Best budget earbuds of 2021

(CNN) —  

If you’re shopping for the best wireless earbuds on the market, you really don’t have to look any further than the Apple AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; They check all the most important boxes, including a wide soundstage, best-in-class noise cancellation and portability.

But not everyone wants to break the bank on a pair of earbuds, and honestly, you don’t have to. Some of the newest budget earbuds are nearly on par with the Apple AirPods Pro in sound quality, playback time and connectivity.

Over the course of nearly five months, we put six of the most lauded earbuds under $100 to the test to determine which are the best budget earbuds on the market. After months of testing, we found one pair that punches well above its weight class in key categories.

PHOTO: Michael Nuñez/CNN

We’ll make this really simple for you: If you want to spend less than $100 on wireless earbuds, you won’t find a better pair than the EarFun Air. We know it might seem almost too good to be true, but these earbuds have almost everything you can ask for.

Let’s start with the sound, which is just as good as the Apple AirPods Pro in controlled, quiet, indoor settings. The sound is expansive, deep and about as good as any high-end options. Keep in mind, though, the EarFun Air don’t have any active noise cancellation and depend entirely on sound isolation created by the soft plastic tips when inserted into your ear canal. So, it was no surprise to us when these buds fell short of providing the clarity and quality sound that other leading noise-canceling buds do in noisy settings. Still, there was enough passive soundproofing that we could enjoy our favorite songs.

We tested these earbuds across a wide variety of musical genres, including classical, rock, pop and dance. In every single category, the EarFun Air shined. Songs like “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish and “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk were driven by punchy bass lines and electronic rhythm sections. Other iconic songs, such as Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” were balanced, with moments of clarity on both the high and low end. We struggled to find any song that didn’t sound great in these earbuds — and could discern no difference compared to Apple’s AirPods Pro in controlled, quiet settings.

For most people, the high-quality sound is probably a big enough selling point, but in case you’re looking for extras, the EarFun Air feature plenty. One of our favorite additions is an IPX7 waterproof rating, meaning they can be submerged into about 1 meter of water for about 30 minutes. We don’t often see waterproofing on devices this cheap, so of course, this came as a huge plus and one we gladly accepted. In terms of practical use cases, this means you can wear them in light rain or even while working out. Heck, you can even wash off these earbuds under the faucet without much worry. It’s not the flagship feature, but we think it works as a great insurance policy for protecting your investment.

Another major benefit to these headphones is the four-way microphone, which assists in much better sound isolation during phone calls and video conferencing. The sound isolation is not as clean as other high-end over-the-ear headphones like the Bose Noise-Canceling Headphone 700, and the controls are nowhere near as easy to manage as the competing Apple earbuds, but we still found these earbuds to be formidable during work hours. We used the EarFun Air during regular work hours for more than a week with no problem. Some colleagues even commented on how great they looked and sounded. Put simply, they can perform everyday tasks just as well as many earbuds that cost twice their price.

Beyond sound and microphone quality, the EarFun Air earbuds had impressively long battery life with a full seven hours of playback, as advertised, and an extra 28 hours in the case. Although we were skeptical they’d last as long as the company promised, our weeks of testing proved these claims to be true. The EarFun Air rarely needed to be charged and typically lasted the full duration of their marketed battery life. In comparison to other budget options, EarFun Air stretched an hour longer than the next closest (the EarFun Air Pro) and surpassed the most affordable option in the group by more than two hours.

So what’s the catch to such a great-sounding, affordable pair of earbuds? We found that the connectivity and controls were nowhere near as intuitive as the AirPods Pro, but just as intuitive as most other budget models. Across the board, connectivity between sub-$100 earbuds and devices wasn’t as instantaneous as Apple AirPods. Luckily, you need to pair the earbuds only once per device, so this should not be a deal breaker, unless you’re frequently switching between devices.

By comparison, the Apple AirPods Pro and Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro both offer fast pairing and easy switching between devices made by the same company. The touch controls on the EarFun Air were simply less useful than either of the more expensive Apple and Samsung options we tested them against — but we found that we could still very easily control the sound through our phones. Still, we wouldn’t have minded seeing a companion app to let us customize and equalize the sound, but for half the price of the competitors with audio that’s just as good, we really couldn’t complain.

For most people, pressing a couple of extra buttons during the setup is well worth the savings — and we promise you will not be able to tell the difference in audio and performance. The EarFun Air are really that good, and at just $59.99, they stand as the best budget earbuds.

For most people buying budget earbuds, the most important detail is the sound quality. We used a wide range of tracks to ensure that we tested just about every popular musical genre. Our list included a mixture of classic rock, with soaring guitars; classical, focused on the open space of popular sonatas; and, of course, pop and electronic to test out the bass. We wore each of the headphones for hours at a time to get a better feeling for how they fit. We also did our best to analyze each device’s controls, but found that many of the headphones we tested had lackluster touch controls. In an era when everything can be controlled by your phone anyway, we feel like this probably won’t be a deal breaker for most people.

Sound quality overall: We analyzed the sound quality using a wide range of songs. The core songs we tested included “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk, “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen, “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock, “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish, “The Hills” by The Weeknd, “Piece of Your Heart” by Meduza, “34+35” by Ariana Grande, “Sicilyan Dream” by Enrico Pieranunzi, “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven, “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin and “Boogie Wonderland” by Earth, Wind & Fire.

Low, mid and high: We listened to how each pair of earbuds reproduced lower, midrange and higher tones in each of the songs in our playlist.

Bass: We listened to how well each pair of earbuds produced deep-range audio and the punchiness of the kick of the bass in a variety of songs.

Soundstage: We tested each pair of earbuds for the three-dimensional feeling provided by high-quality stereo sound. Strong soundstage shows off the instrument and vocal positions in 3D space.

Every pair of earbuds received a score for each subcategory. The total score of each pair of earbuds was made up of the sum of its subcategory marks.

  • Sound quality had a maximum of 25 points: overall (10 points); low, mid and high (5 points); bass (5 points); and soundstage (5 points).
  • Design and comfort had a maximum of 25 points: build quality (10 points), fit in-ear (5 points), stays in the ear (5 points) and IP rating (5 points).
  • Connectivity had a maximum of 10 points: connectivity (10 points).
  • Controls had a maximum 10 points: on-device controls (5 points) and off-device controls (5 points).
  • Noise cancellation had a maximum of 5 points: overall (5 points).
  • Microphones had a maximum of 10 points: voice control (5 points) and call quality (5 points).
  • Warranty had a maximum of 5 points: warranty (5 points).

Anker Soundcore Life P2 ($44.99;

Anker Soundcore Life P2

PHOTO: Amazon

Anker Soundcore Life P2

We generally love Anker products and really wanted to recommend this pair of affordable earbuds, but after hours of testing, we simply couldn’t in good conscience. The Soundcore Life 2 earbuds fell just a bit short in all of the most important categories. But the sound quality isn’t exactly bad, and it was generally well balanced with decent range.

When you compare them to other earbuds in the category, though, they just weren’t quality enough to stack up against some of the best, namely the EarFun Air. With only two microphones dedicated to noise cancellation and six hours of battery life, we found that they fell just short of earning an enthusiastic recommendation.

EarFun Air Pro ($79.99, originally $99.99;

EarFun Air Pro

PHOTO: Amazon

EarFun Air Pro

You would think that the EarFun Air Pro buds would be better than their predecessors because they have “Pro” in the name — but you’d be wrong. They do technically have some better capabilities, such as active noise cancellation, three microphones per earpiece instead of just two and a new 10-millimeter driver. They also have the same level of battery life and generally the same sound. Heck, we can barely tell the difference between the two.

When it comes down to it, though, the original EarFun Air buds edge out this model in terms of sound, waterproofing and wireless charging to boot. You won’t be upset if you buy the EarFun Air Pro earbuds — they are some of the best available for this price — but we think you’ll feel slightly happier jamming out using the EarFun Air.

EarFun Free ($59.99;

EarFun Free

PHOTO: Amazon

EarFun Free

We need to emphasize: Not all EarFun earbuds are created equally. The EarFun Free have decent sound quality and a reasonable six hours of battery life, with 24 extra hours available in the charging case. But we found that sound quality and comfort were not as nice as their higher-priced counterparts.

All of the EarFun earbuds we tested consistently ranked among some of our favorite budget earbuds, but we think the slight differences in sound quality and comfort make the other models a better option.

JLab Audio Go Air ($24.99, originally $29.99;

JLab Audio Go Air

PHOTO: Best Buy

JLab Audio Go Air

We challenge you to find a worse pair of earbuds on the market. Let’s start with the case, which doesn’t even come with a lid. Yes, you read that right. The JLab Audio Go Air use magnets to connect the earbuds to the charging case, with the assumption that you’ll never drop or jolt them hard enough to knock them out. We should be clear: We never dropped or lost the earbuds during our testing period, but it frankly seems like a disaster waiting to happen.

Let’s assume you don’t drop them and you want to set them up with your phone. Well, good luck! We had to reconnect these headphones several times just to get them working properly. What should have been a 30-second setup turned into a five-minute operation. When they finally connected, we were disappointed to realize it was all for naught. These earbuds practically ruined Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” for us. There was a complete lack of soundspace, depth and range. We’re not sure we’ve ever heard anything as truly terrible and unenjoyable as these earbuds. Please, no matter what you decide, avoid these earbuds at all costs. You deserve better.

JLab Audio JBuds Air ($49.99;

JLAB JBuds Air True Wireless

PHOTO: Target

JLAB JBuds Air True Wireless

You’re not going to find anything groundbreaking in these buds, but for most people, that’s probably just fine. The sound quality is middling at best, with an active bass boost option and decent EQ modes when you click a button on the earbuds.

The battery life is also weak at just three hours — but, on the bright side, they offer good sound isolation from the wind and come with IP55 dust and water resistance, which make them a great choice as workout earphones. Plus, at under $50, you won’t miss them if you forget them in your gym locker. If you can afford it, though, we’d recommend spending a little more for the EarFun Air.

Skullcandy Sesh ($38;

Skullcandy Sesh

PHOTO: Amazon

Skullcandy Sesh

For all of the marketing and celebrity endorsements that go into Skullcandy headphones, you’d think they’d provide better-sounding earbuds. Unfortunately, the Skullcandy Sesh earbuds were a disappointment. Usually it’s easy to justify the lack of performance because Skullcandy headphones typically look cool, but these earbuds are so small and hard to see that they’re far from a fashion statement.

The sound was fine — not terrible — but lacked bass on some of our favorite dance and disco songs. The highs were also a little too high, creating an overall lack of balance in sound quality. Add poor battery life and a terrible microphone, and you have yourself yet another pair of earbuds made for the clearance rack.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing:

Leave a Comment