Slimline, lightweight and small enough to be bundled up and stuffed in your pocket when not in use, you can’t beat a pair of in-ear headphones for practicality (even if they are a nightmare to untangle when you retrieve them later).
But despite their diminutive size, there’s a big difference between the pair you get free with your phone and even the most affordable pairs on the list below. Thanks to our friends at What Hi-Fi and TechRadar we know exactly which ones to avoid and which ones to stick in your ears, so here are 10 of the very best.
They might look a bit plain but don’t underestimate Beyerdynamic’s Byron in-ears - you won’t find better than this for under £50. They sound heftier than earphones at this price usually do, with great clarity and precision, natural-sounding vocals and nicely textured bass. Petite and easy to wear for long periods, they’re the ideal upgrade for the earphones that came with your phone (provided you still have a port to plug them into).
1MORE Triple driver
Most in-ear headphones with three drivers (that’s the bits that actually move to create the sound) cost way more than the £65 these ones from 1More will set you back. It won’t come as a huge surprise that these don’t quite match up to their more expensive brethren, then, but they’re still excellent performers for the price, with a nicely detailed and balanced sound.
Optoma NuForce BE Sport4
Optoma’s NuForce BE Sport4 might look like they spend all their time in the gym but these waterproof buds are just as happy on your commute as they are on the treadmill. Sound quality is more than good enough to distract you from the pain in your legs, while you get two hours use out of them from a 15-minute charge. Very handy if you just need enough juice to get home.
Apple’s AirPods might be the most famous truly wireless earphones but they’re by no means the best. That honour goes to Sony’s WF-1000X, which come with noise-cancelling, a clever carry case that doubles as a charger, and top-notch sound quality with great detail and dynamics. Plus they won’t make you look like you’ve got a couple of tampons stuck in your ears.
Shure is probably best known for making the in-ear monitors that bands wear so they can hear themselves on stage, but it has also used that know-how to make some truly brilliant in-ear headphones. They’re pricey, but the SE425 are up there with the best, with an impressively immersive performance and excellent sound isolation, although you might have to get to used to the unusual round-the-back-of-the-ear fit.
If you can put up with the extra bulk that comes with the chunky neckband on Sony’s WI-1000X, you’ll get great sound and an excellent battery life of up to 17 hours. With the noise-cancelling turned on that falls to 10 hours, but, unusually for wireless buds, there’s a USB-to-3.5mm cable in the box that means you can plug them in and carry on listening after the battery dies.
Bose SoundSport Wireless
If you’re after a pair of wireless earphones that can also accompany you to the gym, Bose’s SoundSport Wireless are sweat resistant and lightweight, with extra in-ear scaffolding to stop them falling out while you’re pushing to beat that 10K PB. Bluetooth reliability is good too and while battery life could be better, they sound nice and lively, with a decent thump of bass to make you feel like Rocky.
Most headphones sound the same for everybody when you get them out of the box, but RHA’s T20i come with a selection of filters that can be used to boost the bass or treble. They’re easy to switch in and out and, most importantly, sound fantastic, especially with the Reference filter in place. Bass hits hard but there’s a real sense of balance that makes them brilliant to listen to.
SoundMagic’s E10C were the go-to budget in-ears for years until Beyerdynamic’s Byron (above) came along, but that doesn’t suddenly make these obsolete. Their built-in remote and microphone works with both Android and iPhones, while they sound balanced and energetic. For this price you really can’t ask for much more. If you can afford the extra few quid, though, the Byrons do sound that little bit more accomplished.
Etymotic’s ER4-SR might not look like the most comfortable but with the silicone tips in place and after a few days to loosen up, these in-ears offer superb detail, taut bass and a midrange that’s all about insight. There’s no remote and the fit can be a little fiddly, but if you’re in the market for absolute accuracy there aren’t many better.