While many people like the comfort of over-ears, there are still many that prefer in-ear headphones, either because they like the more discrete look or simply prefer the fit.
But which to get? In today’s world that’s a tricky question as there are a variety of different form factors and technologies on offer. Runners may like to opt for a true wireless set with clip or winged tips, which in our experience offer a more secure fit and seal. Audiophiles on the other hand will care more about getting a top-end set of earbuds focussed on audio quality above all else.
As an added layer of complexity, having tested more in-ear headphones than can easily be counted, we can safely say not all the sets doing the rounds are worth your time or investment. Over the years we’ve tested many sets that look good on paper and have compelling price tags, but with real-world use fail to deliver in key areas, like audio and build quality.
Here to help you avoid investing in a lemon, we’ve created this guide detailing the top-performing in-ear headphones money can buy that we’ve tested. Every set of earbuds has been used by our team of expert reviewers both in our test rooms and the real world to ensure they’re worth your hard-earned money.
How to choose the best in-ear headphones for you
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi? Our expert team reviews products in dedicated test rooms, to help you make the best choice for your budget. Find out more about how we test.
First of all, you need to decide how much you are willing to spend but also bear in mind how you are going to use your new in-ear headphones.
Are you going to plug them into a smartphone or will they be used with a premium portable music player packed with hi-res music? You can go the wired route, but there's always the wireless option should you want a bit more convenience from your earbuds.
Compared with the best over-ear headphones which can look and feel big and bulky, the best in-ear earphones offer a more discreet listening experience, while the use of eartips tends to deliver decent levels of isolation from the outside world. So, you will also want to ensure the in-ear headphones you go for (and the tips you get with them) are comfortable. And, if you want to block out more of the outside world, you might want to consider a pair of noise-cancelling in-ear headphones too.
There's a pair of earbuds for everyone on this list, including budget wired headphones and premium models, plus noise-cancelling headphones and Bluetooth headphones, too. Rest assured, we have tested all the in-ear headphones mentioned below, which is why you can be confident they are all up to the job. Check the most recent pricing to bag a possible discount and also don't forget our page dedicated to the best headphone deals.
Founded in 2005, a relative flash in the pan compared with many audio companies, SoundMagic rose from obscurity to multiple-Award winners, most notably with its budget in-ear headphone range. And the SoundMagic E11C continue this trend.
The E11C deliver a snug fit and a well-balanced, fun and energetic sound from their 10mm dynamic drivers. Sound is warm and there's decent depth to the bass, which is topped with a clear and crisp midrange. It's also worth noting that their high sensitivity (112dB) means that the E11Cs can deliver plenty of volume which makes them a great fit for smartphones and portable audio players, provided you have a 3.5mm socket, of course.
Functionality is kept simple with a remote and mic on the cable for the left earphone. It’s a standard three-button job, so it should work with Apple and Android smartphones, giving you volume and stop/start functionality. Given the price, it's hard to find fault with these excellent budget buds.
Read the full SoundMagic E11C review
Shure has plenty of experience with wired in-ear headphones, and it shines through in the Aonic 3s. They are comfy and lightweight for starters. The headphone cable hooks over the top of your ears and keeps them secure at all times - there is a slight knack to getting the swivelling buds in place, though.
Nine different eartip choices allow for excellent isolation, while an in-line remote and mic can control your tunes and answer calls.
And the Shures absolutely nail sound quality. They are dynamic, detailed and their sense of rhythm and timing needs to be heard. We can't think of any pair of earbuds at this price that comes close. If you want a pair of wired in-ear headphones that deliver a clear step up in sound quality from the SoundMagics at the top of this list, then the Shures simply must be heard.
Read the full review: Shure Aonic 3
Sony's wireless earbuds slot neatly between the budget WF-C500 and premium WF-1000XM4, both of which feature in this list. They're a relatively new model and deliver fantastic value for money which is why they're so far up this list.
The buds are impressively small, and their lightweight design helps make them more comfortable than a whole host of rivals. Battery life is competitive at seven and a half hours, although the fact the charging case can only offer one extra charge seems a little stingy.
They lack aptX HD and LDAC but do feature noise-cancelling tech, which the WF-C500 lack. Adaptive Sound Control automatically switches listening modes depending on your location, and Sony's DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine) upscales low-res digital audio files to higher quality.
The sound quality is superbly balanced too, with deep, detailed bass, expressive mids and engaging highs. They're a very musical listen for the money.
he lack of support for aptX HD and LDAC is disappointing but not the end of the world at this level. Also, Multipoint Bluetooth – which lets you switch seamlessly between devices – won't arrive until later in the summer. But the superb level of comfort, sound quality and great feature set make these in-ear headphones easy to recommend.
Read the full Sony WF-C700N review
Sennheiser’s IE 900 earbuds will appeal to purists who want to get the best audio possible from a high-quality source. They come packaged like premium in-ear headphones with six ear tip options and three cables with a choice of normal 3.5mm and balanced 2.5mm and 4.4mm connectors. The only thing they don't have is an in-line remote.
Sennheiser's engineers have chosen to go with a single driver rather than the more fashionable multiple unit approach that many rivals take and it is made with rigidity and minimal vibrations in mind. And the results are fantastic. They are impressively clear and open sounding, able to dig deep into the production of a recording. They sound confident and insightful too, revealing layers of low-level information and organising every track they are faced with into a structured and cohesive whole.
Partner these in-ear headphones with a high-quality outboard DAC, such as the Chord Mojo and use good-quality files and you will hear just why the IE 900s justify their hefty price tag.
Read the full Sennheiser IE 900 review
The WF-1000XM4 produce one of the most dynamic, detailed and balanced performances we have heard from a pair of wireless in-ear headphones. Bass notes are crisply defined and ooze texture, while vocals sound refined and extremely natural. They deliver tunes with an infectious sense of musicality that keeps you coming back for more. And you will have plenty of time to be entertained thanks to the class-leading eight-hour battery life.
The Sony earbuds are relatively comfortable to wear (although we think the WF-C700N are more comfy for longer listening) and you get great noise isolation from the ear tips and fantastic noise cancelling from Sony's Integrated Processor V1.
IPX4 water resistance comes as part of the WF-1000XM4 package, as does Sony's clever Headphones Connect app for iOS and Android, touch controls, and clever features such as Quick Attention and Speak-To-Chat which both allow you to have a conversation without removing the earbuds. If you want a fantastic pair of in-ear headphones that wont tangle you up in wires, you need to try these Sonys.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000XM4
Think of Sony's WF-C500 wireless earbuds as a no-frills version of the WF-1000XM4 found further up this page. They deliver a lot of what makes those in-ear headphones a success for a fraction of the money although you do have to sacrifice a feature or two – noise-cancelling, for example.
These in-ears are good for running and sports, thanks to their IPX4 rating, and you also get ‘fast pair’ connectivity with Android devices and ‘swift pair’ with Windows 10 PCs.
Typically for Sony in-ears, the sound is nicely balanced. There is also loads of midrange detail on show. What you are presented with is a cohesive and musical package.
Battery life is 10 hours from the buds themselves, which is excellent. The case provides just another 10 hours, so the total battery life can be bettered by some rivals. But, if you are after a great budget pair of earbuds and you're working to a really tight budget, the Sony WF-C500 would be our first port of call.
Read the full Sony WF-C500 review
These premium Bluetooth in-ear headphones sound amazing and set a new benchmark for earbuds of this type.
Smaller and lighter than the original QC Earbuds (which you can find a few places below), the Earbuds II provide a comfy fit and plenty of features. Bluetooth 5.3 support is a big bonus, and the Bose app allows you to play around with the amount of noise-cancelling on offer via various customisable presets.
Speaking of noise-cancelling, the Bose are at the top of their game. They can automatically adjust the amount of ANC on offer so your music isn’t drowned out by particularly loud noises and the effect is deeply impressive. The Bose sound balanced and neutral and have no problems uncovering fine detail.
It's a shame there's no support for high-quality wireless audio codecs such as LDAC or aptX HD, nor is there wireless charging or Bluetooth multipoint. But we don't think this is the end of the world when you consider that these classy in-ear headphones deliver such a great sonic performance.
Read the full Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II review
Apple's in-ear headphones have always been decent wireless earbuds, but unremarkable. They've performed solidly but not spectacularly over the years. But with the AirPods Pro 2, Apple has made a pair of in-ear headphones that deliver the goods.
How? Noise-cancelling is very good, battery life is very competitive, and you get new features and, more importantly, a big jump in sound quality compared to previous efforts. They're also the same price as the original AirPods Pro, which helps.
Fit is very good, and the new design feels a lot less intrusive than some rival in-ear headphones. Apple has finally added on-bud volume controls, which improves the user experience too.
The noise-cancelling works a treat, while Adaptive Transparency muffles loud noises when letting in ambient sounds. And the sound quality? With weight, detail and a good dose of dynamic subtlety, they really are accomplished in-ears.
Read the full Apple AirPods Pro 2 review
Earfun isn't the first brand that jumps to mind in this category, but If you want cheap and cheerful wireless in-ear headphones and don't fancy the Sony WF-C500, the Airs are worth a try.
These earbuds are packed with features. You don't get noise-cancelling at this price, but Earfun Airs do provide excellent noise isolation and they feel comfy in situ too. They are also waterproof to IPX7 standards (submersible in one metre of water for up to 30 mins), support virtual assistants and include Qi wireless charging if you have a suitable charger to hand.
Battery life is seven hours from the buds and a further 28 hours from the charging case. Amazingly it all feels fairly premium too. The Bluetooth 5.0 connection is solid and stable, calls sound clear and for the money, the in-ears offer an energetic and spacious sound.
If you are after a pair of affordable and entertaining in-ear headphones, the Earfun Airs have plenty going for them.
Read the full Earfun Air review
Given that we first reviewed the Shure SE425s back in 2013, it's fair to say they have stood the test of time. Fun, absorbing, classy, polished and captivating are just a few adjectives we would use to describe their sound. The level of finesse and refinement on offer is astonishing for the money.
The first thing you will notice about these headphones is the design: Shure has gone for the in-ear pro-style in-ear monitor configuration, where the cable passes up your back and splits behind your head before passing over the top of your ears.
Once you have got your head around the set-up, you will almost certainly be wowed by quad micro drivers that deliver sparkling vocals and plenty of detail. A choice of foam and 'Soft Flex' tips should make for a snug fit, too.
As for drawbacks, the standard SE425s don’t come with a remote or mic unit. You can buy separate ones (including a three-button version for Apple devices and a one-button model for everything else), along with a Bluetooth 5.0 module.
Their looks might not appeal to everyone, and they can be a bit fiddly to wear at first, but these are all about the amazing audio. And boy do they deliver.
Read the full Shure SE425 review
The Shure KSE1200s are no ordinary in-ear headphones. First, they are an electrostatic design. Second, because of that design, they come with their own headphone amplifier. And third, they sound out of this world.
At £1796 the Shures aren't cheap, but the electrostatic tech is impressive. Well-engineered electrostatic drivers tend to have lower distortion and a faster response than any alternative technology. This means that the KSE1200s sound sensational, with a wonderful balance and sense of organisation. Insight and precision are first-rate too.
The black headphone amp (about the size of a pack of cards) is solidly built and boasts a classy knurled rotary volume control. On the back, there is a micro USB input for charging the internal battery, which should last 12 hours on a full charge (though it depends on volume level).
Downsides? They work perfectly well with a smartphone, but we find you can get better performance using hi-res and CD-quality files through a laptop and dedicated music player software, or by hooking them up to a high-end music streamer.
Still, if your budget can stretch and your system is of the right ilk, you will be blown away.
Read the full Shure KSE1200 review
How we test in-ear headphones
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door.
Testing earbuds, whether it's the wired or wireless variety doesn't require us to be in a test room all the time, although when we want peace and quiet and to compare pairs with their closest rivals, then a dedicated room does come in handy.
We treat in-ear headphones as though they are speakers, so we give them plenty of time to run in, and then we use them with the equipment they are most likely to be partnered with, be it a smartphone, headphone amp and DAC or portable music player.
We try a wide range of music and music file types and if the earbuds offer extra features such as noise-cancelling, we also test this and use them in different environments to make sure it's up to scratch.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team rather than an individual reviewer to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we are being as thorough as possible, too. There is no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.
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I'm outta here...
This is more like "The big label consumers list for the uninformed from the uninformed"
Sorry to rain on you but this is just supermarket stuff alot of the time.