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Best wireless earbuds in 2021: AirPods and alternatives

Good earbuds aren't just great for making and receiving calls when on the move. They can help you relax and even block out the hustle and bustle of the world around you.

Gone are the bulky headphones of old, with their huge over-ear cans and miles of cabling. For most, discreet earbuds are the way forward. With a good pair of earbuds popped into your ears, not only can you make and receive calls when on the move but also relax to music or your favorite audiobook, and isolate yourself from the noise and bustle of the world around you.

But there are countless different earbuds out there to choose from, and since many are quite expensive, you're making a significant investment, and buying the wrong ones can be a costly mistake. Here's my tour of what I believe are the top earbuds currently available.

Apple AirPods Pro

Excellent hardware with deep integration with iOS

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Everything about the AirPods Pro is beautifully engineered. They are small, sleek, comfortable, have great audio output while at the same time doing a magical job of shutting out the rest of the world, and are insanely easy to use. 

Everything from the initial set up to operating the buds is just mind-blowingly miraculous. 

The clicker for operating different modes is also a brilliant touch, and lightyears better than the touchpad that other companies seem to be using. It offers all the tactile feedback of a button, without being a button.

Up to 4.5 hours of listening time with a single charge (up to five hours with Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency off), with the case taking this up to 24 hours.

Jabra Elite Active 75t

Earbuds for people who sweat!

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These earbuds look as good in the gym as they do at the office. Great sound, comfortable, and amazing active noise cancellation for those situations where you want to block out the world.

On the battery front, the earbuds offer 5.5 hours of battery life, and with the charging case, they offer a total of 24 hours of use between full recharges.

On the durability front, the Jabra Elite Active 75t are sweatproof, having an IP57-rated design. Backing this is a 2-year warranty against sweat and dirt damage.

Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro

Look like AirPods, but a lot cheaper and better battery life

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These are so good that it's hard to believe that they are only $129. 

Great sound, fantastic active noise cancellation, crystal clear calls thanks to six noise-canceling microphones, and up to 26 hours of battery life -- with the earbuds capable of an amazing 7 hours on a charge.

They are also super comfortable.

I simply cannot fault these earbuds.

AfterShokz Aeropex

No more sticking things into your ears!

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Not earbuds as such, the AfterShokz Aeropex use bone conduction to carry the sound through your cheekbones into your ear canals. Sounds weird, but it works.

And works well.

While I like the transparency mode that some earbuds offer, these offer complete transparency, because there's nothing plugging your ears.

The sound quality is very good, not as good as high-end earbuds, but it's up there. They are super comfortable, and you get 8 hours of use per charge.

And a feature that I love is that they come with two charging cables. A nice touch since is a proprietary waterproof charging system.

Use these for a few days, and shoving a bud in your ears will feel... weird!

Amazon Echo Buds

Alexa, but in your ears!

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The Echo Buds are, well, much like other earbuds. They are little black buds, supplied in a moderately sized charging and carry case, designed to be popped into the ears.

The buds come with several different eartips and optional earwings. While the eartips are pretty standard, the earwings feel like little more than a blob of rubber on a small circle of rubber. They are hard to fit on the earbuds correctly (you have to line up a small, squintingly hard to see the mark on the rubber earwing with an equally small and hard to see the mark on the earbuds), and they look terrible and feel like an afterthought.

All this is a shame because they actually improve in-ear comfort. Even without the earwings, the Echo Buds are comfortable enough to wear for hours.

The Amazon Echo Buds last for about five hours per charge, and with the case, are good for 20 hours.

Currently available at a dramatically reduced price, making them a great deal for those who are big Alexa users.

Which earbuds are best for you?

There are a number of things that I look for when it comes to earbuds. 

Comfort

The first is comfort. Yes, comfort. While battery life and great sound are important, if you can't wear them for more than a few minutes without discomfort, or they fall out when you turn your head, those other features are wasted.

Since everyone is different, and things like ear shape and even tolerance to having things dangling from the ear canal are varied, it's hard to stay what will work for you in particular. While I like the simplicity of the AirPods Pro -- because, unlike some of the other earbuds, they only offer three earcups to choose from -- I know from feedback that some can't make them work. Also, while I don't mind heavy earbuds like the Amazon Echo Buds, for some, they could be too heavy and cause discomfort after prolonged use.

If you can't stand things in your ears then the AfterShokz Aeropex might be worth a try. They're odd to begin with, but after a while of using them, stuffing something into your ears feels equally odd.

Battery life

The next thing I look for is a good, long battery life. Once you've found earbuds that you can keep in your ears for a few hours, you're probably going to want to keep them in your ears for hours, and this is when poor battery life is going to become a problem.

While all the earbuds in this lineup offered pretty good battery life, for me, the Apple AirPods Pro and Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro buds were by and far the best.

Each charge of the AirPods Pro gave well over four hours of use, even with active noise cancellation switched on, and with the case, the package was good for over 24 hours of listening. The Jabra Elite Active 75t are also great, giving you 5.5 hours from a charge, and 24 hours when using the charging case.

But the Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro beats both, with the buds offering about seven hours of usage per charge, and the case extending this to 26 hours.

 If you only use your earbuds for a few hours a day, these will offer you weeks of runtime from a single charge.

Noise cancellation

Then there's noise cancellation. After all, the better the earbuds seal out the outside world, the more comfortable they are, and the more relaxed you will be.

Here it's a tough choice between Apple's AirPods Pro, Jabra Elite Active 75t, and Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro. All three are excellent, but for iPhone users, I think that the deep integration of the AirPods Pro with iOS gives them the edge. 

If noise cancellation isn't something you worry about, then the AfterShokz Aeropex might be for you.

Price

If the price is a factor, then the Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro earbuds are hard to beat. They look good, feel good, sound great, and have a battery life that's up there with the best.

Design

If design and stylishness are your thing, and you want something that looks a little different from the rest, then the AfterShokz Aeropex is worth a look. They are very distinctive and are different from the tiny plastic earbuds that everyone else is stuffing into their ear canals. And I'm impressed by how great they sound.

Coming up with one winner is hard, which is why I'm not going to do that here. Each of the earbuds here offers amazing performance, and really it comes down to personal preference.