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When Apple debuted its AirPods, we weren’t convinced of the value for travelers. Earbuds with average sound quality that needed charging every few hours and could be easily lost? No thanks. Were true wireless earbuds actually something the travel world needed?
Skip forward three years, and it looks like they’re here to stay. It’s impossible to walk through an airport these days without seeing those odd-looking white accessories dangling from someone’s ears, and the Airpods’ runaway success has spawned many imitators.
Samsung, Sony, and other major headphone manufacturers have got into the game, and brought several high-quality models to market in 2019. While the AirPods remain a decent option, they’re no longer the only or best choice for most people.
If you’re looking for wireless earbuds, these are the best models on the market for travelers right now.
Best Overall: Sony WF-1000XM3
For the last couple of years, Sony’s over-ear noise-canceling headphones have been the best on the market. The company’s first attempt to do the same for wireless earbuds was a bit of a flop, but the latest WF-1000XM3’s hit all the right notes.
With exceptional battery life, the best noise cancellation in its class, and impressive sound quality, they’re our top wireless earbuds pick for travelers.
The understated design of both earbuds and charging case are stylish in a way that most wireless earbuds aren’t. They’re available in black or silver, and both are an attractive option.
While you can never guarantee a perfect fit for every size and shape of ear canal, Sony has tried harder than most. Seven different tips come in the box, four different sizes of the typical silicone version, and three thicker “comfort” tips.
Battery life is extremely good, in both the brochure and the real world. You’ll get around six hours per charge with noise cancellation turned on, and a couple of extra hours if you turn it off.
The case holds three extra charges, giving a total 24+ hours of listening time before you need to find a power socket. It takes around 1.5 hours for the earbuds to go from empty to full, with a ten-minute quick charge giving 90 minutes of listening time. Once you do find that socket and plug in a USB-C cable, it’ll take 3.5 hours to get the case back to 100%.
Noise-cancellation has long been hit or (mostly) miss on wireless earbuds, because of the small size and limited battery life. While the WF-1000XM3’s still won’t block out as much low-end sound as the equivalent over-ear models, they’re noticeably better than the competition.
Will they entirely eliminate the engine drone on an overnight flight? Probably not, but they do an impressive job of blocking outside noise in almost all situations, and will still make a big difference to your enjoyment of long plane and bus rides.
Sound quality, too, is remarkably high for a set of wireless earbuds. Bass is strong and distinct, while mid notes are crisp and clear for both music and podcasts. Whatever you’re listening to is likely to sound surprisingly good with these earbuds.
Other useful features from the over-ear model make their way into these earbuds. There’s adjustable levels of Ambient Sound (which lets in some outside noise when you want to hear it,) for instance, along with a “Quick Attention” mode that lets you hold your hand over the left-hand earbud to let in outside sound like boarding calls.
Take either earbud out, and playback pauses automatically. Stick it back in, and your music, podcast, or audiobook resumes where it left off.
Pairing is seamless via either NFC or Bluetooth, and connections remain reliable even at some distance. Each earbud maintains its own Bluetooth connection to the source device, making for better audio syncing when watching a video.
Do the WF-1000XM3’s get everything right? Not quite. While the touch-sensitive controls on the side generally do a good job, the lack of volume control is an annoying omission. There’s no official water/sweat resistance either, so don’t plan to wear them in the rain or hit the hotel gym too hard.
Phone calls aren’t the strong suit of these earbuds, with the microphones often sounding muffled and picking up too much background noise. They do a better job in quiet environments, but if you know you’ll be making a lot of calls, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
For many people, however, those downsides will pale into insignificance compared to everything Sony’s WF-1000XM3’s do well. Well-priced for the quality and features, if you’re looking for a set of wireless earbuds to travel with, these deserve to be right at the top of your shortlist.
Best for Making Calls: AirPods
The originals, the trailblazers, the ones that started the craze. Despite increasing competition, Apple’s Airpods are still extremely popular. It feels like you can’t walk a block in most cities without seeing someone wearing a pair.
Now in their second generation, there are good reasons for the Airports to be as ubiquitous as they are. They succeed with the technical aspects where many others fail, from battery life to connectivity and call quality, and most of their wearers love them as a result.
Connectivity is very reliable. The Airpods immediately connect to other Apple devices, and stay connected from up to 100 feet (30 meters) away. Non-Apple devices won’t get the fast pairing, but they’ll still get strong, reliable connections.
You can also use Apple’s “Find my iPhone” feature to track down a missing earbud if it’s nearby and out of its case, or to at least see where it was last used.
One of the improvements in the latest model is swapping between devices, which now happens twice as fast as before. If you’re someone who regularly streams music from your laptop while you’re working, and your phone while on the move, you’ll appreciate the upgrade.
Battery life is right up there with the best. You’ll get five hours of play time from the earbuds, and up to 19 more from the charging case. An upgraded case with Qi wireless charging is also available — most people don’t travel with a wireless charging mat, but we’ve regularly seen them in hotels and cafes around the world.
Sound quality is similar to the basic Apple earbuds, which is to say, nothing special. Ambient noise is a problem in noisy environments, since there’s minimal noise isolation.
If you regularly make calls, however, you and your caller will be impressed with the clear, lag-free conversations. When it comes to call quality, the Airpods are consistently better than any other true wireless earbuds out there.
Even though they work with both Android and iOS devices, they’re noticeably better with Apple gear. Android users will miss out on some features, such as pausing and restarting when buds are inserted and removed, listening via a single earbud, and virtual assistant support.
Setup and pairing are also slower on Android — it’s the standard Bluetooth approach — and transition from device to device may be slower.
In terms of design, the fit can be awkward and feel uncomfortable for some users (me, for example, although I’ve had this problem with Apple earbuds from day one). Let’s also not forget the elephant in the room: they’re not the most stylish of accessories, with long stems dangling out of each ear canal.
The look is an unusual miss for design-crazy Apple, a company that has always bridged the gap between fashion and tech. Not in this case, unfortunately. If you can get over the look and so-so sound quality, however, there’s still an awful lot to like about the Airpods.
Best for Comfort: Samsung Galaxy Buds
As far as rivals to AirPods go, you can’t get much closer than Samsung’s Galaxy Buds. Like the Airpods, they’re now on their second version, and are an excellent choice even when pairing them with an iPhone or iPad.
The standout feature for the Buds is their subtlety: they’re hard to notice, both for the wearer and anyone else. Much smaller than the AirPods, they don’t have that long, dangling stalk, rendering them virtually invisible to onlookers.
The buds ship with small, medium, and large tips to fit different ear canals, along with three sizes of optional plastic “wings” to keep them secured in your earlobe. The end result is a firm, comfortable fit for almost anyone, even on long bus or plane rides when you may wear them for several hours.
Advertised at up to six hours, battery life is typically closer to four or five in the real world, which is about as good as it gets with true wireless earbuds. The charging case only adds another 6-7 hours, though, which is disappointing compared to the Airpods.
On the upside, if you have the latest Samsung Galaxy phone or a compatible wireless charging mat, you can wirelessly juice up the charging case with it. If not, the case also has a standard USB-C charging port.
Audio performance is good, with well-defined highs and lows. Like any wireless earbuds, they aren’t audiophile-quality, but they don’t disappoint. There’s also an adjustable “ambient sound” option, letting in outside noise to keep you safe and avoid missing that final boarding call.
There’s only basic water resistance, which seems like an oversight. The buds will likely handle a bit of sweat or a rain shower, but if you drop one in the toilet, you’ll be heading to the store for a replacement.
The Galaxy Buds have dual microphones. This should allow them to cut out background noise when you’re making phone calls in noisy environments, but it’s not as effective as competitors in doing so. You may want to save your calls for a quieter space.
Being so small, the buds are easy to misplace, so Samsung has included a “find my buds” option in the companion app. It won’t tell you where the buds are, but they’ll start making a loud chirping noise that helps you track them down as long as they’re within earshot.
Best on a Budget: ENACFIRE Future Wireless Headphones
Not entirely sold on wireless earbuds, or just unwilling to drop the big bucks on a pair? Give ENACFIRE’s Future Wireless earbuds a try.
This low-cost model is great value, letting you try out the “truly wireless” world for under fifty dollars. With decent sound quality and noise isolation, water resistance, and more, you’ll be very hard-pressed to find better wireless earbuds for the money.
While their 3.5 hour battery life isn’t amazing, you’ll get up to 14 extra hours from the charging case. That’s nearly 18 hours of listening, or in other words, an entire New York-Singapore flight.
Alternatively, if you’d rather sleep, these earbuds also have decent sound isolation, with three different-sized rubber tips to help ensure a good fit. Once at your destination, water and sweat-resistance lets you safely use them during a run or at the gym.
On the downside, the volume of the Future Wireless earbuds is relatively low, even at the highest setting. These aren’t ideal for very noisy environments. As with many Bluetooth earbuds, the connection also isn’t as reliable as more expensive models, with dropouts not uncommon while on the move.
Even so, these earbuds offer a lot for the money, and are our budget wireless earbud pick as a result.
Best on a Budget, Runner Up: Anker Soundcore Liberty Neo
If you’re on a budget but prefer the security of a well-known brand, check out Anker’s Soundcore Liberty Neo wireless earbuds. We’re big fans of this company’s battery and charging gear, and it’s recently starting turning out some great-value speakers and headphones as well.
IPX5-rated, the water-resistant and sweatproof Neo earbuds will keep working even when you get caught in the rain or after long, hot walks in the tropics. Unusually for inexpensive wireless earbuds, music sounds crisp and clear, with solid bass performance.
Comfortable even for long periods, the four different sizes of rubber tips and “earwings” help ensure a firm fit for a wide range of wearers. Both the earbuds and case are somewhat larger than the more expensive alternatives, however, so don’t expect much subtlety from either.
Battery life isn’t amazing, with just 3.5 hours from the earbuds, and up to nine extra hours from the case. That’s about what we’ve come to expect from budget wireless earbuds, but it’d be nice to see a little more. It’s possible to use one earbud while the other charges, at least.
Connection quality is generally very good, with few dropouts. Unlike some wireless earbuds, you’ll also get stereo sound during phone conversations. Some users report problems with delays during voice calls, however, so bear that in mind if you make a lot of them.
Oddly, there’s no way of controlling the volume from the earbuds themselves, with any changes needing to be made through the device. Other features like pause/restart and answering calls are available, however.
Best for Bumpy Rides: Beats Powerbeats Pro
If you’re anything like me, there’s one big gripe you’ll have with most wireless earbuds: they just won’t stay in your ears (especially my left one, for some reason). If that’s you as well, you’ll want to check out the latest true wireless earbuds from Beats: the Powerbeats Pro.
These buds will, quite simply, stay put. No matter how high you jump, how fast you run, or how excruciatingly bumpy your next long-distance bus ride is, they’ll stay firmly lodged in place thanks to the adjustable over-ear hook and choice of four sizes of tip.
Built to handle light abuse, they’re IPX4-rated, and can easily deal with a little rain or sweat. It would have been nice if they could survive full immersion, though, given the challenges travel can throw at electronics.
The earbuds remain comfortable to wear for long periods, even if they’re fairly large and not very subtle. The charging case, too, is huge by current standards. On the upside, all that extra bulk means you get great battery life.
It’s not unusual to get close to nine hours out of a single charge, and the case pushes that up to over a full day. A quick-charge feature gives the Powerbeats Pro 90 minutes of extra listening from five minutes back in the case.
A full set of volume and playback controls can be found on both earbuds, letting you use one or the other if you don’t want to wear both. Like the Airpods and Sony’s WF-1000XM3, removing the bud from your ear pauses playback, and putting it back in restarts where you left off.
Pairing is fast and easy, especially if you have an Apple device, and the connection remains strong and reliable until you get a long way from the output device. Stuttering and audio lag, two common concerns with true wireless earbuds, aren’t a problem here.
Beats headphones have long had a reputation for big, bass-heavy sound, but that’s not the case with the Powerbeats Pro. If anything, the treble can overwhelm the mix at times, and you’re going to have to really mess with the EQ settings if you want a thumping low end.
Coupled with only average levels of noise isolation (and no active noise cancellation), these aren’t the best-sounding wireless earbuds by quite some margin. That’s a bit disappointing for the price, but not entirely surprising given they’re marketed at active users rather than audiophiles.
In a world that’s moving to USB-C, Apple (owner of the Beats brand) has insisted on putting a Lightning socket on the charging case. That’s great if you’re carrying around an iPhone or iPad, but not if you’ve got the latest Macbook, iPad Pro, or pretty much any non-Apple device you can think of.
Still, if you’re looking for earbuds that can handle tough travel days and have enough battery life to get you through the longest bus rides, the Beats Powerbeats Pros are definitely worth a look.
Title image via Kārlis Dambrāns