2017 is the year we saw the headphone jack enter its retirement years and start cashing in its pension. The iPhone 7 led the way, and now an increasing number of Android phones like the Google Pixel 2 are ditching the 3.5mm socket in favour of slimmer phones and bigger batteries. Instead of cables tethering us to our audio devices, Bluetooth is now the connectivity king, and whatever your thoughts about our new wireless future there are a bunch of Bluetooth headsets vying for our attention.
But if you are going to drop the cable between your head and your phone, why not go the whole way and get rid of the one around your head! Unlike Bluetooth headsets or earphones that are physically connected to each other, true wireless earbuds are free from all cabling and have no wires at all (except for one notable exception below), and are designed to fit comfortably in your ears without the need for anything else to keep them secure. So which are the best true wireless earbuds? We put a few earphones on test for comfort, features and sound quality.
Bragi Dash Pro
Are they really worth the high price tag? © Alexander McNamara
The Bragi Dash Pros are easily the most expensive true wireless headphones on test, coming in £120 over their nearest rival! This means they have a lot to live up to, so what is it about the Dash Pros that commands such a premium price? In short, they pack in pretty much every feature you can think of in a high-quality and comfortable pair of premium earbuds.
The fit in your ear is snug and secure, especially with the rubbery FitSleeve covers over them for when you’re using the inbuilt run, swim and cycling tracker, and once they’re in, the closed bud style blocks out all but the noisiest of your surrounds. A swipe on the left ear will switch audio transparency on, allowing you to hear the world around you without having to take one of the buds out and it works almost eerily too well, much like a hearing aid does. Tapping your right cheek twice (yes, your cheek) can be used to start/pause or skip the current song, or activate Google Now or Alexa. Other features include a heart-rate monitor, waterproof to 1m, a 4GB built-in music player and up to five hours battery life (30h with the solidly-constructed case).
Comfortable, touch sensitive and stylish © Alexander McNamara
As you’d expect from earbuds at this price the sound quality is excellent, with everything sitting in its right place in the mix and not trying to battle against excessive bass or treble when listening to music, and staying in perfect sync during video playback. The only real downsides to the Dash Pros are call quality not quite reaching the high bar the buds set themselves and the connection between the buds did drop out from time to time, which is a shame, because it sours an otherwise excellent experience.
SOL REPUBLIC Amps Air
Big on sound, small on features © Alexander McNamara
What they lack in features the Amp Airs make up for in brute style and sound. These comfortable earbuds really pack a punch across the frequency spectrum, with strong, booming bass and bright treble providing a good stereo spread, so anything with a beat really stands out. Call quality is excellent both ways, and although there are slight lip-syncing issues when watching videos, it is more than bearable.
Big, but sturdy © Alexander McNamara
As with most headphones tested there were the occasional drop outs between the buds but nowhere near as much as other offenders, and battery life is a reasonable three hours, although something about them never convinced me they were charging properly. That said, when it does work as planned SOL REPUBLIC claim you can get 45 hours of use out of them when you factor in the big, bulky case, which doubles up as a portable battery pack good for charging other USB devices. Another bonus is that SOL REPUBLIC will send you free replacement eartips for life when you lose or wear out your old ones.
Jabra Elite Sport
One for sport fans © Alexander McNamara
Like the Bragi Dash Pros, the Jabra Elite Sport is packed full of fitness features like a heart-rate monitor and a complete workout app, but this pair take it to another level. Rather than just being able to track what you are doing, the Jabra Elite Sports build you personalised training plans, audio queues and even rep counting. They also pack in audio Hear Through, so you can hear the world around you while you are on your run. Although the lime green colour and plastic feel won’t be to everyone’s taste, the fit is solid and comfortable even despite the physical buttons pressing against your ear when you change volume. They are definitely one for sport fans though, sonically at their best when pumping out motivational beats to get your heart rate up.
Suitably snug for a staying in your ear while running © Alexander McNamara
Unfortunately for me the case – which is plastic and doesn’t feel especially sturdy for a £200+ pair of headphones – stopped charging. Given that’s the only way charge the earbuds, once power ran out so did my ability to carry on testing the Elite Sports, which is a shame, as they were definitely decent up until that point.
Don’t feel obliged to listen to Richard Ashcroft’s back catalogue on these © Alexander McNamara
Of the true wireless earbuds tested the Motorola VerveOnes+ have been around the longest, and unfortunately they are showing their age. Chief among their flaws is the sub-par sound, which is flat and lifeless whatever you throw at it – especially galling given they are one of the most expensive tested. Cost and sound quality aside, the buds are big and uncomfortable, the accompanying app is hard to find (they are actually created by a company called Hubble who licence the name Motorola, making it confusing to find the app in the store), the swivel case is novel but all too frequently you get the buds caught on the side when you close it, there are frequent drop outs when listening to music, and lip-syncing is so off videos are unwatchable. I could go on, but at this point it’s probably better for everyone we move on.
Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better © Alexander McNamara
Konnichiwa! © Alexander McNamara
At just under £100, the Urbanista Tokyos are definitely worth considering if you’re on a tight budget. As a no-frills pair of earbuds they don’t offer much in the way of features and battery life is under three hours, but they are stylish and fit comfortably in your ears – maybe too comfortably in my case as I managed to have the eartips come off twice! The sound is perhaps a little too heavy on the bass and it really struggles at higher volumes to keep things together, but turn it down a little and things noticeably improve. There are minor lip-syncing issues if you plan on catching up on video during the commute, but is nowhere near as problematic as others tested. They also come in the smallest case, so they’re easily pocketable.
Too cosy for comfort © Alexander McNamara
On a tight budget? © Alexander McNamara
For those that have blown almost their entire budget on a premium smartphone without a headphone jack, the AVANCA Minims are the cheapest pair of earbuds we tried, and sadly it shows. Although none of the buds on test sounded particularly bad, with nothing on the frequency range really finding its feet the Minims were at the bottom end when it comes to quality. That’s not to say the sound is awful, it’s just if you dropped over £600 on a phone it’s worth finding the pennies to do the sound justice. Despite the lacklustre sound, call quality is good, with my voice audible the other side of the call and voices coming through loud and clear the other way.
Like other wireless earbuds in this test, there is too much delay between audio and video meaning watching YouTube isn’t really an option, and the signal between the two buds drops too frequently, especially when the battery gets low. Speaking of which, a particular oddity to the AVANCA Minims is that rather than giving a clear audio or visual signal that the batteries are running down you get the digital equivalent of a Walkman running out of juice, with audio becoming more digitised and unlistenable.
Painful presses © Alexander McNamara
The case is solid enough, but being cylindrical has a tendency to roll around the table unless it is stood upright and isn’t particularly comfortable in the pocket, while the buds themselves are made of plastic with stiff physical buttons. This can get a little painful when you press them against your ears to change volume or answer a call.
Google Pixel Buds
A budding contender © Alexander McNamara
When it comes to true wireless earbuds, Google are really testing the definition to the limits with their Pixel Buds, for the simple reason that the two buds are connected by a nylon string. Technically this isn’t a wire as the two buds talk to each other via Bluetooth rather than physically, but can they still really be called true wireless? Either way, the cable is handy because as they are open earbuds they tend to sit on, rather than in your ears, and the cable not only helps secure them in place but also adds peace of mind that they aren’t going to fall out. Despite being open earbuds the sound quality is surprisingly good, adding a bit of spaciousness to your tunes and comfortably balancing everything out. You aren’t going to be blown away by the Pixel Buds, but you won’t feel any twinges of disappointment either at this price.
The call quality is excellent, with both caller and recipient hearing the conversation with crystal clarity, which is handy because voice plays a key part in the Pixel Buds flagship feature, Google Assistant. Holding a finger on the touch-sensitive earbuds brings up Google’s digital assistant, (sparing you the blushes of having to say “OK, Google” in public) and it works very fast and very effectively. It also alerts you to notifications and deals with your response to them with similar efficacy, although the earbuds are a little sensitive to touch and it ended up doing things I didn’t want when I put them in my ears.
No fear of losing these buds © Alexander McNamara
Like all the earbuds I tried, these were tested on a 1st-gen Google Pixel XL, so pairing was simple thanks to the new Fast Pair feature in the latest Android update, but to connect them to other devices you need that have them housed in their delightfully-textured, of not reassuringly sturdy, case and push a button on the inside.
There is a lot of choice when it comes to picking out the best true wireless earbuds for you – is it purely sound quality you’re after or features? How important is battery life, and of course cost? If you want ease of use, decent price and great sound, the Pixel Buds are a happy medium if you’re a fan of the Google ecosystem. It’s worth noting at this point that I also tried out the Apple AirPods on an iPad, with similar results to the Pixel Buds (good sound, solid features, reasonably comfortable fit), but realistically you’re unlikely to pick these up if you’re toting Android. If you’re not so au fait with OK, Google then the SOL REPUBLIC Amp Airs are the louder, noisier option if you’re into that sort of thing.
If money is no object then the Bragi Dash Pros are an easy choice, combining a rich feature set with excellent-quality sound and stylish looks, but they are just so very expensive, whereas at the opposite end of the spectrum the Urbanista Tokyos cover the basics reasonably well.
We are at the beginning of an inevitable rise in the number of true wireless earbuds for sale, which means the competition will get stiffer and the common problems of dropouts and battery life should be ironed out, but there are some great earphones out there worthy of listening to. It might not be long before wireless earbuds are bundled in with our new headphone jack-less smartphones, but for those who feel the need for wire-free audio there are some great options whatever your budget.
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