Wireless earbuds are an extremely cool technology, but they simply aren’t yet ready for prime time.
Leading into the chaos of CES 2017 I was prepared for an explosion of so-called “true wireless” in-ear headphones, and I wasn’t disappointed. From run-of-the-mill earbuds to “hearables” that can augment and filter the ambient sounds around you, this year will see a veritable cornucopia of colorful designs and styles entering the earbud market, with no strings attached (physically, anyway).
If you’re excited about nabbing a pair of these new wireless buds, you’re not alone. Following Apple’s “brave” decision to drop the headphone jack, wireless earbuds are set to pop up everywhere this year, with rivals fighting Apple’s AirPods for supremacy. Even if the cool factor of popping the tiny beads into your ears wasn’t in play (and it most assuredly is), the sheer convenience of untethering from your phone with a device that packs neatly into your pocket is undeniable.
Still, while wireless earbuds are extremely novel, when it comes to replacing your daily workhorse headphones, they simply aren’t yet ready for prime time. Here’s why you should hold onto those wired earbuds a little longer.
While processors get faster, memory gets cheaper, and screens get more pixels, batteries seem to stubbornly lag behind these innovations — just ask Galaxy S7 Note buyers. That’s especially true for wireless earbuds, which have extremely limited space in which to store the lifeblood that powers their constant connection to your smartphone.
Recharging your earbuds takes time, as much as an hour and a half for some products.
Larger over-ear wireless cans currently offer around 15 to 25 hours of playback per charge, often with features like active noise cancellation thrown in. In contrast, most true wireless earbuds on the market average less than a fifth as long — if we’re being generous. Erato’s popular Apollo 7, for instance, offer only three hours of playback time. The same goes for Earin’s M1, Sol Republic’s Amps Air, Samsung’s Gear IconX, Bragi’s Dash, and so on. Sound-augmenting hearables like Doppler Labs’ all-new Hear One, offer even less time — just 2.5 hours. That’s not enough time to get you through a short flight without a recharge.
The next generation does no better. Earin’s new M2 are also expected to offer just three hours of juice per charge, as are Monster’s upcoming models, and I expect similar numbers from across the industry. Exceptions include Bragi’s new scaled-down offering, The Headphone, and Apple’s famed Airpods, which offer six hours and five hours of listening time, respectively. That’s better, but still not enough to get you through a workday without a recharge.
To combat this obvious obstacle, virtually every model naps in a wireless charging case, which can push you to around 15 hours of listening time, or more. But recharging your earbuds takes time, as much as an hour and a half for some products. That’s a lot of downtime when you’re in the middle of a movie or stuck on a coast-to-coast flight.
Perhaps the biggest gripe about the first wave of true wireless in-ears is the widely spread frustration of connection inconsistencies — sync issues between buds often create a wobbly stereo image, while the tiny antennae inside the buds give users fits as they drop connection from the phone. That’s to say nothing of poor call quality.
Part of the connection issue is the very nature of Bluetooth in its current form, which can’t connect to both earbuds at the same time. Instead, one of the buds must connect to your phone and then relay the stereo information — through your skull — to its counterpart (a less-than-comforting thought, we know). Apple’s AirPods are one of the few exceptions to this rule I’ve encountered.
It appears the communication issues between the two buds will be primarily reined in for 2017’s new wave thanks in part to wide employment of NXP’s latest Near Field Magnetic Induction (NFMI) technology, which keeps the two earbuds communicating better than Bluetooth alone. There will still be inherent issues in play with Bluetooth, including potential connection issues between the earbuds’ tiny antenna and the source device, and even potential video sync issues. These issues are usually more prominent in off-brand models, so if you are hell-bent on true wireless buds, I suggest you cough up the dough. Which leads me to my next point …
The cost of convenience
For a solid pair of true wireless earbuds, you’ll pay a whole lotta green.
You get what you pay for, as they say, and for a solid pair of true wireless earbuds from a quality brand, you’ll pay a whole lotta green. By that, I mean two, three, or even four times as much as a comparable pair of wired earbuds. For example, while Apple’s $150 AirPods are the most consistent pair we’ve reviewed, they’re essentially just a wireless version of the critically maligned $40 EarPods with a few fancy features like automated music pausing.
If you want something with higher sound quality, you can expect to spend double that much, at $250 to $300 per pair. If you’re thinking about just how fantastic a pair of wired in-ears at that price point would sound, you’ve guessed the thesis of my final topic.
Though most of the $300 true wireless in-ears I’ve heard offer above average sound quality, they don’t even come close to the fidelity you’ll get in a wired headphone at that price. That’s true not only because Bluetooth headphones digitally compress the music before it hits your ears, but also because at least half of the price tag for true wireless earbuds takes into account the cost of wireless convenience.
While fidelity is of the utmost importance to audio nuts like myself, I realize it’s not on the top of the list for everybody. Still, the fact that you could save hundreds of dollars on the one hand, or land exponentially better sound for the same price on the other, must be factored in. Unless you’re primarily using your headphones for yard work or practicing for an Olympic gymnastics medal, you have to ask yourself: Is wireless really worth all that?
Far be it from me to slow the wheels of innovation. In fact, I quite enjoy wireless earbuds, as many of my reviews imply. And with the advancement of new technologies — including rumors of a coming Bluetooth codec that can transfer sound to both buds at the same time — the future of true wireless earbuds is promising.
However, if you’re looking for something to replace the go-to cans that help you jam your way through the day, I’d suggest you pump the brakes. Wireless earbuds are on their way up, but they haven’t conquered the mountain just yet.