Earphones vs. Earbuds
If you're a music lover, chances are you're not happy with your phone or media player's bundled earphones. Most of the time, they sound pretty dismal. Some devices don't come with any earphones at all, but even the models that do include them tend not to offer a high-quality listening experience. Your music and video can definitely benefit from an upgrade.
Earbuds are not earphones, as they don't enter your ear canal. Instead they sit just outside of it, where it's easy to become loose and cause problems when it comes to accurate stereo images (in which both ears get the same amount of audio) and bass response. You often get earbuds bundled with phones or other devices.
Earphones fit in the ear canal and form a seal inside your ear, blocking outside noise while piping sound directly into your ears. They're much smaller and lighter than headphones, since they don't need to fit on or over your ears and don't require any outside support (though some have stiff wire sections or flexible fins to keep them in place without getting in the way). Plus they won't mess up your hair. Here you'll find the best in-ear models we've tested.
Wired, Wireless, or Wire-Free?
Earphones can connect to your smartphone through a 3.5mm cable or wirelessly over Bluetooth, depending on the model. Wired earphones are generally less expensive, and you don't need to worry about keeping them charged. Bluetooth earphones are more convenient because you don't have to physically connect them to your smartphone, but they need battery power to work. For the most part, you won't find a 3.5mm port and removable cable on Bluetooth earphones; when they're out of power, they're out of commission until you charge them again.
There's also true wireless earphones, which we also call wire-free. These are essentially Bluetooth earphones, but with no cable connecting the individual earpieces. It took a solid year for the bugs to get shaken out of this category, with issues like short battery life and awkward design plaguing early devices.
We're starting to see some very compelling wire-free earphones now, with companies like Bose and JLab offering sets with the power, longevity, and intuitive controls necessary for us to recommend them. Typically wire-free earphones are more expensive than conventional wireless earphones, but if that wire running between the earpieces is a constant nuisance for you, it could be a worthy purchase.
Good for Workouts
Earphones might not be as eye-catching as headphones, but they can be much more convenient. Besides their size and weight, earphones are often more resilient than headphones when dealing with moisture. This is important if you want to listen to music at the gym. Earpads can get soaked and worn with a solid sweat, and they aren't built to withstand the regular, constant friction that comes with working out. Earphones can be built to be water- and sweat-resistant, and hold up much better to activity.
Besides the rugged factor, earphones are also much better for staying on your head while you're in motion. A good set of headphones will feel comfortable when you're sitting or walking around, but when you start running or biking they can easily shake free of your ears. Fitness-oriented earphones often have stabilizing fins built in to them to ensure that they'll stay in place no matter what you do at the gym. For the best options, check out our list of The Best Headphones for Running.
Not all earphones are workout-friendly, though; don't assume your earphones will handle what you throw at them unless they're fitness-oriented earphones, or at least are explicitly listed as water- and sweat-resistant. Really pricey earphones can be as fragile as really pricey headphones, and you don't want to accidentally ruin a $200 pair with ear sweat.
Caring for Your Earphones
Whichever model you choose, make sure to use the included pouch or carrying case as often as possible in order to preserve the longevity of your earphones. Balling them up, shoving them into a pocket, and then untangling them each time you want to listen does more to wear them out prematurely than just about anything else. Wire-free earphones typically come with charging cases that are easily pocketable and keep the earphones' batteries topped off, making care for them a bit easier.
If you don't want to get tripped up on wires, check out the Best Wireless Headphones. If you place a priority on blocking out external sounds so that you can enjoy your favorite music in peace and quiet, read the Best Noise-Canceling Headphones. And if you're shopping on a budget, scan our picks for The Best Headphones Under $50.
Bottom Line: The stunning Etymotic ER4 XR earphones deliver the sonic accuracy sound professionals need, and add some subtle depth in the lows to complement modern mixes.
Bottom Line: The affordable 1More Triple Driver In-Ear Headphones sound, look, and feel fantastic.
Bottom Line: The Shure SE215 Wireless earphones offers some of the best in-ear Bluetooth audio performance available under $200.
Bottom Line: The expensive, exercise-focused B&O Beoplay H5 earphones deliver an excellent Bluetooth audio experience.
Bottom Line: The BeatsX Bluetooth earphones from Beats deliver strong audio performance and excellent wireless connectivity, aided by Apple's W1 chip.
Bottom Line: The bass-forward Bose SoundSport Free earphones are expensive, but nail the design and operational details right better than any other pair in the growing wire-free category.
Bottom Line: The gym-friendly Jaybird X3 wireless earphones deliver high-quality audio in a comfortable, secure-fitting design.
Bottom Line: The JLab Epic Air headphones deliver strong bass response, a gym-friendly build, and the best battery life we've seen in a truly wireless design.
Bottom Line: The Libratone Q Adapt Lightning earphones offer a strong audio experience for iPhone users coupled with solid, relatively affordable noise cancellation.
Bottom Line: Bluetooth earphones don't get much more affordable than the Skullcandy Jib Wireless, which packs a strong bass punch for the price.