In possibly one of the most understated sentences of all time, it’s fair to say that Apple has had some good ideas over the years.
From the original Apple computer to the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, iPad and the Apple Watch, the Cupertino-based company has ceaselessly churned out an award-winning array of aesthetically attractive and technological advanced iThings for decades. So, when Apple wheeled out its AirPods back in 2016, they seemed likely to be a success. Which is another understatement. AirPods bring in around US $12 billion a year for the brand, which is quite the chunk of change.
For the uninitiated/largely uninterested, AirPods are Apple’s brand name for earbuds, which, basically, are Bluetooth-enabled wireless mini-speakers you stick in your ear and, via connection with your smartphone, lets you listen to audio form all manner of sources, while also being able to make and take phone calls.
But Apple is not the only fruit when it comes to quality in-ear entertainment, indeed there are myriad aural options out there that can not only equal Apple but also undercut on price. All are USB-charging, offer enhanced audio, calls and, akin to Apple AirPods, come with a charging case that ekes out more battery life for your earbuds while out and about.
Some also come armed with noise cancelling tech to stop the cacophony of the outside world encroaching on your listening pleasure, but what they all are is a far better option than either wearing massive Cyberman-esque headphones or playing music through your smartphone speaker in public, the former making you look ludicrous, the latter being a serious crime against social etiquette punishable by tutting and glares of British annoyance.
So, what exactly are your options when it comes to AirPod-rivalling earbuds? Well, whether you want them for music, movies, gaming, calls or every element of that, for a starter, here’s a selection of ear-canal sound-makers capable of competing with Apple right at its core…
JBL Live Pro 2 TWS
Best for: Big battery, superb sound
I’ve always has something of a soft-spot for JBL – my portable speaker is a JBL and my soundbar is a JBL and, although they’re older models now, they have never let me down in terms of reliability or sound quality. So, no pressure, Live Pro 2 TWS, eh?
Not that there ever would be any pressure, really, as JBL are part of the Harman group which, in all its separate incarnations, produce some of the greatest loudspeakers in the world, so ANC earbuds from a company with such heritage in sonic superiority are probably going to be a bit special. And, surprise, surprise, they really are.
Light, stylish and comfortable rammed into your ear canal, the True Adaptive Noise Cancelling automatically adjusts to the white noise of the world around you, whilst Smart Ambient brings you back in. Six microphones make for phone calls of stunning clarity, aided by JBL’s ‘VoiceAware’ settings that let you choose how much of your own voice is fed back through the 11mm dynamic drivers. There’s also a colossal battery life of – ready? – 10-hours in earbuds and 30 extra hours available in the charge case.
As to sound quality, well that is simply sublime, a smooth ballet of lows, mids and highs, delivered with balance, power, clarity and confidence to create truly immersive audio. JBL call it the JBL Signature Sound and, if you’ve experienced before, yeah, it’s that all over.
The compact charging case make them easy to slip into a pocket and, cutting to the chase, for £1 change from £130 the JBL Live Pro 2 TWS earbuds are an absolute steal.
Buy now £129.00, JBL
House of Marley Redemption ANC 2
Best for: Eco-friendly listening excellence
That’s right, Marley. No, not as in the miserly ghost from A Christmas Carol, but as in reggae superstar Bob Marley, for these remarkably specced earbuds were created in collaboration with his family. What do I mean by ‘remarkably specced’?
Well, let’s start with the full-on green credentials. Built from FSC-certified woods, bamboo, a trademarked REGRIND silicone and Marley’s own signature blend of REWIND up-cycled fabrics, these are the most eco-conscious earbuds on the planet. But this alone does not make the Redemption ANC 2 cool.
No, what does secure the almost ineffably cool status of the Marleys is that on top of being greener than Kermit the Frog putting out the recycling, they are also Apple and Android compatible, possess Active Noise Cancellation and Echo Noise Cancellation. They are also water- and sweat-resistant to help those who either want to exercise with them or suffer from hyperhidrosis, and come with a charging case that will allow for a full 24-hours of playback (earbuds give around five-hours on a single full charge). What’s more, pair up with the House of Marley app and you can alter the EQ to your own personal taste and customise the touch controls to whatever feels intuitive to you.
So, to audio quality. Firstly, fit the right size silicone ear-tips to get a snug fit – there are three options included. That done, insert and brace for some seriously punchy sound with impressively deep bass and a reasonably spacious soundstage, easily tackling everything I threw at them from my somewhat eclectic testing playlist with audio aplomb.
With touch controls on the side to alter volume without having to fish out your phone, the ability to switch between Active Noise Cancellation and Ambient if you need to know what’s happening around you, and call quality that’s clear, crisp and audible at both ends of the line, the House of Marley Redemption ANC 2 earbuds are a gloriously green masterclass in the earbud maker’s art.
Buy now £149.99, Amazon
Amazon Echo Buds (2nd Gen)
Best for: Alexa everywhere you go
Blessed with the slick, minimalist, yet robust design we’ve all come to know and love from Amazon’s Echo gear, although the Echo Buds come with Alexa as your in-house genie in the lamp, being both iOS- and Android-compatible, they play nice with Siri and Google Assistant too, should you happen to have a favourite.
Coming in a matt white or black finish and offering up to five-hours of playback, with a matching charging case that boosts that to a total of 15-hours, this 2nd generation of Echo Buds feature active noise cancellation (ANC) to keep the audio of the outside world at bay.
Sweat-resistant to allow the audio to flow as freely as personal perspiration on hot days, a choice of ear tips allow for the perfect fit and accessing the Alexa app lets you adjust the EQ, alter the Echo Buds’ touch controls and toggle Power saving mode on and off.
Then, of course, there’s Alexa. Available instantly via the wake word to do your bidding, answer your questions, make your calls and all that other Alexa stuff. A favourite feature of mine (as a man who has allowed Alexa access all areas to his house) is that I can order Alexa to shift whatever I’m listening to on my Echo speaker to my Echo Buds and have it there, in-ear, instantly, allowing me to walk out of the house without missing a beat, but also probably forgetting to lock the door and/or put my shoes on first.
With the EQ set to your personal preference, sound quality is bright, detailed and powerful, while the bass proved pleasingly tight as I segued between my ‘Bit Angry’, ‘Not Rock’ and utterly meaninglessly titled ‘Chimpanzee for The Devil’ playlists to give them a good and proper workout.
As to the noise cancellation aspect, this 2nd generation now cuts out twice the ambient racket the original iteration could manage, and while this may not be enough to get you through an active building site without audio incursion, they allowed me to write this review while stuck in a house with two young kids trying to murder each other on one of the hottest days of the year thus far, so the ANC and the Amazon Echo Buds in general get a big thumbs-up for me.
Buy now £110.00, Amazon
Shure AONIC FREE
Best for: Utterly exacting audio
Shure has been a star name right at the heart of the pro artist recording and performing scene since Isham Jones was top of the hit parade back in 1925, so the best part of 100-years’ worth of expertise in audio distilled down into a pair of earbuds should probably result in something epic, yeah? Yeah.
True Wireless Sound Isolating buds in a – being honest – somewhat sizable recharging case, Shure’s AONIC FREE are a serious dynamic duo that don’t just deliver 21-hours total playtime, the choice of completely cutting-off or allowing-in the caterwaul of the world around you, a smartphone-going ShurePlus PLAY app-based for customisable EQ and button controls, the use of beamforming microphones for crystal clear video conferencing and phone calls, and foam sleeves in Small, Medium and Large to let you find a firm yet comfortable fit. No, they also ease your ears with studio-quality playback of music that’s so subtly enhanced, so immaculately balanced, so unerringly precise and so amazingly immersive that it’s almost like having the artist themselves performing a private gig right there in your head.
Sweat-proof for the perspiration-prone to boot, compatible with both Android and iOS, and blessed with Bluetooth 5 for greater wireless stability and range, Shure’s IONIC FREE earbuds are little short of sonorously sublime.
And if you had no idea who Isham Jones was, don’t worry, I had to Google that too.
Buy now £109.00, Amazon
Sony LinkBuds S
Best for: When size matters
While all the earbud options I’ve brought together here are pretty damn cool in their individual ways, there is no denying that packing all that cutting-edge wireless enhanced audio tech in does result in something of a size issue.
Indeed, for those with lugholes considerably smaller than the fine pair of Dumbo-esque ears that adorn the sides of my head, there may be an issue getting the body of each earbud to actually fit their concha (the hollow around your earhole). Which is why the new Sony LinkBuds S impress, for not only does the charging case feature a cool, green, strip activation light that pleases me perhaps more than it should, but these are also the smallest and lightest earbuds I’ve ever seen available.
But does this step-down in scale equal a step-down in functionality or performance? In no discernible way. Aright, there may be audiophile types out there who’s ears are tuned to a higher plane than mine who disagree with this, but I know what I like when it comes to audio performance and, to my average everyman ears, the bass kicks, the high end is clear and clean and the mids are balanced. But, of course, you can also download the app via the QR code on the inside packaging and alter the EQ to sate your specific listening pleasure, plus also switch between noise cancelling and ambient sound.
Fully charged, the Sony LinkBuds S will give you six-hours of solid playback, with another 14-hours’ worth of juice stored in the charge case to keep you in calls and choons for most of the day.
Then we come to 360 Reality Audio, Sony’s spatial sound immersive audio ecosystem that, via various apps and platforms let’s you experience audio in, well, 360° reality… like you were there when the music was recorded or, indeed, are listening live right in the room at a gig.
Water- and sweat-resistant too to keep the exercise-bent Lycra-clad classes up and running, Sony’s LinkBuds S also have another fascinating facet to recommend them that they almost stay silent about – both the earbuds and the charging case are made from recycled plastic from old car parts and the packaging they come in is entirely plastic-free.
So, in summary, Sony’s new LinkBuds S earbuds are lean, clean and green.
Buy now £179.00, John Lewis
Edifier NeoBuds S
Best for: Sound quality that’s something else
Got a smartphone with a Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU? Well, you’re in for an earful with the NeoBuds S from Edifier – in a ruddy good way. Thanks to the inclusion of Snapdragon Sound and Qualcomm aptX Adaptive, these little beauties can play audio at 24bit and 96kHz – true high-def music that’s an eye-opener as well as an ear-pleaser.
On top of that comes Knowles balanced armature drivers, making the audio experience a treat for all device users, Snapdragon Sound or not, whether you’re streaming the latest pop chart hits from Fred Sheeran, Billie Elliot or someone called Kate Bush, or taking on a crystal clear call thanks to the NeoBuds S’s Qualcomm aptX Voice and advanced mic technology that works to improve sound quality by removing background interference such as the wind of other forms of nearby chatty life.
Active Noise Cancellation comes as a given, filtering out ambient noise up for 42dB, whole you can also flip between high/low ANC and ambient tone depending on your needs/desire, and the smartphone app lets you adjust the EQ alongside other parameters to tailor the tone to your perfect preference.
Solidly built, light, comfortable and IP54-rated making them almost impervious to water and dust, the Edifier NeoBuds S earbuds look good, wear well and sound so incredible that, if you didn’t know, you’d be fooled into thinking they were wired.
Buy now £150.00, Amazon
Honor Earbuds 3 Pro
Best for: AirPod-beating excellence
I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of the Honor brand prior to looking at all the potentials for this review round-up, but I’m extremely glad I have now. Getting straight to the point, for Android phone fans seeking out a true alternate to Apple AirPods, you’ve found the Holy Grail.
Coming in a smooth, small pebble of a charging case that boosts the earbuds playback time from 6-hours to 24-hours (both with ANC off, otherwise 4-hours and 16-hours), the Honor Earbuds 3 Pro are simply packed with advanced audio tech. This includes proximity discovery to keep them to hand, dual device connectivity, Active Noise Reduction to keep the world out, audio passthrough to let some of the world back in, intelligent dynamic noise reduction, ear canal adaptive ANC, wear leakage compensation, in-call noise reduction, wear detection and so on and so on.
What all that means is that not only do the Earbuds 3 Pro give perfect clarity on calls they also deliver some of the most detailed, best balanced, punchy music playback you’re ever going to wirelessly stick in your ears thanks to the use of 11mm moving-coil loudspeakers and high-resolution ceramic tweeters.
With volume control built into the stems and an accompanying Android app that lets you fiddle with your audio options with the utmost of ease, Honor Earbuds 3 Pro are everything that AirPods are to Apple users and more besides.
What kind of more? Well, not only are these absolutely awesome at all the audio stuff they can also take and monitor your body temperature in the same manner as an ear thermometer. Yeah, I’m so sold on these it’s ridiculous.
Buy now £166.00, Amazon
Lypertek PurePlay Z5
Best for: Low-cost, long-time listening
Okay, they may not be the absolute cheapest earbuds of this review bunch, but at £119 the PurePlay Z5 from Lypertek are hardly going to break the bank; and there’s also no denying that you get a lot of audio for such little outlay.
Small and light, this is Lypertek’s first attempt at ANC earbuds and it’s made a good fist of it – as people used to say – combining hybrid Active Noise Cancelling and the firm’s PureControl ANC app to excellent effect. These headphones let owners select sound profiles (including LDX mode, which specifically created for the Z5), toggle between ANC and ambient modes, play with the existing audio presets, customise the touch controls on the earbuds themselves and of course, adjust the 7-band EQ until sonic satisfaction is achieved.
Battery-wise, the PurePlay Z5 gives you around 7-hours of playback (4-hours with ANC switched on) on a single charge, extendable up to roughly 35-hours when you top up the tank from the charging case, which is impressive.
Sound quality is nothing if not nicely balanced, with good booming bass and a clear absence of distortion even with volume pushed right up. And as to call quality – well, it couldn’t be clearer, thanks to the use of decent microphones and the presence of noise suppression and echo cancellation.
With a very generous amount of differently sized and shaped ear tips included in the price too, it’s hard to find fault with Lypertek’s PurePlay Z5… except, maybe with the ANC, which could be better, but with genuinely excellent audio delivered otherwise, your £119 is going a long way.
Buy now £119.00, Amazon
Best for: game-changing sonic sound
Hey, I’m walkin’ here! Yep, Brooklyn-based since its family-run formation back in 1953, Grado has some solid heritage in personal audio performance through its endless array of high-end headphones. So, when the company’s GT220 were offered for review, I jumped at the opportunity to get Grado goodness in my ear. And – spoiler warning – they did not disappoint.
Hugely comfortable to wear and extremely secure thanks to a cunning ‘twist to lock’ manoeuvre, the fit of the Grado GT220 in the ear is perfect for noise isolation, cutting off the endless chatter of the outside world and leaving you free to enjoy some incredible audio.
And that is no overstatement. With 8mm drivers delivering Grado’s renowned sonic signature, this is not music, this is a revelation. You can almost hear the decades of audio engineering that’s been poured into their development itself, as the GT220s fill your head with a perfectly balanced sonorous landscape that ekes out every last nuance of whatever your choice of musical poison is.
With intuitive touch controls, Bluetooth 5.0, compatibility with Siri and Google Assistant, phone calls are also easy to make and take and crystal clear. While you get six hour playback from fully charged earbuds, this leads onto 36 total hours via the Qi wireless charging case so you’ll never have to worry about running out of steam.
At the pricier end of the earbud spectrum, perhaps, but if you demand the kind of audio perfection Grado is famous for, then hang the expense!
Buy now £179.95, Amazon
Microsoft Surface Earbuds
Best for: For office-based business types
And now for something completely different… Microsoft may have arrived late to the earbud party, but it came clutching something that instantly turned heads with a very different approach to design. You see, while most earbuds have gone down the discreet route, Microsoft’s have turned up screaming “Look at me!”.
What do we learn from that? Firstly, that these will not be for anyone involved in covert operations and, secondly, they have been designed to take advantage of absolute in-ear comfort and highly intuitive control. And I do mean comfort; incredible, all-day wearability comfort, in fact. However, comfort comes at a price; in this case, the roomy fit of the Surface Earbuds and lack of noise cancellation means you’ll be picking up on a lot of outside noise.
Interruptions to music and calls aside, the massive upside is that Microsoft Office 365 users can not only enjoy audio but also employ the Surface Earbuds to dictate into Word and Outlook, and – most likely a deal-sealer for many – allow you to control PowerPoint slide presentations with a touch of your ear.
Calls and audio dictation come out clearly thanks to dual microphones in each bud and an equaliser in the accompany app lets you adjust audio according to taste. There is no denying that the larger design makes for intuitive ease of operation, however £200 does seem a bit steep.
For the likes of phone calls, video calls and that aforementioned dictation, the Microsoft Surface Earbuds are extremely adept, but if you also want uninterrupted music playback, you may want to consider some of the other alternatives outlined here.
Buy now £149.00, Amazon
There’s a lot to like about every set of earbuds I’ve reviewed here (which is why it’s a ‘Best’ round-up) and there’s also quite a bit of variation in price.
However, ignoring for one minute what smartphone you use, how environmentally conscious you are and even how big your ear conchae are, when it comes down to pure performance for the price, the JBL Live Pro 2 TWS offer exceptional value and all-round epic audio. And, yes, yes I am wearing them as I write this very verdict.