So, what are the best earphones in 2021? Well, that is a loaded question and one that pops up regularly. The common answer you will usually get is “There is no best earphone”.
But here we’re going to dive deeper and tell you exactly what you need to know in order to help you make the right decision when buying. There are a lot of things that need to be considered that will determine what the best earphones are for you.
This is one of the most important things that will determine what’s best for you. Are you looking to spend less than $50 or are you willing to spend $500 or more?
There are some fantastic budget offerings available that offer great value for money. But paying less can sometimes have downsides too. What are the downsides? Well, things like build quality, durability, comfort and most importantly sound.
As you scale up in price, you should expect to see improvements in all those areas mentioned above. This is not always the case but as a general rule of thumb, you get what you pay for. However, above a certain amount, there can be drastic diminishing returns.
Where is that cutoff point though? Well, that depends who you ask and it also varies a lot with each individual brand or model. But generally above $100, the differences in overall quality become less distinguished and the higher up in price you go the smaller these differences become.
What’s the difference between an earphone and an earbud?
This is really quite simple but something that a lot of people get confused about. It’s also made more difficult by people often referring to earphones as in-ear headphones.
This section will help you learn which is which plus some of the pros and cons of each type.
Earbuds are typically what you get with an iPhone. They’re large, plastic discs that sit in the outer ear. Some of the advantages of earbuds are:
You don’t need to worry about finding the right size eartips. Earbuds are generally a “one size fits all”.
They can be inserted or removed from your ears quickly and easily.
Some people find them more comfortable than earphones or in-ear monitors.
Earbuds have their disadvantages too:
They usually don’t make a very good seal in the ears. This means that a lot of noise leaks in and noise leaks out. So if you like to listen to your music loud these might not be the best choice if, for example, you work closely with other people in an office environment. Your colleagues might not enjoy NWA’s “F**k tha Police” as much as you do.
They might be less comfortable than earphones for some people. Personally, I prefer the comfort of earphones as I find that earbuds create painful hotspots in my ears during longer listening sessions. This will, of course, vary from person to person.
Earphones / IEMs
Earphones are also known as “in-ear monitors”. They typically sit further in your ears and usually come with silicone eartips. Earphones generally have better noise isolation than earbuds so they’re good if you’re in a noisy environment or don’t wish to disturb people around you.
Getting the best sound from earphones depends a lot on finding the right eartips. If you’re not getting a good seal, you won’t hear much bass in your music. And you might need to turn the volume up higher because some of the noise is leaking out instead of being fired at your ear canals. As a result, your earphones might sound strident or like treble cannons.
Proper fitting eartips also give you a more secure fit. If the fit isn’t secure you might find that the earphones fall out of your ears or you need to continually readjust them.
Cable down or over-ear?
You might be happy with either of these options or you may have a strong preference for one over the other. Each has advantages and disadvantages. For example, wearing the cable down generally allows you to insert and take out earphones quickly and easily while over-ear style IEMs are often a bit more fiddly.
Wearing the cable down means that your earphones will be more susceptible to microphonics, which is the sound of vibrations running up the cables and into your ears. This can be distracting or downright annoying.
Over-ear style IEMs however, have greatly reduced amounts of microphonics because the cable is grounded over your ears and this prevents a lot of the vibrations from reaching the earpieces.
Do you prefer metal or plastic?
Plastic tends to be lighter (though a lot of the metal earphones are very lightweight too nowadays). One advantage of metal shells or housings is that they are more resistant to unwanted resonance and vibrations. They are usually more robust too unless the build quality is sub-par.
Some people might find that one or the other causes skin irritation or just doesn’t feel as good. In my experience, I’ve had many of both types that are really very good. In the end, it comes down to the things mentioned above plus the design and ergonomics of each individual earphone.
Is a canal fitting or full concha earphone best?
A canal fitting earphone is one that is generally fairly small and fits into your ear canal. These are great for comfort and ease of use. Easy to put in and take out from your ears. However, this type of earphone usually has little in the way of noise isolation.
Concha filling IEMs also fill up the outer shell-shaped part of your ear. These are especially good for blocking outside noise so are great for noisy environments.
These are usually worn in the over-ear style. In many cases, they can also feel more secure in your ears and less prone to come loose or fall out. You can learn more about the concha in this article on ear anatomy on HearMD.
Do you want a detachable cable?
Detachable cables are great. If your earphone has these then you can swap out for another cable, maybe one that is better quality or just more comfortable for you.
Also, the cable is the part that’s most likely to suffer failure and break down over time. If they’re detachable though you can replace the cable for much less than the cost of a new earphone.
The 2 most common standards for detachable cable connectors are 1. MMCX connectors and 2. 2-pin connectors. You can learn more about MMCX on this Wikipedia page.
Fixed cables can be good too. With these, you don’t need to worry about having faulty or loose connectors. I can’t think of other advantages right now except they fixed cables often mean the price of the earphone is often lower so you can save a bit of money on your purchase.
Want to go wireless?
Wireless earphones can free you from the constraints of having those sometimes pesky wires hanging about. They’re particularly useful when exercising at the gym or running.
Here are a few things to consider when looking at wireless earphones:
How many hours of use do you need before a recharge? If you only use them for workouts at the gym or a morning run then 2-3 hours might be enough.
If you want wireless for general use then I’d suggest you put more weight on the battery life requirements. As technology continues to improve, so too does battery life.
This might be important to you if, for example, you want to leave your phone or source on the desk while you’re doing housework. Some wireless earphones have a better connection than others. Unless you’re planning to carry your source in a pocket or strapped to your arm with a sports strap, then take this into consideration.
If sound quality is of importance to you then you will probably want to get an earphone that supports the aptX audio codec.
In a nutshell, aptX provides a higher quality audio signal than standard Bluetooth. You can read more information about it on the Wikipedia aptX page.
What is your preferred sound signature?
Do you want phat bass? Perhaps you are a fan of neutral signatures and want to get as close as possible to how the artist intended their music to sound. Maybe you’re a big vocal fan. In that case, you might want an earphone that has a forward midrange.
The most common signature is called V-shaped. In a nutshell, this means the sound has enhanced or exaggerated bass and treble, usually leaving the midrange a little recessed. When you see the frequency response graph of this type of signature it looks like a V, hence the term V-shaped.
There are endless variations that are available, and that is why new earphones are being made all the time. Everybody has their own preference for how they like their music reproduced. Some like heavy bass, some like forward midrange and vocals and some like a prominent treble. Then there are infinite variations of all these and that’s all part of the fun of trying new earphones.
So which is the right earphone for you?
By determining your answers to the questions above, you should be able to get some idea of what you’re looking for from an earphone. Armed with that information you can visit forums or read reviews and try to find something that fits the description of what you’re looking for.
Don’t stop at any single review though. We all hear things differently, including reviewers. Sometimes we simply get it wrong or are biased towards a certain sound signature. Reading several reviews will help you find the general consensus on the earphones you’re interested in.
Try before you buy
I know this won’t be an option for everyone, depending on where you live and what resources you have available. But if there is a good audio store near you, go and see if you can test the earphones that you’re considering.
This is the most reliable way to get the lowdown on what you’re looking for as you can test the sound and the fit/comfort with your own ears.
I hope you found this guide helpful and I wish you the best of luck in finding your perfect earphones. If you haven’t already, make sure to read out Best Universal IEMs/Earphonesguide!
Any questions or suggestions? Leave a comment below!