It's hard to have a discussion of true-wireless earbuds these days without mentioning Apple AirPods, especially the newer AirPods Pro. Introduced a few months back, the noise-canceling earbuds have won accolades from users and reviewers alike. But, yeesh, that $249 price tag. Surely there are comparable 'buds that cost less?
AirPods Pro vs. the competition
The original AirPods weren't the first true wireless headphones -- those with totally standalone left and right earbuds -- but they were certainly the most popular. Since they were launched in late 2016, the AirPods ($159 list, but more often available between $129 and $144) have spawned dozens, if not hundreds, of competitors, including plenty of perfectly good ones available between $50 and $100.
The AirPods Pro, introduced in 2019 for $249, add a new wrinkle: active noise-canceling (ANC) capabilities. Again, while not the first true wireless headphone to add that feature, which counteracts external noise like the drone of a plane's engines while in flight, the AirPods Pro were the most high-profile launch in the category to date. Currently, there are only a handful of true wireless earbuds with ANC capabilities on the market.
However, based on the parade of new headphones we saw at CES, we know there will be a ton more true wireless headphones with ANC hitting in 2020.
That said, all the products listed below provide, at a bare minimum, noise isolation, which can be nearly as effective. Any earbuds that use silicone ear tips -- and that's most of them these days -- can greatly reduce outside noise, provided you're able to get a good seal. That's in contrast to Apple's original, hard-plastic AirPods, which don't create that seal (unless you opt for a).
Indeed, one could make the argument -- and I do -- that while ANC is valuable in over-the-ear headphones, which can muffle only so much outside noise, it's not as vital for the in-ear kind. To be fair, the AirPods Pro offer more than just ANC: They have a Transparency Mode that allows outside sounds to pass through, and they're sweat- and water-resistant, which the entry-level AirPods are not. They also auto-pause when you take one out of your ear (and auto-resume when you put it back), a feature I wish other earbud makers would copy.
As for battery life, all the wireless earbuds on our list come with a charging case, and all promise to recharge the earbuds at least a few times -- meaning you may be able to get as much as 24 hours of (non-consecutive) listening time. Some of those cases can, themselves, recharge wirelessly, same as the AirPods Pro case. Others require an old-fashioned cord (gasp!), usually Micro-USB or USB-C.
Here's the thing. Sophisticated though they may be, $249 is awfully steep for a couple of featherweight pieces of plastic. What follows, then, is a selection of AirPods Pro alternatives -- the first two with ANC, the others without, all with lower prices. In some cases, a lot lower.
Though priced about $20 lower than the AirPods Pro, Sony's true-wireless earbuds offer the same kind of ANC technology, as well as a transparency mode. (In fact, they're the only earbuds in this roundup to include both those features.) Plus, they have a sensor that auto-pauses music when you take one out of your ear.
Now for the bad news: The WF-1000XM3 isn't specifically rated as sweat- or water-resistant. So if you're planning heavy workouts, these 'buds aren't for you. Read our Sony WF-1000XM3 review.
Amazon's first attempt at earbuds is notable for the exact reason you'd expect: Always-on Alexa, meaning you can ask the assistant questions hands-free, just like with your Echo devices at home. Beyond that, Echo Buds offer Bose-powered active noise reduction, which is effectively the same thing as ANC, and a transparency mode similar to AirPods Pro's.
Amazon promises up to 20 total hours of listening by way of the charging case. Alas, that case relies on old-fangled Micro-USB instead of USB-C or wireless charging. Still, Echo Buds come pretty close to matching AirPods Pro in the feature department, and for just over half the price. Read our Amazon Echo Buds review.
Jaybird's best effort to date definitely has a premium price, but the Vista still costs quite a bit less than the AirPods Pro. They're lightweight and comfortable, with a USB-C charging case and an IPX7-rated waterproof design. They also employ a wingtip design that should help them stay put in runners' ears. All that's missing is a transparency mode. Read our Jaybird Vista review.
It's a good time to watch for bargains on the CNET-favorite Jabra Elite 65t and slightly enhanced Elite Active 65t, both of which have seen some good discounts lately (in part due to the recent arrival of the new, smaller Elite 75t).
These earbuds feature a quick-charge case (15 minutes nets you 90 minutes of listening) and are fully sweat-resistant. They're particularly good for making calls, if that's important to you. Read our Jabra Elite 65t review.
The Liberty Air has long been a CNET favorite for offering better-than-AirPods sound for about half the price. (They're even less now.) Why better? Because of that all-important in-ear seal, which allows for better bass (and noise isolation) than the original AirPods. Ironically, they more closely resemble the AirPods Pro.
Almost too good to be true, the EarFun Free manages to deliver Bluetooth 5.0, both USB-C and wireless charging and a fully waterproof (IPX7-rated) design. CNET's David Carnoy also praised their "surprisingly good sound." They're currently priced at $50, but there's an on-page coupon that knocks 5% off -- though I've seen them as low as $40 (so watch for sales).
Like the Anker Soundcore, above, these are noise-isolating only. There's no ANC technology at work here. Read our EarFun Free review.
What do you think? Will one of these do the trick for you, or are you going to start saving for AirPods Pro?
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