Every Important True Wireless Earbud Feature Explained

Are you interested in buying a set of true wireless earbuds, but you’re overwhelmed by the sheer number of brands, models, features, and prices on Amazon? You’re not alone. Ever since Apple launched the AirPods in 2016, the true wireless earbuds space has exploded. More choice is always a good thing for buyers, but it also means you need to do a little more research before you make your decision.

We can help. We’ll explain every single feature and buzzword that you might run into and what to look out for when those buzzwords sound too good to be true.

We’ll also update this article regularly because even a few months can make a big difference in terms of what you can expect to get for your money.

Accessory charging

It’s not a very common feature, but some charging cases have extra-large batteries and a built-in USB-A charging port that lets you recharge a phone or almost any other device. Whether it’s worth carrying the extra bulk in order to have this option is going to be a personal decision, but it doesn’t add much cost to the earbuds, so price likely won’t be a factor.

Active noise cancellation (ANC)

Active noise cancellation (ANC) uses the earbuds’ onboard microphones to detect external sounds and attempts to cancel them out by producing sounds with an inverse phase. There can be a big difference in ANC effectiveness from one model to another, with more expensive earbuds usually doing a better job than lower-priced models.

Beware of claims like the number of decibels (dB) canceled by ANC, as this can be misleading. Check trusted review sites for evaluations of how well a specific earbud’s ANC works. Pay specific attention to reviewers’ observations around the kind of sounds the ANC cancels best — some ANC is better at dealing with consistent noise like an airplane’s engines, while others do better with dynamic noises like traffic or conversations.

Battery life

This is easily the most variable feature from one model of true wireless earbuds to another. We’ve seen some that last as little as three hours per charge and only 12 hours with the charging case, while others can last as long as 13 hours per charge and up to 48 hours when you include the charging case. More expensive earbuds often last longer, but there are exceptions to this. Apple’s $249 AirPods Pro only get 4.5 hours with ANC turned on, while the $50 Earfun Air get seven hours per charge and 35 hours total with their charging case.

Bluetooth codecs (AAC, aptX, aptX HD, LDAC, etc.)

As a wireless technology, Bluetooth always compresses digital music in order to transmit it to your earbuds. Very high-quality earbuds compensate for this with top-notch signal processing, audio drivers, and amplifiers. But it’s also possible to moderately increase the sound quality through the use of Bluetooth codecs like aptX, aptX HD, or LDAC. These codecs preserve more of the original source, but the caveat is that both the earbuds and the smartphone (or tablet, etc.) need to be compatible. A set of earbuds that support LDAC, for instance, won’t sound any better if used with an Apple iPhone as iPhones don’t work with LDAC.

Bluetooth Multipoint

Though it’s a rarity on true wireless earbuds, some models use Bluetooth Multipoint, which lets them connect to two Bluetooth source devices simultaneously, like a phone and a laptop. This makes switching between these two devices very fast and easy, with no need to pair them again every time you want to swap. At the moment, only Jabra offers this feature for all kinds of Bluetooth devices, but Apple’s AirPods line of earbuds and headphones can do it, too — as long as you’re signed in to iCloud on all of your Apple devices.

Bluetooth range

Bluetooth wireless range is another highly variable feature. Some models lose their connection after about 10 feet while others can go much farther. For the best possible wireless range, look for earbuds that are considered class 1 Bluetooth devices — these have the longest range you can get.

Call quality

Though exceptions do exist, like the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, true wireless earbuds are usually only so-so for call quality. Look for trustworthy reviews that discuss an earbud’s call quality, as it can vary from totally unusable to very good — and there’s no way to tell by looking at a product’s specifications or price.

Charging case

This is your earbuds’ home when they’re not in your ears, and there are a lot of features to consider. How many extra charges does the battery hold? How small/pocketable is it? Does it have wireless charging? Does it use USB-C or MicroUSB for cable charging? Is it easy to remove and replace the earbuds? Does the hinge mechanism seem flimsy? Would it survive a fall onto a hard surface? What about water resistance?

Colors

Bored of basic black? Look for earbuds that come in a range of color options, though be warned: Many models that offer this variety are on the low end in terms of features and sound quality, so definitely do your homework.

Customizable controls

Being able to choose which combination of taps or clicks are used for different functions is a nice option, but support for this can vary highly between models. Some let you customize every gesture on each earbud, while others only let you modify one or two. Some don’t let you make any changes at all. Price isn’t a reliable indicator: Some high-end buds have no customization of any kind, while some sub-$50 models have lots.

Driver type: Dynamic or balanced armature

When it comes to earbuds, the two main technologies for producing the sound you hear are dynamic drivers (which look like teeny-tiny speakers) and balanced armature drivers (which look like rectangular boxes with a hole at one end). Balanced armatures are usually tuned to specific frequencies, which means you’ll often get two or three in a single earbud. This arrangement tends to produce the most accurate sound, which is why balanced armatures are favored for professional in-ear monitors.

But balanced armatures take up more room, making it hard to use them in wireless earbuds, which need space for batteries, microphones, and lots of circuitry. So dynamic drivers are the go-to tech for most true wireless earbuds. But there’s no need to get fixated on the kind of drivers used when buying earbuds. As with so many things, you can have awesome dynamic drivers and terrible balanced armatures — it’s more important to read reviews about how these drivers succeed (or don’t) at creating great sound.

Earfins (earwings, stabilizers)

Some earbuds — especially those aimed at athletes — include earfins or earwings in addition to various sizes of eartips. These create an even more secure fit than the eartips alone. Some models treat the earfins as optional, like Amazon Echo Buds, while others make them a requirement, like the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. Some folks find earwings uncomfortable, so if you don’t need the extra stability they offer, you may want to consider earbuds that don’t have them or that give you the option of not using them.

Environmental noise cancellation

You may see this feature advertised as noise-canceling, which might lead you to think that’s it’s active noise cancellation — but it’s not the same. Environmental noise cancellation (ENC) or Clear Voice Calling (CvC) are technologies that prevent external sounds from interfering with your voice during calls — they do not cancel those noises when listening to music.

Equalizer (EQ) settings

All earbuds come from the factory tuned for a specific sound signature. That signature may emphasize low-end bass or ultra-clear highs. If the earbuds come with EQ adjustments either built into the hardware or you can make them via a smartphone app, you’ll be able to make changes to how they sound. Some offer one or two adjustments, while others offer a wide array of options. It’s not always tied to price: Some high-end earbuds like those from KEF or Grado don’t have any EQ settings at all.

Fast (quick) charging

Some earbuds feature quick charging that lets you grab an extra hour or two of additional playtime for just a few minutes spent in the charging case. Without quick charging, it can take twice to three times as long to get an equivalent boost.

Fast-pairing

Pairing true wireless earbuds used to be a pain, but these days it’s rarely more than a two-step process. Still, some models make it even easier with Fast Pair technology. Apple uses this on its AirPods and Beats models when they’re connecting to iOS devices, and there’s a similar version from Google for Android devices.

Find my earbuds

Many newer models now come with the ability to locate missing earbuds and/or their charging case using the manufacturer’s app. As of 2021, some models are equipped with Apple’s Find My capability, which doesn’t require a third-party app if you’re using an iOS device. Finding capabilities will vary: Some apps let you trigger a locating sound from the earbuds, and some — like Skullcandy’s line of earbuds and headphones — use Tile’s tracking technology, which gives you a large community of users who can aid in locating lost items.

Fit test

A growing number of earbuds now include a fit test as part of their smartphone app. It’s typically only offered on earbuds that have feedback microphones for ANC. After playing a short test tone, the app will let you know if the eartips you’ve chosen are creating a strong enough seal for the best audio quality.

Hi-res audio

Because Bluetooth compresses digital audio (see: Bluetooth codecs) there’s really no such thing as hi-res audio-capable true wireless earbuds. But that hasn’t stopped the Japan Audio Society from declaring the LDAC and LHDC codecs as “hi-res wireless audio.” It basically means that earbuds equipped with these codecs deliver the closest possible experience to true hi-res audio in a wireless product. But again, codecs aren’t as important to overall sound quality as software, drivers, and amplifiers, so keep that in mind.

Independent earbud operation

You might expect that all true wireless earbuds can work independently from one another, but this isn’t always the case. With some, you must always use both earbuds. With others, only one side works on its own.

IP rating for water and dust resistance

Water and dust resistance has become nearly universal on true wireless earbuds, but there can be a big difference between models. Some offer no official water resistance, like the AirPods, while others can be fully immersed, like the IP68 Jaybird Vista 2. Unlike some features such as ANC, you can find excellent waterproofing even in very affordable earbuds.

Microphones

These are the key to both great ANC/transparency and great phone calls. But don’t assume that just because a set of earbuds has two, four, six, or even eight microphones, that ANC and calling will be awesome — much depends on the way the mics are used and the signal processing that the earbuds employ.

Multiple eartips

The key to getting the best sound and the best fit from a set of true wireless earbuds is finding the right size of silicone or foam eartips for your ears. This is easier when companies include a variety of eartip sizes. The lowest standard is the inclusion of three sizes (small, medium, and large), but increasingly, we’re seeing companies across the price spectrum beginning to include many more sizes and shapes to help buyers get the perfect fit. Check the description of what comes in the box to find out what each product offers.

Passive noise isolation

Passive noise isolation is an earbud’s ability to block external noise by preventing those sounds from entering the ear canal. Typically, the earbuds with the best passive noise isolation are those with silicone or foam eartips that create a tight seal in the ear canal’s opening. Some earbuds do such a good job at blocking sounds passively, that active noise cancellation (ANC) doesn’t make that much difference. Earbuds that don’t use eartips, like the AirPods or the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, usually do a poor job at noise isolation.

Sidetone

Similar to transparency mode, sidetone lets you hear yourself more clearly on phone calls. Some models have a default level of sidetone, while others give you adjustments to fine-tune how much of your voice comes through.

Smartphone app

If you want to make changes to the EQ, the controls, or simply get firmware updates, your true wireless earbuds really need to have their own smartphone app.

Sound quality

This is the one category where you usually get what you pay for. It’s possible to find lots of affordable true wireless earbuds that sound good, and even a few that sound way better than their price suggests, but as a rule, if you want the best sound quality, you’re looking at the high end of the price spectrum, starting at about $220.

Touch controls or physical buttons

The majority of true wireless earbuds have touch-sensitive controls because it makes it easier to do things like waterproofing. But while some touch controls are highly responsive, many can be difficult to use. Unless a reviewer has indicated that a model’s touch controls are good, you may want to consider models that use physical buttons instead, like the. Beats Studio Buds, Jabra Elite 75t/85t, and Master & Dynamic MW08.

Transparency (ambient) mode

If your earbuds offer ANC or they simply have very good passive noise isolation, having a transparency mode (often referred to as ambient sound) is helpful. When activated, it uses the onboard microphones to pipe external sounds into your ear. Some earbuds let you fine-tune the amount of external sound, and some even offer the option of amplifying that sound as a form of hearing enhancement. Transparency modes are not only helpful for having a conversation without needing to remove the earbuds, but they also offer greater situational awareness when you’re near potential hazards like traffic or construction, or even just to hear a crying baby.

USB-C

USB-C has become the standard charging connector for Android smartphones and even Apple iPads, so the majority of true wireless earbuds also use this connector on their charging cases. But some models still use the older Micro USB plug — if this matters to you, check the specs carefully before buying.

Voice assistant access

It’s rare to find true wireless earbuds that don’t let you trigger your phone’s voice assistant but double-check the specs to make sure. More and more models are now offering advanced voice assistant functions. Some models give you a choice of Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa in addition to whatever assistant is on your phone by default. Yet others, like the JBL Tour Pro+, let you speak to these assistants using just their wake word instead of pressing a button. If this matters to you, look for models that promise “hands-free” voice assistant access.

Wear sensors

Wear sensors will let you automatically pause your music or podcast when you remove one or both earbuds, and by extension, they’ll auto-resume the tunes when you reinsert them. This is very handy for conversations, but as long as you don’t mind pressing the play/pause button, it’s not a must-have. Most let you turn the feature on and off, but for some, it’s alway on.

Wireless charging

This feature lets you recharge the earbuds’ charging case by dropping it on a Qi-compatible charging mat, instead of plugging it into a USB cable. If your phone supports accessory charging, you should be able to recharge the case from your phone, too.

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