Apple's AirPods Pro are excellent true wireless earbuds that earned a CNET Editors' Choice award. But at $250, they're pretty expensive and not everybody wants to spend that much. So, what's the best option for someone who wants AirPods Pro-esque earbuds without the big price tag? It might just be the Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2, which retails for $100 and sometimes gets discounted. These wireless earbuds deliver a lot of what the AirPods Pro do for a lot less. That's why the Liberty Air 2 is our Editors' Choice for true wireless headphones in the $100 price category.
Let's start with what they're missing. No, they don't feature active noise cancellation, which works quite nicely on the AirPods Pro to muffle ambient sound around you. And they don't have transparency mode, which lets you hear what's happening around you. But they do have a noise-isolating design and so long as you get a tight seal from one of the included ear tips (I used the largest tips), you'll find that a lot of ambient noise is passively muffled.
Compact charging case? Check. Wireless charging? Yep, plus USB-C charging. And this second-gen Liberty also has a more subdued yet slicker-looking matte finish on both the buds and charging case. That's an improvement over the glossy finish on the original Liberty Air, which I also liked and is now down to around $60 (it's unclear how long it will remain on the market as Anker has a plethora of new true wireless buds on the market heading into 2020).
Oh, and they actually come in black.
They sound decent, too. Few of the true wireless earbuds on the marketplace are going to impress audiophiles, but with a little tweaking in the companion Soundcore app for iOS and Android, most people should be pleased with the Liberty Air 2's sound. They have some presence boost (treble push) and the midrange is a little forward, but the bass is punchy and they're reasonably open sounding. The step-up Liberty 2 Pro have more bass and more dynamic sound, but I like the fit of these better (they're lighter). They're not as smooth sounding or as pleasant to listen to as the Sony WF-1000XM3, but those cost over $100 more.
The Liberty Air 2 are brighter than the AIrPods Pro. Since they're more revealing, with some songs they sound better than the AirPods Pro, but with others they sound worse. The AirPods Pro are more forgiving and laid back, so I have a feeling more people will like their sound. The "Treble Reducer" setting in the Soundcore app's equalizer takes a little of the edge off these guys and there's also a HearID feature in the app that puts you through a hearing test and customizes the sound to your ears based on the test (it's a bit of a gimmick).
I was really impressed with their call quality. Aside from the cosmetic updates and the new charging features (adding wireless charging and moving to USB-C from micro-USB), the biggest improvement is to how well they work as a headset for making calls (you can use the buds independently of each other, with only one in your ear at a time). With four microphones instead of the two found in the original Liberty Air, this model has better noise reduction and I was able to make calls from the noisy streets of New York without a problem.
Callers said they could not only hear me well but, remarkably, they heard almost no background sounds and thought I was indoors. In our tests, the buds were actually superior to the AirPods Pro and the Jabra Elite 75t for making calls. The only thing they're missing is sidetone feature that would allow you to hear your voice in the earphones as you talk (the Jabra Elite 75t has this feature). With both the AirPods and the Elite 75t you can hear your own voice in the earphones better, which makes things feel slightly more natural.
The Liberty Air 2 have something the AirPods don't have: Volume controls on the buds themselves. Like the original Liberty Air, these have touch controls and you can program the touch controls using the Soundcore app. One of the options is for the tap-and-hold function to be used for volume control (I used the left bud for down volume, the right for up). You can opt to double-tap to advance tracks forward and back. The touch controls worked pretty well for me but you do have to tap in the right place or you won't get a response.
While their wireless connectivity was rock solid, I encountered some small bugs. Sometimes the app wouldn't link up with the buds after I launched the app (I had to "retry," sometimes a couple of times, before the app would discover the buds). The music would pause after I pulled a bud out of my ear, and it occasionally wouldn't resume in that bud when I put it back in, leaving only one bud transmitting audio. I'd have to put the buds back in the charging case and then put them back in my ears to get everything to work. Hopefully, Anker can quash these little issues with a firmware upgrade.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that the Liberty Air 2 also delivers improved battery life over its predecessor -- 7 hours instead of 5 at moderate volume levels. The water resistance remains the same -- they're IPX 5 certified, which means they can withstand a sustained spray of water but they're not fully waterproof. I used them at the gym and had no problem running with them. And again, there's no transparency mode to let sound in like there is with the AirPods Pro and the Jabra Elite 75t.
The Jabra has slightly bigger sound with more bass and a more discreet look, and with a tight seal it arguably sounds better than the AirPods Pro. But the Jabra Elite 75t is $180. And when you add it all up, despite some minor quibbles I have with the Liberty Air 2's bright tonal balance, they're hard to beat for the money.