Deciding which of the many sets of truly wireless earbuds to buy can feel like a daunting task. Unless you’re one of those people who believes the AirPods hype, in which case the decision might seem very easy. Don’t be that person.
Truly wireless earbuds are a marvel of engineering, and a handful of companies have built incredible products. You’ve got the dangly types, like the $US160 ($231) Apple AirPods, that promise an effortless wireless earbud experience. You’ve got the hook kind, like the $350 Powerbeats Pro from Beats, that offer a super secure fit for active lifestyles. You’ve got popcorn design, like the $300 Jabra Elite 65t, that pump sound straight into your head. And you’ve got the pretty ones, like the $550 Master & Dynamic MW07, that bring elegance into the equation.
To find out which futuristic buds would be the best for most people at the best price, we pitted these four sets against each other. We looked closely at their design, connectivity, and sound quality, which are easily the three most important features of any wireless headphone. All of these received positive reviews from Gizmodo, so there weren’t really any losers in the bunch. There was one clear winner, however.
Plenty of people think that fit is the most important element of earbud design, and in many respects, it is. Once you find a set of buds that settle nicely into your ear, however, you’ll start to notice other things you love and hate: the way the buttons work, the size of the case, the way they look in a mirror. Earbuds can be, after all, a bit of a fashion decision.
In our design battle, we started with fit and then considered these other factors. As noted above, our four competitors also represent four fairly different approaches to earbud design. The AirPods are essentially teardrop-shaped pieces of plastic that sit on the bottom of your ear, and for some people, they fall right out. The Powerbeats Pro represent the opposite approach with a super secure (and somewhat bulky) ear hook design and silicone ear tips that rest on your ear canal. The Jabra and the Master & Dynamic models also use silicone ear tips, but they create a more of seal in your ear that not only keeps them feeling snug but also keeps some outside noise from interfering with your blissful listening experience.
Based on fit alone, we had to eliminate the AirPods. Since there’s no way to adjust the design to fit different types of ears, they’re either going to fit, or they’re going to fall into the gutter when you turn your head quickly. The AirPods also lack any waterproofing, so a trip into the gutter could zap them for good. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, we had to eliminate the Powerbeats Pro because, even though they were super secure, the ear hook design makes them a bit tricky to put on and does not feel great if you wear glasses. They are waterproof and sweatproof, which makes them great for the gym. But for daily listening, the maximal design can be annoying. The Powerbeats charging case is also hilariously huge and will not fit in most pockets.
That brings us to the Master & Dynamic MW07 earbuds. The Master & Dynamic come in an array of colours and finishings, including an extremely overpriced Louis Vuitton edition, and so it’s clear that the company is leaning into the fashion angle. They look great, too! But frankly, they don’t fit snugly enough and aren’t as waterproof as some of the other earbuds tested—the MW07 are IPX4 rated which means they’re just moderately splash proof—so you can’t wear them while exercising. The buttons on the top and bottom of the buds are also kind of hard to press which might seem like a small gripe until you find yourself taking out your phone every time you want to adjust the volume.
The Jabra Elite 65t manage to skirt around all of these problems. The compact design fits securely in even the smallest ears. (We tested this bit with our smallest-eared coworkers, who liked the fit.) The buttons were intuitive and easy to press. A surprising quirk is the little microphone arm that not only provides better call quality but also served as a nice little handle when putting in the earbuds and taking them out. On top of it all, the charging case is pleasantly compact. The Elite 65t also come in two different modes of ruggedness. While the standard $300 Elite 65t model is splash-proof (IP55 rated), the $329 Elite Active 65t is splashproof, sweat-proof, and dust-proof. They’re also a bit grippier, so that they won’t shake loose if you’re crushing it on the treadmill.
Winner: Jabra Elite 65t
Just a couple years ago, most truly wireless earbuds struggled to connect to and stay connected to devices. There’s a physics problem in the way. Because Bluetooth signals don’t travel through water and because your head is mostly made of water, the two buds can’t talk to each other directly. Companies have found ways around this by making each earbud connect independently to your device, and general improvements to Bluetooth technology have changed the game.
Because of advances like these, all four of the truly wireless earbuds performed impressively well in this battle. Pairing the earbuds varied slightly based on the earbuds as well as the devices they were connecting to. We tested all of them with an Apple iPhone XS and a Google Pixel 3, and to make things extra challenging, we did our tests in Times Square, where radio interference is often a problem for wireless devices.
Unsurprisingly, the AirPods and the Powerbeats Pro connected flawlessly to an iPhone. Both earbuds feature Apple’s new H1 wireless chip which uses Bluetooth 5 technology as well as some vague, proprietary Apple magic to pair the earbuds almost instantly with any iOS device. Both earbuds also use proximity sensors so that when you put them in your ear, they turn on and connect immediately to the nearest paired device. This worked wonderfully well with the iPhone as well as the Android. Pairing the earbuds to the Android was a bit more annoying, though, because you have to go through the traditional Bluetooth pairing process and press a button on the earbuds’ case to initiate the process. If you don’t have the case with you, you won’t be able to pair with a new device.
Both the Master & Dynamic and Jabra earbuds were close to perfect in terms of connectivity in our tests. Each set of earbuds requires you to hold down a button on the earbuds to initiate the pairing process. Once paired, the buds are supposed to connect to your phone as soon as you take them out of the case, and this is where we noticed a few hiccups. The Master & Dynamic didn’t connect 100 per cent of the time, although it’s easy enough to go into the Bluetooth settings and connect them manually. The Jabras suffered from a similar problem, and very occasionally, only the right earbud would connect immediately.
Given their overall dependability and ease of use, both the AirPods and Powerbeats Pro were the frontrunners in this battle. The use of proximity sensors instead of a power button seems a little weird at first. (Shouldn’t all gadgets have a power button?!) But the more you use these Apple-made earbuds, the more it feels like magic to put them in your head and have them work right away. The Powerbeats Pro, for some reason, seemed slightly more dependable, though, since the AirPods did cut out a couple of times while we were walking around Times Square. It’s possible that the chunkier Powerbeats Pro feature a better antenna design, but who knows. The Powerbeats Pro were the nevertheless the best-connecting headphones we tested.
Winner: Powerbeats Pro
The sound quality battle looked not only at the audio fidelity of playback in the earbuds themselves but also the quality of the microphones on phone calls. But since most people buy headphones to listen to stuff, the sound quality on playback is slightly more important. It’s also, apparently, expensive.
The AirPods, once again, are the first to go in this battle. They don’t sound as good as the other earbuds, and because they don’t have any noise isolation features, they sound especially terrible if you’re in a crowded cafe or riding the train. You won’t be able to hear your music. Call quality is pretty good, but if you can’t hear the other person on the line, it doesn’t matter.
The Powerbeats Pro suffer from a similar problem. The sound quality on music playback is excellent, especially if you like your earbuds to pack a bit more bass. But because the silicone ear tips sit on the outside of your ear canal without creating a tight seal, a lot of outside noise will get in. As with the AirPods, call quality was great, but the overall lack of noise isolation or noise cancelling makes the Powerbeats Pro stink in noisy environments.
The Jabra solve the noise problem handily. They not only feature a tight fit for noise isolation but also have additional microphones for noise reduction. (The technology sounds similar to how active noise cancelling headphones work, but Jabra stops short of claiming that the Elite 65t have full noise cancelling.) Out of all the earbuds tested, the Jabras are the best for noisy environments, and the call quality is also excellent. Unfortunately, they come up a little bit short in terms of sound quality for music playback. The tuning just feels a little tight.
The Master & Dynamic earbuds, meanwhile, boast better sound quality than a lot of over-ear headphones we’ve tested. They have a surprisingly impressive range with the ability to make everything from classical music and hip hop sound great. The trebles sound bright and precise, while the bass is remarkably throaty for such a small driver. (The MW07 have 10-millimetre drivers made of beryllium, a material is supposed to deliver more precise sound.) Call quality is also great, but really, you’ll want to listen to all your music with these earbuds.
Winner: Master & Dynamic MW07
This one is close. Each of these sets of truly wireless earbuds is great for specific groups of people. Apple fans who want a reasonably cheap and basic set of earbuds will like the AirPods. Athletic folks who want to do cartwheels without their earbuds falling out will love the Powerbeats Pro. Fashionista audiophiles will probably be obsessed with the Master & Dynamic MW07.
But like we said at the outset, we set out to find the truly wireless earbuds that would be the best for most people. The Jabra Elite 65t are those earbuds. Starting at $300, they’re a tremendous value. They have a snug fit and durable construction that will hold up to exercise and rainstorms. You can get an even more durable set, the Jabra Elite Active 65t, for $330. They’ll connect to any device almost as dependably as their competitors. Both versions of the 65t also offer a noise reduction feature and multiple microphones that improve sound quality as well as quality.
The confluence of good design, quality, and terrific price makes the Jabra Elite 65t our favourite truly wireless earbuds of the moment. They might not be an Apple product or a fashion statement. That might also be why the Jabra earbuds feel so right.
Winner: Jabra Elite 65t