It wasn’t long ago that true wireless earbuds, those that don’t need any wires even between the earphones, weren’t very good. Solid connectivity was a challenge, dropouts were infuriatingly common and battery life was woeful.
But they all offered that taste of freedom from wires that is like a ratchet – once you’ve experienced tangle-free listening, you’ll never go back.
Now there are loads of truly wireless earbuds on the market offering all sorts of features, designs and sound. None of them are bargain basement, and it’s difficult to know which ones are worth buying. So here’s a guide to separate the wheat from the chaff.
This Guardian buyer’s guide to true wireless earbuds was last updated on 15 December, and represents the best available models at the time. As new models are released and tested, this guide will be updated to help you choose the right earbuds for you.
Best all-round: Samsung Galaxy Buds+
Samsung’s fourth-generation true wireless earbuds may not look all that different from 2019’s Galaxy Buds, but the Buds+ have a few meaningful changes that keep them at the top of the pile for regular, everyday earbuds in 2020.
Physically nothing has changed, meaning they still small, light and super-comfortable. If you have issues with bits of other earbuds pressing uncomfortably on parts of your ears, try these. You have to like the feel of a traditional silicone earbud tip in your ear canal, but they have the added advantage of staying put and blocking out background noise.
They do not protrude far from your ear, fitting under hats just fine, and come with a series of soft stabilising wings if you need them.
A touchpad on the outside takes care of controls. Tap to pause or play, double and triple-tap to skip track. A touch and hold gesture can be switched between turning on or temporarily piping ambient sound into the earbuds, triggering your voice assistant or to change the volume (left to go down, right to turn it up). Take both earbuds out and the music automatically pauses. Hold both for three seconds to pair another device. It all works very well.
The Buds+ sound really good producing detailed, balanced audio with a good amount of low-end punch. They can be cranked up to be uncomfortably loud, and come with a basic preset equaliser. They sound far better than most rivals at this price, but can’t match the most expensive earbuds for pure sonic quality.
A solid connection is a minimum requirement these days. The Buds + support Bluetooth 5.0, have a rock solid connection with a large range of devices, can be used individually, and have improved support across Android and Apple products, thanks to the Buds+ app on both platforms. They work well with Windows and can be hotswapped between devices without having to manually disconnect each one. The standard SBC and AAC codecs are supported alongside Samsung’s proprietary scalable codec and a Samsung-only low-latency mode for gaming. Samsung devices also get instant pairing and pairing syncing between devices such as phone and tablet.
Call quality is improved over the original Buds, with better clarity and reduction of background noise for the recipient. Battery life too is much improved, lasting up to 11 hours between charges which is far longer than most. The compact flip-top case is one of the best, easily fitting in the money pocket of a pair of jeans and is capable of fully charging the earbuds once for a total of 22 hours’ playback. The case can be charged via USB-C or wireless charging.
The earbuds are even rated a seven out of 10 by repair-specialists iFixit for repairability, including the ability to replace the battery, which makes the Buds+ far less disposable than rivals.
Why should I buy them?
The Galaxy Buds+ sound great, are small and comfortable, have a great case, last a long time on a charge, are potentially repairable and work with everything, making them the best general-purpose earbuds available.
Buy if: you want a simple set of truly wireless earbuds that sound good and just work
Don’t buy if: you don’t like canal-buds
Best sounding: Sony WF-1000XM3
Third time’s the charm for Sony. The WF-1000XM3 finally live up to the Sony heritage with not only effective noise cancelling but truly great sound too.
The M3 part of the name aligns them with Sony’s excellent WH-1000XM3 headphones from 2019, which have class-leading sound and noise cancelling. The true wireless earbud version inherits the same noise cancelling chip and are almost as effective, reducing or eliminating train, road and plane noise, leaving you free to listen to your music at lower, more comfortable volumes.
The sound sparkles with detail, energy and clarity, while punchy bass produces a lovely full sound, just edging out the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2.
Bluetooth 5 means connectivity is strong and lipsync issues have been eliminated. While the design is attractive, particularly in the black and copper colour, the earbuds are massive and took a bit of trial and error to get the fit right with the correct earbud tip (seven pairs are included). On-earbud controls are good including volume controls following a software update. Touch and hold one to activate ambient passthrough to listen out for announcements.
Battery life is solid too, lasting up to six hours with noise cancelling active or eight with it off, and up to 32 hours with trips in the case. Like the earbuds the case is also fairly large and difficult to pocket. They’re not cheap, but if you want genuinely great sound, the WF-1000XM3 are the ones to buy still a year on from release.
Why should you buy them?
Brilliant sound, excellent noise cancelling and solid connectivity, complemented by solid battery life and an attractive design, the WF-1000XM3 are still the best-sounding true wireless earbuds.
Buy if: you want the best sound and great noise cancelling
Don’t but if: you want something smaller and more pocket-friendly
Best noise cancelling: Jabra Elite 85t
Jabra’s fourth-generation true wireless earbuds are the company’s best yet.
Building on the slimmed-down and more comfortable design of their predecessors, the Elite 85t now have a lighter, more balanced fit with redesigned oval-shaped ear tips that don’t enter your ear canal quite so deeply.
They stay put and are more comfortable for extended periods. They are also fairly compact for earbuds with active noise cancelling and don’t protrude as far as their Bose or Sony rivals.
A button on each earbud takes car of controls, including volume, with full customisation with the Sound+ app. Connectivity is rock solid, with Bluetooth 5.1, SBC and AAC support, plus the ability to connect to two devices at the same time, such as a phone and a tablet. Only the right earbud can be used on its own, but call quality is good.
They sound a lot better than previous efforts and just beat Apple’s AirPods Pro, producing rich and highly detailed but balanced audio with deep bass that doesn’t overly dominate. The noise cancelling is also very effective, blocking most unwanted tones. It can be turned up or down, should you want to let a little of the outside world in.
Battery life is good too, with up to five hours with noise cancelling active and an excellent, compact case that can recharge the earbuds 3.5 times for a total of 25 hours’ playback.
Why should you buy them?
They have the best combination of brilliant sound, excellent noise cancelling, long battery life, competition-beating connectivity, a comfortable fit and a compact case.
Buy if: you want comfortable and compact noise cancelling earbuds
Don’t buy if: you exclusively use Apple gear – the AirPods Pro may be better
Best non-isolating: Apple AirPods 2
If you don’t like blocking out the world, or can’t get on with canal-bud style earphones that enter your ear, look no further than Apple’s AirPods, now in their second generation.
They gently rest in your ear with little white stalks sticking down, projecting the sound down your ear holes rather than sitting directly in them. As a consequence you can hear everything happening around you meaning you won’t be able to hear your music on something as loud as the tube in London, and if cranked up to maximum they bleed sound, although not as badly as Apple’s non-wireless EarPods. They sound pretty good considering the lack of isolation, with reasonable bass and clarity.
The AirPods work best with Apple gear, automatically syncing pairing across any Apple devices you might have, but can also be paired with Android or other devices. Connectivity is rock solid with an iPhone and recent Android devices and PCs.
Where they fall down is on-board controls – there’s basically just one, a double tap. When connected to a non-iPhone it pauses or plays music. Hooked up to an iOS device you have the option to trigger Siri, pause or skip track on each earbud, which means one can summon Siri while the other pauses. There’s no volume control. Take them out and it pauses the music.
With the second generation AirPods you can also just say “Hey Siri” at any time without having to tap anything to activate Apple’s voice assistant. After having to re-teach Siri to recognise my voice, it generally worked well, even with music blasting out. But Siri can be a little slow, particularly when you have poor connectivity on your smartphone. You also get odd looks doing so on public transport.
The AirPods’ other strengths are that you can use either of the earbuds in mono, call quality is pretty good, and the charging case is the best in the business. The AirPods last about five hours of music and can be fully charged around five times by the case, which itself is charged via a Lightning cable. They are also available with a new wireless charging case (£40/$40 extra) for powering up on Qi-compatible chargers.
Why should I buy them?
Seamless connectivity with Apple products is key, but they sound pretty good, have an excellent case and are a decent alternative to canal-buds, even for Android users.
Buy if: you use Apple products and don’t need sound isolation
Don’t buy if: you want to block out the sounds outside world
Best for sport: Beats PowerBeats Pro
If you wish Apple’s AirPods had better isolation and gripped on to your ear like a vice, look no further than the Beats PowerBeats Pro.
Like the AirPods the PowerBeats Pro have great connectivity with an iPhone, which courtesy of the Beats app even extends to Android. Rock solid connectivity in all conditions is paired with excellent controls. Both earbuds have proper volume rocker controls, plus a multifunction button for controlling playback, skipping tracks or activating Siri or Google Assistant.
The flexible ear hook loops over the back of your ear and with a bit of adjustment holds them firmly in place on your head – no amount of jumping, giggling or pounding the tarmac is going to shake these free. They’re also sweat resistant so will be fine in the rain or hard workout; just don’t run them under a tap.
The silicone earbud tip offers some isolation from the world around you. The forward, energetic sound is ideal for powering through a run or gym session, while also doing a good job with most music genres, banishing the all-bass Beats sound profile to the history books.
Call quality is excellent too, while battery life is a class-leading eight hours with another 1.5 charges in the case.
The enormous case is the worst thing about them. It’s robust and works just fine, but you’re not going to be able to fit it in a pocket. They’re also pricy, so if you just want basic buds for the gym, these aren’t for you.
Why should you buy them?
You want the AirPod-like convenience of connectivity and features with an iPhone (or Android with app), with class-leading battery, good sound, excellent controls including a real volume rocker, plus an ear hook design that’s unshakeable.
Buy if: you want rock-solid all-rounders that won’t come off no matter what you do
Don’t but if: you want something smaller and cheaper
Best budget option: Anker Liberty Air 2
Anker have several good value true wireless earbuds to pick from, but the Liberty Air 2 have the best combination of sound, call quality, sound and price, particularly when picked up on a deal.
They have an AirPods-like design with stalks but a well-fitting traditional silicone ear tip that provides solid noise isolation. They’re comfortable for hours, come with five different sizes of earbud tip and are IPX5 sweat-resistant, so fine for using on a run.
The earbuds have excellent Bluetooth 5 connectivity supporting SBC, AAC and aptX audio formats, which is rare at this price. Each earbud can be used independently and call quality is excellent on both sides of the call with very good background noise reduction.
The Air 2 also have on-earbud touch controls, including playback and volume, plus the music pauses when you remove one from your ear. The battery lasts for up to seven hours on a single charge. They slot into an good, small and pocketable flip-top case for charging up to three times for a total of 28 hours’ playback. The case charges via USB-C or wireless charging, which is also rare at this price.
Sound is good, with punchy bass, strong treble and bright highs, plus a fairly open tone that’s generally pleasant. They won’t trouble the best on the market, but they’re good for the money.
The Soundcore app for Android and iOS has an equaliser and HearID, which gives you a hearing test then customises the sound accordingly. The app also handles control settings and updates.
One of the few downsides is that they don’t support seamless switching, meaning you have to manually disconnect them from one device before connecting to another.
Why should you buy them?
Good connectivity, battery, fit, sound and design, plus solid controls including volume combine with a good pocketable case and excellent call quality to make fantastic value true wireless earbuds.
Buy if: you want great all-round truly wireless earbuds on a budget
Don’t buy if: you want better sound and seamless switching
These truly wireless earbuds are still worth buying, if the top five don’t fit the bill.
Amazon Echo Buds
Amazon’s first true wireless earbuds offer a lot for the money with noise reduction (not full cancellation), touch controls and good sound, plus full Alexa integration. A recent update also added fitness tracking options.
But their large size, average battery life, larger than the best case and sometimes unreliable touch panels hold them back from being truly great.
Apple AirPods Pro
With good sound, great connectivity with Apple devices, solid noise cancelling, good call quality, a compact case and a set of squeezable playback controls on the stalks, the AirPods Pro are some of the best true wireless earbuds you can buy.
But they are just pipped to the top noise cancelling spot by the Jabra Elite 85t with better sound, longer battery life and cross-platform support. Still, the AirPods Pro are a great choice for anyone who exclusively uses Apple gear thanks to a range of smart features such as spatial audio, instant pairing and seamless switching – particularly when bought on a deal.
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
If you want the most effective noise cancelling in true wireless earbuds, the new Bose QuietComfort Earbuds are the new kings. Unlike rivals they don’t block up your ear canals with little earbuds – instead the soft silicone tips rest in your concha. holding themselves in place with a flexible fin.
They’re very comfortable, sound good, block out more noise than the competition and have up to six hours’ battery. But they’re also huge, expensive and have a large case that’s not as pocketable as the Jabra Elite 85t, holding them back from being the very best.
Cambridge Audio Melomania 1
The Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 come very close to delivering on all counts. They have rock-solid Bluetooth 5 connectivity with AAC and aptX support, a long eight-hour battery, good controls including a way to adjust volume and they even sound good, with balanced, rounded audio.
The case is also one of the best available, adding up to 36 hours of playback to the earbuds while still being very pocketable, fitting into the money pocket of a pair of jeans long with only a handful of the best.
The problem is, they’re huge. They have a really large aperture, making getting the earbud tip to fit without blocking your ear canal a bit of a chore and they stick out a mile, looking like something Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura would use in classic Star Trek. The big trunk is uncomfortable in my ears, meaning any 30-minute-plus listening becomes painful. A real shame.
Creative Outlier Air
The Creative Outlier Air are good budget value and have solid sound, connectivity, battery life and controls. Call quality is pretty good and they’re sweat resistant.
But they are a bit on the large side and the case is pretty big compared with the best in the business, meaning they have been replaced by the Anker Liberty Air 2 as the top budget option.
Google Pixel Buds
Google’s Pixel Buds are essentially the firm’s AirPods rival with a set of features reserved for Android devices. Used with an Android device with access to the Google Play Store – and the Pixel Buds app – they have instant pairing, seamless device switching and Google Assistant integration that includes real-time language translation.
The touch controls are excellent, they are low profile but have a unique fit with both a traditional earbud and a small silicone wing that may prove uncomfortable for some. The small case is great and battery life is solid. The sound is good, but they don’t isolate very well – the vents prevent a “plugged-in” feeling but let background noise in too.
Huawei Freebuds Pro
Huawei’s latest Bluetooth earbuds have a very familiar design and noise cancelling, but fall slightly short of the AirPods Pro. They have a traditional silicone earbud tip with a light and comfortable fit, rectangular stalks with both squeeze for playback and swipe controls for volume, plus auto-pause on remove.
Noise cancelling is solid, switching between modes depending on background sounds. Audio quality is good, but is affected by turning on the noise cancelling, which reduces bass and range. Call quality is good, while battery life is just over four hours and a total of 20 with the case, which is a little chunkier than the best but recharges via USB-C or wireless charging.
They have Bluetooth 5.2 with AAC, but their ace in the hole is the ability to connect to two devices at once. The Huawei Ai Life app is needed for updates and settings, but isn’t available on iOS. They can also be fiddly to get out of the case.
Jabra Elite 75t
The Jabra Elite 75t are excellent alternatives to the Samsung Galaxy Buds+ with a new and improved design. They sound great with plenty of bass, rock-solid connectivity, long battery life, good controls and a customisable equaliser in the Sound+ app.
Call quality is good and the case is compact, charges the buds 2.5 times for a total of 28 hours’ playback. They’re smaller and more comfortable than their predecessors, but are still on the larger side and are more expensive and slightly less comfortable than the Galaxy Buds+.
LG Tone Free (FN6)
RRP: £149.99 / $149.99
LG’s Tone Free earbuds have solid Bluetooth 5 connectivity, comfortable fit with a traditional silicone earbud, up to six hours of battery life and a small round case that can charge them twice more.
The touch controls are a bit hit and miss, the sound quality is a little muddy at times and they are significantly undercut by the competition. But the they have one party trick: the case blasts the earbuds with UV light to kill bacteria when charging.
Libratone Track Air+
Although they were one of last year’s better true wireless earbuds, the Track Air+ are beaten by newer rivals.
The Libratones are attractive, have rock-solid Bluetooth 5 connectivity with aptX support, great sound and limited noise cancelling. Add to that a tiny case, battery life of about six hours and wireless charging.
The downsides are lack of volume control on the earbuds, lack of AAC support for an iPhone and an easily marked case.
Microsoft Surface Earbuds
Microsoft’s Surface Buds are unusual true wireless earbuds that have a completely different fit and design to most. They have an open design that doesn’t fill your ear canal and so doesn’t block any noise, but also has a wing that holds them in place and a duct that pipes the sound into your ear.
The outside is large, flat touch-sensitive disc that protrudes from your ear and is rather attention-grabbing. But they sound good, last a decent time on battery and have unique features for Windows such as real-time transcription in Office. They lack AAC support so are not best for Apple users.
RHA TrueConnect 2
Like black Apple AirPods but with a traditional isolating earbud on the end to enter your ear, the RHA TrueConnect 2 – now in their second iteration – sound good with strong bass, solid isolation and better call quality at a cheaper price.
Connectivity is much improved, but only supports SBC for audio. Battery life has been more than doubled to nine hours. The buttons have been replaced by taps for controls. The case is attractive and provides up to 44 hours of playback, but is large compared with the best.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Live
Samsung’s novel bean-shaped earbuds have an open fit similar to the Surface Earbuds and AirPods but fit entirely within the concha of your ear. The Galaxy Buds Live sound better than rivals, too. If you want compact earbuds that don’t block your ears, these are for you.
They have noise cancelling but it can only handle low rumbles. Battery life of eight hours plus a small case that can charge them 2.5 times for a total of 28 hours’ playback is very good. They have touch controls, good call quality, solid Bluetooth 5 connectivity with SBC and AAC support (plus a the proprietary SAC audio format for Samsung devices), and fast-pairing for Android and Windows.
They’re more expensive than Samsung’s excellent Buds+ and won’t be for everyone, but they’re great for those looking for the open-type fit.
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
The second generation of Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless earbuds offer top-quality sound and solid but not class-leading noise cancelling. The earbuds are quite large but they last up to six hours between charges. The case fully charges the earbuds three times, for a total of 28 hours’ playback, but is a bit bigger than the best on the market.
Connectivity is excellent, supporting Bluetooth 5 with SBC, AAC and aptX. Call quality is good but a bit distant. Only the right earbud can be used on its own. Silver touchpads handle playback and volume control.
The best bit is how they sound: rich, lively and warm, producing sparkling audio second only to Sony’s WF-1000XM3.
Jabra Elite Sport – Big, bulky and bettered by the newer Jabra Elite models – £200
Jaybird Run – Solid for runners, but unacceptable latency issues – £159
JBL Free X – Large case and terrible latency issues – £120
JLabs JBuds Air – Sound fine, but only SDC support means latency issues – £50
Motorola Verve Ones – Connectivity issues are a deal-breaker – £130
NuForce BE Free8 – OK sound, but constant hiss and connectivity issues – £200
Skullycandy Indy – Sound ok, but get stuck in the case and suffer lag with an iPhone – £70
TicPods Free – Good sound and controls, but terrible latency – £120
Urbanista Stockholm – AirPod ripoffs with poor fit and weak sound – £89
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.