For a year I've been searching for a recommendable budget true wireless alternative to Apple's AirPods, and I finally found it in Anker's Soundcore Liberty Air earphones. Available in white and black, they cost $80, or half the price of the AirPods. It's also much better than its fully wireless predecessors from Anker's other sister brands, the Zolo Liberty and Zolo Liberty Plus, despite costing less.
At first glance the Liberty Air look similar to the AirPods. What's different, however, is that they have a noise-isolating design with silicone tips that seal off your ear canals and passively muffle noise around you. The AirPods are "hard" buds and have an open design that lets sound in.
Of course, the one issue with in-ear headphones regardless of their design is that they might not fit everyone's ears. For instance, I can wear the AirPods while sitting or walking at a casual pace. But if I break into a run, they fall out. Plenty of others don't have that problem.
When it comes to in-ear noise-isolating headphones, getting a tight seal is crucial to optimizing sound quality and bass performance. I managed to get a perfect fit with the large set of included ear tips (there are also extra small, small and medium tips) and the earphones fit my ears far more securely than the AirPods. I was able to run with them without a problem and they're water-resistant with an IPX5 water-resistance rating.
I can't guarantee they'll fit your ears as well as mine -- they didn't, for at least one of my coworkers. And some people may prefer the AirPods' fit. But for a guy like me who worries about keeping my AirPods in my ears without a set of accessory sports fins, the Liberty Air felt, well, liberating.
They also sound good. The sound isn't as clean and rich as that of the far more expensive Sennheiser True Wireless. But the clarity is decent, the earphones are relatively well-balanced and the bass has some good kick to it. With a tight seal, the bass performance is better than the AirPods' and about the same as the Jabra Elite 65t's and Elite Active 65t's . I did notice that these guys had a little trouble with more complicated tracks where several instruments are playing at once (everything tends to get a little mashed together, which is a byproduct of Bluetooth compression and the quality of the headphones).
Battery life is rated at five hours -- the same as the AirPods -- and the compact charge case (it isn't as small as the AirPods case, but it's still pretty small) provides an additional three charges. From my testing, you'll fall a little short of that five hours if you crank your earphones at higher volumes, but if you keep the volume at closer to 60-70 percent, you'll get close to five hours. It's also worth mentioning that I didn't have to raise the volume too high to achieve sufficient loudness.
For better or worse, the case charges via Micro-USB and not USB-C, and it takes about 2 hours to fully charge the headphones and case if both are fully drained.
The earphones have touch controls that actually work pretty well. You can't adjust the volume levels (you can only do that through your device). But you can pause your music, advance tracks forward and back (you tap and hold the right earbud to skip forward and tap and hold the left earbud to skip back), answer and end calls and access your voice assistant.
Both the AirPods and Jabra Elite 65t earphones are excellent for making cellphone calls. The Soundcore Liberty Air aren't stellar in this department, but they're decent enough (they getting a passing grade but not a star). I was able to hear callers just fine, but the handful of callers I spoke to said I sounded OK, but not great.
With the AirPods, you can use either the left or right earbud as a single bud for making calls. With the Liberty Air, you can only use the right earbud as a single bud for making calls. The right is the "master" bud and the left is the "support" that pairs to it to form a stereo connection.
I had no problem pairing and repairing the headphones after the initial pairing setup (I used an iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus) and experienced minimal dropouts in over a week of testing. They use Bluetooth 5.0, and the connection to my phone was generally rock-solid, even in the streets of New York City, where lesser true wireless earphones have a tendency to be plagued by interference problems.
As with a lot of true wireless headphones, you can experience some audio latency when watching video or playing games (the audio and video aren't in sync). That said, I didn't have a problem watching iTunes movies and YouTube videos on my iPhone. I'm not going to tell you it's a perfect sync, but a lot of apps seem to be doing a better job dealing with Bluetooth latency issues. However, your mileage may vary according to the device or app you're using.
As good or better than the AirPods?
If you're someone whose ears are a good match -- and fit -- for the AirPods, Apple's true wireless earphones do have some small performance advantages, particularly when it comes to call-making. But these sound as good, if not better, than the AirPods, and fit my ears better. In short, as long as you're OK with a noise-isolating design, the Anker Liberty Air are an excellent alternative to the AirPods that happen to cost half the price.
It's also worth noting that if Anker can make a true wireless earphone that's as good as this is for less than $80, you can expect to see other companies do the same. With new, more advanced Bluetooth chips that cost less becoming available, the advantage Apple had with its custom W1 chip may quickly be fading. That's probably why AirPods 2 are said to be on deck for 2019.