2020 is the Year of the COVID-19 Pandemic, but let’s not dwell further on the virus and appreciate how we have become resilient despite the various lockdown measures. Being cooped at home actually brings about new interests and trends, as we become more reliant on technology to connect with one another.
But let’s not just judge the headphones or earbuds with ANC quality. To me, the product must offer a balance of features that work in real life. By far, among all the earbuds I reviewed, the Sony WF-1000XM3 still offers the best ANC in eliminated higher frequency noise, but they aren’t as comfortable to wear and the case is chunky.
Recap 2019 List
When I relooked at my favourite true wireless earbuds in 2019, they remain relevant in 2020 or even 2021. Some of them have had new upgrade versions while others are still on sale. The Klipsch T5 TRUE has a new version (never had a chance to review it), and so did Creative Outlier Air. I occasionally still listen to them but mainly for technical comparison more than actually using it regularly.
Obviously they are superceded with newer models which I enjoy more. But among those in the 2019 post, the most frequently used is the Audio-Technica ATH-CK3TW as I enjoyed the frequency response tuning and comfortable fit.
So, here are my picks for my recommendation for headphones and earbuds for 2020.
Recommended Headphones with ANC: Sony WH-1000XM4
If you need active noise cancelling to save your soul, then you must get the Sony WH-1000XM4. Bose and Sony have been competing neck to neck on ANC headphones, and given the WH-1000XM4 is the latest, it has the benefit of benchmarking against the competition to get it a little better. The “Speak-to-Chat” feature is just magical. Sound quality is tuned for enjoyment, not critical listening. If you prefer, you can EQ the sound quality over the smartphone app.
The year-end sale may be over, so see if you can find these at a great price. If not, the previous generation WH-1000XM3 is still one of the better ANC headphones in the market. Bose QC35II and HP700 have leading ANC but the overall feature list is not as rich as Sony.
Recommended Headphones for Telecommuting: Jabra Evolve2 85
If you need to wear a headphones for hours to telecommute, you should pamper yourself with a pair of high quality headphones for the purpose. I reviewed the Jabra Evolve2 85 for NXT Magazine (you can read the review I wrote here). They cost S$707, and for that price, you probably should get a Sony or Bose, but some of the advantages might be worth paying for.
First, the retractable boom mic stick automatically mutes and unmutes when you fold up and unfold. This means no more embarrassing moments of talking without realising your mic is off. Second, there are LED indicators when you are on a call, so your spouse or colleague will not disturb you. Third, the earcups are thicker so they don’t touch your ears and hence they feel more comfortable wearing for hours (they still get a little sweaty in humid settings). Finally, the audio quality is above average, so you can actually use them as music headphones. The Evolve2 85 also has ANC and Ambient Sound, which performs a notch shy of Sony and Bose.
With so much benefits, I might just do a separate review article on this, but I’ll leave it here for now.
Recommended True Wireless Earbuds with ANC: Technics EAH-AZ70W
Technics is a veteran audio brand but they only released their very first true-wireless earbuds with ANC this year, and they got it right on their first try. Not only the Technics AZ70 comes with very effective ANC and Ambient Sound with adjustable intensity, the mic quality is above average. The street price is also looking to go below S$300, so I think these are great value. I won’t say more, just read my review for detailed write-up.
Recommended Earbuds Below S$300: Jabra Elite Active 75t
The Jabra Elite series is one of the first true wireless series in the market, and they remain one of the most popular in the market. The earbuds have so much customisation and personalisation features for audio features, call settings, button controls. This year, the Elite 75t even got a free upgrade with ANC, and it works pretty well too. On top of that, the earbuds are small, the case is compact, the voice call quality is outstanding. The audio quality is a bit too fun for audiophiles to appreciate, but the massive sub-bass and shamelessly transparent treble will delight most listeners.
Recommended Earbuds Below S$150: Creative Outlier Air V2
There are a lot of earbuds in this price range, and Creative Outlier Air V2 is one dollar shy of the S$100 price range (during sales which occur frequently). The reason to pick this as a favourite for recommendation is the brand support: when you buy Creative in Singapore, you are supporting local and the brand supports you with after-sales. Buying other products online that ships from overseas could not give you the support.
Besides, the Outlier Air V2 has improved its audio quality and connectivity, as well as upgraded with touch controls and a more comfortable ear tips design. Its case also supports third-party ear tips better.
However, many consumers consider that to be a risk worth taking, so you might want to check out other lesser-known brands and peer reviews. I recommend checking out Alex Hong’s YouTube channel for alternative opinions on affordable TWS.
Recommended Budget Earbuds (Below S$80): UGREEN HiTune
There are many budget earbuds around S$50, but the reason for liking UGREEN HiTune is overall premium specs and premium build materials. You get aptX, QCC3020, auto-pairing, IPX5, 9-hour battery per earbud, touch controls, compact case. It sells for S$52.59 at Official Shopee Mall.
Headphones of the Year: Sennheiser HD 560S
The Headphones of the Year should be something that is affordable to the masses while delivering best value in its class. It should be easily enjoyed by everyone, young and old, durable, and timeless.
With that, the Sennheiser HD 560S fits the description almost perfectly. Retailing at S$299 and launched in October 2020, the HD 560S fills a gap in the audio industry with a product that offers a reference sound tuning for the modern era, one with detailed bass yet not too distracting, and a treble that is clear while not too bright. The velour ear cups are comfortable and replaceable, and so is the detachable audio cable. It’s not the best-sounding headphones, but it delivers the best value that can be easily enjoyed by everyone.
What About Wired Earphones and Neckbands?
Contrary to what it appears, wired audio products are still essential in our lives. They are extremely reliable and delivers better voice quality than true wireless. If you are stationary most of the time, I highly recommend getting a good quality wired earphones. With most smartphones removing 3.5mm jack, you should get a USB-C earphones like Creative Aurvana Wireless.
I also favour neckbands as they sit around the neck allowing user to pop-in the earbuds when taking calls, which is more convenient than true wireless earbuds. The standby time for neckbands lasts for days. The Audio-Technica ATH-CKS330XBT costs just S$68, delivers satisfying bass bump and connects two devices at the same time.
What’s Up in 2021
When the pandemic reached its peak in March worldwide, all product launches came to a standstill, but gradually eased during second half of the year. I believe there will be a rush of new product launches in 2021 with a focus on comfort, voice quality and multi-device connectivity to improve work-from-home communications. ANC would become a common feature with quality that would suffice for general use, so Bose and Sony will still be the ones to get for extreme ANC.
I hope that there are more over-the-ear headphones that are comfortable enough to be worn whole day without feeling warm or tight on the clamping force. I know of people who rejects headphones because of the above reasons, yet the very same people also felt in-canal earbuds are equally uncomfortable and claustrophobic. Headphones are definitely better in sonic quality and listening safety, and if there are different ear tip sizes for earbuds, how about different sizes for headbands or ear cushions?
2021 will be a better year. COVID-19 might not go away so soon, but at least it has become the norm to ensure social distancing and maintain hygiene. Stay safe, everyone!