Apple made headlines with its eye-catching AirPods, and now there are cable-free rivals all over the place. Here’s our pick of the best Bluetooth wireless earbuds for 2017/2018
After some initial head-scratching caused by their odd stick-in-your ear design, the reviews of Apple’s cable-free AirPods were pretty favourable. Then, as always, a number of similar wireless headphones were released that attempt to get in on the act.
These products work excellently with every iPhone, and you may even be wondering which will best work with the new iPhone X.
The advantages of a wireless design are obvious – especially for sport and exercise, as they allow you to go running or to work-out at a gym without having to worry about snagging the cables all the time.
Mind you, as owners of the AirPods have discovered, the little earbuds are fine when you’re just casually walking around, but might not be stable enough to stay in place once you start to pick up the pace a bit. So if you want some cable-free earbuds that you can wear for exercising then you’ll definitely lean towards brands such as Jabra and Motorola, whose earbuds are water-resistant for outdoor use, and include small rubber ‘fins’ to help keep them in place.
In addition to providing pretty good sound quality, the Apple AirPods are also packed with high-tech features, such as Apple’s W1 chip, which can tell when you take the earbuds out, and even let you use Siri voice commands. So Apple’s rivals have come up with some smart features of their own, such as Motorola’s ‘find my headphones’ feature, while several provide the ability to adjust the sound levels so that urban joggers can still hear the noise of traffic around them.
And while Apple is often criticised for its high prices, most of the rival earbuds that we’ve seen so far are actually more expensive than the AirPods – which just proves that Apple can offer good value for money when it wants to.
It was no coincidence that Apple unveiled a wireless version of its EarPods, branded as AirPods, at the launch of the controversially headphone-jack-free iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. But the AirPods aren’t just a solution to the loss of a port on a smartphone.
Sound and call quality is excellent, the auto play/pause function works well, and the Siri controls are surprisingly accurate. Considering the small form factor of the earphones, the amount of tech inside is incredible.
The AirPods pair easily with any iOS device and come in a travel case (which also charges them); and since the release of iOS 10.3, you can use Find my AirPods should you happen to lose one.
You can read more about them in our AirPods review and, if you don’t like the colour, there’s also a company that’ll customise them for you – but it’s fairly pricey.
Earin is a relatively new company to the scene, established in 2013 and funded via a Kickstarter campaign. The idea was to create simplistic wireless in-ear headphones that looked great and, most importantly, had no wires – an idea that was extremely popular, as the campaign was funded and two years down the line, Earin is finally available (albeit in limited quantities).
These are incredibly small, measuring in at 14.5x20mm and weighs a lightweight 3.5g, making them the smallest wireless in-ear headphones on the market.
The main difference between Earin and its competitors is that many companies that produce wireless in-ear headphones have to include an extra part that rests around your neck, holding all the tech (Bluetooth receiver, battery etc), whereas Earin has none of that. The earbuds are stored in a small metallic capsule that’ll wirelessly charge them whenever stored, providing you with fully charged wireless in-ear headphones whenever you need them.
Despite the small size, Earin doesn’t disappoint when it comes to audio quality. The earbuds are manufactured with two dedicated amps that drive high-precision speakers, providing detailed sound with excellent mid tones, a clear high end and a tight bass. We were blown away with the quality of the earbuds, especially when paired with the (supplied) memory foam tips that provide a decent level of noise cancellation.
There’s also an iOS and Android app available that lets you fine-tune your Earin experience, allowing you to tweak elements like bass and balance, as well as being able to keep an eye on how much battery life they have left.
Jabra Elite Sport
Jabra is well-known for its sporty headphones and accessories and, as the name suggests, the Elite Sport is one of its top-of-the-range sets of earbuds. They’re absolutely packed to the gills with high-tech features – which is just as well, given that price tag of more than £200.
Like many of their fitness-oriented rivals, the Elite Sport earbuds use a small rubber fin that fits inside your ear to keep them in place during exercise. However, we were pleased to see that Jabra actually include fins in three different sizes in order to provide a secure and comfortable fit. On top of that, you also get ‘eargels’ in three different sizes, and extra foam tips for the earpieces as well, so Jabra is really making sure the earbuds feel nice and comfy when you’re going through your paces.
They’re sweat-resistant too, and water-proof to a depth of one metre, so they’ll survive a bit of splashing around on the beach (although you probably shouldn’t wear them when you go swimming). There’s even a sensor inside the earpieces that can monitor your heart-rate during exercise, and relay the data to the Jabra app on your iPhone.
And, thankfully, Jabra hasn’t ignored the sound quality either. The Elite Sport have an attractive, warm tone that works well with most types of music, and the bass is also pretty firm for such a compact set of earphones too. The only minor let-down is the modest three-hour battery life, although the charging case that comes with the earbuds lets you charge them up twice for an additional six hours of music and calls when you’re travelling.
LG Tone Free
The new Tone Free earbuds from LG haven’t arrived in the UK just yet. But they’re due for release here towards the end of May, and their design is even more bizarre than that of Apple’s AirPods, so they’re definitely worth looking out for.
The earbuds themselves are small, rectangular slabs of plastic that just rest lightly inside your ear. They don’t have the rubber fins used by some of the more sporty earbuds so – like Apple’s AirPods – they may not be ideal if you tend to throw yourself around a lot while you’re exercising. (See also: Best running & fitness headphones.)
The unusual aspect of their design is that they come with a large neckband, rather than a conventional carrying case, and you can quickly slot the earbuds into the neckband when they’re not in use. The idea is that you can wear the neckband in the office, or maybe when you’re sitting on a train or a plane, so that they’re always within reach when you need them.
Battery life is only around three hours, but there’s a battery inside the neckband so that you can recharge on the move, and get about seven hours in total. The neckband can also vibrate if you receive a call while the earbuds are stowed away, and LG’s Tone and Talk app – for both iOS and Android – includes features such as voice alerts and an equalizer to adjust the sound settings.
We’ve only had a quick demo of the Tone Free recently, so we’ll reserve judgement on the sound quality, but we hope to take a closer look when they go on sale in the UK next month.
The VerveOnes+ are part of Motorola’s Verve range of accessories, which are all designed for rugged, outdoorsy people.
As well as an IP57 rating, which means that they’re sweat-proof and water-resistant to a depth of 1m, the electronic circuitry inside the little earbuds is protected by an ‘HZO’ coating – a new form of water protection that’s starting to attract attention from a number of smartphone manufacturers. In other words, they’ll be able to cope if you get caught in a bit of a downpour when you’re hiking across the Pennines this summer.
Battery life is only around three hours, but the little cylindrical carrying case lets you top that up to about 12 hours in total, and it’s small enough to easily slip into a pocket when you’re on the move.
Motorola’s Hubble app has some handy features too, such as a ‘pass-through’ option that allows you to hear some of the background noise around you – which might be useful if you’re jogging near a busy road. There’s also a ‘find my headphones’ feature, which allows the app to record the last known location of the earbuds in case you lose them.
Motorola boasts about the ‘HD’ audio quality, without really saying what that means, but the VerveOnes+ sound perfectly adequate for listening to some workout tunes, even if they don’t really stand out from their rivals on all-round audio quality. However, a recent price cut has brought them down to £180 here in the UK, which makes the VerveOnes+ one of the cheaper alternatives to Apple’s AirPods.
Onkyo has decades of experience with high-quality audio equipment, and it actually unveiled its W800BT earbuds way back in 2015, while the Apple AirPods were just a twinkle in Jony Ive’s eye. They’re not perfect, but the company’s audio experience has resulted in one of the best sets of earbuds we’ve seen so far.
The large, circular design of the earbuds makes them look like a rather chunky set of ear-studs – think David Beckham during his sarong period – but they certainly don’t look as daft as having the stalks of the AirPods dangling out of your ears. There’s a little rubber fin that fits into your ear and helps to keep them in place, and this can feel a bit odd until you get used to it; but it does help to keep the earbuds safely in place so that you can move freely when you’re working out.
The little internal battery only lasts for about three hours, but the carrying case has its own battery that will give you five full recharges (15 hours).
Audio quality is very good, particularly on the higher frequencies, which ring out loud and clear on my noisy exercise playlist. Earbuds of this size are never going to produce thunderous bass, but Onkyo claims that the W800BT can go right down to a frequency of 6Hz, and the earbuds do manage to pick up details such as the low bass on Enya’s Orinoco Flow.
They’re even more expensive than Apple’s AirPods, but if you want a set of cable-free earbuds that focus on sound quality rather than sport and fitness then the W8000BT really fits the bill.
The SoundPeats Q29 are high-quality Bluetooth earbuds that offer excellent value for money and – critical for iPhone users – stylish design. Our favourite feature is the charging case, however. The portable case that normally goes in the bin is, in this case, the charging battery. It is a neat and stylish solution that will prevent you losing your tiny wee buds.
Weighing in at round 5g per bud, the Q29 are truly wireless. There is no nasty cable to stretch around the back of your head. Bluetooth 4.1 connectivity is a given, and the 45mAh polymer lithium battery gives better-than-average battery life, in our experience. At least when new.
We had no problems with setting and maintaining a connection with a variety of smartphones and one tablet, too. In the box you get that cool charging case, a USB cable via which to charge it, three pairs of eartips, and a user manual you will immediately throw away.
These are cheap wireless ‘phones, and you get what you pay for. From an audio perspective, listening to a variety of music we heard good detail in the mid range, but little punchy bass and somewhat spongey higher frequencies. It’s not bad, it’s just not audiophile – but you shouldn’t be looking for that at this price.
More impressive is build and comfort. The buds are so light and have a variety of rubber tips, so that with the lack of a wire they feel super comfortable regardless of your lug size.
In terms of features SoundPeats is keen to promote the fact that you can switch to mono output and share your buds with another person (providing you are prepared to stay within Bluetooth range of them). There are also various controls accessed from the tiny buds themselves. They all work, but we found ourselves reaching for our phone, even when out running.
With an SRP of £79.99/$79.99, we found the SoundPeats Q29 available from Amazon for around half that price, which makes them a bargain too.