Tested: The Best Totally Wireless Earbuds
For exercising with music, wire-free headphones are the holy grail. But are Apple's AirPods the closest to perfection? We tested half a dozen of its competitors to find out.
When Apple released the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus this year with no headphone jack, it didn’t bother me. I was already a convert to Bluetooth earbuds—the not totally wireless kind with their cord looping behind your neck. I suspected that the unveiling of the $160 AirPods—the supposedly perfect listening device for iPhone users—was a cheap ploy to grab more of our dollars. I also suspected that they would sound lousy, based on Apple’s track record with earbuds and laptop speakers. I also had no faith whatsoever that they would stay in my ears during the one activity I routinely need them for: running.
Well, after two big delays that got me even more worried, I’ve received the AirPods ($160). I've been using them for a week and, as that god of song Eddie Money crooned, I think I’m in love. I’d spent months testing some of the many other brands that have jumped in to fill this niche, with varying degrees of success, and the AirPods beat them all. It’s not a slam dunk—there are good reasons to consider some of the competitors, not the least of which is that it’s good to support the little guys (many of them Kickstarter projects) and keep the market competitive. But here’s what I’ve learned from using Apple’s newest release.
Apple AirPods ($160)
- They nailed the design. I’m talking about the overall package: a svelte compact case, exactly the size of a dental floss container, that has an onboard battery to recharge them without plugging in; the magnets that secure the earbuds inside the case; and the lid that flips open and powers them on, which immediately connects them with your iPhone by way of a W1 chip exclusive to Apple products (including Beats headphones, owned by Apple). This quick-connect feature is more fluid than having to open your Bluetooth settings. (Of course, it means nothing for Android phone users.) Once connected, I never had any connection problems, which has been a nagging issue with pretty much every other brand of totally wireless earbuds I’ve tested. (These should get resolved as the second and third generations come out and the technology gets dialed.)
- That weird dangly-earring look actually works. As a runner who relies on music to keep me motivated over the long, sweaty miles, I’ve battled for years with designs that refuse to just stay put and do their thing. The first time I wore the AirPods, I was convinced they were going to work themselves loose and fall to the ground within seconds, requiring me to employ my “Headband Trick,” in which I strap them in place by angling my sweatband down over my ears and living with the truth that I look like an awkward dancer from an Olivia Newton-John video. But I’ve taken them out three times, for a total of 15 miles, and never had the slightest sense that they were ready to fall out. What surprised me even more was that I always assumed earbuds needed foam or rubber tips to hold them in place; the AirPods, however, just rest in the notch at the bottom of your ear and somehow, miraculously, don’t move. Nor do they require me to fuss with them like competitors’ tips, which can easily lose their seal, especially when you’re sweating, and demand that you stop and fiddle with the fit. (I haven’t had a chance to use the AirPods in hot temps, so I can’t say for sure how they’ll hold up against more profuse sweating.)
- They sound really good. All the models I tested delivered impressive sound, but this pair was particularly rich and dynamic, with a pleasantly rumbly bass that isn’t excessive, and clear, well-rounded highs and mids. In addition, they have enough power to go about 20 percent beyond the others in terms of loudness, should you need that extra boost to drown out ambient noise. I learned a long time ago—back when we all bought iPods—that the earbuds Apple includes for free have never been worth unspooling; they always sounded like crap compared with other options (and they always fell out). This time they’ve broken through the sound barrier.
- I’m not scared of a little sweat. Technically, these are not water-resistant, and again, I haven’t tested them in sweaty conditions, so I can’t say for sure that they won’t run into problems. But having tested dozens of earbuds over the years, I’ve had almost zero problems with moisture, whether a product is rated as water-resistant or not. I did wear these in a light drizzle and nothing bad happened; in the event of a deluge, you can always pop them into the case. To be clear, we’re talking about water resistance; fully waterproof earbuds, the kind you can swim with, are few and far between.
- There’s other good stuff here. The AirPods know when you’re not wearing them and will shut off to save battery life. While on the trail, a simple double tap allows me to answer phone calls; ask Siri whether there’s rain in the forecast; or tell my phone to read back new texts and e-mails. I don’t usually make use of those bells and whistles, but they’ve made it so easy, and voice recognition is so reliable, that now I can’t help myself. Once I upgrade my MacBook to the Sierra operating system, I’ll be able connect the AirPods to it and, who knows, maybe write my next review with voice dictation.
If (a) you are not an iPhone user, and/or (b) you would rather support younger companies who have some of their own clever ideas, here are some other names to consider.
Erato Apollo 7 ($300)
Until the AirPods came along, this was my favorite pair of 2016. They’re the most compact model I’ve seen—just two small cylinders and nothing extra—and they produce amazing sound for such a tiny device. I liked the simple old-fashioned on/off button, which was a welcome contrast to other companies’ use of touch controls or optical sensors to detect that they’re in your ears. Their shortcoming, aside from the $300 price, is a not-infrequent loss of connection in one ear or the other that lasts about one second. This was a problem for me because I run with my phone in my shorts pocket; if you wear your phone in an armband case (i.e. closer to your head), you’ll probably be fine. The company’s new models—the Muse 5 ($180) and Rio 3 ($130)—will be released this month.
The Headphone by Bragi ($150)
After being one of the first to market with its debut model, the $300 Dash, Bragi undercut the AirPods’ price with a simplified second release that replaces touch controls with a power button, removes the onboard music storage, and does away with fitness tracking. Where the Dash had serious connection issues, the Headphone has been much more reliable, and they sound very good, although at top volume they fall a bit short of the Apple and Erato. Like the earbuds themselves, the charging case is noticeably bigger than with any of the others, so you’re less likely to bring it with you when you leave the house. The Headphone is available for preorder on Kickstarter, with delivery expected in January.
Earin M-1 ($200)
This well-designed Swedish import was one of my favorites off the bat, largely because the design is so sleek: a lipstick-size cylinder that slides open, James Bond style, to reveal the buds nestled in their drawer. Sound was above average, but battery life was lower here than with the others. More problematic was the difficulty with pairing and the frequent loss of connectivity. I can’t totally recommend the M-1’s, but this is a company I would keep an eye on.
Honorable Mention: Samsung Gear Icon X ($200)
A solid pair of medium-size buds that connected just fine with the iPhone and had very nice sound, though they’re really intended for Android users.