Giving up on Bluetooth True Wireless (TWS) Earbuds (for now)
Over the past few months, I’ve been looking for a new pair of true wireless (TWS) earbuds and have pretty much returned every pair I’ve tried. In this post, I will talk about why I started looking for new ones and also why I’m giving up on them for now.
My 1st TWS Earbuds: AirPods 1st Generation
My first pair of TWS earbuds were the 1st Gen AirPods, technically 2nd hand from my partner, given to me in late 2020/early 2021. She had gotten the Airpods Pro and stopped using the regular airpods. They had already been used for a couple years, but were still functional.
Around December 2021, I was getting tired of the poor battery life of my old 1st Gen Airpods, so I decided to sell them off on ebay, since they probably had some life left to them. Then my search for new TWS earbuds began. Before, I go through the onslaught that is my buy and return of many TWS earbuds, let’s take a step back and talk about the pros/cons of TWS earbuds.
Pros and Cons of TWS Earbuds
The biggest perk of TWS earbuds is convenience. Being able to open a case, pop out the earbuds, put them in your ears and they connect to your device is definitely a great QOL improvement. Not having to deal with wires not tangling and breaking also adds to that convenience. Most higher-end TWS earbuds even use Qi wireless charging so even charging them doesn’t require a cable. The whole package of convenience is a strong case for TWS earbuds. However, that convenience does have tradeoffs.
One of the obvious first tradeoffs is dealing with a battery. This means having to charge the earbuds, as well as the case. With this roughly 2-3 year old AirPods, their battery performance was already not great. On average, I would get about 2-3 hours of battery life per charge if I used the mic at all, while about 4 hours if I was just strictly listening. Another consequency of having a battery is that lithium-ion batteries degrade. This becomes particularly important with small electronics such as TWS earbuds. After just a few years, TWS earbuds can no longer can charge, and are incredibly difficult, if not impossible to repair, effectively making them consumable devices. Thankfully, there are companies like The Swap Club (formerly Podswap) who are trying to reduce AirPods out of the landfill by letting you swap your old ones for refurbished units. However, the same cannot be said for other TWS earbuds out in the market currently.
The second tradeoff is maximum theoretical sound quality. Most TWS earbuds use SBC or AAC codecs for transmitting audio. Both of these codecs are lossy, so there is some compression once the audio reaches your TWS earbuds. If you’re listening to a streaming service like Spotify or Apple Music, it’s probably hard to notice and likely good enough if you’re on the go and not critically listening to your music. However, the bigger issue is mic quality. Although audio output can handle something like a 320 kbps mp3, sending audio input doesn’t get the same luxury, resulting in terrible mic quality, even compared to wired Apple Earpods. Regardless of these issues with sound, the convenience makes it worth it for most folks.
The last trade off actually goes back bluetooth. Although bluetooth connectivity has dramatically improved over the years, there are still random issues. From the TWS earbuds I bought and returned, almost all the issues were bluetooth related. I will list the particular issues when I go through the gaunlet of returns I experienced with TWS earbuds.
TWS Earbuds “Wishlist”
Before I go through all the TWS earbuds I tried, let’s go through my. TWS earbud feature wishlist.
Let’s first start with the “must haves”
- Replaceable Eartips with a case that is friendly to third-party options, assuming they’re “in-ear” designed
- Under $200 USD
- Stable bluetooth connection to my iPhone and iMac
- Manually re-pairing is fine, as long as the re-pair process isn’t too cumbersome
- Qi wireless charging case (just extremely convenient)
I’d also like these features, but not dealbreakers:
- Replaceable ear wing tips to help secure the earbuds in your ears
- Active Noise Cancellation
- Transparency Mode
With that said, let’s go through this awful journey.
The Gauntlet of Looking for TWS Earbuds
Let’s go through all the TWS earbuds I tried since December 2021 that I ended up returning. All of them had a compromise that I wasn’t willing to put up with. I will try to be brief here:
Anker Soundcore Life P2 Mini ($30 on sale) - I started with Anker Soundcore since I had a great experience with their Soundcore Spirit X Bluetooth Earbuds. I actually still have these earphones, but their microUSB port and slow power on/off make them hard to daily drive. From strictly an audio and connection perspective, I had the best experience with these. These unfortunately had no wireless charging, but the bigger issue was they were very uncomfortable and fell out of the ears. These were the first to go back.
Apple Beats Fit Pro ($199 with Applecare) - Beats has historically gotten a bad rap for producing overpriced bass cannons, but I’d argue things have changed after Apple bought them. I probably did the most research on these TWS earbuds. They have near feature parity as the AirPods Pro: H1 chip, iCloud synced device pairing, active noise cancellation (ANC), transparency mode, spatial audio. However there a couple changes: USB-C instead of lighning for charging (good), no wireless charging (bad), terribly large, cheap feeling case (really bad). Despite all this, I almost kept these. The dealbreaker came back to the fit; the Beats Fit Pro use built-in wing tips to keep them secure in your ears, but these inevitably started hurting my hurts after just a couple hours, despite trying to use them for over a week.
Anker Soundcore Life P3 ($80) - Since I had a good experience with Soundcore Life P2 Mini, but comfort and features were missing, I decided to step up and try their new Life P3 series. The Life P3 series had many quality of life improvements: wireless charging, ANC, transparency mode and a lot of cool colors. When these came in, I was very excited. However one major deal breaker started occuring immediately: the audio kept skipping every few minutes while connecting to my iMac. This very much broke the experience. These had to go, as I didn’t want to play the quality control lottery to see if I got a pair that didn’t have this issue. This pair will give us foresight of what’s to come with Soundcore products.
Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 ($37 Refurbished) - I decided to gamble on these since they were so cheap. They had the main features I wanted: wireless charging case, replaceable eartips. However, these had the worst pairing experience by far. I constantly had to re-pair them to my Mac after I had disconnected them. These went back after a few days, despite trying to see if it would get “better”.
Anker Soundcore Liberty Pro 3 ($130 on sale) - I decided to splurge and buy Anker’s latest flagship TWS earbuds. They were reviewed all over YouTube and generally had good reviews. They had all the features listed above and were extremely comfortable to wear. They also sounded very good. On my iPhone, I had zero connection issues. These even had Bluetooth “multipoint” which allows you to connect to two devices simulatenously. However, on my Mac, I would randomly get audio cutting out every issues. It seems that this issue has been reported by other users. If Soundcore fixes this in firmware, I would consider picking these up again.
Apple Airpods 3rd Generation ($150 on sale) - After trying so many Anker Soundcore products, I decided maybe something was wrong with their bluetooth firmware on this generation of their products, and decided to look elsewhere. I remember with the 1st Gen Airpods, I never had any bluetooth issues, so I picked these up. Like the 1st gen, these have an “open” decide so there are no eartips that go into your ear, hence no ANC or transparency mode. However, I got lucky and these actually fit pretty decent in my ears. However, they were still pretty loose fitting. I used these for almost a month, but ran into a few annoyances:
- With Apple audio products, after syncing to your iphone, the devices show up as bluetooth on all your devices that are signed into iCloud. On paper, this is a great convenience sicne you don’t have to re-pair when you switch from one device to anotehr. However, if you are someone who switches between say a Macbook Pro and iMac during work, MacOS tries to “guess” which device you want audio on and will try to get you to connect your Airpods to the device. This leads to a notifciation asking if you want to connect EVERY TIME you switch devices. I could not find a way to disable this, and it was incredibly distracting.
- Another issue came back with bluetooth. When watching YouTube, sometimes one earbud would be quieter than the other. The only repeatable fix was to adjust the volume. I thought at this point that maybe something was wrong with bluetooth on my iMac, but I’ve had no issues with my bluetooth speaker and Soundcore Spirit X listed above.
For now, I’m stepping away from TWS earbuds. With the invention of Magsafe, it is now possible to listen to music through your lightning port via dongle and charge your phone again. This means I’m able to use wired earbuds such as the original Apple Earbuds, or my wonderful Shure SE215 IEMs. I do miss the convenience of TWS earbuds, but I think I’ll try to be patient for the right sale and hopefully for the technology to get more stable. For now, I’ll just enjoy my wired headphones.
Are you an TWS earbuds user? What experience have you had? I’m not completely opposed to them if there’s a sweetspot between features and price. You can let me know by contacting me!