When compiling this best true wireless earphones guide, we suddenly thought: what seemed like witchcraft not all that long ago is now just another consumer durable. Three years ago, your choice of truly wireless in-ear headphones was extremely limited but, let’s face it, we were all just grateful such a thing really existed.
Getting music from your phone to your in-ear headphones without a single wire involved? Oh yes please.
Now we’re bombarded with choice and thus can afford to be choosy. Choosy about sound quality, about features, about price… and, of course, about the brand we favour. There’s so much choice, it can start to feel a little confusing. Which is where this test comes in.
UPDATE:Hold up, a new contender has arrived. Microsoft has announced its first pair of true wireless earphones, the Surface Earbuds. Your first reaction will likely be the same as ours: wow, those look odd. However, they do have some very unusual features too. The earphones pair up with Microsoft Office, to let you dictate and transcribe audio directly through the earphones' mics. They also last longer than virtually any other true wireless pair, eight hours on their own, with an additional three charges on tap in the case. They're reportedly more comfy that they look too. The Surface Earbuds will cost $249 (UK price TBC) and will be out "later this year".
We’ve spent the last month living with and listening to 10 pairs of the best-sounding, best-specified and best-value true wireless in-ear headphones. Some are produced by globe-straddling giants like Apple, Samsung and Sony. Others are from more tightly focused specialists like Cambridge Audio and RHA. They all want your attention and your cash, though.
Cambridge Audio’s oddly named Melomania 1 are our best-value choice - their extraordinarily accomplished sound more than makes up for the odd missing feature and a perceived lack of pizzazz. Sony’s rather more prosaically named WF-1000MX3, meanwhile, achieved the highest overall score in our tests.
- Want a larger pair? Read about the best wireless headphones.
Ignore the rather humdrum looks (it’s probably best to ignore the grey finish altogether) and the lack of a control app. Focus instead on the Melomania 1’s epic battery life, relative comfort and punchy, controlled sound - at £120 these represent prodigious value for money.
Sony was out of the blocks early with its original WF-1000MX true wireless in-ears, and it has spent the last few years finessing the best product around into something even better. Comfort and battery longevity are a given, exquisite sound quality seals the deal and active noise-cancelling is the cherry on the top.
The expert's view
Best true wireless earphones
1. Sony WF-1000MX3
Our overall Best Buy just doesn’t put a foot wrong. Where comfort, ergonomics, build quality and, most importantly of all, sound are concerned, everyone else is playing catch-up. Forget the true wireless aspect for a moment - these are a deeply impressive listen, regardless of configuration. Available in black or silver.
2. Samsung Galaxy Buds
In every meaningful way bar one, the Galaxy Buds are a diverting option. The tiny charging case holds a decent amount of power, the Buds themselves are small and comfortable, and stability is solid. The sound they make, though, is a different matter. Available in black, white or yellow.
3. Jaybird Vista
So successful were Jaybird’s Run true wireless in-ears, it’s taken two goes to replace them. Run XT weren’t all that, but Vista puts Jaybird firmly back at the top table. Secure and comfortable, yet unobtrusive at the same time, they have lots to recommend them to both fitness freaks and couch potatoes alike. Available in black, blue or grey.
4. Cambridge Melomania 1
Our Best Buy for value is an object lesson in nailing the fundamentals. Despite the eye-catching price, Cambridge has crammed in enormous battery life from both the buds and the compact charging case, proper aptX 5.0 Bluetooth connectivity and, best of all, has extracted a really robust, poised sound. Available in black or grey.
5. RHA TrueConnect
There’s more than a hint of Apple’s AirPods 2 about the look of the TrueConnect, but they’re a) more tactile and b) have a more adaptable fit. Battery life and quick-charge effectiveness are good as well, and Bluetooth 5.0 is welcome too. Questionable stability is a concern. Available in black, grey or white.
6. Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless
On the face of it, headphone leviathan Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless are nothing special - in fact, they might look unnecessarily bulky and pricey, and the battery life isn’t amazing. But aptX 5.0 Bluetooth helps them sound an absolute treat. Available in black.
7. Bang & Olufsen E8 2.0
It’s hard to make such a small product feel in any way premium or up-market. Bang & Olufsen has given it a damn good go, mind you - leather, plastic and aluminium has seldom been deployed to such good effect. The substance of their performance can’t quite match the style, though. Available in black, blue, pink or limestone.
8. Beats PowerBeats Pro
If you’re the vigorous type, you need to give proper consideration to the PowerBeats Pro. The looks are relatively chunky, but the fit is rock-solid - and they have decent resistance to moisture too, as well as very agreeable sound. Quite Apple-centric though, of course, which Android users need to bear in mind. Available in black, blue, green or ivory.
9. Bose SoundSport Free
Bose’s headphones pedigree is glowing, and its latest true wireless in-ears look the part, fit like a glove and sound competitive. Relatively humdrum battery life and Bluetooth 4.1 will raise a few eyebrows though. Available in black, blue, orange and psychedelic-unicorn sort of thing (officially ‘ultraviolet’).
10. Apple AirPods
Make your own mind up about the looks (we know we have). There’s no denying the AirPods 2 are, in sonic terms, a big improvement over the originals - but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re vying for top spot. Unusual fit will divide opinion too. Available in white.
How we chose the true wireless earphones to test
It’s only been four years since Onkyo whipped the appropriately small covers off what it claimed were the world’s first true wireless in-ear headphones, the W800BT. A little over a year later, Apple launched its first AirPods and alerted the mainstream to the new world of wireless possibilities. Since then, the market has grown exponentially.
To make sure we put the most popular, most high-profile, most realistically priced, and most downright desirable true wireless in-ears to the test, we looked long and hard at the likes of Amazon, John Lewis and Argos to establish popular price points and expected features.
And, of course, to separate the merely wireless from the true wireless. Some in-ear headphones are ‘wireless’ inasmuch as they don’t need a physical connection from your music player to the earphones themselves. But the earbuds tend to be wired to each other, usually via a cable that runs around the back of the wearer’s neck. That’s a test for another day - here we’re concerned solely with true wireless headphones, a left and a right earbud connected to nothing but the inside of your ear.
From a long-list of 27 pairs, we narrowed it down to a list of 10 - based on price, popularity and features.
Features-wise, there’s more to consider than you might at first imagine. For a product so specific in its function, a true wireless headphone can be absolutely loaded with features. Touch-sensitive controls on the earbuds themselves, for instance: there’s not much point in having true wireless headphones if you have to fish out your smartphone every time you want to change tracks or adjust the volume.
Voice-control is a consideration, too. And don’t underestimate the importance of battery life, both of the earbuds themselves and the carry-case in which they charge.
Price also plays a big part, naturally enough. While it’s possible to pay as little as £50 for a pair of true wireless in-ear headphones these days, the compromises (both in terms of audio quality and connectivity - little is more frustrating than wireless headphones that keep losing their connection to your smartphone) are, we think, too great. No, the real action starts once you get into three figures - that’s where big brands with big reputations lurk, as well as the more intrepid specialists.
Ultimately, though, it always comes back to sound quality. Yes, wirelessness is a big convenience - but we can’t imagine persevering with a pair of true wireless in-ears if the sound they make doesn’t satisfy.
No matter the scenario in which you wear your true wireless earbuds — during a commute, during a workout, during the working day — we’ve explained what’s what to help you select the true wireless in-ears that are perfect for you.
How we tested the earphones
As we said, it always comes back to sound quality - and that’s a pretty subjective thing. If you like it punishingly bassy, or flat and undynamic, well… it’s not for us to tell you that you’re wrong. Not overtly, anyway. But in any case, it’s sound - frequency response, tonality, bass control, soundstaging, separation and so on - we give most significant weighting to.
Specification is important too. We took Bluetooth codecs into account (they can impact on battery life almost as much as on sound quality), and we considered the quality of the control app - only Apple, Cambridge Audio and RHA go without a dedicated app. We also considered the simplicity and effectiveness of the touch-controls - and, in the case of Sony, how successful the active noise-cancelling is.
Battery life - actual battery life, rather than that claimed by the manufacturer - is a vital consideration too. And not only the battery in the headphones themselves. Each and every pair of headphones in this list comes with a charging case that stores some additional power. And most of these pairs quote a ‘quick charge’ time - that’s how quickly you can get some worthwhile power back into an exhausted pair of headphones. Only Bang & Olufsen and Sennheiser don’t make much of deal about this figure.
We’ve also gone to lengths to test the robustness of the wireless connection - because although some true wireless headphones are quick to pair with your phone and then sound good with music, they can lose their link with your player quite easily if it’s in a bag or a pocket. Which, we’re sure you’ll agree, rather defeats the whole ‘wireless’ point.
Call quality is a consideration, too. Ideally you’d like to be able to answer (or reject) calls without taking your phone from your pocket or bag - but what are these headphones like in terms of telephony? Can you hear your caller? Can they hear you?
Aesthetic considerations, rather like sound quality, are a subjective area. And, to be frank, it’s an area we’re much happier to leave to your own discretion. We feel on far safer ground dismissing one pair of headphones against another on the basis of sound than we do on the basis of their appearance. So even though we feel the Apple and RHA designs look a bit peculiar, and the Beats, Sennheisers and Sonys are a little bulky, we haven’t factored looks in too much.
Comfort, though, is a different issue. Every single pair of true wireless headphones here, bar Apple, comes with a selection of foam, or silicon, or Comply tips to help you get a decent fit - and, at the same time, to try and keep the earbuds secure in your ears. We’ve given some weighting to how successfully this is implemented (and we’ve given Apple a hard stare for assuming everyone’s ears are exactly the same).
True wireless earphones: test results
In every respect bar one, Sony’s WF-1000MX3 lead the pack. They sound balanced and convincing, they’re built to last, it’s simple to get a comfy and secure fit, they have splendid battery life, the control app is decent. And, alone among these in-ear headphones, they have active noise-cancelling technology too.
Only the mystifying lack of physical volume control keeps things interesting for their nominal competition.
A creditably close second place belongs to the Jaybird Vistas. For serious exercisers they’re the best option here, thanks to their light weight and splendid fit. And while they don’t approach Sony levels of audio fidelity, they’re no slouches on that score either.
Next up is Cambridge’s supernaturally accomplished Melomania 1. Once you hear them do their thing (and factor in how much more affordable than most rivals they are), the lack of control app and rather functional looks become irrelevant.
Fourth place belongs to Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless. Yes, they look expensive in this company and yes, they’re far from the most decorative item in this list and yes, their battery life is nothing special. Their neutral, beautifully judged sound goes a long way towards making up for all that, though.
Halfway down the rankings we find the SoundSport Free by Bose. The fit is lovely, the finishes are far more assertive than anyone else’s here, and the sound - despite the unpromising nature of Bluetooth 4.1 - is on the enjoyable side of ‘inoffensive’ too.
We could go with ‘inoffensive’ for the sixth-place RHA TrueConnect, too. The earbuds and their case feel good, they’re comfortable enough to wear and we suppose you’ll get used to the looks eventually. There are some very decent elements to their audio performance too - but their relative lack of wireless stability is a little thwarting.
Seventh place can only count as a disappointment for a product as aspirational as Bang & Olufsen’s E8 2.0, but the cost is their biggest problem (as was ever thus with B&O). Battery life, comfort, ergonomics and sound quality are all fine - but they can’t quite justify that premium price.
The look of the Beats PowerBeats Pro will take some getting used to, but there’s no arguing with the solidity and security of the way they fit. Fitness freaks will love the way they feel - but we have fairly strong reservations about the way they sound.
Apple’s ninth-place showing demonstrates that while the AirPod 2 are a significant improvement on the original AirPods, that doesn’t mean they’re really any good. They can sound quite stressed as volume, and the lack of options to achieve a proper fit seems lazy at best, arrogant at worst.
Having said that, though, we’d rather have the AirPod 2 than the Samsung Galaxy Buds, despite the fact that - in almost every way - the Samsungs are superior. They fit better, you look less of a dork wearing them, and the (Android only) app is decent. But their sound - thin, short of detail and control - is unforgivably poor.
Best overall true wireless earphones
Sony had little to prove where true wireless in-ear headphones are concerned, but it has gone ahead and had a rethink anyway - and the result is the best pair you can buy.
Where build quality, finish, ergonomics, fit, comfort and - most crucially of all - sound are all concerned, no rival can get within touching distance of the WF-1000MX3. They even have a worthwhile and stable control app. Some alternatives can match some areas of the Sonys’ excellence - where battery life and ergonomics in particular are concerned - but none has the across-the-board, all-court game these do. They’re just brilliantly accomplished, a product delivered by a company that has more confidence than it knows what to do with right now.
(It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that nothing’s perfect and, sure enough, there is a chink in the WF-1000MX3’s armour. There’s no volume control involved in the touch-sensitive controls on the ear-buds - it’s possible to use Google Assistant or Siri to moderate volume levels, but otherwise you’ll need to use your player to control volume. It’s a frankly baffling omission - though it does mean the WF-1000MX3's inevitable replacement at least has room for improvement.)
Everything about the Sony WF-1000MX3 is beautifully judged. The fit, thanks to numerous choice of ear tips, and a little coating of just-grippy-enough rubberised material around the base of the earbud itself, is great. Battery life (from 6 to 8 hours from a single charge, depending on whether you have active noise-cancelling engaged or not) is fully competitive, and the relatively oversized charging case holds between 24 and 32 hours too. You can even shove another 90 minutes' worth of use into them with a 15-minute charge.
The touch-sensitive controls, to skip tracks, answer or reject calls, turn the active noise-cancelling on or off, or engage ‘Ambient Sound Mode’ (which introduces more external sound - useful if you’re in a very busy area) work well. They can be organised in the Sony Headphones Connect app, which is where you can also set EQs and prioritise sound quality or wireless connection stability. We’d suggest always making sound quality your priority, as the Sony’s Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity proves admirably stable in any event.
Besides, if a pair of headphones don’t prioritise sound quality, then what’s the point?
Happily, the WF-1000MX3 sound just as well considered as they look and feel. Nothing is overstated or overlooked - every aspect of musical performance, from the weight, texture and control of the lowest frequencies to the shine and attack of the highest, sounds natural and convincing.
If you like hip-hop or dance music, the Sonys have the bass depth and punch you crave - but it’s swift, and doesn’t swamp the information above it. If you value a singer, the MX3 midrange is as detailed and communicative as the come. The dynamism that so much classical music depends on is here in spades, too. And the Sony WF-1000XM3 have plenty of the spaciousness, separation and clarity that’s critical no matter the sort of music you prefer.
In short, the Sony WF-1000MX3 are impeccable. If you want true wireless in-ear headphones, you simply must listen to these.
Best value true wireless earphones
Cambridge Melomania 1 -
It wouldn’t be disrespectful to Cambridge Audio to say no one really saw this coming. As a company that recently celebrated its 50th birthday, it’s obvious Cambridge must be doing something right - and it’s true to say the bulk of its successes have come with its most aggressively priced equipment. But the world of true wireless in-ears is uncharted territory for Cambridge Audio - yet it has managed to hit the centre of the ‘value/performance’ Venn diagram with its very first attempt.
Basically, the Melomania 1 offer pretty much everything you can reasonably expect at the price - and, where sound quality is concerned, exceed expectations quite comfortably.
They’re a pretty prosaic ‘bullet’-shaped design - the function dictates the form, and there’s no messing about with design flourishes. A choice of ear-tip helps get a secure, comfortable fit (unless you’re a pre-adolescent or have notably small ears, in which case these may not be for you).
The end of the housing (the opposite end to the business end that delivers sound) is given over almost entirely to push/push buttons for controlling volume, skipping tracks, answering or rejects calls on and so on. There’s also a very slim light around the button for a visual indication of the what the Cambridges are up to.
There are some very agreeable numbers attached to the Melomania 1. High among them is battery life: Cambridge ekes 9 hours out of the headphones from a single charge, and the compact, businesslike charging case holds another 45 hours. Which really should be plenty, we’re sure you’ll agree. 4.6g per earbud means they’re not heavy. 5.8mm graphene drivers in each earbud promises full-range audio performance, as does aptX Bluetooth 5.0.
And the Melomania 1 manage to make good on everything the specification promises - by the standards of price-comparable rivals, they’re in an entirely different league of sound quality.
Like all in-ear headphones, audio quality relies a lot on the way the earbuds fit into your ears - but get the Cambridges positioned nicely and they’re endlessly rewarding. Bass sounds have the heft and solidity that gives real momentum to music, and there’s proper attention to detail throughout the frequency range - it’s this sort of insight that makes music truly thrilling, and it’s by no means a given at any price.
There’s really very little to dislike here. The grey finish is a bit dreary - but that’s about as critical as we can get. Have a long, hard listen to the Cambridge Melomania 1 and then look again at the price tag. No, that’s not a misprint - they really are excellent value.
The rest compared
If you want to combine a fit secure enough to run a marathon without problems, from a small, light earbud with solid wireless connectivity and punchy, smoothly attacking sound, well… the Jaybird Vista are the true wireless in-ears for you. And provided you’re more athletic than us, those six hours of battery life (plus another 10 from the case) will comfortably see you over the line.
Mind you, there’s something to be said for Bose’s SoundSport Free where keep-fit fanatics are concerned. They too have the snugness and comfort of fit a work-out demands, though they’re a little heavier than the Jaybirds, and the sound is substantial despite the rather retrograde Bluetooth 4.1 codec.
Beats intends its PowerBeats Pro to rival Bose and Jaybird as the top choice for active users, but it doesn’t quite work out that way. There’s no arguing with the way they fit, with how easy and intuitive to operate they are, or with the longevity of their battery. It’s easy to argue with their flat and lightweight sound, though - and ‘lightweight’ is not a word we ever thought we’d apply to a pair of Beats headphones.
Apple has always been a company to go its own way, and it’s always found its best ideas imitated to within an inch of their lives. It’s safe to say the AirPods 2 aren’t one of Apple’s best ideas, though, and the straightforward bloody-mindedness the company demonstrates by suggesting (erroneously) that ‘one size fits all’ makes AirPod 2 s almost as objectionable as their stressy, fizzy and restless sound.
So it’s kind of satisfying to realise RHA has taken Apple’s aesthetic and served up a much better product. The TrueConnect are nicer to touch, easier and more comfortable to wear, and far more pleasant to listen to than the AirPod 2s - if their occasional struggles to maintain a Bluetooth connection with your player can be ironed out, these could be real competitors.
Up at the more rarefied end of the outlay scale, we find Sennhesier and Bang & Olufsen. It’s almost too easy to dismiss the Bang & Olufsen E8 2.0as the usual B&O triumph of style over substance, and in this instance it’s not strictly true. The E8 2.0 are a decently balanced and detailed listen, as well as looking and feeling very nice indeed. But are they worth all that money? We can’t pretend they are.
Which, on the face of it, makes Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless an even more difficult sell. They’re not that much cheaper than the B&Os, they don’t look or feel as expensive as the B&Os… but they sound natural in a warm-ish sort of way, and make the most of high-quality digital files without putting the boot into lower quality stuff.
One to avoid
There’s something mildly tragic about Samsung’s Galaxy Buds. In most ways, they’re a very competitive product and could be considered a bit of a bargain, were it not for one vital shortcoming.
On the plus side, they’re extremely compact (both the buds and the charging case they come in). They fit well, with sufficient ear-tip options to get them comfy in even the most problematic ears, and their set-up and control app is decent (even if it is Android only). Six hours of battery life from the buds themselves is competitive, even if the case only holds another seven. Getting another hour-and-a-half of action from a 15-minute top-up is not to be sniffed at, either.
But the sound they make just isn't what we expected. They’re short of heft and momentum at the bottom end, they’re altogether too thin at the top, and they’re short of detail and dynamism.
Samsung acquired headphones savant AKG not all that long ago, but on this evidence it’s not a marriage made in heaven.