Now that more and more companies are jumping on the bandwagon of removing their headphone jack, the artificial market of alternative audio solutions is now in chaos. What’s good? What’s bad? How do you know? Apple would want you to grab a pair of Beats wireless headphones, but there’s another solution you might not be aware of: USB-C wired headphones. While this market segment is now basically dead—there are some options out there. It’s just that they’re not really very good quite yet.
Editor’s note: this post was updated on March 19th, 2020, to add information about the miniDSP IL-DSP dongle.
But I caution you: there just aren’t enough products currently available to offer a credible alternative to Bluetooth or traditional headphones. Until that happens, this list exists as a stark reminder that the innovations of Silicon Valley are often ill-timed and foolhardy. Despite how promising the tech is, USB-C wasn’t ready to replace the ubiquitous 3.5mm headphone jack—and there’s almost nothing to meet the demand for the new product category.
Not to belabor the point, but we saw almost no new releases for USB-C headphones in 2019, save for proprietary phone earbuds. That’s a pretty stark reminder that USB-C headphones just aren’t getting the releases they need in order to be a credible product category.
The cheapest USB-C audio solution is the OnePlus Type-C Bullets
If you don’t want to spend too much, there’s really only one option: the OnePlus Type-C Bullets. You might be able to find a cheap, knockoff pair on the internet if you search hard enough, but the real ones really are a great pair of earbuds that only cost around $20. They ditch any fancy features like active noise cancelling and just do right by the basics. Granted, they’re not going to blow you away in any one category, but even after reviewing these I find myself reaching for them as they’re the simplest solution that gets the job done.
You’ll get a pair of good-fitting earbuds with a flat cable and a sound quality that can hold its own against any other earbuds in the price range. At only around $20, it’s hard not to recommend these, even it’s just as a pair of earbuds to just toss in your bag and forget about until you need them.
The best USB-C headphones are the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4
If you’re okay with the on-ear design, the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 is currently the best USB-C headphones on the market. It’s a thin field, but these headphones are solid contenders, if a bit pricey. The USB-C audio category is still developing painfully slowly, but these also happen to have a DAC integrated right into the cable. That may seem like a given with a USB accessory, but the category is such a trainwreck that I have to point that out.
As far as the headphones go, the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 sound surprisingly decent, and the totally-modular design lends itself well to tinkerers and klutzes alike, as you can replace any part of the headphones should they break (or displease you). Personally, I could go for bigger pads: the thin ones included with the standard headphones just don’t do it for me. Thankfully, AiAiAi offers standalone parts in its store—including bigger pads. When the USB-C cable becomes available on its own, that will make all these other presets contenders for this list:
The stock speaker elements are very straightforward and work quite well. The bass isn’t crazily-overdone on the TMA-2 MFG4 like it is on many consumer headphones, meaning your music will sound a lot clearer than you might be used to if you have a pair of Beats or similar cans. However, that’s all assuming you can get a good seal on your head. While it may sound a little obvious to say, on-ear headphones aren’t really known to be predictable in how well they isolate you from the world around you. If you can’t hear the bass, the headphones probably aren’t fitting well. You need a fairly even frequency response (all notes at roughly the same possible max loudness) to hear everything in your tunes, so when there’s a crazy deviation, audio quality drops.
That chart shows what you can expect with a good fit. The bass (pink) isn’t overpowering, the mids (green) see a smidge of emphasis over most other notes, and there’s a very-common spike in the highs (cyan). Essentially, this is a really good compromise between consumer-friendly tuning and objectively good sound quality.
If you want USB-C audio over Bluetooth, the TMA-2 MFG4 is currently the set of headphones to get. They aren’t amazing, they cost $150, and they don’t offer any killer features. However, they work well—without an app—on both Android and Windows. That’s enough to be the king of the USB-C hill currently.
The best USB-C earbuds are the Libratone Q Adapt In-ears
Unfortunately, these models are here almost by default for now. It’s not something we had to rigorously test to reach this conclusion, it’s just that of the available options these are one of the few that fit all our criteria.
Despite not facing a ton of competition, the Q Adapt In-ear USB-C gives users some interestingly useful features for its price tag. $149 is tough to swallow for in-ears, but they come with a feature called CityMix ANC that allows you to adjust the level of active noise cancellation (ANC) to your needs. If you want to hear the world around you, you can disable it, or you can tone it down to hear people around you. When you’re on a flight: crank that bad boy up to avoid making awkward conversation with your neighbors.
The Libratone Q Adapt In-ear C is certainly competent enough and boasts a respectable host of features that obviously took a lot of R&D to implement. As they were among the first entrants in the Made for Google program, they had some steep hurdles to clear. They sound pretty good, as our own Adam Molina can attest to:
…my favorite part of the headphones is their sound quality… These find a nice balance between clean and bass-driven sound signatures even without going into the app. If I’m in the gym I’d prefer a strong bass, and if I’m commuting I’d want more of a clean sound and these go straight up the middle and manage to accomplish both… That said, don’t expect to be blown away by the extra features that make these headphones so pricey.
Like many other well-polished in-ears, you can use these with Comply memory foam tips, which I suggest you do. While most may elect to use the silicone sleeve options, I’m a big fan of the memory foam. Adam had an enormously difficult time getting a good seal, so we suggest picking up a set of size 500 Comply tips. Not only is memory foam much better at preventing outside noise getting in your ears, but it’s also a very easy way to guarantee a good fit every single time you use them. As we noted in our best noise canceling headphones article, the more you isolate yourself from outside noise, the better your overall ANC performance is going to be.
The Razer Hammerhead ANC earbuds are worth checking out as well
Razer is most known for its gaming peripherals, but the company also has a smartphone that has, wouldn’t you know it, no headphone jack. Luckily, Razer already has a pretty solid option for USB Type-C earbuds dubbed the Hammerhead ANC. While the active noise cancelling isn’t Bose-level quality, it’s not bad at all especially when you pair that with the Comply memory foam ear tips that come in the box. If you’re looking to block out the world on your commute, these will get the job done.
They also have a good build with a braided fabric cable that avoids getting knotted too easily and decent sound quality that lets you hear the bass in your songs without over-emphasizing the lower notes. Overall, they’re a great option at under $100, but there is a caveat. The Razer logo on each earbud glows green when you plug them into your phone, which we found to be a bit much. But if you’re into that, or don’t really care, then these are the best option you have when it comes to USB Type-C earbuds. Just make sure your phone is compatible first.
- Shure RMCE-USB Earphone Communication Cable with Integrated DAC/Amp: If you’ve already invested money into something in Shure’s line-up then it’s also worth checking out their (RMCE-USB) terminating in MMCX connectors that can turn its entire lineup of in-ear monitors into USB-C powerhouses that will undoubtedly mop the floor with the existing pack performance-wise. Coming in at $99, this can make the following IEMs USB-C enabled:
- Google Dongle: If you already have a pair of in-ears that you love and aren’t ready to give up on the 3.5mm connector just yet, then the Google Dongle isn’t a bad option at only $12. It lets you connect your headphones of choice with the only downside being that, well: it’s a stupid dongle.
- If you own a Samsung Galaxy Note 10 or Note 10 Plus, there’s USB-C earbuds included in the case. They seem to be USB-C versions of the S10 Plus’ earbuds.
Do not buy anything else
I’m serious: don’t. It’s not that all the models are bad, but buying something for the sake of buying it is unwise when better investments exist. Not everyone likes in-ears (myself included), and you’re 100% out of luck if you want on-ears or over-ears. If you don’t want USB-C in-ears for your jack-less phone, you need to grab something Bluetooth. And I hate Bluetooth headphones. All the other options on the market currently—yes, all of them—suffer from one of our extremely few and reasonable dealbreakers.
Don’t believe me? Let’s run down the list of the other Amazon dreck we tested.
- The Viotek Aqua is well-built and a credible set of in-ears. Unfortunately, the USB housing is so big you can’t use a phone case, and while the tip options are plentiful and otherwise laudable, they made my ear canals burn—as in a chemical burn. Whether or not that was a fluke, I can’t recommend them.
- Next up was the Smart&Cool 3D Surround. Much like the Viotek option, these have a surprisingly decent build quality. The nozzles on these in-ears were also big enough to cause my ear problems. Never in my 6+ years of reviewing consumer audio products has this happened, and the Smart & Cool is easily the most painful set of in-ears I have ever used.
- The Trilink USB Type C headphones don’t work with the Galaxy S8 or Pixel 2, so those are gone.
- We also had to rule out the Sunwe Type C Headphone for compatibility issues.
- Amazon only had two other models of the crappiest personal audio design ever: the outside-the-ear earbud. Those suck and we’re not considering them.
- I was heartened to see that Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi had an entry into this category, but then I ran into a brick wall on availability. It’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t buy these headphones—but I have serious questions about the only vendors with stock at the moment. Maybe an Amazon retailer will have them by the holidays, but as of right now, the most reputable storefront with these in-ears is AliExpress.
- Most of the third-party dongles don’t have a properly-functioning DAC, so they won’t work with modern phones. Just get the Google Dongle.
The only other options we could find that was remotely credible come standard with HTC phones: HTC USonic Adaptive Audio. Don’t worry, I got my hands on those, too. They don’t work with non-HTC devices (minus the Huawei Mate 10… for some reason), and even worse: the phones also block the use of many 3.5mm conversion dongles through their use of a proprietary standard. That’s a needlessly antagonistic level of baloney that we’re not going to reward on this site as long as I have a say in the matter, so it’s really a shame that they’re probably the best mix of cost and performance on this list.
I have yet to find a set of USB-C headphones that aren’t frustrating as hell in some way or another.
The USonic Adaptive Audio work fine enough—great, even—as we got to test them out with the HTC U11, but the only sore spot is the crappy mic. If you’re using them with an HTC phone, the sound is customizable to a degree. Our own Kris Carlon was a fan, but also noted that the buds don’t sound the best out of the box. You’ll definitely want to use the companion USonic features to create a custom sound profile for you, but the process is dead-simple. If you get a new HTC phone, the USonic buds will treat you right.
I also took a look for Android-compatible USB-C DACs and amps… and the only one I found with the kind of love such a device deserves is the miniDSP IL-DSP. This dongle allows you to upload your own equalizer correction for your headphones, and connects to your phone via USB-C. Unfortunately, this is not a very accessible buy, as it requires you to buy not only the $99 dongle, but also a $199 measurement fixture to create the DSP profile of whatever headphones you’re using. While it’s an excellent little gadget—and I encourage anyone who’s looking to audio as a hobby to invest in DSP hardware—$300 total is a bit much for most people (especially in an economic downturn).
But what about the Google Pixel USB-C earbuds?
It didn’t slip under our radar that Google announced new USB-C earbuds along with their new Pixel 3 phone. Although we had high hopes that Google would put an end to the chaos and make a good option, we were let down. The USB-C earbuds have terrible isolation due to an inability to guarantee a good fit, and because of the weird plastic earbud, you can’t even add a memory foam ear tip to solve the issue. They also have a muffled sound and can be extremely uncomfortable after a while, to the point that they’re almost painful. If you happen to own a Pixel 3 then the Assistant controls are pretty nifty, but only because they come free in the box. We wouldn’t recommend spending on your money on them.
We also find it very telling that the subsequent Pixel 3a and 3a XL both have headphone jacks, and did not come with the USB-C Pixel buds. While we’re not holding our breath for a return of the headphone jack to the main Pixel line, the runaway success of the 3a line has us hopeful.
On the horizon
While we were optimistic about seeing a plethora of USB-C headphones at CES 2019, we were terribly disappointed. What’s worse is that now the lack of a headphone jack is also spreading to tablets, meaning we’ll soon need USB-C headphones for those as well. Unfortunately, CES 2020 has come, and we still haven’t seen any new headsets with a USB-C connector that consumers may want to buy. It seems like true wireless earbuds and Bluetooth headphones have completely eaten the market share that would have been occupied by USB-C headphones, and the already scant releases have dried up entirely. This seems to be a dead category.
How we selected candidates
The absolute bare minimum criteria we use for our best lists isn’t very discerning, but most models failed this easy test:
- The products have to be reasonably easy to buy for your average shopper
- The products have to work on popular devices
- The products cannot be discontinued, or cause physical harm
I’ll admit, selecting candidates was the hardest part. Not only are people simply not searching for this term yet, but the number of products available when I started this article was extremely scarce. They were so scarce that most of my results were initially just leaked products that weren’t even released yet. We did find a handful of products out there—some by reputable companies—but the line-up is still too thin for our liking.
How we tested
After buying whatever I could find, getting pre-orders in, and begging for help: we were able to build a corpus of candidates to assess. Considering the compatibility issues with USB-C at the moment, the first bar to clear was “the product has to work on a Pixel.” We thought that’d be an easy one to clear, but we were wrong. Despite my gut feeling that I should skip the low-end in-ears on Amazon, I forged ahead anyway… and wasn’t surprised when I got more enjoyment out of a bottle of low-shelf whiskey than the most of the bunch. Some models, as noted above, were actually painful to use.
From there, we assessed sound quality, features, and comfort in that order. Obviously, that’s not a scientific test, but we did have more than one person testing these things. My esteemed colleague Adam tested the Libratones, Kris Karlon tried out the HTC USonic, and I took care of the rest.
I used the handful of models that almost met our criteria, and found that I couldn’t recommend any of them in good conscience unless you absolutely can’t wait to get USB-C headphones. The listing of only these products on this list isn’t a mistake: they’re the only USB-C products that I’ll let carry SoundGuys’ recommendation. It’s so dire, that this article exists solely because it would be dishonest to not say the segment is currently incomplete.
Why you should trust Chris
If you’re looking for someone’s take on the consumer audio products, I’m uniquely positioned as an audio expert and the Head of Testing for Android Authority. I’m not perfect, but one of my best skills is designing the means to gain the information I want, and relaying it to the internet. While that does mean my articles and projects are often absurdly in-depth, if you want to know something about a product: I’m the guy you talk to.
I’ve spent thousands of hours testing consumer electronics, and hundreds more designing tests for smartphones, headphones, cameras… you name it. I’ve built a career on this sort of thing, first in my time at USAToday-owned Reviewed.com Electronics (cameras, smartphones, headphones, laptops), then my time freelancing, and finally here at SoundGuys and Android Authority. I have a big network of former colleagues and friends across the audio, news, and electronics industries, and if you’ve ever looked for reviews in those categories: chances are surprisingly good that you’ve already read something I’ve written—or at least helped test. I’ve been at the forefront of mobile and audio tech since 2011, and I’ve seen it all.
So when a new product category comes along that bridges the gap between the two, I’m the guy some of your favorite bloggers and writers ask to figure out what’s good and what’s not. I’m an intensely private and academic individual, so tooting my own horn is very out of character for me.
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