The best headphone gifts for the 2020 holidays
This story is part of Holiday Gift Guide 2020, CNET’s gift picks with expert advice, reviews and recommendations for the latest tech gifts for you and your family.
It’s not always easy to pick out a pair of headphones to give as a gift. Besides the sheer volume of options, you need to consider whether you’re buying a. gift for an audiophile, a gamer or simply someone who wants to use headphones to make phone calls on their phone.
With all of that in mind, we’re highlighting several of our highest-rated wireless headphones to help narrow down your choices for headphone gifts this holiday season. Not all of these models are pricey — several affordable options are less than $100 — so regardless of your budget, you’re sure to find the perfect headphones for the people in your life who are lucky enough to receive them.
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. That 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 a slight edge for voice calls, but the 1000XM4 headphones are arguably a tad more comfortable and also have some other slight improvements to noise cancellation and sound that make this model a great all-around choice.
Water-resistant: Yes (IPX2 rating — sweat-resistant and protects against light splashes).
Say what you will about the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live’s bean-shaped design — yes, they’re affectionately known as the Beans — but they might just be the most innovative new true wireless earbuds of the year. Like the standard Apple AirPods, they have an open design — you don’t jam an ear tip into your ear — and they’re comfortable to wear. (They fit my ears more securely than the AirPods, though they won’t fit everybody’s ears equally well.) Additionally, they’re discreet and basically sit flush with your ear without a little white pipe extending out from them.
They deliver good sound and work well as a headset for making calls, with good background noise reduction so callers can hear you clearly even when you’re in noisier environments. While they have active noise cancellation, it’s mild compared to the noise-canceling features in earbuds that have a noise-isolating design. In other words, buy them for their design and sound, not to block out noise.
Water-resistant: Yes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).
Even if they don’t sound quite 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 winning design and fit, improved bass performance and effective noise canceling — and now the earbuds have been updated with spatial audio, a new virtual-sound mode for watching movies and TV shows (only works with iPhones and iPads running iOS 14).
This is an excellent choice when you want to make a call or listen to music during your workout. Yeah, it’s expensive at $250, but the good news is you can often find the AirPods Pro in the $200 to $220 range.
Water-resistant: Yes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).
The second-gen Momentum True Wireless 2 earbuds aren’t cheap at $300, but they’re better all around than the originals, with a smaller, more comfortable design, active noise cancellation that rivals that of the AirPods 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 these Bluetooth headphones 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 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).
Water-resistant: Yes (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.
Water-resistant: Yes (IPX4 rating — splash-proof).
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. It’s detailed and smooth, with deep, well-defined bass. The music lover will appreciate that 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.
Thanks to their noise-isolating design, these do sound a little better than the Galaxy Buds Live. But there are advantages to both designs, so take that into account when you’re trying to decide between them. I personally tend to use the Buds Live more than the Buds Plus (yes, I have both).
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, the long-awaited successor to its Quiet Comfort 35 II, may not be a quantum leap forward but it offers better sound quality, call and noise-canceling function. Alas, these over-ear headphones cost around $400 (though they are currently on sale on Amazon for $340), 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 design and fit (and lower price tag) of the Sony WH-1000XM4, and while you can argue about which pair of headphones sounds better, one thing is certain: This model of noise-canceling headphones works significantly better as a headset for making calls. For some people that may be worth the extra cost for the wireless earphones.
Water-resistant: Yes (IP54 rating — sweat-resistant, splashproof, dust-resistant)
Edifier, which makes some impressive PC speakers, has done a good job with its Edifier TWS NB2 noise-canceling earbuds. Their angular design reminds me of the Libratone Track Air Plus, which has come down in price (it’s now $100) and is also good. The Edifier TWS NB2 distinguishes itself with a comfortable fit, decent noise canceling and nicely balanced sound with good clarity and well-defined bass. They’re smooth-sounding earbuds.
Voice calling is also above average — noise reduction outdoors was decent and callers said they had no trouble hearing me on phone calls (there’s a light sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the buds as you talk). Battery life is rated at up 7 hours with noise canceling on and these have a IP54 rating, which means they’re splashproof and are fine for working out (I ran with them).
Water-resistant: Yes (IP55 rating — can withstand heavy sprays of water).
At first glance, the Elite 75t, which were originally supposed to cost $200 but now sell for $180 (and sometimes less), seem more like an evolutionary upgrade from the highly rated Elite 65t. But the updates turn out to be a little more substantial than I first thought, especially now that you can add noise canceling via a firmware upgrade.
The Elite 75t’s smaller size (the buds and case are 20% smaller than the Elite 65t’s), their boosted battery life and USB-C charging are significant upgrades. Then there are the smaller changes, like the new charging case design with magnets inside that make it easier to open and close and to keep the buds inside. While the Elite 75t aren’t quite as comfortable to wear as the AirPods Pro, they do sound better, with clearer overall sound and better bass audio quality definition, so long as you get a tight seal.
The slightly more rugged Elite Active 75t is also available for about $20 more, but with the new Elite 85t arriving we should see some sales on the Elite 75t, which has been out on the market a while.
Water-resistant: Yes (IP55 splashproof)
Sony’s WF-1000XM3 model is considered one of the best sets of true wireless noise-canceling earbuds. But to the dismay of some people, it lacks any sort of water resistance, making it unsuitable for sports. It took a while, but now we finally have a new true wireless noise-canceling sports model from Sony: the WF-SP800N.
This isn’t quite the WF-1000XM3 with a water-resistant body. It’s missing Sony’s QN1e processor, but there’s still a lot to like about it, including very good sound, solid noise cancellation and good call quality. It’s definitely a nice upgrade over the WF-SP700N, which came out in 2018, and its “arcs” (sports fins) lock the buds in your ears. Just make sure you get a tight seal from one of the included ear tips or else both the sound and noise canceling will be lackluster.
Water-resistant: Yes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).
Google’s Pixel Buds 2 are worthy contenders in the premium true wireless earbuds arena, particularly for Android phones. Featuring hands-free Google Assistant (for Android), they offer a comfortable, secure fit and very good sound quality for true wireless. Additionally, they’re good for making calls and their touch controls work quite well.
At five hours, their battery life isn’t as good as some new models that are hitting the market, but it’s on par with the AirPods Pro’s battery life and the well-designed wireless charging case gives you an additional 19 hours (there is a quick-charge feature). The Pixel Buds 2 will eventually be available in four color options (white, black, mint and orange), but at launch you can only get them in white.
This true wireless earbud option uses Bluetooth 5.0 with support for the AAC codec but not aptX.
Sony’s WH-1000XM3 — the third generation of Sony’s excellent wireless noise-canceling headphones — earned an Editors’ Choice award from CNET and was arguably the top noise-canceling headphone model until the WH-1000XM4 came along. Its successor is 15-20% better, with slightly improved sound performance and noise cancellation, plus multipoint Bluetooth pairing (you can simultaneously pair two devices, such as a PC and smartphone, with the headphones for easy switching) and upgraded microphones for voice calling. But the WH-1000XM3 headphones are still great and their price has dropped, making them a better value.
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 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 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.
Water-resistant: Yes (IPX7 — fully waterproof and sweat-proof).
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.
These sweat-proof earbuds are 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.