Best true wire­less ear­buds: Free your­self from the tyranny of cords

Our top picks of­fer a com­fort­able fit, good bat­tery life, and great au­dio.

PCWorld (USA) - - Reviews - BY SÉA­MUS BEL­LAMY

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.

Fit

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.

Com­fort

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.

Con­nec­tiv­ity

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.

Fea­tures

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.

Price

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.

Hard­ware

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.

Sound qual­ity

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.

Verdict

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.

The fit

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.

The sound

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.

The con­trols

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.

Verdict

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.

Hard­ware

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.

Sound qual­ity

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.

Verdict

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.

Hard­ware

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.

Sound qual­ity

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.

Verdict

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.

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