How to choose the best true wireless headphones
Do you need new headphones, preferably in-ear wireless ones? In that case you need true wireless headphones. Before true wireless headphones, there was something called wireless headphones. But there was a cable between the two headphones. Since «wireless» was a term already used in the industry, completely wireless headphones were dubbed «true wireless». On-ear and over-ear headphones aren't part of this group – only in-ear models are covered.
What to look out for
A lot of manufacturers fling obscure marketing terms around, making it all the more likely you'll end up with a bad buy. To save you from that trap, look out for these key features when buying in-ear headphones:
- sound quality
- noise cancelling
- battery life
- Bluetooth codec
How do you recognise good sound quality?
This is a tricky one as sound is a matter of taste. And sound quality is hard to determine from the manufacturer's specifications. For instance, a 5–21,000 Hertz frequency range looks good on paper. But normal human ears only hear in the 20–20,000 Hertz range. This means the headphones only need to cover this range – and most new headphones tick that box.
At the moment, Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless are the headphones most lauded for their sound quality.
That being said, these headphones do have their drawbacks: my colleague Kevin tested them a while ago His verdict was that while the headphone provides great sound, it often runs down the battery on its own while in the case. And Sennheiser are yet to find a way to fix it. What's more, these headphones don't feature active noise cancellation technology and they tend to lose Bluetooth connection with Android phones.
Purely for music – active noise cancellation is a must
If you only want to use the headphones for listening to music and you don't want to hear any sounds around you then you'll need a set of headphones with active noise control. There aren't so many in-ear headphones that are wireless and come with active noise reduction features. Click here to see all the models we stock.
Active noise cancellation on small in-ear models doesn't yet compete with noise control on any over-ear model. Right now it's just not physically possible. You find that on many older models, active noise cancellation is way too weak. However, headphones are always improving.
Comfort: buds or in-ear?
When it comes to true wireless headphones, there are two different styles: earbuds and the in-ear variety. Earbuds are just placed in the outer ear. Some people find this more comfortable than in-ear headphones.
Nevertheless, there is quite a big chance of ending up with a bad buy with earbuds. That's because buds come in different sizes and don't have an attachment. If the buds don't fit in your ear properly, it can cause pain over time. And when they're not in the right place, it also results in poor sound quality.
The most well-known example of earbuds are Apple's AirPods. The AirPods are cool when you link them up to an iPhone because the connection appears as soon as you take the buds out of the little box. The downside is they don't work with Android phones.
Meanwhile, in-ear models are inserted into the ear. These models come in different sizes and feature silicon or foam attachments. This makes it more likely you'll find headphones that fit you without hurting and yet still seal off sound.
If the attachments don't fit well, the bass will suffer and the earphones will just sound centred. With the right attachments, you get passive noise cancelling or an earplug effect. So they hardly let in external sounds.
It's no use having the best headphones if the battery life doesn't correspond to what you need. For example, if you spend a lot of time on long train journeys, you'll need a set of headphones with a larger battery. You also need to check how many charges the case offers so you can recharge your headphones while you're out and about.
Below is a table with the most well-known true wireless headphones and their respective battery life.
The thing about Bluetooth
Bluetooth isn't the same across the board. Make sure you check Bluetooth codecs. Sound quality depends on a number of factors but one of them is Bluetooth from the headphones.
The most important codecs are SBC, aptX and AAC. SBC is the standard codec – it's what all devices need to have. However, it provides poor audio quality for lower bandwidths. What's more, it has greater latency than other codecs and this can cause problems when watching videos. This is because it can make the image appear before the sound.
AptX is included on Android phones. This codec is more efficient at compressing. And then there's AAC. This is comparable with aptX and is the preferred codec of iOS devices.
For optimal sound quality, your Bluetooth headphones should have the same codec as the device you're playing on. More recent Android devices sometimes let you switch to AAC, while iOS devices don’t doaptX.
When it comes down to it, true wireless headphones are really a question of taste. But to help you out, I've picked what I think are the best headphones in the high-end, mid-range and low-budget segments. If you've had a good experience with a headphone model not listed here, please let us all know in the comment box below.
In the event that better, new headphones come out, I'll update my recommendations.
WF-1000XM3 delivers good noise cancellation for an in-ear model and most listeners will like the sound quality. But they only offer AAC Bluetooth codec, which either means you'll have to use them with an Android phone that will let you switch the codec or use them with an iOS device.
Apple AirPods Pro might still be very new but that has not stopped them winning over many users. Admittedly, I didn't find the noise cancelling feature as good as on the WF-1000XM3 but it's not bad. And you don't hear background noises when the sound is at mid volume. For Apple users, the big plus is how user-friendly they are.
The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless headphones are quite expensive but they do deliver excellent sound. The negative is these headphones lose their charge quickly, which means they're not an option for a lot of people. While they do lack active noise cancelling, when the attachments fit well you won't detect much ambient sound.
The Samsung Galaxy Buds sound pretty good for the price – or at least, that's what most users said about them. In actual fact, the Galaxy Buds aren't buds at all. They're in-ear headphones, meaning they sit all the way in your ear. With six hours of battery life, these buds will keep you going for a while. One thing to note is they're not noise cancelling.
The 2nd Gen AirPods are the most famous earbuds. For iPhone users, they're a cheaper alternative to the new AirPods Pro.
Meanwhile, with an impressive ten hours, the JBL Reflect Flow offers the best battery life in the true wireless headphone category. Thanks to wing attachments, these headphones are good for sports. But that doesn't stop them being great for the train or office as well.
Huawei's FreeBuds Lite are a good alternative if you don't want to spend too much money. In terms of sound, they seem to be centred. However, at three hours, the battery life is very short.
Skullcandy Indy headphones feature a skull on the buds. This might not be quite what everyone is looking for, but for the price this model sounds pretty good. The skull version comes in black along with three other colours.
The Xiaomi Mi Airdots Pro are the cheapest true wireless headphones that are noise cancelling. As far as sound goes, they're not the best but for the price tag it's worth having a look.