No Headphone Jack, No Problem: The Best USB-C Headphones
Your new phone is perfect: great camera, fast, and beautiful to look at. But something's missing … the headphone jack!
Following Apple's suit, more and more Android phones are ditching the headphone jack. Instead of Lightning, Android users get to rely on their USB-C port for audio. Unlike with the last few iPhones, the headphone industry didn't have enough time to catch up for Android. So now, you're left with roughly 10 options, most of which cost more than $100. Bummer.
In both cases, you won't be able to charge your phone and listen to music at the same (sorry, car commuters), but we think this is a small price to pay for the future of digital audio. The cool thing about USB-C headphones is that they draw more power. Headphone companies can direct this power to better/more drivers in the buds that provide louder and clearer sound (hence the high price tags).
Though we're excited and hopeful, we understand that this transition is a pain, so we did some work for you. Instead of just listing the USB-C headphones that exist, we found the best reviewed ones and tested them out in real-life scenarios. We also checked out the best cables and dongles to help you ease into this USB-C life.
We know it's hard to say goodbye, but we're hear to help.
Best USB-C Headphones for Most People
We did it, we found affordable USB-C headphones without sacrificing audio quality. You might not be familiar with Huawei, but this massive Chinese company has been making serious waves with its smartphones and accessories. We love Huawei's USB-C headphones because they didn't hurt our wallet, sound great, and work across USB-C devices.
These headphones worked in everything we plugged them into, from Macbooks to Pixel 2s and even a Samsung Galaxy S9. Some devices that already had 3.5 mm jacks needed some setting tweaks to be able to use the earphones. With the OnePlus 5T and Macbooks, we needed to access advanced and sound output settings, respectively.
How Do They Sound?
These headphones sound like a less bassy version of Apple's EarPods without losing the low-end altogether. From trap to heavy metal to professional and amateur podcasts, these delivered delightfully equalized audio.
In-call audio was also good, but on the other end of the line, the mic picked up slightly more wind that the EarPods and much more than Libratone's super luxe Q Adapt Earphones.
The noise cancellation was marginally worse than on the EarPods, but the difference was only significantly noticeable on a moving train. On the street, at home, and in the office, the amount of outside noise that filtered through was roughly the same.
What Could Be Better
Like with the EarPods, the control panel, which includes a mic, rests at about chin level. Though this is something we're used to, we definitely got spoiled by Libratone's tiny mic and better placed (lower) control panel. The control panel feels cheaper than the EarPods.
Warranty & Customer Support
All attempts to contact Huawei about this product proved futile.
Best Premium USB-C Earphones for Audiophiles
If you bought a Pixel 2 or Pixel 2XL recently, you were probably in shock when your phone didn't come with earphones. And then, to rub salt in the wound, the only USB-C earphones in the Google store cost $149 (they're on sale until June 15).
Well, we balked at the price too, but after spending several days with the Libratone Q Adapt, we were swept off our feet. We highly recommend these earphones for many reasons.
The design shows a high level of thoughtfulness. A separate slim microphone is placed at chin level and a control panel sits lower and centered (someone's finally thinking of you, lefties!). The panel separates the cable design into a workout-friendly cable above the panel and a luxuriously durable braided cable below it.
We also love the noise cancellation and isolation features, audio quality, and the included set of eartips to make sure they fit you perfectly.
These earphones worked in everything from a Pixel 2 to a new Macbook and even a Galaxy S9. If they don't immediately work, you may need to access the software settings of that device. For example, you'll need to manually select the audio output in Macbooks' sound preferences, and on the OnePlus 5T, you'll need to turn on OTG storage in Advanced Settings.
Thankfully, the control panel has a small LED light that turns on when you're good to go.
How Do They Sound?
First of all, these are some comfy earphones. Even with the right eartip size, you're generally just jamming in-ears into your ear canal. The angled back of the Q Adapts anchors the earphones in a way that they create a seal while feeling like the inobtrusive earbuds of yesteryear. It took a few days to get used to the design, but as someone who doesn't love noise isolating in-ears, my conversion was pretty quick.
The noise isolation and cancellation on these earphones is fantastic, in no small part due to the CityMix™ feature. I could allow some outside noise to filter in one the lower two levels (passthrough and passive) or zone out on the upper two levels (50 and 100% noise cancellation).
The earphones beep when you press the dedicated CityMix button and double beeps when you reach the highest level. The highest level of noise cancellation was so effective on trains and buses that it was disorienting to turn it back down once I was on the street.
If you need a visual for CityMix, you can use the Libratone app and adjust the levels there. In the settings, you can also change the sound profile (the default is neutral) to favor bass or treble, but the three settings are pretty basic in their equalization.
The default setting suited music and podcasts well, and I definitely appreciated the bass setting on trap and funk tracks. The treble setting combined with the noise isolation made listening to podcasts on the go a much clearer listening experience than with cheaper in-ear headphones.
On both ends, the in-call audio exceeded already high expectations. I did notice that a few calls dropped on non-Pixel phones, tested across a few days and locations, but I'm hesitant to make a direct correlation.
What Could Be Better
These are pretty expensive. In-ear headphones are often considered to be a cheaper, more portable alternative to high quality on-ear/over-ear headphones, but these sit in a similar price range to the latter. If you want great sound in a small package, we think these earphones are worth the price tag.
Warranty & Customer Support
Libratone offers a 30-day trial period during which you can return them for a full refund. Should you decide to keep them afterwards, they are covered by a one-year warranty.
Best On-Ear and Over-Ear USB-C Headphones
Don't like stuffing things into your ears? Well, AiAiAi is here for you with this "preset" version of their headphones. Though you can build your own headphones component by component, AiAiAi also offers eight presets with USB-C cables that mix and match their offerings.
Designed for the Pixel 2, these USB-C headphones are a great option for any USB-C phones. We recommend the MFG4 Preset Headphones because they sound great, have a great build quality, and are easily customizable thanks to their modular construction.
These obviously worked well with Pixel 2 phones, but also delivered on newer Macbooks and a Samsung Galaxy 9+. Since the Preset includes both a 3mm and a USB-C cable, we did a lot of comparative sound testing on the OnePlus 5T, which required some setting adjustments.
How Does It Sound?
There are several configurations for these headphones, so in many ways, it competed with itself. The 3mm cable and USB-C cables performed identically, delivering crisp, clear sound in all environments, but the USB-C cable was more prone to tangles.
The S01 speaker units are solid, general use speakers, but there are three other sets you can choose from to match your preferences. The earpads we tried were the included E01 microfiber on-ears and the not-included E04 leather over-ears. In general, AiAiAi's leather/leatherette earpads provide more noise isolation than the microfiber ones. The E04s performed well when it came to isolation, but were nothing to write home about.
We also took the (not-included) Bluetooth headset for a spin, with and without cables, and they surprisingly produced a somewhat bassier experience. The cables couldn't reach the same volume level as the Bluetooth headset alone, but it was nice to have them as an option in case the headset wasn't charged.
Podcasts and music were pleasantly equalized in all configurations, but the overall sound quality didn't wow us as much as Libratone's Adapt Q earphones. But again, we were using the base level speaker units.
What Could Be Better
What's unique about these headphones is that most of the limitations we experienced can be remedied by upgrading one of the components. The only sources of disappointment are the noise isolation and easily-tangled cable, but even those were moderate hiccups in a generally pleasant experience.
Warranty & Customer Support
AiAiAi offers a 30-day return period for refunds and exchanges, plus a three-year limited warranty. The company is based in Denmark, so the relatively slow customer service turnaround for U.S. is understandable.
Best USB-C Cable for Your On-Ear Headphones
The great thing about AiAiAi's headphones is that they're modular. If you already have a great set of on-ears with female 3.5 mm jacks, just swap out the cable with the C60. This thermoplastic cable has a great three button mic and a reliable DAC, but is prone to tangles.
Shure has a similar cable for MMCX connectors for much more premium price.
Best 3.5 mm to USB-C Adapter
If you can buy a backup/replacement adapter from your phone's manufacturer, definitely do that. But if they're hard to find or worse, the company doesn't make any, you can't go wrong with Google.
This adapter is a standard reliable DAC works well across brands (phones and headphones), is reasonably affordable, and it's easily available online for the next 15 times that you lose this tiny dongle. This is a standard, reliable digital to analog converter (DAC), but certain devices might require some software adjustments in their sound output or advanced settings.
How We Chose
We rounded up guides and professional reviews of USB-C headphones and audio adapters from Business Insider, The Sound Guys, The Verge, Digital Trends and cross-referenced them with customer reviews on manufacturer sites, Amazon, AliExpress, GearBest, and Reddit threads.
Once we sifted out the riff-raff, we tested out Libratone's Q Adapt Earphones, Essential's HD Earphones, and Huawei's USB-C headphones. Libratone and Essential sent us their earphones to test and we bought Huawei's earphones independently.
We listened to different kinds of music and podcasts on each pair in various locations (our office, an apartment, residential streets, busy streets, buses, and trains) over the course of a week and also tested the in-call audio quality.
We plugged them into the devices you probably care the most about: a new Macbook, Pixel 2, Essential Phone, and a Huawei Mate 10 Pro. We also wanted to see how well they played with others, so we tried them with a Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+ as well as a OnePlus 5T.
After that week, our choices were clear, and now you can stop combing the internet for USB-C headphones.
Close, But No Cigar
JBL's Reflect Aware C was even more expensive than our premium pick, reported as more bassy, and impossible to find, but the corresponding app was much more useful than Libratone's app. Razer's Hammerhead USB-C earphones were a decent mid-range option, but wildly uncomfortable. HTC's Usonic USB-C Earphones were also great, but they only work with HTC phones (and the Huawei Mate 10, for whatever reason).
Unfortunately, if you like noise isolation in your earphones, there's a massive price jump from Huawei to Libratone. The Essential HD Earphones aren't as tough a pill to swallow, plus they'll work with anything that sends USB-C audio (with some software/hardware limitations). We just couldn't get around the one button control panel, how much that hindered functionality, and how the button was somehow even less functional with the Pixel 2.