7 best Apple AirPods alternatives: true wireless earbuds

7 best Apple AirPods alternatives: true wireless earbuds

 

A big leap into the future for early adopters, gym, running and just people who really really hate wires

True wireless earbuds may not have entirely originated with Apple but its AirPods were the first to sell in large quantities, and the first ones many people heard of and saw.

Now we're all familiar with seeing them protruding weirdly from fellow commuters' ears, like someone has crept up and scissored off the wires from their Apple EarPods, but they've somehow not noticed. So, not for the first time, Apple has kickstarted a new market, and given people on the internet the chance to cry, "Apple didn't do true wireless buds first! It was the Bragi Dash, sheeple! Pathetic! Pfffthhht."

WHAT ARE THE BEST TRUE WIRELESS EARBUDS?

 

Well, there are several answers to this, due to true wireless being an emerging rather than established, mature branch of tech. However for the best possible combination of connectivity (exceptional), comfort (exemplary), sound quality (very good by true wireless standards), likelihood of falling out (acceptable) and style (a-haha-ha. No, they look awful), there is only one true wireless game in townand that's the Bose SoundSport Free. Funnily enough, these are better for general use than for 'sport', despite the name.If proper, genuinely good sound quality, like you'd get on a really good pair of Bluetooth headphones, is your main interest, Sony's WF-1000X should be your first and indeed only port of call. They sound way better than the rest and although they can be irritating AF to use, Sony does keep updating their firmware and app, which gives me hope they might one day, "just work" Want true wireless buds for the gym or running? Jabra's Elite 65t are not terribly musical but they sound perfectly alright for workout use. More importantly, they are as good as true wireless gets in terms of combining comfort and unshakeable fit. Add solid battery, discreet looks and a nice, compact battery case and they're a winner. I just wish they didn't sound so robotic.

For non-musical or running purposes, despite the headline of this piece, Apple's AirPods are the best true wireless earbuds available. They are technically brilliant, well priced, and we're big fans of how well they work with iOS and Siri. The sound quality is also better than you might expect, and they have rapidly ascended to the status of 'ubiquitous style statement', as a number of Apple products have in the last decade. So there's that.

TRUE WIRELESS EARBUDS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

 

True wireless buds are getting better all the time – this year's batch are leagues ahead of last year's – but they are still an early adopter proposition at this point, and nobody is getting them 100 per cent right. May 70 per cent at the outside. 

Whilst traditional Bluetooth headphones are now ridding themselves of the drop outs that used to plague them, true wireless earbuds still often suffer from drop-outs and, on the cheaper ones, even reception crackle.

That's presumably because they have to connect wirelessly, not just to your phone, but also to each other… through your big thick head.Another common problem is encountered when first turning this type of earbuds on. They don't always pair with each other, necessitating a lot of button holding, Bluetooth toggling and turn-off-and-onning. Again, happily, this situation is improving rapidly. 

Sound quality is generally not bad as such, but of lower quality than comparably priced wired or standard Bluetooth headphones.Oh and battery life? That is still poor. All of these examples have a carry case that contains a battery, so the idea is that as you store them, they charge, giving a much longer overall battery life.

That, of course, means you need to remember to charge up the case. You'll also need to take care to insert your buds in to them properly, because otherwise they may not charge.However, true wireless earbuds have one massive advantage: they give you complete freedom from cables. For gym goers, they could be the ultimate audio purchase, and on the whole they are discreet, yet fit securely. 

That's just as well because, if one falls out, with no wires at all, there's nothing to catch it. I've already lost a Jaybird under a bus while walking and have had my Sonys so nearly crushed by traffic on multiple occasions. One final irritation you need to be aware of is that, because these are more like gadgets than traditional earphones, you can update the software on them. This is good in theory but a right PITA  in practice, because pushing software updates via Bluetooth is really not a great idea.

THE BEST TRUE WIRELESS EARBUDS, IN ORDER

1. BOSE SOUNDSPORT FREE

The best true wireless buds

SPECIFICATIONS
Listening time per charge: 5 hours
Listening time with case: 15 hours
REASONS TO BUY
+Very good sound +Unshakeable connectivity+Incredibly comfortable
REASONS TO AVOID
-Incredibly susceptible to wind interference-They look stupid even by true wireless standards

Bose SoundSport Free is where true wireless comes of age. At last, someone has made a pair of buds that sounds perfectly alright – I'm not going to say amazing, because they're not, but most people will have no quibbles – do not drop connection, power up and connect reliably when you take them out of the case, and are no less comfortable to wear than any pair of Bluetooth in-ears.

Sonically they are better than the Apple AirPods, they fit better, and while they don't have the same smart features, in all honesty, who cares? Five hours of battery life is okay by the standards of the sector under discussion here, and the case isn't overly bulbous and charges reliably and quickly (15 minutes for 45 minutes use). 

 

Despite their name, I don't consider these great for running. That's partly because the fit is comfortable rather than unshakeable, but mainly because I have never encountered a headphone so susceptible to wind noise. Seriously, in a high wind, it destroys the sound. 

That, I assume, is because they protrude quite a long way from the ears. That's why they're so comfortable and also possibly why the connectivity is so good (the antennae not being imprisoned in your ear canal. It's also why they make you look slightly alien when wearing them.However, for indoor fitness or running in fine weather or just for use as a pair of reasonably musical, true wireless headphones, Bose SoundSport is the current state of the art.

2. APPLE AIRPODS

Best true wireless earbuds for iPhone users

SPECIFICATIONS
Listening time per charge: 5 hours
Listening time with case: 24 hours
REASONS TO BUY
+Light, long battery, look pretty cool compared to the Bose+Nifty Siri control+Great for calls, not bad for music
REASONS TO AVOID
-Okay, not exactly audiophile sound-iPhone only

The AirPods are one of those times when first impressions don't count. Yes, we all had a good laugh at the launch, but after actually using Apple's true wireless buds, we sighed, because they work exceptionally well and fit better than they have any right to. 

A year on from launch people, people might still stare, but they're not laughing at you any longer, they're thinking, "Hmm, maybe I need some of these, after all." Take the AirPods out of their tiny, dental floss-style case and they sync instantly with your iPhone, while the optical sensor and accelerometer means they know when they're in your ears, so when you take one out the music pauses automatically. You double-tap the buds to wake up Siri, and that's the only control, so either get used to asking out loud to change track or adjust the volume, or use your phone. Again, it's a flawless operation.

Helped by the noise-reducing mics, audio quality for calls is great, but for music it's not what you'd expect from a pair of £150-ish in-ear headphones. Volume is impressive and they're not awful by any means, especially if you consider how lovely they are to use, but don't expect thumping basslines. For music, Sony's WF-1000X is way better… Oh look, what's up next?

 

 

3. SONY WF-1000X

Best true wireless earbuds for music and sound quality

SPECIFICATIONS
Listening time per charge: 3 hours
Listening time with case: 9 hours
REASONS TO BUY
+Amazing sound for the size+Comfortable fit+Discreet
REASONS TO AVOID
-Fiddly buttons-Not the deepest fit-Feeble battery life

Sony's WF-1000X must be one of the most infuriating products I've tried this year. In terms of sound, fit and look they are easily the best true wireless buds you can get. Easily.However, the terrible battery life, coupled with a case that only charges them when it feels like it, means I've not been able to use the WF-1000X as much as I would have liked. Even so, I keep going back to them despite the aggravation, so I guess that tells you something (ie: I'm an idiot).

 

First up, this a huge leap forward in terms of music quality over the Apple buds, with very solid noise cancelling (unusual and arguably not all that essential on in-ears). In that respect it's a worthy successor to the 1000X over-ears currently riding high in our Bluetooth headphones and noise-cancelling headphones charts.

 

The noise-cancelling is very good when you consider the miniaturisation involved and overall, the audio is absolutely head and shoulders above everything all other true wireless earbuds but you pay such a price in terms of battery life. As with many recent noise-cancelling headphones, they don't sound as good with it turned off. I know that is illogical, but it's true.The fit is very comfortable, the buttons are well located, although they don't do a lot, admittedly (pause and play only, no volume or skip controls) and everything about the WF-1000X feels slick. 

 

That battery life, though. Seriously, the quoted time of three hours is pretty poor but in reality I've found I'm lucky to get two. Similarly, although a further six hours of life is supposedly provided by the carry case, I keep finding that the case fails to recharge the buds, either because I've somehow inserted the buds wrongly, or it's run out of juice itself. There's no charge indicator on the case, so it's hard to say.

 

Although the fit is very comfortable and fine for general walking around duties, I wouldn't recommend these for exercise. They're not sweatproof, and the fit is geared for comfort, not security. On one memorable occasion, one of them did fall out while I was cycling down a – thankfully not too busy – road, being just missed by the van immediately behind me. 

 

A recent firmware update promised to improve connectivity and fix some bugs. However it has so far proven impossible to transfer to the headphones, which really is ab-so-bloody-lutely infuriating. In fact at this point, there are few bits of tech that have irritated me so much as the WF-1000X buds, and yet their up side are such that I still persist with them. Maybe it is masochism.

Anyway, if you have a zen-like attitude to tech, seldom listen to music for more than 2-3 hours at a stretch, and are diligent about carrying the charging case and a mains adaptor with you, these could be your ultimate headphones. I do think they're just worth the hassle.

 

4. JABRA ELITE 65T

Best true wireless buds for gym, running, fitness etc

SPECIFICATIONS
Listening time per charge: 5 hours
Listening time with case: 24 hours
REASONS TO BUY
+The best fit of any true wireless bud+Decent comfort too+Great for the gym and running
REASONS TO AVOID
-Curiously unmusical audio
 
 

If you're after the best true wireless option for running, workouts, cross training, rope thrashing and all that, the Jabra Elite 65t is your new workout bud.Building on the Elite Sport further down this list, these keep the same impressive connectivity and a fit that is very hard to dislodge, but are way more comfortable. They also lose the pulse- and motion-sensing tracking elements but I think that is fine.

For workout audio purposes the 65t are also passable – just turn the volume up and feel the burn. However it must be said that they are among the least musical headphones I've heard in recent times. A review in T3's sister publication What HiFi said they sounded more like a mobile audio product than a music one, and that is a very good description. Tunes don't sound bad as such, they just lack much in the way of excitement or emotion.  For the type of tunes you tend to listen to whilst running or gymming it, I don't think that's much of a problem, but maybe don't buy these for listening to your favourite orchestral or ambient pieces while chilling out in the garden…

 

5. BEOPLAY E8

Even better sounding than the Sony and even more irritating

SPECIFICATIONS
Listening time per charge: 4 hours
Listening time with case: 12 hours
REASONS TO BUY
+The best sound of any true wireless buds+Best charging case too
REASONS TO AVOID
-Massively annoying connectivity quirks-Dodgy touch controls-Usual crap battery life

There's a new True Wireless Champ, and it's the Beoplay E8 (or Play by Bang & Olufsen Beoplay E8 to give the full title).The E8 is the champ in terms of both audio quality – at last, something better than the Sony WF-1000X – and in terms of near life-threatening levels of aggravation. You know what the acceptable level of irritation and effort is with a pair of headphones? Absolutely none. That's how it was in the last 50 years. The removal of wires should not bring so much hassle in its wake.Initial pairing is a pain with the E8, but it at least prepares you for life with them, because pairing then continues to be a pain, seemingly forever. There are also regular dropouts if you keep your phone in your pocket although, to be fair, that is a problem that's endemic in true wireless buds.

The touch controls are ridiculous – you stroke your left ear to decrease volume, your right to increase, for instance – and frequently don't work. Even better, I've known the volume to rise to deafening without me even touching my ear. I assume it's the wind, or it moving in my ear, or something.The battery life is about 2-3 hours tops, but again, I am used to that now with true wireless buds. At least the case is very good, and you feel confident that the buds are actually recharging when in it, unlike the Sony buds. They're not as comfortable or easy to insert as the Sony, though.

However, I can just about live with the annoyance of the E8 because its sound is better than any other true wireless bud to date. Audio is surprisingly natural, with a consistent output from the throaty and satisfying bottom end to the rich and zingy treble. You can adjust the EQ in B&O's app, but I always find this reduces the overall audio quality, personally.

Due to the issues with connectivity and comfort, I still recommend the Sony WF-1000X over this for now, but B&O does tend to continue to upgrade and support its products so it is possible that the Bluetooth problems will eventually be resolved.

 

6. OPTOMA NUFORCE BE FREE8

Decent half-way house between the Sony's sound and Jabra's gym-friendliness

SPECIFICATIONS
Listening time per charge: 4 hours
Listening time with case: 16 hours
REASONS TO BUY
+Decent sound quality for true wireless+Sweat-proof IPX5-ness
REASONS TO AVOID
-Really hard to make 'em fit

With a much more refined sound and comfortable fit than the Jabra Elite, you'd think these would be a bit further up the list but, for me at least, they have a rather fatal flaw. You could certainly use them as everyday earbuds, thanks to a respectable-by-true-wireless-standards battery life of around 4 hours. Connectivity is more reliable than previous-generation true wireless buds, and as noted, the sound quality, bolstered by AAC and Apt-X compatibility, is also very good, at least by true wireless standards.With IPX5 moisture proofing they're considered sweatproof and rainproof, and should therefore be equally at home when running or gymming.

The only thing is, I have never yet found a way to make them stay in my ears; there's something about the shape that just isn't compatible with my lugs. Even with Comply tips – usually the silver bullet for all tricky-to-fit earbuds – they never feel securely in place, so I most definitely wouldn't go running or riding in them.However, all ears are different, so you may get on better with the BE Free8 than I did. The audio quality certainly makes them worth a try.

 

7. JABRA ELITE SPORT

Best true wireless earbuds for exercise

SPECIFICATIONS
Listening time per charge: 4.5 hours
Listening time with case: 13.5 hours
REASONS TO BUY
+Heart-rate tracking+Decent audio+Motivational app 
REASONS TO AVOID
-Uncomfortable-Suspect app training plans

If you want to be right on the cutting-edge whilst working out, these true wireless Jabras are the hottest game in town. For a start they offer probably the most consistently reliable connectivity of any of true wireless bud, as well as relatively reasonable battery life of about 4 to 4.5 hours.

Their powerful, bassy musical performance is not going to work wonders with delicate string quartets, but it's well suited to running and gym. More to the point, it's not any worse than any of the other true wireless buds here, with the exception of the Sony, Nuforce and Here buds.  

More impressively the Elite Sport also offers cardio tracking during exercise, claims to be able to count your reps when cross training (not very successfully in my experience, it must be said), and gives handy live updates on your speed, distance, calories consumed and so forth spoken via a companion iOS or Android app. Although the pulse tracking is surprisingly accurate, the app is of less use than it could be for training because it seems to take no account of your current fitness level. I know this because after six consecutive workouts rated as a maximum 5 out of 5 for intensity, it was still of the opinion that I needed to take it easier, after about 15 minutes of moderately brisk cycling or running.

However, the Jabra app does offer some useful metrics that you can use and interpret yourself, and the earbuds are really excellent for exercise, because they are pretty much unshakeable once in your ears, unlike close rival the Jaybird Run.That unshakebility also means they're not terribly comfy. However, as I've continued to use these, they have come to feel less intrusive in the ear, and they're probably the true wireless lumps I use the most, aside from the Sonys.

 

8. HERE ONE

Another more musical true wireless offering

SPECIFICATIONS
Listening time per charge: 2 hours
Listening time with case: 8 hours
REASONS TO BUY
+Great sound
REASONS TO AVOID
-Rubbish battery life-Pricey

A 2-hour battery life is barely commutable, and they're horrendously expensive, but these noise-cancelling mini marvels were the best option open to those looking for a more musical kind of true wireless experience.Unfortunately, then Sony made the WF-1000X. Oops.

However, the Here One is still a highly desirable proposition. That's thanks to Active Noise Cancelling that's far more adjustable than Sony's with various filters for different noises.Adjustments are made via the superb Here Active Listening System App, as there are no controls on the buds. It also lets you use the Here One's directional microphones to basically give yourself super hearing, cutting out background chatter and amplifying voices when you are, for instance, in a pub.  

If you're after the opposite effect, the 'Office' filter does a stand-up job of cutting out your colleagues' inane banter.Bionic features aside, the fit is secure and the sound quality, whether streaming Spotify or taking calls, is clean, balanced and enjoyable. Even compared to the infuriating and yet still somehow desirable Sony WF-1000X these feel over-priced and under-batteried, however.

 

 

9. JAYBIRD RUN

A simpler workout option than the Jabra

SPECIFICATIONS
Listening time per charge: 4 hours
Listening time with case: 12 hours
REASONS TO BUY
+Light weight+Custom EQ via app
REASONS TO AVOID
-Inconsistent connectivity

Jaybird make great wireless running headphones that don’t look out of place with a suit, and this sensible sporty aesthetic continues with Run. The matt black with silver detailing is at worst inoffensive, and good design means they feel very small and light even if, on paper, they aren't. 

The generous selection of different size earbuds and wingtips helps no end with the fit and once in place they feel very secure. The buttons on these things are seldom great, because unless they're on the narrow top or bottom of the buds, they're on the large, outside edge. That means that by using them you are, in effect, shoving the buds even further into your ears. That is the case here, with a firm push required. Jaybird partner app features a range of adjustable EQ settings, and tweaking the supplied soundstage is essential if you want to get the best from the Run. Without a bass boost, you'll not hear them on the tube, or in a noisy gym, but push the frequencies up and they're much louder, and far more engaging, with a size-defying thump that's especially suited to bigger beats. 

However, I find it hard to wholeheartedly recommend these buds because, although they had previously seemed secure, one of them eventually fell out, and was then crushed by a bus. RIP. Given they're now often more expensive than the Jabra pair, it's thus harder to recommend these.

 

 

10. AVANCA MINIM

Best true wireless earbuds under £100

SPECIFICATIONS
Listening time per charge: 3 hours
Listening time with case: 12 hours
REASONS TO BUY
+Affordable true wireless+Reasonable sound quality
REASONS TO AVOID
-Primitive connectivity

I've tried quite a few sub-£100 stabs at true wireless and, sad to say, most of them are no good. These Avanca Minims, however, are quite good. Cheap true wireless buds usually fall down on looks, fit, sound quality and connectivity. These, however do alright on the first three criteria, with an acceptably musical delivery, a reliable fit and a look that's no worse than rivals costing twice as much. 

Unlike pricier models they don't attempt to pair when one is activated; both must be turned on, at which point they may or may not pair, and they then struggle to stay connected to each other and to your phone. This can manifest as losing sound in one ear, or both, and it gets worse when you're on the go. If you keep your phone in a breast pocket rather than your trousers it does alleviate it to some extent, but dropouts are still frequent enough to be annoying.The Minims are not amazing, then, but for the money they're also not bad, and preferable to the other budget true wireless efforts to date.

 


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