January 20, 2021
Best headphones and wireless earbuds for iPhone 12

Best headphones and wireless earbuds for iPhone 12


If you’ve ordered one of Apple’s new iPhone 12 models, you may have heard that Apple is no longer including earbuds — or any sort of headphones — in the box. The 3.5mm headphone jack has been missing from the last few iPhone iterations, and now that the wired EarPods are no longer included, shifting to wireless headphones feels like an even more obvious option.

Apple will be glad to sell you its AirPods, AirPods Pro or the Powerbeats Pro from its Beats subsidiary. And sure, those those models are on this list, but the idea here is to give plenty of alternative iPhone 12 headphone options, including some good budget models that are highly affordable. Since these are Bluetooth headphones, they do work with other Bluetooth-enabled devices as well, including Android smartphones.

If you’re looking for AirPods alternatives but don’t want to spend much money, we do have a list of best true wireless earbuds that cost less than $50 as well as a list of best true wireless earbuds under $100.

We update this list periodically.

David Carnoy/CNET

Sony’s earlier WH-1000XM3 model was great. But if it had a weakness, that was its voice-calling capabilities, particularly in noisier environments. The new WH-1000XM4 improves in that area and also adds multipoint Bluetooth pairing so you can connect to two devices — such as your phone and PC — at the same time. This means that if a call comes in while you’re using the headphones with your computer, the audio will switch to your phone when you answer the call.

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 probably still have the edge for voice calls, but the 1000XM4 headphones are arguably a tad more comfortable. They also have some other improvements to noise cancellation and sound, making this model a great all-around choice.

Read our Sony WH-1000XM4 review.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantNo (no IPX rating)

I didn’t think I’d ever see a version 2.0 of Beats’ once-popular BeatsX neckband-style wireless earphones, but it’s arrived with a new name — the Beats Flex — and a much-cheaper $50 (£50, AU$80) price tag, which is half of what its predecessor had been selling for. 

The Flex instantly becomes an affordable, Apple-friendly wireless alternative to the AirPods, which start around $130 for the standard version with a wired charging case (but will be selling for as low as $99 this holiday season). The good news is they sound better than both the original BeatsX and standard AirPods. They also work well for making calls and have better battery life than the original. The bad news? The design is passe in a world now dominated by true wireless earbuds.

They’re available in black or yellow at launch, with gray and light blue arriving in early 2021.

Read our Beats Flex review.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX7 rating — fully waterproof).

The Mpow X3 wireless earbuds sound shockingly good for their low price of $60, with good clarity and powerful bass, and they even have active noise cancellation that’s fairly effective.

Mpow seems to be regularly tweaking its earphones, and the X3 earbuds were briefly taken off Amazon, before returning with an update. “The new version upgraded the volume control and optimized its active noise-canceling function and call effect,” the company told me. “It also added the supersoft ear caps, which [are] more comfortable to wear for a long time.”

They did fit me comfortably and securely and I got a tight seal from one of the sets of XL ear tips. They’re fully waterproof (IPX7) and get up to 7 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 earbuds — but I’ve used other earbuds with better noise reduction during calls. I noticed a touch of audio lag when I streamed a YouTube video but no problems 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 model. I found the current instructions online, which helped me figure things out. Aside from a few minor downsides, Mpow’s X3 earbuds are a great value. 

Read more.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

Even if it doesn’t sound as magical as you’d hope a $249 model would, the Apple AirPods Pro is still a great pair of true wireless earphones with noise cancelation. That’s largely due to the earbuds’ winning design and fit, improved bass performance and effective noise cancellation (Apple also recently added a new spatial audio virtual surround sound feature for movie and TV watching on recent iPhones and iPads). These are an excellent choice when you want to make a call or listen to music during your workout. And the new spatial audio feature, when listening from compatible Apple devices, is genuinely impressive.

While they list for $249, in recent weeks we’ve seen them come down to as low as $200. That’s a far better deal, but just keep in mind that, as with all of these headphones, the rechargeable batteries degrade over time and aren’t replaceable, so you’ll probably have to replace these in a couple of years. 

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof)

It took Bose a while to get them into stores, but the new $279 (£250, AU$400) noise-canceling QuietComfort Earbuds are finally here. In many ways, they’re excellent true wireless earbuds, particularly when it comes to their sound and noise canceling, which is arguably the best out there right now in a set of earbuds. Performance-wise, they clearly have a leg up on Apple’s best-selling AirPods Pro true wireless noise-canceling buds. However, the AirPods Pro’s smaller design, somewhat more comfortable fit and superior voice-calling capabilities make it hard to declare the Bose the straight-up champ. Ultimately, it depends on what your priorities are.

Read our Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review.

Angela Lang/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splash-proof).

You wouldn’t expect a set of Samsung earbuds to be on a list for iPhones, but the Buds Plus works just fine with iPhones (there’s an iPhone app) and is one of the better values in true wireless earphones, with excellent sound, voice calling performance and battery life (up to 11 hours).

Read our Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus review.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

The second-gen Momentum True Wireless 2 aren’t cheap at $300, but they’re better all around than the originals, with a slightly smaller, more comfortable design, active noise canceling that rivals that of the AirPod Pro, improved battery life (up to 7 hours versus the original’s 4) and better noise reduction during calls. And, if you don’t like them in black, a white version is slated to follow later this year. Most importantly, though, the Momentum True Wireless 2 have the same stellar sound — for true wireless earbuds, anyway — offering clearly superior sound quality to the AirPods Pro. That makes them arguably the best true wireless earbuds on the market today and earns them a CNET Editors’ Choice Award.

These use Bluetooth 5.1 with support for the AAC and AptX codecs (for devices that have AptX, such as Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones).

Read our Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantNo (lacks IPX certification).

The second-gen Apple AirPods add a couple of small but key improvements to the original, including always-on voice recognition and a wireless charging case option. They’re also great for making calls, indoors and out. 

The base model (without the wireless charging case, which is overkill for this product) has dipped to as low as $115 and will be on sale for $99 for Black Friday this year.

Read our Apple AirPods 2019 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 better sound quality, call and noise-canceling function. 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-1000XM4’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 does work better as a headset for making calls. 

Read our Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review.

Water-resistantYes (IP55 rating — can withstand heavy sprays of water).

The Jabra Elite 75t earned an Editors’ Choice award from CNET and although it’s been out for a while, it’s improved over time thanks to a few firmware upgrades, the most recent of which adds active noise cancellation. The Jabra Elite Active 75t adds improved water resistance for $20 more and the new Elite 85t has stronger noise-canceling function in a semi-open design with more bass.

Read our Jabra Elite 75t review.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splash-proof).

Part of the appeal of Beats’ Powerbeats Pro true wireless earbuds is that unlike Apple’s AirPods and AirPods Pro, they’re available in more than a single color option. They offer many of the same features as the standard AirPods but offer more dynamic sound (with more bass) in a water-resistant sporty design. They list for $250 but look for them to dip to less than $200 (and preferably $175) before buying.

Read our Beats Powerbeats Pro review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX7 — fully waterproof and sweat-proof).

These sweat-proof earbuds will appeal to people looking for a more discreet set of totally wireless sports earbuds that feature full waterproofing. They really do lock into your ears. Note that they have been on the market for a while, so they may be due for an upgrade. But they’re currently selling for $150, or $30 off their list price.

Read our Jaybird Vista review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Solo Pro is the first Beats on-ear headphone to feature active noise cancellation and the first full-size Beats headphone to charge via Lightning. It uses the company’s Pure Adaptive Noise Canceling, “derived from the over-ear Studio3 Wireless, with updated tuning to accommodate the on-ear form factor,” Beats says. With a tap of a button, you can turn off that noise cancellation to save battery life or hit the button a second time to enter an audio transparency mode that allows you to hear the outside world and ambient sound, not just the music you’re listening to.

Available in multiple colors, these headphones are equipped with six microphones, two of which are beamforming mics designed to hone in on your voice when you’re making calls or talking to your voice assistant (Apple’s H1 chip is on board for always-on Siri). The sound quality is smooth and well-balanced, with punchy bass that doesn’t make music sound boomy. It’s relatively comfortable for an on-ear model and it’s more compact design travels better than some full-size models on this list. I just wish it cost a little less and came with a cable to plug in to in-flight entertainment systems. Alas, the Lightning-to-3.5mm is an optional accessory that costs $35.

Read our Beats Solo Pro review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 less.

No, the Life Q20 doesn’t sound as good as premium models such as the Sony WH-1000XM3, but it sounds decent, 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 also a bass boost or BassUp mode if you want an extra helping. It’s also comfortable to wear, the noise-canceling is acceptably effective, it’s solid as a headset for making calls and battery life is good at 40 hours. A simple carrying pouch is included.


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