The best headphones and earphones of 2021 come from a diverse list of brands, covering different fit and styles, as well as varied price segments. However, a quick look at our list will show you that most of our picks are true wireless earphones (TWS), showing just how popular this type of wireless headset has become. That said, our list also covers options from other design styles, including over-ear headphones, neckband earphones, and our favourite pick among the less common but still popular audiophile category.
As before, we've selected our favourite picks across different price segments, paying close attention to value-for-money as a key purchase factor. Interestingly, most of the options here also include active noise cancellation (ANC) as a feature, showing just how accessible and commonplace the once premium technology has now become. Here are our top picks among headphones and earphones for 2021 in India.
Our choice for the most impressive headset of 2021 is the OnePlus Buds Pro, the company's newest true wireless earphones. Priced at Rs. 9,999, the OnePlus Buds Pro is a considerable step up over the budget options in the range, in terms of features and performance. Although an impressive overall package, it's the fun, energetic sound that really helps these earphones stand apart, and makes this quite easily the best pair of true wireless earphones you can buy for less than Rs. 10,000 right now.
Although the charging case looks a bit plain, and some features such as Dolby Atmos work only when the OnePlus Buds Pro are paired with OnePlus smartphones, the overall experience is fairly uniform and good across source devices. The design and quality of the active noise cancellation are good as well, making this the standout headset for 2021.
One of our top picks of 2021 is also among the most expensive wireless headphones you can buy right now. The Apple AirPods Max is available in India for Rs. 59,900. Although very expensive and essentially built and best suited for use with iOS devices, these headphones offer a premium experience in every way, including the design and comfort, the quality of the active noise cancellation, the ease of use and connectivity, and the quality of the sound.
As with other Apple AirPods products, the AirPods Max is best suited to use with Apple devices, with the connectivity features and Lightning charging port only really making sense for users who have an iPhone - or perhaps also an iPad or a Mac computer. Apple's Smart Case which is bundled with the headphones is also a bit silly in its design, but the AirPods Max more than makes up for its flaws with luxurious design and comfort, very good active noise cancellation, and superb sound driven by Apple's Adaptive EQ technology. This is a premium headset like no other.
Although wireless neckband-style earphones are a lot less common these days, there are still some interesting options that offer significant value for money such as the Realme Buds Wireless 2. Priced at Rs. 2,299, the Realme Buds Wireless 2 offers a lot of features for the price, including active noise cancellation, app support through the Realme Link app, Google Fast Pair, and support for the LDAC Bluetooth codec. This makes it a full-featured wireless headset with very good sound for the price.
Although the design isn't quite as refined as we would have hoped for due to cables that are a bit long, and battery life that is fairly average, the sound quality and feature set makes up for these small drawbacks. Although many might prefer the convenience and comfort of the true wireless form factor, the Realme Buds Wireless 2 offers excellent value and sound quality for those willing to go with the traditional neckband style.
It's hard to come by a pair of earphones with no real flaws, but the KZ ZSN Pro X is exactly that. This pair of wired audiophile earphones is priced at Rs. 1,899, and offers beginners and budget audiophile buyers an excellent listening experience for the price. The unique styling, detachable cable, detailed sound, and ease of use with compatible source devices and DACs alike make this a worthwhile piece of kit.
There's really nothing to complain about with the KZ ZSN Pro X, making this a great headset to consider if you're on a budget and want good sound quality. It works particularly well for high-resolution audio, so if you are just getting started with Apple Music's high-resolution audio tracks, then this is the ideal headset under Rs. 2,000.
Just as the AirPods are built for and optimised around iOS devices, the Google Pixel Buds A-Series offer a similar experience with Android devices. Priced at Rs. 9,999, the Pixel Buds A-Series works well with Google Assistant, and uses Google Fast Pair to link the earphones to your Google account on Android. The earphones look good, are comfortable, and offer good all-round performance with music and calls.
Although you can use the Google Pixel Buds A-Series with non-Android devices, the user experience is considerably reduced in terms of features and capabilities. The lack of active noise cancellation is also a big drawback here, particularly given that the earphones have a proper in-ear fit, and similarly priced options do have ANC. However, it's a headset well-equipped for use with Android, and is one of our top picks of the year for this reason.
Although the foundations for affordable active noise cancellation in earphones were formed in 2020, it was in 2021 that we saw some truly impressive options that offered the once premium technology, at reasonable prices. The Realme Buds Q2 is our top pick among affordable true wireless earphones for this reason; at Rs. 2,499, this headset offers ANC, app support, decent sound quality, fairly good battery life, and excellent value for money.
We did find the soundstage a bit narrow, the highs a bit shrill, and the low-latency mode a bit ineffective, but the Realme Buds Q2 gets it right in the matters that count, particularly in offering a lot of bang for your buck.
In our opinion, the best-looking true wireless headset to launch in 2021 is the Nothing Ear 1. Although launched at Rs. 5,999, the earphones are now available for Rs. 6,999. However, they are still good value for money thanks to good features such as active noise cancellation, app support, and Qi wireless charging, apart from the excellent see-through design and modern styling.
The sound is balanced and detailed, and the excellent design also extends to the charging case. There are some issues including the lack of voice assistant support, and a somewhat inadequate attack and drive in the sound, but the Nothing Ear 1 scores big points on its design and features, making it a worthwhile pick among the many launches this year.