If you’ve been considering a pair of AirPods to cut to chord on your listening life, read on! While Apple’s popular wireless earbuds are easily the best-selling pair on the market, there are a lot of awesome alternatives — and great features — being offered by other brands at even more affordable prices, due in large part to the fact that Apple has changed virtually nothing of importance in the latest generation of its wireless earbuds.
Ever since Apple and its followers began selling jack-less phones, the wireless headphone industry has exploded. We’ve spent hundreds of hours listening to wireless in-ears of all shapes, sizes, and prices, and we’ve come up with a grocery list of features every buyer should be looking for in a new pair of fully wireless earbuds, as well as some traits that should raise red flags. Here are the six most important features you should look for in a new pair of wireless buds. And check out this list of the best wireless earbuds that you can buy right now for our current favorites.
With the massive improvements to chip technology being ushered in by Qualcomm and other companies, any pair of true wireless headphones worth their salt need to offer at least an AirPod-matching 5 hours or more of battery life per charge.
And frankly, these days 5 hours is on the low end for current and next-generation wireless earbuds, with some pairs offering up to 10 hours of listening time per charge. If the headphones you’re looking at aren’t getting a minimum of 5 hours of playback per charge, with very few exceptions, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. In some cases, shorter battery life may also be an indication that the manufacturer is using older chip technology, which could mean worse connectivity, sound, and functionality overall.
While AirPods fans may love their loose fit and plastic tips, we firmly believe any pair of earbuds should have silicone eartips for two reasons: First, it usually makes them more comfortable in your ears thanks to softer, more flexible tips and the ability to customize the fit to your ears. Second, they isolate the sound better, which means you’ll get better bass response and more clarity from your music.
For workout fans, earfins or similar design features that will help your earbuds stay in place are also a good idea, and something we’d love to see from new AirPods. You don’t want your expensive earbuds falling out of your ears when working out or biking across town.
Finally, you should be after a pair of earbuds with a compact charging case that fits in your pocket and offers at least two full recharges. AirPods are actually a perfect example of this, with their small case that offers more up to 24 hours of total charging time on the go. Good work, Apple.
Even if you don’t plan on taking them with you to the gym, you should definitely be after a pair of earbuds that come with some form of water resistance, preferably labeled with an IP waterproof/dustproof rating. Water resistance was another key feature omitted from the latest AirPods update.
You’ll want to be able to clean off your earbuds with a wet cloth when they get dirty, and you won’t want to worry about taking them out in inclement weather. Some companies don’t offer IP ratings on their earbuds, but still make them water- and sweat-resistant. Be sure to check the manufacturer’s website to know you’re getting a pair of buds with at least some basic water resistance.
In terms of everyday usability, there are few things that impact your wireless earbuds experience as deeply as playback controls.
Because fully wireless earbuds are often small and require some level of adjustment to get comfortable in your ears when you put them in, we’re usually not fans of touch controls. Sure, they help maintain a sleeker look, but it also means you may accidentally change songs, play or pause songs, or call up a voice assistant when you’re just trying to adjust the fit.
Instead, we recommend looking for physical controls, preferably including a play/pause/multifunction button, a voice assistant key, song skipping, and especially, onboard volume controls. Trust us, there’s nothing more annoying than scrambling to find your phone when you’re accidentally blasting your ears with sound.
An app for that
While some more affordable pairs of true wireless headphones don’t come with an app, it’s always nice to get app-based features to do more with your buds. Features to look for include the ability to find a lost earbud, an adjustable EQ to suit your particular musical taste, and an ambient awareness mode.
That last feature, which isn’t available on AirPods or the new Powerbeats Pro, is something we consider especially important for true wireless models, allowing them to pipe in sound from the outside world when you’re on the go. This is useful for several reasons, but primarily for safety. If you’re planning on taking your earbuds on bike rides or runs on public streets, you need to be able to hear at least a bit of the world around you.
Failing that, the ability to use one earbud at a time and still hear full playback is a good substitution, allowing at least one ear free to keep you aware of your surroundings. Both the AirPods and the Powerbeats Pro can do this. The fact that the AirPods lack silicone eartips — and thus let in more ambient noise than most — might also help you here.
Just a short time ago, you had to pay $150 or more to get a decent pair of wireless earbuds. The AirPods, for example, retail for $159, which was reasonable when they first hit the market, but is now inching towards the more expensive side of the spectrum. Add a wireless charging case and you’re paying $199, and the Powerbeats Pro will cost you a cool $250.
Luckily, more affordable wireless chips and an increased number of manufacturers means that many companies are now able to make and sell great wireless earbuds for less money, without having to settle for mediocre sound or poor build quality. You can check some of these out in the list of our favorite wireless earbuds.
Still, there is a low tier of true wireless models that we don’t recommend. At this point, we haven’t tested a quality pair of totally wireless earbuds that costs less than $100. We’d be thrilled to find a pair of super-affordable, high-quality wireless earbuds for less, but for now, be wary of any new models below that price point.
Some older models from name brands will probably descend below the $100 threshold soon, and they actually may be worth considering. Make sure you do your research and read reviews before taking the plunge.
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