Earbuds are great for some personal listening in the office, on the commute or at the gym, but wires are a pain, and headphone sockets are disappearing from our smartphones.
Bluetooth earbuds have long been available with a wire between them that runs round the back of your neck, but that can be frustrating as it often gets caught on clothing. The next generation of truly wireless earbuds solves the problem by getting rid of the wires entirely.
Anker Soundcore Liberty Lite
RRP: £60 – deals from £45
Most budget true wireless earbuds simply don’t work properly, offering a maddening experience that will drive most potty. Anker’s Liberty Lite (also known as the Liberty Neo) are one of the few exceptions.
They support SBC and AAC, maintain a strong connection to your phone and between the buds have no noticeable lipsync issues when watching video. A single button on either earbud takes care of playback controls, but not volume. They sound pretty good for the money with relatively pronounced bass and crisp highs, but are a little shrill at times, which makes listening at higher volumes wearing. There’s no app or equaliser available and there’s an audible hiss when the music is paused. Call quality was abysmal – look elsewhere if you want to use them for hands-free calls.
The Ankers last around three hours of playtime with three full charges available in the case, for a total of 12 hours. The case is a little bigger than the best, but still fairly pocketable. The earbuds are also a little bigger, sticking more noticeably out of your ear than some others. Their protruding design means they are comfortable, with plenty of tips and wings in the box to get the right fit and no need for stalks.
Budget truly wireless earbuds worth buying – just don’t expect stellar audio quality.
Samsung Galaxy Buds
RRP: £139 – deals from £99
Arguably the Android world’s answer to Apple’s AirPods, the Samsung Galaxy Buds nail almost every aspect.
They are the most comfortable buds in this group, only slightly larger than the tiniest. They come with a variety of wings and tips in the box, but stay put just fine without any extra support, fitting directly into the concha of even smaller ears.
A touch panel on the outside takes care of play control and other bits, including volume, and works great. They support SBC, AAC and Samsung’s proprietary scalable codec if you’re using a Galaxy phone. Connectivity to all phones was great, and either bud can be used independently and swapped with the other without missing a beat.
There were no lipsync issues, and pairing them with various devices was super-quick. Call quality was fairly good, but a bit quiet – meaning you might have to shout a bit.
They sound good, too, with fairly balanced, crisp audio backed up by a reasonable amount of bass. The included tips block out sound fairly well, but there’s a mode for piping ambient sound into your ear if you want more awareness of what’s happening around you.
The Galaxy Buds have an equaliser and app that handles updates, but it’s only available for Android. They work great with an iPhone, but need updating out of the box so they are not recommended for iOS-only users.
The case is tiny, fitting in the money pocket of a pair of jeans, second only to the AirPods, with wireless and USB-C charging too. You get up to six hours of playtime from the buds and an extra seven hours in the case.
They come in white, black and yellow. A bargain at £139, but are often found much lower so look out for deals from reputable retailers.
Small, comfortable, sound good and have a compact case.
RRP: £159 – deals from £130
Apple’s AirPods are wildly popular and for good reason: they work really well.
If you have an iPhone, they automatically pair and sync with your other Apple gear. Android and Windows PC users can also pair them manually, which is only slightly more labour intensive.
Connectivity is rock-solid, although limited to SBC and AAC. You can use either earbud on its own, and swap between them. Syncronization between video and audio is perfect. They even sound pretty good, with reasonable bass and balanced treble.
Unlike most, they just rest in your ear without a traditional earbud, which is great for keeping you aware of your surroundings, but rubbish for blocking out the commute. The stalks hang down, which can clash with some earrings.
Take one or other out of your ear and music pauses. Double tap to trigger Siri on an iPhone or skip track. There’s no volume control, which is annoying, and controls options are limited on non-Apple devices.
They last about five hours and charge five times from the battery in the small, pocket-friendly case, which is the best in the business.
The latest second-generation AirPods add always-on “Hey Siri” support, and the option of a wireless charging case for an extra £40. The smart money is on the regular £159 AirPods or first-generation models. Just watch out for fakes, which are numerous and dirt cheap.
The best non-isolating wireless earbuds by some margin, particularly for the iPhone.
RRP: £219 – deals from £175
If size is your primary concern, then the Earin M-2 are the winners. These tiny buds sit right in your concha with only a touchpad surface visible from the outside.
Taps take care of playback controls, but there’s no volume adjustment on the earbuds. Unusually there is no left or right earbud. Instead they work out which way around they are when you put them in. Either earbud can be used independently, too.
Connectivity to the phone and between the earbuds was rock solid, supporting SBC, AAC and the higher quality aptX (with compatible phone), with no lipsync issues. Call quality was good but a little quiet, and there’s no sidetone, which makes it very hard to know how loudly you are talking with both buds in.
They come with a variety of tips that block out noise fairly well, but there’s an ambient sound mode if you need it, which makes the world sound a little like you’re listening down a really old phone line. Odd but workable.
The Earins make a good show of most music genres, producing a balanced, relatively flat sound with good treble and fairly crisp highs. Those looking for pumping bass or truly sparkling audio are better served elsewhere.
They last three hours with three full charges in a slim but long aluminium case, which isn’t quite as pocketable as the best. An Android or iOS app handles updates and tweaks transparency settings.
The Earin M-2 are fairly difficult to get in the UK, with Earin’s own store about your only option. Their predecessors the M-1 are more commonly available, but they are not worth buying.
Pricey, tiny and pack a discreet latency-free punch, if you can find them.
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless
RRP: £280 – deals from £260
Sennheiser has a long history of making excellent headphones, and the firm’s Momentum True Wireless are no exception. These are the best-sounding true wireless earbuds to date, producing rich, sparkling audio with crisp highs and deep bass.
The earbuds also block out noise fairly well, and have an ambient sound setting should you want a bit more awareness.
They’re shaped like a fez with an earbud on one end, and are fairly large as earbuds go. They will sit either inside your concha if your ears are big enough or float just outside staying put with the right tip. The top surface is touch sensitive taking care of playback and volume controls through various taps. Take out an earbud and the music pauses. It’s difficult to put them in without pushing a button, though.
Connectivity is excellent both to the phone and between the buds, supporting SBC, AAC, aptX and aptX Low Latency, which makes them excellent for all kinds of media and games with no latency or lipsync issues.
They last over three hours and can be charged three times in the fairly compact case, which is charged via USB-C. It’s not small enough to be comfortably pocketable, but it’s close. The biggest problem is the price, but at least you get what you pay for.
Expensive, but these are some of the best-sounding earbuds available with great connectivity.
Bluetooth earbuds: what you need to know
True wireless earbuds are great, but have some unique challenges which you should bear in mind.
You are paying a premium for not dealing with wires, which means pound-for-pound most true wireless earbuds won’t sound as good as wired versions.
The case is super-important for two reasons: it charges your earbuds, but also keeps them safe because these expensive buds are easy to lose. A good compact case you can fit in your pocket is essential.
Along with sheer connectivity strength, Bluetooth audio codec support is critical. A codec is the system used to transmit your audio over the Bluetooth connection. Older codecs are poor-quality and slow, which introduces lipsync issues because of high latency. There’s nothing more annoying than the audio not matching up with video. Look for at least AAC.
The iPhone only supports SBC and AAC at the moment, not the newer or higher-quality aptX or LDAC codecs. Those earbuds that support other codecs are less likely to suffer latency issues.
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