When my small-town parents visited Toronto for the first time, what struck them most was not the number of people or the height of the buildings: It was the headphones. Nearly everyone on the street wore them: Pedestrians zoomed through intersections, all bobbing their AirPod-flanked heads or talking into thin air. One person forcefully took them out when asked for directions and furrowed his brows in a look that screamed: Aren’t headphones the universal sign for "Don’t Talk To Me?"
Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Generation)$278$329Save $51
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II$319$349Save $30
Jabra Elite 7 Active in-Ear Bluetooth Earbuds$240
Shokz OpenRun Pro$170
JBL Tune 130NC$130
Beats By Dr. Dre Fit Pro In-Ear Noise Cancelling Headphones$250
Powerbeats Pro Wireless Earbuds$240$330Save $90
We have been ears-deep in headphone culture since the dawn of the bulky and forever-cool Beats by Dre. Recently, our earpieces have shrunk in size and have become more than music-blasting powerhouses — they are our intimate companions; small wonders of technology that many of us don like jewelry for hours in a row.
And yet, sifting through dozens of options and choosing the right earbuds can be a difficult task. Here, I’ve reviewed seven of the most popular pairs of headphones — after taking them through a workday and a sweaty workout — to help you decide which ones are best for you.
Why it's great: Stellar noise cancellation & exceptional battery life
Room for improvement: Only Apple users can access all the benefits
Love them or hate them, the main criticism around Apple is that the updated versions of their products vary little from their predecessors (see: iPhones 6 through 14). The AirPods Pro 2nd Generation, however, are a startling exception and are miles ahead of their non-Pro counterparts. Like many other people, I spent much of last year going about my day wearing the standard AirPods (not the Pros), whose long frame many likened to cigarette butts for the ears. Not only are the Pros sharper-looking, they are much higher-performing. The phone pairing is seamless, the battery life is abundant, and the noise-cancelling technology is better than any other device on this list. I wore them on a flight and could barely hear the aircraft engine’s constant whoosh — let alone the babies crying.
I recommend the AirPods for Apple users only. Others could still use the AirPods because they connect to Bluetooth, but they will miss out on useful settings like voice-activated commands to Siri and seamless battery life checking. If you do not have an iPhone, you are better off looking elsewhere.
Why it's great: Customizable noise cancellation, powerful bass and clear sound
Room for improvement: Some Amazon shoppers had issues connecting to the accompanying app
Android users, these are your AirPods Pro counterparts. The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II feature near-equal noise cancelling technology, carry similar cultural cache (at least in music-lover circles), and even cost the same. When you buy headphones at this price point, you expect a few perks beyond pristine sound and ear comfort — and the Bose headphones deliver. They come with customizable levels of noise cancellation, which is incredibly useful. It allows me to go full-silence mode when I wear them to work and then wear them around at half-noise while I walk or run around the city and need some level of spatial awareness. That setting, along with their sleek look and durability, make the QuietComfort all-day headphones: You can wear them at work and then leave them in for your end-of-day workout. And as do the AirPods with the iPhone, these devices pair beautifully with the Bose Music app, allowing users easy manipulation of that noise cancellation setting, sound preferences, battery life and software updates.
Why it's great: Sweat and dust-resistant, high-quality sound, personalized feedback
Room for improvement: If you already have a smartwatch, you may not benefit from the added features
The Jabra Active Elite 7 is perfect for the fitness enthusiast who can’t get enough exercise metrics. Many devices — watches, phones, rings and bands — now give you specialized information about your workout, but the Elite 7 is the first set of headphones I’ve seen do so. They have built-in motion sensors that track activity and provide real-time suggestions and personalized feedback, all accessible through the Jabra Sound+ app.
Here’s the thing: I suspect many people are like me and already have a watch that takes care of all that. Nonetheless, it’s a fun setting and adds to the Active 7s all-around techny-ness. They are robustly sweat and dust-resistant, they have a useful Find My Jabra feature that prevents you from losing them, and through the app, they adjust bass and treble to best please your specific ears. Even if you don’t care for the fitness info, it’s well worth the buy.
Why it's great: Comfortable during exercise, frees ear canal
Room for improvement: Bulkier than its counterparts
The Shokz headset is unlike anything else on this list. The key difference is that it does not cover your ear canal. Instead, its little speakers rest on the cheekbones right in front of the ears and deliver sound via bone conduction. The idea is to enjoy music without losing awareness of your surroundings. Sounds weird, but it works.
As I mentioned, I like doing city runs — and I enjoy the Open Run Pro because they help me strike the tough balance between vigilance and stillness at the same time. They play loudly enough for me to jam to my tunes while never overshadowing the noise of the cyclist or gas guzzler quickly coming up on my shoulder. A bonus for exercisers is that the Shokz are sweat-resistant and, despite their bulk, rest comfortably on the head with no bounce. All that being said, if you’re the type of person who wants to immerse yourself in music and completely forget the world around you for a while, the Shokz may not be for you.
Why it's great: Affordable, comfortable and stellar battery life
Room for improvement: Some shoppers note the headphones are "not good" for calls
When shopping for headphones, not everyone wants to pay a premium for an arsenal of settings — some people just want a reliable speaker. If you are not overly excited about having Siri in your ear, sound waves zipping through your cheekbones, or workout info coming from your earbuds and prefer something that simply will play you reliable music for hours on end, I’d recommend the JBL Tune 130NC. For $130, it's a good buy: The tracks may not be quite as crisp as they are in, say, the Bose QuietComfort, but the difference is way too small to make you stop mid-workout and yearn for more bass. There is also some noise cancellation, and the charging case extends listening time to a lengthy 24 hours. I also like their durability: All of my past JBL products gracefully withstood the test of time and performed well for several years.
Why it's great: Fast Fuel feature provides 1.5 hours of play in a five-minute charge
Room for improvement: Some shoppers note these earbuds are "big and bulky"
The first time I tried the Beats Fit Pro, I did my best not to compare them to their powerful big brother, the Beats By Dre headphones, out of fear of being disappointed. And sure, small pods cannot deliver quite the same deep sound as a device 50 times their weight, but these earbuds still live up to their namesake and pack a magnificent punch. I even found myself reducing the volume of bass-heavy songs.
On top of having stellar speakers, these devices also come with a few ingenious perks. The first one is Transparency Mode: A noise-cancelling feature that lets in external sounds when particularly loud or stark to keep you aware only when needed. I tested this on a busy street: The earphones crowded out the city’s constant hum while letting in an occasional shrill car honk. The second is Fast-Fuel, which gives the Fit Pros 90 minutes of life juice in just a five-minute charge.
Why it's great: Unmatched sound quality, easy pairing with Apple device
Room for improvement: Some reviewers found the headphones fell out of sync too easily
Think of the Powerbeats Pro as a cross between the AirPods and the Beats Fit Pro. They essentially have all of the Fit Pro’s settings and features, but their built-in Apple H1 chip allows you to access fun features like Siri and iCloud syncing, as well as to take calls with ease during a workout. While the noise-cancelling tech may not be as powerful as what I've seen from the AirPods, the quality of music here is better and more suited for bass lovers. I also rank the Powerbeats Pro as the most comfortable on this list — they are snug without pushing on my ear hole and sit tight through hard running or rigorous plyometric workouts. If you are entertaining the Beats Fit Pro but want something that keeps you a bit more connected to your phone, it’s worth shelling out the extra $30 for the Powerbeats.