If the term "true wireless" sounds like sales jargon to you, we're with you. Regardless of whether you call them "true wireless," "cable-free," or "wire-free," the important distinction between these and typical earphones is the complete lack of a cable connecting the earpieces. When cable-free designs first became popularized by the Apple AirPods in 2016, design limitations, quirky operational issues, and poor battery life defined much of the true wireless offerings and there were no clear winners. Since then, the category has quickly matured and we finally have some standout products.
If you simply want a pair of Bluetooth earphones for exercise and don't mind a cable connecting the earpieces behind your neck, you can stop reading now and head over to PC Magazine's list of The Best Wireless Headphones. Not only will you be rewarded with more affordable choices, you'll be choosing from a well-established field that doesn't suffer from the early growing pains that many true wireless models do. That said, there is something liberating about going completely wire-free.
With that in mind, let's walk through some of the key criteria to consider when shopping for a true wireless pair.
If there's one complication many models share in the operation department, it's that it's easy to accidentally pause music, skip a track, or summon a voice assistant when you merely meant to take an earpiece out or adjust it slightly. There's not a lot of real estate on most of the earpieces we've tested, and thus much of the outer panel area is devoted to housing controls.
Early on, models went in diametrically opposite directions in terms of on-ear controls. Some offer a plethora of ways to swipe and tap, which is a lot to memorize, and provides lots of ways to misfire. Apple's answer to on-ear controls is to do away with some completely. The AirPods lack track navigation or volume controls—double tapping can either summon Siri or play/pause, but not both, giving them the simplest (and most limited) controls of all the pairs we've tested.
Newer models from Bose and B&O Play manage to strike a balance between operability and layout. The Bose for instance, uses actual tactile buttons to control playback, call management, track navigation, and volume, while the B&O Play cleverly divides controls between the two earpieces—tapping the left ear, for instance, will skip a track backward, while tapping the right will skip forward. Despite needing to do a little more thinking before you tap, eventually the division of controls between the two earpieces reveals itself to be intuitive. So on-ear control panels are getting more creative and user-friendly, but there's still a ways to go before they catch up with traditional wireless models.
True-Wireless Battery Life
Battery life is the Achilles' heel of the true wireless category. The best estimated battery life available (and keep in mind your results will vary with volume levels) tops out at around six hours. Just about all the other options hover in the three-to-five-hour range. It kills a battery fast when you need to power two earpieces separately.
The necessary solution that (nearly) all of these designs share in common is a charging case. Each case protects the earpieces when not in use, and charges them simultaneously. Most of the cases carry two extra full charges, so you can recharge your earphones on the go. It's not unlikely that this weak aspect of the true wireless realm will improve to the point that it will no longer be an issue.
What If I Lose an Earpiece?
This is, understandably, a concern of many potential true wireless users. Allow us to allay your fears—we can say that after over a year of testing, you have to try pretty hard to lose one earpiece. First off, just about every pair we've tested offers an extremely secure in-ear fit without sacrificing comfort. Most of the earpieces are larger than typical in-ears, while still maintaining a lightweight feel, making the likelihood of losing one while exercising (or at any other time) fairly low.
As for simply misplacing an earpiece when not in use, this also seems unlikely. The charging case is intrinsically tied to the user experience—like hanging up the phone or turning the TV off when you're finished watching, you'll automatically reach for the case to stow and charge the earphones. To put it another way: You're far more likely to misplace the whole thing—the case with both earpieces inside—than you are to misplace one earpiece.
If you do somehow lose one earpiece only, however, plenty of companies like Apple will gladly sell you an extra one à la carte for less than the price of a new full set. If losing an earpiece still seems like something you can imagine happening to you, it's worth researching whether the model you're interested in offers this option.
Are They Easy to Pair?
If you have an Apple device, you won't find an easier pairing process than the Apple AirPods, which essentially do all the work for you the second you turn them on. Other products we tested were less successful in the pairing phase early on—it turns out pairing two distinct pieces as if they are one product can be tricky. But recent entries to the category from B&O Play, Bose, and Jaybird have it all figured out, and it seems the convoluted pairing process is a thing of the past.
Surprisingly, many of these wire-free models can be used at the gym and even get wet, despite the fact that each earpiece has an exposed charging contact on the inside.
If durability and a true waterproof design are your main priorities, you'll either need to sacrifice some user-friendliness, or opt for a traditional neckband-style wireless design. Thus far, most of the earphones that are bundled with fitness apps or heart rate monitors have been in the neckband/cabled realm. See here for more.
Earphones With Apps
Many of the models we've tested, like the Bose SoundSport Free and the B&O Play Beoplay E8, use apps designed by the manufacturer to control various parameters and the setup process. The Bose app is a little more spartan in its control parameters—you can set an auto-off timer, disable voice prompts, and control playback. The Beoplay app has more to it—there's a user-adjustable EQ and an ambient mode (for listening to the room sound around you) that can be adjusted.
Get Ready to Spend
There is a marked difference between our Editors' Choices ($150 to $200) in the true wireless category, and a typical neckband-style wireless pair (anywhere from $40 to $150). The base price for most true wireless options thus far has been around $150, with the very best options costing as much as $200 or even $300. In other words, this is not a cheap category, at least not yet, so you can expect to pay an early adopter premium. To get the most out of your purchase, check out 6 Ways You're Using Your Headphones Wrong.
We'll be testing more true wireless pairs as they are released, but here you'll find the highest-rated models we've seen so far.