Some folks might say the best wireless earbuds have been largely made redundant by the best true wireless buds. Or more specifically by Apple AirPods, which make up no less than 80 GODDAMN PER CENT of that particular market. However given that they are also wireless buds that just happen to have the word 'true' in front of them, those folks would be bang wrong.
That said, it is certainly true that even the very best wired earbuds have been pretty much hung out to dry by Bluetooth buds. Hung out by their stupid, old fashioned wires, specifically.
Nowadays, wireless in-ear headphones and buds have largely left behind the nightmarish issues around connectivity and battery life that once plagued them, while phones have nearly all lost their headphone sockets. So that's serendipitous. Now, enough of my yakking. Let's boogie with the best wireless earbuds, and get busy with the Bluetooth.
- Best wireless headphones – over-ear (and a few in-ear) Bluetooth buds
- Best noise cancelling headphones – the big boys of Bluetooth
What are the best wireless earbuds?
Are you kind of person who just cannot even be bothered to read all my hard-won wisdom on the subject of Bluetooth buds? Okay, here is the verdict in overtly simplistic, bullet-pointed format.
• Beats by Dr Dre Powerbeats Pro – Best wireless buds overall and best workout buds. I bloody love these, despite them coming in a battery case about the size of a coffin.
• Flare Audio Flare Pro 2HD – Best wireless earbuds for sound quality – seriously, by miles. A slightly crazy design again, I admit.
• Sony WF-1000XM3 – Best noise cancelling wireless earbuds.
• Optoma NuForce BE Sport4 – Best wireless earbuds of the old-school type, ie: Bluetooth earbuds with a bit of wire joining them together.
The best wireless earbuds: what you need to know
If you are an old person, maybe you tried wireless earbuds a few years back and went away horrified by their lack of style and comfort, inability to stay connected to your phone and sound quality that might politely be described as 'mediocre'. Or less politely as 'shite'. Well, you can relax now, because those days are gone.
Since the advent of first Bluetooth 3.2 – and then 4.0 and 5.0 – and the widespread adoption of audio-improving codecs such as aptX and AAC, many of the issues around connectivity and sound quality in the best wireless earbuds have been laid to rest. Admittedly a pair of buds with wires is still likely to sound a bit better than a pair of the same price without, but there isn't the gulf in quality that there used to be.
A decent pair of wireless buds nowadays should last at least 9 hours without needing a recharge, and even the true wireless ones now tend to go on longer than the old AirPods level of 4-5 hours. And the sound coming out of them should make you smile rather than wince. Also, once connected, they should stay that way.
All wireless headphones tend to have a little latency, which can make them irritating to use when watching video – unless you enjoy the old Bruce Lee film lip-sync effect, of course. Again, however, wireless in ear headphones are much better in this respect than they used to be. True wireless, not so much.
The best wireless earbuds, in order
I remember when I first got sent these and thought at the time, 'these guys have cracked it'. What's a little surprising is that three years later, nobody has really improved significantly on the NuForce BE Sport4.
They were designed for gym use and running, which means they are rain and sweat resistant and tend to stay in your ears even when you're bumping up and down. However, while their sound is certainly quite bassy and banging, as you'd expect from workout buds, it is not to the exclusion of musical subtlety. Support for aptX and AAC probably helps. Although there's no active noise cancelling, the secure fit does keep a lot of background sound out. The battery life of 10 hours is alright too, considering they weigh next to nothing.
Connectivity is generally very solid, although they do sometimes take up to 10 seconds to connect to your phone, especially if it's an older handset. For £100/$100 they're pretty much perfect.
I always big up Dr Dre's Powerbeats. You can read much more about them in the lists of best true wireless buds and best running headphones, or scrutinise the lengthy review linked to below.
In a nutshell: unshakeable fit; great audio quality; excellent battery life; weirdly enormous case. Well, nothing is perfect in life, is it?
• Read our 5-star Beats Powerbeats Pro review
You are just not going to get a better sounding pair of wireless buds than this for around £60/$60. I always think most cheapo buds sound awful… apart from the ones made by SoundMagic and very few other brands – shout out also going out here to Anker Soundcore and Lypertek Tevi.
Time and fashions have moved on since this came out, and the 'neckband' style, with a thickened central section that sits behind your neck and housed the electronics, is now about as fashionable as trenchcoats. However, this one was better designed and more comfortable and stable than most buds in this style, and you can always claim you're enjoying its retro looks ironically.
If anyone mocks your choice, just turn up the volume – audio is as good as you'd get from certain buds costing twice as much, and build quality is great as well. Oh and the battery life of 20 hours is pretty 'mazing too. A bona fide Bluetooth bud bargain, boys. And girls.
All these buds sound good, but none of them can touch the audio quality of these astounding – and very odd – in-ear monitors. Everything about them, from the mad packaging, with its assortment of approximately 5 billion different ear tips, to the fact that you can actually use these as wireless and wired buds says one thing loud and clear: the brand (and man) behind them is dangerously obsessive about sound.
To use them as wireless buds, you remove the 3.5mm headphone cable and add a little Bluetooth DAC, which you can either dangle from the short length of wire this leaves, or attach to your garments with its little clip. Yes, I know that sounds terrible but it does work, and it is worth it.
Used wired, the Flare Pro 2HD sounds mind-blowing, especially with the right type of music. However it is also reasonably mind-blowing when used as wireless in-ear headphones. Users of Apple products, and certain Android devices, will wonder how it might have sounded had Flare included support for AAC as well as aptX in its little wireless box. Even better, presumably.
These are rather like the BE Sport4 further up this list, but with the emphasis on a slightly more 'musical' sound quality – the BE Sport4 are more banging, as befits their role as workout buds.
The fit is similar, however, which is to say it's very secure but comfortable. A choice of tips and optional earhooks mean it should work with even the weirdest looking ears – such as yours, madam. There's IPX5 water resistance, which is better than nothing.
The one slight issue with these buds is they never seem to be available these days. It's hard to say if that's because they were more successful than the Be Sport4 or less. They are admittedly very similar to each other.
Your standard AirPods are great as far as they go, but AirPods Pro sound way better, fit more securely and feature both noise cancelling and a kind of 'ear analysis tool' that supposedly optimises audio for your ears only.
Whatever the science behind that, there's no denying that AirPods Pro sound great.
Despite being marketed largely as a pair of buds to make/take phone calls on, the remarkably cheap yet high quality Anker Soundcore Life P2 are not bad by any means for listening to music through. They support aptX and run on Bluetooth 5.
• Also consider: Anker Soundcore Liberty Neo is the Soundcore option for those who want workout-friendly true wireless buds. They're sweat-proof and have a firmer fit than P2.
Personally I find these a bit uncomfortable to wear, with a tendency to boom as your boots hit the pavement, but I know a lot of people love the WF-1000XM3. If you're sat down, there is definitely no better-sounding true wireless buds; their moderately bulbous form houses some seriously impressive headphone drivers and sound quality-enhancing tech.
Their noise cancelling is also superior to AirPods Pro, so that also holds true if you are sitting down on public transport, or even an aeroplane. Not that you are likely to be boarding many of them this year.
• Read our Sony WF-1000XM3 review