Wireless vs. Wire-Free
If the term “true wireless” sounds like sales jargon to you, we’re with you. Regardless of whether you call them “true wireless,” “cable-free,” or “wire-free,” the important distinction between these and typical earphones is the complete lack of a cable connecting the earpieces. When cable-free designs first became popularized by the Apple AirPods in 2016, design limitations, quirky operational issues, and poor battery life defined much of the true wireless offerings and there were no clear winners. Since then, the category has quickly matured and we finally have some standout products.
If you simply want a pair of Bluetooth earphones for exercise and don’t mind a cable connecting the earpieces behind your neck, you can stop reading now and head over to our list of The Best Wireless Headphones. Not only will you be rewarded with more affordable choices, you’ll be choosing from a well-established field that doesn’t suffer from the early growing pains that many true wireless models do. That said, there is something liberating about going completely wire-free.
With that in mind, let’s walk through some of the key criteria to consider when shopping for a true wireless pair.
If there’s one complication many models share in the operation department, it’s that it’s easy to accidentally pause music, skip a track, or summon a voice assistant when you merely meant to take an earpiece out or adjust it slightly. There’s not a lot of real estate on most of the earpieces we’ve tested, and thus much of the outer panel area is devoted to housing controls.
Early on, two models went in diametrically opposite directions in terms of on-ear controls. The Bragi Dash offer a plethora of ways to swipe and tap, and even utilize an accelerometer that allows for head movement to be used for gesture control. It’s a lot to memorize, and there are lots of ways to misfire. Apple’s answer to on-ear controls is to do away with some completely. The AirPods lack track navigation or volume controls—double tapping can either summon Siri or play/pause, but not both, giving them the simplest (and most limited) controls of all the pairs we’ve tested.
Newer models from Bose and B&O Play manage to strike a balance between operability and layout. The Bose for instance, uses actual tactile buttons to control playback, call management, track navigation, and volume, while the B&O Play cleverly divides controls between the two earpieces—tapping the left ear, for instance, will skip a track backward, while tapping the right will skip forward. Despite needing to do a little more thinking before you tap, eventually the division of controls between the two earpieces reveals itself to be intuitive. So on-ear control panels are getting more creative and user-friendly, but there’s still a ways to go before they catch up with traditional wireless models.
How’s Battery Life?
Battery life is the Achilles’ heel of the true wireless category. The best estimated battery life available (and keep in mind your results will vary with volume levels) currently belongs to the JLab Epic Air, at seven hours. Just about all the other options hover in the three-to-five-hour range. It kills a battery fast when you need to power two earpieces separately.
The necessary solution that (nearly) all of these designs share in common is a charging case. Each case protects the earpieces when not in use, and charges them simultaneously. Most of the cases carry two extra full charges, so you can recharge your earphones on the go. It’s not unlikely that this weak aspect of the true wireless realm will improve to the point that it will no longer be an issue.
What If I Lose an Earpiece?
This is, understandably, a concern of many potential true wireless users. Allow us to allay your fears—we can say that after over a year of testing, you have to try pretty hard to lose one earpiece. First off, just about every pair we’ve tested offers an extremely secure in-ear fit without sacrificing comfort. Most of the earpieces are larger than typical in-ears, while still maintaining a lightweight feel, making the likelihood of losing one while exercising (or at any other time) fairly low.
As for simply misplacing an earpiece when not in use, this also seems unlikely. The charging case is intrinsically tied to the user experience—like hanging up the phone or turning the TV off when you’re finished watching, you’ll automatically reach for the case to stow and charge the earphones. To put it another way: You’re far more likely to misplace the whole thing—the case with both earpieces inside—than you are to misplace one earpiece.
If you do somehow lose one earpiece only, however, plenty of companies like Apple will gladly sell you an extra one à la carte for less than the price of a new full set. If losing an earpiece still seems like something you can imagine happening to you, it’s worth researching whether the model you’re interested in offers this option.
Are They Easy to Pair?
If you have an Apple device, you won’t find an easier pairing process than the Apple AirPods, which essentially do all the work for you the second you turn them on. Other products we tested were less successful in the pairing phase early on—it turns out pairing two distinct pieces as if they are one product can be tricky. But recent entries to the category from B&O Play, Bose, and Jaybird have it all figured out, and it seems the convoluted pairing process is a thing of the past.
Surprisingly, many of these wire-free models can be used at the gym and even get wet, despite the fact that each earpiece has an exposed charging contact on the inside. The Bragi Dash is even marketed with images of an athlete using it in a swimming pool—impressive! Most of the models, however, are merely water-resistant to a degree.
If durability and a true waterproof design are your main priorities, you’ll either need to sacrifice some user-friendliness in the name of durability, or opt for a traditional neckband-style wireless design. Thus far, most of the earphones that are bundled with fitness apps or heart rate monitors have been in the neckband/cabled realm. For more, see The Best Headphones for Exercise.
Earphones With Apps
Many of the models we’ve tested, like the Bose SoundSport Free and the B&O Play Beoplay E8, use apps designed by the manufacturer to control various parameters and the setup process. The Bose app is a little more spartan in its control parameters—you can set an auto-off timer, disable voice prompts, and control playback. The Beoplay app has more to it—there’s a user-adjustable EQ and an ambient mode (for listening to the room sound around you) that can be adjusted.
For more on EQ adjustments and other other advice, see 5 Easy Tips to Extend the Life of Your Headphones.
Get Ready to Spend
There is a marked difference between our Editors’ Choices ($150 to $200) in the true wireless category, and a typical neckband-style wireless pair (anywhere from $40 to $150). The base price for most true wireless options thus far has been around $150, with the very best options costing as much as $200 or even $300. In other words, this is not a cheap category, at least not yet, so you can expect to pay an early adopter premium. To get the most out of your purchase, check out 6 Ways You’re Using Your Headphones Wrong.
We’ll be testing more true wireless pairs as they are released, but here you’ll find the highest-rated models we’ve seen so far.
Pros: Powerful audio performance with boosted bass response. Exceptionally secure fit. Water-resistant design. Simple, easy-to-use on-ear controls. App simplifies pairing process.
Cons: Expensive. Very sculpted sound signature.
Bottom Line: The bass-forward Bose SoundSport Free earphones are expensive, but nail the design and operational details right better than any other pair in the growing wire-free category.
Pros: Powerful bass response. Nice charging case. best battery life in category.
Cons: Bass-forward sound signature not for purists.
Bottom Line: The JLab Epic Air headphones deliver strong bass response, a gym-friendly build, and the best battery life we’ve seen in a truly wireless design.
Pros: Relatively affordable. Powerful audio performance with boosted bass and sculpted highs. Ships with several eartip options. Case is compatible with Qi wireless charging bases.
Cons: Mega-bass response not for everyone. Lacks some basic controls like volume and track navigation.
Bottom Line: The Altec Lansing True Evo earphones deliver thunderous bass response in a completely wireless design. They’re not perfect, but for $100, they don’t have to be.
Pros: Powerful audio performance with deep bass and crisp highs. App features adjustable EQ. Very secure in-ear fit. Excellent mic clarity.
Cons: Expensive. Transparency mode can be confusing before adjustments are made.
Bottom Line: The wire-free B&O Play Beoplay E8 earphones deliver high-quality Bluetooth audio and an app that allows you to set your EQ preferences, but feel a bit overpriced.
Pros: Powerful bass and sculpted highs. Customizable EQ. Dust- and moisture-resistant design. Secure in-ear fit. Counts steps.
Cons: Auto-pair process can be cumbersome, with only one earpiece pairing at times. Not for purists seeking accurate audio.
Bottom Line: The wire-free Jabra Elite Active 65t earphones are built for exercise, with secure-fitting earpieces that deliver powerful bass that can be adjusted to your liking.
Pros: Crisp, clean sound with good high-mids and highs. Sweatproof. Comfortable fit.
Cons: Bass response could be stronger. Single-button design limits control options.
Bottom Line: The Jaybird Run are comfortable, workout-friendly true wireless earphones with clear sound quality that could use just a little more bass response.
Pros: Clear audio performance. Seamlessly pairs with multiple iOS devices on the same iCloud account. Carrying case doubles as backup battery.
Cons: Lack of ear canal seal means less bass response and potential ear-to-ear stereo image discrepancies. Limited onboard controls virtually require you to use Siri. In-ear fit could be more secure.
Bottom Line: The Apple AirPods feel like a big step for wireless in-ear audio-but it’s more about innovations and features and less about audio performance.
Pros: Cable-free Bluetooth design. Powerful audio performance with solid bass response. Accurately counts steps. Protective case is also a charger. Exceptionally secure fit. 4GB of storage.
Cons: Sculpted audio not for everyone. Inaccurate heart rate measurements in testing. Meager battery life. Ambient room monitor has a slight delay. Controls take time to learn.
Bottom Line: An innovative product on multiple levels, the Bragi Dash is a truly cable-free wireless earphone pair that doubles as a fitness tracker.
Pros: Excellent audio performance with rich, full lows and solid clarity in the highs. Secure, comfortable in-ear fit.
Cons: Poor battery life. Noise cancellation is good, not great. Earpiece charging contacts in case don’t always line up.
Bottom Line: The Sony WF-1000X earphones delivers some of the best audio performance we’ve heard from a true wireless pair, but so-so noise cancellation and some design quirks holds it back a bit.