Drummer Jo Jones famously reacted to 16-year-old Charlie Parker’s playing by throwing a cymbal at his feet. Audio critics were almost as harsh in their initial assessment of true wireless earphones, which debuted about five years ago. But like Bird, true wireless technology got its act together and today it’s winning fans around the world.
True wireless earphones use no cables. A separate, tiny earpiece sits in each ear, communicating with its counterpart and your phone through Bluetooth. At first, this design might not seem like a huge advantage, but after most people experience just one workout or walk without having a cable flopping around and getting tangled in their clothes, they’re sold.
When these earphones originally appeared, they were costly, bulky, easily dislodged from the ear, plagued by battery life problems, and reviled for poor sound. But thanks to the refinement of the technology and designs, and the recent embrace of the category by audio specialist companies, they now sacrifice little in sound quality—and they’ve added some new functions that make them more useful and user-friendly.
Despite the initial criticism of true wireless, Apple’s been making money hand over fist with its $199 AirPods true wireless earphones; more than 100 million of them have been sold since their debut in 2016. Reviewers savaged the AirPods’ sound quality and design—they do look a lot like cigarette butts hanging out of your ears—but the general public loved them. And their latest model has even convinced the critics. The $249 AirPods Pro use a more conventional design that fits more securely in the ear, which helps them sound much better and has also made it possible to add very effective noise-canceling circuitry.
The colossal success of the AirPods has lured many traditional audio companies into true wireless, and in some cases it’s becoming their main business—a rep from JBL told me in January that true wireless models would make up more than 50 percent of their earphone sales this year. As these companies enter the market, they’re bringing along technology normally found in audiophile earphones. Some new models incorporate balanced armature drivers, the same technology found in $1,000 custom in-ear stage monitors. Balanced armatures are known for clean, natural midrange and delicate, detailed treble.
One example is the $149 Soundcore Liberty 2 Pro, which uses a balanced armature for the midrange and treble, with a standard dynamic driver (essentially a miniaturized conventional speaker) to handle the bass. Like many true wireless earphones, the Liberty 2 Pros work with an app that offers several different sound modes; it can even test your hearing and tailor the sound to suit your ears.
Sennheiser’s $299 Momentum True Wireless is one of the few true wireless earphones that has won over serious audio enthusiasts. That’s partly because it’s well-tuned, and partly because it includes a unique and powerful app that lets you customize the sound with the flick of a finger—so if you’re listening to a Stanley Clarke side and want to hear a little more bottom end, you can get it as quickly as Clarke can slap out a few 16th notes. The latest version, the Momentum True Wireless 2, adds noise canceling.
Until recently, many true wireless earphones easily lost the connection between the two earpieces, and a few still do, so it’s a good idea to read reviews before you buy. Battery life typically runs only about five hours per charge (compared to 10 or 20 for wired Bluetooth earphones). But that’s improving—the Soundcore Liberty 2 Pros last about eight hours—and all true wireless models come with a “charging case” that recharges them three or four times before the case itself needs recharging.
Another problem is that the controls on the tiny earpieces tend to be difficult to operate, requiring the user to remember complicated button-push sequences and find minuscule buttons by feel. One solution to this problem is voice command, which is finding its way into many new models. Typically, you have to push a button to activate the voice command, but with the $129 Amazon Echo Buds, you can just say “Alexa” and then tell the earphones to play whatever music you want, pause the sound, or take phone calls. (They have to be connected to your phone to do this, which in turn has to be connected to the Internet.)
I expect voice command features to eventually become prevalent on true wireless models, but there’s another solution that’s more affordable: simplifying the design. The $49 EarFun Free has only basic controls and no app, but it sounds good and it’s comfortable. While I probably wouldn’t want to use it when I settle down with a Scotch to listen to The Köln Concert, it’s a wonderful companion for my daily dog walks.