13 earbuds that will make you rethink portable audio

The vast majority of the earbuds we're seeing at CES 2016 are wireless models.

  • JBL Everest Elite 100 NXTGen Noise-Canceling Bluetooth...

  • Urbanears Reimers In-Ear Active Earphones, Black Belt...

  • GEM Collection Titanium Earphones for Women - Metallic...

  • Motorola VerveOnes Completely Wireless Smart Earbuds

  • iHome iB80 Bluetooth sports earbuds

    on iHome
  • Skullcandy Smokin' Buds 2 In-Ear Bluetooth Wireless...

  • Jaybird - Freedom F5 In-Ear Wireless Headphones - Gold

  • Audio-Technica ATH-CKS1100iS Solid Bass In-Ear Headphones...

  • Skullcandy XTfree In-Ear Sport Bluetooth Wireless Earbuds,...

  • JBL UA Headphones Wireless Heart Rate

    on JBL
  • Decibullz Custom Molded Wireless Bluetooth Earphones - Black

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Earbuds for every occasion

Earbuds will probably never be your main headphones, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their place—any time you want to travel light, work out, or simply keep a low profile while listening. If you’re still using the free Apple EarPods you received with your last iPhone, it’s time to step up your game.

Earbud tech is booming at CES this year, and buds are ultra-customizable (everything from audio profile to ear-tip size, shape, and material) and tailored to just about any situation. You don’t necessarily need different earbuds for a high-intensity CrossFit workout versus a midnight jog, but we found buds for both of those situations on the show floor. Let’s take a look at 13 of the coolest earbuds coming out this year.

jbl everest 100 elite
  • JBL Everest Elite 100 NXTGen Noise-Canceling Bluetooth...

JBL Everest 100 Elite

Fact: Barring revolutionary new headphone technology, no earbuds are going to replace your noise-canceling over-ear headphones. But JBL’s Everest 100 Elite earbuds, which hit shelves this spring for a retail price of $200, come pretty close.

JBL says the Everest 100 Elites are the only Bluetooth wireless earbuds with ‘NXTGen Noise Cancelling technology,’ which combines active noise cancellation with the ability to control the amount of ambient noise that seeps in. In other words, the Everest 100 Elites actively filter out all ambient sounds unless you want to be aware of your surroundings. (This is all controlled via JBL’s My JBL Headphones app.) The Everest 100 Elites offer up six hours of active playback and feature a plastic neckband for added stability and to prevent wire-tugging.

urbanears reimers
  • Urbanears Reimers In-Ear Active Earphones, Black Belt...

Urbanears Reimers

Fitness earbuds are everywhere (you’ll find several in this round-up alone), but that’s because there’s no perfect universal solution—everybody is different, and everybody works out differently. Still, Urbanears’ new sweat-resistant Reimers earbuds are both fashionable and functional, with several little features that make them stand out.

Like many fitness headphones, the Reimers have a reflective cable for those who like to walk, run, or cycle outside at night. But instead of just a single reflective stripe, the Reimers’ cable has a cool-looking crisscross design that’s both eye-catching and safety-focused. These earbuds’ wires aren’t ‘tangle-free,’ but they do have handy double clips for winding and managing the cable (or clipping it to your clothing during a rigorous workout). The Reimers are currently available and retail for a reasonable $50.

maroo audio
  • GEM Collection Titanium Earphones for Women - Metallic...

  • ICE Collection Midnight Earphones for Women -...

Maroo Audio Gem/Ice

I’m skeptical of tech products marketed specifically to women, but earbuds are a slightly different story because women’s ears are typically smaller than men’s. While most woman-tech is usually just man-tech painted pink, specialty headphone-maker Maroo Audio has launched two lines (functionally identical but aesthetically different) of smaller, ‘girlier’ earbuds: Gem and Ice.

The Gem line features bright, sparkly cut glass gemstones, while the Ice line is metallic and bedazzled with tiny crystals. I’m definitely a fan, but I’m a somewhat of a sucker for anything shiny. Both lines come with five different-sized smaller ear-tips, which is impressive right off the bat—most earbuds come with three, while some cheaper models come with two—to ensure that smaller-eared customers will be able to find a perfect fit. The Gem and Ice earbuds are currently available for $79.

verve ones
  • Motorola VerveOnes Completely Wireless Smart Earbuds

  • Motorola VerveOnes+ Completely Wireless and Waterproof...

Verve VerveOnes/VerveOnes+

Most wireless Bluetooth earbuds aren’t truly wireless: While there’s no wire connecting them to your phone, there’s still a wire connecting the buds to each other. But Verve’s VerveOnes (and their slightly jazzier counterparts, the VerveOnes+) are truly wireless—each bud is its own individual entity. The buds can even be used independently of each other, for example, if you wanted to use just one as a Bluetooth headset for taking calls.

Design-wise, the VerveOnes/VerveOnes+ are still a little bulky for my taste, but they do have some neat features that other truly wireless earbuds do not, such as 12-plus hours of battery life and a portable protective charging case. The VerveOnes+ are IP57-certified, which means they’re dust-resistant and waterproof up to one meter for 30 minutes. Both styles will hit shelves this April; the VerveOnes for $249 and the VerveOnes+ for $299.

phaz digital earbuds

Phaz Digital EarBuds

Phaz Music, the company that brought us the gimmicky (and ultimately underwhelming) phone-charging headphones, is back with a pair of digital earbuds that just may be worth your money. Phaz’ Digital EarBuds are wired earbuds with 9mm drivers and a premium digital-to-analog converter (DAC) onboard.

But first, a little background: Your iPhone/Android device has its own built-in DAC, which is what your music goes through if you use the device’s 3.5mm headphone jack. Because your mobile device’s DAC may not (read: is not) very good, even stellar headphones will sound limited when you’re listening on your smartphone. But if a pair of headphones bypasses the 3.5mm jack—by plugging directly into the device via the microUSB port or the Lightning port-then those headphones are free to use their own DAC to convert your music. That’s what the Phaz Digital EarBuds do, via a microUSB plug (and a corresponding Lightning port adapter). The Digital EarBuds will be available this March for $130.

ihome ib80

iHome iB80

iHome’s iB80 Bluetooth sports earbuds are the perfect compromise for people who want the freedom of wireless earbuds without the hassle of tangling with the connecting wire. The iB80’s connecting wire is seamlessly integrated into a flexible, rubberized neckband that gives you fit stability without the rigidness of a plastic neckpiece. The neckband is flexible enough to be folded into a ball and tossed in your gym bag (the iB80s are also IPX3-certified, which means they’re sweat- and water-resistant, but not waterproof). These earbuds feature an over-ear loop design, an inline remote (on the right bud), and six-hour battery life. The iB80s are reasonably-priced at $50 and will be available soon.

skullcandy smokin buds
  • Skullcandy Smokin' Buds 2 In-Ear Bluetooth Wireless...

Skullcandy Smokin’ Buds 2 Wireless

Skullcandy is best known as a lifestyle audio brand, so it’s no surprise that the company is taking its popular wired Smokin’ Buds 2 earbuds into Bluetooth territory. The new wireless earbuds—not-so-creatively dubbed the Smokin’ Buds 2 Wireless—feature the same off-axis fit technology as their wired predecessors, with angled, oval-shaped tips that allow for a more secure (and thus, more noise-isolating) fit.

Because the Smokin’ Buds 2 Wireless are designed to be worn all day long—even when you’re not actively listening to music—Skullcandy has included a removable neckband (a ‘flex-collar’) for when you want the buds to hang securely around your neck. The neckband adds stability to the buds and prevents wire-tugging, but can be removed if you prefer less weight. The Smokin’ Buds 2 Wireless are available now for $60, which is twice the cost of the original Smokin’ Buds 2, but still significantly lower than what you’ll pay for most wireless earbuds.

jaybird freedom
  • Jaybird - Freedom F5 In-Ear Wireless Headphones - Gold

Jaybird Freedom

It’s obvious where Jaybird’s Freedom earbuds got their name: These tiny wireless Bluetooth earbuds are so lightweight that you’ll (almost) feel like you’re completely free from wires altogether. The Freedoms pack big sound into such a tiny package, with 6mm drivers (in a special step-down design) and integration with a special app that lets you tweak the earbuds’ audio profile and save said profile to the buds themselves (instead of just to your audio device, like a typical equalizer app).

Like other Jaybird earbuds, the Freedoms are fitness-oriented, with Comply memory foam ear-tips, flexible mesh ear-fins, and a sweat-proof design. They only get four hours of battery life, but they come with a slim charging clip that can be attached for an additional four hours of battery life. The Freedoms will be available this spring and will retail for $200.

audio technica
  • Audio-Technica ATH-CKS1100iS Solid Bass In-Ear...

Audio-Technica ATH-CKS1100iS

Earbuds don’t usually feature excellent bass, because it’s practically impossible to do so with tiny, earbud-sized drivers. But Audio-Technica’s Solid Bass line does a decent job of bumping up your bass line thanks to larger, dual phase push-pull drivers.

The ATH-CKS1100iS earbuds aren’t particularly fashion-forward, but they do have some little touches that audiophiles on-the-go will appreciate, such as separate star-quad cables for the left and right buds. These earbuds, which are available now for $200, have dual 12.5mm drivers, are certified for high-res audio, and have an impressive (and possibly exaggerated) frequency response of 5- to 40,000Hz.

skullcandy xtfree
  • Skullcandy XTfree In-Ear Sport Bluetooth Wireless...

Skullcandy XTfree

Skullcandy claims its XTfree earbuds are the lightest wireless Bluetooth earbuds on the market, though they admit that they don’t know what will be launching at the show this year. These fitness-focused wireless earbuds weigh just 16 grams and are designed to withstand a rigorous workout. The XTfrees are not only sweat-resistant, the ear-tips are actually made of a special sticky gel that gets 30-percent stickier (and therefore more stable) when exposed to sweat. In other words, the sweatier you are, the more tenacious these earbuds will get.

The XTfrees also have a flexible ear-fin/arm that locks into your outer ear for extra stability. These earbuds get six hours of battery life (the battery is in the buds, not anchored on the cable) and are available now for $100.

jbl ua wireless heart rate

JBL UA Headphones Wireless Heart Rate

JBL and fitness-apparel company Under Armour have teamed up to introduce a pair of sleek wireless heart-rate-monitoring earbuds. The JBL UA Headphones Wireless Heart Rate are the first wireless earbuds with heart-rate-monitoring built-in, which means they’re likely to be a hit. A rep from SMS Audio told me that the wire on their BioSport earbuds was the only deal breaker for many consumers.

The JBL UA earbuds also benefit from JBL’s ownership of Yurbuds. The ear-tips on the JBL UA Headphones Wireless Heart Rate earbuds are very similar to Yurbuds’ patented twist-lock ear-tips, which make absolutely no logical sense but stay in place like nobody’s business. The JBL UA earbuds will be available this summer and will cost $250.

  • Decibullz Custom Molded Wireless Bluetooth Earphones -...

Decibullz Wireless Earphones

Decibullz has a unique answer to the elusive perfect fit: Custom-molded earpieces. Drop Decibullz’ earpieces in boiling water and then squish them into your ear, and in a couple of minutes you’ll have perfectly-fitting custom earpieces that attach easily to Decibullz’ new wireless Bluetooth earbuds.

The new earbuds feature 9mm drivers, 4.5 hours of battery life, and are sweat-resistant (though not IP-certified). The Decibullz’ earpieces come in seven colors (black, red, blue, orange, green, light blue, purple, and brown) and can be infinitely re-molded to better fit your ears. The wireless earbuds will be available in February or March of this year, and will retail for $129.


Kanoa Wireless Headphones

I’ve seen a few different ‘truly wireless’ Bluetooth earbuds at the show this year, but Kanoa’s wireless earbuds are definitely the sexiest. These pentagon-shaped buds only get six hours of battery life, but they’re so much smaller, lighter, and more comfortable than their competitors that I can safely say the trade-off is worth it. They’re also IP67-certified, which means they’re completely dust-proof and waterproof up to one meter for 30 minutes.

The Kanoa earbuds come with a portable protective charging case and three sets of silicon ear-tips, three sets of silicon jackets, and one set of memory foam ear-tips. The first batch is currently available for pre-order ($149); units will start shipping in April and will eventually retail for $299.

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