Cut the cord: Which bluetooth earbuds are right for you?
Long battery life, noise cancelling, audiophile sound – the choices are out there
Sony WF-1000 XM3
Amazon Echo Buds
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live
When it comes to bluetooth earbuds, you now have a wealth of options, regardless of whether you have hitched your wagon to Android or iOS devices. The difficulty is choosing which ones fit your needs the best. Are you after long battery life? Or are you an audiophile who wants the best possible sound – and is prepared to pay for it?
These days, there is something to suit everyone who wants to cut the cord.
Amazon Echo Buds
There’s a lot to like about the Amazon Echo Buds. The sound quality is good, as is the noise-reduction technology. If you are a fan of Amazon’s digital assistant, the Alexa integration will be of particular interest.
Amazon has done as much as it can to ensure these buds will fit a range of users. There are swappable silicon tips and different sized “wings” that you can put on the earbuds to make them sit comfortably and ensure that you get a decent fit.
Touch-sensitive panels on the buds control certain functions such as music controls, activating Siri or your phone’s digital assistant, or switching between transparency and active noise reduction. You can customise what each panel does through the Alexa app.
Amazon worked with Bose on the earbuds, using the audio company’s Active Noise Reduction technology. It works well, blocking out a lot of the everyday commute noise. While Apple’s AirPods are better at cutting out unwanted noise, you pay a lot less for the Echo version.
The battery lasts for around five hours, with the case offering 22 hours of listening. A quick charge gets you a couple of hours of listening.
The Echo Buds are a bit weighty at 7.6g, which makes them heavier than their rivals, and the charging case is also a little bigger than you’d expect. The other downside of that charging case is that it’s not wireless, so you will need to plug it in to power it up.
Ideal for: Alexa fans
Apple AirPods Pro
The AirPods Pro may share a name with Apple’s original wireless earbuds, but there is one important difference: they have active noise cancelling. When you put the earbuds in your ear, the active noise cancelling kicks in after a moment, blocking out the outside world almost completely.
The AirPods have an outward-facing microphone to detect external sound, which it then counters. There’s an inward-facing microphone too, which picks up unwanted noise from that side, and counters that too. Not only does it deliver some pretty impressive noise cancelling, it also makes the audio seem better.
Both AirPods need to be in your ears for noise cancelling to work. If you take one out, the earbuds will automatically go into transparency mode.
The AirPods Pro have a more subtle look , with a shorter stem and silicon tips that can be swapped to make sure you get a good fit in your ear. Those stems have a function, though, offering you touch controls on the individual buds. Tap the stem twice to skip a track; pinch the stem and hold it to turn on the active noise cancelling, or to switch to “transparency mode”, which allows the background noise to filter through.
That can be handy for when you need to hear what is going on around you but don’t want to take the earbuds out – for example, a quick conversation, or crossing the road. You can also set the AirPods to activate Siri, rather than using the Hey Siri command, with Siri now able to read your messages to you and announce calls.
The AirPods Pro include a wireless charging case, and a single charge of the earbuds will last up to 4½ hours, with the battery case giving you more than 24 hours of use.
The AirPods Pro have a larger mesh microphone port, which is supposed to improve call clarity when it is windy.
Ideal for: Committed Apple fans
Huawei FreeBuds Pro
Huawei’s FreeBuds have changed considerably over the years. The open fit has been ditched for customisable silicon ear tips, making them not only more comfortable but also improving the effect of the active noise cancelling. The latest addition, the FreeBuds Pro, have been given new sensors and some extra smarts, along with a new design, in an attempt to elevate them above the crowd.
Aesthetically, Huawei’s FreeBuds Pro certainly appear to take some inspiration from Apple’s high-end AirPods. They are a little chunky around the stems, with a more blocky appearance than the AirPods Pro’s streamlined stems.
Soundwise, the Huawei FreeBuds perform exceptionally well.
Using them for calls presented no problems either, with audio on both ends generally clear. There is a three-mic system and a bone sensor that detects and strengthens human voices during calls to make sure no one misses a word of what you have to say.
One thing they lack is any sort of support for voice assistants. It’s not something that I use frequently, but it’s nice to have the option on the occasion that the need does arise.
They aren’t water-resistant, though, which seems a bit of an oversight, so make sure that you don’t drop them in a puddle – or get caught in the rain.
Ideal for: Android users
Google Pixel Buds
Google’s Pixel Buds aren’t the first Pixel-branded set of earbuds from the company, but they are the first truly wireless ones. And they are done well, matching good sound and features that are intended to make your life easier. The Pixel buds are facing a lot of competition, though, so they need something to set them apart. For Google, that means a concentration on smart features, such as Google Assistant, which is handy for controlling your smart home, looking up some information online, or getting your notifications.
One other thing the buds come in handy for is translating foreign languages. When we get back to a point where foreign travel is a realistic option again, you can hold a conversation with someone through Google Translate – you using your earbuds to translate to another language, and the other person speaking into the phone.
Aside from that, there are broadly similar features to other earbuds. There are small touchpads on the surface of the earbuds that control your music, allow you to answer calls and manage volume.
One thing they lack is active noise cancelling, but there is a good seal that keeps background noise out. The buds also feature adaptive sound, which will adjust the volume as you move from a quieter environment to a noisier one without you having to lift a finger. It works reasonably well, making sure that the background noise never really intrudes. It works similarly well with phone calls; the technology in the earbuds recognises when you are in a noisier environment and works to bring your voice to the fore.
Battery life is average, at five hours of play, but the case gives you up to 24 hours of listening time; a 10-minute charge will give you a two-hour listening capability.
Speaking of the case, it can be charged wirelessly, if you have a compatible pad at home or in the office, or else you are dependent on USB C.
A nice fit, good sound, plus the ability to control volume on the earbuds themselves make the Pixel Buds a nice choice, particularly for Android users.
Ideal for: Frequent travellers
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live
The Galaxy Buds have evolved since their 2018 launch. While last year’s Buds+ looked almost identical to their predecessors, Samsung has taken a bold step with the Buds Live. Shiny and shaped like kidney beans, the buds are the first of Samsung’s to have active noise cancelling.
The earbuds look like they won’t stay in your ear comfortably, but they do. In fact, they were more comfortable than some of the more traditionally designed earbuds, which was a surprise. You sort of shove them into your ear with the speaker pointing down; once they’re in properly, they barely move. You can customise the fit a little but, overall, these were remarkably comfortable to wear.
Because they are an open fit, the active noise cancelling doesn’t have as much noticeable impact as you would expect, but turn it off and you’ll notice the background noise begin to seep in. It also means sound isn’t quite as loud as you would expect. That’s not always a bad thing, and you could still pick up a lot of the detail in the audio without straining yourself, but not as much as the Sennheisers would deliver, for example. Touch controls in the earbuds are easy to get to grips with, so you can play and pause your music without touching your phone.
Battery-wise, you get six hours from a full charge, and two more from the battery case. That puts Samsung firmly middle of the road on power.
These buds are splash-resistant, with an IPX2 rating. It’s not the top end of what’s available at the moment, but it will keep them safe in the rain, for example.
Ideal for: Those who like to stand out
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
When it comes to sound quality, Sennheiser has a reputation to uphold. And its second attempt at true wireless earbuds, the Momentum True Wireless 2, upholds that reputation.
A refined version of the original True Wireless buds, the TW2 are smaller and lighter than their predecessors. They are comfortable enough to wear for longer periods without feeling like they are bruising your ears. Sennheiser claims they are comfortable enough for a movie marathon, but I have yet to put that one to the test.
The buds have touch-sensitive pads that you can use to control various functions from volume to music controls and calls. Paired with this is the app, which allows you to customise these controls to what suits you. This is a good thing as the default settings aren’t all that intuitive compared to other wireless buds. There’s a lot to get to grips with, with different controls for each bud.
The real stand-out here, as previously mentioned, is the sound. The Momentum TW2 have a bespoke 7mm dynamic driver, so you hear your music as it was intended. It is richly detailed, no matter what type of audio you are trying out. It’s Sennheiser sound in its smallest form.
The buds also use the AptX codec, a compression technology that gives you CD-like sound.
You get about seven hours from a single charge, plus 21 hours from the charging case. That’s a little more than others offer, although wearing earbuds for seven hours at a single sitting is probably something reserved for long-haul flights – and we won’t be doing those anytime soon. Still, it’s good to be prepared.
Speaking of travelling, the active noise cancelling will come in handy when we need to commute again. Switching it on tuned out much of the background noise at home, giving you a better audio experience – and a bit of much-needed peace.
On the downside, the case won’t charge itself wirelessly, though that isn’t essential. And they are more expensive than their rivals, so it will depend on if you feel that sound quality is worth the extra money.
Ideal for: Audio buffs
Sony WF-1000 XM3
Sony’s WF-1000XM3 are its second attempt at cracking the market, and it appears to have learned a few things from its initial run.
This may not be the first iteration of Sony’s wireless ear buds, but they are the first to include active noise cancelling. That makes them a logical choice for people who either commute a lot, or just hate the intrusion of the outside world.
Sony has also taken all the lessons it has learned about audio over the past few years and turned out a really great-sounding set of earbuds. Even though the buds don’t use the AptX codec, you can’t fault the sound, and the Bluetooth 5.0 connection is fairly solid, apart from a hiccup here and there.
Sony is ticking off a lot of boxes here: active noise cancelling, touch controls, adaptive sound modes and ambient noise at the touch of an earbud. There’s an app that lets you customise the sound, opting for vocal boosting, tweaking the bass or treble, or changing what each touch control can do. It’s a handy thing to have, although not essential to using the buds as a straightforward audio product.
To change the volume of your audio, though, you will need to return to your phone. It’s an odd oversight that spoils an otherwise pleasant experience. If you need to cut the sound in a hurry, you can remove an earbud, which will pause the audio until it senses you have put them back in.
But all that extra technology means the size of these buds will have to increase too. The Sony buds protrude too much for my liking, plus they feel a bit weighty. It was difficult to get a really comfortable fit despite the options available in both foam and silicon tips; I topped out at around an hour of wear.
Bigger buds also means a bigger charging case. But it’s not here for the aesthetics, though; it serves a function, namely, keeping those buds charged up. You’ll get a full charge in 90 minutes, and overall the case can power up the buds three times.
As for listening time, Sony beats some of its rivals on that score. With the active noise cancelling turned on you’ll get more than five hours of use, which more than matched the AirPods’ five hours maximum. Turn the ANC off and you will get up to eight hours, although why you would fork out for noise cancelling buds and then switch it off is anyone’s guess.
They are also at the more expensive end of things, at €250.
Ideal for: Serious fans of noise cancelling