Wireless vs. Wire-Free Earbuds
If you think the term “true wireless” sounds like sales jargon, we’re with you. Regardless of whether you call them “true wireless,” “cable-free,” or “wire-free,” the important distinction between these and typical earphones is the complete lack of a cable connecting the earpieces.
If you simply want a pair of Bluetooth earphones for exercise and don’t mind a cable connecting the earpieces behind your neck, you can stop reading now and head over to our list of The Best Wireless Headphones . That said, there is something liberating about going completely wire-free.
You might notice that the standard AirPods aren’t on this list. While Apple may have popularized the true wireless category, the AirPods have their fair share of shortcomings compared with the competition, particularly Apple’s own AirPods Pro, which we like a lot better.
With that in mind, let’s walk through some of the key criteria to consider when shopping for a true wireless pair.
If there’s one complication many models share in the operation department, it’s that it’s easy to accidentally pause music, skip a track, or summon a voice assistant when you merely meant to take an earpiece out or adjust it slightly. There’s not a lot of real estate on most of the earpieces we’ve tested, and thus much of the outer panel area is devoted to housing controls.
Newer models manage to strike a balance between operability and layout. Some use actual tactile buttons to control playback, call management, track navigation, and volume. Some others cleverly divide controls between the two earpieces with touch panels—tapping the left ear, for instance, will skip a track backward, while tapping the right will skip forward. Despite needing to do a little more thinking before you tap, eventually the division of controls between the two earpieces reveals itself to be intuitive. So on-ear control panels are getting more creative and user-friendly, but there’s still a ways to go before they catch up with traditional wireless models.
As for Bluetooth pairing, you won’t find an easier pairing process than with the AirPods or the Powerbeats Pro (if you have an iOS device), which essentially do all the work for you the second you turn them on thanks to Apple’s H1 (or older W1) headphone chip. Other pairs are still relatively simple to connect in your phone’s Bluetooth settings menu.
True Wireless Battery Life
Battery life is the Achilles’ heel of the true wireless category. The typical estimated battery life (and keep in mind your results will vary with volume levels) tops out around six hours. It kills a battery fast when you need to power two earpieces separately.
The necessary solution that (nearly) all of these designs share in common is a charging case. Each case protects the earpieces when not in use, and charges them simultaneously. Most of the cases carry two extra full charges, so you can recharge your earphones on the go. It’s not unlikely that this weak aspect of the true wireless realm will improve to the point that it will no longer be an issue.
What If I Lose an Earpiece?
This is, understandably, a concern of many potential true wireless users. Allow us to allay your fears—we can say that after over a year of testing, you have to try pretty hard to lose one earpiece. First off, just about every pair we’ve tested offers an extremely secure in-ear fit without sacrificing comfort. Most of the earpieces are larger than typical in-ears, while still maintaining a lightweight feel, making the likelihood of losing one while exercising (or at any other time) fairly low.
As for simply misplacing an earpiece when not in use, this also seems unlikely. The charging case is intrinsically tied to the user experience—like hanging up the phone or turning the TV off when you’re finished watching, you’ll automatically reach for the case to stow and charge the earphones. To put it another way: You’re far more likely to misplace the whole thing—the case with both earpieces inside—than you are to misplace one earpiece.
If you do somehow lose one earpiece only, however, plenty of companies like Apple will gladly sell you an extra one à la carte for less than the price of a new full set. If losing an earpiece still seems like something you can imagine happening to you, it’s worth researching whether the model you’re interested in offers this option.
Surprisingly, many of these wire-free models can be used at the gym and even get wet, despite the fact that each earpiece has an exposed charging contact on the inside. Check the IP rating of these; some workout-friendly earphones are only IPX4-rated, so they can stand up to sweat but might be hard to wash. Others are IPX7-rated, which means they can survive getting rinsed and dunked.
If durability and a true waterproof design are your main priorities, you’ll either need to sacrifice some user-friendliness, or opt for a traditional neckband-style wireless design. Thus far, most of the earphones that are bundled with fitness apps or heart rate monitors have been in the neckband/cabled realm.
Earphones With Apps
Many of the models we’ve tested use apps designed by the manufacturer to control various parameters and the setup process. Some let you set auto-off timers, disable voice prompts, and control playback. Others feature user-adjustable EQ and/or an ambient-listening modes (for listening to the sound around you) that can be adjusted.
Get Ready to Spend
There is a marked difference between our Editors’ Choices in the true wireless category, and a typical tether-together wireless pair. You can get good wireless, neckband-style in-ears for $40, but typically, you can expect to spend at least twice as much for true wireless. (Though there are a couple quality, super-affordable exceptions, but they’re not the norm.) The base price for most true wireless options is around $100, with the very best models costing as much as $200 or even $300. If you’re looking for a pair with noise cancellation , you’re definitely going to be spending closer to $200 or more.
On the plus side, the category has gone past the early adopter premium if you know where to look. We’ve even gathered the finest pairs we’ve tested under $130 in our story on The Best Cheap True Wireless Earbuds . No matter how much you spend, check out our story on 6 Ways You’re Using Your Headphones Wrong to get the most out of your purchase.
We’ll be testing more true wireless pairs as they are released, but here you’ll find the highest-rated models we’ve seen so far.