Best true wireless earbuds for 2020
Apple AirPods vs. a few of our favorite alternatives
If you’ve walked around a big city lately, you’ve no doubt seen them sticking out of people's ears. I'm talking about True Wireless Earbuds.
As someone who enjoys listening to music everywhere, I can see why this is such a hot trend.
These earbuds play music wirelessly via Bluetooth®, and there is no connecting cord around your head or neck. Without that cable, you get an extra level of freedom while you listen. It feels like there's nothing holding you back or getting in your way.
The trailblazer: Apple AirPods
Other companies released wire-free headphones before Apple, but they were the first to really nail it.
I've tested the Apple Airpods, along with many other true wireless earbuds. I can see why these unobtrusive, ultra-light headphones are so popular.
AirPods were by far the most prevalent true wireless earbuds I noticed on a recent trip to New York City. I saw Wall Street types, delivery guys, and people on their morning jogs — all of them wore AirPods as they hustled down the sidewalks.
In November 2019, Apple took another major leap forward when they released the AirPods Pro. This model costs more than the original but is loaded with extra features. Chief among them is Apples's "real-time" active noise cancelation that accounts for the external sounds around you.
Both versions of the AirPods work especially well with an iPhone, thanks to Apple's cutting-edge H1 chip. This special wireless technology ensures they pair up quickly and stay connected. And they make some of the clearest-sounding phone calls I've ever heard with wireless headphones.
Best AirPod alternatives
While the AirPods do a lot right, they aren’t the only game in town. There might be a better option for you, depending on your listening habits, your tasks, or your smartphone.
Here are my favorite AirPod alternatives. I based these selections on my hands-on experience and feedback from Crutchfield customers:
Most comfortable: Bose® SoundSport® Free
"In-ears for people who don't like in-ears." That's how I usually describe Bose in-ear headphones to folks who haven't tried them. You don't stuff them deep into your ear canals. The StayHear+ Sport ear tips rest just inside your ears.
They feel super soft, and the ear hooks keep them secure. I saw an NYC bike courier going full speed while wearing them, and they stayed right in place.
Best sound: Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless
To my ears, these are the absolute best-sounding truly wireless headphones available.
It makes sense. Their driver design and sonic signature are both informed by Sennheiser's flagship IE 800 S in-ear headphones, some of the most revered wired in-ears on the planet.
While you shouldn't expect quite that level of sound quality, the Momentum True Wireless earbuds do deliver smooth highs, articulate mids, and satisfying bass. They also have a large, "outside-the-head" soundstage with precise imaging.
True wireless tip #1: Audio dropouts still happen, but less often than before
The #1 reason our customers return these type of headphones? The audio signal can drop out during use. One ear or the other may lose sound. Sometimes it is only for a second or two. Sometimes you may have to re-pair the earbuds.
But in just the past few months, I’ve seen true wireless earbuds become more reliable than ever. The newest Bluetooth chipsets offer a stronger wireless connection to the phone, which utlimately means less audio dropouts.
And I've always looked at it as a small tax to pay for the convenience of going 100% wire-free — provided it doesn't happen too often. Still, you can read customer reviews and see that it bothers some people more than others. So I think you should be aware of it before you spend your money.
Best battery life: Klipsch T5 True Wireless
The T5 True Wireless offer up to eight hours of wireless music listening on a full charge, the longest I've seen so far in this category. Klipsch uses a state-of-the-art built-in Bluetooth chip from Qualcomm that uses less energy.
“We're not making a bigger battery and shoving it in your ear,” said Vlad Grodzinskiy, the head of their headphone division. “We can get eight hours because Qualcomm's new Bluetooth chip uses so much less energy.”
I spoke to Vlad earlier this year when I visited Klipsch's headquarters in Indianapolis. He explained that the new Bluetooth technology helps Klipsch provide the audio performance they're known for. Basically, a stronger wireless connection equals better sound.
In fact, Klipsch chose not to release a set of true wireless earbuds until the technology caught up with their performance standards. "Since we're in the business of making products that last a long time and work really well,” said Vlad, "we decided to wait."
True wireless tip #2: Learn about the charging case
All of the truly wireless earbuds on this list include a charging case that charge via a USB or AC adapter. They bank hours of power so you can refuel your earbuds. Snap your earbuds into the compact case to recharge them.
The compact case takes up little room in your gym bag or carry-on luggage. Plus, there's no cable to get all tangled up. You pull your earbuds out, ready to pop in and go.
We list the battery life in our "Product Highlights" bullets on each product page. All of the headphones shown here have a quick charge feature: just a few minutes inside the charging case will give you enough power to listen for an hour or more.
The Bose SoundSport Free case banks 10 hours of power to recharge the headphones.
Best for running or workouts: Jaybird Vista
Truly wireless headphones are great for working out, since you don't have to worry about catching a cable on the gym equipment. And what’s the number one thing you want out of a pair of sports headphones? They MUST stay in place as you move.
That's why my co-worker Jay (pictured above in his office) has been a fan of Jaybird headphones for over a decade. Jay is Crutchfield's director of internet marketing and an avid runner. "I usually do about 30 miles a week on the treadmill, wearing Jaybird earbuds" he said. "I find their earbuds stay in place better than any other sports headphones."
And the waterproof Vista headphones are Jaybird's best truly wireless in-ears yet. A new wireless chipset offers better connectivity and a stronger battery life than their previous models. The Vistas also deliver the deepest, hardest-hitting bass I've heard from any set of true wireless earbuds.
Best for noise cancellation: Sony WF-1000XM3
There are very few true wireless noise-canceling earbuds out there. And none of the others can block out external distractions as well as the Sony WF-1000XM3’s adaptive noise-canceling circuitry.
And when you download the free Headphones Connect app to your Apple® or Android™ device, things really get intuitive. The app uses your phone's sensors to detect if you're walking, running, or sitting still — and adjust the noise cancellation accordingly.
You can also adjust the sound EQ with the app. I bumped up the bass a little bit to get the sound profile I liked best.
True wireless tip #3: Compare the apps
Many headphones these days have an accompanying app for your phone or mobile device. But I don't consider all of them necessary. For true wireless headphones, I definitely recommend downloading the app, if one is offered.
Some apps can help with the pairing process. This can be tricky since you need to connect two separate headphones wirelessly.
You can adjust the EQ settings and customize the sound to your preference or use. For example, I like to bump up the bass a bit when I'm running — I need all the extra motivation I can get.
Both Bose and Jaybird have a feature to help you find a lost earbud. Using your phone's GPS, the app will will track your misplaced earbud to the last location it was connected. When you're within Bluetooth range, you can play a tone through the earbuds that's loud enough to hear from across the room.
I found that the sound customization in Jaybird's free MySound app is particularly strong.
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