Think a good pair of wireless earbuds means shelling out for Apple’s ubiquitous white sticks? Think again, writes tech reviewer Henry Burrell.
The iPhone 7 was the first popular phone to lose the headphone jack, and frankly I’ve been furious ever since. One of the most universal and user-friendly tech interfaces of the last 50 years was culled because Apple wanted to make the iPhone a bit thinner. Probably.
Weirdly, many cheaper smartphones these days still have the humble 3.5mm jack while $2,000 handsets leave it out. If your phone lacks the jack, then you might be in the market for some wireless earbuds.
If that’s the case then I’m here to tell you there’s more to Bluetooth audio than the famous white Apple AirPods, as good as both versions of them are for some use cases. I have tested out a slew of true wireless earbuds available in New Zealand to see which of them earn their hefty price tags and where some challenger brands earn their stripes.
‘True wireless’ means earbuds that connect to a device via Bluetooth and also are not themselves connected with a wire. Other Bluetooth headphones may be over ear style, or perhaps neckbuds, but true wireless is a popular category because of the lack of wires and how they are stored in a charging case. The category also has many designs and even more price points.
If you don’t want to drop three weeks’ food money on AirPods then there are more options at lower prices than you might think, with quality to match. That said, four of the products I tested cost more than $350.
Finding your fit
The main pitfall of buying true wireless earbuds is the risk they might not fit properly, a problem as retailers will not accept returns of them for hygiene reasons. Of the 12 pairs I tested, three are ‘open’ design like the original Apple AirPods, and the other ten are in-ear. Some people struggle with the open design as it relies on the plastic bud nestling in the outside crook of your ear. They might fall out if that fit isn’t snug enough.
I personally have no trouble with the open design, and instead have discovered I have very narrow ear canals. All the in-ear earbuds here come with three or four sizes of rubber tips, but with some I struggled with even the smallest size to keep them from falling out.
If you’ve never used in-ear headphones before then I highly recommend going out and buying a very cheap wired pair to test the approximate fit in your ears. In my testing there were at least four pairs of earbuds that I did not get along with fit-wise, and I would have been livid at spending any amount on something I could not have returned for hygiene reasons. Aside from them falling out, if fit is poor then sound quality suffers.
These $19 JBL wired headphones come with three sizes of tip and could be a good way to test if you get along with the in-ear design in the first place. Not everyone does, and you might want to try over-ear headphones instead. Then again, you might find that $19 is all you personally need to spend if you don’t want superior sound quality and aren’t bothered by wires.
Noise isolation and noise cancellation
True wireless earbuds’ marketing bandy about terms like noise isolation and active noise cancellation (ANC). These are two different things. Noise isolation is the simple physical sealing of your ear canal with a rubber in-ear tip and is often all some earbuds need for a great audio experience.
Active noise cancellation is when the buds use microphones to pick up the ambient sound around you and then play back the opposite frequency to cancel out noise.
ANC is popular on over-ear headphones for use in offices and on aeroplanes but has made its way to earbuds. Of the models I tested, the Apple AirPods Pro, Sony WF-SP800N, and Technics AZ70 have ANC, and so do the Huawei Freebuds 3 despite their open ear design. You can spend less on true wireless earbuds if you don’t go for ANC. I personally found that only the AirPods Pro justify the premium price for the feature.
All the earbuds I tested have microphones for hands-free calls when connected to your phone, and they all work for Zoom calls on a computer too. Audio quality varies wildly, and as with most features is better the more you spend.
All the buds also have either physical or touch controls on the outside of both ears with fixed and sometimes assignable actions via companion apps. Some also have swipe controls for adjusting the volume, but this is a rare feature. They also all charge inside their carry cases, and the cases themselves hold charge enough for at least two full recharges before you need to plug them in for some juice.
This means battery life varies wildly between products. Manufacturers list how long the buds last on one continuous session, and then how many times they are charged from their charging case on a single charge. I won’t laboriously list the numbers for all the buds, but I found every claim to be accurate.
Some buds (see Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus and the Sony WF-SP800N) also have wing tips that tuck into the top of your outer ear to secure a better fit. Others have cases that can be wirelessly charged.
I tested a lot of earbuds, but I was unable to get hold of any from popular brands like JBL, Sennheiser, and Bose – they are not left out for any reason other than that.
Most of the earbuds also come with a free companion app (of those I tested, only Xiaomi and Apple’s do not). You don’t have to use the apps if you don’t want to, but they give you control over things such as EQ or ANC levels.
Here’s a breakdown of my earbud assessment up top. Read on for the nitty gritty.
- Best value: Skullcandy Sesh Evo
- Best battery life: Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus
- Best ANC: Apple AirPods Pro
- Best for exercise: Sony WF-SP800N
- Best sound quality: Jabra Elite 75t
- Best mix of price and features: Panasonic RZ-S300W
I tested 12 pairs of true wireless earbuds, the cheapest of which are the $69 Xiaomi AirDots. For the money they perform as advertised but are very basic. Audio was always consistently connected to my phone, but the buds distorted audibly when I turned the volume up over halfway.
Even at this price they have microphones so you can take hands-free calls. As the only pair I tested under $100, they’re a good choice if you don’t want to spend the earth.
$101 – $199
One of the best I tested pleasingly come in this price category. It is the pair I think offer the best combination of sound quality, fit, and value for money. This goes to the $199 Panasonic RZ-S300W, the worst-named and one of the least flashy pairs I tested but the one that excelled above their price tag.
This isn’t plain cheap of course, but at under the half the price of the $449 AirPods Pro their sound quality is outstanding. They lack ANC but this keeps them cheaper, and they still deliver superb, rounded, crisp audio in casings that are IPX4 waterproof, so are good for sweating in at the gym.
Another good option is the $159 Skullcandy Evo Sesh that deliver a beefy bass sound at a superb price, and come with a Tile Bluetooth tracker embedded so you can relocate them if you misplace them via an app. They have IP55 dust, sweat, and water resistance, and they feel and sound more expensive than they are.
$201 – $350
This is the busiest price bracket and the one in which all three open designs feature. If you have an iPhone then the $279 Apple AirPods ($349 if you want the case to have wireless charging) will be attractive and familiar, but you’re paying for the brand and the easy pairing with Apple devices. Sound quality is not amazing, and the open design means outside noise on planes or at the gym easily leaks in. They have great mics for phone and video calling though.
I prefer the $269 Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus (not the different Galaxy Buds or Galaxy Buds Live, note the ‘Plus’ name) because of their small size and in-ear fit that worked for me. There’s no ANC, but they have an ambient mode that lets in outside sound if you want, good for if you’re using them while cycling for instance and want to be aware of your surroundings. Like the Panasonics, the touch controls on the outside of the buds let you easily skip tracks, pause, use ambient mode, or even call up a voice assistant.
If you’re set on the open design but don’t want Apple, then I recommend the $259 Huawei Freebuds 3 over the $219 Oppo Enco Free. The Freebuds are uglier, and with an open design their supposed ANC is useless, but they have strong audio for the design and pair great with Android phones. The Oppo buds are disappointing, with tips that try to be half in-ear but are uncomfortable, with sub-par audio.
The deluxe choice at this price range is the $349 Jabra Elite 75t. They have a cosy ear-hugged design and similar ambient audio mode to the Galaxy Buds Plus, but with superior audio. They are the best sounding buds I tested, with wonderfully rich music possible so long as you can get a good fit. They’re great for calls, too.
$351 – $449
At the high price end I tested the Apple AirPods Pro, the Beats Powerbeats Pro, the Sony WF-SP800N, and the Technics AZ270. These are four very different products.
The $449 AirPods Pro were the best fitting buds of all I tested. My narrow ear canals struggle with the circular rubber tips that every other in-ear pair uses, but the flat sides of the tips of Apple’s buds slot into my ears snugly and don’t budge.
The ANC of the Pros is also phenomenal. Overall sound quality is not as good as the Jabra Elite 75t, but it is miles better than the regular open AirPods. The fit and noise cancellation of the AirPods Pro is notably superior to anything else I tested, and they look less conspicuous than the regular AirPods thanks to a more compact stem design. Those stems have squeeze controls on them.
If you’re more of an active person then the $379 Powerbeats Pro use the same Bluetooth tech as AirPods for easy connection to Apple devices (Beats is owned by Apple) and are the only buds I tested with an over-ear hook design. This makes them one of the best exercise earbuds of the bunch. They lack ANC but the audio quality is outstanding, and you can exercise with peace of mind thanks to sweat and water resistance. I also feel they’re just about subtle enough to wear all the time unlike other often garish sports headphones. Unfortunately their charging case was so big it’s the only one I couldn’t carry in a front pocket.
Less subtle are the $399 Sony WF-SP800N. They have the weirdest design of the lot, with each bud looking more like a Bluetooth headset, but they best the Powerbeats for sound quality and exercise chops. The wing design tucks into your inner ear to keep them in place like the Galaxy Buds Plus, and I’d pick them over the Powerbeats for the awesome granular bass and EQ options in-app. Your fashion sense (or my lack of one) might sway you the other way.
The Sony and Technics AZ270 are the only other in-ears with ANC that I tested aside from the AirPods Pro and to be completely honest, they are both much worse at it, to the point where I switched it off. The AirPods Pro manage to pretty much emulate the earmuff-style noise cancellation of over-ears whereas the Sony and Technics emit an audible hum or hiss as the buds struggle to cancel out audio frequencies
If you’re an audiophile, then you’ll know of Technics. It’s is a Panasonic brand so the $449 Technics AZ270 are very similar in design to the $199 RZ-S300W, but the Technics are not for exercising and are designed with high-end audio in mind. I don’t think they justify the price premium. To be fair this could be because I struggled so much with the fit of them that I found it hard to assess their quality. The large bulbous buds are not very ergonomic. For the same price as the AirPods Pro I find them a tough sell, but it goes to show how much fit could affect your enjoyment of true wireless earbuds and how you need to do a fair bit of research before you commit to a life without wires.