Snobbish audiophiles scoff at the very idea of them. Commuters love their convenience. Marathon runners won’t train without a pair – welcome to the world of in-ear headphones, where traditional plug-and-go wired earbuds compete with noise-cancelling Bluetooth models and the latest in true wireless designs.
Thankfully, despite manufacturers still insisting on bundling a terrible ‘free’ pair of in-ears with their smartphones, most of us now care about the quality of the buds we shove in our lugholes.
We’ve found ten of the very best in-ear designs to suit every type of listener and budget. Upvote or downvote to have your say, or scroll down for the expert's view.
The Shortlist: Best in-ear headphones
1. Audio Technica LS70
Wired in-ear headphones with basic in-line controls and mic for hands-free calling and IEM (In Ear Monitor) style over-ear design for a secure all-day fit. The cables feature A2DC connectors, meaning they can be replaced if necessary, and the dual 8.8mm Symphonic Drivers and hard carbon coating have been tuned for a balanced ‘live’ sound.
2. Jaybird Tarah Pro
Waterproof (IPX7), super-tough yet stylish sport design with customisable wing-tips and the option to wear over the ear for improved security, plus a 14-hour battery life with fast charging that can top up two hours’ listening in five minutes. The Jaybird app also lets you adjust the sound profile to suit your hearing.
3. Bose QC30
This neckband design squeezes Bose’s highly-regarded Active Noise Cancelling technology into a bag-friendly size, has Bluetooth or NFC connectivity with ten-hour battery life and high-quality drivers for a premium sound. With the push of a button you can adjust the noise cancelling to let more ambient noise in.
4. Jabra Elite Active 65t
True wireless design for use in or out of the gym, with excellent quality audio, a super stable Bluetooth connection and clear hands-free calling thanks to wind noise reduction and four microphones. Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant compatible, up to 15 hours of battery life with the charging case and they’re IP56 rated against moisture and dust.
5. Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless
These true wireless in-ear buds boast two 7mm dynamic drivers and CD-quality Bluetooth streaming, 12-hour battery life, four sizes of ear-tip and a tactile fabric covered charging case. The Smart Control app also offers customisable hearing profiles and hear-through technology to let ambient noise in when you need to be aware.
6. JBL Everest Elite 150NC
This adaptive noise-canceller neckband design has three levels of quiet to choose from and a 14-hour battery life that can be recharged in just two hours, 12mm drivers for a full sound, universally comfortable earbuds and a super flexible design that means they can be folded when carried.
7. SoundMagic E11BT
With Bluetooth 5.0 offering AAC and aptX hi-res streaming support, a 25g featherweight build, tiny earbuds with a choice of three tips, splash-proofing for gym bunnies and a 20-hour battery life, these affordable headphones will still have power after a weeks’ worth of commuting or running.
8. RHA S500 Universal
Each tiny aluminium earbud weighs just 14g, the fabric-coated cable is resistant to tangles and you get the convenience of hands-free calling and basic in-line remote control, plus an unparalleled selection of seven different-sized silicone ear-tips to help you find the perfect fit.
9. Marshall Minor II Bluetooth
Featuring huge 14.2mm drivers for a fuller, more engaging sound, these rock-inspired wireless headphones have a 12-hour battery life, are compatible with aptX streaming and come with an innovative ear loop design which allows you to micro-adjust the wing-tip to fit any shape of ear.
10. Apple AirPods
Apple AirPods are in-ear wireless buds which can be connected to all smartphones, but there is greater simplicity when connecting them to an Apple device. Opening the charging case near an Apple device launches a screen that shows charging levels. Battery life is five hours, with an extra 19 hours’ charge in the case.
The Expert's View
Hands down the best value choice are the SoundMagic E11BT. Weighing just 25g with full remote, engaging sound and a 20-hour battery life they’re hard to beat. Our overall best buy goes to the hybrid £139.99 Jaybird Tarah Pro. They are sold as a dedicated running design, but offer so much more besides.
From a brilliantly affordable pair for £30, to £300 noise-cancelling headphones that will take the edge off the longest of long haul journeys, we’ve also detailed what we discovered from the rest of our tests so you can find the best in-ear headphones for you.
How we selected the in-ear headphones to test
The number of high class wired, wireless and studio-quality In-Ear Monitors make choosing a pair all the more difficult. But our curated mix covers the best for every user and budget, from niche audio brands to global powerhouses.
We’ve chosen headphones for all users – whether you’re a style obsessed gym bunny, bored commuter or a gig loving audiophile – and have kept budgets realistic without delving into the uncharted world of the mysteriously cheap brands found on Amazon and sites like wish.com.
Sure, you can pay much less (and so much more) for in-ear headphones, but our choices – from established brands including Sennheiser, JBL and Audio Technica as well as more specialist names such as RHA and SoundMagic – represent the best available in the UK.
Starting at the bottom – in terms of price only – the RHA S500 Universal come in at just £29.99 with a tangle-resistant cord, six different-sized earbuds and a travel case, and they sound great. They’re not Bluetooth, but if you still plug in, they’re a great option.
At the other end of the spectrum are Sennheiser’s beautifully engineered Momentum True Wireless (£279.99). They’re as hi-tech as they come and benefit from a brand with decades of audio heritage, but does the sound match the price tag or is it more about wire-free style? Read on to find out…
We’ve included a smattering of true wireless headphones – the buds have no connecting cable at all – because they’re very much The Next Big Thing, and designs have improved so much in such a short space of time. It wasn’t long ago that pointing and laughing was an acceptable reaction to someone wearing Apple’s AirPods, but now they’re considered chic. They’re a beautifully designed product, but how do they sound, and can they compete with the feature-packed Jabra Elite Active 65t or Momentum True Wireless?
With the Bose QC30 (£299), JBL Everest Elite 150NC (£179.99) and the SoundMagic E11BT (£69.99) we chose three very different neckband-style Bluetooth headphones. This relatively new look currently splits opinion, but the design actually makes lots of sense – not least because it offers exceptional battery life and often includes noise-cancelling tech without the bulk of over-ear designs.
For each pair on test we also considered any extras they came with – travel pouch, various sizes of ear-tips for example – as well as battery life for Bluetooth sets.
Our choice of more typical Bluetooth headphones – those with a cable between each earbud – reflects the best in style, value and performance available. Marshall is relatively new to headphones, and the Minor II come with innovative looking features, designer styling and a whole lot of rock’n’roll heritage – we’d be crazy not to see if they turn the score all the way up to 11.
Finally, bridging the gap between commuting and ultramarathon running, the Jaybird Tarah Pro boast serious style as well as secure fit and waterproof build quality. Are they the perfect pair of headphones if you hit the gym on the way home from work?
How we tested the in-ear headphones
As you’d expect from a headphone test, we’ve listened to countless hours of podcasts, playlists and albums from Apple Music, Spotify and some dodgy quality tracks through YouTube.
We used an iPhone 8 when testing the wireless headphones, plugged into the 3.5mm headphone jack on our MacBook when chained to the desk and used a dedicated hi-res music player (in this case, the super portable Fiio X1II) when out and about.
Over the course of a month every pair was tested on public transport (London Underground and buses), got stuffed into pockets and bags and generally used and abused on a daily basis. If sold as ‘active’ we ran miles and sweated profusely on them in the gym, and they all enjoyed long walks with the dog.
What did we listen to? An eclectic mix of rock, pop, classical, spoken word (OK we admit, more podcasts than poetry) and a good few hours of streamed cricket commentary. We chose a few ‘test’ tracks to compare the sound quality between headphones, and these included – and please don’t judge us – Talking Straight by Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning by Richard Thompson and Your Love by The Prodigy.
Sound quality is hugely subjective, and one person’s perfection is another’s bass-heavy headache, so to cut through this we looked at who the manufacturer was aiming at – runners generally like up-tempo, bass-heavy sounds to stay motivated, while commuters need good noise isolation and a clear sound mix to enjoy their music over engine noise without having to resort to ear-splitting volume. That said, poor sound quality is unforgivable, so we listened to each of them in a quiet office to make sure they are up to the task.
To check how comfortable and secure each pair felt we used as many pairs of ears as we could find, as there’s no such thing as a standard-sized ear. We assessed the number and quality of any supplied ear-tips and tried various sizes to see what a difference they could make. And if the brand was pushing their model (even vaguely) as ‘sport’ headphones we made sure they got a proper workout.
Best in-ear headphones: The test results
With huge crossover appeal as serious sport headphones and commuter favourites, the £139.99 Jaybird Tarah Pro are our overall best buy.
Available in Black/Flash, Mineral Blue/Jade and Titanium/Glacier we love the stylish but understated design – a rarity in sport-specific headphones. The fabric cable is hard to tangle and sits comfortably flat while also being weatherproof.
They can survive a 30-minute dunking in a pool (up to 1m depth), and having a 3-point USB charger instead of the typical rust-attracting micro USB means they should survive all situations. Meanwhile, the excellent battery life and all-in-one wing-tip buds provide a reassuringly good fit.
As for sound quality, while not up there with the Bose QC30 or Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless they still sound great, with a reassuringly full performance and solid bass. Handily, if you don’t like what you’re hearing you can adjust the EQ using the Jaybird app.
Speaking of sound quality, the classy Bose QC30 create a blissful cocoon with their exceptional noise-cancelling technology, blocking out engine roar and general office chatter brilliantly. Once plugged in, you can enjoy your music without the need to crank up the volume. And what a performance! For the price we assumed they would impress, but they exceed expectations with a wonderfully rich and spacious sound that made us wish our journey to work was longer.
The Bose wing-tip earbuds are the comfiest we’ve tried, although the neckband design takes a bit of getting used to. And while they’re not pocket-friendly, compared to a large set of traditional over-ear noise-cancelling headphones they take up much less room in your bag.
Moving on to the £169.99 true wireless Jabra Elite Active 65t, we were impressed by the tiny, brilliantly engineered battery case – something Sennheiser should learn from. It charges the earbuds up for a maximum of 15 hours playback. Take time to find the ear-tip that fits and they won’t budge, even on the treadmill.
Like the Jaybirds, these are built for sport (not that you’d know it from the design), but the real pull here is the seamless connectivity – just take them out of the case and they connect without fail – plus reliable connection, no annoying drop-outs and superb sound.
The other true wireless headphones on test – the Apple AirPods and Sennheiser Momentum – are both impressive, but in very different ways. The Sennheisers sound sensational but struggled to fit some of our volunteer ears securely. Meanwhile, the AirPods boast the sort of exquisite user experience that made Apple one of the biggest brands on the planet. From the moment you open the tiny white case you’re in for a treat – they connect automatically, the fit defies gravity and voice calls are every bit as clear as on your iPhone. However, we don’t think the sound quality is as good as it could be.
The £179.99 neckband-design JBL Everest Elite 150NC headphones offer adaptive noise cancelling, so you can adjust how much ambient noise you hear. They also boast super fit, a great quality carry case and a thoroughly enjoyable performance, but listen side-by-side with the Bose QC30 and it’s easy to hear what the extra investment gets you – Bose’s are head and shoulders above in terms of sound quality and noise cancelling.
Something of a wildcard entry, the £125 Audio Technica LS70 wired headphones deserve a mention for their sheer force of sound, especially when listening to live recordings. The scale of the sound created by the 8.8mm dual-drivers is immense and hugely enjoyable, especially playing hi-res music files. They’re not much to look at, but the monitor over-ear style has some ‘audiophile cool’.
Out best value choice are the £69.99 SoundMagic E11BT, thanks to their ultralight 25g design that sounds so much better than you’d hope for at the price, plus they have a full remote with mic, comfy earbuds and a 20-plus hour battery life.
Our surprise bargain pick: the £29.99 RHA S500 Universal. They put any bundled-with-your-phone models to shame, with a choice of seven different-sized ear-tips, aluminium build, in-line and voice controls and sparkling sound quality. Trust us, you won’t believe these headphones cost so little.
Finally, the ultra-cool Marshall Minor II Bluetooth headphones bring rock’n’roll pedigree to our test. We love the design, 12-hour battery life, the innovative in-ear loop that adjusts to fit – oh and the riffing guitar when you fire them up. Sound quality rocks, too, as long as you’re somewhere quiet, because the slightly open earbud design lets in too much ambient noise.
The best in-ear headphones reviewed:
Jaybird Tarah Pro, £139.99
Don’t let the sickeningly-fit athlete on the packaging put you off, because despite these being a serious pair of running headphones, we’d recommend them even if you’ve never owned a pair of trainers.
They offer an impressive 14-hour battery life, are incredibly light, very robust – IPX7 rating and corded cable design means they’re waterproof up to a depth of 1m for 30 minutes – and fit brilliantly. If you’ve ever invested in a designer pair of headphones only for them to die after a few months in pockets and bags, you’ll appreciate the compromise on offer with the Tarah Pro.
If you are a runner, you’re in for a treat. They’ll outlast the longest of sessions, won’t go rusty from sweat and don’t give ear fatigue like so many models can. We think this is because the all-in-one earbud and wing-tip – three sizes included – doesn’t jam deep into the ear canal but still manages to stay in place. What’s more, the whole driver head rotates, allowing you to wear them over or under the ear – especially useful if you have awkwardly-shaped or especially sweaty ears.
As mentioned, you’ll get 14 hours of battery life, or close to a week’s listening in our tests. But thanks to a built-in accelerometer the Tarah Pro power down when you haven't moved for 15 minutes, so you’ll always have enough juice to get you home.
When we spotted the proprietary triple-pin charger in the box our heart sank, though, because it means a different charger to remember and another cable to almost certainly lose, but it actually makes sense given the number of running headphones we’ve lost to rust. OK, so a micro USB port would be more convenient, but it shouldn’t be a deal breaker.
So, they’re well-made and look good, but what about the sound quality? They’re the best sounding sport headphones we’ve tested, but given the bass-heavy boom of most on the market that doesn’t set the bar very high. Thankfully, Jaybird has invested heavily in the audio, and performance is smooth, detailed and powerful whether you’re listening to Roots Manuva or Rachmaninoff.
But with the Jaybird app (iOS, Android) it’s gone the extra yard, allowing you to adjust the sound profiles to suit your tastes – there’s even a hearing test that customises the sound to suit your ears. On test our ‘Personal EQ’ was a bit bass heavy for our liking, but we were able to adjust it until we found a mix we enjoyed. It’s a superb extra and well worth investigating.
It's hard to criticise the Tarah Pro – they’re an accomplished performer whether you’re commuting or training – and the clever app helps you tweak the already enjoyable sound quality to suit your preferences. Price might be a sticking point for some, and they’re definitely not cheap, but given you no longer need a second pair for the daily grind you’re effectively quids in.
The best value in-ear headphones reviewed:
SoundMagic E11BT, £69.99
SoundMagic has been making award-winning, ridiculously good value headphones for a few years now, and the E11BT is the wireless version of the hugely enjoyable wired E11c that costs just £40.
With the E11BT, however, you get a refreshingly lightweight (25g) neckband design with the battery built into either end for even weight distribution, a full remote with mic, blissfully comfy earbuds and a colossal 20-hour battery life.
Neckband headphones are an acquired taste, but if you’ve ever owned a pair of traditional Bluetooth headphones, with an unwieldy battery pack constantly tugging at your ears as you walk, you’ll really appreciate the design. Of the three neckband models tested here, the SoundMagic are easily the most comfortable.
They use the latest Bluetooth 5.0 connection, which helps improve battery life. It also means they will happily play AAC (Apple’s chosen audio file type) and aptX for almost CD-quality streaming with a compatible player.
As for sound quality, there’s a lot to like for the price. Despite only offering standard Bluetooth streaming quality, there’s a lovely amount of detail on offer from the 10mm drivers. Acoustic tracks sound vibrant, with a lovely balanced mix of guitar and vocals, while electric strings positively sing. Switch to hip-hop and the bass is clean with plenty of weight, but don’t expect a big bang with your boom bap.
If you’re looking for a pair of affordable, super comfortable Bluetooth headphones with a holiday’s worth of battery life, that also sound great, you can’t go wrong with the SoundMagic E11BT.
Comparing the rest on the test
The Bose QC30 were very nearly our overall best buy, boasting exceptional noise-cancelling performance and goosebump-inducing sound quality. They’re well made, hard wearing and come with three sets of earbuds and a slimline travel pouch. But they’re expensive, and the chunky neckband design, despite hiding a lot of high-tech electronics and a long-haul worthy battery, will never be considered stylish. That said, if you travel regularly and only take hand luggage, they’re a great investment.
If you need a pair of true wireless headphones that can stand up to the rigours of the gym, the Jabra Elite Active 65t are hard to beat. We loved the combination of low-profile design and reassuring fit, plus the reliable connection, clear voice calls and auto-pause if you take one bud out. And don’t forget the app offers the chance to tweak the sound profile to suit your tastes.
For sheer convenience, Apple AirPods have to be tried to be believed. The slickness of the pairing and in-use operation is an engineering marvel. There’s strong battery life boosted by the charging carry case, Siri voice control, phone calls are all crystal clear and they’re incredibly portable. If you’re wedded to an iPhone, AirPods remain the ones to beat.
The premium-priced Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless come loaded with features and, if your ears are the right shape, you’ll love them. The vaguely conical design and chrome accents mean they will get noticed (read: stick out) more than the Jabra model, but they connect brilliantly and offer the best sound for true wireless headphones. What’s more, you can adjust the settings using the Bose app and turn on the Transparent Hearing feature if you need to let in more ambient sound.
JBL Everest Elite 150NC are the best value in-ear noise-cancelling headphones we could find. You can adjust the level of noise cancelling to suit your surroundings – on the train or in the office, for instance – and while not as impressive as Bose’s offering, the added peace and quiet is still blissful. The carry case is well made, the ear-tips comfortable and the neckband design comes with six buttons to control everything reasonably intuitively.
Despite being made from plastic and looking slightly unusual, we just love the sound of the Audio Technica LS70. The IEM (In Ear Monitor) over-ear fit takes a little getting used to, but the buds never fall out and the performance is worth the occasional sideways glance. Their added bulk comes from the fact they hide two 8.8mm drivers that help deliver a full-bodied, well-balanced performance that’s particularly suited to rock, acoustic and live recordings. Turn up the volume and the extra space dedicated to the music is noticeable and hugely appreciated.
We were astonished by how good the RHA S500 Universal are for their price. They’re vibrant, detailed and thoroughly entertaining – exactly the opposite of the pair of headphones your smartphone came with – plus the aluminium build and cord cable mean they should last.
The Marshall Minor II Bluetooth are the best-looking headphones on test and deliver thumping sound. Borrowing signature styles from both the classic amplifiers and the popular over-ear Marshall Major headphones, they ooze music industry cool and back it up with lovely flourishes like the opening guitar riff tone to let you know you’re connected. The innovative ear-loop fit is also a triumph and would easily survive the most vigorous mosh pit.
Any in-ear headphones to avoid?
We’d be fibbing if we said we loved all our headphone test babies equally. That said each pair are worth considering, albeit for different reasons. There’s clearly a gulf between the £299 Bose QC30 and the £30 RHA S500 Universal, but both are well made, sport practical designs and, most importantly, sound great for their respective prices.
The design of a pair of headphones is very personal, as is the list of features you think you’ll need, and a secure, comfortable fit is paramount. All of our headphones come with at least two alternative-sized earbuds (the Marshall can be adjusted without the need to change buds), but trying on in-ear designs is rarely possible in store for hygiene reasons.
Bose lets you trial any product at home for 30 days, risk free. If your budget doesn’t stretch that far, make sure you choose a model with plenty of alternative earbuds – and check out their Amazon reviews for any reference to fitting issues before buying as you may not be able to return them.
And remember, in a market awash with cheap knockoff headphones – imitation AirPods cost £7 from wish.com – you always get what you pay for. There’s a definite sweet spot between design, features and sound quality – you just need to work out what’s most important for you.