How we test earbuds at TechRadar

A group of wired and wireless earbuds on a wooden table
(Image credit: Future)

We're introducing a new testing methodology for reviewing earbuds here on TechRadar. Our process combines repeated tests with more broader subjective testing from our reviewers. These repeated tests are always done consistently when reviewing products, allowing us to compare the performance of other earbuds. All our tests are carried out by reviewers with extensive experience of testing earbuds to ensure consistency. 

You'll see these scores reflected in our guide to the best wireless earbuds, and the best cheap earbuds as we re-test existing earbuds and review more earbuds and add them to our guides over time. You'll also see these scores added to our reviews of earbuds.

Here, we'll explain what exactly these tests involve and how you can repeat them at home, including what we're looking for in earbuds that score highly. 

We'll also explain the ways that our reviewers will test these earbuds, all of which will go into our final verdicts and overall star ratings and rankings in buying guides, all factored against elements such as the price of the earbuds.

Sound quality test (ANC off)

The first of our tests focuses on sound quality, and this is done with any active noise cancellation turned off (if the earbuds support ANC).

We then play a set list of tracks designed to showcase different elements of sound, with a mix of acoustic tracks, rock, jazz, classical and electronic. We choose these based on which are best for bass, mid-range or treble. We also choose tracks for how they challenge the spatial imaging or expansiveness of earbuds. You can find our playlist for earbud testing, with some notes on what we're listening for in each song, below – so that you can test out your new earbuds at home too.

We stream these testing tracks through a Tidal playlist to ensure that they're all hi-res audio quality original files (see our 'what is hi-res audio?' guide for more on this). We also use a FiiO M11S music player, which ranks as our top choice among the best hi-res music players at the time writing. We also listen using the highest-quality connection for that pair of earbuds: if they're wired, we'll plug straight into the player; if they're wireless, we use aptX HD, LHDC or LDAC if supported, or AAC Bluetooth if not, and regular SBC Bluetooth if none of the others are possible.

We do more sound quality testing beyond this track list, using other sources, but exactly how that's done is down to individual reviewers as they explore the intricacies of each pair of earbuds. Listening to these tracks, from the same source, provides a baseline for comparison.

We score the sound quality (ANC off) out of five stars for each pair of earbuds.

Sound quality test (ANC on)

We also listen to the same tracks, using the same source player, with active noise cancellation turned on. We do this not just to judge the quality of the noise cancellation's ability to quieten outside sounds but to specifically judge how the sound quality holds up when the processing of ANC has been applied to it.

While any good implementation of noise cancellation aims not to negatively affect the sound quality, the process still involves applying 'anti-noise' into the sounds you're hearing to counteract the sounds around you, which means the audio file is being changed on the fly. Obviously, this can be done well, or it can be done badly.

In many cases, ANC can affect the expansiveness of the sound, causing it to sound more like it's clamped to the headphones rather than feeling like the sound fills the space around your head. It can also affect the sound balance, and can rob some detail from the track.

In a lot of cases, the score with and without ANC may be the same, because it's been implemented well. Or the difference may be subtle. But sometimes, it can be more dramatic – and in some cases, the score with ANC on will be higher, because the buds have been tuned around the assumption that you'll always have it on.

Again, this score is expressed out of five stars.

Our tracklist

Here's the list of tracks in our testing playlist:

Black Eye, Allie X
This song explodes out of the gate, giving you an instant sense of how dynamic a pair of earbuds are – it should be full of electric energy, but less dynamic headphones will feel more like just a ramping up of the sound. From there, it drops into the deep bass of a drum machine, and this will give you a sense of the depth of bass that earbuds are capable, and even more importantly how well they can handle bass rhythm. This bassline should sink and bounce back up, in motion the whole way – weak bass response will limit how deep it feels, and poor control of low frequencies will mean it lacks the nimbleness it needs, and each beat will land flatly. Around the one-minute mark, there’s some delicate electronica in the background, and more detailed oriented earbuds will be able to pick this out, but it may be mostly lost in weaker buds.

St. Thomas (feat Tommy Flanagan, Doug Watkins & Max Roach), Sonny Rollins
This is a very naturalist recording, and allows good earbuds to revel in the imperfections of an instrument played by humans. Listen for vibrations in the lower sax notes, and the impact on the reed itself. The latter especially is hard to hear on even fairly premium earbuds – it takes something very revealing to make you able to consistently hear it. Listen for how well the drums hold their short resonance – they’re supposed to be pretty flat, but how quickly does their sound roll off? It should be short, but not instant. You’ve also got the physicality of the wooden drumsticks hitting and slightly scraping – does it sound like just a drum impact, or can you hear the object itself? When the sax is hitting high notes, does it sound harsh, or like it lacks elevation? Cheaper buds could get it wrong in either direction – it should be pretty piercing, but not overblown.

Diamonds On the Soles of Her Shoes, Paul Simon
A nice demonstration of mid-range vocals right from the off, and a good demo of mid-range in general, thanks to the sheer range of instruments used within its six minutes, layered in different ways, with a fun drum beat that needs a good sense of musicality from the headphones to reproduce well.

Adagio Per Archi E Organo In Sol Minore, London Philharmonic Orchestra
Also called Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ (Attrib. T. Albinoni) on some services, this a chance for higher registers to shine with the notes of the strings and organ. Earbuds that lean into the pitchy side of treble may lose the naturalness here, and as it builds towards the seven-minute mark, you’ll also be able to hear any disconnects between the mid-range and the treble – it should feel like one great, even cascade of sound from the treble on down. Definition also gets a workout in this section – can you make out the organ and strings as two elements melding together in the sound, or have the earbuds fully turned them into one noise?

I Want You, Moloko
This has a great opening to showcase raw vocals and piano – a chance to explore how much detail in the breathiness is possible from the earbuds, how natural they can make the high notes, and how much you can hear the resonance of the piano beyond the keys. And then you get another chance to hear the dynamic potential when the percussion hits – does it feel sudden and exciting? When the mix builds, how many different layers of synths can you hear? This song gets incredibly dense as it goes – anything without a ton of precision is going to lose definition between the multiple synths, the strings, the vocals, the drums, the piano, the percussion, the bass guitar (the list goes on)…

Go Your Own Way, Fleetwood Mac
A good chance to look at the imaging skills of a pair of headphones – most should have no problems handling the breadth of instruments in each ear and the vocals in the center at the same time, but you'll be able to hear it cheaper headphones are boxing them in at all. The chorus is a good test of the robustness of the mid-range for a set of earbuds – it can feel sunk behind the treble and bass guitar if the balance of frequencies isn't right.

Clair de Lune, Kamasi Washington
Another piano showpiece at its start and end. Listen for the gentle bass line here that should just deftly trickle along under the brass – the bass line shouldn’t feel heavy, and should be comfortably backgrounded but still clear. Similarly, are the earbuds able to give the drums in the background a nice sense of musicality and rhythm? At around 6:15, you can hear tons of texture of this dirty string section and the resonance within the wood it’s creating – it’s very subtle, but it’s there, and this gives headphones with detail and range lots of chew on. Once you get near nine minutes and the piano is waterfalling up and down, can you make out individual notes, or are they smeared together by a lack of detail?

Rains Again, Solji
This is a showcase of vocal high notes, and the ability of earbuds to keep them separate from instruments also fighting for your treble attention. With well-detailed headphones, you can really make out the softer sounds behind the singing, such as clicks of the singer's tongue on the palate. The strings and guitar shouldn't sound like they're fighting the vocals despite being in the same kind of range, they should co-exist. And the start and end can demonstrate some of the detail of earbuds – with more detail, it'll come across more as a rain sound; with less detail, it'll come across more as static.

Young Blood, The Naked and Famous
The electric guitar is the vital link between the bass of the drum machine and the rest of the mix here, giving you an immediate idea of how well lower-mids are handled by a pair of earbuds. This guitar is the seasoning of the song, and if it’s weak in the mix, the whole thing loses its power. When the song breaks down towards the three-minute mark, the bass beat also lets you hear how controlled low frequencies are. This bass drum sound is supposed to land with a thud, it’s not the cleanest sound – so if earbuds don’t have good control of their bass, it’ll feel really flabby. Also listen out for the cymbal beat that runs through the background for most of the song – it’s very delicate, and easily mixed into the overall sound by buds that lack enough treble clarity in the mix.

I Believe in a Thing Called Love, The Darkness
This song, like the universe, is basically of an infinite size. Whatever expansiveness a pair of headphones has to offer, this track’s guitar and vocals will fill it. You can feel the difference between earbuds that are constraining the audio and those that are able to let it spread its wings here. And being so full of dense, distorted guitars, it’s a great challenge for mid-range definition too – how well can earbuds keep track of the different guitars, the bass and the drums.

Call quality test

We test the ability of earbuds' built-in microphones to pick up your voice clearly and naturally by recording ourselves speaking the opening to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

We record this in an audio recording app, rather than by recording an actual phone call – the quality of the call connection may affect the results, and that's not the fault of the earbuds.

We're looking for our voice to be forward and prominent – many earbuds sound like you're speaking from the end of a corridor to them. We're also looking for clarity and detail in the speech that feels natural, because some earbuds will apply processing to make your voice clearer, but it can end up adding a robotic touch to your voice that impacts how easy it is to understand you.

We embed this recording sample in our pages, so you can directly hear and compare the quality of different earbuds' mics, if that's a priority for you.

We rate the quality of the microphone for calls out of five stars, again with scores being in direct comparison to other earbuds.

Earbuds battery life test

We test the battery life of wireless earbuds by playing our testing track playlist from our standard music player, on repeat. We'll start with the buds freshly charged to 100%, and we'll time them playing at 50% volume (a realistic listening level) until they stop.

We test battery life twice: with active noise cancellation turned on (to its maximum, where applicable) and off. We won't activate extra features such as spatial audio – we aim to replicate the most common type of music listening session that's broadly applicable between different earbuds.

We are not testing the battery life of the case as well, we're just focusing on how long a single use of the buds can last you.

We provide the amount of time that they lasted in hours and minutes. We don't score this (thought it will factor into our overall review score for the earbuds); you'll be able to compare the number to other earbuds.

Further testing of earbuds

A man wearing earbuds, standing next to a busy road

(Image credit: Future)

As mentioned above, these tests are not the only things we do as part of our earbuds reviews – it's just that these are the parts that have strict methodologies. Here's what else we consider in our reviews.


Naturally, we use all the features in earbuds to see how well they work, to compare them to equivalents from other earbuds, and to see if they're actually useful or not. We test the speed and reliability of multipoint connectivity using different devices, we test any connecting smartphone app to see how easy it is to use, along with any features that stem from this, such as EQ settings or sound modes.

If a set of earbuds has features that only work with a particular platform – such as how the best AirPods work with Apple devices or Samsung earbuds with Galaxy phones – we test those features on that platform to ensure they work as advertised.

Many earbuds have features that factor into other areas we're judging, such as adjustable noise cancellation modes or features that use the microphones to make it easier to hear yourself on calls. We make sure to test with those features on and off to see what effect they have.

Further audio testing

In addition to our list of songs above, our reviewers then use their music knowledge to select songs that let them explore the nuance of a particular set of earbuds, so they'll listen to a lot more than just our playlist. They also test how the earbuds work with movies, YouTube and podcasts.

If there's active noise cancellation, we put that to the test in as many real-world situations as possible. It's not very sustainable to book a flight every time we want to test a new entry for the best noise-cancelling earbuds (though if we happen to already be travelling during a review period, we absolutely test them on a plane), but we test them on public transport, in cafés, in the TechRadar office, and on city streets with traffic noise.

If there's spatial audio support, we test that too, with tracks from a compatible service (if one is needed).

If earbuds have a sound personalization system, we test both with and without it on, to see what a difference it makes, but we generally do our final sound testing with it turned on, since that's how they're meant to be listened to. If the feature is terrible, we might do our final review with it turned off, and warn you against using it…

A pair of AirPods Pro next to an iPhone showing a screen saying that Spatial Audio is active

(Image credit: Future)


We judge earbuds for their design in various ways, starting with comfort, of course. We use these earbuds for many hours during our testing time, so we can tell you how well they stay in, how heavy and secure (or not) they feel, and whether their size affects they ability to fit in smaller ears.

We ensure that we get the best fit for the ears of our reviewer, using the differently sized eartips provided as needed, and we let you know how we found those. If a set of earbuds includes a method to test the quality of the fit or seal in the ear, we make use of that to ensure we're listening the way the earbuds expect us to.

We also judge earbuds on the quality of the materials they're made from and the feel in the hand (and the ear canal).

We use any built-in controls, and will look at how well these are integrated into the design, and whether using them causes any issues with the fit or comfort of the earbuds.

And the case of true wireless earbuds is important as well, of course. Again, we judge the feel of the case, how easy is to get the buds in and out, how secure the package feels against drops, and the size of the case – some people don't want a giant lump in their pocket.

We also mention the IP rating of earbuds here, including whether they're waterproof enough for light sweaty use or more hardcore running in the rain, or even swimming (which is rare, but we have a guide to the best waterproof headphones that are secure enough for that).


In arriving at our final score for a set of earbuds, we balance all of the above with their price, to arrive at an opinion about their value. A major factor here is the price of their competitors – if a set of earbuds offers exactly the same level of features and sound quality as a rival, but costs 25% more, then they're obviously weaker value.

Of course, things are rarely so simple, so usually we have to balance something being a little more expensive but coming with a few extra features, and we'll decide how important we think those improvements are.

Naturally, we make our final judgments on a product commensurate with its price – we don't expect cheap earbuds to offer five-star sound, so we may score them low on sound but still give them a glowing score overall because they still sound better than rivals at the same price. They just don't sound as good as earbuds that costs three times the price, as you'd expect. Our value judgment helps to balance these factors out.

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Matt Bolton
Managing Editor, Entertainment

Matt is TechRadar's Managing Editor for Entertainment, meaning he's in charge of persuading our team of writers and reviewers to watch the latest TV shows and movies on gorgeous TVs and listen to fantastic speakers and headphones. It's a tough task, as you can imagine. Matt has over a decade of experience in tech publishing, and previously ran the TV & audio coverage for our colleagues at, and before that he edited T3 magazine. During his career, he's also contributed to places as varied as Creative Bloq, PC Gamer, PetsRadar, MacLife, and Edge. TV and movie nerdism is his speciality, and he goes to the cinema three times a week. He's always happy to explain the virtues of Dolby Vision over a drink, but he might need to use props, like he's explaining the offside rule.