- 1 Bluetooth earbuds
- 2 True wireless earbuds
- 3 Bluetooth headphones
- 4 USB-C earphones
- 5 Streaming speakers
Music is near ubiquitous nowadays and it makes everything a little more fun. Whether you're commuting to work or school, taking a flight, grocery shopping, running and exercising, doing chores around the house or your homework, working on projects, or just sitting around and doing nothing, it always has a way of speeding time up or slowing it down, getting you pumped or relaxing you.
And with the holidays nearly upon us, you may be looking for the perfect gift to get yourself or that music addict in your life. To help you, we have compiled a list of the latest and best gadgets you can buy this year. We've divided them in different categories for you to choose exactly the kind of product you want.
With many phone manufacturers recently moving toward the removal of the headphone jack, it's becoming more and more important to have a decent pair of Bluetooth headphones in your arsenal. Plus audio quality over Bluetooth keeps on improving to a point where the majority of people will prefer their convenience over an imperceptible sound improvement with wired headphones.
The form factor that's been quite popular over the past years is a pair of earbuds connected by a wire. These often have a little more battery life than the recent completely wireless earbuds, suffer less connection issues, and are easier to fit in your ears. Plus, they aren't as easy to lose since you can take out one bud and leave the other one in or hang them around your neck. For now, they're my personal favorite form factor.
Bose SoundSport Wireless
Although non-sealing, the Bose SoundSport Wireless have one of the best sound profiles of this category. They get loud and they pump up bass pretty well, which makes them perfect for use outdoors when you still want to be a little aware of your environment but without compromising on music immersion. Depending on how much outside noise you want to cancel, you may also like using them at the gym, while commuting, plus they're great for indoor use in a calm environment.
When David reviewed them, he also applauded their comfort and Android app, but he only found the battery to last 4 to 5 hours, which is low compared to others in this category. However, it looks like that will depend on volume and usage, as JimsReviewRoom quotes 7hrs of use at 50% of the volume. The only other issue you may face are the proprietary ear tips which will require you purchase replacements from Bose.
The SoundSport Wireless usually cost $149, but they've been consistently found around $129 since Black Friday, with an even nicer deal at $99 on Cyber Monday. If you can find them at that price, they're killer, but if not they're worth the $129 and, to a certain extent, $149 price.
Jaybird X3 Sport
If you prefer the more traditional earbud and ear tip design with a more sealing sound, the Jaybird X3 are one of your best choices. With this third generation of Bluetooth earbuds, Jaybird has even improved the fit and it continues to provide you with different wing and ear tip sizes to make sure you find something that works for you. Plus the X3 can be worn like usual or looped over your ear for less risk of them slipping out.
In terms of sound, expect great bass with an otherwise balanced profile, but the cherry on the cake are the custom EQ settings you can create in the MySound app. This versatility makes the X3 one of the best earbuds to take to the gym, or while commuting or traveling. You may not want to use it outdoor when you need to keep a little bit of outside sound coming in, though.
Ryan liked the X3 when he reviewed it, save for the proprietary charging dongle. He was also a fan of the $129 price, but since it is discounted further now to $99, it's even more appealing.
- Amazon $129 ($99 now): Blackout, Alpha Green, RoadRash Red, Sparta White
- Best Buy $129 ($99 now): Blackout, Camo, Road rash, Platinum, Sparta, Alpha
- Walmart $129 ($125 now): Blackout
- Newegg $153: Blackout, Sparta
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of other options to choose from going from the cheap $20-30 to the high-end >$200 models, but here are a couple of other options we do recommend checking out. At $50, the Optoma NuForce BE2 impressed Jordan, but their fit is divisive so make sure you can return them if they don't work for you. And if you're looking for a sports-only headset, the Plantronics BackBeat Fit has been doing me good for 3 years and counting. I loved it back in 2014, and I still love it now when I wear it to the gym 3 days a week. Some users have complained about durability, but my experience and that of most reviews is different. On a good day, you can grab the Fit for $60-70 on Amazon, but it's around $80 now. There's a newer version for $129, but I think you're better off grabbing the old one for less. And finally, the $70 Jabra Sport Pulse has a great price and offers personalized exercises and the promise of a great fit.
True wireless earbuds
If it were my money, I'd stay away from completely wireless earbuds for the time being. While connectivity issues seem to be less frequent with them now, the fit may not work for you depending on your ear shape and size, controls are often clunky, and the risk of losing them is still high. But there's no denying the convenience of living the wire-free life and the benefits of having the charging case that is often included with these models. As such, I'd recommend you consider these closely, but don't jump the gun unless you're able to try them in person first or you can at least return them if they don't fit you well.
At $179.99, the Jaybird Run sit toward the high-end of this not-so-cheap category. The sound is well balanced and the same MySound app that we talked about for the X3 lets you create custom EQs to your liking. Connectivity was an issue with the first release, but a new firmware update has fixed that so you should be able to install it on the Run and solve that problem now.
In his review, David was enthusiastic about their fit and they stayed stable in his ears, but other reviews find they don't remain put while exercising so as I said, try them first or make sure you can return them. As for battery life, it is average with about 4hrs on the earbuds with an additional 8hrs through the case. The Run rarely drop in price so now is as good a time as any to grab a pair. If you're interested, take a look at the Best Buy-exclusive blue steel version, I find it spiffy.
Samsung Gear IconX (2018)
While we haven't reviewed the Gear IconX ourselves, we do trust our commenters and they've been very positive about the new Gear IconX 2018 (a little avantgarde there, Samsung) each time we've mentioned it. The reviews agree with them as well: the new IconX solves most of the issues of the first generation with better fit and charging, and above average sound quality.
Beside working as Bluetooth earbuds, these also have 4GB of internal storage so you can keep some songs and playlists stored locally on them, which is perfect if you just want to exercise and leave your phone far/at home. If you do bring your phone, they can also track some fitness stats like speed, distance, and calories. Controls are touch-based so expect to swipe and tap to control your music. Battery life is rated at 5hrs for Bluetooth, 7hrs for local MP3 playback, with "nearly" another full charge in the case. It should be enough for a couple of days of medium use.
On one end of the spectrum, you may find the $250 Bose SoundSport Free which haven't been liked unanimously (David loves the sound and fit on his unit) and the $220-250 Jabra Elite Sport with their IP67 rating and above average reception in reviews (Scott has a unit and loves it but finds he needs to readjust the fit every now and then). On the other, you have Bragi's The Headphone which takes the most essential features of The Dash that I reviewed and dumps the superfluous additions, thus dropping the price to $149.99 ($110 currently). Also in the lower tier are the cheap but very decent $80 Zolo Liberty (Artem approves of these) and their upcoming Liberty+ successor with Bluetooth 5.0.
If you're sitting at your desk working, commuting in a busy city, or travelling, a big pair of over-ear headphones can do wonders to isolate you from your surroundings and either immerse you in the music or let you concentrate on what you're doing. This category of headphones tends to break the bank a little, but you do get a lot for your money in return.
Bose QuietComfort 35 II
The Bose QC35 are still one of the best all-around over-ear headphones I've tried. I reviewed them last year and was more than impressed by their comfort, weight, portability, balanced sound, and their above-average noise cancelation. A long battery life along with Bluetooth and wired options make sure you will almost never be left without music. If you like heavy bass, these may not be the best headphones for you, and their build quality and materials still make them feel cheaper than the asking price, but it's tough to fault the QC35 at anything else.
The second generation QC35 II have the same price as the first one and don't change much beside the addition of a Google Assistant button that lets you call up your favorite AI butler via voice. This integration also gives you notifications through your headphones plus a couple of other nifty features.
You'll have to splurge to grab a pair for $349 (with very little chance of a discount in the near future), but if money is no object, this is one of the best Bluetooth headphones you can buy.
Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2
Bang for the buck, you can't argue with the tremendous value and features of the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2. Even one year after I reviewed them, they still hold their place in the headphones market thanks to good ergonomics and comfortable wear, premium design and feel, long 24hrs battery life, Bluetooth and wired listening, a smart sensor that pauses and resumes playback when you put them on and take them off (so convenient!), and the OpenMic which lets you hear the world around you without removing them. They also offer Active Noise Cancelation, though it's below Bose's level.
If you don't mind their bulky size and less portable design, there's nothing else to complain about with the Pro 2. The regular version costs about $190-200 and comes with a bag for storage, but at a little bit more, the Special Edition adds a rigid travel case. I'd go with the latter, since it protects them when traveling and even when storing them away.
This category of audio products can span wide, but if the two options above don't work for you, there are plenty of others worth considering. If you don't want noise cancelation, the V-Moda Crossfade Wireless (reviewed by Jeff) with their thumping bass and vibrant sound are $179 now on Amazon. Otherwise, as Bose alternatives, Sony's new $350 WH1000XM2 and Sennheiser's $398 PXC 550 have both been near universally praised (SoundGuys, Trusted Reviews), and the $400 Bowers & Wilkins PX might be worth looking at as well.
For the general user, I reckon that going with Bluetooth will be a far better option than buying a USB-C headset, since they should work with any past, current, and future phone, computer, smartwatch, and more. But if Bluetooth isn't your thing and you'd still prefer a wired set of earphones over anything that pretends to offer decent sound through the ether, your choice for USB-C earphones and headphones is pretty limited.
I've dug out a couple of options you might be interested in, but we haven't reviewed any of these so we can't vouch for their quality. The general consensus around them online seems to be positive so this is why I've included them in the list.
Xiaomi Mi Noise Canceling Earphones
Xiaomi makes one of the most affordable USB-C earphones with Active Noise Canceling to boot. The Mi Noise Canceling Earphones are around $46 in India where I could find them officially, and offer an ANC controller and slim design. You will have to look around to find the least eyebrow-raising way to import them to the US (a Chinese seller on Amazon, GearBest, AliExpress), but that's pretty much the only downside considering the price and ANC on board.
JBL Reflect Aware C
If price is not an issue, or if you don't want to take the risk of importing the Xiaomi earbuds, one of your best options locally in the US is the JBL Reflect Aware C. Unfortunately, only HTC is selling these as far as I can tell, but they're currently discounted from $199.99 to $149.99. They do offer Active Noise Cancelation, but they are very heavily bass-tuned out-of-the-box as SoundGuys found out. Fortunately, there's an Android app that can completely transform the way they sound through custom EQ.
Beside the two options above and the smorgasbord of no-name companies offering USB-C earphones on Amazon, there are two more choices to consider: the Libratone Q Adapt USB-C with controllable ANC are being sold for $149.99 on the Google Store and Razer's Hammerhead USB-C can be had for $79.99.
I debated including Bluetooth speakers in this list but to be honest, after using Chromecast and streaming speakers for the better part of this year, I have trouble recommending Bluetooth for speakers now. While they have some great options with portability and waterproofing in mind, I believe Wi-Fi speakers will almost unequivocally be better for near everyone.
With a Chromecast/streaming speaker, you get uninterrupted music regardless of how many notifications your phone receives or how far away from the speaker it is. Multi-room and grouping is a lot easier to achieve too. And you can often get higher quality audio than with Bluetooth. Plus, you don't have to worry about the speaker being paired to one/two devices only, so anyone in the house with the same Wi-Fi network can use it without any of those shenanigans.
The Chromecast Audio has been available for two years now, but it's still as great an option now as it was back when we reviewed it. This $35 dongle (sometimes found for $20-25) can transform any speaker you currently have into a smart streaming system by just plugging into its 3.5mm AUX port, thus making it the perfect and affordable solution for anyone with a pre-existing audio setup. And if you're still on the fence about streaming as an option for your home audio, you can get the Chromecast Audio and test the waters before fully committing to a new setup.
The addition of Google Home/Assistant compatibility also means you can use voice commands to play whatever song you want from Spotify or Google Play Music, a godsend if you have toddlers around the house always bugging you to play their favorite tunes or if you want some background audio while doing the chores or working/studying.
I was this close to including the Sonos ONE in this list, instead of the Play:1, but at its original $200 price now and with so many mitigated reviews online and complaints of connectivity and limited Alexa functionality, I decided against it. Thus, the Play:1 rose to the top thanks to its new MSRP of $150 and much more positive reviews. Yes, the Play:1 is older and doesn't have a mic to hear your voice commands, but it's been one of the most loved speakers in Sonos' lineup for a long time.
It helps that the Sonos app keeps on improving and adding partners so you can stream from various services to this speaker. True, this may not be as "open" as Chromecast's system, and not every developer can easily make their app compatible with it, but it still has the most important services like Spotify, Google Play Music, Apple Music, TuneIn, Pandora, and more. And if I'm being honest, I am super jealous of the fact that you can make Sonos play something automatically based on a trigger (through IFTTT or SmartThings workarounds), which is much more than I can say about any Chromecast or Assistant speaker.
While it's one of the lesser known speakers in JBL's lineup, the Playlist is quite a catch thanks to its above average sound volume and quality, inconspicuous design, and the fact that it has AUX input, Bluetooth, but more importantly Spotify Connect and Chromecast built-in. It works very well in a multi-room setup and in conjunction with other Chromecast or Assistant speakers, including Google Home. And its sound can easily fill a mid-sized room, even a large one if you ask me.
I raved about the Playlist in my review a couple of months ago and I'm not the only one to think so highly of it: The Wirecutter called it the best Chromecast speaker. The issue with the Playlist is that it's a little tougher to find than most of JBL's speakers (not on Amazon or Best Buy), but since its price has been permanently dropped to $129.95 (from $149.95), it's worth the extra step to get it from another retailer.
Let's not forget the elephant in the room first: the Google Home/Assistant built-in and Amazon Echo line-ups. They are definitely worth checking out, but we'll have a separate Most Wanted list in a day or two for smart home products and we found that they fit better in that context, so do keep an eye out for that. Plus, not everyone wants an always-listening mic in every room, so strictly streaming speakers are better suited in that context.
With that in mind, a few other options worth checking out are the portable Vizio SmartCast Crave 360 that Jordan reviewed, but only if you can find it around $120 (it's currently $180 from third-party Amazon sellers, which is a little much), and the also portable Riva Arena Compact which comes with great sound and although it's usually priced at $249, it's currently $199.
As for soundbars, Jordan loved the sound of the Sonos Playbase when he reviewed it ($699) and I am still extremely enamored by the Polk MagniFi Mini, a tiny soundbar with great sound and nearly every option I could think of including Chromecast streaming. At $299.95, it was already a catch, but Amazon has it for $199 now, which is such a great price, it almost makes me want to buy another and ship it halfway across the world to me.