Best true wireless earbuds 2021: Apple AirPods alternatives (and actual AirPods)

Wires be gone: the best true wireless buds for sound, fit and battery life

Best true wireless earbuds

The best true wireless earbuds are the hottest properties in audio tech today. Not to be confused with the best wireless earbuds – that is something else entirely – the best true wireless buds may not have originated with Apple, strictly speaking. However, Apple's AirPods are obviously the biggest selling audio product of recent years, while the launch of the more lush sounding AirPods Pro has only furthered their market dominance. They're also still among the best true wireless headphones, but there are alternatives. Oh yes, there are; I have a big list of them for you here, to prove it. 

AirPod rival brands have generally gone down one of three different routes to take on Apple. One is to provide better sound quality – although the 'Pods Pro have bitten back on that front. Another is to provide a more secure and more discreet fit than Apple's famously visible buds. And the third is to go lower on price, of course. 

Well-fitting true wireless headphones have always been the ultimate best workout buds, but the sound quality and battery life of the most recent true wireless contenders are so much better than they used to be that they are now the ideal buds for most people in most situations. 

Recent research, in fact, puts true wireless way out in front in terms of market value, surpassing even the best noise cancelling headphones. Anyway, that was just a very long-winded way of me saying, 'here is a list of the best true wireless buds.' Let's crack on now. 

What are the best true wireless earbuds?

Assuming for a moment that you don't want AirPods or the more upmarket AirPods Pro – both of which are excellent – I have four top choices to tempt you. 

Beats by Dr Dre Powerbeats Pro – Best true wireless buds overall

Jabra Elite 75t – Best true wireless buds for compact size

Sony WF-1000XM3 – Best true wireless buds for pure sound quality

• Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 – Best cheap true wireless buds. I mean okay, they're £99/$110, but that is cheap by true wireless standards. If you want some really cheap but very competent AirPods clones, try Anker Soundcore Life P2

The best true wireless earbuds: what you need to know

True wireless buds are getting better all the time – this year's batch are leagues ahead of last year's, which were waaay better than the first wave. The only serious issues remaining with the best true wireless buds are that battery life is still fairly short. However, it's worth remembering that they all come with little cases that recharge your buds when not in use, without the need for a power socket – as long as you remember to periodically charge up the case itself, of course. So while 5-9 hours may seem like quite short battery life overall, it's surely enough for most purposes. Add the additional battery life from in-case recharging, and you're looking at well over 20 hours in most, er, cases.

The other remaining issue is that if a true wireless should fall out of your ear, you are way more likely to lose it than wired buds, or standard Bluetooth ones. Happily, this happens much less easily now, thanks to design refinements. The best true wireless buds, whether intended for exercise or not fit securely, despite usually being very discreet. 

Sound quality generally remains of lower quality than comparably priced wired or standard Bluetooth headphones but again is vastly improved over earlier true wireless.

As well as being great for listening to music, true wireless headphones are also very handy for making and taking calls and, with compatible models, triggering Siri, Google or Alexa. You can usually use just one, like an old-school Bluetooth wireless headset. Due to the increased latency involved with linking the two buds together wirelessly I wouldn't say they're great for movies and TV, where lip-syncing is needed, but you can use them for that at a push.

True wireless earbuds have one massive advantage: they give you complete freedom from cables. Believe me, it's quite hard going back to wires after trying true wireless. 

Best true wireless earbuds, in order

Best true wireless earbuds: Beats by Dr. Dre Powerbeats Pro

(Image credit: Beats by Dr. Dre)

1. Beats by Dr. Dre Powerbeats Pro

Best true wireless buds – not just for workouts

Listening time per charge: 9 hours
Listening time with case: 27 hours
Reasons to buy
+The best fit of any true wireless bud+Great for the gym and running+Remarkably good audio for 'workout buds'
Reasons to avoid
-Humungous case-Not the most discreet appearance

I've been using these for a year or so now and they are still the true wireless buds I always go back to. Clearly Beats Powerbeats are marketed as running/workout buds but their audio quality is on par with any other true wireless headphones out there, with the exception of the much more uncomfortable Sony WF-1000XM3.

The fit is absolutely unshakeable, which is obviously great for running and working out, but it also means the Powerbeats are great for any occasion when you're on the move. Sound is sufficiently good that they're also excellent for use when you're on public transport or even for home listening although, like all these buds, you get some lag when listening to a YouTube clip, movie or TV show. 

Because of their over-ear hooks the Powerbeats Pro are quite large, and the battery case is almost comically so. Other than that, they're well nigh the perfect buds.

Best true wireless earbuds: Jabra Elite 75t

(Image credit: Jabra)

2. Jabra Elite 75t

Best true wireless buds with a more discreet fit

Listening time per charge: 7.5 hours
Listening time with case: 28 hours
Reasons to buy
+Compact and discreet+Decent comfort too+Excellent audio as long as you like a bit of bass
Reasons to avoid
-Sound is admittedly a bit artificial

If the Beats are just too bulbous for your tastes, you can't find finer than these Jabra buds – and their various close relatives; see below. They, and their battery case, are extremely compact and fit beautifully. Once inserted there is very little to see, but what's visible is suitably stylish and well finished; ditto the compact, easily-pocketed case. 

Sound quality could be described as a little artificial, but it's also pleasingly pumping – ideal for electronic, pop and a lot of rock music although maybe not so great for flute solos. I should think 90% of people would find very little to grumble about. Although there's no active noise cancelling, the excellent in-ear fit makes for very good noise isolation. 

The basic on-ear controls can be used to skip tracks and activate hear-through – this works really well. You can also tap an ear to awaken your favoured virtual assistant. Call quality is good, and you can use either bud on its own, in mono, should you wish.

While these are not technically sweat- and waterproof, they are IPX5 rated and I have never had any problems using them for most workouts. The fit is not as unshakeable as on the Beats buds, so I'm less keen on them for running or really vigorous exercise but for most purposes they're great. 

Battery life, at 7.5 hours, and 28 in total with case recharging, is surely sufficient for anyone's purposes outside of flights to Australia. 

I don't really have a bad word to say about the Elite 75t, in fact. It will be interesting to see to what extent Jabra can top them with the Elite 85t. 

• Jabra alternatives. The Elite Active 75t is essentially the same as the 75t but adds full waterproofing and sweat-proofing for gym goers and runners. It's also still well worth getting the older Elite 65t and Elite Active 65t if the price is right. They are very slightly bigger and have poorer battery life (5 hours/24 hours) but they remain excellent options. This handy pricing widget will show you where the best value is today! 

Best true wireless earbuds: Cambridge Audio Melomania 1

(Image credit: Cambridge)

3. Cambridge Audio Melomania 1

Best cheap true wireless earbuds

Listening time per charge: 9 hours
Listening time with case: 36 hours
Reasons to buy
+Excellent audio for the money+Less uncomfortable than they look
Reasons to avoid
-Left and right buds look identical

Arguably £99 isn't 'cheap' as such, but it's a great price for true wireless buds of this quality. Putting it as basically as I can, the Melomania from UK hi-fi dons Cambridge Audio combines the sound quality of the Beats buds with the portability of the Jabras whilst costing very considerably less than either of them.

You might think these bullet-like in-ear true wireless headphones look like they're either uncomfortable or prone to falling out, but actually neither of those assumptions is true. Although admittedly they are somewhat more uncomfortable and prone to falling out than their pricier rivals above. They're generally fine though. Admittedly it is easy to get the left and right buds mixed up, but that's no big deal.

Where the Melomania buds excel, particularly given their price, is in how they sound. With support for AAC, apt-X and SBC and drivers made of miracle substance graphene, the Melomania 1 are uniformly excellent with all types of music. 

Their battery life is also right up there with the very best at 9 hours, with a complete recharge possible in just  30 minutes. Your colour choices? 'Stone' (light grey) and 'black' (very dark grey, I'd call it). You can't go wrong.

Best true wireless earbuds: Google Pixel Buds

(Image credit: Google)

4. Google Pixel Buds

Best true wireless earbuds for Google Pixel users – and better VFM than Apple AirPods Pro

Listening time per charge: 5 hours
Listening time with case: 24 hours
Reasons to buy
+Audio is better than you think+Comfortable fit+Wireless charging case
Reasons to avoid
-You can get the Jabras for less

• Buy direct from Google 

I got these at the weekend – they just launched in the UK, after being released in the US a while back. I kind of assumed Google Pixel Buds would be a typically slick Google product that would find favour with true Google believers but would mean very little to anyone else. However, they're genuinely good true wireless earbuds at a pretty reasonable price. By that, I mean they are a fair bit cheaper than the Apple AirPods Pro that they are obviously meant to be wrestling with, in the Octagon of Tech Confrontation.

Audio is not quite up there with AirPods Pro – it's a bit boomy – but it's good, and you've got IPX4 water resistance and a very nice, secure-but-not-unpleasant fit. There's no noise cancelling, but I am not entirely sold on the usefulness of noise cancelling anyway, when it's applied to buds that sit in your ears so well that they block out exterior sound effectively anyway.

When used in conjunction with a Pixel phone you apparently get all manner of slick stuff around pairing and activating Google Assistant, like a mirror image of AirPods Pro. Like most people in the universe, I don't have a Google Pixel phone, and Google didn't send me one of them at the weekend, but they paired very easily with my iPhone and worked in exactly the way I'd expect, while sounding very good indeed.

Overall I am not too sure Google Pixel Buds will set the world on fire sales-wise, because Google hardware has a tendency not to, but they clearly represent better value for money than their more illustrious Apple forebears. The only thing I really didn't like was the 'Adaptive Sound' feature, which 'dynamically and subtly adjusts the volume as you move between quiet and noisy environments.' It seemed decidedly unsubtle to me – when entering and leaving shops, for instance, it was quite jarring. However, it is easy to turn off and an interesting feature that I expect a lot of people will like a lot. Just not me.

Overall, a well-priced pair of true wireless buds with a lot to offer. And they're available in 'Almost Black' and 'Clearly White', which I am sure seemed like a good idea to someone, at the time. Up next: limited edition 'Quite Mint' and 'Oh So Orange'. No, really. 

Best true wireless earbuds: Apple AirPods Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

5. Apple AirPods Pro

A huge step up in AirPod audio quality

Listening time per charge: 4.5 hours
Listening time with case: 24 hours
Reasons to buy
+Noise cancelling+Great sound+Comfortable fit
Reasons to avoid
-Short battery life-A touch overpriced maybe

Best true wireless earbuds: Apple AirPods

6. Apple AirPods

Best true wireless earbuds for all-day use

Listening time per charge: 5 hours
Listening time with case: 24 hours
Reasons to buy
+Lightweight and comfy+Audio is better than you think+Genuinely iconic looks
Reasons to avoid
-Next to no noise isolation-A touch overpriced

Despite the sub-heading of this feature being 'AirPods alternatives' you would be foolish to discount Apple's market leading buds. Their battery life may be on the short side compared to recent rivals but there's a reason they make up 80% of the true wireless market in terms of sales. Indeed, arguably there would be no true wireless market without them.

Version 2 of the original AirPods – released in 2019 – and the AirPods Pro are very different propositions, despite their vaguely similar looks and very similar names. 

AirPods (2019) actually sound somewhat better than their reputation suggests, although there is almost no noise isolation so they are hardly ideal for music outdoors or on public transport. Not that this seems to put off their millions of commuting fans, it must be said. 

However, the loose, comfortable fit makes them great for all-day wear – so long as you recharge periodically anyway; the battery life is somewhat less than all-day at around 5 hours. You can hear what's happening around you, easily pull them out and put them in as needed, take calls, listen to music, activate Siri on iOS devices… It's all very effortless, in the best Apple tradition. 

Two models of standard AirPods are available, one with a wireless and Lightning cable charging case and one with a wired (Lightning cable only) charging case. You'll need a Qi charging mat of some sort for the wireless version.

AirPods Pro on the other hand feature noise cancellation and a whole raft of audio-enhancing features to give a much more immersive musical experience. As with the Jabras above, you can select hear-through mode, so you can talk to people without removing the buds, but you may prefer to ignore other people and just enjoy the music instead – I know I do.

As with Beats, some critics tend to be a bit sniffy about the sound quality of Apple products but AirPods Pro are definitely up there when it comes to making sweet, sweet music. As indeed they should be at their less-than-giveaway price. You do get a wireless charging case as standard, though.

Contrary to what some people think, all AirPods work perfectly well with Android phones and other equipment. You just don't get any fancy graphics when you pair, unlike on iOS devices, and you can't use Siri with them, for obvious reasons.

Apple AirPods review

• Apple AirPods Pro review

Best true wireless earbuds: Lypertek Tevi

(Image credit: Lypertek)

7. Lypertek Tevi

The other best cheap true wireless earbuds

Listening time per charge: 10 hours
Listening time with case: 70 hours
Reasons to buy
+Excellent audio for the money+Massive battery life+Great fit for comfort
Reasons to avoid
-Not so 'audiophile' as their Cambridge rivals

You wait ages for a pair of true wireless buds of incredible quality, with massive battery life, for under £100… and then two come along at once! Where Cambridge Audio's Melomania 1 foreground pure sound quality, the Lypertek Tevi will be an even better all-round package for some users.

As well as even greater longevity than the Cambridge buds – 10 hours per charge and a ridiculous 70 hours with in-case charging taken into account – these also boast an even more comfortable and secure fit, and are IPX7 rated which means they can put up with being soaked in rain or sweat. I'm not sure the fit is ideal for more hectic workouts as it is more about being comfortable than secure, but the Lypertek Tevi is certainly well built, for those looking to get well built.

Audio is nothing special, despite the drivers again apparently involving graphene in their construction. Being relatively uncoloured and straightforward in the way they present tunes, it's also nothing to complain about. Call quality is excellent. 

Best true wireless earbuds: Anker Soundcore Life P2

(Image credit: Anker)

8. Anker Soundcore Life P2

Best REALLY cheap true wireless buds

Listening time per charge: 7 hours
Listening time with case: 40 hours
Reasons to buy
+Such great value+Waterproof and sweatproof+Comfortable fit
Reasons to avoid
-Clearly not likely to have audiophiles in raptures

Okay, is £99/$99-ish not cheap enough for ya? Get a load of this cast-iron, copper-bottomed, ocean-going bargain. For less than the price of some AirPods cases, you get solid, 7-hour battery life, a good fit that's somewhere between AirPods and AirPods pro in its mix of comfort and security, 4 mics and voice noise suppression for great call quality, AND an IPX7 rating for waterproofing and sweat resistance.  

Despite being marketed largely as being for making and taking calls, music quality is also perfectly okay, and there's support for aptX as well as Bluetooth 5. Build quality  is also far better than you might expect, for such a low price? How does Anker do it? I  don't know, but it does 'it' very consistently especially in its Soundcore audio guise.

• Also consider: Anker Soundcore Liberty Neo is another great Soundcore option. Also sweat-proof, these true wireless buds are a much better shape and fit for use when working out or running than the P2. To put it as simply as I can, P2 is a great, cheap AirPods rival and the Liberty Neo is a great, cheap Jabra Elite Active 75t rival. Again, the sound quality is no great shakes but it's also nothing to complain too bitterly about, given the cost.

Best true wireless earbuds: Sony WF-1000XM3

(Image credit: Sony)

9. Sony WF-1000XM3

Best true wireless buds for sound quality

Listening time per charge: 6 hours (8 without ANC)
Listening time with case: 24 hours (32 without ANC)
Reasons to buy
+Great sound quality+Remarkably good ANC
Reasons to avoid
-Rather large and not very comfy

Got golden ears that crave the best possible sound quality from true wireless earbuds? Look no further than the WF-1000XM3. The Beats and Apple Pro buds above sound great, but Sony's rivals thrash even those star performers with a big stick when it comes to big, satisfying sound. The noise cancelling is also best in class. That's particularly true on transport that runs on wheels or rails, and it does a pretty decent job on flights as well.

As with several other of the buds here, a 'hear-through' system means you need never remove these buds, even when you wish to converse, or listen to announcements. Due to their rather large size – necessary include such high quality  drivers, presumably – they are kind or uncomfortable though, so maybe you'll want to take them out to listen instead.

We gave these audiophile earbuds a five-star review at launch but over time I started to find them increasingly irritating to use when on the go, largely because they are pretty large, quite uncomfortable/hard to fit, and have a tendency to boom quite nastily as you walk as a result. I'd probably give them four stars now. However, in the 'credit' column, the price of the WF-1000XM3 has come down quite a bit from their launch price of £219 , even though they remain the best-sounding true wireless buds you can buy, by a comfortable margin. 

So if you mainly want to listen while sitting down, whether at home, at the office or on various means of transportation, the WF-1000XM3 are definitely still worth considering.

• Read our Sony WF-1000XM3 review

Best true wireless earbuds: Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2

10. Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2

Another excellent option for audio

Listening time per charge: 7 hours
Listening time with case: 28 hours
Reasons to buy
+Great sound+Premium feel
Reasons to avoid
-Price gap over rivals is greater than quality gap

The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 improves over Sennheiser's first stab at this type of bud with much improved battery life. Despite looking identical, these buds are also a but smaller and hence more comfortable. 

Despite that, they still suffer a bit for the exact same reason as Momentum TW version 1. They're the most expensive buds on test but they don't seem to me to quite justify that  lofty pricing. 

The Sennheisers naturally sound very good but In terms of pure sound quality, to my ears, the Sony WF-1000XM3 are better, as well as being cheaper and having better noise cancelling. These Momentum buds also aren't very suitable for workouts, unlike many of the options here.

On the other hand, these have a more comfortable and reliable fit than the Sony buds and I dare say some listeners will prefer their more natural sound – and, arguably, more 'natural', though less effective, noise cancelling – over the thrillingly propulsive Sonys. I also expect to see the price coming down fairly soon.

Best true wireless earbuds: Bose SoundSport Free

11. Bose SoundSport Free

Best true wireless buds for gym use and comfort

Listening time per charge: 5 hours
Listening time with case: 15 hours
Reasons to buy
+Very good sound +Unshakeable connectivity+Incredibly comfortable
Reasons to avoid
-Incredibly susceptible to wind interference-Incredibly stupid looking

Bose SoundSport Free was where true wireless came of age, and they duly scooped a T3 Award

At last, someone made a pair of true wireless headphones that sound perfectly alright – I'm not going to say amazing, because they're not, but most people will have no quibbles – do not drop connection, power up and connect reliably when you take them out of the case, and are no less comfortable to wear than any pair of Bluetooth in-ears.

Sonically they are better than the Apple AirPods, they fit better, and while they don't have the same smart AI features, does that really matter for most users? I would suggest not.

Five hours of battery life is actually pretty good by true wireless standards, while the case isn't overly bulbous and charges reliably and quickly (15 minutes for 45 minutes use). 

Despite their name, I don't consider these great for running. That's partly because the fit is comfortable rather than unshakeable, but mainly because I have never encountered a headphone so susceptible to wind noise. Seriously, in a high wind, it destroys the sound. 

That, I assume, is because they protrude quite a long way from the ears. That's why they're so comfortable and also possibly why the connectivity is so good (the antennae not being imprisoned in your ear canal). And, uh, it's also why they make you look slightly alien when wearing them. 

However, for indoor fitness or running in fine weather or just for use as a pair of musical, true wireless headphones, Bose SoundSport is a great option.

Best true wireless earbuds: Beoplay E8 2.0

12. Beoplay E8 2.0

Premium true wireless buds now going much cheaper

Listening time per charge: 4 hours
Listening time with case: 16 hours
Reasons to buy
+Great sound when connecting properly+Quite a good price nowadays
Reasons to avoid
-Annoying connectivity quirks-Dodgy touch controls-Crap battery life

The Beoplay E8 2.0, like the Sennheiser above, was a big step forward over the very annoying E8 1.0, but still quite hard to recommend wholeheartedly. In this case, this was due to its connectivity 'quirks', relatively uncomfortable and non-secure fit and irritating touch controls. Oh and the battery life was a bit 2 years ago as well, at just 4 hours.

When not randomly disconnecting from each other and/or your phone, the E8 2.0  was and is still one of the best true wireless options in terms of audio quality, however, and now that its price has tumbled from £250/$250 to under £150/$150, fans of the audio wares of Bang & Olufsen's lifestyle offshoot may be tempted. 

• Also consider: I've never actually tried the third generation BeoPlay E8 but I can only assume it's a big improvement over this in terms of connectivity and battery life. But then it should be, given what it costs…