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.
Apple's AirPods were not the first of their kind to cut the wires, 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.
Urbanista Athens (£119)
Urbanista’s headphones have been a bit hit ‘n’ miss over the years – but when it gets things right, there’s usually a lot to love about its affordable audio offerings.
The design of its sporty Athens in-ears won’t turn any heads, but when it comes to true wireless buds that’s usually a good thing. In the ear the 6g lumps are far less prominent than you might expect. You get five different wings and tips to find the right fit for you and if you twist slightly as you insert them they’ll stay put through commutes and CrossFit sessions alike. They’re even hardy enough to take for a swim.
AptX Bluetooth 5.0 is onboard and Urbanista has been generous with the bass, so as long as you pick the right tunes they’re more than capable of getting your blood pumping. Yes, the soundstage could be a little more expansive and that strong bottom end can sometimes overwhelm the mids, but for the price the performance is impressive. The passive noise isolation is truly excellent too.
The charging case, which holds three full charges, means you get a total of 32 hours out of the Urbanista Athens. It’s also one of the more pocketable packages, with a smooth, soft-touch finish and a satisfying magnetic click when you drop the buds in to replenish.
Like RHA’s TrueConnect they’re not big on frills but as true wireless buds go they’ve got all the main bases covered – and without breaking the bank either.
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Jabra Elite 75t (£170)
If you’re looking for the most inconspicuous pair of true wireless in-ears going, you can’t beat Jabra’s Elite 75t. They’re 20% smaller than their predecessors and with three different sizes of ear tip to choose from seal and fit is generally impressive. That said, you can never be 100% certain they won’t fall out, which isn’t ideal for a pair of IP55-rated buds that would otherwise be perfect for running.
A single charge will give you almost enough playback to last a whole 9-to-5, with a further 20.5 hours in the magnetic charging case – a total of 28 hours. That’s almost twice what the 65t could offer, so if you’re not using them all day every day they should get you through the working week without the case needing to be recharged.
There’s no active noise-cancelling but they do have a few neat AirPod-esque tricks that are lacking from some of the competition. They’ll automatically pause your music when you take one out (and resume it when you put it back in), and there’s a HearThrough transparency mode to let some of the outside world in, but it’s not as impressive as the one on the AirPods.
The 75t have the same drivers as the last-gen buds but they fix one of the major problems: a lack of bass. There’s generally well-balanced, rich, full sound with plenty of oomph, while the app allows you to choose from five preset sound profiles or tweak your own with a customisable equaliser.
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Libratone Track Air+ (£180)
Libratone’s eye-catching Track Air+ in-ears eschew the usual blob shape for something more triangular, so if you like Doritos, samosas and pizza slices, they might be the true wireless earphones for you.
Available in black or white they’re lightweight and robust, with IPX4 certification to prove it, and three pairs of tips in the box to help you find your perfect fit. That’s important because they also offer highly customisable active noise-cancelling, with 30 different settings, plus a Smart mode that adjusts it in real time based on what the built-in microphones hear, or Ambient mode, which ensures you’re still aware of that passing bus.
Sound is excellent right across the frequency range. With a snug fit, the bass is powerful, vocals are well-articulated and the higher pitches ring clear, plus you can tweak both ends via the accompanying app if you want.
Battery life clocks in at about six hours, with three full charges on offer from the smooth, pebble-like case. It supports Qi wireless charging (for £20 less than Apple’s AirPods) or USB-C if you prefer to plug in.
Add solid Bluetooth performance and responsive, customisable touch controls for playback, adjusting the ANC mode and summoning your phone’s voice assistant, and these are a neat pair of in-ears in all senses of the word. Even if it’s not love at first sight, you’ll probably still find yourself caught up in some kind of love triangle before too long.
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Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless (£280)
Everyone wants to sell you a pair of true wireless in-ears these days – but not many companies have as much experience of making headphones as Sennheiser.
The Momentum True Wireless are big lads but the design is pretty discreet. The plastics are on the thin side but they feel robust and it’s easy to get a good fit, so they’re hardly a burden to wear. That means the USB-C charging case is a little larger than others too, but it’s hardly going to take up that much more space in your pocket. It’s just a shame battery life is a pretty ordinary four hours (with only two full charges stored in the case).
With aptX Bluetooth onboard wireless connectivity is solid, call quality is decent, and interaction with your phone’s voice assistant is as painless as it’s possible to be. If you prefer to let your digits do the work, there are also fairly extensive touch controls built in, while an accompanying Smart Control app allows you to tweak the EQ and adjust the Transparent Hearing mode.
Bass is bold but expertly judged. It doesn’t swamp everything above it so mid-range fidelity is outstanding and the top end is equally impressive. There’s high- and low-order dynamism in spades, ample attack and a pleasantly widescreen overall presentation.
They don’t have quite the same level of outright volume and excitement as their most accomplished rivals but with the Momentum True Wireless easy to find for just over £200, you won’t find better-performing buds at this price – and that includes the Apple AirPods Pro.
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Beats Powerbeats Pro (£220)
The Powerbeats Pro might come packed with a lot of the same tech that you’ll find inside a set of AirPods, but to look at the two pairs of wireless in-ears couldn’t be more different.
The Powerbeats’ over-the-ear hook design is meant to keep them safely stowed in your lugs no matter how hard you work out, but for anyone who’s just afraid of seeing one of their expensive earphones disappearing underneath the wheels of a passing Uber, it’s equally reassuring. They’re also IPX4-rated for water and sweat resistance
Sound isolation isn’t the best, and they might get a bit uncomfortable if you wear them all day, but with a total of 24 hours of battery on offer when you include the juice in the rather chunky case, that’s the only thing stopping you from doing so.
Apple’s input is evident, so unless you’re an Android user connecting them to your phone is the same seamless experience that you get with AirPods. You can choose between using Siri or a set of on-bud tap controls for interacting with your phone.
Beats products have a reputation for overbearing bass but these are more grown-up, so the sound is refined and well-rounded whether you’re listening to Beethoven or Danny Brown. Even the logo that adorns them isn’t obnoxiously large.
Dre might still be representing gangsters all across the world but his Powerbeats Pro are real crowd-pleasers – unless you’re part of the Android crew, that is.
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Sony WF-1000XM3 (£220)
With their diminutive dimensions and small batteries, true wireless earphones don’t tend to come with noise-cancelling. But Sony’s WF-1000XM3 manage to squeeze in the hubbub-hushing tech while maintaining a relatively compact, if slightly elongated, shape.
They’re not as discreet as some of the more bullet-shaped alternatives, but with various types and sizes of earbud included they’re comfortable and fit well, with a grippy-but-not-too-grippy coating helping to hold the 8.5g buds in.
Providing they fit properly, any in-ear headphones will offer a bit of noise-isolation, but the XM3’s active system takes things to another level, with the added bonus of consuming very little power. With it switched on you’ll get six hours out of them, eight when it’s turned off. And while the sturdy charging case is a bit bigger than some rivals’, it’ll give you a full three charges, extending the total battery life to between 24 and 32 hours.
Play some music and the XM3s are organised, agile and punchy, with a fair bit more dynamism than their competitors too. They simply serve up the music in as realistic a fashion as possible. Even call quality is half-decent, despite the mics being a fair distance from your mouth.
It would be remiss not to mention the price, which is a fair bit higher than some other very competent products on this list, but with responsive touch controls that can be customised however you’d like via Sony’s Headphones Connect app, you do at least feel like you’ve got what you paid for.
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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 (£170)
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, the Jabra Elite Active 65t 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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JABRA ELITE SPORT (£200)
As their name might suggest, Jabra is aiming the Elite Sport at the gym bunnies among you, with some fancy features up their sleeve to give you a helping hand during workouts.
Their design is pretty bulky, which ensures a snug fit – not just for staying put when you’re on the treadmill, but also for reading your heart-rate. This doesn’t make them the comfiest in-ears we’ve worn, though, and after an hour or two you might need to give your ears a rest.
They work with the Jabra Sport app, which records your heart rate to create an informed workout report, but can also set you up with a training plan or talk you through one of its pre-programmed cross-training sessions. There are even some activities where the Elite Sport’s sensors can count your reps for you, and pretty accurately too.
The heart-rate monitor, on the other hand, doesn’t have the accuracy of some more accomplished fitness wearables. It’ll give a good enough idea for casual gym goers, but no more.
The Jabra Elite Sport haven’t forgotten they need to sound good either, with a crisp, clear performance and plenty of bass kick.
There’s not quite as much airy detail here as you might find elsewhere, nor are they as explicit with dynamics, but they’re well organised, with a good balance and no sharp edges in the treble. A very pleasant surprise indeed.
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