Truly wireless earbuds are exactly what their name promises. Over the last couple years, we’ve seen the introduction and early evolution of this new category of headphones. They eliminate all wires, neckbands, and other tethers between the two buds in your ears, offering a level of convenience, lightweight comfort, and flexibility that traditional Bluetooth earbuds and headphones can’t match. There are no tangled cord nightmares to sort out. They can’t get caught on an item of clothing and be uncomfortably yanked out. You get full range of motion, which neckbuds and many popular wireless — but not wire-free — headphones don’t provide.
If you’re judging by sound quality alone, these products won’t fully measure up to several-hundred-dollar audiophile headphones. But they sound plenty good in their own right. I don’t miss my Etymotic earbuds or my fancy Grado or V-Moda headphones when I’m carrying around my Jabra 65Ts every day. If Verge headphone connoisseur Vlad Savov can be happy with the audio output from these, I’d wager you will be, too.
There are trade-offs for this newfound freedom, though. The main compromise you make is battery life. A typical pair of Bluetooth headphones or earbuds will go several hours beyond the single-charge battery endurance you’ll get from the gadgets rounded up here. Many of these won’t last you through a cross-country flight before you’ll need to drop them back into their charging case.
All of them have controls directly on the earbuds; some use light taps and gestures, but others will have you pushing them deeper into your ear to press a button. And their convenient compactness has an ugly side: sometimes they’re easier to lose. A day before publishing this, the truly wireless earbuds I’d been using (and successfully keeping track of) for months went poof. But these shortcomings are overwhelmingly beaten out by the plus side of eliminating all wires.
Many true wireless earbuds have already piled on features like built-in storage, language translation, fitness tracking, and so on. Some of those might be valuable to you, but I’ve found that the best of the best stick to the listening experience above all else.
They weren’t first to market, but well over a year after their release, Apple’s AirPods remain the best truly wireless earbuds you can get because of their seamless user experience, long battery life, good sound, and best-of-the-bunch carrying case. Their design has been roundly mocked, but the AirPods’ white stems are now ubiquitous and instantly recognizable in cities around the world. The AirPods are one of the company’s best first-generation products of all time, and their $159 price remains aggressive and appealing when lined up against the competition.
When it comes to their sound, I like the way Vlad put it best: “There’s enough of everything — bass and treble extension, soundstage, clarity, and detail — in Apple’s tuning to render a convincing reproduction of most genres of music.” They might look similar, but the AirPods are a good magnitude superior to the pack-in earbuds that accompanied your iPhone in its box.
AirPods should give you around five hours of continuous playback on a charge. Apple’s carrying case for them remains best-in-class, as well. Does it look like a pack of dental floss? Absolutely. But the case is terrifically portable and holds enough recharges inside to give the AirPods a total of over 24 hours of playback. You’ll get somewhere between 10 to 15 hours from the competition.
And while they work quite well with Android devices, the “magic” of AirPods really comes out when you’re using them with other Apple products. The pairing process is near-instant. Set them up with one device, and your others will automatically recognize them. And you’ll need to use them with an Apple device for the AirPods to automatically pause when you take one out. (There are software workarounds and apps that can get this to work on Android, but it’s a bit finicky.)
Call quality is excellent and voice commands are heard loud and clear by Siri. There’s no way to control volume from the AirPods themselves, but you can configure double-tap gestures for skipping tracks, pausing music, or triggering Siri. Those new controls are among the improvements Apple has made since our original review. The AirPods aren’t rated for water resistance, but I know plenty of folks who regularly use them at the gym without any problems (besides hearing plenty of clanking and grunting, that is).
If you’ve got the right ears for them (or are willing to get creative) and prefer having a sense of what’s happening around you, the AirPods are nearly impossible to beat in this category. But that’s certainly not everybody.
AirPods don’t sit in my ears as securely as I’d like, nor can I tolerate their open design that requires cranking the volume to overcome noisy surroundings. (How do so many people wear them on the subway? I’ll never understand.) So for me, the $170 Jabra Elite 65t earbuds represent the ideal package of what’s available in 2018.
Their Bluetooth connection to a phone or PC is rock solid, as is the link between both earbuds. The silicone tips provide a great fit and seal, and the resulting noise isolation makes your music sound better and helps tune out background noise. (Whenever you need to pay attention, there’s a transparency mode that pipes in ambient sound using the built-in mics.) The Elite 65ts include some of the same helpful tricks as AirPods; pull out one earbud and your music will pause until it goes back in. And you can do pretty much everything you need — control volume, change tracks, access Siri / Google Assistant — directly via the physical controls.
You can pair the Elite 65ts with two devices simultaneously, which is one of my favorite things about them. That’s another feature that’s relatively common with Bluetooth headphones, but less so with truly wireless buds. Single-charge life is about five hours, which is on the higher end in this field, with the case providing two additional top-offs. That case isn’t quite as compact as Apple’s, nor do Jabra’s earbuds drop in with the same effortless, magnetic connection, but it does the job just fine. I only wish it charged over USB-C so I could finally rid my bag of MicroUSB cables.
The Elite 65t earbuds avoid one common annoyance shared by several of the other products listed below: there’s no noticeable audio lag when watching videos. All it takes is the slightest delay before you’ll want to pull your hair out, and that’s not an issue with these. Jabra has also been good about adding new features after launch. You can now choose Alexa as your preferred voice assistant, customize EQ settings for different scenarios, or even play relaxing sounds (white noise, thunderstorms, etc.) within the companion app.
Also very important: I’ve found the Elite 65ts to be consistently durable. A friend of mine wore them for a 13-mile run during a downpour, and they survived. I’ve put mine through countless sweat-filled workouts without any hiccups to speak of. That dependability, plus the good sound and fit really put the Jabras over the top for me.
But maybe you don’t need to spend over $100 to get a quality set of true wireless earbuds. Anker recently launched the $80 SoundCore Liberty Lite earbuds, and I’m genuinely impressed at how well they hit on the fundamentals. Just to set expectations: at this price, you’re giving up some of the most convenient aspects of more expensive truly wireless buds. Music will just keep playing if you remove one of the Liberty Lites from your ears. The single button on each earbud gives you track controls and a shortcut to Siri or Google Assistant, but that’s about it. And the earbuds communicate things like battery level and connection status with beeps and bloops, which is a huge pet peeve of mine. Everything should use voice to make this stuff clear.
But as wireless earbuds, the Liberty Lites work beautifully. They’re smaller and lighter than many competitors, have a tight seal, and also include Bluetooth 5 for robust reliability. Their carrying case is relatively slim, and it magnetically pulls the earbuds into their proper placement. Most importantly, their sound is better than I expected for the cost. The soundstage isn’t quite as wide or detailed as the AirPods or Jabra Elites, and some tracks can be a bit harsh on the high end, but the bulk of what I’ve listened to has been well-balanced and enjoyable.
However, I’m holding off on properly scoring the Liberty Lites for now, as my initial review unit has been exhibiting some funky battery behavior. (Stay tuned for a full review very soon once I’ve tested the replacement sets.) If the battery life is on par with other earbuds — and Anker promises that it is — these might be the new value pair to beat. They definitely show how far we’ve come in just a couple of years, as products that significantly undercut the AirPods are now offering very good value if you only care about the core basics. They’ve already checked off the boxes for comfort, sound, and a steady connection. What a difference from Anker’s first try.
There is an endless sea of truly wireless earbuds available for cheap on Amazon. Some are blatant AirPod clones, and others are less shameless but still extremely generic. In any event, I’d recommend steering clear of them and going with a recognizable brand when buying a pair. You get what you pay for here, and I don’t believe for a second that some $40 product from a random company can hold a candle to our picks over the long term.
As for the more legitimate contenders, if you have a Samsung phone, the Gear IconX are worth looking at for their Galaxy-exclusive features. And the Bose SoundSport Frees offer incredible sound but are foiled by audio / video delay and connectivity issues. Sony’s latest sport-focused earbuds are better than their first attempt, and they stayed in my ears more securely than anything else, but I’d still pick the Jabras over them.
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