Best true wireless earbuds: Free yourself from the tyranny of cords
Our top picks offer a comfortable fit, good battery life, and great audio.
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. 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.
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, it’s fair to assume that they should make everything sound its best.
We start each sound test by listening to a playlist of five songs that spans different genres and features strong, layered performances that we know very well: Feel Right (Mark Ronson, featuring Mystikal); Up & Rise (Hazmat Modine); Shake Your Hips (The Legendary Shack Shakers); Déjà Loin (Yann Tiersen); and I’m a Little Mixed up (Diana Krall).
We play this set of songs for an hour, paying attention to low, mid, and highfrequency performance, and whether they provide a broad, rich soundstage. We also listen for any sign of distortion at low or high volumes. Afterward, we use the earbuds in our daily lives for a minimum of three hours a day over the course of a week, making sure to take in at least one TV show or movie. (This allows us to verify that the audio keeps in sync with the video we see.) Finally, we pay attention to incoming and outgoing call quality, to make sure that you won’t get annoyed during a chat.
A set of earbuds or earphones may sound amazing, but no one will know it if they don’t fit well—a good seal keeps environmental noise out and your audio channeled into your ears, where it belongs. Because no two pairs of ears are identical, we note if a set of true wireless earbuds comes with different earpieces.
We also pay attention to the tightness of a seal, as a snug fit provides passive noise cancellation (aka the hush that falls over your life when you jam a pair of earphones or earplugs into your skull). If you’re in a noisy airport, tuning out your environment is a plus—but it’s less than ideal if you’re out running, for safety reasons. We take this into consideration when evaluating earbuds designed for working out.
They might fit and sound great, but if your new true wireless cans hurt your ears, you won’t wear them. We wear the earbuds for at least three hours a day for a week and note if a particular set becomes uncomfortable after a few hours of use.
True wireless headphones use Bluetooth to connect to each other and to your audio device. We pay attention to connectivity
If you’re in a noisy airport, tuning out your environment is A PLUS—BUT IT’S LESS THAN IDEAL IF you’re out running, for safety reasons.
issues stemming from signal interruptions between the earbuds and their audio source, and also note if audio drops from the left or right side during playback.
At minimum, a good pair of true wireless earbuds should be able to accept calls as well as play and pause music. If a pair offers additional features beyond the basics, those functions should work well and be easy to use.
It almost goes without saying that if you pay a premium for earbuds, they should sound spectacular. If a pair of headphones sound great and don’t cost much? Even better!
BEST TRUE WIRELESS
EARBUDS: JAYBIRD RUN TRUE WIRELESS SPORT HEADPHONES Price: $180 from go.pcworld.com/jybd
For $20 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 $180 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 about 0.22 ounces a piece, you won’t mind the weight of the Jaybird Runs. Unlike Apple’s Airpods, which hang off 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 Runs 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. (For true wireless headphones that offer a greater amount of situational awareness, check out the Bose Soundsport Free.)
The Jaybird Run headphones stick a ways out of most people’s ears while they’re wearing them, but not much. Being black in color and 0.56 by 0.77 by 0.75 inches, they’re less noticeable than Apple’s iconic white darlings.
Jaybird’s headphones are designed, primarily, with athletes in mind and the Run set 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 them 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 (find it on the App Store at go.pcworld.com/ fca) 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 headphones offer four hours of playtime from 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 really needs to be. If you want to stick it in a pants 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 through the use of a companion app. The Run True Wireless headphones have access to that same app, making for some great audio, especially for the price.
Out of the box, the Runs’ 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 $198 WF-1000X. 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 $180 Jaybird Run headphones are designed with athletes in mind, but the excellent customizable sound, waterresistance, and easy-to-use controls makes them a great pick for commuters, office drones, and couch potatoes, too. Owning a pair of Runs has only a few downsides. If you’re a runner, you may find that the tight seal that they create in your ears provides excellent passive noise cancellation, which isn’t great for situational awareness when you’re doing road work. Additionally, their battery case is a little too bulky to fit into most pockets. And strangely, there’s no way to play an audio track over again using the controls on the earbuds. But given the better audio and a greater number features compared to a pair of Apple Airpods, we think the Run headphones are still a great choice for most people.
To be honest, this category doesn’t really exist. Truly wireless earbuds are a luxury item and their price reflects this.
Jaybird’s X7s were one of the first sets of Bluetooth headphones that let users change the equalizer settings through the use of a companion app. BEST LOW-COST TRUE WIRELESS EARBUDS: APPLE AIRPODS Price: $159 from go.pcworld.com/ap0d
However, given the current field of true wireless earbuds, Apple Airpods do the best at offering good value for a (relatively) reasonable price. A pair costs $20 less than the Jaybird Runs, and if you have ears that will work with the one-size-fits-all design, they can sound great under the right circumstance. And for iphone and ipad users, you can’t find an better set of earbuds for ease of pairing.
You should know, however, that Airpods aren’t as easy to use as other true wireless earbuds for controlling your music. They also have terrible passive sound cancellation, so you’ll hear a lot of the world around you when using them.
But let’s start with the first question everyone has about the Airpods. Aren’t you worried they will fall out of your ears? As soon as they were announced, even Conan O’brien had to make fun, producing a parody of the old ipod commercials ( go. pcworld.com/cobr), only with Airpods flying off in all directions with the slightest move of the dancers’ heads.
That’s funny, but it’s bull. The Airpods stay put when I’m dancing, head banging, 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.
My skin is on the oily side, and sometimes in-ear ’buds with silicone tips get a little oily, and I have to wipe them off or keep shoving them further into my ears for a good seal. The wired Apple Earpods (you know, the cheap pair that comes with your iphone) fit me OK, and I’ve been wearing them since the iphone 7 launch. But the Earpods wire does trip me up from time to time, getting snagged on armrests when I’m on the bus, or requiring adjustment when I’m wearing a scarf.
So I wanted to go wireless, and knew the Airpods had 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.
I care more about comfort than sound because I’m not an audiophile. I listen to tons of music, and can tell good earphones from terrible ones, so Apple’s bundled free Earpods suit me just fine for streaming music and podcasts. I used to rock a $130 pair of Bose MIE2I in-ear ’phones ( go.pcworld.com/mi2i) when my iphones had jacks for them, and I expected the Airpods to fall somewhere in between these earphones and the Earpods. Well, I’m happy to report the Airpods sound great—just as good as the Bose set, with full, detailed sound and plenty of volume.
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 simply 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.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention, you can go into Settings > Bluetooth, hit the little i button next to your Airpods, and change the doubletap gesture to Play/pause or Off. A second gesture would still be helpful. I’d love an experimental mode that apes the click patterns on the Earpods remote (single to play/pause, double to advance a track, triple to back up).
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.
Even with a little finicky behavior, I love this feature. I’m also testing a pair of Libratone wireless headphones right now, and they have a feature where you can mute the sound by cupping your hand over one ear. I’m glad companies are thinking about easy ways to silence the sound so you can say hi to neighbors or conduct a transaction politely. But pausing is better than muting, especially for podcast fans, so Airpods have the edge there.
The little things
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 Center. 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 5 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 percent to 79). 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. I haven’t experimented with that for this review, but we’ll do a follow-up soon.
The three-button remote on wired earbuds is a much faster, easier way to control your music than double-tapping one ear and then trying to get Siri to do what you want. But I can’t help liking the Airpods—the cool design and powerful sound just keep me coming back. I just wish they had another gesture, or smarter/faster Siri, to be as convenient as what they’re replacing.
Priced at $249, Bose’s Soundsport Free true wireless headphones cost close to $100 more than Apple’s $159 Airpods. But depending on where and how you plan on using them, we feel that Bose’s first stab at wireless headphones are certainly worth the money.
With their dimensions of 1.25 by 1 by 1.2 inches, the Soundsport Free were, at the time that this review was written, the largest pair of true wireless headphones that we tested. The
BEST TRUE WIRELESS EARBUDS FOR WORKING OUT: BOSE SOUNDSPORT FREE Price: $249 from go.pcworld.com/ssfr
size of the headphones comes with a purpose: the Soundsport Free come equipped with buttons built into the ear cups. You get your standard volume controls, a button for pairing the earbuds with a Bluetooth device, and a multifunction button that does a bevy of actions—like accepting/ declining incoming phone calls, interacting with Siri or Google Now, or controlling the audio that you’re listening to.
I found that the buttons were easy to landmark and use. You should know that for tasks like starting/pausing music or fiddling with the volume of what you’re listening to, there is a one-second delay between the time that a button is pushed and when the response is received. We’ve seen this delay with other true wireless headsets. As such, we see it as more of an annoyance than a flaw.
Like any set of true wireless headphones, the cup in each ear piece contains batteries, the speaker drivers, and the various electronic bits and pieces that make the headphones do their thing. Unlike other true wireless models that we’ve seen so far, the Soundsport Free’s cups stick about half an inch out of your skull once they’ve been jammed into your ears. That said, they don’t look terrible while being worn and, at around a half an ounce each, you won’t even notice they’re there.
As their name implies, these headphones were made with athletes in mind—but we think couch potatoes will like them, too. To
help them survive exposure to the rain and sweat, they come with an IPX water-resistance rating, which is nice…but maybe don’t wear them in the shower. Their silicon tips are well designed to stay in during heavy activity, too. No amount of jogging or head banging would shake them out of my head.
Bose claims the headphones can operate for around five hours off a single charge. We found this to be an accurate assessment of their battery capacity. You can expect to get an extra 10 hours’ worth of charging from the Soundsport Free’s charging case. The headphones take two hours to recharge completely, but if you’re in a hurry, 15 minutes in the charging case will provide you with 45 minutes’ worth of play time.
The Soundsport Free offered the best reception and the fewest instances of dropped audio of any of the headphones we tested, including Apple’s Airpods. Further to their sport mindedness, at low to medium volumes, the headphones offer a good amount of situational awareness—an important safety factor for cyclists, runners, and gym goers. What’s more, at any volume, they sound awesome. Their forward-sounding bass and great balance of mids and highs made everything I listened to sound better than I would typically expect from a set of Bluetooth headphones—in-ear or otherwise. Call quality was great, too—taking audio calls in crowded locations, I never had a problem understanding who I was speaking with, or being understood by the person on the other line.
Bose’s $250 Soundsport Free is water- and sweat-resistant, can go five hours between charging, and is insanely comfortable to wear. What’s more, the design of these earbuds’ silicon tips makes them almost impossible to shake out of your head—but you still keep a good deal of situational awareness, making the Soundsport Free a good choice for joggers or cyclists.
The only knock against the Soundsport Free is its
size: The earbuds are considerably larger than its competition, making them a less than fashionable choice for style conscious individuals.
Let’s get this out of the way: The B&O Beoplay E8 true wireless earphones cost $299. 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 aluminum accents. As each earbud weighs about a quarter-ounce, 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 ( go.pcworld.com/cmfm) 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 color schemes, the E8s’ tasteful style runs 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 0.91 by
0.79 by 0.98 inch, 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 E8s’ leather-bound charging case. Next to the one that comes with Apple’s Airpods, it’s the
BEST TRUE WIRELESS EARBUDS FOR AUDIOPHILES: B&O’S BEOPLAY E8 Price: $299 from go.pcworld.com/baop
smallest, sleekest charging case that we’ve come across. You should know that the E8s 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 E8s 90 percent of the time, with worse results occurring when my fingers were wet or cold. Through the use of the free 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 offers a frequency range of 20 to20,000 Hz. 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.
At $299, they’re one of the most expensive pairs of true wireless headphones that we’ve reviewed, so far. You could argue that they’re only $50 more than Bose’s excellent Soundsport Free. True. But for the cost of one pair of E8s, you could almost buy two sets of Apple’s Airpods. 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.
B&O’S Beoplay E8 true wireless earbuds cost $300, but if high-fidelity sound quality is important to you, they’re worth every penny.
Though you can’t expect a set of earbuds to match the sound you’d find in a wired set of cans, the E8s provided the most pleasurable listening experience out of all the true wireless earbuds we’ve tested so far. As icing on the cake, you can further modify your audio experience using the free Beoplay app.
The Beoplay E8s are incredibly easy to use, too—touch panels make changing the volume of what you’re listening to or tinkering with audio tracks no big deal.
The wireless Airpods resemble the Earpods, but the Airpods have a heftier, more substantial design that stays put in my ears.
In this case, “Go back a track” would start the current song over, but who wants to engage in trial-and-error with laggy Siri when you used to have a button for this?
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.
Large and in charge, but with plenty of button controls.
Yes, the Bose Soundsport Free’s are noticeably large, but they don’t feel big when you wear them.
The charging case packs an additional 10 hours of juice.