Best Wireless Earbuds: Apple’s AirPods (Yes, Those Ugly Things)

Why AirPods Are Better Than They Look

The best new wireless earbuds are Apple’s hard-to-get AirPods. WSJ Personal Tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler explains why they’re worth the wait.

I’m the first to admit that Apple’s new AirPod earphones resemble Q-tips dangling from my lobes. Or maybe robotic ear antennas.

But I think you’ll get over looking like a cyborg and want a pair anyway.

Before they finally started shipping this week, I had the chance to use a set of $160 AirPods for three months. They aren’t perfect, but they quickly became my favorite earbuds. I’ll go further: AirPods are Apple’s best new product in years.

What’s the big deal? Wireless tech has gotten good enough to liberate our ears. Totally untethered headphones are a delight to use, especially when you’re on the move. No more untangling the spaghetti at the bottom of your bag. No more slap slap slap on your neck when you jog. No more being tethered to your phone like a marionette.

They also contain microphones and sensors that make it easier to summon Siri, Google Assistant and other talking AIs, all growing smarter by the day. Now your secretary, workout coach and DJ live in your ear.

Bluetooth earpieces used to be just for Very Busy People who probably also pop their collars up and take the last slice of pizza. But this year, Apple and other phone makers cut the regular headphone jack from phones. Wireless headphones cost more, but they are the only way to listen to music and take calls without worrying about dongles.

Bluetooth earphones are a thing now, so you might as well buy the best. In addition to the AirPods, I tested six other buds that totally cut the cord. And because they can be cheaper and more capable, I also tried nine Bluetooth headsets with one cable connecting the earpieces.

My headphone lab consisted of the train, the street and the soundtrack to “La La Land.” And I grabbed four colleagues to try them, too, because ear anatomy varies as much as musical taste.

ENLARGE

Every truly wireless earbud fits a bit differently. Here, in order, are Apple’s AirPod, Jabra Elite Sport, Samsung IconX, Alpha Skybud, VerveOnes by Motorola, Bragi The Headphone and Earin M-1. Photo: Emily Prapuolenis / The Wall Street Journal

One Size That Actually Fits Most

For most people, the advice is easy: Buy the AirPods. They’re among the least expensive totally wireless earbuds I tested, yet no other could compete with their one-two-three punch of simplicity, sound and call quality.

The AirPods get little things right. Take them out of their case, and they’re ready to play music or take a call. Back in the case and they’re off; no messing with buttons.

The AirPods run for 5 hours, and the case is also a battery pack that can keep recharging them. You basically have to plug in the case only about once a week.

Take an AirPod out of your ear and your music pauses. Put it back, and the music resumes. (Why doesn’t every headphone do this?) The bud itself is one big button, so tap it twice to pick up an incoming call. That’s also how you summon Siri. I do miss the ability to skip songs or tweak volume with my fingers, however. You can also pair AirPods with Android phones, though they lose the tap features.

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The case for the AirPods, right, is a battery charger; when the case is open, they report on their battery life to your iPhone. Photo: Emily Prapuolenis/The Wall Street Journal

The AirPods’ goofy 1-inch sticks each direct their microphones toward your mouth, meaning you’ll sound better on calls than with buds that hide inside your ear. The AirPods’ sound was crisp and full of bass, though they don’t cancel outside noise.

Will they fit you? A big compromise is that they are one size fits all. The AirPods have never fallen out of my ears. I can go for a run, or head bang like Metallica, and they stay in there. They also stayed in every one of my colleagues’ ears. If Apple’s standard earbuds fit you, AirPods will, too—except possibly better, because these aren’t weighted down by a cord.

The biggest downside of the AirPods: You might lose them. There’s no Find My AirPods app to help you locate them in the sofa cushions, and Apple will charge you $70 to replace each bud. I’m the guy who used to just fling his earbuds into his bag, but I got used to putting these back in their case. And when they’re in use, I keep the case in my trusty shirt pocket.

Dealing With Dropouts

The AirPods may not be right for your ear anatomy. The alternatives I tested come with tips of varying size and material to make a better seal inside the ear canal. A few of my colleagues preferred this locked-in feel, and the way it cancels some outside noise.

But here’s the bummer: The other totally wireless models had enough problems that I’d encourage waiting before spending big on a first-gen pair. (See the annotated photo for pros and cons of each.)

The big problem is cutouts. Buds that sync to each other via Bluetooth are susceptible to interference from our big fat heads. That happened too frequently with both the $200 Earin M-1 and $150 Motorola VerveOnes Music Edition.

With AirPods, Apple made each bud talk directly to the iPhone, and even designed its own chip to produce a more efficient connection. They still cut out sometimes, especially outdoors, but not nearly as often.

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Apple's truly wireless Airpods liberate your ears, whether you’re traveling or working out. No more being tethered to you phone like a marionette. Photo: Emily Prapuolenis/The Wall Street Journal

Bragi’s $150 The Headphone, Alpha’s $220 Skybuds and Jabra’s $250 Elite Sport use NFMI, a wireless tech from hearing aids, to address cutouts. That helped, but each has other killer drawbacks. The Bragi case doesn’t carry a battery, and the buds don’t automatically switch on and off in it—creating confusion if you forget to turn them off manually. The Skybuds were the only pair that actually hurt me to wear. Jabra’s sounded tinny and lacking in bass.

If you can’t wait for a customizable AirPods equivalent, I recommend Beats’ $200 Powerbeats 3 Wireless, which wrap around the ear for a secure hold. Because of the connecting cable between the buds, they’re much less likely to cut out; they last up to 12 hours and sound great.

If You’re Sporty … or Thrifty

Totally wireless earbuds are liberating at the gym and a significant upgrade even over the style with one wire connecting the buds. Samsung’s $200 IconX fit snugly but comfortably in the ear and can capture your heart rate and activity while you exercise. They can even store MP3s, if you have them, so you don’t need a phone to hear your jogging soundtrack. They might have been my alternative pick to the AirPods, except for one problem: The battery lasts just a hair over an hour and a half. That’s fine for a workout, but not every day.

Are you likely to lose headphones but still want to get in on the wireless fun? Go straight to Amazon and buy the $26 TaoTronics Bluetooth headphones. They have a cable connecting the left and right buds but sounded better than pricier models and were comfortable in many ears, if a bit big.

One other pair stood out: the $300 Bose QuietControl 30. Bluetooth earbuds aren’t known for audio quality, but these sounded like bliss, because they actively cancel out background noise by using microphone and speaker tech. They look a little funny—there’s a priestly collar that sits around your neck—but feel quite light. You wouldn’t take it on a run, but it’s great for the commute, especially if you find over-the-ear headphones uncomfortable.

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at geoffrey.fowler@wsj.com

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