We tested 11 of the most promising true wireless in-ear headphones (as in, no wires at all connecting the earpieces like traditional Bluetooth headphones). All of them, we found, have some flaws in fit, functionality, or convenience. Because this is the first generation of the technology, manufacturers are still working out the kinks. As a result, we can’t make an overall pick that we think would work for most people. What will work for you depends on what mobile device you have and how willing you are to put up with performance glitches in order to take advantage of a cutting-edge (but still clearly work-in-progress) convenience feature.
What we can tell you is which sets are the better options right now, and what they offer in terms of pros and cons. Depending on how you plan to use your headphones, we have picks for iPhone/iOS users, budget-oriented folks, those who prioritize sound above other features, fitness buffs, and Samsung users. This way, you can decide for yourself which ones will fit best into your lifestyle, if any, and which ones are worth your money, if any.
I spent several years in terrestrial radio before moving on to become a professional voice actor in Los Angeles, a job I still do and love. In other words, I’ve been in and out of top recording studios for over a decade. I also have reviewed high-end home audio equipment for publications such as Home Entertainment, Home Theater Magazine, and Sound & Vision. My articles have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, and Time, and on Good Morning America and the BBC World Service.
I have a bachelor’s degree in both music performance and audio production from Ithaca College, and I’ve tested literally hundreds of headphones while working for The Wirecutter. In other words, I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s out there and what’s worth your time and hard-earned money, and I am committed to finding gear that will make you happy.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the technology, “true wireless” headphones are in-ear Bluetooth headphones that don’t have a cord connecting them either to your music device or to each other. They look a little like hearing aids, held in place in your ears by fit alone, without any distracting wires to be found. Mics are built in, as are any controls, since no cable is available to support a traditional in-line remote. Because these headphones are small, most sets don’t have more than a five-hour battery life. However, they can recharge in their carrying case, generally taking around 20 minutes to charge for an hour of listening.
With any pair of in-ear headphones, fit is everything—it can affect not only comfort but also sound quality. True wireless headphones up the fit ante, since they depend on fit to stay in your ears at all. If a true wireless earbud falls out while you’re on the go, it’s just one wrong bounce away from being gone for good. Furthermore, the pieces are small enough that they may pose a serious choking hazard for small children—you won’t want to leave them lying around where little ones could get their hands on them. In other words, you’ll need to use extra care to keep track of this style of headphones.
One last catch: Because the audio signal has to transmit to one ear and then sync to the other, all true wireless headphones have a delay when you’re watching video. In some cases, it’s barely perceptible; in others, the latency is noticeable, half a second off from what you see on screen.
Right now, we can recommend true wireless headphones only for early adopters who like the latest thing, as well as for people who just cannot stand the cords that connect traditional in-ear headphones. Some of these models automatically pause when you remove them from your ear, or offer speech-intelligibility enhancements or voice control, but as of now, other than the lack of a cable running behind your head, true wireless headphones provide no real additional everyday usability advantages over standard in-ear Bluetooth headphones. Most of these cost at least $100 more than traditional Bluetooth headphones but don’t upgrade the sound, battery life, or available features.
But if you really hate that cord, or if you just want to be the first to try something new, true wireless headphones are sure to be the future—eventually. It just might take a little while before they develop into something most people will be happy using.
Alpha Skybuds: After a three-hour software update via Bluetooth between my phone and the case, we found that the sound was lackluster—thudding bass, sizzling highs, with a hole in between. These earbuds also seemed to have a barely perceptible sync issue on occasion, which made everything sound … off. The fit was light and nice, however.
Bragi The Dash: So cool looking, so many neat features, and so frustrating to use. Connection-issue nightmares: The left earbud kept disconnecting and refusing to re-pair. And the signal dropped after I spent only 15 minutes on a treadmill with the phone sitting 1 foot in front of me at eye level.
Earin: We had constant connection problems, plus changes in volume resulting in one earbud being louder than the other for a bit before they balanced out. Boom-and-sizzle sound quality.
Erato Rio 3: This set is affordable, but the pieces look as if you’re wearing two single-ear Bluetooth headsets. No charging case, just Mini-USB. And the hooks over the ears are inflexible, so they won’t fit everyone well.
Motorola VerveOnes/VerveOnes+: Blobby bass despite several EQ settings. We also disliked the confusing menus, the absence of volume control on the earbuds, and the significant delay when we watched videos.
Onkyo W800BT: In our tests this set had decent bass, but a recessed male vocal range and a slight lack of high-frequency detail made the sound quality “meh.” The only control is call answer, and using it presses the piece uncomfortably into your ear. Otherwise, play/pause, track control, and volume adjustment all require you to pull out your phone. Plus, the price is extremely high.
Bragi announced the Dash Pro and the Dash Pro tailored by Starkey, which have some really advanced new features such as AI, language-translation software, controls via head movement, and auto activity tracking—you can even swim with them, too. We have a pair of each on the way, and we’ll let you know what we find out as soon as we’ve finished our thorough testing.
We were able to spend some time with the Here One at the CES trade show in January, and we were impressed by the earbuds’ active and selective noise-cancellation technology, which lets you choose just how much of your aural surroundings to block out or let in via the Here One app. Plus, they sounded great. We can’t yet speak to the reliability of the Bluetooth connection, or whether the headphones have any latency delay during video playback, but we look forward to testing these fully as soon as we can to get some answers.
In addition to the Here One, we also saw debut models from Earin, Monster, Nuheara, Jam Audio, Sol, Altec, JLab, and LG. Although the Here One were the most promising headphones we tested at CES, it’s reassuring to see that headphone companies are ironing out the kinks in their true wireless offerings, and even adding interesting features we haven’t seen in other types of headphones. We will continue testing new offerings as they become available, and update this guide as we do so.
The feel of true wireless headphones is pretty neat when everything goes right. We know that once future generations are released, we’ll probably find a solid recommendation for most people. But until then, none of the first-generation models offer a compelling enough combination of features, sound, and price for us to recommend one over all the others. So you’ll need to decide what features are the most important to you, whether the downsides are dealbreakers, and whether making those compromises in return for a lack of wires is worth the price tag.
(Photos by Kyle Fitzgerald.)