For years, Apple has dominated the wireless earbuds space with its instantly recognizable AirPods. After the last 12 months, however, they no longer even rank in the top five purely in terms of quality.
Put simply, 2021 was the best year yet for wireless earbuds. Anyone who wanted to ditch a wired set (or was forced to by phones killing off headphone jacks) could finally pick something that worked for them whether they’re team Apple or team Android. No more settling for AirPods just because that’s the most well-known name in the business.
So without further ado, here are 2021’s highest achievers in the wireless earbuds space.
Best budget earbuds: Amazon Echo Buds 2
Amazon’s hardware business has thrived over the years because of its ability to produce devices that are close enough to their competitors in quality while easily winning on price. Sure, you might have to deal with Amazon ads or unwanted Alexa support, but a discount is a discount.
But sometimes those compromises are too much to handle, as was the case with the first Echo Buds in 2019. They were bulky, uncomfortable, and lacked true active noise cancelation. Amazon’s 2021 follow-up fixed nearly all of those problems. The Echo Buds 2 are smaller and more comfortable than before. On top of that, true ANC is here and it works effectively to drown out ambient noise. The sound quality is also more than adequate.
At just $120, these are some of the very best earbuds you can get without breaking the bank. The touch panels may be a little too sensitive and Alexa may interject a bit more than she should, but overall, you won’t find a more well-rounded pair of cheap wireless earbuds in 2021.
Best cheap but stylish earbuds: Nothing Ear (1)
While the Echo Buds 2 might offer the best total package at a budget price, they actually aren’t the cheapest earbuds on this list. That distinction belongs to the Nothing Ear (1), a pair of incredibly cool-looking and totally solid earbuds that can be yours for a mere $100.
You might be asking: What the heck is Nothing? It’s a new tech company started by OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei and the Ear (1) is its first product. That also makes these earbuds the only product on this list that isn’t from an established brand
More importantly, though, they look rad as hell, with a transparent plastic casing that showcases their technical innards. They’re like cyberpunk AirPods.
They also have pretty decent sound quality and active noise cancelation, which you won’t find on many other $100 pairs of earbuds. A somewhat basic companion app and a relatively short battery life keep them from being the best budget earbuds, but don’t sleep on the Ear (1).
Best earbuds for any phone: OnePlus Buds Pro
One common problem with wireless earbuds is that some of the best ones are made by Samsung and Apple. That means they work best on a Galaxy handset or iPhone than anything else, with unique (and often very useful) features locked to devices made by each respective company.
OnePlus does make phones, but 2021’s excellent OnePlus Buds Pro don’t ask you to buy one to access all of their best features. Thanks to a companion app called HeyMelody, you can check battery percentage, take a hearing test to enhance audio output, and customize touch controls regardless of your smartphone choice.
Beyond that, these $150 earbuds have slick looks, good sound quality, and ANC to round out the package. They may not be the best at any individual part of the listening experience, but OnePlus Buds Pro won’t let you down just for choosing the wrong phone.
Best earbuds for Android users: Samsung Galaxy Buds 2
Device versatility is nice, but if you have an Android phone, it’s also nice to have a pair of earbuds that really cater to you. That’s where Samsung’s Galaxy Buds 2 come in.
They work flawlessly with Samsung phones right out of the box thanks to the pre-installed Galaxy Wearable app. (Folks with non-Samsung Android phones just need to visit the Play Store.) An in-app fit test will help you situate the earbuds correctly in your ears, while noise cancelation and touch control options let you tune the buds to your liking.
If that wasn’t enough, the Buds 2 are also super fresh-looking and comfortable to wear for long listening sessions. At $150, these are a no-brainer for Android owners.
Best overall earbuds: Beats Fit Pro
A lot of wireless earbuds came out in 2021 and Apple can lay claim to having made the best ones around. No, not AirPods — I’m talking about the Beats Fit Pro.
For $200, these Apple-made earbuds (that don’t have Apple’s name on them) are as close to perfect as wireless earbuds get right now. A stabilizing tip makes them fit snugly and comfortably in the ear, while absolutely terrific sound quality and noise cancelation make them a joy to listen to. The best part? You can get six hours of listening time from a full charge with ANC turned on. Now, that’s what I call elite battery life.
You simply won’t find a better pair of earbuds right now.