This article will keep a fully up-to-date list of the best earbuds, earphones, and in-ear headphones available in 2021. Included in this buyers guide are the best audiophile, wireless, noise-canceling, and wired models you can buy right now.
The earphone and earbud market has changed a lot in the past few years. Here at Audiophileon, we have been uniquely positioned to test several models that you don’t find on traditional tech sites. The types of earphones you can buy nowadays is quite stunning, there are so many options it can be hard to know where to start. However as this site is all about portable audio reviews, we focus on covering earbuds that you might never have heard of as well as those from big companies alike.
This list of the best earbuds of 2021 will cover both established big-name brands like Sony and Sennheiser as well as niche headphones with outstanding sound quality. We hope to open your eyes to the world of audiophiles earphones to show you what is on the market and what are the latest technologies that are advancing sound in recent years.
To make this list as comprehensive as possible, we will be covering 2 types of earphones, Wireless Earbuds, and Wired earbuds. We will be giving you several options in each category.
We will now split this section into 3 separate categories, wireless earbuds, true wireless earbuds, wired earphones, and a section at the bottom for audiophile earbuds.
Best Audiophile Earbuds 2021 (High Resolution Models)
Sony IER-1ZR – The Best Hybrid Earphone
The Sony IER-1ZR are the best earphones you can buy. They tick all the boxes for us and our class-leading in all our tests. There are other earphones we list below that can be considered on a par with different tuning but these consistently win in head-to-head battles.
What makes the IER-1ZR such a fantastic earphone? Well, it comes down to Sony throwing everything they had in the development stage to create one of the best sounding earphones ever made. Every factor of the earphone was custom made and meticulously planned, whereas other companies choose the shelf components and try to make them fit into their design.
Sony created their own Balanced armature, and dual-driver unit to create a hybrid earphone that shows mind-blowing levels of detail retrieval. The sound is such on the 1ZR that you get that feeling of hearing detail you may have missed on lesser IEM’s.
Soundstage is enormous making live music sound ultra-realistic with a huge environment in which the music resolves and then decays. It’s exciting to sit their testing track after track to be faced with stunning realism and openness.
Then comes the bass to punch you square in the face. It can extend to face-melting levels, exceeding all expectations in terms of sub-bass response yet the dual-driver remains tight and controlled within the mid-bass range resolving texture and detail.
This isn’t so much an earphone as it is an experience and we can definitely overlook the massive size of the housing because the sound is just so darn good.
Timeless 7HZ – The Best Planar Earphone
In 2021 a company that is little known and with very strange design choices managed to smash the realms of what we thought possible in terms of price to performance in an earbud. The rage throughout the year had been with the tribrid earphone designs (3 driver technologies in one earphone) but along came this earphone with a single planar magnetic driver that sounds almost as good. The difference? These cost around $200 and the others around $500.
Now the design is not perfect. The odd-shaped faceplate looks awkward and makes the earphones unsuitable for people with smaller ears. However, the sound is so good, so detailed, and presented with a depth and 3D quality that they beat anything else at its price point.
Tuning is smooth and with elevated lows and highs, just enough to inject energy and punch to the experience. the midrange has so much detail it can be overwhelming and
ThieAudio Monarch – Best Tribrid Earphone
The Thiaudio Monarchs are one of the best sounding earphones in the world and one of the best earphones period.
There is so much to like about this model we will have trouble cramming it into a short summary but let’s start with the build quality and accessories. They tick all the right boxes for what you would expect in a premium set of audiophile earbuds. The resin shell is attached to a metal nozzle for increased durability and the shell faceplate they use is nothing short of stunning.
When it comes to accessories the Thieaudio still hit hard with one of the best cables we have seen on any earphone and the inclusion of balanced and regular adapters so you can use them with whatever source device you wish.
The real magic of the Monarch is what’s going on inside. These earphones have gone with a tribrid configuration meaning they use three separate driver technologies to create the jaw-dropping sound. You get a combination of EST, balanced armature, and dynamic drivers working in harmony to produce richly detailed, and energetic sounding IEM’s that punch well above their price point and put the fear of god into more expensive legacy brands.
Moondrop Aria – Best IEM for Audiophiles on a Budget
Moondrop has had a lot of success with its recent earphones. The Variation for example was a massive hit rivaling some of the best tribrid designs on the market. So that set the stage for when they dropped their budget earphone the Moondrop Aria earlier this year.
The Aria ticks so many boxes for the budget audiophile that there are few that can rival its sound quality at the price. It’s not all about the sound though the design is also beautiful with an all-metal body that is built to last, detachable cables as insurance if the worst happens, and a solid set of eartips out the box.
The sound is detailed clear and engaging. However, it’s the overall tuning that gets this earphone a place on our list. The tuning is smooth and with a slight emphasis on the low and high end. It does this without sacrificing clarity in the midrange so vocals sound stunning but they can punch very hard when the time requires. It’s such a pleasant earphone to listen to and it’s versatile enough to work with every journey.
I consider this the perfect backup earphone for those who own a more expensive model or the perfect solution for those who want to have 1 earphone and are trying to keep costs below $100.
Kinera Skuld – Best all Balanced Armature Earphone
Kinera makes some of the most beautiful IEM’s on the market. The flagship Baldr II is a work of art is crafted out of oak wood but the Skuld is even more stunning.
The resing body shell is gorgeous in the hand utilizing a dark blue resin with flakes of gold leaf running through it. When I got them into the office for review I just couldn’t take my eyes off them. The box is quite the show as well and it’s a grand unboxing with lots of extras included.
Again though it’s the driver configuration and tuning that stands out and to date it’s the best mid-priced all BA earphones I have heard. There’s a smoothness to it without the metallic sheen that often accompanies balanced armatures. The low end was also impressed with a lot of detail and texture while still providing a dynamic listening experience.
Easily one of the smoothest and clearest presenting earphones on the list and it makes for long, relaxed, and enjoyable listening.
The Thieaudio Oracle is a very hot audiophile earphone right now and is making waves in the community thanks to the stunning sound produced from the tribrid design. Yes, tribrid means they use three separate technologies to provide glorious sound in every frequency range.
They have a full resin body, gorgeous cable, and some of the best-included accessories including a full suite of eartips and jack adapters to ensure they work well with all of your source devices.
The sound is ultra-detailed with a hyper-realistic 3D presentation. A wide and expansive soundstage sets the mood and then the deep bass response from the large dynamic driver really gets the party started.
One of the best earphones we have ever tested for under $1000.
Click here to read the full in-depth Thieaudio Excalibur review.
Campfire Audio Dorado 2020
The Campfire Audio Solaris is the best sounding earphones I have ever tested. I have been using them for a while now and every single time I just get blown away by how realistic these things sound.
They are Hybrid earphone that utilizes 4 balanced armature drivers and a single dynamic driver and are tuned to near perfection. Ken Ball and Campfire have also played with the Solaris’s internals to produce the biggest sound stage I have ever heard on an in-ear.
Couple that with the stunning good looks and amazing build quality these are expensive but true top-of-the-line earphone that even priced at $1500 will somehow still feel like good value to audiophiles especially when you consider that more pricey earphones don’t offer considerable benefits.
Official Solaris Webpage.
Best Wireless & True Wireless Earbuds 2021
The WF-1000XM4 are the best true wireless earbuds you can buy in 2021 and nothing else comes close. For a long time, a battle raged and the previous generations were considered good but the XM4 has elevated things significantly.
Ergonomic comfort and eye-catching styling are just a couple of reasons they are one of the most popular models on sale today. Battery life is excellent especially when you consider all the technology inside like touch controls, spatial awareness, adaptive sound controls, etc.
The star of the show is the class-leading ANC noise-canceling technology that rivals many full-sized headphones. This finally makes earphones a viable option for people looking for a small and portable noise canceling solution when flying.
The sound is great it’s clear punchy and detailed and you don’t have any of that sucked-out feeling you often find with an ANC earbud.
Class-leading, feature-rich, and worth every penny.
Anker Soundcore Life P2
Good cheap true wireless earbuds aren’t really a thing, but Anker hit the sweet spot in several places with their true wireless earbuds. Yes, they are missing a few features like support for Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant. However, they perform so well in several areas that they definitely deserve their spot on this list of the best earbuds.
The sound is strong with big bass and a full Deep midrange. Highs are rolled off and smooth. Battery life is just under 7 hours in our testing, making them one of the best we have ever used, and the signal connection strength is something other companies should really try to emulate.
They have an RRP of under $50, although prices may vary.
The feature list is huge, with graphene drivers, IPX7 waterproofing, Bluetooth 5.0, and one-touch pairing all included.
Apple Airpods Pro
The Apple Airpods Pro I don’t think needs any introduction. This is the OG the earbuds that kicked off this whole craze and refined to bring them up to modern-day standards. Whilst they might not have the best bleeding-edge technology they just work well, especially if you use an iPhone. If you are in the Apple ecosystem the integration of these earbuds with the companies other products is second to none. You pick them up, put them in the ears and go. No messing about pairing. They just work
I especially like the touch controls which are customizable through the app and the compact design and carry case make them very unobtrusive. The noise cancelation performance is strong and they work seamlessly with Siri.
As a final note, they now charge with Apple’s MagSafe chargers making them a true wire-free solution to your audio needs.
Bose True Wireless Bluetooth Earbuds
Long considered the direct competitor to the Sony WF series true wireless earbuds Bose has fallen a little behind but then they can also be had for a little less cash and are still outstanding earphones in their own right.
They have very strong noise-canceling performance allowing you to maintain a level of quiet in busy environments. The performance is devoid of hollowness and has no effect on the sound quality which is warm and smooth with an elevated low end.
The earphones are IPX4 certified meaning they are sweat and water-resistant thus making them suitable for use in the gym or on long runs. This also ties in with the company fit system that keeps them securely locked in place
The Jabra 85t is one of the best alternatives to sony and bose true wireless earbuds. the company has made wireless products for years and is one of the most respected brands in communications. Their 85h model gives users big battery life and comfortable fit but ever we have to admit the design is a little on the boring side.
Still, noise cancelation is very good as is the sound quality and the good news is they often come up for discounts so buyers can grab a deal when purchasing at the right time.
Best Big Brand Earphones 2021
Shure KSE 1200
You are in big boy territory now, and I welcome you to the world of ultra-expensive premium audiophile earbuds. The Shure KSE1200 is a bonkers set of earphones and has not been successfully implemented by anyone else.
They are electrostatic earphones. What that means is that they have a unique driver, one that uses a floating diaphragm between 2 static charged plates that allow the driver to move incredibly fast.
If it’s the pinnacle of earphone design and it sounds incredible, but the price point is eye-watering. Yes, these are the most expensive earphones I have ever tested. Are they worth it? Probably not. Are they the best sounding earbuds you can buy in 2021? I think so.
Astell & Kern Layla Aion
Another earphone aimed at audiophiles is the Astell & Kern Layla. Again it’s not cheap, but it comes from one of the best-known companies in the world of high-end portable audio, and they even went further by teaming up with the earbud wizards over at Jerry Harvey Audio.
This is a 12 balanced armature earphone with 4 crossovers and a carbon fiber housing. So that’s 12 balanced armatures in each earphone paired up to create some of the most immersive and realistic sound possible.
Incredible detail and imaging also have one of the biggest soundstage of any earphone apart from the Campfire Audio Solaris we mentioned above.
Not to be outdone by their sworn enemy Shure, Westone have really upped their game in the past few years, and with the release of their latest W range of earbuds, they are trying to offer something for everyone.
For most earphones in their lineup, I think there is something better for the price, but the W80 is a unique beast and suitable for their flagship status.
On the inside, you get 8 drivers (All balanced armatures) with a three-way crossover. I think for anything north of $1200, they are too much, but if you can find them for around that price or anywhere below, they are an exciting option.
Earphones, Earbuds and IEM Buyers Guide and FAQ
Wireless Earbuds vs. Wired Earbuds
Wireless earbuds, strangely enough, can now be categorized into 2 different types. One that is completely wireless. These are often referred to as true wireless earbuds, of which we have a fully dedicated list of the best models. The other type is the cable that runs between the 2 earbuds, but there is no physical connection to your phone or DAP (Digital Audio Player).
Both of these styles have their advantages but generally speaking, earbuds with the cable between each other have better battery life and sound quality. Still, a few truly wireless earbuds are starting to show that this technology is the future and we expect it to be the dominant style of earphones in the consumer market in the coming years.
Wired-in-ear headphones on the other hand are the traditional type of earphones that most people are familiar with. They have a cable you plug directly into your phone (although this is nowadays, you will need to use a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter to connect to most new phones). Even though most phones have removed the headphones jack this technology is far from dead and with many earphones now offering balanced cables out the box they are still class-leading when it comes to all-out fidelity.
However, there really is no answer as to the best type of earbuds for you. It should come down to a range of factors to help make your decision. For example, if you want full freedom of movement, buy true wireless earbuds. If you want the absolute best sound quality go wired. If you don’t want to worry about charging your earbuds all the time, go wired. Etc etc, the possibilities and use cases are endless.
Really it’s best to think about how you intend to use your earbuds and then buy something that will fit your needs.
How much do good earbuds cost?
Price is definitely going to be a factor for most people when buying a set of earbuds, and the good news is that you can get an awesome set for far less than you would have just a few years ago.
The rise of a phenomenon known to hobbyists as the “Chinese HiFi revolution” has seen hundreds of new headphone companies spring up. They offer tech such as multi-driver earphones and hybrid earphones for a budget that would cost a fortune from brands like Shure or Westone.
That newly emerging market has also forced more traditional earbud companies to become more competitive at certain price points. As a result, it is now easier than ever to get amazing cheap earbuds.
What are the best-sounding earbuds, IEM’s or earphones?
A lot of people want to know what the best sounding IEM’s are (In-Ear Monitors). In fact, that is a major reason why people visit this site. We give advice centered around sound quality and identify the best-sounding earbuds at each particular price point for our readers.
Below we will give some recommendations for earphones that we think sound incredible and can really enhance your listening experience.
Just be warned if you are going to start dipping your toe into the world of high-end earphones and earbuds, you can end up spending a lot of money. I will list some sub $100 earbuds and others all the way north of $1000, so I’m sure there will be something to fit you but if not, feel free to send me a message on Instagram with the type of music you listen to and your budget and we can maybe help with some personalized suggestions.