It wasn’t long ago that true wireless earbuds, those that don’t need any wires even between the earphones, weren’t very good. Solid connectivity was a challenge, dropouts were infuriatingly common and battery life was woeful.
But they all offered that taste of freedom from wires that is like a ratchet – once you’ve experienced tangle-free listening, you’ll never go back.
Now there are loads of truly wireless earbuds on the market offering all sorts of features, designs and sound. None of them are bargain basement, and it’s difficult to know which ones are worth buying. So here’s a guide to separate the wheat from the chaff.
This Guardian buyer’s guide to true wireless earbuds was last updated on 17 June, and represents the best available models at the time. As new models are released and tested, this guide will be updated to help you choose the right earbuds for you.
Best all-round: Samsung Galaxy Buds
Nailing the combination of connectivity, sound, in-ear comfort, controls and case size has proved far more difficult for truly wireless earbuds than you might expect. Thankfully Samsung has managed it on the third try.
The Galaxy Buds are small, light and comfortable earbuds, with a traditional silicone tip on one end and a small body that sits within your concha, even if you have fairly small ears, allowing you to completely forget about them. They come with a series of soft stabilising wings if you need them, but stay put perfectly fine without them.
A touchpad on the outside takes care of controls. Tap to pause or play, double and triple-tap to skip track. A touch and hold gesture can be switched between turning on or temporarily piping ambient sound into the earbuds, triggering your voice assistant or to change the volume (left to go down, right to turn it up). Take both earbuds out and the music automatically pauses. It all works very well, although I wish you could trigger ambient sound on pause.
The Galaxy Buds sound pretty good too, with reasonable sound isolation and a well-rounded tone most will like. They’re fairly balanced, not overly dominated by bass or treble, with good separation and punch where needed. The buds are capable of uncomfortable volume levels when cranked right up and there’s a limited EQ available in the Galaxy Wearable app. Audiophiles might turn their noses up, but they sound good compared with the competition at this price.
Bluetooth connectivity between the buds and to the phone is rock solid, regardless of whether you’re using a Samsung or other phone. They can be used as a stereo pair, individually and hot-swapped between left and right in mono without skipping a beat, even when on a call – something only Apple’s AirPods have been capable of until now. The Galaxy Buds support AAC and Samsung’s proprietary scalable codec for high-quality music, with no noticeable lipsync issues even when connected to a non-Samsung device. Call quality is good, but a little distant similar to when you’re on speaker phone.
Even the case is really good. It flips open and closed with a satisfying snap, is small enough to fit in the money pocket of a pair of jeans and provides just over one full charge of the earbuds. Combined that means the Galaxy Buds will last up to six hours of continuous playback with an additional seven hours in the case. In practice that means having to charge them once a week for the commute via the USB-C port or even wireless charging on any Qi-compatible pad or phone.
Pairing with an Android phone with Samsung’s Galaxy Wearable app installed is as easy as opening them up and waiting for the prompt. Everything else needs a quick trip into the settings menu like any other Bluetooth device. They worked well with various Android phones, PCs, iPads and iPhones.
When paired with an Android phone you can also get the Galaxy Buds to read out notifications, which is far more useful than it sounds; if you limit the number of apps, that can interrupt your music to just a few. There’s no iOS app for changing settings, which means you need at least one Android device in your life to make sure they’re up to date.
Why should I buy them?
The Galaxy Buds offer the best combination of sound, connectivity, size, comfort case and price, making them the ones to buy for Android unless you don’t like canal-buds.
Buy if: you want a simple set of truly wireless earbuds that just work
Don’t buy if: you only use iOS or don’t like canal-buds
Best sounding: Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless
If you’re looking for the best sound from truly wireless earbuds that tick nearly every other box, then check out the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless.
They are relatively large but light, looking like a Rolo sweet or a tiny fez with an earbud projecting out of the corner. The included rubber ear tips, of which there are four of varying sizes, sit in your ear canal while the rest of the earbud can either float just outside or be twisted to fit just inside your ear in the concha. They’re fairly comfortable and stay put, which is good because they don’t come with any wings or other attachments to hold them in place.
They come in a fairly small grey hard fabric case, with a spring-loaded lid that opens and shuts with a satisfying click. The earbuds last between three and four hours of constant listening and can be recharged up to three times from the case, which itself is charged via a USB-C cable.
Connectivity is excellent. Not once did they suffer a drop out in testing or lipsync issue, supporting AAC, aptX and the new aptX Low Latency Bluetooth codecs. Call quality is good but a bit distant.
The best bit is how they sound. The True Wireless earbuds offer fairly good isolation, while music is rich, lively and warm. Those looking for more neutral sound might be disappointed, but the earbuds produce crisp highs and deep bass, sounding great with most music genres. You can also tweak the equaliser slightly using Sennheiser’s Android or iOS app.
Take out an earbud and the music pauses and restarts when you put it back in. Each earbud has a silver touch pad too. Tap the left once to pause, twice and trice to skip track or tap and hold to turn down the volume. Tap the right once to invoke Siri or Google Assistant, twice to pause the music and activate transparency mode, or tap and hold to turn up the volume. The controls work pretty well, but you will likely press a button when getting them in and out of your ear.
Why should I buy them?
Great sound, rock solid connectivity, no lag and aptX LL support, good battery life, a fairly compact case and useful touch controls make the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless one of the very best.
Buy if: you want good connectivity and great sound with plenty of bass
Don’t buy if: you want more balanced sound
Best non-isolating: Apple AirPods 2
If you don’t like blocking out the world, or can’t get on with canal-bud style earphones that enter your ear, look no further than Apple’s AirPods, now in their second generation.
They gently rest in your ear with little white stalks sticking down, projecting the sound down your ear holes rather than sitting directly in them. As a consequence you can hear everything happening around you meaning you won’t be able to hear your music on something as loud as the tube in London, and if cranked up to maximum they bleed sound, although not as badly as Apple’s non-wireless EarPods. They sound pretty good considering the lack of isolation, with reasonable bass and clarity.
The AirPods work best with Apple gear, automatically syncing pairing across any Apple devices you might have, but can also be paired with Android or other devices. Connectivity is rock solid with an iPhone and recent Android devices and PCs.
Where they fall down is on-board controls – there’s basically just one, a double tap. When connected to a non-iPhone it pauses or plays music. Hooked up to an iOS device you have the option to trigger Siri, pause or skip track on each earbud, which means one can summon Siri while the other pauses. There’s no volume control. Take them out and it pauses the music.
With the second generation AirPods you can also just say “Hey Siri” at any time without having to tap anything to activate Apple’s voice assistant. After having to re-teach Siri to recognise my voice, it generally worked well, even with music blasting out. But Siri can be a little slow, particularly when you have poor connectivity on your smartphone. You also get odd looks doing so on public transport.
The AirPods’ other strengths are that you can use either of the earbuds in mono, call quality is pretty good, and the charging case is the best in the business. The AirPods last about five hours of music and can be fully charged around five times by the case, which itself is charged via a Lightning cable. They are also available with a new wireless charging case (£40/$40 extra) for powering up on Qi-compatible chargers.
Why should I buy them?
Seamless connectivity with Apple products is key, but they sound pretty good, have an excellent case and are a decent alternative to canal-buds, even for Android users
Buy if: you use Apple products and don’t need sound isolation
Don’t buy if: you want to block out the sounds outside world
Best for size: Earin M-2
If you want the smallest, most discreet wireless earbuds available, the Earin M-2 deliver. These tiny earbuds sit within your ear with only a flat touch-sensitive surface visible.
Available in black or white, they’re light and easy to forget you’re wearing them. They produce a balanced, relatively flat sound with good treble and fairly crisp highs. Those looking for pumping bass or truly sparkling audio will have to look elsewhere, but they make a good go of most music genres.
An Android or iOS app sorts updates, and tweaks transparency settings, but there are no equaliser settings.
Noise isolation is good but not great. The M-2s can feed ambient sound in when the music pauses, but it sounds like you’re listening to the world down an old phone line – fine for listening to an announcement but it takes some getting used to.
Unusually, there’s no left or right earbud. They can be inserted in either ear with the buds working out which way round they are, and either can be used on its own for mono listening. They support AAC and aptX, and maintain a stable connection to your phone and between the earbuds, which communicate via magnetic induction, not Bluetooth. The result is lag and lipsync issue-free audio. Call quality is good, but a little quiet, meaning you’ll have to speak up, and there’s no sidetone, so it’s difficult to know how loud you’re talking.
Tap once to pause, twice to skip track or tap and hold to invoke Google Assistant or Siri on either bud. The controls work well, but there’s no volume control at all, so you’ll have to reach for your phone for that.
They last a good three hours of constant playback and charge about three times in the cylindrical aluminium case, which slides open and shut with a satisfying clunk.
Why should you buy them?
If you want your truly wireless earbuds to be as small as possible, but still have good sound, great connectivity and a good case, the Earin M-2 are it.
Buy if: you want the the smallest of truly wireless earbuds
Don’t buy if: you want a smaller case or better sound
Best budget option: Anker Soundcore Liberty Air
Anker is a brand known for quality charging accessories including batteries and cables, but its budget true wireless earbuds are some of the best around.
The Liberty Air are among the latest additions to the line featuring better sound, rock-solid connectivity with support for AAC and a smaller case.
They’re light, comfortable and sound surprisingly good for the money, with clear vocals, fairly crisp highs and relatively pronounced bass. They have a more balanced sound than the company’s previous Liberty Lite earbuds.
Both the case and design are clearly inspired by Apple’s AirPods with stalks that project down from the earbud and a case that snaps shut over them. If you don’t like stalks, look elsewhere. The case is one of the most pocketable, but bigger than Apple’s and easily marked.
You get more than four hours of constant playback and three full charges in the case, which itself is charged via microUSB cable. The earbuds lack buttons instead a double tap on the right earbud plays or pauses the music, tap and hold for two seconds on the right earbud to skip to the next track or left for the previous track. There’s no volume control unfortunately and only the right earbud can be used on its own.
Call quality was excellent. Loud, clear and with excellent suppression of background noise for the other end of the call.
Why should you buy them?
Compact case, good sound, connectivity and battery, plus no noticeable lipsync issues, the Anker Liberty Air are the best budget truly wireless earbuds
Buy if: you want truly wireless earbuds on a budget
Don’t buy if: you want really great sound or hate stalks
These truly wireless earbuds are still worth buying, if the top five don’t fit the bill.
Anker Soundcore Liberty Neo
Anker’s smaller true wireless earbuds are an excellent budget option, but have a larger case and are bettered on sound and call quality by the Liberty Air. They can be found for slightly cheaper and don’t have the AirPod-like stalk design, so are still worth buying if the price or earbud design suits you better. Not good for phone calls though.
B&O E8 2.0
B&O’s second-generation E8 are a solid mix of sound quality and connectivity with a fairly small case. They last just under four hours’ playtime, with two full charges in the case, which itself is charged via USB-C or Qi wireless charging. Touch panels on each earbud take care of controls, including volume, and they have an reasonable transparency mode too. They support AAC, can connect to two devices simultaneously, but can’t be used independently. Call quality is reasonable.
The biggest issue is their size: the E8s are massive for earbuds and don’t feel all that stable in your ears unless you use the included Comply foam tips. They’re also expensive and bettered by the Sennheisers on the audio quality front.
Bose SoundSport Free
If you want more isolation than the AirPods but can’t get on with canal-bud style tips, the Bose SoundSport Free provide a good halfway house. The StayHear+ tips rest in your concha but don’t enter your ear canal, holding themselves in-place with a flexible fin.
They sound good, connectivity is rock solid with AAC support, call quality is really good, and they last more than four hours between charges. The large case provides two full charges. The biggest problem is that they’re huge and stick out your ear a mile. At least the call quality is good.
Jabra Elite 65t
The Jabra Elite 65t are a good alternative to the Samsung Galaxy Buds. They have rock-solid connectivity, support for AAC, no noticeable lipsync issues and sound good, with punchy, controlled bass plus a full equaliser in the Jabra Sound+ app.
There are volume/track skip buttons on the left earbud and a pause/play button on the right, which activates ambient sound when double pressed. Call quality is good with clear voice, but background noise bleeds into the mic a little. The case is pretty compact and charges the buds twice totalling to 12 hours’ playback.
The Elite 65t twist to lock in place in the ear, but are fairly large and uncomfortable for longer listening sessions for smaller ears.
Master and Dynamic MW07
RRP: £280 / $300
If the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless don’t fit the bill but you want great sound, then the Master and Dynamic MW07 are worth a look.
They sound good, with pronounced bass and crisp highs, but fall slightly short of the better-sounding Sennheiser. There’s a slight hiss when nothing is playing, but have rock-solid connectivity with AAC and aptX support. The buds are also fairly large and certainly a statement in piano gloss. The wings are a bit uncomfortable, but I didn’t need them.
The case is medium sized, and feels good in the hand, but is heavy and the earbuds don’t quite snap into place unless the lid is closed. Physical buttons for controls are great, including volume. Calls sounded echoey.
Like black Apple AirPods but with a traditional isolating earbud on the end to enter your ear, the RHA TrueConnect sound good with strong bass and solid isolation, but poor call quality.
Connectivity is pretty good including AAC support, with only a very occasional blip while suffering only minimal lipsync issues with video. Latency is more of an issue with games. They last four hours per charge, with four full charges in an attractive, medium-sized case.
A button on each earbud handles volume, track skip, pause, play and the voice assistant all accessible with multiple clicks. The button felt mushy on one set requiring replacement.
Sony’s WF-1000X are nearly excellent, and offer something most rival true wireless earbuds don’t: active noise cancelling.
They sound good and fit fairly well with a good selection of earbuds and wings to hold them in place. They’re medium sized, with a unique look that resembles mini Bluetooth headsets. Subtle they are not.
The active noise cancelling works well at nullifying the roar of a plane’s engine, but they’re not on the same scale as Sony’s MX1000M3 headphones. They also only last about three hours of constant listening, which is fine for an internal flight but not much longer. The case contains about two full charges.
There are two big issues with the WF-1000X that knock them down a couple of stars. They have intermittent connectivity issues with both Android and iPhone and have lipsync issues in some apps but not all. The case is also pretty big and overly complicated.
The Tranya T3 are a solid set of budget true wireless earbuds with a reasonably bassy sound, good connectivity and AAC support. A button on each earbud takes care of controls. Isolation is fairly weak and the case is pretty bulky and easily marked. Call quality was abysmal and there was a small lipsync issue with YouTube on an iPhone.
CrazyBaby Air Nano – Connectivity and latency issues – £70
Jabra Elite Sport – Big, bulky and bettered by the newer Jabra Elite 65t – £200
Jaybird Run – Solid for runners, but unacceptable latency issues – £159
JBL Free X – Large case and terrible latency issues – £120
JLabs JBuds Air – Sound fine, but only SDC support means latency issues – £50
Motorola Verve Ones – Connectivity issues are a deal-breaker – £130
NuForce BE Free8 – OK sound, but constant hiss and connectivity issues – £200
Rowkin Ascent Micro – small, sound OK, but serious latency issues – £125
Skullycandy Indy – Sound ok, but get stuck in the case and suffer lag with an iPhone – £70
Taotronics BH053 – sound OK, but cheap plastic with questionable durability and lag with YouTube – £38
TicPods Free – Good sound and controls, but terrible latency – £120
Urbanista Stockholm – AirPod ripoffs with poor fit and weak sound – £89
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010