As we’ve all been adjusting to life from home mixed with work from home for a year, the importance of calls — audio and video — has reached a new height. And so has the need for a good pair of earbuds or headphones to help you concentrate and be heard.
So, what makes a pair of earbuds or headphones good to use while working? They should deliver clear voice pickup, provide enough comfort to wear day in and day out and offer multiple — and reliable — connectivity options.
To find the best, we chose a range of earbuds and headphones across price points with varying feature sets — most of which came out on top in other earbud and headphone tests we’ve run. After more than two months of rigorous testing, these three options stood out:
If you’re looking for the most functionality and features, the Galaxy Buds Pro ($199.99; amazon.com and samsung.com) are a no-brainer. The highlight: class-leading noise cancellation that blocks out all distractions for the times you seriously need to focus. And, since the Galaxy Buds Pro earbuds also feature an ambient noise mode — which intelligently lets external noises in — you won’t miss anything important, like your spouse or the doorbell. And if you’re the type to listen to music or podcasts while you work, the Buds Pro deliver exceptional sound quality (on par with the AirPods Pro) and a customizable EQ mix courtesy of the buds’ companion app. On top of it all, these are some of the most comfortable earbuds (even edging out the AirPods, to a degree) we’ve ever worn, and we easily wore them for a full workday.
After countless calls and general use, the EarFun Air earbuds ($59.99; amazon.com) proved to deliver a lot with only a few compromises. The light, plastic build and four included ear tips ensure all-day comfort. With four microphones in total, they’re excellent at picking up your voice while ignoring other elements in the background (so your co-workers won’t hear the barking dog or other random household noises). Sure, there are some downsides — noise cancellation is nonexistent and the built-in controls are finicky — but if you’re looking for a cheap pair of earbuds perfect for use while working, the Earbuds Air are a sure bet.
Should headphones be more your jam, you need not look further than Sony’s WH-100XM4 headphones ($348; amazon.com). While not the most affordable, they were in a different stratosphere compared to other headphones we tested. They deliver best-in-class noise cancelation that puts you in your own bubble, while transparency mode ensures that you can still hear a knock on the door. With five microphones, it also dramatically improves the voice pickup over other headphones we tested — only being bested by a pair that’s $200 more — and produced clear audio in a number of tests.
While we’d love to highlight a budget pair of headphones, we found that the options around $100 or less muffled our voice and at times confused it with background sounds, making them far from ideal for use while working.
PHOTO: Michael Andronico/CNN
If you’re willing to splurge on a more premium set of earbuds that will help you quiet the chaos happening around you at home, the $199 Galaxy Buds Pro are worth the premium. Whether it’s a barking dog, a crying baby or a blaring jackhammer from the street below you, the Buds Pro’s dependable active noise cancellation (ANC) works to block it out, leaving you with a little white noise and room to think.
Powering the noise cancellation prowess is a processor and array of microphones. After countless tests we found them champs at dampening the sounds of nearby chatter or outside cars and construction. The Galaxy Buds Pro’s ANC isn’t quite as suppressive as that of the AirPods Pro, but it’s impressively close for a pair of earbuds that are $50 less. In our testing, we found the Buds Pro reliable for significantly quieting sounds, such as nearby traffic or chatter when walking outside, and dampened the sounds of footsteps and wind playing on a YouTube video at home (which we used as a baseline for testing ANC).
When you want to keep tabs on everything happening around you, you can take advantage of the Buds Pro’s Ambient Noise feature. Like the AirPods Pro’s Transparency Mode, Ambient Noise uses the Buds Pro’s built-in microphones to let more outside noise in when you’re listening to music or podcasts.
The Buds Pro’s Ambient Noise feature was one of the best we’ve tested, with multiple noise levels that allowed us to hear what was going on in an entirely different room once we cranked things all the way up. When we had a YouTube video of ambient chatter playing in the next room, the Buds Pro did just as good a job picking up the sounds of people talking as the AirPods Pro did with both buds on their default settings. But Samsung’s buds have the unique advantage of letting you up the Ambient Noise sensitivity on Android, which made the outside noise much easier to hear at full volume. This is useful for when you’re rocking your favorite work playlist but still want to hear the doorbell ring for an important delivery or keep tabs on your pets or children to make sure they’re not causing too much chaos next door.
Better yet, the Buds Pro’s active noise cancellation and Ambient Noise work in tandem with Voice Detect, which, when enabled, allows the buds to automatically switch from ANC mode to Ambient Noise mode once you start speaking. So if you need to ask a question to someone in your household, ANC will automatically be deactivated and come back on after a few seconds once you’re done talking. This isn’t a feature you can get on the AirPods Pro, and makes the transition from zoning in on an important project to asking a family member what’s for dinner that much smoother.
There is one important caveat here: Many of the Galaxy Buds Pro’s best features are limited to Android users. While you can take advantage of ANC and Ambient Noise regardless of which device the Buds Pro are paired to, you’ll need the Android-only Galaxy Wearable app to do things such as change Ambient Noise pickup levels, turn on Voice Detect and switch between different sound presets. Still, like any Bluetooth earbuds or headphones, you can pair these with any device.
Regardless of the device you’re paired with, battery life is long-lasting here. With ANC or Ambient Noise engaged, we achieved five straight hours of playback and eight hours with those disengaged. When using the earbuds on and off while occasionally activating ANC, we were able to go three days before we got a low battery warning. The case will provide an additional 20 hours as well.
The Buds Pro are some of the best-sounding earbuds we’ve used, with deep bass and crisp high tones that will make it easy to get lost in your favorite songs once it’s time to focus. Music quality was neck and neck with that of the more expensive AirPods Pro — we noticed equally bright guitars, clear vocals and satisfying low-end when switching between the two. And the Buds Pro have the added benefit of multiple sound presets that you can switch between (if you’re on Android at least). You’re not sacrificing sound quality by going with the cheaper high-end earbuds here.
The Buds Pro feature three onboard microphones per ear, which held up well in our testing. Voice recordings we took on the Buds Pro sounded nearly identical to those we made on the AirPods Pro, and we didn’t notice any background noise when listening back. More anecdotally, colleagues reported having no issues hearing us during calls.
The Buds Pro feature a compact design that sits in your ear, with a comfortable ear tip that provides a tight seal. They’re some of the most comfortable earbuds we’ve ever worn, and we easily wore them for a full workday. The cozy-focused design lets you forget they’re even in your ears while on marathon calls that are followed by hours in a spreadsheet work mode. Again, the Galaxy Buds Pro were right on par with the AirPods Pro here, with three swappable ear tips in the box that allow you to find the perfect fit. They also have the benefit of not hanging out of your ears like the AirPods Pro do, making them less conspicuous during video calls.
Overall, the Galaxy Buds Pros deliver superb comfort, great audio quality, long battery life and dependable ANC regardless of platform, which are the things that matter most when you’re looking for the perfect work-from-home earbuds. And at $50 less than the AirPods Pro, the $199 Buds Pro are an excellent overall value compared to their rivals.
PHOTO: Michael Nuñez/CNN
You don’t need high-quality earbuds for taking work calls, which means you also don’t have to spend a small fortune. Case in point: the EarFun Air earbuds.
The EarFun Air buds make setup simple. Simply flip open the lid of the carrying case to start casting a connection from the earbuds, open Bluetooth on your phone or computer and select EarFun Air. That’s it to get set — and what’s more, like any pair of wireless earbuds, you’ll just pop them in your ear and they’ll connect to a previously paired device.
Latency or slowness when connecting wasn’t an issue during our tests. During video calls, for instance, we could join a chat with our team and have everything sync up properly. When someone spoke, the sound matched up perfectly. Other headphones we tested, like TaoTronics, often presented syncing issues and even resulted in audio cutout. Similarly, when we spoke, our audio didn’t get gargled up, presenting itself in a succinct fashion. The EarFun Air earbuds feature Bluetooth 5.0 inside, which aids in generating this strong connection.
Two microphones sit inside each earbud — one on the bottom of the stem and one on the top — making for four in total. While these don’t feature noise cancellation or any fancy flagship features, these microphones perform stupendously for active voice pickup while removing some background noise. While other earbuds overcompensated and turned our voice into an ASMR-like whisper, EarFun Air produced clear vocals with minimal background noise. This goes for a recorded voice memo (which you can listen to below, along with phone calls), video calls and even quick SnapChat bites.
If you’re the type who listens to podcasts or a rockin’ playlist while working, you won’t be disappointed with the EarFun Air. They have strong audio chops, with the ability to showcase wide soundstages across any genre. Tunes come through clear and balanced, a trait that isn’t easy to deliver — especially at this price point.
These earbuds sit quite comfortably. It’s a mostly plastic build with a gummy ear tip, and thanks to the stem design, it’s weighted in the ear. As opposed to a smaller bud that sits in your ear, we didn’t feel extra pressure on our inner ear, and four ear tips are included in the box.
Once you find the right ear tip, you can comfortably wear these for back-to-back-to-back Zoom meetings during your workday. Battery life won’t be an issue, either, as the EarFun Air lasted seven hours on a single charge — and the case provides an additional three charges, which can get you an additional 28 hours of consecutive use.
One annoyance we have, though, is that the onboard controls will leave you disappointed. They’re not intuitive and can be downright frustrating. The left and right earbuds both feature touch sensors, but they don’t always work and require a hard press to be delivered. This is far from a deal breaker, though, as you can rely easily on your connected device (a laptop, phone, tablet or smartwatch) to control the earbuds and adjust the volume and playback. If you’re on a call, though, there’s no built-in mute command. You’ll use the native command within the application or your phone to mute yourself.
And, as we mentioned above, the EarFun Air don’t feature noise-canceling ability — which is something you’ll have to pay extra for.
At just $59.99, though, these aren’t major sacrifices and are certainly overcome by the EarFun Air’s strong microphones that produce clear audio across the spectrum. Most importantly, though, they won’t break the bank.
PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN
Already our pick for best over-ear and noise-canceling headphones, Sony’s WH-1000XM4 once again proved to be elite. Able to block out all distractions, providing ultra comfort and boasting superior call quality, the XM4 headphones simply outclassed all the other headphones we tested in work scenarios.
During calls, the XM4’s five microphones kick into high gear. Those coming from standard over-ear cans without ANC will notice an immediate improvement with voice pickup, along with better blocking of background noise. These cans are much better at tackling the noise around you, thanks to a custom processor inside. Sony pairs that with software to identify your voice and make sure it picks up your voice. With phone calls, the XM4 beat out all other headphones we tested.
Most importantly, you can easily pair and switch on the fly between multiple Bluetooth devices. This way, you can connect the WH-1000XM4 to your phone and your laptop for switching between a traditional phone call or a video call on your laptop. We encountered zero latency issues and no lip-synching errors (when audio comes in out of sync with lip movements during a video call).
For those (what probably feels like too few) times you’re not on a team call and need to concentrate, you can engage active noise cancellation to remain undisturbed by any litany of sounds. Though the XM4 tied with the AirPods Max (with their bloated price tag of $549) in terms of noise-canceling ability, these do a better job of blocking out a range of noises — think lower-frequency drums or high-frequency pitches from an HVAC unit — than all other headphones we tested.
And, talking about fewer distractions, wearing the XM4 throughout the day never proved cumbersome. Light in build, the top headband and ear cups also feature a memory foam that reduces pressure on your head. In our daily use, we found the WH-1000XM4 to apply less pressure on the top of our heads, which makes them easy to wear throughout a long workday. The pressure here wasn’t as sharp or noticeable as the Bose QuietComfort 35 II or Beats Solo 3.
Sony also punches well above everyone else in terms of battery life — we got nearly 30 hours of music playback with noise cancellation turned on — beating our testing pool’s average of 20 hours. You can also easily charge them with the included USB-C cable, which we seriously appreciate. In our opinion, no headphone or earbud in 2021 should ship with a proprietary port. And if you wear the battery down and are in a bind for your next call, you can charge for 10 minutes and get two hours of use.
The Sony WH-1000XM4, with their class-leading noise cancellation and premium call quality, are a stellar work-from-home solution — and certainly justify their somewhat lofty price.
When we set out to find the best earbuds and headphones to use while working from home, we pulled models from our previous tests — bolstering the testing pool with highly rated and well-regarded devices. In the end, we opted for seven headphones and 10 earbuds.
We began testing from the moment we unboxed the earbuds or headphones. We paid close attention to what was included (ear tips, cables and accessories) and the setup process. Did it deliver a seamless connection experience as promised, or was it littered with issues?
We timed how long resuming a connection took between devices. We also looked for latency and any issues with connection throughout the testing period. Similarly, to test voice pickup, we made calls via the phone and VoIP apps like Zoom, Slack, Webex, Skype, GoToMeeting, Facebook Messenger and Telegram. We also recorded audio using the earbuds or headphones as the main microphone and analyzed the recording. To test for comfort, we wore each bud for at least a full workday throughout calls and music playback.
While wearing throughout the day, we tracked battery life in addition to conducting battery life tests on each pair of earbuds and headphones. We also took a look at the warranty that was included with the purchase of each one.
Here’s a breakdown of every category and subcategory we used for scoring these earbuds and headphones:
- Design and comfort had a maximum of 25 points: build quality (10 points), fit in or on/over ear (5 points), stay in the ear (5 points) and IP rating (5 points).
- Sound quality had a maximum of 25 points: overall (10 points); low, mid and high (5 points); soundstage (5 points); and bass (5 points).
- Microphones had a maximum of 20 points: clarity (10 points), call quality (10 points), background reduction (5 points) and voice control (5 points).
- Battery life had a maximum of 20 points: battery life (10 points), charging time (5 points) and earbuds + case (5 points).
- Connectivity had a maximum of 10 points: overall (10 points).
- Controls had a maximum of 10 points: on-device (5 points) and off-device (5 points).
- Noise cancellation had a maximum of 5 points: overall (5 points).
- Warranty had a maximum of 5 points: overall (5 points).
AirPods ($159; amazon.com)
While Apple’s AirPods offer good voice pickup, they really are designed for the Apple ecosystem only. You get fast pairing out of the box thanks to Apple’s W1 Bluetooth chip inside, so they instantly sync across all of your devices. This allows for super fast switching between your iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch and even your Apple TV.
With a plastic build throughout, these can apply a bit more pressure in the ear canal as it’s not soft to the touch. We do appreciate the longer stem design as it balances out the earbud to make it stay in your ear. No gel ear tip does make it hard to get a seal in the ear, though. Sound quality is pretty good across the board with a balanced approach. Compared to the first generation AirPods, AirPods 2 (as they’re referred to) offer a stronger connection and deeper bass. In terms of voice pickup, we found higher-end earbuds, like the AirPods Pro, to perform much better in terms of clarity and background noise reduction. If your focus is on a comfortable build with excellent voice pickup, we’d opt for the cheaper Earfun Airs.
AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)
AirPods Pro were nearly our top pick as they offer stupendous sound that uses Adaptive EQ to adjust the mix and feature an updated design that puts a focus on comfort. You get a set of three rubber eartips in the box and conduct an “ear tip fit test” that analyzes which earbud is right for your specific ear.
Both the left and right AirPods Pro feature two microphones, which are used for voice pickup and work in tandem with the Apple H1 Chip to remove background noise. The latter can distract from what you’re saying and can even make your voice muddled. These microphones are also used to block out noise when Active Noise Cancelation (ANC) is engaged. It’s better than the Galaxy Buds Pro at canceling out the world _ but just by a bit. You also get a single level of Transparency mode, which is bested by the multiple levels of Ambient Noise on the Galaxy Buds Pro. For $50 less, the Galaxy Buds Pro are a terrific option for a nearly identical experience in terms of features. Those who don’t like the stem design of AirPods Pro, will be happy with Buds Pro as well.
AirPods Max ($549; amazon.com)
AirPods Max are really expensive — like super expensive — at $549. They’re a luxurious pair of over-ear headphones with a mesh top band design and a fully aluminum band. Each earcup, left and right, feature a dedicated Apple H1 Chip for processing and there are nine microphones in total. Three of those are dedicated for voice pickup when on calls (audio, video or VoIP) and the result is a pristine experience. The custom processing allows it to block out background noise and tackle wind with relative ease.
When you turn Active Noise Cancellation on, the microphones work together to block out other speaking, loud drops and environmental noise. You also get a Transparency Mode and we’ll give AirPods Max the win for that. The result is a more life-like view of the world around you as the Sony can sound a hair more compressed. Music sounds really good, as you might expect for the price and it offers a bit more breadth and depth than the WH-1000XM4. AirPods Max battery life also tops out at 20 hours versus 30 hours on WH-1000XM4.
As a whole the Sony WH-1000XM4s offer a larger feature set and are platform agnostic for a cheaper price. The difference in ANC is too close to call and we especially appreciate Sony’s ability to hold multiple Bluetooth connections at once.
Beats Powerbeats Pro ($199.95; amazon.com)
Beats Powerbeats Pro
Powerbeats Pro are currently our pick for best headphones to wear when working out and they really do excel at that. The audio experience offers a hefty amount of bass that packs a punch but doesn’t necessarily overpower the mids and highs on the track. We also really like the ear hook as it doesn’t apply pressure to your ear or weigh down the lobe. You can also workout without any fear of Powerbeats Pro falling out. The design isn’t all rainbows though as the carrying case is quite literally massive. You’ll need to toss it in a bag as opting for a pants pocket results in a bulge.
These fitness focused earbuds don’t feature any form of active noise cancellation or a transparency mode. While the ear tips offer a passive seal, it’s nothing to ride home a bit. In testing with calls Powerbeats Pro let in a larger amount of background noise and didn’t perform well in windy conditions. Connectivity was strong with Apple’s H1 Bluetooth chip inside. If your focus is on voice pickup skills we’d opt for either Earfun Air or the Galaxy Buds Pro.
Beats Solo Pro ($229.79, originally $299.95; amazon.com)
Beats Solo Pro
The Beats Solo Pros are pretty close to the price of our Sony WH-1000XM4s, but they differ in a key way that impacts the entire feature set. The Solo Pros are on-ear headphones, meaning they rest on your ears and don’t provide any passive noise canceling. They also apply heavier pressure around your ears. Those with larger heads may feel a larger amount of discomfort. Beats does compensate with a decent amount of padding in the top band and on the earcups, though.
Solo Pro are outfitted with Apple’s H1 Bluetooth chip for fast pairing and an array of microphones for active noise canceling. And while the ANC performs well, the full ear seal missing does result in other headphones beating them out. Our top pick, Sony’s WH-1000XM4s, does a much better job of blocking out low and high-frequency noises with ANC engaged. And for about $50 more, they’re a much better option.
Beats Solo 3 ($132.56, originally $199.95; amazon.com)
Beats Solo 3
As our pick for best on-ear headphones, the Beats Solo 3 offer a well rounded audio experience. They offer balanced sound with the ability to replicate wide soundstages with ease and deliver a comfortable on-ear experience. Unlike the Solo Pros above, the Solo 3s aren’t as tight around the head with a plastic build.
But aside from those core elements, the Solo 3s are lacking in other features. There’s no active noise cancelation and they let a lot of noise. Listening at high volumes will result in sound leakage making these not optimal for office environments, either. Battery life is long at 40 hours but that’s just with music playback. And during calls, the Solo 3s’ voice pickup was middle of the road.
Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 ($329.95, originally $379.99; bose.com)
Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700
The more modern Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 800 pair classic sound with a sleek aluminum and metal design. These materials get closer to matching AirPods Max and bump the price higher than our overall pick. By nature, these can’t fold down for easy traveling but do represent a very comfortable over-ear experience. There’s ample padding that extends to the top headband.
Sound is really strong here with slightly more emphasis on bass that doesn’t distract from mid or high tones. It’s a well-rounded, vibrant mix. Bose provides 10 levels of noise cancellation and are excellent at removing a large percentage of background noises. Sony has an edge with higher-frequency sounds, which assists in our work from home environment. The 700s only have 20 hours of battery life, which is 10 less than Sony. And they’re $50 more, so we’d say you’re better off with the XM4s..
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds ($279.95; bose.com)
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds operate on another level above AirPods Pro and Galaxy Buds Pro when it comes to noise canceling. It brings any environmental sounds (across the full spectrum of frequencies) down to a hum. The result is truly a silent bubble for you to focus. True to the Bose legacy, the audio is a balanced mix that positions elements of a track correctly in the space around you.
We have some qualms about the companion app as it can be finicky at times. But once you’re paired, it’s a pretty seamless experience. For $249.99, you’re getting an excellent pair of true wireless earbuds that shine as noise canceling champs. It’s all packaged in a large earbud build that protrudes a decent amount from your ear with a very comfortable eartip. They aren’t as discrete or as intuitive to use as Galaxy Buds Pro, though — and they’re $50 more.
Bose QuietComfort 35 II ($299.95; bose.com)
Bose QuietComfort 35 II
The QuietComfort 35 II over-ear headphones from Bose are nearly ubiquitous. For years, these were the go-to pair for ANC and balanced sound. Those two claims still hold up, but ANC technology has progressed with options like the Bose 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4 setting the bar even higher. The QC 35 II still offers a design that can fold into itself, comfy ear cushions and a mostly plastic build.
They meet the mark with terrific sound that you can adjust on the fly with an equalizer in the companion app. The latter is often a little finicky and has had its share of connection issues. Call quality was pretty good also, but didn’t offer much in removing background noise.
Galaxy Buds+ ($109.99, originally $149.99; amazon.com)
At $129 (and often on sale for far less than that), the Galaxy Buds+ offer some of the best value of any earbuds on this list. They’re comfortable to wear, sound great for the price, work well for calls and last close to 12 hours during mixed use. The Buds+ also have an Ambient Noise feature for letting outside sounds in, which is handy if you want to hear the doorbell or keep tabs on what your kids are up to while working. However, you can get a similarly great audio experience complete with some light ANC if you’re willing to spend $20 more on the Galaxy Buds Live.
Galaxy Buds Live ($89, originally $169.99; amazon.com)
Galaxy Buds Live
The Galaxy Buds Live are some of the most comfortable earbuds we’ve tested, with a unique bean-shaped design that made it easy to forget there was even anything in our ears during long hours of use. These $149 earbuds also sound great, and delivered excellent battery life with just over six hours of juice with active noise cancelling on and more than eight hours with ANC off. However, these buds aren’t ideal for those with noisy households, as their very subtle ANC capabilities let a lot of outside noise in. We also found their microphones a bit too low to be reliable for calls.
Jabra Elite 45h ($99.99; amazon.com)
Jabra Elite 45h
At just $100, the Jabra Elite 45hs performed pretty well in all testing categories except for call quality. They have a comfortable on-ear design that looks pretty sleek with ample swivel capabilities on the ear-cups. You won’t find many flagship features here —- notably there is no active noise cancellation. And the on-ear design lets in a lot of background noise.
On the subject of microphones, in a quiet environment the 45hs were able to clearly track our voice and let in a bit of background noise. But with simulated sounds in the background or a noisy blower, the clarity of our voice quickly faded and made us difficult to understand. That was disappointing and caused these to score below average in a core category and use-case.
Surface Earbuds ($199; microsoft.com)
Surface Earbuds have a very unique design and a deep integration with Microsoft 365 (and the respective apps like Word and Powerpoint). Each bud contains two microphones and they offer a high level of clarity. Audio captured with the Surface Earbuds was crisp and very clear. Dictation within Microsoft apps was very accurate and didn’t require any extra buffering time.
But for $199.99 they pack this landmark feature into a pretty unimpressive overall product. The design sticks out with large dial like circles and there is really no way to hide them. Surface Earbuds take up a lot of ear surface. Software updates and initial setup take a while through the companion app for Android or iOS. Surface Earbuds sound good, but it’s not an experience to ride home about and they lack active noise cancellation.
Taotronics Sound Liberty 79 ($49.99; amazon.com)
Taotronics Sound Liberty 79
We had high hopes for the Taotronics Sound Liberty 79. At just $50, they undercut the EarFun Airs and had a slimmer build. Like the Galaxy Buds Pro they have a dial-like design that rests in the ear while not sticking out.
Sound quality was alright for the price point but was noticeably lacking bass. Battery life ended up falling in the middle of the road with five to six hours at higher volumes.
What really held these back was the call quality and voice pickup. We sounded like ASMR wannabes who were either taking a call in a shower or stuck outside in a downpour. It was muddied, broadcasted a ton of environmental noise and didn’t offer much clarity. For working from home, you should go with EarFun Air if you don’t want to spend a ton.
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