It’s that time of the year again! We previously did a best earbuds of 2020 round-up and it was pretty well received, along with the premium earbuds comparison I did earlier this year, so yeah, here are my top picks for earbuds launched in 2021.
So just to be a bit clearer, we’re only including earbuds that were released or went on sale in 2021, or like, late 2020. So if your favourite earbud isn’t here, it’s probably because they didn’t fit this criterion, or because I just didn’t get a chance to review them.
As always, audio is subjective; what sounds good to me might not sound good to you. Remember to always try audio gear out yourself first before buying anything to avoid disappointment! That being said, let’s get into it.
We’ll be starting off with ANC, and here are my top three earbuds. We have the Sony WF-1000XM4, the Sennheiser CX Plus True Wireless and the Edifier NeoBuds Pro.
So let’s start with the NeoBuds Pro. These might not be all that well-known, but they’re surprisingly good. The ANC is capable of almost completely eliminating car rumble, and even for higher-pitched stuff like people talking, it’s really effectively reduced as well. Passive noise isolation is also pretty good, so that’s a plus.
Moving on to the Sennheiser CX Plus True Wireless, these are actually Sennheiser’s top-end CX lineup earbuds, coming with ANC, which wasn’t present in the CX True Wireless. The ANC here is again, surprisingly good for its US$180 price tag. It’s not quite as great as the ANC on the MTW 2, but they still do a great job at reducing lower pitched noises, although rain noise still sneaks in from time to time.
But my winner for this year is the Sony WF-1000XM4, and I’m sure this comes as no surprise to most of you. It handles everything I throw at it with ease, from traffic noise to people talking to commutes. If I had to pick one pair of ANC earbuds I would want to bring on a long haul flight, these would absolutely be my choice. The one downside might be that the earbuds really are quite bulky, which means they could cause some wearing fatigue for people with smaller ears.
Last year I did a segment on sports earbuds, but this year, I really didn’t try any sports earbuds, so I’m replacing that segment with Design instead. Here are my three picks. The Bang & Olufsen EQ, the Master & Dynamic MW08 and the Nothing Ear (1).
The Nothing Ear (1) is included here because, well, I love the design. I think transparent gadgets are pretty cool, and I think the Ear (1) is definitely an eye-catching design, especially with the transparent case. It’s not particularly premium in the hand, since it’s all plastic, so yeah, it’s not going to be our winner, but I thought the unique look was worth a shoutout.
Moving on, the Master & Dynamic MW08 is both eye-catching and feels really premium in the hand. The case at least. You get quite a few options here, but the one I had with me previously was the matte black case and black ceramic option for the earbuds, which I thought looked really sleek. The case had plenty of heft and the matte finish meant that there’s no need to worry about fingerprints showing. That being said, the black ceramic earbuds also looked very nice, but the faceplate was glossy and that resulted in a bunch of fingerprints from just adjusting the earbuds in the ear and such.
Last but not least, we have my winner for the Design segment, and that’s the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay EQ. These earbuds are bloody gorgeous. Honestly, there’s not much I can nitpick about with these in terms of design. The anodised case is low profile enough to slip into a jeans pocket, it’s metal but it’s still incredibly lightweight and it’s matte, so there aren’t any fingerprints or smudges. I have these in the new Nordic Ice colourway that’s for the holidays, and inside, you get this shade of lilac that’s really soft and complementary to the silver outside.
The earbuds are more of the same, same shade of lilac and the faceplate with touch controls is the same silver metal material, just less textured than the case. These are really, really nice, and the most important part is that when I think about the price, which is pretty high, to be honest, I don’t feel like the design is a letdown. It’s incredibly premium all around, and I would definitely want to show these off whenever I'm out and about.
Sound quality is, of course, one of the biggest considerations when it comes to buying earbuds. Here, we have three options again, although I do have an honorary nominee, which is the Noble Falcon Pro.
Now, these really surprised me. My personal custom IEMs are from Noble, and they’re definitely more known for custom in-ear monitors than true wireless earbuds, but when I tried these, I thought, wow, Noble actually managed to come up with something wireless that sounds incredibly good despite the relative lack of experience in this area. Personally, this would have been a top 3 contender for me, except for the fact that the Falcon Pro seems to have been discontinued. They’ve been showing as “Sold out” on the Noble website for quite a while, and it seems like Noble might be transitioning to the Fokus Pro instead, so yeah. But I still wanted to give this one a mention because I thought the sound quality actually gave the others on this list a run for their money.
Anyway, let’s move on to the three. First up, we have the Devialet Gemini. Okay, so these don’t quite fit the criteria. They were initially launched in late November 2020, but look, these earbuds were plagued with issues when they first launched, pairing issues, poor battery life, problems with software updates and the likes. Well, Devialet actually pulled the earbuds off stores in Jan 2021 and fixed the problems before putting them up for sale again, so… give me this one and say that it was released in Jan 2021 okay?
And while this might not be the case for everybody, the loan unit I got for review was updated to the latest firmware and actually really good. Bass was crisp, detailed and had plenty of texture, while the mids were actually the highlight of the mix, with a very good amount of clarity and instruments sounding very natural. The treble was perfectly fine for me, as I prefer brighter, sparkly treble, but it can definitely get a bit harsh for some. All in all, these are a good choice, IF you can get a unit that works well.
Next, we have the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay EQ, and yes, it’s the second time it’s appearing here. But come on, how can we leave it out of the sound quality segment? It not only looks beautiful, but it also sounds beautiful as well. They’re so dynamic and detailed, I very easily noticed parts of the mix in songs that were relegated to the background with other earbuds. There’s also plenty of clarity in the mids, along with more forward vocals which I do enjoy. Treble is also very accurate, with excellent separation and layering and an above-average soundstage.
But the winner has to go to the B&W PI7 for me. These were the only earbuds I tried this year that actually gave me goosebumps the first time I heard them. The bassline was rich and impactful while still maintaining control, and the mids had plenty of air and spaciousness. The treble was also excellent, with plenty of separation even in songs that had three or four string instruments never blending together, and never crossing the line into sibilance. Male vocals can feel slightly more laid back with these, but honestly, there’s so much detail and really good musicality.
I sat in my room in stunned silence as I listened to my testing playlist on these, and honestly, I’d say they’re worth every penny because these are also the most expensive earbuds I’ve ever seen at S$689, after the recent price increase by Bowers & Wilkins in August this year. It seems like the U.S. price of US$399 didn’t increase though, which puts it on par with the Beoplay EQ, so it's even better for people in the U.S.
Lastly, we have the value segment. I kept this to under $100 in last year’s video, but this year is going to be a bit more difficult, so I’m not really restricting it based on earbuds under $100 now, probably more like $150.
Anyway, we start off with something that’s really affordable, and that’s the Baseus WM01 Plus. These cost around US$20-ish and that’s a price point where things really start to get a bit dubious, but these are surprisingly decent. Sure, you can’t expect the same sound quality as something 100 bucks, but these aren’t too bad for the price. The bass is pretty emphasised, with a dip in the mids. There was also a bit of static when listening to classical music, although most people who get these really won’t be looking to pick apart the sound quality. Additionally, there’s even a display that toggles between showing the battery life for the case and individual earbuds. Pretty nice.
Next up is the Creative Outlier Air V3. Now, these are pretty interesting because they come with Creative’s Super X-Fi technology that basically is an audio spatialisation tech, allowing for listeners to imagine as if they’re in a concert hall or something and listening to the song live. It’s not 100% accurate as there’s still a bit of an echo and such, but for S$89, it’s really not too bad. Sound quality even with Super X-Fi turned off is still pretty good, and there’s Bluetooth 5.2, wireless charging, active noise reduction and a total of 40 hours of battery life.
But the winner has to be the Edifier NeoBuds Pro. The ANC on these is excellent, as mentioned earlier, and at around US$130, it’s very much worth the money based on ANC alone. Sound quality is also very, very good, with support for LDAC and LHDC codecs, meaning you can stream songs in high quality. And the sound quality really is good. You get punchy, warm bass thanks to the dynamic driver, but you get good clarity in the mids and treble thanks to the Knowles balanced armature driver. Overall, it’s a warmer, lusher sound that benefits bass-heavy songs, but I’d say that this is one of the best budget earphones that you can get, everything considered.