Best wire­less ear­buds

Séa­mus Bel­lamy’s top picks of­fer a com­fort­able fit, good bat­tery life, and great au­dior­ites

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Ear­bud mak­ers have been busy do­ing away with wires – a good thing whether or not your phone still has a head­set jack. You no longer have to deal with cords if you don’t want to. True wire­less ear­buds con­nect to one an­other and your au­dio source via Blue­tooth. No wires mean no in­line mi­cro­phones or con­trols, but truly wire­less ear­buds sound just as good as tra­di­tional Blue­tooth coun­ter­parts (for bet­ter or worse). They also boast all of the fea­tures we’ve come to ex­pect from ear­buds de­signed to work with your smart­phone, tablet, or PC.

Since Ap­ple’s AirPods be­came a run­away hit, an end­less stream of com­pa­nies have rolled out their own true wire­less ear­buds and ear­phones. As you might ex­pect, not all of them are worth your time or money – so we’ve got your back with buy­ing sug­ges­tions to meet a wide va­ri­ety of needs.

Best true wire­less ear­buds Jay­bird Run true wire­less sport head­phones Price: £169 inc VAT from fave.co/2COunl6

For £10 more than you’ll fork over for a pair of Ap­ple’s AirPods, you can in­vest in a sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter true wire­less head­phone lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. With a cus­tom­iz­a­ble equal­izer set­tings, the £169 Jay­bird Run True Wire­less Head­phones sound great, are sweat- and wa­ter-re­sis­tant, and come with a num­ber of fit op­tions to en­sure com­fort. For the time be­ing, these are the true wire­less head­phones that we rec­om­mend for most peo­ple.

Weigh­ing 6.83g a piece, you won’t mind the weight of the Jay­bird Runs. Un­like Ap­ple’s AirPods, which hang off of your ear’s tra­gus and an­ti­tra­gus, the Jay­bird Runs need to be jammed, al­beit shal­lowly, into your ear canal. Not only does this en­sure that they’ll stay in your head – even dur­ing stren­u­ous ac­tiv­i­ties – but the ear­bud’s po­si­tion in your ears will cre­ate a tight seal, thanks in part to the in­cluded sil­i­con tips (avail­able in a num­ber of sizes). This pro­vides users with some pas­sive noise can­cel­la­tion – that’s good news for the qual­ity of any au­dio you’ll lis­ten to, but maybe bad news for some ath­letes.

Jay­bird’s ad­ver­tis­ing for the Run shows lots of healthy fit­ness buffs run­ning and work­ing out. But as hav­ing pas­sive noise can­cel­la­tion in play could make it dif­fi­cult to hear what’s go­ing on in the en­vi­ron­ment around you, you might want to think twice be­fore tak­ing these things out on the road or trail with you.

The Jay­bird Run head­phones stick a ways out of most peo­ple’s ears while they’re wear­ing them, but not much. Be­ing black in colour and 19.5x19x14.3xmm, they’re less no­tice­able than Ap­ple’s iconic white buds.

Jay­bird’s head­phones are de­signed, pri­mar­ily, with ath­letes in mind and the Run are no dif­fer­ent. To

make them stand up to sweat and other liq­uids you might en­counter dur­ing a work­out, the ear­buds come with a rea­son­able amount of weath­er­proof­ing – just don’t take them in the shower or pool with you. Even if you’re not run­ning a marathon dur­ing a down­pour, their weather re­sis­tance is still good news. You won’t have to worry about the Run short­ing out in driz­zle while you lis­ten to them on your morn­ing com­mute.

Pair­ing the head­phones was a pain-free af­fair. Af­ter in­stalling their free com­pan­ion app and charg­ing them up in their in­cluded bat­tery case, sim­ply open the case and stick them in your ears. You’ll be guided through the setup process via an au­dio prompt.

Con­trol­ling the head­phones while us­ing them is just as sim­ple – there’s a push-but­ton built into the cap of each ear­bud, where you’ll find most of the con­trols we de­mand from a set of mod­ern head­phones: pause/ play, voice as­sis­tant ac­cess, and the abil­ity to ac­cept or end a call. Strangely, while you can ad­vance to the next track in a playlist, there’s no but­ton press that

al­lows you to skip back a track. If you’re into it, you can use ei­ther ear­bud on its own.

Ac­cord­ing to Jay­bird, the Run of­fer four hours of play­time off of a sin­gle charge, with an ad­di­tional eight hours’ worth of juice avail­able in their bat­tery case. I found their ac­tual run­time to be a lit­tle shorter than this, but not by much. It’s worth not­ing that I’m not a fan of the bat­tery case. While it’s well made, it’s taller and wider than it needs to be. If you want to stick it in a trouser pocket, you’ll want to be wear­ing a set of car­gos.

Jay­bird’s X7s were one of the first sets of Blue­tooth head­phones that let users change the equal­izer set­tings of through the use of a com­pan­ion app. Their Run true wire­less head­phones have ac­cess to their same app, mak­ing for some great au­dio, es­pe­cially for the price.

Out of the box, the Run’s au­dio is a bass-heavy af­fair, which is typ­i­cal for a good set of ath­let­ics-ori­ented cans. Mids are sub­dued, and warm, while high fre­quency sound is for­ward sound­ing. And while it can’t match the broad sound­stage of the Bose SoundS­port Free or Beo­play E8, I was pleased with what I heard. I feel that these head­phones sound bet­ter than Ap­ple’s less-ex­pen­sive AirPods and are ca­pa­ble of glow­ing blow-for-blow with Sony’s WF-1000x (£200 from fave.co/2CQzku0). That it’s pos­si­ble to mod­ify their sound pro­file at a firmware level through the use of the free Jay­bird app is ic­ing on the cake. The app comes with a num­ber of ready-made equal­izer set­tings de­signed by Jay­bird and a hand­ful of no­table ath­letes. But in ad­di­tion to this, it also al­lows users to not only cre­ate their own equal­izer set­tings, but save them and share them on­line.

The Jay­bird Run wire­less ear­buds sound great, are weather re­sis­tant, and packed full of func­tion­al­ity. That they pro­vide all of this at a rea­son­able price makes them an ex­cel­lent choice.

Best low-cost true wire­less ear­buds Ap­ple AirPods Price: £159 inc VAT from fave.co/2D1t­s4h

When Ap­ple pulled the head­phone jack off the iPhone 7, it also un­veiled a new set of wire­less ear­buds called AirPods, and claimed they were so great, users wouldn’t mind the miss­ing head­phone jack.

Oh, heav­ens no. Like so many Ap­ple prod­ucts be­fore them, the AirPods bring with them as many prob­lems as they solve. With no on-board but­tons, the AirPods re­quire users to ask Siri to do ev­ery­thing, from chang­ing a track to ad­just­ing the vol­ume. What’s more, Siri doesn’t have the same abil­i­ties in all mu­sic apps – an ar­bi­trary re­stric­tion set by Ap­ple to steer you to­ward Ap­ple Mu­sic.

But let’s start with the first ques­tion ev­ery­one has about the AirPods. Aren’t you wor­ried they will fall out of your ears? Thank­fully, I can re­port that my AirPods stay put when I’m danc­ing, head­bang­ing, jog­ging, hang­ing up­side down, rid­ing my sta­tion­ary bike, sprint­ing to catch the bus, and shak­ing my head around smack­ing my tem­ple like I’m try­ing to dis­lodge wa­ter stuck in my ear. Re­ally, they aren’t go­ing to fall out.

They also need to be com­fort­able enough to wear all day, and not fall out. It turns out they’re very com­fort­able, vir­tu­ally the same shape as the

EarPods but with more heft. They perch right in my ear open­ings and stay put bet­ter than the EarPods or sil­i­cone-tipped ear­buds.

The AirPods sound bet­ter than the EarPods, but they have that same kind of fit, where the bud it­self just rests in your ear open­ing, in­stead of go­ing way down into your ear canal. And since they don’t have a sil­i­cone or foam tip like the buds that get shoved more deeply into your ear, they don’t seal off out­side noise as fully. But their im­pres­sive vol­ume quickly drowns out your sur­round­ings. Once my iPhone is at about 60 per­cent vol­ume, I can no longer hear my­self speak at a nor­mal vol­ume while I’m wear­ing the AirPods.

The white stems that hang down from the AirPods hold the mi­cro­phone, which you’ll need for voice calls, and speak­ing with Siri. I used Siri to make a

voice call both in­doors and out­doors, and the peo­ple I chat­ted with re­ported a slight echoey sound com­mon to Blue­tooth phone calls, but only when I re­ally pressed them to eval­u­ate my sound. All in all, the sound was good enough for calls.

Speak­ing to Siri, though, some­what mars the AirPods ex­pe­ri­ence. To turn up the vol­ume with the free EarPods, you click a but­ton on the in­line re­mote. With the AirPods, how­ever, you have to dou­ble-tap one AirPod, wait for your mu­sic to pause and the Siri chime to sound, and say “Turn it up” (or, even bet­ter, “turn up the vol­ume,” just to make sure Siri will un­der­stand). Then you wait an­other cou­ple of beats for your mu­sic to re­sume, now two notches louder. If you say “Turn it up to 50 per­cent,” the vol­ume still gets turned up two notches louder. It’s an an­noy­ing process, so you’re bet­ter off us­ing the vol­ume con­trols on your phone – if your phone is in arm’s reach.

Siri can also con­trol Ap­ple Mu­sic and your own mu­sic col­lec­tion stored in Ap­ple’s Mu­sic app. But Ap­ple chose not to give full Siri con­trol to third-party mu­sic apps, and that’s a huge bum­mer when you try to use ear­buds that re­quire the use of Siri. In Spo­tify, I could turn the vol­ume up and down, and skip to the next track. But to start a song over (three clicks on the EarPods re­mote, thank you very much), I couldn’t say “start this song over,” though “go back one track” was more re­spon­sive. And, ob­vi­ously, I couldn’t call up spe­cific artists, al­bums, playlists, and songs. The AirPods are at their best when you are all-in with Ap­ple de­vices and ser­vices. If you’re a die-hard user of Spo­tify or Pan­dora, these might not be the head­phones for you.

But ei­ther way, Siri is just too slow and buggy to be a rock-solid con­trol set. I quickly found my­self want­ing to just use the con­trols on the iPhone it­self. As a side note, I’ve never ap­pre­ci­ated iOS 10’s Raise to Wake fea­ture so much un­til I got my AirPods, since I can bring up the lock screen play/pause, for­ward, and rewind but­tons so eas­ily, and leave Siri out of it.

The auto-pause fea­ture does work well, and mostly seam­lessly across apps. When you are lis­ten­ing to the AirPods, and you take one out of your ear, the sound pauses. When you put it back in your ear, it starts play­ing again. While the fea­ture is mostly solid, it isn’t a sure thing. A few times the mu­sic would start play­ing again af­ter I’d stuck one AirPod in my jacket pocket while talk­ing to a cashier. Other times, tak­ing an AirPod out would pause a pod­cast in Pocket Casts, but putting it back in wouldn’t start it play­ing again. In­stead, I had to hit Play on the iPhone it­self. If you do want to play

mu­sic on only one AirPod for some rea­son, you can just press Play on the iPhone af­ter tak­ing one out.

Be­cause Ap­ple makes these, the AirPods are locked in to iOS 10 like no other head­phones will ever be. You can check the bat­tery life in the Bat­tery wid­get in No­ti­fi­ca­tion Cen­tre. Even just open­ing the charg­ing case with the AirPods in­side will pop up a no­ti­fi­ca­tion on your phone show­ing the charge level of your AirPods (left and right – strangely, they don’t wear down at ex­actly the same level) and the case.

The charg­ing case is bril­liant. It’s small and white and easy to stash in a pocket or bag. It kind of looks like a fancy pack­age of den­tal floss, with a top that flips open and shut with a tight mag­netic click. The AirPods charge in­side this case, so if you keep them there when they’re not in your ears, and then re­mem­ber to charge

the case now and then, keep­ing the AirPods charged isn’t too much of a bur­den. The case it­self charges via a Light­ning port, so I just try to re­mem­ber to top it off while I’m us­ing the AirPods at my desk.

In my tests, the AirPods eas­ily get Ap­ple’s stated 5 hours of mu­sic time per charge. I’m at five hours on my stop­watch right now, in fact, and the AirPods have 12 per­cent charge left ac­cord­ing to the Bat­tery wid­get in iOS 10. Ap­ple says the case should have about 24 hours of bat­tery life in it, and just 15 min­utes in the case can power your AirPods for three more hours (it got me from 4- to 79 per­cent). The AirPods make a sad lit­tle sound when they reach 10 per­cent, so you’ll know they’re al­most out of juice.

Con­nect­ing the AirPods to an iPhone for the first time is as easy as open­ing the case. A mes­sage pops up on the iPhone of­fer­ing to con­nect, and when you do, the AirPods also ap­pear in the Blue­tooth menu of any Macs (run­ning macOS Sierra) you use with the same iCloud ac­count. Switch­ing to an iPad and Ap­ple Watch with the same iCloud ac­count is sim­i­larly easy, and you don’t have to trick your iPhone into un­pair­ing with the AirPods to lis­ten to them on a dif­fer­ent de­vice. They’re al­ways paired to ev­ery­thing, and you can just se­lect AirPods on that thing and press play.

The back of the charg­ing case has a round white but­ton that’s barely vis­i­ble. With the AirPods in the open case, you can press and hold that but­ton to turn a tiny LED in the case white. That means they’re in pair­ing mode, and you can pair them to an An­droid phone or an­other Blue­tooth de­vice, although with­out Siri or the ex­tra fea­tures.

Best true wire­less head­phones for au­dio­philes B&O’s Beo­play E8 Price: £269 inc VAT from fave.co/2CZOQae

For iPhone and iPad users, you can’t find an bet­ter set of ear­buds for ease of pair­ing. You should know, how­ever, AirPods aren’t as easy to use as other true wire­less ear­buds for con­trol­ling your mu­sic. It also has ter­ri­ble pas­sive sound can­cel­la­tion, so you’ll hear a lot of the world around you when us­ing it. Let’s get this out of the way: The B&O Beo­play E8 true wire­less ear­phones cost £269. Be­ing both a cheap­skate and a mu­sic afi­cionado, I tried, hard, to con­vince my­self that other less ex­pen­sive true wire­less head­phones that I’ve tested sound just as good, or bet­ter, than the E8s do. But they don’t. If you de­mand the best pos­si­ble sound in a com­pact, wire-free pack­age, these are the head­phones to get.

The E8 ear­phones are con­structed from light­weight poly­mer with alu­minium ac­cents. As each ear­bud weighs about 7g each, most peo­ple won’t find it a bur­den to have them jammed into their skull for hours at a time – pro­vided they’ll fit. In­stead of us­ing rub­ber fins, or hook­ing into your ears like other in-ear head­phones do, the E8s stay in place by be­ing thrust into the open­ing of your ear canal. That they come with four dif­fer­ent sizes of sil­i­con tips to en­sure a se­cure fit as well as a set of Com­ply­foam foam tips helps to en­sure a good fit – but you might want to buy them from a shop or on­line store with a solid re­turn pol­icy, just in case.

Avail­able in black or char­coal colour schemes, the E8’s taste­ful style run con­trary to their au­da­cious price. B&O’s Art Deco logo graces the cap of each ear­bud, along with a metal­lic ac­cent. That’s it. Sized at 152x152x51mm, they’re nei­ther the small­est nor the largest true wire­less head­phones that we’ve seen. When I in­serted them in my ears, I found that they were no­tice­able, but not awk­wardly so, like the Bose SoundS­port Free.

Then there’s the E8’s leather-bound charg­ing case. Next to the one that comes with Ap­ple’s AirPods, it’s the small­est, sleek­est charg­ing case that we’ve come across. You should know that the E8 are not in any way weather re­sis­tant. If you’re look­ing for some­thing to wear at the gym, look else­where.

B&O states that when played at a moder­ate vol­ume, their E8 head­phones should run for four hours be­fore need­ing to be topped up. With the two ad­di­tional charges that the carry case holds, you can ex­pect around 12 hours of to­tal use be­fore the works need to be charged via Mi­cro-USB. I found this bat­tery us­age es­ti­mate to be ac­cu­rate.

Tinker­ing with vol­ume, play­ing/paus­ing or chang­ing mu­sic tracks, tak­ing a call, or en­gag­ing au­dio trans­parency (more on that in a sec­ond) is all done through the use of tap­ping or hold­ing your fin­ger against a touch panel built into the side of the ear­buds. I found that touch was reg­is­tered by the E8 90 per­cent of the time, with worse re­sults oc­cur­ring when my fin­gers were wet or cold. Through the use of the free

What to look for

Sound Sound­ing good is a set of ear­buds’ rai­son d’être. When you in­vest in a new pair of true wire­less ear­buds, B&O app for iOS or An­droid, it’s pos­si­ble to tweak the amount of au­dio trans­parency that the head­phones pro­vide and to mod­ify the sound pro­file with a num­ber of pre­sets or with ones that you come up with your­self.

No mat­ter whether you lis­ten to them us­ing their fac­tory pre­set pro­file or tweak your tunes, you’ll find that the E8s sound very, very good, es­pe­cially for Blue­tooth ear­phones. Each ear­bud con­tains a 5.7mm elec­tro-dy­namic driver, and of­fer a fre­quency range of 20- to 20,000Hz. Us­ing their de­fault au­dio pro­file, they of­fer a stun­ning wide sound­stage, with slightly for­ward bass, that was warm and punchy, but never over­whelm­ing. The warm mids and clear highs that the head­phones pro­duced made ev­ery­thing I lis­ten to, from Ac­quiraga Drom to Ży­wio­lak, sound amaz­ing.

But, the price. At £269, they’re one of the most ex­pen­sive pairs of true wire­less head­phones we’ve re­viewed, so far. Over the course of us­ing the E8s, I re­peat­edly asked my­self whether they were worth the price. My an­swer: if you can af­ford to splurge on a lux­ury item like this, ab­so­lutely.

While they rate among the most ex­pen­sive true wire­less head­phones we’ve tested, the B&O Beo­play E8 are with­out a doubt, the best sound­ing and most lux­u­ri­ous-feel­ing head­phones that we’ve tested. If you can af­ford them, you’ll most likely be very pleased with your pur­chase.

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The wire­less AirPods re­sem­ble the EarPods, but the AirPods have a heftier, more sub­stan­tial de­sign that stays put in my ears

The EarPods are eas­ier to con­trol, but the AirPods never tan­gle

A lit­tle LED in­side the case glows green when the AirPods are mostly charged, or­ange when they need charge. A more ac­cu­rate me­ter is on the iPhone

The charg­ing case can recharge the ear­buds twice

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