Earbuds and earphones is one of those categories that you’d think was long lost to China manufacturing. And to a large extent, it’s getting there, with an assist from the media. The New York Times’s Wirecutter named China-based Anker and EarFun, as well as China-made Beats, as their top earbud manufacturers, two dubious choices that make you wonder whether Wirecutter is truly objectively trying to identify the best or merely trying to maximize their profit by naming products that are cheap and “good enough” as their top picks.
Sadly, Bose has gone all-in on China and not coincidentally, this brand that used to be on top of the world is now struggling. I’ve had my own experiences with Bose headphones: before I got into this “not made in China” kick, I went through pair after pair of their top-of-the-line QC20 headphones, scratching my head at how they’d just disintegrate over time when the ones I used years ago are still going strong. Now I know why. JBL has a similar story.
The good news is that consumers are speaking with their wallets, and as much as the media tries to push sub-par Made in China products, it’s manufacturers who are staying away from cheap China manufacturing that are leading the market.
Best Wireless Earbuds Not Made in China
Samsung seems to want to the rest of the industry in coming up with confusing names for their products. There are the Galaxy Buds, Galaxy Buds Plus, Galaxy Buds Live, Galaxy Buds Pro, Galaxy Buds 2, and Galaxy Buds 2 Pro.
I’ll try to untangle it all here.
The Galaxy Buds Pro 2 is currently their top-of-the-line model. It was announced on August 10, 2022 and is the successor to the Galaxy Buds Pro (which has been discontinued). It has active noise cancellation, 24-bit Hi-Fi audio support, and enhanced 360-degree audio for a “surround sound” experience.
The Galaxy Buds 2 is their current standard model, announced on January 14, 2021. It’s the successor to the Galaxy Buds Plus, which was also discontinued. The speakers aren’t as high-end as the Pro model, but users love the noise cancellation and how much an improvement the speakers are from the previous generation.
The Galaxy Buds Live is their oldest model still in production, announced on August 5, 2020. They stand out because of their “bean-like” design, which helps them stay in the ears of people who have problems with keeping traditional earbuds in their ears.
All three models are made in Vietnam. No cute “we’ll make half in China and half in Vietnam” nonsense. Given their audio quality, their price point, and their popularity it’s easily our #1 pick.
Google was one of those companies that was all-in on China, but recently has moved production of many of their Pixel phones to Vietnam. Not to be outdone, they also have two current product lines. The entry level product is called “Pixel Buds A-Series” and their higher end model is called “Pixel Buds Pro”. Both are made in Vietnam.
The Pixel Buds A-Series is their basic model; its list price is $99.00 but if you wait until Black Friday or Prime Day you should be able to find it around $69. Its sound quality and noise cancellation aren’t quite up to par with Samsung’s, but users like its compatibility with Pixel phones as well as their fit.
The Pixel Buds Pro are their answer to Apple’s AirPod Pros. They’re pricier at $199.99, but you can see them go on sale from time to time for $149.99. They boast more premium and immersive sound with active noise cancellation that rivals Samsung’s and Apple’s.
Like Samsung and unlike Apple, there’s no doubt that these are being produced out of Vietnam.
I’m hesitant to put these on, as Apple has been one of the driving forces behind China’s dominance in manufacturing. But a few years ago, Apple finally began to see the light, and started to look to tell its ODMs like Taiwan-based Foxconn to look for manufacturing outside of China. The same is true of the ODM that handles AirPod production, Inventec, although word is that Apple is starting to choose China-based ODMs as well, so they simply can’t get extract themselves from China.
Making matters words, Apple had mandated that Airpod 3 production be done out of Vietnam, likely because of China’s draconian COVID lockdown policies. But Vietnam, who it seems can’t help but revert to their communist tendencies to shoot themselves in the foot, instituted their own lockdowns, so Inventec had to go back to their China-based manufacturers. As a result, if you shop for AirPods today, you’ll likely find that some are made in China and others are made in Vietnam.
So why are they on the list? Well, for one thing they’re decent headphones that are pretty well designed. But the other reason is that we’re at a crossroads as consumers. Most of our fellow consumers will just blindly buy anything that says “Apple” on it. But if enough of us choose Vietnam- or India-made Apple products, it will send a strong message to Apple that country of origin makes a difference for us.
For this reason, I’d suggest going to a brick-and-mortar Walmart, Best Buy, Staples, or Apple Store and checking the box yourself before you buy one. It should be either on the back of the box, or on the bottom as pictured here. If you can open the box, you can also see it imprinted on the charging case.
You may have better luck getting a pair of 2nd generation AirPods made in Vietnam, as a ton of those were produced before the COVID lockdowns.
While Samsung, Google, and Apple duke it out for supremacy among the masses, Sony has quietly taken the lead over its once-great rival Bose. Perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, Sony decided to offshore its manufacturing to Malaysia, while Bose threw all of its manufacturing to China.
The WF-1000XM4 has received rave review after rave review by top sites such as Tech Radar, CNET, The Verge, and Consumer Reports, among others, for the quality of its noise-cancellation, the sound quality, and phone call quality. It’s just as much at home in an office environment as it is on your morning commute or in a studio. The sound and noise cancellation is head and shoulders beyond what you’d get in Apple, Samsung, or Google’s model. And unlike my experience with Bose, it won’t fall apart after a year of use.
This one comes at a price, but if you’re looking for top audio quality and superior noise cancellation, you can’t go wrong with Sennheiser, one of the leaders in professional audio equipment for years.
Like many other brands, Sennheiser produces is low end lines in China, so the IE300, IE200, and IE100 are all made in China. Wisely, they decided to keep the production of their higher end products like the IE500 pictured here, as well as the IE600 and IE900 in Germany. As you can probably tell from the price point, these headphones are geared more towards professionals who work in audio and music production, but certainly no reason you can’t take them on the train or the plane.
Do you know of other ear buds that have avoided the China trap? Let us know in the comments!