Are True Wireless Headphones Worth It?

By now, you’ve probably heard all the hype surrounding “True Wireless” headphones. If you’re not familiar with the term, you’re likely familiar with the category’s poster child: the Apple AirPods. You know, the cordless in-ear headphones that some have described as looking akin to “soggy cigarettes sticking out of your ear.” Weird looking or not, the category is booming: at CES 2017, dozens of companies were scrambling to tout their own version of the format. From Monster to Motorola, more True Wireless are on the way. So… are they worth a look?

What’s The Point?

Early adoption aside, currently the biggest advantage that True Wireless have is the lack of cord running between your ears. For anyone who hates that heavy feeling that in-ears can have, pulling down on your ear canal, True Wireless headphones are helpful. Personally, I was exceptionally skeptical about the idea, and I’ll admit, there is something very liberating about walking around, listening to music with nary a cord in sight. Working out is especially nice, because nothing tugs on your shirt or runs under your sunglasses. If the fit is right, a good pair of True Wireless headphones will, in fact, stay in place during most active endeavors. However…

What Are The Downsides?

...if the fit isn’t perfectly snug, you run the risk of losing an earbud. How common is it? One early True Wireless adopting company, Bragi, already sells single earbuds to replace those which have gotten lost. And they aren’t cheap: with current brands’ offerings ranging from $130 - $300 a pair, these are not disposable earbuds you can lose without losing sleep.

The battery life isn’t great, either. Most True Wireless range from 2 hours to 6 hours of claimed listening time. While the majority also ship with a battery-clad carry case that doubles as a recharger, you’ll still need to pop your headphones into power up every few hours. For those who listen to headphones for an entire work day, that alone can be a deal breaker.

Latency and signal drop are also very real hurdles. The first generation of True Wireless headphones nearly all suffered from one or both of these challenges. This is one way in which Apple did get it right; the AirPods’ cigarette-esque design affords bigger BT antennae, so the connection quality is stellar, and any sound delay when watching video is nominal enough to not distract. Sadly, the AirPods also sound exactly the same as the corded EarPods that come with your iPhone, which is to say, pretty sub-par for anything but taking calls.

The small size doesn’t leave much real-estate for controls. This means changing tracks or answering calls often involves mashing the headphones into your ear canal, potentially dislodging them, or fumbling with touch controls that are fiddly, especially when walking or running. Erato’s Apollo 7 have single multifunction buttons that are uninspiringly simple but are the best I’ve come across in terms of button use-ability.

And the sound? Well, the sound quality in the category ranges from pretty-awful to about-what-you’d-expect-from-a-$99-pair-of-corded-in-ears. In other words, at the moment, your money is going towards novelty.

So Why Are These Even a Thing, Then?

In short, potential. Right now, unobtrusive in-ears are novel, but not really practical. However, give it a few years, and you can expect to see True Wireless headphones that have smart ANC, hearing enhancement, language translation, hands-free voice and gesture commands, and more. As gaming systems adopt more and more VR, small headphones that don’t restrict movement and can sense motion will be key to an immersive experience. Eventually True Wireless will be less headphones and more computing wearables. Where Google Glass was headed in the visual realm, True Wireless will go in audio. Until then, for most audio fans, unless you have an insatiable need to get the latest thing… give it a product generation or two before taking out your wallet.