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True wireless earbuds are everywhere, but I'm not convinced yet
It’s only taken a couple of years for true wireless earbuds to flood the market, as audio companies and smartphone brands alike all jumped on the wire-free bandwagon and ditched the cable running between earbuds.
But as unobtrusive as these gadgets are, I simply find myself unwilling to switch to them. Sure, the lack of wires makes for a truly snag-free experience, but they have major downsides too. And, for me, it all boils down to battery life and charging.
The search for a long-lasting wireless experience
I was pretty disappointed with the industry-wide decision to drop the 3.5mm port, as I didn’t want another gadget that needs to be charged. And while there are a few exceptions, the vast majority of True Wireless Stereo (TWS) earbuds need to be charged every few hours.
Take the Galaxy Buds Plus for example, which we praised for lasting almost 12 hours. That’s remarkable for the category, but it still means you’ll need to charge them at the end of a very long day. Things get worse when you look at conventional TWS offerings like the Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds (lasting roughly eight hours), Apple AirPods Pro (around five hours), and the Beats Fit Pro (up to seven hours).
Even some of the top true wireless earbuds generally fall short of other wireless audio products when it comes to charging and endurance.
Even if you’re okay with endurance measured in single-digit hours, you can expect battery degradation to have a bigger effect on TWS buds given the constant need to charge them. And that’s not a good thing at all when many of them are a pain to open up and repair — which is not exactly great for the environment either.
The charging situation on true wireless earbuds is another reason why I’m not keen on this form factor. Yes, the presence of a charging case means you can have 24 hours or more of combined playback based on multiple charges. But this isn’t 24 consecutive hours of playback, as you have to be without your buds for a few hours in between uses while you wait for them to top up.
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You might also point to features like quick charging, with some TWS earbuds offering an hour or two of playback after spending a few minutes in their case. However, it definitely feels like they’re delaying the need for a full charge here rather than providing a genuinely useful fast charging feature — at least if you’re like me and don’t want to be constantly waiting and charging things in the first place.
So what’s been my solution then?
In lieu of true wireless earbuds, I bought two audio products over a year ago that have addresed my need for long-lasting wireless audio, namely the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones and the OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z. Yes, yes, the newer WH-1000XM4 model has been out for a while now and if you’re paying full price I recommend grabbing those, but I got the older cans as part of a Black Friday special in 2020. They’ve been my go-to workday headphones ever since, as they last 24 hours but can go up to 30 if need be with noise cancellation disabled.
They do take a long time (roughly three hours) to fully charge, though, but I’m okay with it given the long endurance to begin with. That generally means I’m deciding when to charge them rather than the product forcing my hand. And I also get a more useful five hours of usage after ten minutes of charging, which is enough to last me through the second half of the workday or several lengthy Zoom meetings.
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In any event, I use these headphones every day for at least eight hours (plus a few more if I’m gaming or watching something on the PC) but only find myself charging them two or three times a week at most. And they also ship with a cable that lets me keep listening via my device’s 3.5mm port when their battery is flat.
Meanwhile, the OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z have also become my go-to pair of earphones when I’m doing chores, taking a walk outdoors, or doing grocery shopping. I thought neckbands and neckband-like designs were goofy when I first saw a former Sony employee wearing them at a local event in 2015, but they quickly grew on me after trying out LG’s first Tone products later that year.
The form factor also enables bigger batteries and means you’re less likely to lose them while wearing them compared to TWS earbuds. After all, if a neckband-style earbud falls out of your ear, it’ll just dangle — TWS buds don’t have this safety net.
I thought neckband-style earbuds were goofy when I first saw them, but they quickly grew on me.
Battery life and charging were my main reasons for getting these too. OnePlus says the Bullets Wireless Z should last for up to 20 hours, and that indeed seems to be in the ballpark of what I’m getting. The fast charging is impressive here too, dishing out 10 hours of usage after 10 minutes of charging — fast enough that it isn’t much of a problem if I’m heading out and forgot to plug them in beforehand. A full charge, on the other hand, takes roughly an hour. Not bad for a discounted price of $50 via Gearbest over a year ago.
Do you prefer true wireless earbuds or conventional wireless earphones?
That’s not to say that these two audio products are for everyone, though. It’s worth stressing that this is just what I bought according to my needs, and your needs are likely to vary wildly. Some of you might value audio quality, a totally wire-free existence, or extra software features instead. Others may have simply made peace with constant charging, or only use TWS earbuds for an hour or two here and there anyway.
But as someone who doesn’t want yet another gadget to charge in the wake of the 3.5mm port disappearing, I’ve been pretty happy with my purchases and don’t see myself transitioning exclusively to true wireless earbuds just yet.