15 best wireless earbuds for quality sound and noise cancellation at every budget

·17-min read
We tested for sound quality, comfort, battery life, value, and how easy they were to set up and use  (iStock/The Independent)
We tested for sound quality, comfort, battery life, value, and how easy they were to set up and use (iStock/The Independent)

Headphones that connect to your smartphone or tablet give you the convenience to listen to your music anywhere. But for the greatest freedom, you also need to cut the wire between the phone and the headphones. And for the greatest portability of all, choose in-ear headphones rather than over-ear.

True-wireless earbuds, as they’re called when they don’t have any wires at all, are lightweight and often offer great comfort.

Some fit so snugly into your ears that they keep the outside world out by a process of noise isolation. Others build on this with electronic help, called active noise cancellation or ANC.

Yet more have extra features, such as built-in voice assistants that can answer your questions, send messages and turn up the volume.

You’re most likely to use wireless earbuds with your phone, computer or tablet, and some earbuds are smart enough to switch seamlessly between devices as you need them to.

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How we tested

We’ve tested for sound quality (above all), comfort, battery life, ease of set up and simplicity of use. We’ve also rated each model according to extra features and, of course, value.

The best wireless earbuds for 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Sony WF-1000XM4: £249, Centresdirect.co.uk

  • Best noise-cancelling earbuds – Apple AirPods pro: £249, Apple.com

  • Best luxury headphones – Bowers & Wilkins Pi7: £349, Bowerswilkins.com

  • Best for your own sound profile – NuraTrue: £199.99, Nuraphone.com

  • Best wireless earphones for running – Beats powerbeats pro: £219.95, Apple.com

  • Best sound quality – Bose quietcomfort earbuds: £249.95, Bose.co.uk

  • Best for comfort – Samsung Galaxy buds2: £139, Samsung.com

  • Best for iPhone – Apple AirPods: £159, Apple.com

  • Best for battery life – Sennheiser momentum true wireless 2: £279, Sennheiser.com

  • Best value earbuds – Beats studio buds: £129.99, Apple.com

  • Best for Android – Google pixel buds A-series: £99.99, Google.com

  • Best for design – Nothing ear (1): £99.99, Nothing.tech

  • Best battery life – OnePlus buds pro: £139, Oneplus.com

  • Best for working out – Grado GT 220: £199, Amazon.co.uk

  • Best for budget noise cancellation – Panasonic RZ-S500W: £99.99, Amazon.co.uk

Sony WF-1000XM4

Best: Overall

Rating: 10/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 8 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 16 hours

  • Noise cancellation? Yes

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 5.7g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? Yes

Sony’s latest in-ears are the company’s best yet. And that’s saying something, since the previous versions – the WF-1000XM3s – were already sensational. The new model is completely redesigned with a distinctive look. The noise cancelling here is subtle but effective – Sony says the quiet it produces should be alive, like the silence between movements in a concert hall. Done badly, noise-cancelling can make the ears feel under pressure, but there’s little of that here.

Although these are small, light earbuds, they manage significant bass as well as great, precise clarity in higher notes. At once delicate and powerful, these earbuds have some of the best audio of any wireless headphones.

Buy now £249.00, Centresdirect.co.uk

Apple AirPods pro

Best: Noise-cancelling earbuds

Rating: 10/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 4 hours 30 minutes

  • Battery life, charging case: 19 hours

  • Noise cancellation: Yes

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 5.4g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? Yes

Apple’s noise-cancelling technology is amazing, and special vents mean the pressure on the ear is just right. There are three sizes of earbuds to provide the perfect fit for the best noise isolation. This being Apple, there’s even an onscreen tutorial to make sure you pick the right ones. There are multiple microphones to make sure the noise cancelling is good, and also to ensure hands-free calls work well. Although AirPods pro and AirPods work with any phone, pairing with the iPhone is near-instant and seamless: open the case next to the iPhone and you’re done. Apple’s system is also easy when it comes to working with more than one device. If you have an iPad or Mac which is tied to your Apple ID, then as you pick up the iPad and put down the iPhone, the AirPods are smart enough to be able to switch devices automatically. Like some other headphones here, there’s a setting that lets in outside sound so you can easily have conversations with people.

AirPods pro also have spatial audio, which brilliantly creates a surround-sound effect. With suitable video content on an iPad, for instance, if you turn your head it adjusts the audio to lock it to where the tablet is. It’s so convincing you may need to remove the earbuds to check you’re not playing the sound through the iPad’s speakers.

Read the full Apple AirPods pro review

Buy now £249.00, Apple.com

Bowers & Wilkins Pi7

Best: Luxury headphones

Rating: 8/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 4 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 16 hours

  • Noise cancellation? Yes

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 8g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? Yes

The elegant Pi7 earbuds look spectacular, with gold details and a striking, premium finish. There are three different sizes of ear tip supplied and the buds are comfortable in the ear as you twist them into position. Though the battery life isn’t huge at just four hours, there are another four full charges in the case and a quick charge of 10 minutes is enough for two hours’ playback. There’s also a cool extra feature with these earbuds: the case works as a device to retransmit audio. You plug one of the supplied cables into your music source – your laptop, say – and the other into the case, and the audio plays wirelessly from the case to the earbuds. The audio quality is really terrific, with deft clarity and solid power. At this price, we should hope so.

Read the full Bowers & Wilkins PI7 true wireless earbuds review

Buy now £349.00, Bowerswilkins.com

NuraTrue

Best: For your own sound profile

Rating: 8/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 6 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 18 hours

  • Noise cancellation? Yes

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 7.4g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? No

NuraTrue assesses your hearing by playing music and measuring feedback from internal microphones. This tells the headphones whether you have more sensitivity to mid-tones or trouble hearing lower notes. It then adjusts the sound as it creates your audio profile, showing a colourful pattern on the smartphone app that’s unique to you. The difference in the sound quality is remarkable and the noise-cancelling here is excellent. It also has what it calls social mode, which reduces the music volume to let the outside world in a bit. That’s similar to Apple’s transparency mode on the AirPods pro.

Buy now £199.99, Nuraphone.com

Beats powerbeats pro

Best: Wireless earphones for running

Rating: 7/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 9 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 15 hours

  • Noise cancellation? No

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 11.2g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? No

Beats powerbeats pro are highly unlikely to fall out of your ears, even when you’re running full pelt. That’s down to the over-ear hooks which are secure and comfortable. Although there’s no noise cancellation, the audio here is excellent, partly down to the four different ear-tip sizes which help create a tight seal in the ear. The Beats logo is a button to control music playback or to take calls. Beats is known for its proficiency with bass and that’s certainly the case here, though the earbuds are still capable of some subtlety and range. Beats, which is part of Apple, makes the powerbeats pro in six colours – “glacier blue”, navy, ivory, “cloud pink”, “lava red” and black.

Buy now £219.95, Apple.com

Bose quietcomfort earbuds

Best: Sound quality

Rating: 9/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 6 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 12 hours

  • Noise cancellation? Yes

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 8.5g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? Yes

Bose makes headphones with exceptional noise cancelling. These earbuds live up to both the quiet and comfort parts of their name, with three pairs of ear tips allowing you to choose the best fit. Battery life is fine, but unexceptional compared to some here.

Bose noise cancelling is very detailed, with 10 settings to choose from, which you can adjust on the smartphone app, or set three favourite levels to use directly on the earbuds. Some earbuds automatically pause the music if you take one out of your ears, but Bose also cuts the noise cancelling to the earbud that remains in place. The audio is outstanding: rich, lively and full of detail, they’re arguably the best on test.

Buy now £249.95, Bose.co.uk

Samsung Galaxy buds2

Best: For comfort

Rating: 7/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 5 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 15 hours

  • Noise cancellation? Yes

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 5g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? Yes

The neat little Galaxy buds2 are light, making them very comfortable to wear. They’ll work in conjunction with any phone but have the best compatibility with Samsung Galaxy devices – and they’ll switch easily between them. Audio is good, with strong bass in evidence, though not quite on a par with the best here. Samsung has come up with an appealing design, including snazzy colours such as lavender, that make these earbuds stand out from their rivals. There’s also graphite, white and olive finishes.

Read the full Samsung Galaxy buds 2 review

Buy now £139.00, Samsung.com

Apple AirPods

Best: For iPhone

Rating: 7/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 5 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 19 hours

  • Noise cancellation? No

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 4g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? Optional

Apple’s original earbuds continue to be hugely popular, as they have been since their first release. The current version is the second edition, which means that while the design is unchanged there are improved electronics, so you can wake Apple’s virtual assistant with the words “Hey, Siri”. Unlike the pricier pro model, there’s no noise cancelling here. Even so, they sound great and fit the ear well, even though there’s no choice of ear-tip sizes. The charging case comes in two versions, with the basic one charged by cable and the fancier one being wireless chargeable and costing £40 more.

Read the full AirPods review

Buy now £159.00, Apple.com

Sennheiser momentum true wireless 2

Best: Battery life

Rating: 8/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 7 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 21 hours

  • Noise cancellation? Yes

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 6g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? No

There are cheaper earbuds than these on test, but the sound quality is tremendous, with great fidelity and versatility. There is bass on display but it doesn’t drown other notes out. These earphones are also great if you’re listening to video on a tablet, for instance, with commendable voice track clarity. The noise cancellation is also excellent, similar to the leaders in this group. There are four ear-tip sizes to choose from to ensure a snug fit, and battery life is tremendous, with 28 hours across the earbuds and case combined.

Buy now £279.00, Sennheiser.com

Beats studio buds

Best: Value earbuds

Rating: 8/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 8 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 16 hours

  • Noise cancellation? Yes

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 5g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? No

The studio buds are remarkable value, offering excellent noise cancellation for little more than half the price of Apple’s other brand, the AirPods pro. Though there are some features missing (take an earbud out and music just keeps playing) there are useful and effective extras such as compatibility with spatial audio effects. Beats is known for its predilection for bass, but this is far from overwhelming here, and there’s much to like in the boisterous but defined sound. The buds themselves are tiny, allowing for long-wearing comfort. And, unlike the AirPods, they pair as easily with Android phones as they do with iPhones. Choose from black, white and the trademark “Beats red” finishes.

Buy now £129.99, Apple.com

Google Pixel buds A-series

Best: For Android

Rating: 7/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 5 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 20 hours

  • Noise cancellation? No

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 5g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? No

Google’s latest in-ears offer great value and strong sound that’s easy to listen to. Though there’s no active noise cancelling, the tight fit isolates the ears pretty well. That said, there is some venting that prevents the claustrophobic feeling some earbuds cause, so some outside noise seeps in. The fit is helped by small fins which hold the buds in place well. These headphones do work for Apple iPhone users but the set up is most seamless when used with an Android phone, where integration with Google Assistant is flawless.

Read the full Google Pixel buds A-series review

Buy now £99.99, Google.com

Nothing ear (1)

Best: Design

Rating: 6/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 6 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 28 hours

  • Noise cancellation? Yes

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 4.7g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? Yes

Nothing is the interestingly named brand from Carl Pei, co-founder of popular phone company OnePlus. The ear (1) is its first product and is a highly affordable pair of headphones with noise-cancelling capabilities on board. There’s no skimping on build quality or neat design, even down to the see-through charging case which, surprisingly for the price, can be powered up wirelessly. There are even cute colour-coded dots on each bud and in the case, so it would be difficult to put the buds in the wrong way round. The transparent nature of the design continues into the earbuds, which have clear stalks, showing the mechanics inside. Battery life is especially strong and a 10-minute charge promises eight hours of playback time. Overall, the sound is decent but not as good as the best here, though the noise cancelling is of a high quality and very effective.

Read the full Nothing ear (1) review

Buy now £99.99, Nothing.tech

OnePlus buds pro

Best: For battery life

Rating: 8/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 7 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 31 hours

  • Noise cancellation? Yes

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 4.35g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? Yes

Just as AirPods work best with Apple devices, so these headphones from phone manufacturer OnePlus have extra features when connected to one of the company’s handsets. The noise cancelling is good, with three levels of sound reduction to choose from: max cancellation is especially effective. Audio overall is great, especially if you have the right content and the right OnePlus phone, where Dolby Atmos fidelity comes into play.

But the headline here is the battery life, which is remarkable. Not only do they play for up to 38 hours (without noise cancelling), they recharge quickly, with 10 minutes of cable-based charge offering almost 10 hours of playback.

Buy now £139.00, Oneplus.com

Grado GT 220

Best for: Working out

Rating: 8/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 6 hours

  • Battery life, charging case: 30 hours

  • Noise cancellation? No

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 5g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? Yes

The simple twist-to-fit design of Grado’s first true-wireless in-ears means they are secure and ideal for working out. Controls are through a touch surface on each of the buds, which are versatile and easy to use. Grado is known for its open-backed headphones, but these are closed, perhaps because the need for sound isolation meant open wasn’t an option. Even without noise cancelling, though, the audio here is tremendous, with punchy sound that’s detailed and accurate. Though they lack the bass of some, there’s a lot to like here.

Buy now £199.00, Amazon.co.uk

Panasonic RZ-S500W

Best: For budget noise cancellation

Rating: 9/10

  • Battery life, earbuds: 6 hours 30 minutes

  • Battery life, charging case: 13 hours

  • Noise cancellation? Yes

  • Closed or open design? Closed

  • Earbud weight: 7g

  • Wireless-chargeable case? No

When Panasonic’s earbuds first launched they were strong value, and they’re now a lot cheaper. They offer noise cancelling at a very keen price, and it’s very good, not least because much of the technology comes from the sister brand Technics, which is rather pricier. The design is elegant and simple, and because there are five different sizes of ear tip to choose from, you can be sure of the perfect fit. Audio quality is strong with a powerful, direct sound. There’s a good amount of bass but it’s not overpowering and you can adjust that in the smartphone app. Battery life is decent and call quality is very strong, making these headphones a great all-around choice at a low price.

Read the full Panasonic RZ-S500W review

Buy now £99.99, Amazon.co.uk

Wireless earbud FAQs

Is it worth buying wireless earbuds?

Yes. Wireless earbuds are a huge improvement over traditional wired earphones, eradicating cables and allowing for greater freedom of movement with no compromise in sound quality. Not only do fewer and fewer phones have a 3.5mm audio jack to plug earphones into, but better earbud designs and adjustable silicon tips allow for a secure fit to ensure your new earphones won’t fall out and go missing.

Should I buy wireless earbuds or headphones?

That depends on how you want to use them. For runners, earbuds have an advantage over headphones as they’re less bulky and won’t slide off your head as you start to sweat.

Some true wireless earbuds like the Beats powerbeats pro (£218.97, Johnlewis.com) have flexible winged hooks to secure them to your ears during intense workouts, but you could also consider sporty earbuds connected by a single wire that goes across the back of your neck. These allow you to remove your earbuds without having to pocket them or put them in their case.

What should I look for when buying wireless earbuds?

Battery life is an important factor to consider when buying wireless earbuds. The charging case might have a large battery capacity, but make sure the earbuds themselves can last a day.

If you commute or live in a busy part of town, you’ll want noise-cancelling earbuds. Some earbuds market themselves as “noise-isolating”, which simply means they form a tight seal in your ears to block some sound. The best noise-cancelling is “active noise-cancelling”, which uses the microphone on the earbuds to listen to external noise as it enters the ear, then uses that information to actively disrupt the soundwaves and reduce noise.

What’s the difference between wireless and true wireless earbuds?

True wireless headphones do not have a cable or connector between the two earbuds at all, while wireless headphones are still connected in some way, for example, via an over-ear band or around the back of your neck, but don’t require access to a phone jack.

Do wireless earbuds have microphones to take calls on the go?

True wireless earbuds have a microphone in the casing, with most models containing one mic in each earbud. As for wireless headphones, they usually feature a mic in the connector band, so you can easily take calls on the go.

The verdict: Wireless earbuds

Sony’s WF-1000XM4s triumphed over all rivals with exceptional audio, stunning noise cancellation and great design. But there are other great earbuds here, especially Bose’s quietcomfort buds and Apple’s AirPods pro.

More headphone recommendations:

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Ditch the fussy wires but keep the headband with the best wireless headphones, from Bose to JBL

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