The best wireless earbuds: A buyer's guide

by Peter Griffin / 30 May, 2019
earbuds review

Clockwise from left: Samsung Galaxy Buds, Nokia True Wireless Earbuds, JBL Free X, Apple Airpods.

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The true wireless listening experience – a wireless earbud buyer’s guide.

There’s a new routine I go through now that I’ve cut the cable and converted to wireless headphones. I call it the earbud shuffle.

I’ll lose them down the back of the couch or, even worse, the backseat of a taxi and scramble around trying to retrieve it.

That’s the thing with going wireless; there’s nothing to tether you to the two little plastic ear pieces that channel your listening pleasure. You become terrified of losing them. It is however, a small price to pay for cable-free listening.

Not having to worry about your phone being pulled out of your pocket when you suddenly turn your head, or getting the cable snagged in your bag’s zipper, is a pleasant relief.

But there are definitely pros and cons you’ll have to carefully weigh up before you decide to pay $200-$400 on a set of wireless earbuds.

Pros: The freedom from cables is clearly the biggest advantage, especially  when you are exercising. I love being able to walk around my small apartment, doing the housework while I listen to podcasts or music beamed from my phone to my earbuds. They are also excellent if you do a lot of video conference calls, where you can wear them discreetly to listen to your caller.

Cons: The biggest downside in going wireless is the need to keep the batteries charged up. A wireless earbud only weighs around 4-6 grams, so there isn’t much room for a battery. That means they’ll typically only supply 4-5 hours of listening time, less if you use them to make a phone call.

Luckily, most of the earbuds on the market come with charging cases that will give you up to 24 hours of charge so you can recharge your buds on the go. Well-designed earbuds complete with the right audio codecs will deliver high quality sound, but transmitting via Bluetooth, wireless earbuds are susceptible to occasional audio drop outs or deterioration. Sometimes left and right buds will go out of phase too, a quirk that usually corrects itself.

Ultimately, a wired connection keeps things simpler and delivers the ultimate plug and play experience at a lower cost.

The bigger question may ultimately be whether you put your money towards a pair of over-ear headphones which will supply superior audio quality and noise cancelling ability, but which could set you back $600 or more.

If you are going wireless, here’s what to consider and reviews of some recent arrivals on the market.

What to consider

Design: Consider comfort, durability and the build quality of the earbuds and their charging case.

Audio quality: Will they be up to the job of delivering your favourite music and is the microphone good enough for hands-free calling? Check out independent audio benchmarks to get a handle on audio quality.

Battery life: Will you get a decent listening session out of the earbuds? Remember, call time will reduce the battery life faster than music playback. Check how much back-up charge you’ll get from the charging case and whether it supports fast charging and wireless charging.

Functions: You need to be able to skip track, adjust volume, pause for a call or activate your voice assistant easily. Make sure you understand what is possible with the tap of an earbud.

Android or Apple: Most Bluetooth-based earbuds will work with any smartphone or computer, but you may miss out on certain functions or the best audio quality using earbuds if you mix and match.

Price: There are wireless earbuds out there for $60-$100. But you really need to pay $200-$300 for earbuds that won’t prove frustrating, that will have the audio quality, ease of use and battery life to make cutting the cord worthwhile.

Four contenders

Apple Airpods.

Apple Airpods

Apple’s decision to launch its own earbuds in 2016 has ultimately paid off handsomely. Just look about you as you walk down the high street. It used to be that you’d notice the telltale white headphone cord of Apple’s EarPods, standard issue with a new iPhone, or further back, an iPod.

Now you are more likely to see the descending white tips of the Airpods, Apple’s wireless earbuds tailored to work with the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and Mac computers via Bluetooth. The Airpods quickly won praise on launch and the second generation released earlier this year improve on a winning formula.

The new Airpods look just like the old ones, but are powered by the new H1 computer chip, which offers faster syncing with your devices and slightly improved battery life on the original AirPods for talk time, if not music playback. They also support Apple’s digital assistant Siri. You just tap on the right earbud or say “Hey Siri” to activate the assistant and ask for information. Your request is picked up by the microphone built into the Airpods. It’s a pretty seamless experience and huge convenience if you are a Siri convert.

The Airpods are housed in a compact charging case that remains the best on the market. It is easy to position the metallic earbuds in the case for charging. The case has a sturdy finish with a simple LED light on it that will glow green to indicate that the Airpods are charged. You press the pairing button on the case to connect the Airpods to your phone or computer. A Lightning cable connector lets you plug the case in for recharging.

A more expensive case comes with wireless charging capability, so if you have a Qi-compatible charging mat to wirelessly charge your late-model iPhone, you can simply leave the Airpods on the pad to charge as well.

Battery life with the Airpods is close to the five hours Apple claims, though user experiences with the first generation of Airpods found that battery life degraded over time. Between AirPods and charging case, you’ll get an impressive 24 hours of battery life for playback with the AirPods and 15 minutes of charging will get you three hours of listening time. You can also listen to and recharge one of the AirPods at a time.

While there’s no real discernable quality difference in audio between the AirPods new and old, the first generation sounded great anyway – for Bluetooth earbuds. One thing Apple doesn’t do with its AirPods is provide any sound sealing –  rubber molding to keep out background noise. If you are easily distracted you may want an alternative with more padding. The AirPods, however, deliver rich bass and decent, clear mid and treble notes and call quality was as good as can be expected, with the microphone doing a good job of picking up my voice from up to a couple of metres away. Check out this audio benchmark for the AirPods, which reveals the lack of noise isolation can be an issue.

While built to work with Apple devices, I’ve been using the AirPods with a number of Android phones and they make for a great listening pairing. One issue I encountered was that the AirPods, when paired with the Huawei P30, played at ear-splitting volume, but were fine after an initial manual adjustment.

Verdict

The best option for Apple gadget owners and also worth considering for those in the Android camp. Great design and audio quality and the charging case gives you plenty of capacity to recharge on the go. The addition of Siri adds a nice convenient touch for hands-free calling and asking for information. Noise isolation isn’t great. They are on the expensive side, particularly if you opt for the wireless charging case.

Price: $279 ($349 with wireless charging case)

JBL Free X

JBL has been in the audio game for a long time, so you’d expect them to deliver a superior experience than the smartphone makers-turned-earbud designers can muster.

That largely proved to be the case, but the Free X fall behind on design. They come in a chunky, round plastic case that allows for easy placement of the earbuds for charging, but doesn’t win any points for style alongside the AirPods or rivals from Samsung and Nokia. JBL claims they will withstand a rain shower, a useful feature if you fancy wearing them out for a run – the same presumably goes for sweat.

The case does however match Apple on charging capacity – you’ll get 24 hours total playback. There’s also fast charge capability, so 15 minutes of charging will get you an hour of music playback and a full charge yields 4 hours from the earbuds.

There’s a handy LED display along the edge of the case which shows you its charging status, but the charging connector is of the old micro USB variety, a puzzling move by JBL as the rest of the world embraces USB-C connectors and cables.

The chunky design extends to the earbuds themselves which are the largest I’ve recently tried (7g each). They are however, comfortable, with silicone inserts to form a snug fit in your ears. Still, catch sight of yourself wearing them in a mirror and you are unlikely to be very impressed.

Each earbud has a big button on it – the one on the right will play and pause music, answer calls and activate your phone’s voice assistant. The button on the left will let you switch tracks, skip tracks or repeat the last track. It is all pretty intuitive once you get used to it. But there is no volume control, you’ll need to reach for your device to do that.

Reviews of the JBL Free X have noted issues with connection stability, though I didn’t have that problem. I found the earbuds maintained a connection to my phone easily in the next room.

Audio wise, the Free X perform well across the sound range, though is particularly strong on bass-heavy music, less so dealing with the twangy guitars of Van Halen and other hard rock bands I like to listen to. The noise isolation does a great job of eliminating distracting background sound and the mono mode they switch into for phone calls was probably the best of the lot.

Verdict

What the Free X lack in styling and design they almost make up for with audio quality and ease of use. Battery life is respectable and the noise isolation is effective. In need of some refinement but a worthy budget option.

Price: $230

Nokia True Wireless earbuds.

Nokia True Wireless Earbuds

The striking thing about Nokia’s True Wireless Earbuds is the cylindrical container they come in, sort of like a truncated cigar case. Press down and the cylinder pops open to reveal the earbuds sitting snugly in their charging bay, with a USB-C charging connector and LEDs to indicate charging status.

A couple of gold connectors touch the grill of each earbud to charge it, a clever system, but one that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to easy placement of the earbuds in the case. It involved a fair bit of fumbling around for me.

The True Wireless Earbuds are currently being offered as a free extra with the Nokia 9 PureView, the flagship phone in the Nokia range and one built for photography enthusiasts, so it is unclear yet whether Nokia’s first wireless earbuds will find a broader market.

They face a crowded field of players that offer better specifications, though you can’t beat them as a freebie. The earbuds are very light and comfortable in the ear forming a good seal to cut down on background noise. However, they are also a little flimsy, not ideal for active use.

You’ll get 3 hours of music playback from a charge, 14 in total when using the charge case. That puts it behind the likes of Apple’s AirPods and the JBL Free X.

Nokia decided to forego touch sensitive controls on its earbuds. You get little physical buttons on them to carry out functions like answering a call and skipping to the next track. But you have to make sure they are positioned properly in your ears to be able to access the buttons. It’s a simple system, but lacks the finesse of its rivals that offer more convenient access.

Audio wise you don’t get anything outstanding here, if anything, a predominance of bass and a tinny sound at the top end. The earbuds are fine for phone calls, though the microphone didn’t perform as well as some of its rivals.

The True Wireless Earbuds apparently only come with the default SBC codec support, not the more advanced AptX or LDAC. That will matter if you really value audio quality.

Verdict

A reasonable first effort from Nokia and a great freebie for Nokia 9 PureView buyers. But Nokia will need to step up if it plans to make a name for itself against rivals offering a better package overall when it comes to earbuds.

Price: Worth $199 (included with Nokia 9 PureView)

samsung galaxy buds

Samsung Galaxy Buds.

Samsung Galaxy Buds

Samsung has released wireless earbuds before, but the latest Galaxy Buds are the first to deserve any significant praise.

On every front, design, audio quality, functionality, battery life and price, they look like the winning option, at least for Android owners. Let’s start with the design. Released as a pairing with the flagship Samsung S10 smartphone, they had to look the part. Squat and round, the earbuds are particularly fetching in white, with a large pearl-tinged surface that acts as the touch pad for controlling your audio and digital assistant.

The earbuds fit snugly in the ear and Samsung also provides some rubber wings to make sure you get a comfortable fit. At 6g each they are reasonably light and easy to remove and position for charging in the plastic case, which snaps shut with a metallic closure. The case has a USB-C connector, but also supports wireless charging, so you can just put it on a Samsung charging pad, or a Qi equivalent charger. You can even charge the buds by sitting them on the back of a Samsung S10 phone.

On the battery front, Samsung tops the field with up to 6 hours of playback with one charge. You’ll get an additional 7 hours from the charging case, which supports fast-charging – you’ll get around 1.5 hours of play time on a 15 minute charge. Overall, it doesn’t have as much juice in reserve in the case as the AirPods or JBL X Free, but should have enough to satisfy commuters and long periods of music listening.

To my ear, the Galaxy Buds offer the best audio quality, a full sound with punchy bass – they rate highly in independent audio testing. They support the AAC audio codec as well as Samsung’s own codec for high-quality music.

They also offer the most options for tweaking sound settings, via the Galaxy Wearable app, which has an equalizer to move from dynamic mode to bass boost, for instance. The app also lets you control notifications – that’s right, the earbuds can read your incoming messages. Given my propensity to lose my earbuds, the earbud finder function is fantastic, You tap a button in the app and walk around, if the earbuds are in range they will start chirping at you.

The Galaxy Buds have a dual microphone system, designed to deliver your voice clearly against background noise. But I found it to be mediocre compared to its rivals. However, I did like ambient mode, which will let sound flow into your ears from the outside world when you are not listening to a song or taking a call. It avoids you having to take the earbuds out just so you can hear background noise.

The one downer with the Galaxy Buds was occasional connectivity issues, where the streaming audio dropped out and a little musical note would play to indicate the earbuds were attempting to re-sync. The touch pads are also very sensitive so that often when I was listening in bed, they’d brush against my pillow and skip or pause the track.

Verdict

A great balance of design and functionality with reasonable battery life. Probably the best of this bunch, especially if you are a Galaxy phone owner. They will work with an iPhone, but you’ll miss out on features like automatic sync and Ambient Aware mode, to let you adjust how much background sound to let in.

Price: $299

Top pick for Android: Samsung Galaxy Buds

Top pick for Apple: Apple AirPods

Other wireless earbuds worth considering: Jabra Elite Active 65t ($285), Sennheiser Momentum ($384).

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