2 are better all around than the originals, with a slightly smaller, more comfortable design, active noise canceling that rivals that of the AirPod Pro, improved battery life (up to seven hours versus the original's four) and better noise reduction during calls. Most importantly they have the same stellar sound -- for true wireless earbuds, anyway -- offering clearly superior sound quality to the AirPods Pro. That makes them one of the top true wireless earbuds on the market today and earned them a CNET Editors' Choice Award in 2019.

These use Bluetooth 5.1 with support for the AAC and AptX codecs (for devices that have AptX, such as Samsung's Galaxy smartphones).

Read our Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Even if they don't sound as magical as you'd hope a $249 model would, the Apple AirPods Pro still manage to be a great pair of true wireless earphones with noise cancelation. That's largely due to their winning design and fit, improved bass performance and effective noise canceling. They're an excellent choice when you want to make a call or listen to music during your workout. Yeah, they're expensive at $250, but the good news is we're regularly seeing them discounted to $200 and sometimes even slightly less.

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

Released in mid-2020, the Jabra Elite 45h was essentially billed as the best on-ear headphone for the money. While there's nothing terribly fancy about it is one of the best on-ear headphone values right now, with good sound quality, a sturdy design and comfortable fit (for on-ear headphones, anyway). Additionally, it performs well as a headset for making calls and includes a sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the headphones so you don't talk too loudly. Battery life is also good. Available in multiple color options, it lists for $100 but sometimes gets discounted to $80.

David Carnoy/CNET

After a long wait, Bowers & Wilkins has finally released a couple of sets of true wireless earbuds -- the PI7 ($399) and PI5 ($249) -- both of which are excellent and feature active noise canceling along with a transparency mode. The flagship PI7 has a different driver design and sounds slightly more detailed and refined with a little more bass energy. They both sound excellent, but if you're looking for the absolute best-sounding set of earbuds, the PI7 are arguably just that, besting the Sony WF-1000XM4 by a small margin. (They also sound slightly better than the excellent Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless II and Master & Dynamic MW08.)

While the PI7's noise canceling is quite decent, the Sony's noise canceling is superior. I also thought the Sony did better with voice calling (it has better noise reduction so people can hear you better in a noisier environments) and it has better battery life.

The PI7's case does transform into a Bluetooth transceiver, so you can plug it into your laptop for AptX streaming or an in-flight entertainment system. That's a nice bonus feature (the PI5 don't have it), but the Sony is the overall better value. However, if sound quality is your priority, the PI7 are worth considering if you can afford them. Hopefully they come down in price over time.

The PI5 buds also sound excellent and are a touch lighter than the PI7. At $250, the PI5 competes directly with the $280 Sony 1000XM4. As with all in-ear headphones, you have to try them to see how they fit your ears. Bowers & Wilkins' buds may fit your ears better than Sony's and vice versa. Read our Bowers & Wilkins PI7 first take.

David Carnoy/CNET

Edifier has a few different new true-wireless earbuds and most, including the TWS 330NB, are very good values. While the TWS 330NB buds are missing a sensor that automatically pauses your music when you take them out of your ears, they feature very good sound quality for the money, decent active noise canceling with a transparency mode, and solid voice calling (they have three microphones in each bud for noise canceling and noise reduction during calls).

They fit my ears well -- they're essentially AirPods Pro clones -- and while the touch controls are a little limited, they are programmable using the Edifier Connect app for iOS and Android (you can also set the level of touch sensitivity). They have an IP54 rating, which means they're splash- and dust-proof, and battery life is rated at four hours with noise canceling on and five hours with it off (at moderate volume levels). That's only OK, but you do get an additional two charges in the charging case.

Note that sometimes there's an instant discount coupon on Amazon's product page that reduces the price of these. 

David Carnoy/CNET

Say what you will about the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live's bean-shaped design -- yes, they're affectionately known as the Beans -- but they might just be the most innovative new true wireless earbuds of the year. Like the standard Apple AirPods, they have an open design -- you don't jam an ear tip into your ear -- and they're quite comfortable to wear and fit my ears more securely than the AirPods (that said, they won't fit everybody's ears equally well). Additionally, they're discreet and basically sit flush with your ear without a little white pipe extending out from them.

They deliver good sound and work well as a headset for making calls, with good background noise reduction so callers can hear you clearly even when you're in noisier environments. While they feature active noise canceling, it's mild compared to the noise canceling in earbuds that have a noise-isolating design. In other words, buy them for their design and sound, not their noise-canceling features.

Read our Samsung Galaxy Buds Live review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

From a design standpoint, the Earfun Free Pro seems identical to the Fiil T1XS. The Earfun Free Pro has better features, however, including active noise cancellation with a transparency mode, wireless charging and Bluetooth 5.2 (apparently, in some parts of the world there's a Fiil T1X Pro that adds noise canceling). They're rated for 7 hours of battery life without the noise-canceling function on, or about 6 hours with it on. They're IPX5 water-resistant, which means they can withstand a sustained spray of water.

These sound pretty impressive for their moderate price, with decent clarity and bass, and I recommend them and the Mpow X3 (see below) to folks looking for budget true wireless noise-canceling earbuds. These also work pretty well for making calls and they currently cost less than the Mpow X3. Don't expect stellar noise canceling, but it is somewhat effective. They list for $60 but on Amazon, there's often an instant coupon that brings the price down by a few bucks. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung's Buds Plus look essentially the same as the original Galaxy Buds, but their battery life is rated at 11 hours for music playback (up from 6), and they pack dual drivers for better sound and an additional microphone in each bud to help with external noise reduction while making calls.

I was impressed with the sound. The audio quality is detailed and smooth, with deep, well-defined bass. The sound is richer and more spacious than that of the original Galaxy Buds. Well-respected Austrian audio company AKG, which Samsung acquired when it bought Harman, is behind the audio. While the original Buds were also "tuned" by AKG, these are a nice upgrade over the originals -- and right there with what you get with the Jabra Elite 75t, if not even a touch better. They use Bluetooth 5.0 and support for AAC (there's now an app for iOS users) and Samsung's scalable codec, which is similar to AptX but is proprietary to Samsung Galaxy phones.

Read our Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, the successor to Bose's QuietComfort 35 II model, may not be a quantum leap forward, but these headphones offer slightly better sound and noise cancellation along with top-notch headset performance for voice calls. They're a strong all-around audio performer with up to 20 hours of battery life and a more durable design than their predecessor (some find the QuietComfort 35 II headphones slightly more comfortable).

At launch, they cost $400, but they've recently come down in price. We've seen the white version dip as low as $299 while the black and silver versions have hit $340. That said, the new Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones, their closest competitor, has also seen nice discounts. These have a more balanced sound than that model (the Sony has more aggressive bass), and I sometimes prefer its sound signature to the Sony's.

Read our Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review.

 

Amazon

As far as sound, comfort level and build quality, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than Anker's SoundCore Life Q30 for the money. It doesn't quite have the clarity or bass definition as some of the top premium models, but it's less than a third of the price and gets you about 75% of the way there in terms of sound (it's well balanced overall with punchy bass and there's an app that allows you to tweak the sound). Noise canceling is good for the price, though not up to the level of the Sony WH-1000XM4 or Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Battery life is rated at an impressive 40 hours with USB-C charging.

The only area where the Q30 falls a little short is for voice calls. It picks up your voice fine in quieter environments but it just doesn't reduce background noise all that well. 

Compared to the $50 Q20, the Q30 does offer improved sound (it's not a huge difference, but it definitely is a notch up) and a more premium design. 

David Carnoy/CNET

Google's Pixel Buds A-Series are kind of unusual, in that they're new but not exactly an upgrade. They look and sound similar to last year's Pixel Buds 2, which debuted at $179 but are now selling for less. However, instead of adding new features -- like active noise canceling -- they've actually lost a few. Why? They only cost $100: The "A" stands for affordability. That new lower price is the real story here and that's what makes these a bona fide true-wireless value, particularly for Android users. They're also splash-proof, with an IPX4 rating. Read our Pixel Buds A-Series review.

Read our Google Pixel Buds 2 (2020) review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

Apple recently released its new Beats Studio Buds. I liked them, but they're $150, and not everybody wants to spend $150 on a pair of headphones. If you're in that camp, the Beats Flex may be your best budget option when it comes to Apple earbuds, though they're "wired-wireless" headphones. They list for $50 but are now down to $39 on Amazon.

The good news is they sound better than both the original BeatsX (which launched with a list price of $150) and standard AirPods. They also work well for making calls and have better battery life than their predecessors. The bad news? Their design is passe in a world now dominated by true-wireless earbuds. However, some people like having a cord between the buds so they can leave them dangling around their neck when not in use. And anybody who's lost an AirPod can attest to that one big design advantage of a neckband-style wireless headphone. Read my full Beats Flex review here.

David Carnoy/CNET

Master & Dynamic's earlier MW07 and MW07 Plus delivered top-notch sound for true wireless, but they were a little lacking in the features department and weren't so great for making calls. The new-for-2021 MW08 offer some significant improvements, including the addition of solid noise canceling and call quality, that make it one of the top models for 2021. Alas, they're also expensive at $299.

Battery life has improved a bit (up to around 12 hours of battery life at 50% volume versus 10 hours for the MW07 Plus), and the earbuds are equipped with Bluetooth 5.2, active noise cancellation with three microphones on each earbud (noise reduction during calls isn't up to the level of the AirPods Pro, but overall call quality has improved). The noise canceling on the MW07 Plus was pretty weak; the MW08's is much more effective.

You can opt for two levels of noise cancellation in the new M&D Connect app for iOS and Android, as well as two levels of transparency that let you hear the outside world to varying degrees. The app currently has no way to tweak the sound profile (I'm OK with that because the sound profile is just fine for my tastes). Each earbud has a physical button to control playback, not touch controls.

These 'buds may not fit everyone's ear equally well, but they certainly have a distinct look, as well as excellent sound and a great listening experience if you can get a tight seal (I was able to get a secure fit with the largest tip). They deliver more of an audiophile sound profile, with smooth, well-balanced sound and well-defined bass. This model has new 11mm drivers, which add a bit of punch to the bass and a touch better clarity. The MW08 works well with all genres of music.

Available in a variety of color options for $300, like their predecessors, the MW08 includes a swanky stainless-steel charging case (it charges via USB-C) that's compact but carries more weight than your typical buds case. I prefer the matte finishes of the cases that come with the black and blue versions, and you also get a secondary pouch for safekeeping (yes, the charging case can get scratched up if you leave it in a bag).

These truly wireless earbuds now support both the AptX and AAC audio codecs and have an extended range of more than 20 meters, according to Master & Dynamic.

David Carnoy/CNET

Bang & Olufsen's Beoplay HX is the successor to the company's H9 series headphones (that X is a Roman numeral 10) and like those earlier H9 models, the HX carries a list price of $500. That high price point makes it a direct competitor with Apple's AirPods Max, a heavier headphone at 384.8 grams versus 285 grams for the HX. I don't know if the HX is more comfortable than the AirPods Max, but I found the two models pretty equal in the comfort department over longer listening sessions, and these do feature the usual swanky B&O lambskin-covered memory foam ear pads.

The HX has custom 40mm drivers, Bluetooth 5.1 and support for Qualcomm's AptX Adaptive (that includes AptX HD) for high-resolution wireless streaming when you combine an AptX-enabled Android device with certain music streaming services like Qobuz.

Their sound measures up well to the AirPods Max's sound, with deep, well-defined bass, natural sounding mids (where vocals live) and inviting detail in the treble (the sound is overall well-balanced). If you want to push the treble or bass, you can tweak the EQ in the Bang & Olufsen app for iOS and Android and give the headphones a warmer or brighter profile. 

While these are expensive, they offer more accurate sound than the Sony WH-1000XM4. Their noise canceling is also very good and voice-calling capabilities are also quite solid. Additionally, they offer multipoint Bluetooth pairing so you can connect them with a smartphone and PC simultaneously (they're Microsoft Swift Pair enabled for Windows machines) so you can easily switch between the two (the Sony WH-1000XM4 also has this feature). Battery life is rated at up to 35 hours with noise canceling on and 40 hours with it off. Those are excellent numbers.

Earlier Bang & Olufsen's models included a soft case (a pouch really), but the HX comes with a hard case. As I said, it's expensive, but the small improvements over earlier flagship Bang & Olufsen noise-canceling headphones help make the HX's case as a worthy alternative to the AirPods Max. 

While the Elite 75t has been out a while, it's still one of the best true wireless earbuds out there and recently added noise canceling via a firmware upgrade. Earlier firmware updates improved voice-calling performance. 

The Elite 75t aren't quite as comfortable to wear as the AirPods Pro, but they do sound better, with clearer overall sound and better bass audio quality definition, so long as you get a tight seal.

The slightly more rugged Elite Active 75t is also available for about $20 more, but with the new Elite 85t's arrival we are seeing some nice sales on the Elite 75t.

Read our Jabra Elite 75t review.

 

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