From barely passable sound quality and unreliable connectivity to the earbuds of today, truly wireless stereo (TWS) earbuds have come a long way. They are everywhere: You can’t board a flight, take a morning walk or stroll into a mall without seeing someone sport a pair. Consumers are flooded with choice and while that means you can find a great pair of wireless earbuds to fit every budget, you do have to sift through the clutter to find the picks at each price point. Here’s a guide.
On a budget of around ₹2,000
These are likely your first pair of TWS buds, or maybe the phone you picked up recently has forsaken the 3.5mm headphone jack and you are forced to go wireless. It’s slim pickings in this category, with several attractively priced options that disappoint on audio quality, putting many prospective first-time buyers off the segment altogether. The OnePlus Nord Buds CE ( ₹1,899), for instance, offer a satisfactory though bass-leaning sound quality and IPX4 sweat-resistance but their one-size-fits-all design, reminiscent of the Apple AirPods, may not fit every ear. The in-ear Nord Buds, just ₹500 more, are worth considering. The Oppo Enco Air2 ( ₹1,999) and the Redmi Buds 3 Lite ( ₹1,999) are good options too, with their bass-heavy sound signature, spacious soundstage and emphasis on voice-calling capabilities, but our pick has to be the Realme Buds Air 3S ( ₹1,899). Not only do the Air 3S look unique in their segment, with the transparent-lid case and earbud fins to aid in-ear grip, but the bass-heavy audio is crowd-pleasing, and the passive noise isolation is among the best in the segment. The Air 3S edge ahead on the feature set they deliver—dual device connectivity, customised EQ tuning and a low latency gaming mode via the full-featured Realme Link app, and Dart fast charging.
If you are willing to spend a bit more, the options are substantially better. Our pick in the segment is the Oppo Enco Air2 Pro ( ₹3,499), with active noise cancellation (ANC) and transparency modes, IP54 dust- and water-resistance, in-ear detection for pause/play and equaliser presets via the rather well-designed HeyMelody app. The sound quality seals the deal, with 12.4mm dynamic drivers and balanced tuning that allows the vocals and highs to be heard without being overwhelmed by the tight bass. Then you have the OnePlus Buds Z2 ( ₹4,499), which offer good ANC (for the price) and pass-through audio, a punchy sound profile, good battery life with fast charging…and the best call quality in their class. Much like other first-party earbuds, you may want to use these with a recent OnePlus device to get the most out of the Buds Z2 (gaming mode and Dolby Atmos support). The Realme Buds Air 3 checked many of these boxes too, including ANC with transparency mode, fast charging, and the extensive EQ and feature customisation with the Realme Link app.
Now you are talking! The sub- ₹10,000 segment is abuzz and most buyers will be happy not just with their choice but their savings. Bass heads will love the JBL Tune 230 NC ( ₹5,999), with a clean bass response that doesn’t overwhelm the details in the vocals and the highs, and the fine-grained equaliser settings to tailor the music on what is arguably the best companion app. A lesser-known brand, Lypertek, has the Pureplay Z3 ( ₹6,999, previously known as the Tevi), which offer a sound signature many audiophiles would favour; it’s a shoo-in if you want balanced tuning. Where it lacks in active noise cancellation, it makes up for in support for the Qualcomm AptX format for high-resolution wireless audio. The Nothing Ear (1) ( ₹7,299) may have made the news for their see-through charging case and transparent earbud design but a year into their launch they are still a good pick for balanced sound and good ANC, alongside a decent feature set. The OnePlus Buds Pro ( ₹7,990) are easy to recommend, with a comfortable in-ear fit, good ANC capabilities and a sound that can best be described as unabashedly fun and energetic. Deal hunters can even scour for some great deals from a bunch of last-gen products, such as the Sony WF-1000XM3 ( ₹7,990) or the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro( ₹6,290). The Android/Google faithful could consider the Pixel Buds A-Series ( ₹5,990) for their Assistant integration but the absence of ANC at this price point is criminal. It’s yet again Oppo, with the Enco X2 ( ₹9,999), that walks away with the honours in this segment. Oppo took everything that worked with the original Enco X—good, if a little AirPod Pro- inspired, design, wireless charging, decent ANC and crisp, immersive sound—and amped it all up just a bit more in every manner. To give you a phone analogy, the Enco X2 are a “flagship killer”: Thanks in large part to their dual driver setup and advanced Bluetooth codec support (LHDC and LDAC), the Enco X2 can trade blows with the Sony WF-1000XM4 and the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3, both of which are far pricier.
You’ve got that new iPhone or Android flagship in the recent festive sales, so all that cash saved has to be spent somewhere, right? If your budget is willing, this price segment rewards you with the best TWS options. If you are on an iPhone, the newly launched Apple AirPods Pro second generation ( ₹26,900) might not look like a huge upgrade over the original AirPods Pro (available for less than ₹17,000) if you go solely by the design, software features or the curious lack of support for high-resolution wireless audio. But factor in the significantly improved noise cancellation, a cleaner, more dynamic output and the added speaker in the case (for locating when lost) and it may tempt commuters and travellers who frequent noisy, busy environments.
Switch over to an Android and you will be spoilt for choice. What AirPods Pros are to iPhones, Samsung’s new Buds2 Pro ( ₹17,999) are to Samsung phones—they simply work more seamlessly and can play back higher-resolution audio via the Samsung Seamless Codec (the regular SBC/AAC Bluetooth codecs are available to other Android owners). They are durable (IPX7 water-resistance), offer excellent noise cancellation and a comfortable fit and see a boost in sound quality, with bags of punchy bass and an airy, open sound packed with detail, courtesy the one-two punch of a 10mm woofer and a 5.3mm tweeter. The Google Pixel Buds Pro ( ₹14,990), good as they are on the ANC, sound quality, battery life and multi-point support, are let down by the support for advanced Bluetooth codecs that could have unlocked their true potential. Strictly recommended only for the ardent Pixel user who swears by all things Google. The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 ( ₹21,990) score high on sound quality and support for AptX and AptX Adaptive Bluetooth codecs, even as the third-generation earbuds catch up on some hygiene features like wireless charging. Yet, it’s the Sony WF-1000XM4 ( ₹16,990) that are likely the easiest to recommend to the largest cross-section of buyers, and a lot of that comes down to their support for the high-resolution LDAC Bluetooth codec widely available on Android devices. Paired with the companion Headphones Connect app for iOS/Android, the XM4s offer a kitchen sink of useful features, not to mention good battery life and a sound profile replete with a crowd-pleasing sense of musicality and a bass performance that will warm the hearts of all but the most hardened audio purists.
Some tips to keep in mind, no matter which TWS you’re considering:
1. Consider the battery capacity of various earbuds, both for the buds thmselves and the charging case – higher numbers will mean longer play time on one charge. Compare the claimed play times with the typical usage of your wired earphones, to judge whether you can go through a typical day without having to recharge your earphones. Remember, earbuds cannot be used while charging in their case.
2. Check for fast charging, so you can top off the buds and the case in a pinch
3. Confirm what noise cancelation the TWS buds support – some brands sell products with Environmental Noise Cancellation instead of ANC, which helps listen to and cancel out ambient noise levels during calls sit at your voice appears clearer to the listener.
4. You may have to try out the AirPod-style semi in-ear / half in-ear design earbuds in the store, as many ears, this authors’ included, don’t play well with this design particularly if one is doing anything even remotely fast-paced.
5. Many TWS earbuds sacrifice call quality for sound quality, but if you’re buying a pair of TWS earbuds for office calls, you’ll want to ensure you try these out. Rule of thumb: most stemmed earbuds typically have better voice calling as the stem allows the microphone to be closer to the mouth.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, tweets at @2shar.