Having worked for What Hi-Fi? For well over 15 years, I have been able to test all manner of products, from CD players to stereo speakers, TVs to AV receivers. In recent times, though, I find myself being more and more obsessed with hunting down the best wireless earbuds.
Instead of my wallet or keys, they are the first things I reach for before I step out of the house – and I’m absolutely distraught when I reach into my jacket pocket and realise that I’ve left them at home. Sound familiar? They are just such an integral part of my lifestyle now that I find myself wanting to have a listen to any new pairs that happen to pass into our test rooms, especially the ones that make a big impression.
I must have seen, heard and tested hundreds of pairs over the years. Some good, and some, er, not so good; I would hope this gives me a decent perspective.
Which brings me to the list below. The wireless earbuds market is huge and I would like to think our reviews help people make informed decisions on what to buy. Out of all the models I have heard in the past few months, these are the pairs that I can recommend in a heartbeat.
All of them sound great, but they will have a different level of appeal depending on your priorities. I have tried to cover all budgets, while bearing in mind other key factors such as battery life, comfort, and the quality of noise-cancelling, where available. Have you bought or are you considering buying a pair? Let us know in the comments below.
Best for value
At the time of writing, these wireless earbuds are quite new to the market, but they have made an immediate impression thanks to their combination of five-star sound and that attractive price tag. Their compact design means they don’t really take up any space in your pocket and the earbuds themselves are similarly small.
They are also among some of the most comfortable wireless earbuds I’ve had the pleasure of locking in my ears. The earpieces sit snugly in your ears and I have managed hours of listening without feeling any irritation, which I can’t say for a lot of models on the market. You get only three different sizes of silicone eartips to experiment with but I have had no real issues getting a great seal.
So why would you buy these over the WF-C500 further down this list? For a start, call quality is great for the money. And, they have ANC (active noise-cancelling) built in. Admittedly this isn’t as advanced as some ANC tech you get in some premium pairs (such as the Bose, also listed below) but it is more than good enough at this level.
The noise cancelling is only part of it, though. The WF-C700N sound is related to the WF-C500, but takes everything to the next level. They are clearer, more open, more musical and bestow you with more detail and a bigger and more expansive sound. A great option.
Read our Sony WF-C700N review
Best for noise-cancelling
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II
The QuietComfort Earbuds II aren’t perfect. There is no wireless charging, and they can’t Multipoint Bluetooth – but still I feel they need to be included in my list.
Why? Bose is no stranger to noise-cancelling headphones and these QuietComfort Earbuds II have to rank among some of the best it has yet produced. Yes, the Apple AirPods Pro are great noise-cancellers, but I think the Bose just pip them. They also offer more ANC customisation, so you can set different levels based on the activity you are doing.
But it’s not all about the noise-cancelling.
A more obvious plus point is the fact the Bose also appeal to owners of non-Apple Bluetooth devices. They are also Bluetooth 5.3, water resistant and a good fit, in my ears at least. They don’t burrow into your ears like a lot of wireless earbuds can which could be worth the entrance fee alone for some people. But it’s the sophistication and sense of refinement to the sound quality that really sets them apart. They don’t draw any attention to any particular element of the music, it just washes over you so you can just sit back and enjoy their agile and dynamic delivery.
Read our Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II review
If you are immersed in the world of wireless earbuds you will know that the WF-100XM4 have been a huge success for Sony. They have a number of five-star reviews and we have deemed them worthy of a What Hi-Fi? Award on more than one occasion. They offer the step-up in sound quality you would expect to get making the move up to more premium wireless earbuds, but because they have been around for a couple of years, you can get them below their original retail price. This makes them a bit of a no-brainer.
It is worth bearing there is a very good chance that their successors will launch at some point in 2023, possibly in the next couple of months. We don’t know how much the WF-1000XM5 will cost, but their arrival could see the price of the XM4 drop even further. But this isn’t guaranteed – which is why they are still worth including in this list as a pair I can recommend buying now if funds allow.
They are a wonderfully musical listen and deliver the rhythmic drive we have come to expect from Sony’s more expensive wireless earbuds. Bass notes sound taut and neatly defined, while vocals sound expressive and dynamic. Add excellent noise-cancelling, a solid feature set (including eight hours of battery life from a single charge) and water resistance and you have got a supremely talented pair of earbuds.
Read our Sony WF-1000XM4 review
Best for Apple fans
Apple AirPods Pro 2
There was a time when Apple AirPods would perform well, but, ultimately they would be pipped for sound quality by any number of rivals. All that changed recently with the arrival of the AirPods 2. Apple didn’t only improve the active noise-cancelling (ANC) it also took some major strides in the sound quality department. I have been really impressed with just how far they have come with this iteration and I know a number of my colleagues feel the same way.
Apple finally has a premium option capable of troubling the very best noise-cancelling earbuds at this level. As a result it also makes them an automatic recommendation for anyone who is fully immersed in Apple’s ecosystem. I would certainly bypass the AirPods 3 and save the extra money for these if I were in the market.
Pairing is a piece of cake and the synergy between these and an iPhone and/or MacBook just makes everyday life much simpler. The fit is excellent while the addition of touch controls to their stems is a great move. Sound quality is a clear step above the original model too, with a much greater sense of subtlety and sophistication. They are the most musical and detailed Apple in-ears I have heard to date.
Discounts are still quite hard to come by, but the good news is Apple didn’t hike up the cost of the new pair when it launched. I suggest keeping your eyes peeled – and be ready to pounce when the price is right.
Read our Apple AirPods Pro 2 review
Best for tight budgets
These excellent earbuds tick a couple of boxes. First, the price means they sit firmly at the affordable and attainable end of the wireless earbuds market. We saw them even drop a little in price at the back end of 2022 which only adds to the appeal.
Second, they boast impressive battery life for the money too. With ten hours of juice per charge, these Sonys should last long enough for most commutes and leisurely strolls. The fact you get only one extra charge from the charging case might be seen a little mean by modern standards, but it’s acceptable enough in my eyes.
Elsewhere they are compatible with Sony’s thorough Headphones Connect app and 360 Reality Audio, and they boast Sony’s DSEE engine which helps upscale low-quality music files to something in the ballpark of hi-res. There aren’t any touch controls, which is forgivable at this level, but they are IPX4 water resistant which makes them a great option just to throw in your gym bag or take on your weekend run.
All that is great, but it’s sound quality that really stands out from these budget buds. The Sonys boast a nice balance, with both ends of the frequency spectrum given a decent amount of attention. They flow along nicely with the music and there is none of that tubby bass which some manufacturers overcompensate with at this price point. They are great for the money.
Read our Sony WF-C500 review
Here's our pick of the best wireless earbuds