After what could fairly be described as a misstep with the original true wireless AirPods, which don’t seal off the ear canal and cost far too much for their average sound quality, Apple corrected course and delivered a game-changer. The Apple AirPods Pro get just about everything right that the original (and the second gen) AirPods got wrong. Great sound? Check. A secure in-canal seal? Check. Active noise cancellation, better overall controls, and a water resistance rating? Check, check, and check. But the increase in quality also comes at a serious price increase—the AirPods Pro will run you $250. They may be worth it, but if you see that number and immediately cringe, we’re here to help.
There are quality true wireless in-ear options for far less than $250—in this round-up, we’ll focus on our current favorites at $150 and under (and no, the original AirPods do not make the list). Are any of the options we’re about to discuss going to have the wow-factor of the AirPods Pro, which seamlessly integrate with iOS products? Not really, but there are some winners here that can do other things far better. From exercise-focused options with higher water-resistance ratings to affordable audiophile-friendly pairs, let’s take a look at the $150-and-below true wireless realm.
Are you going to be sweating a lot while wearing your true wireless in-ears? Or moving around vigorously? The good news is nearly all true wireless options deliver a very secure fit. The bad news is not all of them are sweat-proof—and some that claim to be are more sweat-resistant than sweatproof. A high IP (ingress protection) rating is critical—look for IPX6-IPX8 if you’re going to be wearing them in the rain or need to wash them off under a faucet with reasonable water pressure. (And for water/sweat-resistance purposes, the rating can have any number in place of the X and the above criteria still holds true—an IP56 rating has the same liquids protection as an IPX6-rated product).
In-ear fit is another thing to consider—if you find yourself needing to swap out eartips and earfins often to find the perfect fit, you’ll want to focus on pairs that provide a generous array of fit options. More often than not, exercise-focused in-ears ship with eartips that have fins for added stability, or with separate fins and tips that can be mixed and matched in a variety of sizes.
Active Noise Cancellation
At this point, if ANC in a true wireless pair for you is truly important, we have some sobering news—the Apple AirPods Pro would be the way to go. We’ve tested other ANC options in the true wireless realm—the Amazon Echo Buds and Edifier TWS NB are not bad at all in terms of noise cancellation. But their noise cancellation is not as good as the AirPods Pro’s—we recommend going high if this feature is a priority.
There is a lot of talk about how best a true wireless pair can deliver premium audio performance, and many will agree that ideally, the pair should be both AptX and AAC compatible—otherwise, on some phones, you’ll find the earphones defaulting to SBC codec when the earphones don’t support the mobile device’s native codec. While this is all true, here’s the reality—SBC doesn’t sound terrible, it’s just not the top-notch option, and plenty of users would fail a “blind taste test.” Of course, you should always aim high, so having AptX and AAC compatibility is a good priority, but paradoxically, plenty of the best sounding true wireless in-ears we’ve reviewed thus far actually lacked either AAC or AptX support, and thus at times, we were monitoring SBC signal. Not ideal! But the point is that excellent drivers will do more for your audio experience than AptX/AAC support will through less impressive drivers. Ideally, you simply don’t have to make the choice, but thus far, that has not always been the case. And to further complicate things, there are some models, like the newly released 1More TWS ANC, which feature both AAC/AptX support and excellent drivers—a dual hybrid driver set-up in each ear that theoretically should deliver fantastic audio. But these earphones didn’t get a great rating from us—the balanced armature drivers in charge of delivering high frequency content were bizarrely tuned, and provided an overly bright sound signature.
In other words: The true wireless realm has yet to fully satisfy the audiophile world’s needs. A pair like the 1More option discussed above that seems to check all the boxes actually delivers a less accurate audio experience than some models we’ve tested that are SBC-codec-only, or only have either AAC or AptX support—the RHA TrueConnect and (over-$150) Master & Dynamic MW07 are two examples. Your best bet in early 2020 is to go by the sonic evaluation in our reviews—every review tells you specifically how the earphones sound on various tracks that range from sub-bass loaded electronic tracks to transparently recorded classical music. Until every manufacturer gets onboard with the codec support—and it does cost manufacturers more to deliver AAC/AptX support, so that’s why it’s not always there—judging the drivers’ audio performance is still the best way to gauge which in-ears sound the best. One great, under-$100 option for audiophiles on a budget? The Anker Soundcore Liberty Air.
Aside from potentially crucial firmware updates, the one of the best things an app can do is enhance the listening experience with user-controllable EQ. Not all apps have EQ, but allowing you to tweak the bass or treble to your tastes is a huge plus—and the apps that have customizable presets that can be saved are becoming more and more common.
Some apps only offer settings tweaks—like assigning Siri or Spotify playlists to a shortcut button, or adjusting auto-play/pause when the earphones are placed in your ears or taken out.
Plenty of apps beef up their appearance by offering the same controls you already have on-ear within the app itself. This can add some convenience, but if it doesn’t add a layer of control, like being able to adjust the ANC levels (if there is ANC), it’s bloatware. Sadly, plenty of the apps we test only offer these kinds of “features.”
A few manufacturers forego the app itself, and though we wish they wouldn’t, it’s worth pointing out that the Apple AirPods Pro also has no app. Though one could argue that any iOS device is essentially one big app for the AirPods, which are designed to seamlessly integrate into the iOS experience.
There’s a range here, but expect to pay more for true wireless in-ears, as a rule. That said, you can definitely get solid quality well below the AirPod Pro’s $250 threshold—but we pretty much covered that in the sections above. If what you’re really after is the cheapest true wireless option you can find that isn’t a waste of money, we have a few options in mind. These are by no means top-shelf options, but they offer solid performance for a very low price.
Pros: Affordable. Excellent, bass-forward audio. Water-resistant design.
Cons: So-so battery life.
Bottom Line: There’s nothing flashy about Anker’s Soundcore Liberty Air true wireless earphones, but they deliver very strong audio performance, especially for the price.
Pros: Excellent audio performance with rich bass and detailed, clear highs. Handsome, spare design. Sweat-resistant.
Cons: Controls can be hard to memorize at first. Battery life remains a weakness for all true wireless models.
Bottom Line: The secure-fitting, well-designed RHA TrueConnect earphones deliver excellent true wireless audio.
Pros: Hands-free Alexa voice control. Good active noise reduction. Clear, balanced sound. Comfortable fit.
Cons: Somewhat weak lows and highs. Limited controls. Not waterproof.
Bottom Line: Amazon’s Echo Buds are wire-free earphones with a lot of functionality for $130, including hands-free Alexa voice control and Bose-tuned active noise reduction.
Pros: Relatively accurate sound signature with rich bass depth and bright highs. Water-resistant design. Strong battery life. Reasonably priced.
Cons: Not fully waterproof. Not for those seeking powerful bass depth.
Bottom Line: The true wireless Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 earphones deliver a strong sonic experience for a reasonable price.
Pros: Inexpensive. Solid audio performance with rich bass depth and clear highs. Waterproof. Can charge wirelessly with a Qi pad.
Cons: Could use more high-mid presence. On-ear controls lack volume, could be more graceful.
Bottom Line: The EarFun Free true wireless earphones combine quality audio performance with a waterproof design for an impressively low price.
Pros: Powerful audio performance with intense bass and crisp highs. IPX7 waterproof rating. Exceptionally secure fit. Battery case holds more charge than much of the competition.
Cons: Touch-sensitive controls are easy to misfire. Poor mic intelligibility.
Bottom Line: The JBL Endurance Peak earphones deliver boosted bass and sculpted highs in an exercise-friendly, true wireless design.
Pros: Excellent audio performance with rich, full bass and bright, well-defined highs. Easy to operate. Solid mic intelligibility in quiet spaces.
Cons: Poor mic intelligibility in loud scenarios. So-so charging case battery life. Not waterproof.
Bottom Line: Samsung’s wire-free Galaxy Buds earphones deliver fantastic audio performance for a reasonable price, which is enough to overcome some dubious marketing claims.
Pros: Crisp, detailed highs and rich lows. Solid mic clarity. Secure in-ear fit. Affordable.
Cons: On-ear push-button controls can be annoying to operate. Not for those seeking a ton of bass.
Bottom Line: The TCL SOCL 500TWS is a barebones pair of true wireless earphones that offer quality audio performance at a relatively friendly price.
Pros: Deep bass response. Decent noise cancellation for the price. Secure in-ear fit.
Cons: Poor app. Very sculpted sound signature. On-ear buttons lack volume controls.
Bottom Line: The Edifier TWS NB true wireless earphones deliver decent noise cancellation and booming bass for a relatively low price, but the sound signature is sculpted to extremes.
Pros: Affordable. Bass-forward audio with no distortion. Water-resistant build.
Cons: Touch-sensitive buttons aren’t always responsive. No way to turn off EQ modes.
Bottom Line: The budget-friendly JLab JBuds Air Icon earphones deliver bass-forward audio in a water-resistant, wire-free design.