Best wireless earbuds
SÉAMUS BELLAMY’s top picks offer a comfortable fit, good battery life, and great quality 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 (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.
What to look for Audio
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 high-frequency 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 channelled 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 ear pieces.
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 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.
A good pair of 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 goes without saying that if you pay a premium for earbuds, they should sound spectacular. If a pair sound great and don’t cost much? Even better.
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 readymade equalizer settings designed by Jaybird and a handful of notable athletes. But in addition to this, it also allows users to create their own equalizer settings, and 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 pair 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
The EarPods are easier to control, but the AirPods never tangle
The wireless AirPods resemble the EarPods, but the AirPods have a heftier, more substantial design that stays put in my ears
Jaybird’s headphones have been designed with athletes in mind
You’ll want a pair of earbuds that fit snugly in the ear