Earbud Dilemma

Earbud Dilemma: A reader asks…

I have an iPhone and wired Earbuds I’ve been using for years. It’s time for me to upgrade to wireless earbuds. Should I go with the Airpods (or new Airpods Pro) or is there something else that’s better? I should mention that the Earpods aren’t really comfortable in my ears, especially after an hour or more. But we are a mostly Apple family, with Macs, iPads and Apple Watches. I’m stuck figuring out the best option for me!

For many of my readers, any earbuds’ fit and comfort are the most important aspects to consider. But they’re not the only consideration. Each person’s ears are different, and also their priorities. For earbuds in general, here are the factors that I think are most important. I’ve listed them in my own personal priority order, your priorities may be different:

  1. Fit, comfort and bulkiness (and will they stay in your ears while you are active)
  2. Bluetooth reliability (do they stay connected to your smartphone)
  3. Noise isolation and active noise-cancelling
  4. Sound quality for listening to music (good bass, clear voices)
  5. Audio quality for phone calls (can you hear the caller in both ears, clearly) and microphone quality for picking up your voice
  6. Battery life (and how fast they recharge in the case)
  7. The size and shape of the carrying case (and how it’ll fit in your pocket)
  8. Integration with your voice assistant (Siri in the case of iPhones)
  9. Price

For fit, there’s nothing like trying them on before buying, but this isn’t always do-able. Fortunately, many of the available earbuds come with multiple sized, silicone ear-tips so you can get a better fit. I should mention that the new Airpods do have this feature, but the original and 2nd generation Airpods don’t. Your wired Earpods are essentially the same shape as the regular Airpods, but nothing like the Pros.

When it comes to comfort, anyone who wears hearing aids can tell you that having something in your ears for a long time isn’t going to be as comfortable as not having something in your ears. All earbuds are going to take getting used to if you want to use them for extended periods. Some will be more comfortable, some less. But you can’t know what fits your ears best without trying them out for an extended period.

If your only experience with using earbuds for an extended period is your wired Earpods, you may or may not find any other earbuds more comfortable. That said, I think the new Airpods Pro will be more comfortable than the regular Airpods, and will stay in your ears better since the silicone tips go into your ear canal. As will other brands of earbuds, like the excellent Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds, which I think is the closest alternative to Airpods Pro. You do have to use a separate app to control the Sony model, so you sacrifice the tight integration of all-Apple products.

For Bluetooth reliability, nothing (currently) comes close to Apple’s H1 chip for ensuring trouble-free connectivity to your smartphone. Most earbuds will have occasional-to-frequent drop-outs and intermittent periods of not being able to connect. Not to mention that some are darned hard to initially pair with your smartphone. Apple’s H1 chip ensures rock-solid connection, no dropouts.

For iPhone users, the Airpods Pro, regular Airpods with wireless charging, regular Airpods with Lightning-only charging, and the Powerbeats Pro all have the Apple H1 chip. This is proprietary tech, so no other brands will have it, and no other brands will have as solid and reliable connection to your iPhone.

For noise isolation, the regular Airpods are sadly lacking, nor do they have active noise-cancellation. The Airpods Pro has both. So do the Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds. The Powerbeats Pro doesn’t have active noise-cancellation, and minimal noise isolation.

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Noise isolation is accomplished by that silicone ear tip that goes in your ear canal and seals (somewhat) against ambient noise. Any earbud with that feature will provide some factor of noise isolation.

Active noise-cancellation means circuitry that works with the microphone to cancel out ambient noise. This is the top-of-the-line feature, and is only featured on a few brands/models of earbuds – it’s been mostly relegated to over-the-ear headphones. There are a few good, new wireless earbuds with noise-cancellation, such as the Sony WF-1000XM3’s, and the Bose QuietControl 30 earbuds (but they have a troublesome neck-band).

For sound quality, the Sony WF-1000XM3 beat the Airpods Pro, so do the Powerbeats Pro and just about any Bose earbuds. The Airpods Pro aren’t designed to be the top of the line in sound quality, just very good. If you want the best sound quality, try Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus, or Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless.

For making and taking phone calls, I find the Airpods Pro the best. Yes, they stick out of your ears more than other brands, but those pointed tips contain the microphones. The closer those microphones are to your lips, the better they will be at picking up your voice. For hearing your callers, I wouldn’t consider any earbuds that didn’t work with either one or both in your ears, as Airpods Pro and regular Airpods do.

Using earbuds for phone calls for work means extended phone calls, and some might exceed any tiny battery-powered earbud’s capability. With Airpods and Airpod Pros, you can use one while the other is charging and swap them out when the battery runs low. With both in your ears, you hear your caller in both ears, which in my opinion is vastly better than only hearing the caller in one ear. Some earbuds simply can’t do that (such as the Bose Soundsport Free).

Battery life is always going to be an issue with current battery technology and the requirement for something small that fits in your ears. That said, most of the good models I’ve mentioned above have reasonably good battery life.

For me, the carrying case must slide in and out of a pants pocket well, as do the Airpods and Airpods Pro cases. They are also durable and can live quite nicely in a purse. Some other brands of earbuds have bulky carrying cases that would be a hassle when you want to travel light.

Of course, Airpods and Airpods Pro are perfectly integrated with Siri. Not to say that other brands can’t use Siri, but I like being able to say “Hey Siri, turn up the volume” without having to tap an earbud like you do with other brands. That feature is worthwhile to me with an iPhone, even though Siri has limitations. I think Apple is working hard behind the scenes on Siri, so expect things to continue to improve.

I think most iPhone users will find the Airpods Pro to be their best option. If you prioritize sound quality, then you may decide on the Sony WF-1000XM3 instead. If noise isolation & active noise-cancellation isn’t important to you, then the regular Airpods will be fine (and cheaper). You didn’t mention price, but if that’s an important factor then you may want to consider something like the Jabra Elite 65T‘s which are only $100. Just recognize you’re taking a big step down in quality, capability and reliability.

My top two picks are either (first) Airpods Pro (about $250) or (second) Sony WF-1000XM3 (about $230). This is based on my list of priorities. FYI, I’m personally going with the Airpods Pro. No disclaimer needed, I get no kickbacks from anyone for pushing one brand over another.

Lastly, while no store will let you have an extended period to wear the earbuds and test out how they fit your ears, most offer at least a 14-day return policy. So by all means, test them out and if your ears hate them, return them and get something else!

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