Apple’s AirPods aren’t the only wireless earbuds in town. Consider these cord-free Bluetooth contenders for every scenario and budget.
1. BEST FOR: SMART CONNECTIVITY
Pixel Buds / Google
Google’s second-generation wireless earbuds are the first that fall under the category of “totally” wireless—the connecting cable between the two was eliminated this time around—and offer some smart features including AI-optimized volume and full integration with Google Assistant for in-ear notifications and voice-control of your connected devices. The charging case, which adds on 19 hours to the 5 hours on the earbuds alone, can be juiced up wirelessly or via USB-C. For those with Android 6.0 or above on their phones, the Pixel Buds app lets you configure Google Assistant settings, find your device, assign touch controls, and adjust sound settings. (Pixel phone owners will find the app is built into the Bluetooth settings menu.)
What we like: The design is superb: The oval charging case looks like a smooth, white pebble. Meanwhile, the earbuds (available in white, orange, mint, and black) are round, compact, and nearly flush with ears for a low profile. While you have to choose among three different sizes of ear tips for a snug fit, the “stabilizer arcs” (aka earwings) on each bud are built-in, which is one less set-up hassle for users who want to make sure these don’t fall out of their ears. There’s no active noise-canceling, but the buds are designed to fit snugly enough to isolate noise inside your ear without falling out, offering tight bass, detailed mids and vocals, and intimate sound in the process. Even so, built-in spatial vents mean the overall fit isn’t uncomfortably tight, and lets important sounds (like honking horns, alarms, and cars) come through. Other one-of-a-kind features we find handy include the ability to share one of the buds with someone else to, say, watch music or a movie together and control the volume separately on each tone.
The main claim to fame on the new Pixel Buds, however, is the integration with Google Assistant. These are the only buds on the market that let you activate the assistant by just uttering the “Hey Google” wake word, which is convenient if, say, you want to change a song or turn on a light while washing the dishes or make calls while driving. In this continued era of pandemic, we found these integrated smart features convenient for listening to read-outs of text messages while at the supermarket without having to use our potentially germ-covered fingers and hands. We’re also looking forward to using it in an international travel scenario in the future, since it allows for voice-activated on-the-fly translations of 40 languages, everything from Afrikaans to Vietnamese. Just say, “Hey Google, help me say ‘I’m on a phone call in Spanish,’” for direct translations of one-off phrases, or “Help me speak Spanish” to enter conversation mode for back-and-forth exchanges.
What we don’t: Occasionally the Bluetooth audio connection cuts out for no apparent reason. The issue is intermittent and not necessarily a deal-breaker given all the other great features and design, but here’s hoping Google fixes this issue in an update. Considering that these don’t have any active noise cancellation, the 5-hour battery life on the earbuds alone could be better. The app doesn’t have an equalizer, so the manual audio adjustments are limited to a bass boost. The much-touted “adaptive sound” feature—which uses the buds mics and Google’s AI smarts to adjust the volume depending on what’s going on outside—is cool on paper, but we didn’t find much practical use for it. Sometimes, after all, a loud sound requires turning down the volume immediately rather than turning it up. The AI will get smarter, so it will be much more useful when it can tell the difference between a crying baby and loud music. In the meantime, the “attention alerts” feature, which notifies you if it detects the sounds of sirens, crying babies, or dogs barking, reveals some of the interesting directions that Google is going with its best-in-class aural recognition AI, but they are still a work in progress (and appropriately under the “Experimental” category in the app). The translation app can be a bit confusing to operate and didn’t always function as directed, which made us revert to using just the phone version of the Translate app for expediency in real-life situations.
Bottom line: If you’re an Android user and also partake in the Google ecosystem for everything from Gmail and Google Assistant to Nest and Translate, the Pixel Buds offer considerable convenience and next-gen features. If you care about aesthetics, these will also fit the bill—even if you’re an iPhone user. Despite no accompanying iOS app or ANC, the Google Pixel Buds are far cooler looking and way more comfortable than many other earbuds.[$178; store.google.com]
2. BEST FOR: WORKOUT EASE
T5 II True Wireless Sport McLaren Edition Earphones / Klipsch
This souped-up version of the Indiana-based audiophile speaker company’s T5 II sport earbuds adds spiffy and sophisticated McLaren branding and a race-car aesthetic, as befits its official headphone and portable audio partnership with the Formula 1 racing team. Besides the standard T5 II’s workout- and adventure-friendly features such as IP67 dust- and waterproof-capability (and built-in moisture removal), the McLaren edition adds the signature papaya orange and carbon-fiber design elements, along with a mini wireless charger. When parked on the wireless charger, the McLaren Edition case evokes a Hot Wheels vibe.
What we like: Audio is full-bodied and detailed, with an expansive sound stage that is faithful to the nuances of different instrumental timbres. Six sets of different-sized ear tips, wings, and memory foam—the most we’ve seen provided with any earbuds so far—enable the perfect snug fit, even while jogging or cycling, but the overall small footprint of the earbuds means they’re discreet and don’t protrude out of your ears. While there’s no active noise-canceling feature, the noise isolation design blocks out most distracting conversations and assorted racket. Even so, the adjustable transparency feature allows for hearing and amplifying what’s around you and can be adjusted to desired levels via the companion Klipsch Connect smartphone app. The case, while as big as a bar of hand soup, clamps shut to ensure water- and dust-proof protection while storing and charging, and it has a strap that can be easily hung from a backpack or wrist when you’re out exercising. The T5 II’s multifunction buttons offer more on-earbud control options—volume, track navigation, voice assistant, pause, voice assistant, call hold, text messaging, power off, mute, and so on—than any competitor, along with voice control with your voice assistant of choice via Bluetooth connection to your phone (there’s no built-in Alexa or Google Assistant, per se). Also impressive: The 24-hour battery life on a single charge, with an additional eight hours available via the charging case.
What we don’t: Charging the ‘buds via USB-C requires the case to be open, which is bizarre and awkward, especially if you need to charge while out and about. The only way to charge the ‘buds with the case closed is wirelessly, which is also impractical if you need to quick-charge at the last minute while cramped on an airplane, or hiking in the backcountry. The accompanying app adds an excellent and effective equalizer with settings for different music genres, podcasts, and fully manual adjustments, along with a noise transparency lever, but is sometimes confusing to maneuver and glitchy when performing updates.
Bottom line: If excellent, accurate, and expansive audiophile sound is your main goal, the T5 II are among the best-sounding earbuds on the market—a real pleasure for any music lover. And while the papaya green racing stripe on the earbuds and case looks cool, the McLaren Edition’s features and performance are the same as the standard T5 II, which costs $20 less and only ditches the Formula I branding and the wireless charging pad. The strangely limited and impractical charging options nearly defeat the purpose of the charging case’s best-in-class ruggedness, and may be a deal-breaker for anyone who plans to take these on extended adventure treks or sports activities.[$229; klipsch.com]
3. BEST FOR: AUDIOPHILES
EAH-AZ70W True Wireless Headphones / Technics
Technics’ first true wireless earbuds feature understatedly elegant earpieces and a sleek charging case in matching brushed aluminum emblazoned with the iconic ’80s-era logo. The earbuds feature adjustable active noise canceling, beam-forming technology to focus the voice during calls, a built-in acoustic chamber to create a bigger soundstage, and a 10mm driver for bass enhancement.
What we like: Besides the subtly sophisticated looks, the earbuds provide audio quality that is among the warmest and most balanced we’ve tried. The earbuds handle jazz and classical music particularly well, with clear vocals, mid-, and high-ranges, and a bass that doesn’t overwhelm or upstage. This may not please those who prefer a thumping low-end for dance, hip-hop, or rock genres, but we found it refreshing and pleasing. Also cool: The touch controls on each earbud are responsive and enable you to conduct a full array of functions, including pause, volume control, pausing tracks, voice assistant prompt, and toggling between ambient and noise-cancellation modes. All these functions can also be activated via the accompanying mobile app, which also has preset audio settings for bass enhancement, and clear voice, as well as a fully customizable equalizer. Pressing and holding on the left earbud calls up your preferred voice assistant—Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri. While just a hair less effective than on competing models from Bose and Jabra, the Technics offering’s noise-canceling is superb, thanks to mics that analyze sound outside and inside your ear.
What we don’t: At 6.5 hours plus an additional 19.5 hours with the charging case, battery life isn’t as long as on some competing earbuds, but certainly in line with other ANC-enabled earbuds. While the app offers a lot of controls, we wish there were more preset equalizer functions, as the all-manual equalizer isn’t intuitive for anyone who doesn’t understand the intricacies of audio. Unlike many competing earbuds, the Technics don’t turn off automatically when you take them out of your ear. Though comfortable and snug, the earbuds lack additional earwings, so they’re not optimal for workouts.
Bottom line: Ideal for anyone whose music tastes include jazz, classical, intimate and acoustic ensembles. Since these earbuds only handle the AAC Bluetooth codec, rather than AptX, they’re optimized for iOS devices over Android devices, but certainly work well with both types of phones.[$175; technics.com]
4. BEST FOR: NOISE-CANCELING
QuietComfort Earbuds / Bose
Bose pioneered noise-canceling technology (for pilots) in the 1970s, and its wired and wireless headphones have long been synonymous with the technology, but surprisingly, this is the audio company’s first foray into the true wireless noise-canceling earbud space. Available in black or white, the earbuds combine a comfortable noise-isolation design with an array of mics that inform the active noise canceling (ANC) technology, along with a wireless charging chase and three different-sized ear tips and wings to optimize fit. The accompanying Android or iOS app enables adjustments on volume, noise cancelation and transparency levels, and control customization. Earbud battery life is six hours, but the wireless charging case provides two hours of juice in just 15 minutes (and up to 12 hours on a single charge).
What we like: True to the brand, the active and passive noise canceling is the best we’ve experienced in a true wireless earbud—even the fairly distracting sound of someone practicing piano in the next room disappeared at the highest level 10—and yet does not muddy the sound. While the bass is more prominent than other earbuds we tested, it’s still full of nuance and doesn’t drown out other instruments, sounds punchy even at lower volumes, and adds extra depth to lower-res recordings. Stability and comfort have not been an issue in our tests: While some earbuds fall out of ears no matter how many sizes are tried, the Bose Quiet Comfort earbuds stayed securely and comfortably in our ears for most of a recent five-hour, cross-country flight. Connection is quick and seamless, assuming you have just one or two devices paired to the earbuds.
What we don’t: The charger carrying case is huge, about two-thirds the size of a Twinkie. The buds themselves are among the biggest we’ve seen as well, which was not a problem for us, but might be for anyone who prefers a subtler look. While the on-earbud touch controls are great for adjusting the level of active noise cancellation, pausing and forwarding music, and answering and ending calls, they don’t offer volume control. For that, you have to go into the mobile app, which is surprisingly user-unfriendly in general to turn the volume down quickly (the fail-safe in emergency situations where muting is required immediately would be to remove either bud from your ear). The bass might be too overwhelming for some, particularly in electronic or hip-hop tracks where you don’t necessarily need any extra oomph, and the lack of an equalizer means you’re stuck with whatever the admittedly sophisticated audio processing delivers.
Bottom line: For anyone who needs to block out audio distractions both domestic and in the office, or travels frequently, look no further. The active noise-cancellation technology and performance can’t be beaten.[$279; bose.com]
5. BEST FOR: BANG FOR BUCK
Buds Z / OnePlus
While decidedly no-frills, these budget-friendly earbuds produce respectable bass thanks to 10mm drivers, up to 20 hours of battery life on a single charge (and 3 hours in just 15 minutes), customizable controls (Android only), and a stem design that might fool everyone into thinking you spent up to $200 more on a pair of AirPods.
What we like: The price. It’s hard to believe these all-white earbuds cost as little as they do—not just because of the minimalist, AirPod-evocative design, but also the ease of setup and in-app controls. If you own a OnePlus phone, the Buds Z pair automatically the first time you take them out of their bean pod-shaped charging case, with the ability to assign on-earbud controls such as the Voice Assistant prompt, play/pause, and next/previous track in the Bluetooth profile. If you’re pairing the Buds Z to other non-OnePlus Android phones, then you need to use the Hey Melody app to assign controls. Pairing with OnePlus phones also offers a few additional usage configurations and Dolby Atmos audio enhancements under the phone’s “Sound” category in the “Settings” menu. The Buds Z offer the choice between SBC and AAC audio formats, the latter of which provides precise syncing with TV or video dialogue with iOS devices in particular, though we experienced flawless performance on the OnePlus 9 Pro. Despite the low price, there’s nothing cheap about the sound, particularly on bass-heavy tracks where mid-range subtlety and detail are important.
What we don’t: While the Buds Z pair and work with iOS devices, they only do so without a dedicated app, so iPhone owners won’t have access to any customization controls. Speaking of controls, they are minimal: The on-earbud controls only consist of double-tapping, which allows for just two different functions—one on each earbud—overall. While a choice of three sizes of ear gels is fairly standard among earbud models, none of the three (S, M, L) ever quite fit our left ears. There is a wide variety of ear shapes and sizes, however, so other users may not experience this issue. While the sound is impressive in this budget category, it works best with pop and bass-heavy music. Classical music, jazz, and acoustic enthusiasts generally should splurge for better buds. Considering that they don’t have ANC, the Buds Z’s fairly average battery life of 20 hours including the charging case, and just five with the earbuds alone, is surprising.
Bottom line: It’s hard to complain about earbuds that only cost $50. The Buds Z offer style, sound, and simplicity in a pinch, especially for Android phone users. And if you own a OnePlus phone, even better.[$50; oneplus.com]
6. BEST FOR: GERMOPHOBES
TONE Free UV Nano HBS-FN6 / LG
LG’s HBS-FN6 earbuds not only offer a full coterie of controls, seamless voice assistant and text-to-speech voice notification integration, clear phone calls, plus sophisticated Meridian Audio-optimized sound, they also include a singularly nifty feature built for these times of legitimate germophobia: a built-in UV-C sanitizer that kills 99.99 percent of E. coli, S. aureus, and other bacteria when the earbuds are in the case.
What we like: Though they’re shaped and sized like the AirPods—and also available in black—LG’s TONE Free UV Nano buds do a whole lot more on the smart front. Seamless pairing and text-to-voice read-outs of your notifications and emails means you never have to look at your phone if, say, you’re walking down the street or riding a bike. They also have some distinct design touches, such as a subtle blue light that illuminates the earbud compartments case every time you open the round pillbox-shaped charging case. Touch controls are extensive, allowing you to adjust volume, skip tracks, take calls, call up a voice assistant, and adjust the level of “ambient” sound in case you want to hear street sounds. Meridian Audio’s influence can be heard: Sound is detailed and balanced across the board, with bass that’s realistic and doesn’t overwhelm (just click on Bass Boost on the TONE Free companion app if you need a bit of extra low-end oomph. The case charges wirelessly or via USB-C. The ultraviolet disinfection feature isn’t necessarily a must-have, but might come in handy if you end up sweating up a storm or drop them on the ground (they’re rated IPX4, which protects them against spritzing and sweating, but not submersion underwater). They’re also good for high-speed exercise: Wind-generated audio interference was minimal while biking, unlike many other earbuds we tested. While there’s no ANC, the passive noise-isolation design works well enough that we hardly noticed.
What we don’t: Overall battery life, at 18 hours with the charging case, is less than many other earbuds, including those with ANC, though six hours of continuous music play on the earbuds alone is comparable. There’s no multipoint Bluetooth, so the HBS-FN6 can only connect with one device at a time. The UV-sanitizing feature only works when the charging case is connected to power via the USB-C cable, but other than when we dropped the buds on the ground, we didn’t find that much use for it since any serious dirt or grime would be removed with a wet cloth anyway. It’s certainly a conversation starter, though. The automatic firmware updates via the mobile app are frequent, which is reassuring, but also quite finicky in terms of staying connected: We had to start the whole process over several times.
Bottom line: These are excellent earbuds and worthy alternatives to Airpods, thanks in no small part to the seamless pairing and voice-to-text features, along with stellar sound and fitness-friendliness. While it’s no killer app, the UV-sanitizing feature comes in handy for anyone who is going to work up a sweat or use these in public a lot (just remember that you’ll need to be near a power outlet or have an external battery pack handy for that function to work).[$120; lg.com]
7. BEST FOR: MULTI-TASKING
85T / Jabra
Jabra’s first set of ANC earbuds comes with a wireless-capable charging case, oval-shaped ear gels for a less invasive and more comfortable fit, 12mm drivers, and a new chipset for improved sound and sound processing, respectively. The earbuds will run for 5.5 hours or 7 with the ANC on or off, respectively, with an additional 25 (or 31) hours from the fully charged case.
What we like: Setup via the Jabra Sound+ mobile app is quick with consistently smooth and reliable pairing. It also runs users through a hearing test, which plays tones to determine which frequencies need to be enhanced and then creates a customized sound profile, along with helping users pick the best ear gel size for sound isolation. Unlike most other premium earbuds, the Jabra 85T can be paired to more than one device simultaneously, so you can take phone calls on your mobile while watching videos or attending Zoom meetings on your computer. The buttons on each earbud are physical, which makes pressing on them more definite and responsive than on touch-sensitive ones, and there is a plethora of default and customizable controls for everything from the level of noise cancellation and volume to rejecting calls and barking commands to your favorite voice assistant. Thanks to six separate mics, four of which are used to detect and mask outside sounds, phone calls are crystal clear no matter where you are. The noise-cancelation is superb, blocking out nearly all talking, radio, and car noise while working in the back seat during a recent road trip. The included app offers pre-set equalizer sound settings and built-in white noise modes. Sound is robust with punchy bass on electronic, hip-hop, and rock tracks. Thanks to a state-of-the-art Bluetooth 5.1 codec and AAC, the 85T’s audio syncs up nicely with video dialogue on iOS devices.
What we don’t: Even though 25 extra hours are available from the charging chase, the five-hour battery life before needing that boost is a little less than some competing ANC earbuds (though not the Airpods Pro). Overall, audio quality is top-notch, though a bit more closed and tight in classical and jazz tracks with multiple mid-range layers, where the bass can sometimes overwhelm. While its IP4 rating can handle sweat and splashes, these are not waterproof, so they’re not ideal for any kind of exercise outside of the gym (or pool). Those needing always-ready workout earbuds may want to opt for the smaller and tighter fitting 75t, which are IP55-rated and can therefore handle being underwater down to 3.28 feet and have recently been upgraded with ANC capabilities, too.
Bottom line: Flawless and reliable pairing, effective noise-canceling, and user-friendly controls already make these among the best earbuds out there for both music and phone calls, but the multipoint Bluetooth that lets you pair to more than one device at the same time is the killer app for today’s multitasking, always-onscreen lifestyle. Just don’t take them on your next cycling or ski trip.[$229; jabra.com]
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