I have not done any serious traveling since the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020. But I can’t take it anymore. The sun, surf, and scuba are all calling my name, and I’m heading back to the Caribbean. And along with the usual choices regarding clothing, swimwear, cameras, and reading material, I’m faced with a far more serious question: which earbuds or headphones should I take?
Let me start by acknowledging that having a choice of devices is unusual. Especially given the breadth of my choices. A perk of being a reviewer is having access to a huge assortment of audio gear; most folks only own one set of earbuds and, maybe, a set of headphones too. But. hopefully. my evaluation process will be helpful anyway — if you’re in the market for new headphones or earbuds, this might help solidify your choice.
When I proposed this article to my team, Derek Malcolm’s first question was, “wait, earbuds? You’re not going to take headphones? Not even for the plane?” It’s a great question, and one I’ve struggled with, but here’s where I’ve (ahem) landed: I love wireless headphones. If this were a different kind of holiday, I’d absolutely pack the Sony WH-1000XM5, Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 4, or Bowers & Wilkins Px8 — some of my favorite wireless cans from 2022.
But the goal with this trip is to pack as light as possible. Our scuba gear takes up a sizeable chunk of room, and I’m devoting most of my carry-on space to camera gear and anything else I will be miserable without if the airlines lose my luggage, which seems to be an increasingly high risk lately. Sadly, that means none of the wireless cans I mentioned will make the cut.
All is not lost, however. Not that long ago, choosing wireless earbuds over wireless headphones meant making significant sacrifices. Sound quality, active noise cancellation (ANC), and battery life have all been objectively worse, historically speaking, on earbuds.
In 2022, that is most definitely not the case, and in fact, wireless earbuds are often a better choice than headphones, and not just because they take up less room in your backpack. Here are the top contenders I’m considering.
Jabra Elite 7 Pro
If you’ve ever read my Jabra earbud reviews, you already know I’m a big fan. The Elite 7 Pro, to me, are a killer set of buds. They’re relative affordable, they sound great, and they are loaded with features including ANC, transparency, Bluetooth Multipoint, wear sensors, wireless charging, and top-notch sound quality. But what puts these earbuds in the front-runner position on this particular trip is their durability.
With an IP57 rating for dust and water resistance, they are effectively resistant to sand and water. So if I’m chilling by the pool, listening to tunes, and the desire to jump in the water hits me so hard that I forget all about those earbuds in my ears, the Elite 7 Pro won’t even notice. Not that I encourage you to swim with Bluetooth earbuds (the connection will suffer in the water and you’re more likely to lose one in the deep end) — but you absolutely could do it with the Elite 7 Pro.
Master & Dynamic MW08 Sport
It may seem unbelievable, but the one downside of reviewing headphones and earbuds is that when you find a pair you love — that you really adore listening to — you will struggle to find the time to go back to them because there’s always another new pair to evaluate. But when I do get the chance (like a beach vacation), I find myself reaching for the Master & Dynamic (M&D) MW08 Sport.
They’re among the best-sounding wireless buds I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t matter whether you’re into Liszt or Lizzo, or anything in between — the MW08 are just delightful. This is true if you’re an iPhone user, but it’s even more true if you have an Android phone with aptX Adaptive and a source of hi-res lossless audio. You might not be able to hear the difference poolside, but find a quiet space and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Better yet, these buds have really great battery life: 12 hours per charge and another 30 hours in the case, for a total of 42 hours of playing time. That’s more than most headphones and way more than most earbuds. Even if our flights get drastically delayed (please, no), I won’t need to search for a power outlet.
Despite the “Sport” label, they’re not really any friendlier to workouts than the regular M&D MW08, except that they come with foam eartips, as well as silicone tips. But I’m considering the Sport because the case is way lighter and more durable (the earbuds are rated IPX5 and the case is IPX4), and wireless charging is a nice extra.
Apple AirPods Pro 2
Why are Apple’s earbuds among my top three? For one thing, an iPhone is my daily driver, and it’s no accident that the AirPods Pro 2 play exceptionally well with the iPhone. I’ll also be doing frequent FaceTime calls with my kids, who aren’t accompanying us this time around, and I have to tell you, there’s no better way to FaceTime than with the AirPods Pro 2.
But the real reason these earbuds are in strong contention for my trip is their stellar ANC. From the dull roar of a jet engine, to the sometimes obnoxious behavior of other hotel guests, no other earbuds — or headphones — create a hush as effectively as the AirPods Pro 2. It’s crazy good. And when you switch to transparency mode, it’s like someone snapped their fingers and made the AirPods disappear.
I enjoy using the AirPods Pro so much that despite the fact that they have lukewarm battery life, the least amount of water protection (IPX4) of the three contenders, and sound quality that doesn’t come anywhere close to the MW08 Sport, I don’t really want to go without them.
The truth is, three sets of wireless earbuds still take up way less room than even the smallest wireless headphones, so if space were the only consideration, I’d take all three. They each possess qualities that would make them great at different moments on a vacation, so if you have the means, why not?
On the other hand, if you were to buy all three — at their regular prices — you’d be looking at a $798 investment. So let’s agree you probably won’t be doing that.
If I could only take two of them, the Apple AirPods Pro 2 and Jabra Elite 7 Pro would be my choices. I’d miss the amazing sound of the MW08 Sport, but if I think back on previous scuba vacations, there haven’t really been that many times when I’ve made a point of fully zoning out. And since I’m only bringing the iPhone 14, I won’t be able to take advantage of the MW08’s hi-res audio capabilities (iPhones don’t support hi-res Bluetooth codecs).
And if, gun to my head, I had to pick just one? It would be the AirPods Pro. The AirPods may not offer ultra-premium sound, but they still sound really good. They may not be able to survive full immersion in water, but they can get wet without sustaining damage. And yeah, the battery life won’t get me as far on a single charge, but if I’m nowhere near a powered USB port after 24 hours of listening to music, I might have bigger concerns than battery life.
However, there’s no beating the AirPods Pro 2’s incredible ANC and effortless usability. It’s no wonder they’ve become so many people’s go-to buds, whether vacationing on a beach or just taking a break from the noise of everyday life.