Many people have a love-hate relationship with their headphones. It is too big and those cables are always and everywhere in the way. An interesting product category has recently been added for them: totally wireless earphones. There is no cable to detect and they are extremely discreet, making them the reverse of large over-ear headphones. That sounds interesting! We look at five popular models in this file.
In-ear headphones – wire-free earphones
The description “total wireless earphones” perfectly covers the load of these devices. It is indeed very small in-ears that (usually) fit in the ear and are very discreet there. What makes the ears even more unobtrusive (and more convenient) is that they do not have any cables. There is not even a cord running from ear to ear. They may therefore look like Bluetooth headsets from a few years ago, you know: those little tops that you put in one ear and made you look like a Borg from Star Trek. The difference with the new generation of earphones that we look at here is that they use the latest technology to bring stereo sound to both ears. So it concerns two separate devices, one for each ear. Some more expensive models even come with all sorts of useful extras, such as noise canceling or smart microphone arrays. In short, they are tiny in-ears that can really do a lot and allow you to listen to music in a very easy way.
Wearing comfort is an asset
When using wireless earphones like this one, you actually fall from one surprise to the other. They are truly groundbreaking devices. It is almost unbelievable what they can do – and that while the devices usually weigh very little. You don't have to worry about the weight. Even the heaviest wireless earphones weigh less than 10-15 grams each (and usually much less). You hardly notice that there is something in your ears.
The majority of the ears in this file are in-ears. You put them in the beginning of your ear canal with tips. Some people find this somewhat unpleasant, in which case the Freebuds 3 from Huawei or models with a similar loose fit are recommended. If you opt for in-ears, it is important to select the correct caps. Manufacturers always supply multiple caps or tips in different sizes. Take the time to find the caps that fit well in both ears. Not too small, because then the ears will fall out. Not too big, because you don't get them applied properly. A good fit is important for comfort and sound quality, because if earphones are bad you lose the bass in the first place. Tip: You may have to use a different size of cap in each ear.
Bluetooth and audio quality
When wireless streaming over Bluetooth, the audio stream is compressed by your source device (such as your smartphone). This happens with a certain codec, an algorithm that makes your music more compact. This is because Bluetooth cannot send a huge amount of data. There is not enough bandwidth for your music in the original lossless form, which would result in a hitch.
There is a lot of confusion about the role of codecs in a Bluetooth connection to earphones (and other Bluetooth headphones). This is partly because manufacturers play things like “Bluetooth version 5”. However, when it comes to sound quality, the Bluetooth version is less relevant. The version number is especially important when it comes to issues such as consumption.
The codec used is more decisive in terms of sound quality. Please note, this is completely independent of the format in which your music files are packaged. Whether you listen to MP3s or hi-res FLAC files, if it is streaming over Bluetooth, it will be converted to a specific codec anyway. That is why we recommend that you choose source files in a lossless quality. After all, bad MP3s that are compressed again lose even more audio data. This is why low-quality YouTube videos sometimes sound very bad via Bluetooth headphones: they are heavily compressed twice, leaving very little audio data.
There are different codecs and most earbuds also support several. This is necessary because the support for a certain codec must be present on two sides: at your ears and at your mobile device. Because technology companies like to do their own thing, Android manufacturers opt for codecs other than Apple. So there is not really one standard that everyone uses. There is, however, a kind of standard that can be relied upon: SBC. But it is very old and offers the lowest quality, so you should avoid products that only support this. Fortunately there are not many headphones with only SBC support. That being said: many AV devices, such as TVs and receivers, only support this codec. AAC is supported by all earphones and is the codec that iPhones and iPads use. Android phones can also handle it, but switch to the even better aptX codec if possible. Wireless earphones with support for the high-quality aptX HD or LDAC are not currently available, perhaps because these codecs simply overload the tiny batteries in the earphones.
Speaking is also possible
Most wireless earphones can also be used as a headset for making calls. They have microphones that work surprisingly well. Amazing, because in the end the distance from the ear to your mouth is quite large. Some earphones are therefore equipped with special functions, such as microphones that pick up sound waves that travel through your skull. They also often work with arrays of microphones, several pieces that work together to catch your voice and eliminate wind noise.
Thanks to the microphone it is also easy to make wireless earphones compatible with speech assistants such as Siri or the Google Assistant. To activate them you have to press a button. This feature can be useful because you can select music without taking your phone out of your pocket. If you prefer, you can disable support for voice assistants.
Some wireless earphones have noise canceling. Strong, because they remain very compact things. You will pay more for noise reduction, because it is a function reserved for more expensive devices. All in all, noise canceling on these earphones is far from performing badly. Noise canceling is considerably more effective with over-ear models, among other things because headphones fit all over your ear and the distance between the microphones and your ear is greater. That gives the built-in NC chips a little more time to generate anti-noise, which also eliminates higher frequencies.
Real noise canceling is challenging, so that some manufacturers opt to rely solely on the passive isolation of the caps that are close in fit your ear canals. Perhaps there is an option to let votes pass, which is useful in office spaces or to follow announcements at the airport. The best, however, is adaptive noise canceling that adapts to the situation. However, you can only find that on the most expensive devices.
Also in terms of autonomy, spectacular things happen in this category. Typical earplugs may only weigh 10-15 grams, but manufacturers manage to build in batteries that continue to play for many hours. Of course over-ear headphones do better. You have wireless over-ear headphones that effortlessly play for more than 24 hours. The devices in this file cannot match that and usually “only” take 5-6 hours. That is sufficient for commuters, but not for everyone. Fortunately, a handy compromise has been found: all earphones come with their own case that has a built-in battery. Put the devices in their box and they will be recharged. This is usually two to four times, so that you end up somewhere around 24 hours – but you have to wait while they charge. An additional advantage of such a box is that you do not lose the wireless earphones quickly and transport them easily.
To properly compare the five earphones in this file, we have tested them in a standardized way. Each device was connected via a Huawei P30 Pro and the corresponding app installed. Where necessary, the latest firmware was installed, which is important. We notice that wireless earphones receive updates quite often. In addition to some casual listening via Spotify and Qobuz, we used Roon for the critical listening part in our test room. Mainly because we have put our test playlists in this audiophile software. We go for lossless music files, so that we certainly do not charge anything for a device that is actually due to defective source material. In addition, we also went to a nearby park and busy road, to check how things are soundproofed and how well the ears stay on when you walk.
Two big names are missing in this file: Apple and Bose. That is not a forgetfulness on our part. Both brands prefer to no longer offer products for testing. This is a pity, especially in the case of Apple, because the AirPods are popular with iPhone users. However, they are less interesting for Android owners. Apple recently launched the AirPods Pro, with Active Noise Cancellation. At Bose the emphasis is on wireless earphones for athletes. You can also find it at other brands, such as JBL and Sony.
The box that comes with the brand new ATH-CKS5TW (159 euros) is a bit more robust than the rest, with the exception of the Sony case. Do we find that bad? Not exactly, because the large size is due to the presence of a larger battery. It gives these ears of the Japanese Audio-Technica a huge boost. And the devices themselves are already doing very well in that area. The batteries of the earphones last for 15 hours, via the case you charge them twice more – good for 45 hours of autonomy in total. This means that the crown for best autonomy is immediately for Audio-Technica. Nobody else comes close.
Light in the ears
In terms of design, the ATH-CKS5TW earphones are nothing special, but they certainly look. They are especially very light, which is surprising given the considerable autonomy with which they unpack. Silicone wings have been fitted out of the box to keep the Audio-Technica stable in your ear. We found the wings handy, but anyone who finds them difficult can remove the attachments. There is a button on each ear: depending on which side and how often you press it, you can adjust the volume or pause and skip tracks.
The accompanying app is just as simple as the earphones. Do not expect too many crazy features, but only basic settings and information. It is not possible to adjust the sound to your own taste, which is a pity. Perhaps a nice addition for later, Audio-Technica?
At Max Richters 'War Anthem', the Audio-Technica's deliver the full thunder of the deep percussion in the background, while the cellos and violins are relatively beautiful defined. The bass line at Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds 'Into My Arms' is just a bit too bold, shifting the focus away from the voice of His Disintegration. That bass-filled foundation is just what you need to make “America” of Rammstein pop. The ATH-CKS5TW therefore seems to us a good choice for rock and some urban music styles, and for anyone who self-identifies as basshead. It is certainly a plus that the ATH-CKS5TWs support the aptX codec.
The emphasis on more existing basses seems to be a disadvantage, but it is important to realize that Audio-Technica consciously chose this. The ATH-CKS5TW are also sold in some countries as “Solid Bass” earphones, aiming at an audience that likes a solid foundation. Mission successful, we think. A lot of people are going to like this, others less.
The modest price tag of the ATH-CKS5TW is certainly not the only thing we like. The battery life is amazing – and that is a big plus for commuters. In terms of sound, the ears will be completely appreciated by fans of Audio-Technica’s well-known ATH-M50x DJ headphones. They put a deep, lush bass foundation under your music, which is a good idea for some genres and not a good idea for others.
Huawei Freebuds 3
The Freebuds 3 (179 euro) have a bionic dolphin design. No, we also don't know exactly what Huawei means by this – it was a party in the marketing department, we suspect – but the ears are very light (4.5 grams!) And rest softly in the ear cups. Unlike the other earphones in this test, you should not push tips into your ear canal, but the FreeBuds hang loosely in your ear cups. Original in this file, but also similar to Apple's wireless earphones and a number of others. The fit is not as handy when you are active. That is a bummer for some, but we can imagine that there is also a large group of music lovers who do not like caps that you have to put in an ear canal. A small plus of this design is that the Freebuds 3 remain relatively clean for a long time; earplugs should be cleaned regularly.
Light in the ears
For this file we received a store model of the FreeBuds 3, but the software and app were initially not completely ready. That was the case towards the end of the test period. Perhaps that is why the earphones were only connected to the AAC codec. In the future, a new codec will be added, BT-UHD, which would enable lossless streaming via Bluetooth. But it is still too early to know whether that experimental codec will be copied much. Maybe only on Huawei phones.
Huawei is first and foremost a builder of mobile devices, and you notice that with the FreeBuds 3. The emphasis is on the presence of their Kirin A1 chip that ensures intelligent noise canceling and on gadgets that come with smartphone owners are comfortable, such as a case that you can charge wirelessly. Well thought about that box. It is completely round, just like a pill box that you quickly put in the jacket pocket or handbag. Although the battery life of the earphones themselves is rather mediocre (four hours), you can use the case four times before you have to put it on the charger. Most competitors can only do that two or three times.
Pairing is very smooth with the very latest Huawei phones. If your device is already running EMUI 10, it is sufficient to open the case close to your smartphone. In other cases you have to leave the ears in the open box and briefly press a button.
When testing it was often a bit of searching for the right fit. The FreeBuds 3 are always comfortable, but by moving them a little the sound changes quickly. That is simply a logical consequence of the ultra-light open-fit design. Just like with Sony's, you can easily press the touch buttons when searching for the fit. In the app you can adjust the function of the buttons (found at the top of the 'sticks' hanging from your ears) or switch them off.
We had expected otherwise because of the loose fit, but the Huawei FreeBuds deliver a very good sound quality. It is almost an open, spatial representation as you get with an open over-ear headphone, with the same advantages and disadvantages. Richters “War Anthem” sounds great like in a concert hall, but the very deep artillery percussion barely comes across. Natalie Clavier's voice in “Water Under the Bridge” by Thievery Corporation or Aimee Mann in “One” is again set down in heaven, beautiful.
The noise canceling of the FreeBuds 3 is also very good, despite the loose fit. Until the launch of the Apple AirPods Pro, this was unique, because noise reduction with an open design like this is no mean feat. But Huawei has succeeded – and without a trace of noise. The noise reduction is especially good for ambient noise, such as the noise of traffic. Voices remain very audible. The app allows you to adjust the intensity of the noise canceling, but that did not really have a major effect on our test device.
Music sounds good (but some bass, depending on the fit) and noise canceling works fine. These are immediately two important characteristics that fit well. Add to that a reasonable price tag and excellent wearing comfort, and you are talking about a successful total package. The only downside is that the FreeBuds 3 do not stay in place during exercise.
Jabra Elite 65t
Jabra is a brand that we mainly know for their headsets and Bluetooth accessories. The futuristic-looking Elite 65t (170 euros) will soon no longer be the top model, because a more luxurious Elite 75t is coming. The Jabra ears are affordable models that nevertheless offer a lot, such as a water-resistant IP55 housing that is supported by a two-year warranty against dust and water damage. The earphones are equipped with microphones, but have no noise canceling. There is, however, a HearThrough function that switches on the microphones so that you can still follow conversations without removing the earphones. That is handy in the office. We do not experience the absence of noise canceling as a major loss, because the Elite 65t already holds back a lot of noise. Keeping out ambient noise is best if you take the time to choose the right size for your ears from the four pairs of supplied EarGel tips.
The app that belongs to the Elite 65t is quite extensive and is full of useful functions. At “Moments” you will find three shortcuts (My Moment, Commute and Focus) that give you appropriate options for those three activities. At Focus, for example, we found the opportunity to listen to soothing, non-disturbing soundscapes very pleasant. If you dive deep into a document or have to study, sounds like soft rainfall, a distant storm or the waves of the sea help you concentrate. With My Moment you can quickly choose a sound mode or adjust the sound to your own taste via an equalizer. Commute then gives you a quick way to set how effectively the HearThrough function works. In this way you can make sure that you hear the environment better in certain situations.
Every time we removed the Elite 65t from the case, a small wrestling with a clamping valve took place. However, the box is compact and well-finished, with many rounded corners so that it does not catch in a jacket pocket. Maybe it was just our copy.
The ears feel durable and are easy to apply – once we realized how the ears orientate in relation to the earcups. The EarGels fit well, better than traditional tips, so that the Elite 65t remained well in place while walking. Strictly speaking, these earphones are not meant for sports, as the slightly more expensive Elite Active 65t devices serve there. The specifications are similar, but can be slightly better against sweat.
Our test telephone chose the AAC codec when connecting to the Elite 65t, more audiophile codecs are not supported. The sound of the Jabra is quite neutral, which means that classical works such as Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor by Alice Sara Ott appear natural and authentic. This is certainly not always the case with mobile earphones. It often sounds very unnatural, with blown up bass and bright details. This is fortunately not the case with the Jabras.
In terms of low extension, the Jabra ears do not do badly, as evidenced by the detailed basses of 'Unfinished Sympathy' by Massive Attack, even if it sounds a bit fatter for us now . Via the sound + app you can adjust the sound to your own taste. The great thing about Jabra's more neutral approach is that the earphones process sound adjustments well. If you start with over-fat basses, you will never get it right.
Vocals, the Elite 65t is very good at that. With quieter songs we do notice a bit of slight noise, that with HearThrough switched on it becomes even louder. That noise comes from the microphones that are switched on to transmit ambient noise. Of course this is more noticeable when testing in a quiet test room; on the train the sound floor is much higher and you will hardly notice this.
The Jabra Elite 65t offers solid autonomy and build quality at an attractive price. It does not have all the features of a top model, but the sound quality is great for every genre, the app is full of fun features and it does well with wind noise. The price is also good.
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless
Sennheiser is a big name in the headphones world. So we expect something from the Momentum True Wireless (259 euros), also because they are (just like the Sony's) a bit more expensive than the rest. Fortunately, you immediately get a luxury feeling when you remove the Sennheiser ears from the box. The included case is the hippest of hope, stylishly finished in a trendy fabric. This is again not very important, but you take the case of wireless earphones with pleasure everywhere. The fabric is also washable, handy in real life.
Small and stylish
The ears themselves are very compact and fit in your ear cup. That makes them discreet, although their modest character is immediately undermined by the metallic exterior on which the Sennheiser logo is displayed. This surface doubles as a touch button. You can activate the Google Assistant or Siri or adjust the volume along this; the latter is very intuitive to keep on printing. It is easy to accidentally call the Google Assistant while you actually wanted to enable / disable the Transparent Hearing function. This feature works, by the way, but we wonder if many people would really use it. It is faster to take out an earpiece.
The app that belongs to the Momentum earphones is Smart Control. You won't find many options in it, but some handy settings. There is an equalizer so that you can fine tune the sound, but it is very special. Instead of the usual equalizer where you control bass and treble, for example, or move a slider per frequency, you get something that is graphically cool but difficult to operate. By dragging you move one point on your screen, after which a stylized curve playfully assumes a shape that may correspond to what you want. It is not a major stumbling block, because we think you should just leave the excellent sound of the Sennheiser alone.
When connecting the Momentum True Wireless, our Huawei phone confirms that an aptX connection has been made. Beautiful. “War Anthem” rolls out impressively in the Sennheisers: the percussion rumbles into the background and does not drop when the strings arrive, and the cello line is full and intense. Ibrahim Malouf's trumpet on “True Sorry” also sounds natural and isolated from the guitars and drums who join the star trumpet player later in the song. It is not that the Momentum True Wireless earphones completely match a large over-ear headphone, but of all earphones in this file the Sennheisers come closest. They are therefore the most hi-fi, if that is important to you. Also nice: there is no trace of noise in the silences between tracks. That's how it should be.
As you would expect from a hi-fi value such as Sennheiser, the Momentum TW are very strong in audio quality. There is hardly any trace of noise during silent parts and the sound is very musical. Support for high quality codecs is of course not lacking.
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The new Sony's are a sequel to the prestigious WF-1000X from 2017. Even more luxury is the message. For example, the loading case of the WF-1000XM3 (249 euros) is finely finished with a copper-colored lid, which makes it a costly appearance. The oval ears themselves are also very handsome. They are not large, although the high-tech shapes do stand out a bit. The Sony’s are therefore less discreet than the Audio-Technica's and Sennheisers.
Beautiful looks are not the only plus, there is a lot of cutting-edge technology on board. They come with smart noise canceling and all sorts of gadgets, such as support for a new 360 ° sound format.
You will notice that the WF-1000XM3 is more than an average device when you open the Headphones app. You will be presented with a long list of options. Fortunately, it is a clear, handsome app that makes quick adjustments possible.
The first thing you encounter is Adaptive Sound Control, a form of noise canceling that adapts to your activity. If you sit down, it works more efficiently, if you are walking then ambient noise is still partially allowed through. That is safer in traffic. We personally found it more convenient to manually set the noise reduction. It is practical for office workers that you can still make voices audible. The noise canceling in the WF-1000XM3 is not as effective as with the great WH-1000XM3 over-ears, but still keeps out most of the noise. The ears fit well in your ear, which naturally also helps.
In the app you also calibrate the 360 ° audio support. Quite strange, because you have to take photos of your ears in a fairly accurate way. You can then listen to a Sony version of MPEG-H audio afterwards, but the offer is limited. Tidal is currently the most mainstream of all providers. It is a nice feature, but for the time being more playing equipment.
No more delays
One of the major improvements compared to the first WF-1000X is the elimination of lag when playing audio. Both earbuds now connect directly to your mobile device; previously the stream went first to one ear and then to the other. It introduced a slight delay, and that was no fun when watching a movie. With the XM3 version, the lag is almost gone, we notice when viewing “The King” on Netflix. The Sony’s are very pleasant for films: dialogues come in clearly, while dramatic soundtracks stand out and play full.
You can fine tune the sound of the WH-1000XM3 via the app, but they certainly do not sound bad by default. It is a pity that they lack support for aptX from their over-ears brothers. AAC is the best quality possible. Expect a full sound, where tracks like “Rolling” by Michael Kiwanuka are presented with a solid bass layer and nicely defined vocals. Low frequencies are not as dominant as with the Audio-Technica’s, but the range extends far. Because of this, the low noise of “War Anthem” comes in impressively, although it weakens somewhat when the cellos start playing. Super-small drivers simply have their limitations.
With the WF-1000XM3, Sony is aiming for the top – a goal that is largely achieved. The ears and the case look expensive, the noise canceling is quite effective and the sound quality is excellent. The wearing comfort is also quite right. In fact, there is not much to be found on the Sony earphones, except that they are more expensive than many rivals. Advantages