True wireless earphones are the next evolution in wireless bluetooth headphones - they remove the need for wires altogether, and instead are nothing more than a pair of earbuds that connect via bluetooth, usually paired with a carry case that also doubles as a charger.
They are the cutting edge of headphone design - the first designs only appeared towards the end of 2016, and nobody quite knew what to make of them. Many people, myself included, thought they were a needless gimmick - I can’t even cross a room without losing something important, so why would I want to lose the helpful tether that was stopping the expensive earphones from falling out my ears?
Fast forward to 2020, and people have changed their tune - Apple’s Airpods can be seen anywhere, and they have sparked numerous copies - some better, some worse. In this article we’re going to look at your options for true wireless earphones, and which ones will best suit your needs.
We’ll start with the arguably the most famous model of true wireless earphones - the ones that really started it. Apple launched their Airpods in late 2016, and they are the defacto standard for true wireless earphones.
The Airpods have gone through several revisions in the last few years (Apple are on generation 3 at time of writing) but they have still stayed largely the same - elongated versions of the iconic Apple earphones, with a Tic-Tac shaped box to store and charge them.
Whether or not the Airpods work for you will depend on one simple factor - do the standard Apple earphones stay in your ears? Apple’s earphones are notorious for being ‘incompatible’ with certain ear shapes - and this problem stays in the Airpods. So they may be stricken off the list from the get go.
Sound-wise, the Airpods work decently - the volume can be wound up high without any noticeable distortion, though they lack any kind of noise cancellation, so quiet music will get lost when outdoors or anywhere with a lot of background noise.
The battery life is about standard for true wireless earphones - 4-5 hours between charges, with the case holding 2 full charges. There is a mic for hands-free calling and some touch controls on the sides of the earbuds to control start/stop, volume, etc.
As with much of Apple’s gear, the best results are found if you use a lot of other Apple tech. The Airpods work with an iPhone or Macbook, allowing use of Siri and monitoring the battery life, and the airpods seamlessly switch between phone and laptop very easily. Move outside of Apple’s ecosystem however, and some of these helpful features drop off. Pairing is less seamless when using an Android phone, and it is harder to check how much juice they have left.
However the major drawback to the Airpods is the price - like most of Apple’s tech, they aren’t cheap at all. Given that they lack some of the special features or big battery of the other earphones reviewed here, you’re paying for the design and the status symbol as much as the sound - for some people this will be a dealbreaker, others will be fine with the premium. Me, I’m an Apple user through and through, so I’m writing this article while listening to my Airpods!
Additionally the ends of the earbuds have been changed so rubber tips push inside the ear canal, rather than sitting outside the ear like the Airpods - therefore the Airpods Pro fit more snuggly, and are less likely to fall out when moving, and largely circumvent the problems of ‘incompatible ears’ mentioned above.
These two changes mean the Airpods Pro have significantly better noise isolation than the previous model - you can now listen to your quiet introspective ballads in public without them being drowned out by background noise!
Apple has also added water resistance to the Airpods Pro - helpful mostly for sweat if you use your earphones while running. Note that they are water resistant, not water proof, meaning if you drop them in the bath they’ll still be ruined. Outside of that the Airpods Pro contain many of the same features as their little brothers.
However these additions come at a hefty cost - the Airpods Pro are over £100 more expensive than the standard Airpods. Whether you can justify them or not depends on how much background noise bothers you - it’s a steep premium, but you gain a far better sound quality overall.
Let’s move away from Apple and look at some of the alternatives. Samsung’s Galaxy Buds are effectively the Android version of Apple’s Airpods - they share many of the same features, but aimed at Android integration rather than iOS. This means that iPhone users may want to skip these - the accompanying app that offers extra options and fine control of the earphones is Android-only for the moment
Compared to the Airpods, the Galaxy Buds use a rubber tip (similar to the Powerbeats Pro and Airpods Pro) that allows for a more snug fit - this means less noise will leak in from outside while listening in noisy conditions. They also have a fractionally better battery life - 5-6 hours vs 4-5 with the Airpods and Airpods Pro.
The sound is functional - comparable to the Airpods, but nothing like the excellent sound quality of the Powerbeats Pro. In the end these have much of the same pros and cons as the Airpods - just aimed at Android users rather than iPhone. For lacking many of the bells and whistles, the price is quite expensive, but they do the work - and if you have an Android phone, you will find the extra integration may be worth the money.
Nowadays people act like they forgot about Dre… with all the hype of the Airpods, Beats by Dre have been left in the dust. This changed last year when Beats released the Powerbeats Pro, their take on true wireless earphones.
At first glance the differences are clear - the Powerbeats Pro opt for a design with a prominent earhook, that makes sure the earbuds are in no danger of falling out of your ears while you’re running or exercising. This also means they have an extremely tight fit, which means less noise leaks in from outside while you’re listening.
Under the hood is where things get really impressive though - the Powerbeats Pro boast 8-9 hours of listening from a single charge, which places them miles ahead of any of the other earphones reviewed here. They also have a faster charge when inside the charging case, so you can get straight into running with as little downtime as possible.
Being a Beats product, the sound quality is excellent, if a little bass heavy. Great if you’re listening to pounding electronica or your pumped up running playlist (such as the Best Running Song Ever), but it means lighter, more sensitive music is in danger of being overwhelmed by too much bass. This has been a problem with many of the Beats headphones - they just aren’t really made for classical or acoustic fans.
As you would expect from a product with ‘Pro’ in the title, the Powerbeats Pro are expensive - while not as pricey as the Airpods Pro, they will still set you back over £200. This is significantly more than the standard Airpods, but less than the Airpods Pro - and the Powerbeats Pro have a far better battery life and a more powerful sound (though no noise cancelling).
Finally, let’s concentrate on a pair of true wireless headphones that won’t break the bank. Anker have made their name as an excellent source for competitively priced tech - they make everything from power supplies to robot vacuum cleaners, and their products usually have a smart (if conservative) design and are well built.
The Soundcore Liberty Air earphones don’t change this at all - there are good true wireless earphones, which cover all the basics with few frills. They have a decent bass and volume, but lack noise isolation so aren’t quite as effective in noisy situations. Moreover they are actually water resistant, which is more than Apple Airpods have managed! Plus they aren’t tied to a specific phone, so will work well with iPhones and Android phones alike.
The battery on the Liberty Air earphones isn’t quite as powerful as other true wireless earphones, and the design feels a little bit cheap, nothing like the Airpods or Powerbeats we’ve reviewed here. However they also only cost a fraction of the price - at £100 less than the Airpods they are a tempting proposition for someone unwilling to drop so much money on a premium set of true wireless earphones.
They are our choice for a budget set of true wireless headphones that won’t have you sacrificing on quality!