While wireless over-ear headphones have been saving us from Tangle Rage™ for some time now, when it comes to really making our lives easier on the go, only the portability of in-ears will do.
The Apple AirPods were not the first of their kind to cut the wires by any means, but their arrival at the end of 2016 did give the in-ear industry a nudge in the right direction. Now there are alternatives everywhere you look.
That can only be a good thing for Android users. While the AirPods will work with Android phones, so much of their functionality is geared towards iOS that we’d argue your money is better spent elsewhere.
Not sure where to start? Read on for a lowdown on some of the best wireless in-ears on the market right now.
Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 (£120)
Melomania might sound like a skin condition, but there’s nothing irritating about Cambridge Audio’s first pair of true wireless Bluetooth buds.
The headline feature here is probably their best-in-class battery life. They’ll last around nine hours between charges, which is twice what you’ll get out of a lot of their rivals. Including the power inside the compact charging case, you’ll get up to 45 hours in total before they need to be plugged into the mains. That could be a real boon for the forgetful music fan with lots of stuff to charge.
You wouldn’t want to listen to them for nearly two days if they sounded rubbish but find the foam or silicone tip that fits your ear hole best and they offer a balanced, enjoyable and accomplished sound. There’s plenty of drive and attack, with well-controlled depth and solidity to the bass notes and low frequencies. In absolute terms they lack just a drop of out-and-out dynamism, but they do most things really well, especially considering the price.
Each earbud has a button which facilitates music playback and phone call control, but Cambridge has also incorporated Siri and Google Assistant voice commands. They work well - each earbud has an integrated microphone which prove plenty sensitive enough to understand instructions with very few misunderstandings. Allied to Qualcomm’s Clear Voice Capture technology, call quality is as good as it gets from a wireless headphone.
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RHA TrueConnect (£150)
If you’ve put off buying some totally wireless earbuds because you’re worried about them falling out, look no further than a pair of RHA’s TrueConnects.
They come with 10 different tips (seven made of silicone, three from Comply foam) so you’d need to have very oddly shaped ear holes to not find a perfect fit. Each earphone is more compact than they look in the pictures too, plus they only weigh 7g each, so when they’re in you hardly notice them.
At least, you wouldn’t if they didn’t sound so good. Bass is punchy without being overpowering, and while the mid-range could perhaps have a bit more clarity, they’re a fun listen with a pretty wide soundstage. They’re easily up there with the best-sounding true wireless in-ears available, plus the secure fit means they do a decent job of cutting out any environmental jibber-jabber, too.
Where they fall slightly short is on the bells and whistles you get with some other pairs. They come in a very well-built USB-C charging case that means you get an impressive 25 hours out of the batteries, and they’re waterproof to IPX5, but compared to Apple’s futuristic AirPods they’re much more straightforward. The connection is almost as reliable, though, with only very brief and occasional dropouts, and while the controls can take a little getting used to they’re reliable and responsive.
Considering they also cost less than a pair of AirPods, RHA’s TrueConnects have all the important stuff nailed.
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Samsung Galaxy Buds (£139)
Using AirPods with an Android phone is a bit like drinking gravy through a snorkel; it works but it just feels a bit wrong. The same can be said of Samsung’s Galaxy Buds and an iPhone.
There are certain features of Samsung’s totally wireless earphones that you need an Android phone, preferably a Galaxy, to use. The main one is Ambient Sound mode, which allows you to tweak how much outside noise they let in to prevent you from stepping in front of a runaway Segway. Voice Focus also makes it easier to hear people talking when you’re wearing them, plus you can customise what the touch-sensitive buttons do.
Those controls can be a tad temperamental but it gets better as you get used to them. The lightweight design and choice of three different buds, plus three wingtips to go with them, means they’re incredibly comfy and they never feel like they might fall out of your ears, even if you’re a fan of aggressively headbanging along to your tunes.
Chances of that are fairly high, because the AKG-tuned Galaxy Buds sound pretty damn good. Treble can be a little thin and the bass obviously won’t kick as hard as a larger pair would but you can always give it a little helping hand through the app’s equaliser.
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TicPods Free (£120)
Approach someone while wearing a white pair of TicPods Free earphones and they’ll probably assume they’re AirPods, such are the similarities between Apple’s wireless buds and these Android-friendly alternatives.
They even come with their own charging case, although it’s bulkier than Apple’s effort and connecting with your phone is a long way from the seamless experience you get with AirPods. Be patient when you open the case, though, and you shouldn’t encounter too many problems. Battery life is only about four hours per charge but you should get three and a bit full recharges out of the case.
The TicPods fit at more of an angle in your ears - handy if you wear earrings - with two choices of rubber tip, which should make them more comfortable for those of us without Apple-approved ear holes. They also come in red and black and IPX5 water resistance means they’ll survive being caught in a sudden downpour, just don’t dunk your head in a puddle.
The stems are touch sensitive, allowing you to take calls, adjust the volume, pause your music or skip a track, although annoyingly there’s no way to skip back if you go too far. They’ll also pause if you take one out and resume playing when you put it back, although like the touch controls it’s not as responsive as you might like.
So how do they sound? Pretty good actually. The rubber tips offer decent sound isolation and considering the price they’re punchy and bassy. Just don’t expect them to rival your high-end over-ears.
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Jabra Elite Active 65t (£169)
Elsewhere on this list you’ll find Jabra’s Elite Sport in-ears. As the name suggests they’re aimed at fitness freaks and come with a built-in heart rate monitor. If your runs could be better described as Hungover Plod than Elite Sport, these Jabras might be the ones for you.
Despite their bulbous appearance they fit well, which is important if you’re going to be pounding pavements or pumping iron with them in. A choice of three silicone ear tips means they can be customised for different size ears, although it does mean they’re not the most comfortable for long listening sessions.
There are buttons built into each one: the left adjusts the volume and skips tracks, while the right is used to pause, recieve calls and bring up your phone’s voice assistant. That’ll give you a few things to remember but you’ll pick it up soon enough.
You can also toggle the HearThrough mode on and off, which allows you to adjust how much of the outside world the earphones let in. The noise-cancelling is impressive but it’s just one of many functions you can tweak via Jabra’s Sound+ app, with an EQ available for each mode. There’s also an accelerometer built in to monitor your steps and auto-pause when you take them out, although detection can be a bit hit and miss.
Audiophiles will probably pick holes in their audio performance but we like our sports headphones to be punchy and energetic - all the better to help push you through the pain.
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Bose SoundSport Free (£158)
You probably associate Bose with big, over-ear noise-cancellers but now you can also associate them with big, in-ear sports headphones.
Yep, there’s no getting away from the fact that the SoundSport Frees are a bit on the chunky side, with a fair portion of each bud protruding from your ear when they’re in place. Controls are built into the top edge of the right earbud and they come with Bose’s wing-shaped StayHear tips to keep them from falling out. Despite their size they’re surprisingly comfortable, plus they’re also sweat and water resistant.
Battery life is a fairly standard five hours, with the customary charging case offering an extra 10 on top of that. One thing that does make them stand out from the competition is the Apple-esque Find My Buds mode offered via the Bose Connect app. If you happen to misplace one or both it’ll show its location on a map and you can even get them to emit a distress signal when you’re in the vicinity, although given how chunky they are you’ll hopefully never need to use it.
While there’s none of Bose’s trademark noise-cancelling here, the SoundSport Frees do manage to create a decent amount of isolation. Sound is bold but balanced with driving bass that’s suitable for gym bunnies and commuters alike.
The only real issue is a lack of reliability when it comes to Bluetooth connectivity. Say what you like about Apple’s AirPods but their wireless performance is rock solid. Unfortunately we can’t say the same about these. It’s the only black mark against what is otherwise a well-performing pair of true wireless buds.
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Sony WF-1000X (£128)
Wireless know-how runs in the family at Sony. The company’s WH-1000XM3 are among our favourite wireless over-ear headphones, and its first wireless in-ears are almost as special.
The WF-1000X have a smart but unfussy look, and a wonderfully comfy fit. They hang just slightly outside your ear – not so much that you look like you’re trying to close a business deal but just enough to ensure the microphone is in the best place.
That’s because alongside phone calls and smart assistance, the WF-1000X needs its mics to help with its noise cancellation. Naturally, over-ears manage a more convincing job here, but the WF-1000X offer as good a performance as we’ve heard from in-ears.
Pairing is quick and playback is largely stable, with the familiar Sony sound that puts timing, drive and dynamics at the top of its to-do list.
Such an engaging sound is spurred on by stacks of clarity and insight through the midrange, and is supported by a bass response that’s punchy and well controlled at all times.
We’d take a touch more space if pushed, but the WF-1000X are far from sounding congested. In fact, they’re the best sounding wireless in-ears we’ve heard.
Expect playback for up to three hours (having noise cancelling on will shorten this slightly), with two more charges on-the-go from its case.
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