With the best wireless headphones and earbuds being the champion categories in the audio sector right now, there's always a lot of hype when a next-gen model comes along. As audio tech fanatics, we love to learn and pore over every specification detail on the latest features and performance enhancements that come with the latest models. There's always plenty to get excited about as updated designs get increasingly more durable and eco-friendly, while building on performance and feature strengths and addressing any imperfections of the previous iteration.
Increasingly though, performance gains feel marginal rather than a leap forward, and they often come with a substantial price increase too. Some iterations introduce a few positive changes and become top sellers, but fail to make the same impact as their predecessor. Others seem to lose sight of what made the older version great by compromising signature features for more fashionable ones.
Best next-gen successes
Of course, there are exceptions that make radical changes and bring majorly worthwhile performance gains with follow-up versions. For example, the Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless successfully managed to revive the German audio maker's over-ear wireless headphone line with a radical redesign while boosting battery life to give some of the longest playback times between recharges around. All this came at a seriously competitive $349 launch price.
Additionally, impressive true wireless gems like the AirPods Pro 2 also manged to elevate Apple’s earbud series over the popular original AirPods Pro without hiking the price. The latest version are among some of the best wireless earbuds and take the design to new heights with some of the most innovative feature integration we've seen. So not every series update is a letdown.
With differing requirements though, unless you're an early adopter that's super keen on owning the latest models, the new model receiving all the fanfare may not always be the best value for you. With this in mind, here are my picks of the five last-gen headphones and earbuds that offer better value than their newest versions.
1. Sony WH-1000XM4
Successor: Sony WH-1000XM5
The Sony WH-1000XM5 over-ear noise-canceling headphones are considered the market’s best headphones overall. Sony enhanced call quality tremendously, while also expanding the spec sheet with double the mics and more processing power than the WH-1000XM4. So, why is the older version considered the better purchase?
Active noise cancellation and sound quality perform similarly on both models. All of Sony’s proprietary technologies (e.g., 360 Reality Audio, DSEE, LDAC) and smart features (e.g., Quick Attention, Speak-to-Chat) are available. Battery life is barely increased on the WH-1000XM5; you get 2 hours more when ANC is turned off). Furthermore, WH-1000XM4’s design is far superior, highlighted by a smooth rubberized finish and premium build quality that embarrasses the WH-1000XM5’s all-plastic construction and flimsy feel.
Let’s not forget the price hike either. The WH-1000XM4 sell for $50 less and are frequently on sale (we’ve seen them for as low as $259). Case closed.
Read our full Sony WH-1000XM4 review.
2. OnePlus Buds Pro
Successor: OnePlus Buds Pro 2
At the time of launch, the OnePlus Buds Pro were a “shockingly good” AirPods Pro alternative that hit nearly every mark. We expected OnePlus to pull out all the stops for the Buds Pro 2, but the result was more disappointing than fascinating. Emphasized bass and treble give the newer version bolder sound presentation, though most audiophiles will prefer the original’s rich, well-balanced sonics. Noise cancelation is equally great, which is a strike against the Buds Pro 2 since their Smart ANC mode should eliminate ambient noise at a higher level. There’s only an hour difference in battery life between the two models. Lastly, they share the same design.
The original launched at $149 and it’s surprising that the Buds Pro 2 arrived with a higher $170 MSRP. Although the original model is difficult to track down, we have seen them available for under $100, and in the U.K the white color option can be picked up for £137 at Amazon. The Buds Pro 2 are currently marked down to $148 on Amazon.
Read our full OnePlus Buds Pro review.
3. Bose QuietComfort 35 II
Successor: Bose QuietComfort 45
Bose brought noticeable changes to the QuietComfort 45, including enhanced ANC, longer battery life, and a volume-optimized Active EQ for a more refined listening experience. Nonetheless, these changes weren’t convincing enough to ditch the QuietComfort 35 II.
Noise cancelation is better on the QC45, but the QC35 II still boasts some top-tier ANC. Neither model delivers audiophile sound. There’s only a 4-hour difference in playtime between the two sets of headphones. The designs are identical, though the QC35 II is lighter and comes in more attractive colors. We also feel that the QC35 II has more unique features such as built-in Alexa voice control and Music Share.
Read our full Bose QuietComfort 35 II review.
4. Jabra Elite Active 75t
Successors: Jabra Elite 85t and Jabra Elite 7 Pro
The five-star Elite Active 75t were and still are some of the best wireless earbuds available (if you can find them). In fact, the buds were so popular and that the newer flagship Elite 85t failed to outperform and outsell them, forcing Jabra to revamp the entire Elite series, which was a terrible idea.
Little effort was put into making the Elite 7 Pro a hallmark release. Battery life is slightly higher than previous entries, and the buds sound as great as the Elite Active 75t. Where the Elite 7 Pro drops the ball is noise cancelation. ANC is effective against most frequencies, but there’s very little difference in performance between the two models. What’s most embarrassing is that the Elite Active 75t never launched with ANC. It was added via software update several months after these buds hit store shelves.
Despite the model being discontinued, you can find them online if you're prepared to hunt around. At the time of writing the Jabra Elite Active 75t were still available for $239 at Walmart. That's a bit of bump up from the original $199 launch price, but add in superior call quality and design, and it's worthwhile.
Read our full Jabra Elite Active 75t review.
5. Microsoft Surface Headphones 2
Successor: Microsoft Surface Headphones 2+
Correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t a product with the positive symbol at the end of its moniker be an upgrade? Sadly, that isn’t the case with the Surface Headphones 2+ (Plus). While introducing conferencing perks such as a dedicated button to take Teams calls from anywhere and a USB dongle that bypasses Bluetooth for wireless connectivity, this director’s cut ditches native digital assistant support and suffers from performance bugs.
That’s shameful considering the regular Surface Headphones 2 deliver terrific Google Assistant/Siri support and wireless performance. ANC, sound quality, and the innovative dial controls all work like a charm too.
Read our full Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 review.
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A lifestyle journalist with an affinity for consumer products, Alex has over a decade of experience and has worked with popular publications such as Complex, Thrillist, Men’s Health, Gear Patrol, AskMen, and Hoop Magazine. He currently focuses on audio, reviewing the most coveted headphones in the market for both Tom’s Guide and Laptop Magazine.
- Lee DunkleyAudio Editor