AirPods vs the best wireless headphones for iPhone
Monday October 3, 2022. 02:32 PM , from Macworld UK
Wireless headphones are essentially the standard now, with Bluetooth not only being convenient but Apple removing the audio jack on the iPhone range. For most people, the sound quality difference to wired isn’t noticeable anyway.
The market is huge, but here are the best wireless headphones we’ve tested for iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and Macs. If you do want a wired connection some of these do offer it in addition to Bluetooth, but we also have a round up of the best wired headphones.
And if you’re wondering why the AirPods Max don’t appear on this list, rest assured that we gave them due consideration – but while audio quality is exceptional, their very high price and ill-judged case design kept them out of this competitive chart. Read our in-depth
AirPods Max review for a full explanation.
Best wireless headphones
1. Sennheiser CX Plus True Wireless
Stellar bass performance
Secure and comfortable fit
Exceptional and reliable wireless range
AptX Adaptive codec support
Sub-par audio performance on phone calls
Stocky charging case
Sennheiser recently updated its popular CX True Wireless earbuds with this new model called the CX Plus, which adds noise cancellation and support for AptX, while still keeping the price down to $179/£129 (in the US it’s discounted to $129.95 right now). The CX Plus has the same rather bulky design as its predecessor – which remains on sale for £119 – but that’s a minor complaint, and the attractive sound quality and effective noise-cancellation features represent great value for money.
The size of the earbuds also means that they have room for a decent size battery, lasting for around eight hours on a single charge. Using noise-cancellation cuts that down by about an hour, but the charging case lets you recharge the earbuds two more times, so you’ll get 21-24 hours of music depending on usage, making the CX Plus a good option for long journeys. Regular travellers will also appreciate the noise-cancellation features, which do a good job of blocking out background noise. The Sennheiser app provides some simple EQ controls and, as well as the transparency feature provided by many headphones, the app also allows you to create and save sound zones for specific locations, such as the gym or on a train, that have their own customized settings.
The CX Plus supports both Apple’s AAC for Bluetooth, and AptX for Android devices, and sound quality is really good for earbuds in this price range. Blondie’s Rapture kicks off with a crisp, sharp cymbal crash and the CX Plus delivers the song’s catchy bass line with a hip-swaying rhythm. It’s a very precise sound too, catching all the little background details such as the ticking percussion and jangling rhythm guitar. The charging case doesn’t support wireless charging, but that’s an acceptable compromise at this price, and the CX Plus stands out as a really good all-round set of earbuds at a very competitive price.
2. Apple AirPods Pro 2nd-generation
Fantastic audio quality
Excellent noise cancelling
Best-in-class transparency mode
New charging case features
Better battery life
You can still buy better-sounding wireless earbuds
No LE Audio, lossless, or hi-res audio
Controls on the stems is still a bad idea
There are a few minor external changes for the second-generation AirPods Pro, but most of the changes are on the inside.
The new model comes with four sets of eartips adding extra small (XS) to the mix – the original AirPods Pro only came with three tips. We found the extra small tips more comfortable, your experience may differ.
The charging case now comes with a small metal lanyard loop – although Apple doesn’t actually sell a lanyard. There are speaker holes a the base of the case that can make a sound if you lose the AirPods while they are in their case.
The original AirPods Pro lacked an easy way to control volume, so the fact that the second-gen model adds the ability to detect up and down swipes on the little flat area of the stem is useful. A swipe up or down changes the volume.
As for what’s inside, the H2 chip in the 2022 AirPods Pro enables Adaptive Transparency, which is an enhancement of the Transparency mode on the original model. As a result of this mode you can choose to hear things that you might need be able to hear in your vicinity, but you won’t be deafened by them. In our tests the AirPods Pro 2 blocked more outside sound than the originals.
We were impressed by how much better the new second generation AirPods Pro sound compared to the first generation. Clarity and sharpness is improved and bass response is vastly improved. The bridge of the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” at 2:30 was just way too much for the old AirPods Pro to handle, but the new model had no trouble keeping up.
The battery life is longer than it was for the original AirPods Pro and you can now use your Apple Watch charger in addition to charging via Lightning and other wireless charging methods.
As with the iPhone 14-series and the 2022 Apple Watches, Bluetooth 5.3 is supported, however it doesn’t appear that it’s being used for anything in particular right now. Perhaps a software update will bring new features in the future.
Like the originals the AirPods Pro 2 offer Spatial Audio with head tracking, Conversation Boost to amplify speech in the direction you’re facing, one-tap pairing, audio sharing with another pair of AirPods (or Beats), quick switching to other Apple devices your Apple ID is logged into, and hands-free Siri.
Read our full
Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation) review
3. Sony WF-1000XM4
Excellent ANC features
Good battery life
These Sony earbuds are exceptional. They offer great battery life and charge quickly. You’ll also find excellent active noise cancelling that not only removes unwanted sound, but also uses AI to change the mode and level depending on your location and what you are doing.
There’s a choice of black or silver earbuds, both with a gold trim. They fit comfortably, although they might feel a bit bulky if you have small ears. There are three ear tip sizes in the box and we found the smallest to be sufficiently comfortable.
If you remove the buds from your ear playback will pause. The sides of the earbuds are touch-sensitive. Alexa and Google’s assistants are supported.
The 6mm drivers and Sony’s Integrated Processor V1 working together to create superb sound. Active noise cancelling is joined by other smart features including Ambient Sound Control and wind reduction. These can be tuned to different locations and activities. Thanks to the Speak-to-Chat feature the headphones detect if you are taking and pause the music. You’ll also find LDAC support for Hi-Res Audio Wireless as well as 360 Reality Audio spatial audio, which is Sony’s spatial audio technology for a surround sound experience.
There is a new Sony WH-1000XM5.
Read our full
Sony WF-1000XM4 review
4. Bowers & Wilkins PI5
Excellent sound quality
Good specs for the price
Three eartip sizes
Battery life isn't excellent
Lacks EQ customisation
Bowers & Wilkins has a long history of producing high quality headphones and speakers, and the attractive sound quality provided by its PI5 wireless earbuds doesn’t disappoint. Available in black or white, the PI5 also includes active noise-cancellation and a wireless charging case for a price of $249/£199 that makes it an excellent alternative to the AirPods Pro.
Admittedly, the chunky design of the earbuds may not suit everyone, but B&W includes three sizes of eartips to help you get a good fit, and the earbuds have an IP54 rating for water and dust resistance, so they’re sturdy enough to cope with life outdoors.
Sound quality is excellent, and the PI5 supports both Apple’s AAC and AptX for Bluetooth audio, so they’ll be a good option for non-Apple devices too. There’s a terrific, relaxed feel to the opening guitar riff on The Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up, and the PI5 perfectly catches Charlie Watts’ precise, unfussy drumming. But switch to Prime Evil by The Orb, and the PI5 digs really deep to deliver the dance track’s sinister bass effects with an impressively slinky rhythm. The noise-cancellation features work well too, doing a good job of blocking out background noise without making any noticeable different to the sound quality. And, like most headphones these days, they also provide an ‘ambient’ mode that allows you to listen out for background sounds when you need to.
Battery life could, perhaps, be a little better, lasting for 4.5 hours when using noise-cancellation. However, that’s similar to the more expensive AirPods Pro, and the wireless charging case allows you to charge the earbuds three more times when you’re away from home.
5. Apple AirPods 3rd-generation
Water- and sweat-resistant
Greatly improved sound quality
Longer battery life
Fit is highly dependent on your personal ear shape
A bit pricey
Best Prices Today:
€219.00 at Apple
It seems that the third-generation version of the AirPods has struggled a bit since its launch in 2021, as many people still seem happy to opt for the less expensive second-gen model, which is still on sale for $129/£119.
Admittedly, the AirPods (3rd Generation) are a full $50/£50 more expensive, at $179/£169, but Apple’s argument is that the entirely new design of the third-gen model, and additional features such as wireless charging and improved battery life are worth the extra cost. You can immediately spot the differences between the two models, with the newer AirPods having a shorter stalk, and a more compact earpiece that is slightly angled in order to fit more securely inside your ear. However, they still don’t use silicon eartips that would provide a firmer fit – that’s only an option with the even more expensive AirPods Pro – and I personally found it quite easy to dislodge the AirPods from my ears.
The sound quality is very good, though, thanks to a new custom-designed driver inside the earpieces. This produces a more balanced sound than its predecessor, producing a sinister bass rumble on Billie Eilish’s You Should See Me In A Crown. This model also provides spatial audio and head-tracking for watching films and video too, along with a wireless charging case. Battery life is better too, lasting for six hours on a single charge, or 30 hours in total with the charging case. It’s a shame, though, that the AirPods (3rd Generation) don’t also provide active noise-cancellation (ANC), so if you need that feature then you’ll have to pay even more for the AirPods Pro, at $249/£239, or opt for one of the cheaper rival earbuds that we also review here.
Read our full
Apple AirPods 3 review
6. Cambridge Audio Melomania 1
Good battery life
Small and light
Secure and comfortable fit
Easy to press buttons accidentally
Lack noise cancelling
Wireless earbuds, as you probably know, are all the rage but not everyone can afford a pair of AirPods let alone the AirPods Pro. Luckily there are cheaper alternatives around and Cambridge Audio has put together a rather attractive pair.
The Melomania 1 have a reasonable MSRP of $139/£119, but can easily be found for under $100/£100 putting them into budget range, despite being extremely high quality.
These earbuds are very small and light, a simple bullet shape makes them unusual, but they fit very securely and comfortably. An IPX5 rating means they are splash and sweat resistant, so they won’t break if you get caught in a shower.
The compact size also means a very small charging case so these are super portable. The case has decent magnets to hold the earbuds in and a set of LEDs on the front to indicate battery level.
Despite the small size, the Melomania 1 have very strong battery life. The earbuds can last up to nine hours on their own and the case can charge them another four times, resulting in a whopping total of 45 hours.
Physical buttons on each earbud may be preferable to some users compared to touch-sensitive ones. They are easy to press accidentally when putting the headphones in or adjusting them but once in place means you don’t ram them into your ear canal. There’s plenty of control but you’ll have to learn all the different button presses for.
Microphones mean you can use the Melomania 1 for phone calls and for using Siri.
All of this would be pretty pointless if the sound quality wasn’t good, but you can rely on a company like Cambridge Audio. 5.8mm drivers are enhanced by graphene and there’s Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity along with both AAC and aptX codecs.
The sound is clear and spacious with plenty of bass and mid-range and enough top-end to keep things bright. The tuning is well balanced so the earbuds sound good for a wide range of content.
You will struggle to find better true wireless earbuds at this price. The only thing missing is noise cancelling.
7. Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II
Excellent sound quality
Excellent Noise cancelling
Doesn't support Hi-Res audio
No wireless charging
Can only attach to one device at a time
If you have the budget for them, and it’s awesome sound and class-leading noise cancellation that you are looking for, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2 are a great choice.
Bass was well represented, and all instruments audible in the tracks we listened to. This is where spending more on earbuds pays off as they have drivers that can properly separate different tracks.
Active noise cancellation worked so well that we won’t hear any outside noise – so luckily there’s Aware Mode: tap and hold either earbud to allow ambient sound in. That works in conjunction with ActiveSense, which detects louder sounds and reduces them, so you won’t be deafened by an ambulance passing in the street.
You control play/pause with a tap. To skip forward and back track with two or three. Volume is controlled by sliding up and down.
However, there are a few things that let the QuietComfort Earbuds 2 down. They aren’t all that comfortable if you have small ears. There are three sizes of wingtip and ear tip in the box so you can get the best possible fit though, so it might be ok for you.
Another big disadvantage is that you can only be connected to one Bluetooth source at a time, unlike AirPods.
They do not support high resolution audio codecs such as LDAC or FLAC, and there is no spatial audio support either. But they do support SBC and AAC to cover all modern consumer Bluetooth devices.
Read our full
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II review
8. Sennheiser Momentum Free (aka HD1 Free)
Outstanding sound quality
Comfortable to wear
User scupltable EQ
Not ideal for those with smaller ears
touch controls aren’t always responsive
Frequent connectivity issues
Sennheiser releases quite frequent updates for its Momentum range of headphones, and the latest addition to the range is the Momentum Free, priced in the UK at £170 and available in the US for around $200 under the name HD1 Free.
The company claims the Momentum Free is its most compact set of Bluetooth headphones, weighing just under 40g, and with only a short neckband connecting the two earpieces.
They don’t cut any corners, though, including a three-button remote control and microphone for voice calls. There are some clever touches too, such as the magnetic earpieces that cling together over your neck in order to keep them safe when they’re not being used. The headphones support standard Bluetooth, AptX and Apple’s AAC format, so they’re a good choice for both iOS and Android devices.
Battery life is around six hours, which isn’t too bad for such a compact set of headphones. It’s shame, though, that Sennheiser couldn’t stretch to a charging case.
Sound quality is excellent, though, with the trademark Sennheiser sound that combines rich, warm vocals with plenty of detail. The bass response is good too, with the frequency range starting at 15Hz, a little lower than many small in-ear headphones. We were also pleased to see that Sennheiser includes no less than four different sizes of ear-tips, to help you get a firm, comfortable fit.
9. PistonBuds Pro
Active noise cancellation
Bass is a little exaggerated
Doesn't completely block background noise
Earbuds that include active noise cancellation (ANC) tend to cost at least $125/£100 – or $249/£239, in the case of Apple’s AirPods Pro – but the new PistonBuds Pro from 1More provide ANC for just $69.99/£64.99. They don’t stop there either, as the oddly-named little earbuds pack in plenty of other useful features too.
The compact earbuds are provided with four sizes of eartips, so most people should be able to get a good fit, and they’re rated IPX5 for water-resistance so they’re well suited to outdoor use during the soggy summer festival months. You can turn ANC on or off simply by pressing and holding the button on either earbud, and there’s a ‘transparency’ mode that allows you to listen out for people or other sounds around you. Admittedly, it’s not the most powerful noise-cancellation we’ve heard – it tends to dim background noise down, rather than blocking it altogether – but it’s still a handy option for when you’re out and about during the day.
Sound quality is good for such a low-cost set of earbuds, with support for Apple’s AAC Bluetooth codec. It’s not the loudest set of earbuds we’ve come across, but the bass has a nice thump to it – some people might find it a bit exaggerated, but the app provides presets for both boosting and reducing the bass, so the PistonBuds Pro will be particularly good for dance music, and a cheaper alternative to both the AirPods and Beats ranges.
Battery life is good too, at five hours with ANC turned on, or seven hours without ANC, and the charging case lets you charge the earbuds three more times when you’re travelling.
10. Beats Flex
Good sound quality
Hard to lose
No charging case
Not rated for water resistance
Best Prices Today:
€89.95 at Apple
Buying Beats headphones used to mean splashing the cash but that’s no longer the case and the Beats Flex are the cheapest ones yet at just £49.99/$49.99.
These are colourful – unless you get the black ones – neckbuds that keep things simple for those unable to drop hundreds on a pair of headphones. Apart from black, they are available in Yuzu Yellow, Smoke Grey and Flame Blue.
While wireless earbuds are the booming part of the market, neckbuds shouldn’t be underestimated. The design means that you won’t lose an earbud if it falls out and you can simply leave them having around your neck when they’re not in use.
Like many others, the two earbuds contain magnets so they snap together when you’re not using them. The band is made from a sturdy material called Nitinol and a control module on the left-hand side provides volume and playback controls, as well as a mic for voice calls.
At just 18.6g total, the Beats Flex are good if you do plan to go running or similar. Note that they don’t offer any official IP waterproof rating, although the rubber-like build should keep out splashes.
As you would expect, pairing them with Apple products is a breeze and you can also use the Audio Sharing option to stream your music to a friend who has a compatible set of AirPods or Beats headphones.
With 12 hours of battery life, they last longer than wireless earbuds and a ‘fast fuel’ feature means you can get 1.5 hours of playback from a 10-minute charge over USB-C.
The low price doesn’t mean bad sound either and “The deep bass on Bad Guy by Billie Eilish has a firm, rhythmic pulse that drives the song forward. There’s a nice crisp sound to the finger-snaps that punctuate the song, and the Flex really captures the shrug-of-the-shoulders tone as Billy pronounces “duh…” halfway through. There’s plenty of detail, too, as the Flex picks up all the multi-layered harmonies on Queen’s Somebody To Love.
The Flex can even handle more delicate classical sounds, capturing the sad, mournful tone of the cello and violin as they slowly weave through the air on Max Richter’s On The Nature Of Daylight.”
Read our full
Beats Flex review
How to choose wireless headphones
There are a few factors to consider before you hit that buy button.
Wireless headphones typically fall into three main categories:
Over-ear headphones: Big, chunky models that completely cover your ears seem to be something of a fashion statement at the moment – even if they do make you look like a Cyberman – and the size of these headphones means there’s plenty of room inside them for large drivers that provide expansive, detailed sound.
On-ear headphones: If you want something a little more compact, that you can take off and slip into a backpack when you’re travelling, then smaller on-ear headphones that just rest on the outside of the ear are a good choice.
In-ear headphones: But, of course, mobile tech is all about portability, so many people prefer lightweight, in-ear headphones that they can wear all day long, or simply shove into a pocket when they’re not needed.
This is crucial, and many in-ear
sports headphones have tiny batteries that help to keep the weight down but may only last for a few hours. That might be fine if you just want to listen to some music while you’re working out, but won’t be much use on a long journey by train or plane.
However, some in-ear headphones, such as Apple’s AirPods, also include a charging case that can top up the battery, so that’s something you should check on before buying any in-ear headphones.
Larger on-ear and over-ear headphones have room for more powerful batteries, and can often last all day on a single charge. Many also provide a wired option so that you can still use them like ordinary wired headphones when the battery runs down, which is ideal for people who spend a lot of time travelling.
Some headphones are specifically designed for people who travel a lot or use headphones in noisy conditions and provide active noise-cancelling (ANC) option that helps to block out background noise on trains and planes – although this can add quite a lot to the overall price of the headphones.
Note this isn’t to be confused with passive noise isolation (or often referred to as cancelling), which is just the way physically having headphones in/on blocks sound – like putting earplugs or ear defenders on.
We’d always recommend trying out any new headphones in a store or showroom whenever possible, but that’s not always practical with so many new headphones competing for your attention.
So we’ve tested a selection of Bluetooth headphones that provide great sound quality to help you get started.
All the headphones here will work excellently with the latest iPhone models. It’s typical for them to support Apple’s preferred AAC codec, although some will have others too like aptX which is handy if you want to also use them with other devices like Android phones.
It’s also worth noting that all Bluetooth headphones mentioned in this article are compatible with the Apple Watch – perfect when going for a run.
Apple, Computer Accessories, Home Audio, iPhone
Nov, Mon 28 - 21:43 CET