Be it the over-the-ear cans or bud-like-plugs, the classic headphone/earphone conundrum can be represented as an impossible Venn diagram comprising three features — battery life, sound quality, and fit. One can mostly get two out of these three, to overlap. When it comes to earphones, that diagram starts looking like three socially distanced circles. And now in the age of Bluetooth, we have variables like latency and format compatibility to further add to the mix. Choosing the perfect earphone then seems like quite a task. Serious audiophiles may never entirely agree on what works best, and most will still eschew the idea of wireless headphones entirely, preferring superior acoustics to comfort.
Personally, I rate the quality of sound first for range and clarity, although pure pounding bass is a popular purchase-decision influencer for many. Of late, trying to juggle webinars, calls, and music in some mad relay of sorts, I like sets that can connect with more than one device simultaneously, and switch between them seamlessly. Battery life also matters a lot, as does audio latency, which is the delay between a visual you see and the audio you receive; both these are factors — if not handled well — can ruin a good evening’s worth of online bingeing. Waterproofing is that extra bonus that allows you to have one set for both work and workouts, which is always nifty. Wireless charging, for the moment, I can do without, but it’s good if you have the feature. Of course, everything is subjective. What sits well in my aural cavity, may not work for you, thereby rendering that set of plugs useless. Personally, I resolve this by performing a ‘Smile test’, wherein I plug in the earphones, and then grin wide. If it displaces them or breaks the seal and leaks in external sounds, then I rate the fit as not ideal. However, if they stay snugly secure, that’s two thumbs up. But overall, a low rating here means lack of comfort.
I wish Sony would get someone who is not a robot to name their models because right now, it’s all foreign license plates. But in performance, these beasts are unparalleled, at least in their digital noise cancellation, battery life, bass-rich sound, and versatility of use (IP55 rated). A special mention of their Quick Attention feature, which drops volume to dead zero, and allows ambient noise in. They pretty much manage to pack in all the features of the top-end stuff and if they were a shade less dearer, they’d be a quick pick over many others here. Rs 18,990 Rating: 7/10 Smile Test: 7.5/10
JABRA ELITE ACTIVE 75T
Even if these sound a bit pricey, I will suggest you up the ante and go for these because among the rest here, they are the best value-for-money, high-end performers. They can score an easy 9 on 10 for all the factors mentioned above — great sound, thunderous bass (which you can toggle further in the app) in a lightweight and compact seat, waterproof form with a peachy grippy feel, multiple device connectivity, and a long battery. Oh, I am not done yet. Small footprint case, voice-assistant ready, automatic ear detection (which pauses the music if you remove even one of them), wireless charging (in an upgraded model), 4-mics for great call quality, sportssuitable (with IP57 rating), low latency, great passive noise isolation with an option to allow ambient sounds (called Hear-through), and an app that will tailor the sound based on your personal hearing frequency ranges. The two buds have a physical button on them, which can be programmed for single, double or triple clicks to perform different functions while listening to music or with calls, incoming and during. The click is reassuringly light yet resounding enough to perform the function without displacing the buds. I used to love the previous model (65t), but these manage to raise the bar in every sense on an already great set. Rs 16,000 Rating: 9/10 Smile Test: 8/10
REALME BUDS AIR NEO
These are another one of those AirPods clones, but they come at a fraction of the price. The performance, by extension, is similarly somewhat discounted. It’s got decent sound with a balanced profile, great touch controls, good calls handling, and even the sound seal is good. Watching movies was better than listening to music, and they were both better than the calls. What was worrying was that when I tried to sync it with the innate app on a non-Realme device (Pixel 3, Samsung S6 Lite), the app didn’t seem to connect right with the buds, whereas on the Realme Narzo 10, it synced much faster, and with complete control options. That said, the battery is decent, the case is snug and finished well and if it weren’t for the slightly dated micro-USB charging port, I’d rate them higher. Rs 3,100 Rating: 6/10 Smile Test: 7/10
These are an amazing set of buds for the price, and the only ones here to have an HR sensor. The feature set runs more or less similar to the ones above — small, slightly heavy case but feels premium and solid, tap-functionality on both buds with app-based customisation, efficient isolation with good solid sound, but slightly dull in the mids and highs (tweaking with the app helps), decent call functionality, and superbly spot-on HR tracking during workouts, which can be tracked with the Amazfit app. The app is not the most intuitive, and doesn’t migrate data to Strava (but it does work with Google Fit) but outside of that, the metrics it throws up, are reliable and relevant. Overall, in this price range, if you simply want better sound, there might be other options, but if you want decent sound plus sports and HR tracking in a premium sweat-proof packaging, then these are possibly a steal. Rs 7,000 Rating: 7.5/10 Smile Test: 8/10
APPLE AIRPODS PRO
Most people believe that the only reason you would buy these is because you own an Apple device, and are somewhat married into the universe. But frankly, this is a worthy top-spot contender even with Android devices. One of the finest active noise cancellation algorithms, awesome call clarity, great meaty overall sound with decent base, tiny case, wireless charging and astute ambient sound incorporation (called transparency here), and a superbly comfortable fit with sweet resistance to boot. The only two things that let them down is the battery life and the rather steep price, because the 75t will do all that for a much lesser price with a longer battery, and with better sound and bass. Rs 24,900 Rating: 7/10 Smile Test: 8/10
SAMSUNG GALAXY BUDS (PLUS)
The Galaxy Buds were unprecedented, and Samsung got it so right with their very first attempt. I loved everything about them, but it was only in comparison to the two above do they feel lesser endowed. The touch controls were also a bit troublesome at times, because a double tap would often register as a single tap, so instead of changing the track, it would use pause into silence, which can be annoying. No waterproofing was another downer for me. The new Buds Plus have debatably better sound because while it does have a better range and clarity overall, many felt that the sound signature was over-refined, and lacks the gritty but real friction that the original set provided. The call quality remains sub-par for both sets, sadly. Rs 10,500 Rating: 7/10 Smile Test: 9/10
BEATS BY DRE POWERBEATS
PRO This high-end set packs some top-end features, and yet they somehow feel a bit left behind in their design and aesthetic. The buds sat just fine, and provided a decent sound seal even without the integrated hooks, which were, in fact, a constant (and eventually painful) niggle around the back of my ear. The charging case is also like a mini briefcase that just didn’t feel right after having used niftier ones mentioned above. Call quality is great, and the sound signature is on the neutral side and lacks some bass (especially given that this is a Beats by Dre product). All in all, for the price, they offer nothing extra that merits that premium tag. Rs 21,500 Rating: 5/10 Smile Test: 7/10