There was a time when every review we wrote about even a good pair of true wireless earbuds — that is, earbuds without any wires at all — came with a caveat. The warning read something like this: You can buy these for their convenience, but you’ll do way better for your money when it comes to sound, connection, and battery life with a pair of strap-on wireless buds.
But the time for caveats is no more. True wireless headphones have finally arrived. Here’s how 2019 became the year everything came together to make these headphones among the most compelling ways to mainline your favorite tunes and podcasts.
At CES 2019 we sat down with executives from Qualcomm who had some very good news about true wireless earbuds: Battery life was about to double. Thanks to advanced chipsets with better Bluetooth efficiency, battery life for earbuds that had long been stuck at around the five-hour mark for top brands (including Apple’s market-dominating AirPods) was about to jump to a potential 9-10 hours.
Sure enough, we saw multiple pairs of earbuds step up with that much listening time in 2019 thanks to this new hardware, from Apple’s Powerbeats Pro to Master and Dynamic’s MW07 Plus. And of course, each pair comes with plenty more reserve battery in the accompanying charging case, too, for multiple days of listening off the grid.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean all earbuds have 10 hours of listening time — in fact, most don’t. What it does mean is you can spend a bit more (from around $200-300) to get that battery cushion, while earbuds that cost $100 or less now regularly meet or exceed the 5-hour standard set by Apple’s popular Pods.
What’s more, thanks to advancements in rapid charging, even buds with lower battery runtime, like Apple’s AirPods Pro, won’t trip up most users (in the short term, anyway) as they can be juiced up with hours of playback time in mere minutes.
We can thank Apple for the state of true wireless buds in 2019 in at least two ways, though it’s a begrudging thanks from yours truly. First, Apple’s “courageous” (read: annoying) move to cut the headphone jack in 2016 essentially demanded innovation in wireless headphone tech. It’s the whole grow-or-die mentality, only it was demanded by a single company and came at the arbitrary loss of a legacy feature that folks like me will always bemoan. Once Apple cut the jack, virtually ever company not named LG followed in the ensuing years.
Second, Apple being Apple, the company’s first AirPods broke the headphone industry due to sheer popularity. In all fairness, at the time of their release, the AirPods truly were revolutionary for their solid connection and simplicity in both setup and usability — all major shortcomings of earlier true wireless models — though their muddy sound was essentially just a carbon copy of the maligned EarPods with the added opacity of Bluetooth connection.
Regardless of the scruples Apple may or may not have overlooked in its quest for earbuds domination, the AirPods cracked a resonant whip of demand for all audio brands working in the headphone space (and plenty of others who weren’t) to meet or beat their performance. From that need to innovate came a flood of new competitors (most of them bad at first), and by 2019, a groundbreaking new genre loaded with high-caliber contenders.
As headphone makers cast eager eyes on this growing opportunity and latched on to new, more efficient technologies, the race for a better bud began to heat up. No longer was a decent connection and solid sound the goal. Suddenly, what was an acceptable level of features in a pair of earbuds in 2018 became pedestrian or even flat-out obsolete in 2019. (For proof, just look at the aforementioned MW07 Plus in comparison to its 2018 predecessor.)
A watershed moment came when Sony dropped the WF-1000XM3 in July, the first fully wireless earbuds from a major brand with active noise cancellation. Despite their terrible name (borrowed from Sony’s most popular over-ear cans), the WF-1000XM3 hit the market with a thunderclap, offering solid battery life, ambient sound mode, an advanced controller app, incredible sound quality and, most notably, excellent noise cancellation.
The best part? Even Apple was forced to catch up. Just months after releasing the humdrum AirPods 2 in March, the brand unveiled its much-rumored AirPods Pro in October with almost no fanfare or warning, packing the best sound and features from an Apple headphone yet — including noise cancellation that meets or exceeds Sony’s buds.
Since Sony’s noise-canceling surprise, we’ve seen multiple other models with their own version of active noise reduction, including Amazon’s first pair, the remarkable Echo Buds, which undercut both the AirPods Pro and Sony buds on price by a wide margin and pack solid sound to boot.
Other features like sensors to pause sound when your buds are pulled out, dual connection to allow you to use one or both earbuds, and microphone noise cancellation for clearer calling are also now widespread, trickling down from the best true wireless buds to budget models. It’s a boon for the masses, and a great reason to buy.
Oh yeah, true wireless headphones actually sound good now, too. That’s kind of a big deal. Thanks to a combination of advancements over time, including the latest Bluetooth 5.0 protocol, better chipsets, improved antenna technology, and advanced compression formats like Qualcomm’s aptX and Sony’s DSEE HX, the latest class of true wireless earbuds have cleared out the clouds of their predecessors to offer clean, vibrant sound.
That’s not to say all true wireless earbuds sound amazing, but the quality has vastly improved. It’s a night-and-day difference from the early days of true wireless buds just a few years back, and a major upgrade across the board year over year.
You’re still going to get better sound as you spend up — with the aforementioned pricey models from Sony, Master and Dynamic and, yes, Apple among my favorites — but you can now get solid sound from even cheapskate earbuds. Case in point? 1More’s Stylish offer clear, detailed sound for $100 or less, while retail for as low as $55, and for that money, they sound pretty decent, too. The fact that buds at that price even exist, let alone work well, is proof of how far we’ve come.
The promise of true wireless earbuds has always been their utter convenience, cutting all ties so you can garden, jog, commute, bike, or vacuum away with ease. It’s a long-lingering promise that has finally come to fruition.
So go ahead, shop around. And when you find a pair of earbuds with the features you like and a design you dig, feel free to pull the trigger. True wireless earbuds have finally arrived. And for audio fans the world over, it couldn’t have happened soon enough.
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