Best back-to-school headphones for 2020

12 Sep, 2020 John Mendoza No Comments


Back to school” right now could mean anything from on-campus classes, distance learning at home or some combination of the two, depending on where you live. But it’s a fair bet that students in any situation still need new headphones, whether for checking in on Zoom-based classes, or just listening to music between classes.

With so many models to choose from, it can be hard to figure out which headphones to buy. With that in mind, we’re highlighting several of our highest-rated headphones — all of them wireless, but not all pricey — to help narrow down your choices this back-to-school season.

Note that I’ve fully reviewed or anecdotally tested all of the headphones listed below (click on the links for more details). I’ve included IP (ingress protection) ratings for the true wireless models. Anything at IPX4 or above can be considered sweatproof.

Read more: Best back-to-school gear under $100 for 2020

Juan Garzon/CNET

Sony’s WH-1000XM3, the third generation of Sony’s excellent wireless noise-canceling headphones, has a more comfortable fit and even better performance than its predecessor: It’s got perfect sound quality for listening to music. With a strong battery life, these over-ear wireless headphones are currently our top-rated pick for noise cancellation, edging out the more expensive Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. While these over-ear headphones list for $350, they frequently get discounted for closer to $280. And it’s doubly important to seek out that discount: With a next-gen version of this pair of wireless headphones having already been spotted on Twitter, we expect the XM4 successor to arrive later this year.

Read our Sony WH-1000XM3 review.

Angela Lang/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

Samsung’s Buds Plus look essentially the same as the original Galaxy Buds, but their battery life is rated at 11 hours for music playback (up from 6), and they pack dual drivers for better sound and an additional microphone in each bud to help with external noise reduction while making calls.

I was impressed with the sound. The audio quality is detailed and smooth, with deep, well-defined bass. The sound is richer and more spacious than that of the original Galaxy Buds. Well-respected Austrian audio company AKG, which Samsung acquired when it bought Harman, is behind the audio. While the original Buds were also “tuned” by AKG, these are a nice upgrade over the originals — and right there with what you get with the Jabra Elite 75t, if not even a touch better. They use Bluetooth 5.0 and support AAC (there’s now an app for iOS users) and Samsung’s scalable codec, which is similar to aptX but is proprietary to Samsung Galaxy phones.

Read our Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

Even if they don’t sound as magical as you’d hope a $249 model would, the Apple AirPods Pro still manage to be a great pair of true wireless earphones with noise cancellation. That’s largely due to their winning design and fit, improved bass performance and effective noise-canceling function. They’re an excellent choice when you want to make a call or listen to music during your workout. Yeah, they’re expensive at $250, but you’ll use them so much you’ll probably wear the battery down — it does degrade over time and isn’t replaceable — and have to buy a new pair in 18 to 24 months if you don’t lose them first.

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, the long-awaited successor to its Quiet Comfort 35 II, may not be a quantum leap forward but these wireless headphones offer slightly better sound quality, call and noise-canceling function. Alas, these over-ear headphones cost around $380, but they’re strong all-around performers with up to 20 hours of battery life for listening to podcasts, music and more. I prefer the Sony WH-1000XM3’s design and fit (and lower price tag), and while you can argue about which pair of headphones sounds better, one thing is certain: This model works significantly better as a headset for making calls. For some people that may be worth the extra cost for the wireless earphones. (Note that these have been seeing some discounts, too.)

Read our Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review.

Water-resistantYes (IP55 rating — can withstand light dust and sprays of water).

At first glance, the Elite 75t, which was originally supposed to cost $200 but now sells for $150, seemed more like an evolutionary upgrade from the Elite 65t. But the updates turned out to be a little more substantial than I first thought. The Elite 75t’s smaller size (the pair of earbuds and case are 20% smaller than the Elite 65t’s), its boosted battery life and USB-C charging are significant upgrades. And then there are the smaller changes, like the new charging case design with magnets inside it that make it easier to open and close and to keep the buds inside. While the Elite 75t isn’t quite as comfortable to wear as the AirPods Pro and doesn’t have active noise canceling, it does make your music sound better, with clearer overall sound and better bass definition, so long as you get a tight seal. Just note that the Jabra Elite Active 75t adds slightly better water-resistance for $20 more.

Read our Jabra Elite 75t review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

Yes, the Beats Powerbeats Pro’s jumbo charging case is a notable drawback. But the combination of incorporating all the features that make Apple’s AirPods great while delivering richer sound quality and better battery life in a wireless earbuds design that won’t fall out of your ear (ear hooks for the win!) ultimately is a winning proposition for earbuds for running. Just make sure you buy these running earbuds somewhere that has a good return policy in case you’re in the minority that has ears that aren’t quite a match for the buds. Note that these headphones are frequently reduced from $250 to $200 — don’t pay more than that if you’re buying them.

Read our Beats Powerbeats Pro review.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX7 rating — fully waterproof).

The Mpow X3 sound shockingly good for the price, with good clarity and powerful bass (they play loud), and they even have effective active noise cancellation. 

They fit me comfortably and securely and I got a tight seal from one of the XL ear tips. They’re fully waterproof (IPX7) and get up to seven hours of battery life at moderate volume levels with USB-C charging. (The charging case looks like a fat version of the standard AirPods case.) Call quality is good — they have a sidetone feature that lets you hear your voice in the buds — but I’ve used other models with better noise reduction during calls. I noticed a touch of audio lag when I streamed a YouTube video, but I had no issues when streaming iTunes movies.

The touch controls take some getting used to (they’re a little wonky) and it didn’t help that the instructions in the box seemed to be for the old X3 (I found the current instructions online, which helped me figure things out). Aside from a few minor downsides, the X3 is a great value, and that’s probably why Mpow is having a hard time keeping them in stock.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX7 rating — fully waterproof).

What’s most impressive about the EarFun Free is the features: Bluetooth 5.0, both USB-C and wireless charging, and full waterproofing (IPX7), according to the earbuds’ specs. Do they sound fantastic? No, but these Bluetooth headphones sound pretty good. They don’t have the clarity of higher-end true wireless earbuds that cost $150 or more, but they do have plump bass and enough detail to avoid sounding dull. They’re also pretty solid for making calls. An excellent value at less than $50.

Read our EarFun Free review.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IP65 rating — can withstand dust and sprays of water).

Back in 2017, I wrote about Fiil’s launch in the US and how company reps claimed that it was a top-selling premium headphone brand in China that’s as well-known as Beats. I hadn’t heard much about Fiil since then (I reviewed a Fiil on-ear model that was decent but a little pricey). But it turns out its T1X TWS is a solid performer for its modest price of $50. (Fiil now appears to be connected to Acil Audio).  

It delivers good sound for the money (there’s a touch of presence boost in the treble to add clarity, which is both good and bad), fit my ears well and I was impressed by how quickly the buds paired with my phone.

These have an IP65 sweat- and water-resistance rating so they can take a sustained spray of water. Battery life is around 5 hours on a single charge (at higher volume levels) and there’s a quick charge feature that gives you 2 hours of juice from a 10-minute charge (the simple, compact charging case charges via USB-C). The buds have touch controls and there’s a companion app that allows you to tweak the sound with EQ settings (I left it on the default setting).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX7 rating — fully waterproof).

Half the price of Anker’s Soundcore Liberty Air 2 with similar features, the Soundcore Life P2 earbuds are an excellent value option. The buds charge horizontally in their case rather than vertically, and there’s a slightly cheaper feel to both the case and the buds compared with the Liberty Air 2. Their sound doesn’t have the presence boost in the treble that the Liberty Air 2 buds have, so they’re not as clear-sounding with well-recorded tracks and the bass isn’t quite as well defined. But they’re warmer and more forgiving, which I appreciated, and they sound more like the original Liberty Air. (I would buy these instead of the Liberty Air buds, which are now $80.) 

It’s also worth noting that instead of controls they feature physical buttons, which some people may prefer. Like the Liberty Air 2, they have four microphones, two of which are supposed to help with noise reduction when making calls in noisier environments. They do a decent job of reducing background noise when making calls, but my voice didn’t sound as clear to callers as it did with the Liberty Air 2.

While there’s no wireless charging, you do get USB-C charging. Battery life is rated at seven hours and they have an IPX7 water-resistance rating, which means they can be fully submerged in water to a depth of three feet and survive. They’re arguably the best value in the Anker true wireless line right now. An almost identical version to these earbuds is sold at Target under the name Soundcore Life Note.

Read our Anker Soundcore Life P2 review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX7 — fully waterproof).

Jaybird got off to a bumpy start in the world of true wireless — that’s “AirPod-style headphones” — when it released its Jaybird Run workout headphones back in October 2017. Updated to the wireless in-ear Jaybird Run XT earlier this year, the Jaybird Run earbuds were well designed but had some small performance issues that held them back from being great. But their wireless successor model, the Jaybird Vista (cue the Windows Vista jokes), include design, battery life and performance improvements that make them the quality product I’d hoped the Jaybird Run would be — and simply the best wireless earbuds for runners.

At $160, these sweat-proof earbuds are a little more expensive than they should be, but they’re among the better true wireless earbuds to hit the market last year. They’ll appeal to those looking for a more discreet set of totally wireless sports earbuds that feature full waterproofing.

Read our Jaybird Vista review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantNo (lacks IPX certification).

Thanks to the WF-1000XM3, Sony has finally become a player in the true wireless (AirPod-style) headphone arena. While this pair of headphones isn’t cheap, as far as sound quality, they’re the best wireless earbuds at this price. They match and perhaps even exceed the quality and performance of pricier competitors from SennheiserBeatsMaster & Dynamic and Bang & Olufsen. It also has a feature that those wireless earbuds don’t have: active noise-cancellation technology to reduce ambient noise.

It’s not stellar for making calls (their noise-reduction capabilities should be better) and the earbuds aren’t rated as sweatproof or waterproof. That said, I’ve used them for light workouts with a bit of a sweat at the gym without a problem. They use Bluetooth 5.0 with support for AAC but not apt. Just be aware that an updated version of these — the WF-1000XM4 — could be arriving in the next few months, so look for these at a discount. In the meantime, we’ve seen these on sale for as little as $178, so we wouldn’t pay much more than that.

Read our Sony WF-1000XM3 review.


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I’m not a fan of cheap noise-canceling headphones. I’ve actually been struggling to put together a list of models for a best noise-canceling headphones roundup because there are so few that I’d recommend buying. But Anker’s Soundcore Life Q20 Hybrid Active Noise Cancelling Headphones are an exception. They’re quite decent for their regular list price of $60 and they’re frequently on sale for $10 or $15 less.

No, the Life Q20 doesn’t sound as good as premium models such as the Sony WH-1000XM3, but it sounds pretty good, which is all you can ask for at this price. It’s fairly well balanced with a reasonable amount of clarity and plump bass that’s not bloated or muddy (there’s a bass boost or BassUp mode if you want an extra helping of bass). It’s also comfortable to wear, the noise-canceling function is acceptable, it’s solid as a headset for making calls and battery life is good at 40 hours. A simple carrying pouch is included.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

Anker is known more for its value headphones, but it’s trying to step into more premium territory with its Soundcore Liberty 2 Pro earbuds, which carry a list price of $150. From a design standpoint, they share some similarities with Sony’s WF-1000XM3, although this model doesn’t have active noise cancellation. Anker says the earbuds have large 11mm drivers combined with Knowles Balanced Armature, with up to 8 hours of battery life on a single charge (32 total hours of playtime with the case) and noise-cancellation microphones to help reduce ambient sound so callers can hear you better. They charge via USB-C and also support wireless charging.

They don’t sound quite as good as the Sony WF-1000XM3, but they certainly sound like premium true wireless earphones, with rich sound that includes powerful bass performance and lots of detail. Some people may have some quibbles over the fit — I had to supply my own XL tips to get a tight seal and found the Anker’s Soundcore Liberty Air 2 a little more comfortable — but the Soundcore Liberty 2 Pro are a good value. Whether you want to use them as travel headphones or workout headphones, they’ll do the job. They’re also good for making calls (they do a good job reducing background sound).

They use Bluetooth 5.0 with support for AAC and aptX.

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