We tested 11 of the most promising true wireless in-ear headphones (as in, no wires at all connecting the earpieces like traditional Bluetooth headphones). All of them, we found, have some flaws in fit, functionality, or convenience. Because this is the first generation of the technology, manufacturers are still working out the kinks. As a result, we can’t make an overall pick that we think would work for most people. What will work for you depends on what mobile device you have and how willing you are to put up with performance glitches in order to take advantage of a cutting-edge (but still clearly work-in-progress) convenience feature.
What we can tell you is which sets are the better options right now, and what they offer in terms of pros and cons. Depending on how you plan to use your headphones, we have picks for iPhone/iOS users, budget-oriented folks, those who prioritize sound above other features, fitness buffs, and Samsung users. This way, you can decide for yourself which ones will fit best into your lifestyle, if any, and which ones are worth your money, if any.
Table of contents
- Why you should trust me
- What are “true wireless” headphones, and who are they for?
- Best for iOS and phone calls
- Best for the money
- Best sound
- Best for the gym
- Best for Android (but really just Samsung devices)
- Other headphones we tested
- What to look forward to
- Wrapping it up
Why you should trust me
I spent several years in terrestrial radio before moving on to become a professional voice actor in Los Angeles, a job I still do and love. In other words, I’ve been in and out of top recording studios for over a decade. I also have reviewed high-end home audio equipment for publications such as Home Entertainment, Home Theater Magazine, and Sound & Vision. My articles have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, and Time, and on Good Morning America and the BBC World Service.
I have a bachelor’s degree in both music performance and audio production from Ithaca College, and I’ve tested literally hundreds of headphones while working for The Wirecutter. In other words, I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s out there and what’s worth your time and hard-earned money, and I am committed to finding gear that will make you happy.
What are “true wireless” headphones, and who are they for?
In case you’re unfamiliar with the technology, “true wireless” headphones are in-ear Bluetooth headphones that don’t have a cord connecting them either to your music device or to each other. They look a little like hearing aids, held in place in your ears by fit alone, without any distracting wires to be found. Mics are built in, as are any controls, since no cable is available to support a traditional in-line remote. Because these headphones are small, most sets don’t have more than a five-hour battery life. However, they can recharge in their carrying case, generally taking around 20 minutes to charge for an hour of listening.
With any pair of in-ear headphones, fit is everything—it can affect not only comfort but also sound quality. True wireless headphones up the fit ante, since they depend on fit to stay in your ears at all. If a true wireless earbud falls out while you’re on the go, it’s just one wrong bounce away from being gone for good. Furthermore, the pieces are small enough that they may pose a serious choking hazard for small children—you won’t want to leave them lying around where little ones could get their hands on them. In other words, you’ll need to use extra care to keep track of this style of headphones.
One last catch: Because the audio signal has to transmit to one ear and then sync to the other, all true wireless headphones have a delay when you’re watching video. In some cases, it’s barely perceptible; in others, the latency is noticeable, half a second off from what you see on screen.
Right now, we can recommend true wireless headphones only for early adopters who like the latest thing, as well as for people who just cannot stand the cords that connect traditional in-ear headphones. Some of these models automatically pause when you remove them from your ear, or offer speech-intelligibility enhancements or voice control, but as of now, other than the lack of a cable running behind your head, true wireless headphones provide no real additional everyday usability advantages over standard in-ear Bluetooth headphones. Most of these cost at least $100 more than traditional Bluetooth headphones but don’t upgrade the sound, battery life, or available features.
But if you really hate that cord, or if you just want to be the first to try something new, true wireless headphones are sure to be the future—eventually. It just might take a little while before they develop into something most people will be happy using.
Best for iOS and phone calls
- Of all the headphones we tested for this guide, the AirPods are by far the easiest to set up and use with Apple products. (They will pair with non-Apple devices, too, just not as seamlessly.)
- Apple’s proprietary W1 chip does seem to give the AirPods better connectivity. I didn’t experience any drops in our initial testing, and I was able to get several rooms away (three walls) from my iPhone 7 without losing connection. Of course, your results may vary depending on your home’s setup.
- The AirPods use a combination of microphones and jaw movement to detect when you are speaking, so phone calls sound great to the person on the other end.
- The fit is pretty comfortable—the AirPods feel just like corded EarPods.
- They produce only a slight latency when you’re watching video. Most people won’t notice or care that the sync is off a teeny bit.
- Like corded EarPods, the AirPods are unsealed and lack any low bass. At $30, that’s no big deal. At more than $150? We’d like better sound.
- The only controls on the headphones themselves can be assigned to either play/pause or triggering Siri (you have to choose just one function). You need to do everything else (volume, track skipping, and the like) via your phone, Apple Watch, or voice commands. “Hey, Siri” does work, but it can feel a bit awkward in public. (The recent iOS 11 beta offers a fix for this with multiple customizable tap options. We expect this update to be available to the public when the new iPhone launches later this year.)
- While Apple claims that the AirPods are designed to take the same stress as EarPods, neither design is rated for sweat or water resistance, so we wouldn’t use these headphones for serious exercise. If they break because of sweat exposure, you might void the warranty.
- Because the AirPods are not noise isolating, you will need to listen at a higher volume in busy environments (the subway, city streets, cafés, offices), and that can be bad for your hearing health.
Best for the money
- Easy-to-use controls let you adjust volume, change tracks, and issue voice commands.
- Only a very slight delay when you’re watching video.
- One of the more affordable true wireless headphones available.
- Sweatproof design.
- Awareness mode lets you hear around you without taking the earbuds out.
- The sound quality is on a par with that of $50 corded in-ears, but with diminished low frequencies (we detected a sharp drop-off somewhere around 45 Hz).
- The physical buttons are tough to push, so you end up jamming the earbud into your ear every time you need to toggle something, which can get uncomfortable.
- The tips go deeper into the ear canal than most headphones do, which can be a dealbreaker for people who find that sort of fit uncomfortable.
- Great sound quality—balanced and clear, with a nice low end. Overall they sound like a good $100 pair of corded in-ear headphones.
- The simple button controls allow for track changes, volume adjustments, and voice commands.
- In our testing, these headphones tied with the Apple AirPods for the longest range: I could walk several rooms away without drops in signal or sync problems between the earbuds.
- The traditional fit will be comfortable for the most ear shapes.
- Sweatproof design, with an IPX5 rating.
- The Apollo 7 is the most expensive of the headphones in this category, around twice the price of Bragi’s The Headphone and Apple’s AirPods.
- This pair produces a nearly half-second latency delay when you’re watching video, so everything will feel like a badly dubbed kung fu movie.
- We didn’t love the microphone. Callers may think you sound a bit distant.
Best for the gym
- Offers simple volume and track controls, as well as workout tracking.
- The built-in heart rate monitor is surprisingly accurate.
- In addition to tracking your fitness like Fitbit’s offerings do, the included app gives training suggestions and gives you the ability to personalize your headset equalizer settings.
- Water-resistant design.
- A bass-forward, fun sound profile.
- The situational-awareness mode uses the mic to let you hear the sound around you without your having to take the headphones out.
- Elite Sport headphones, sold beginning in July 2017, have an extended battery life that Jabra reports can be used for up to 4½ hours without being charged.
- As with Bragi’s The Headphone, this Jabra pair’s physical buttons require you to mash the earbuds into your ears, which gets fatiguing and even painful after a while.
- The large size of the earbud design can mean a difficult fit, despite the myriad of included tips and wings. One of our usual panelists, John, has average ears, and he simply could not get the Elite Sport to seat comfortably in the antihelix and antitragus portions of his ear. I could get a seal, but admittedly, it felt stuffed, and it was not a fit I could wear comfortably for hours at a time.
Best for Android (but really just Samsung devices)
- Offers decent sound, probably on a par with that of $70 corded in-ear headphones, with spikes somewhere around 3 kHz and 8 to 9 kHz that can give consonants and strings an icy edge.
- The fit is comfortable and secure for most ear types.
- Touch-sensitive volume, track, and voice-command controls mean you don’t have to press the earbud uncomfortably and awkwardly into your ear as you make adjustments.
- You can upload music to the IconX headphones themselves, so you can listen without bringing along your music player or phone.
- Sweat-resistant design.
- The touch controls are easy to bump and activate accidentally as you adjust the IconX pieces in your ears.
- When you’re connecting to a device, you can accidentally trigger the songs uploaded to the earbuds themselves, which can get really annoying.
- All of the fitness features work only on Samsung devices.
- In our testing, the heart-rate monitors were hit or miss in accuracy.
- The range is very short; we could get only one room away from our source device before signal drop began to occur.
- You can’t power these headphones off without putting them in their case.
- The fit can get fatiguing after a few hours.
Other headphones we tested
Alpha Skybuds: After a three-hour software update via Bluetooth between my phone and the case, we found that the sound was lackluster—thudding bass, sizzling highs, with a hole in between. These earbuds also seemed to have a barely perceptible sync issue on occasion, which made everything sound … off. The fit was light and nice, however.
Bragi The Dash: So cool looking, so many neat features, and so frustrating to use. Connection-issue nightmares: The left earbud kept disconnecting and refusing to re-pair. And the signal dropped after I spent only 15 minutes on a treadmill with the phone sitting 1 foot in front of me at eye level.
Earin: We had constant connection problems, plus changes in volume resulting in one earbud being louder than the other for a bit before they balanced out. Boom-and-sizzle sound quality.
Erato Rio 3: This set is affordable, but the pieces look as if you’re wearing two single-ear Bluetooth headsets. No charging case, just Mini-USB. And the hooks over the ears are inflexible, so they won’t fit everyone well.
Motorola VerveOnes/VerveOnes+: Blobby bass despite several EQ settings. We also disliked the confusing menus, the absence of volume control on the earbuds, and the significant delay when we watched videos.
Onkyo W800BT: In our tests this set had decent bass, but a recessed male vocal range and a slight lack of high-frequency detail made the sound quality “meh.” The only control is call answer, and using it presses the piece uncomfortably into your ear. Otherwise, play/pause, track control, and volume adjustment all require you to pull out your phone. Plus, the price is extremely high.
What to look forward to
Through a Kickstarter campaign launched in June, Zolo announced the release of its Liberty+ total-wireless earphones. The Anker-backed company claims the headphones will hold connectivity up to a 30-foot range. They have an echo-cancelling microphone, Smart AI voice control, and waterproof casing, and the company estimates 48 hours of backup playtime with the included charging case. Although some early-bird Kickstarter pricing is available and we’re usually impressed by Anker products, we recommend waiting until the scheduled ship date of October 2017, when the headphones will sell for $150.
Bragi announced the Dash Pro and the Dash Pro tailored by Starkey, which have some really advanced new features such as AI, language-translation software, controls via head movement, and auto activity tracking—you can even swim with them, too. We have a pair of each on the way, and we’ll let you know what we find out as soon as we’ve finished our thorough testing.
We were able to spend some time with the Here One at the CES trade show in January, and we were impressed by the earbuds’ active and selective noise-cancellation technology, which lets you choose just how much of your aural surroundings to block out or let in via the Here One app. Plus, they sounded great. We can’t yet speak to the reliability of the Bluetooth connection, or whether the headphones have any latency delay during video playback, but we look forward to testing these fully as soon as we can to get some answers.
In addition to the Here One, we also saw debut models from Earin, Monster, Nuheara, Jam Audio, Sol, Altec, JLab, and LG. Although the Here One were the most promising headphones we tested at CES, it’s reassuring to see that headphone companies are ironing out the kinks in their true wireless offerings, and even adding interesting features we haven’t seen in other types of headphones. We will continue testing new offerings as they become available, and update this guide as we do so.
Wrapping it up
The feel of true wireless headphones is pretty neat when everything goes right. We know that once future generations are released, we’ll probably find a solid recommendation for most people. But until then, none of the first-generation models offer a compelling enough combination of features, sound, and price for us to recommend one over all the others. So you’ll need to decide what features are the most important to you, whether the downsides are dealbreakers, and whether making those compromises in return for a lack of wires is worth the price tag.
(Photos by Kyle Fitzgerald.)
- Jabra Elite Sport review, CNET, December 13, 2016 ,
- Apple AirPods Are Too Simple for Their Own Good, Gizmodo, December 19, 2016 ,
- Bragi Headphone Review: Finally, Wireless Earbuds Worth Buying, The Verge, November 22, 2016 ,
- Review: Bragi Headphone Wireless Earbuds, Wired, December 17, 2016 ,
- I tried every set of wireless earbuds until I found some that worked, so you don’t have to, The Guardian, December 16, 2016 ,
- Review: Motorola VerveOne Wireless Earbuds, Wired, June 20, 2016 ,
- AirPods review: They sound great, but Siri holds them back, Macworld, December 19, 2016 ,