Google released their latest foray into the true wireless stereo (TWS) recently, yet another option for those looking for high end earbuds. The new earbuds from Google offer Google’s AI built in along with active noise cancellation (ANC) and a transparency mode — Dan reviewed them in full recently and I encourage you to check that out..
For those in the market for a decent set of true wireless earbuds it can be difficult to choose which one to spend your hard earned on given the sheer number of options available. There are so many that offer and promise some form of ANC, a charging carry case, along with high quality sound. The question is though, can all the PR material be trusted? We decided to put our collection to the test and came away with some surprising results.
So which earbuds did we put to the test? The list is based on what we had available and what we could purchase in that short period of time. The list of TWS earbuds tested was:
- Google Pixel Buds Pro
- Sony LinkBuds S
- Bose QC Earbuds
- Astell&Kern UW100
- Apple Airpods Pro
- Oppo Enco X
- Skullcandy Grind
- Amazon Echo Buds
- JBL Live Pro 2
- Huawei FreeBuds Pro 2
Design and fit
The design and fit of earbuds are very subjective because everyone has a slightly different shaped ear canal and what one person likes, another may not. This shootout is based on my preference and my ear shaped. I’d like to say that I have an average ear shape given that most earbuds fit me relatively comfortably.
- Google Pixel Buds Pro – These are in-ear earbuds without any fin that hooks into any part of the ear. It twists into the ear and they feel solid in the ear — assuming you twist it the right way and have the correct size ear bud attached. I opted for the larger ear bud as the smaller one, although more comfortable, apparently did not provide a proper seal according to the Pixel Buds app. They weren’t the most comfortable earbuds though, that’s for sure.
- Sony LinkBuds S – These are similar to the Pixel Buds pro but just smaller. The size of the earbuds allows for a great seal while still being comfortable.
- Bose QC Earbuds – These have a small in-ear part but a massive outer canal section. There is also a fin that allows extra security of the earbud. They may be extraordinarily large, but they are super comfortable. Unlike the two above, the Bose QC Earbuds rely on the fin to hold them in place rather than wedging it into the ear canal.
- Amazon Echo Buds 2nd Gen – The Echo Buds are a hybrid of a wedge into the ear and a fin variant. The fin though it exceptionally small and does little anyway. These are relatively comfortable and don’t give any issues with long term use.
- OPPO Enco X – The OPPO Enco X are Airpod style, in that they have a stem outside the ear. The inner section has a bud along with a rubber ear bud that allows for a comfortable secure fit. These are extremely comfortable and although relatively secure, they don’t feel as secure as the buds that wedge into the ear.
- Skullcandy Grind – The Grind are a slightly larger (and cheaper) version of the LinkBuds S above. They are in-ear earbuds that wedge into the ear but also have a small section that sits outside of the ear. They don’t wedge into the ear as far as the Sony earbuds but they feel less secure because of this.
- Astell&Kern UW100 – The bulk of these audiophile earbuds sits outside of the ear with the in-ear section wedge in a bit, but not as far as the Pixel Buds Pro or the Sony LinkBuds S. These feel nowhere near as secure in the ear as those above, due to the fact they have a large outer ear section and don’t wedge very far into the ear canal. This is by design — they are not designed for activity/exercise.
- Apple Airpods Pro – The Pro version do fit better than the original/standard style but they basically just sit in the ear. They don’t feel super secure but in saying that they didn’t fall out with movement and exercise. In the end, very similar to the OPPO Enco X in the way they feel and fit. There definitely isn’t a great seal with the ear canal which you would think would affect the quality of sound.
- JBL Live Pro 2 – Another earbud that follows the Airpod style with an outer ear canal stem. The inner canal section is more like a non-stem version and thus these feel more secure than the other stem versions listed above. They don’t fall out with exercise and feel comfortable no matter how long you wear them. I was very impressed with the fit of these.
- Huawei FreeBuds Pro 2 – The FreeBuds Pro 2 are extremely similar to the JBL earbuds above, with a slightly shorter stalk but a slightly larger bud. It fits nicely in the ear but does not feel as secure as the JBL buds. They didn’t fall out with exercise and movement, so it is just the lack of a secure sensation that tricks the mind.
Winner: Sony LinkBuds S – The LinkBuds S have the best combination of comfort and security and they are extremely small and thus take the cake. Sony has done a great job with these — The Pixel Buds Pro are basically a larger version of the LinkBuds S but their wedging into the ear requires a bit more angulation and force. The Bose are more comfortable but WAY bigger and cumbersome, especially if mobile.
You might have the most comfortable earbuds but if they sound like garbage then that is where you may as well put them. I tested out all of the earbuds with a variety of music and got some surprising results.
One thing that was not surprising was that the Astell&Kern UW100. Astell & Kern are a company that market for audiophiles and when you listen to their earbuds you will see why. The quality of them is amazing. They are louder, a broader range of sounds, better bass with a greater overall quality of sound. Winner, and winner quite comfortably.
The Apple Airpods Pro that I tested came in second. Even without the help of an app because Apple still refuse to acknowledge the existence of Android and that more than half of the world’s smartphone users use Android they sounded great. It was surprising given the lack of a decent seal within the ear. Originally, I tested out my daughter’s standard Airpods (second gen) and they were junk, coming in last for sound quality (and fit) by a country mile — I had an old sub-$100 pair of cheap buds that sounded better than them.
To be thorough I went out and purchased a set of Airpods Pro because I refused to believe that that was the best Apple could do. They produced good bass and the clarity of sound was better than the Pixel Buds Pro. If they introduced an Android app with added functionality such as touch controls and an equaliser then I dare say their market share would increase even more (there are some aftermarket apps for Android but you shouldn’t need that).
Next in line is the Pixel Buds Pro from Google. Google has done a great job with the sound on their new Pixel Buds Pro. Possibly due to their size but their bass is better than the Sony LinkBuds S — only slightly but the overall sound is just a tiny bit better.
Surprisingly, next in line are the JBL Live Pro 2 earbuds. They cover a wide range of sound with decent bass while still producing crisp sound across the spectrum. Not surprisingly, JBL has been at this audio thing for quite a while now and have a specific sound that they aim for, and more often than not, produce. They seem to lack some of the bass of the Pixel Buds and possibly even the Sony LinkBuds S but their crispness puts them ahead of the Sony offering.
The Sony LinkBuds S sound great with decent bass and nice quality of sound, crisp and loud. These sound better than the next in line, the Bose QC Earbuds. The Bose offer a full sound with great bass but their sound is not as crisp as those listed above. My main bugbear with the Sony LinkBuds S is their single ear functionality. You must use the right earbud if you want to use just a single earbud — most modern earbuds let you use either earbud.
The Huawei FreeBuds Pro 2 sounded very similar to the LinkBuds S but the bass was a tad muffled but had nice crisp mids and highs. If Huawei cleaned up the bass a bit I have no doubt these would be much closer to the top of the list. Now in saying that the bass wasn’t bad but at this end of the market we are splitting hairs with the sound to try and rank the earbuds — they all sound good.
Amazon has done a great job with the sound on the Echo Buds. They offer surprisingly good sound with decent bass. the sound is crisp and definitely not a disappointment. Next are the Skullcandy Grind. These sound decent and are no means a bad quality sound — it’s just that those above sound amazing. The sound is close to the Bose but lass the bass of the Bose QC Earbuds. These are closely followed by the OPPO Enco X which sound good but it’s a tough segment of the market unfortunately.
Winner: Astell&Kern UW100, and in a canter. The Apple Airpods Pro also produced a high quality sound, and that was without any aid of an EQ app which was impressive. Honourable mention to JBL for a more affordable product that delivers a sound expected in more expensive earbuds and to the Google Pixel Buds Pro — for a company that hasn’t done audio for very long Google has done a great job.
ANC/noise isolation/transparency mode
All of the TWS earbuds tested have active noise cancellation (ANC) with the exception of the Astell & Kern buds.
In a surprising result the Amazon Echo Buds had the best ANC out of all the sets tested. They were followed very closely by Bose, then Sony and then Google with their entrants. The Bose QC earbuds offered great ANC, which is no surprise given the size of them.
Another surprise was how well the noise isolation (not ANC) in the Astell&Kern UW100 earbuds was. Their noise isolation seemed nearly as good as the ANC in the Pixel Buds Pro which is impressive.
A major part of noise cancellation and isolation is the transparency or pass-through modes. How each set of earbuds accomplishes this is different which is why the results were varied. The Echo Buds had a noise isolation mode which was fairly average, letting through very little of the surrounding environment.
Sony on the other hand was amazing. The Ambient Sound mode on the LinkBuds S amplified the surrounding noise to a level preset by you, allowing you to hear everything around you — louder than if the headphones were not in.
The Apple Airpods Pro also offered impressive ANC. With Android there is nothing but the feedback of a beep in the ear to tell you that the squeeze of the stalk had changed the mode — there is ANC, Transparency Mode and Off. To be thorough I tested it out on my daughter’s iPhone and it was impressive.
The Airpods Pro ANC worked really well — I actually thought my daughter was miming (I still don’t know what she said but I assume it wasn’t anything bad). Not only couldn’t I hear her but the radio in the background, which was quite loud, was absent. I would put the quality of the ANC maybe just above the Pixel Buds Pro (but it was a close run competition).
I’m going to stick the Huawei FreeBuds Pro 2 in between the Airpods Pro and Google Pixel buds in their ANC quality. It is possible that their ANC was slight inferior to that of the Pixel Buds Pro but the transparency mode and voice mode were better.
The Pixel Buds Pro were another set of earbuds that excelled with an isolation mode. The difference between the two was that the Pixel Buds Pro allowed more of the overall surrounding noise in but the Sony seemed to somehow magnify the voices more than anything else.
The Bose QC earbuds had an isolation mode as well but paled in comparison to that on the Sony, Apple and Google earbuds. The Astell&Kern UW100 earbuds had an “aware” mode which worked really well, better than that on the Echo Buds.
The JBL Live Pro2 earbuds offered decent noise cancelling, on par with the Pixel Buds Pro. They also offer a talk thru mode for voice focus which is a cool feature, and their “Ambient Aware” mode can be adjusted to just how much surrounding noise you want to allow in. Even with this adjustable Ambient Aware feature I still preferred the Pixel Buds Pro’s “Transparency” mode which just offered a clearer reproduction of the surrounding noise.
Winner: Sony LinkBuds S at this stage although it is a toss-up between them, the Apple Airpods Pro, the Huawei FreeBuds Pro 2 and the Google Pixel Buds Pro. They all offer great ANC but also great transparency modes. Special mention to JBL with good noise cancellation and an adjustable Ambient Aware mode, once again at a more affordable price.
The software accompanying each set of earbuds was fairly extensive for all of them, offering ways to customise the earbuds to your liking. The Sony Headphones app was the most extensive app offering so many options including the ability to set the earbuds to a certain profile based on your current geolocation.
The JBL, Sony and Google apps all offered the ability to set the earbuds up to suit your ear canals and performed tests to see if you had the right fit. They also offered customisation of the buds themselves and the features such as an ambient mode and tap functions. Bose, Astell & Kern and Skullcandy all had decent apps too which need a mention
Apple get a big negative mention here because they continue to refuse to produce an Android app for their Airpods. It’s sticking your head in the sand ostrich-style and cutting off your nose to spite your face. Come on Apple, can’t we all get along? If you are an iPhone user though then Apple sit at the top of your list.
Not only are the settings for the Airpods Pro already built into iOS but so are the equaliser settings. This makes the Airpods Pro ready to go as soon as they are paired — which is similar to Android’s Fast Pairing. There is no messing around with installing various apps etc to get the settings you require. As much as I’d love Google to do this with Android and the Pixel Buds Pro the history of system apps receiving updates is one that I shudder remembering.
There is nothing stopping Google putting the settings directly into their Pixel smartphones’ operating system but that could cause fragmentation. While Apple may do a terrible job with software for more than half of the world’s smartphone population (and more than half of Australia’s), for the rest they have a perfect solution.
Android Winner: Sony LinkBuds S. A great app with great functionality and features which go beyond the others with an automated profile switching based on where you are at that time (and what settings you prefer for that location).
iOS Winner: Apple Airpods Pro. It is no surprise that Apple make sure their devices work the best on their smartphones. That has been their whole business model all along — that walled garden. For users inside that walled garden though it works consistently and works as intended — perfectly in this case.
There’s not much to cover here as they all offer a charging case with some form of quick charge included. All offer around the same battery life in the earbuds and the case. The biggest difference is the size of them. Apple’s is one of the thinnest cases but is longer than the Sony case.
The largest is the Bose QC Earbuds case which is no surprise given the size of buds. Even though it is the biggest case they should fit into your pockets (depending on the tightness of your skinny jeans).
The Pixel Buds Pro case is a small round/oval pebble that allows it to sit comfortably in your pocket without digging into any part of you.
I’m not sure how you can pick a winner here with so many of these offering small cases with similar recharge capabilities along with various fast charging scenarios. Some of these earbud cases offer wireless Qi charging and while handy I use it rarely due to the slowness of it. IT could be handy for reverse wireless charging if you are out and about and your earbud case runs out of power but that’s about it.
Winner: Us, the customers. We get smaller and smaller cases with the same capacity and improved features such as wireless charging.
The winner of a shootout is often subjective to what you want from that product or device. Nothing is different here.
If you only care for the best quality sound/music then the Astell&Kern UW100 earbuds are for you. They offer amazing sound, decent noise isolation and software but you may have trouble finding them now. In the past week or two they have had to mark the product out of stock, possibly discontinued, due to supply chain issues thanks to the continually ravaging COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully Astell&Kern get these sorted out soon as the AK UW100 earbuds are an amazing set of earbuds.
If you can’t get hold of the AK UW100 earbuds then the next best in my opinion depends on your device. If you have an iPhone then get the Airpods Pro. They offer amazing sound, good ANC and great software although at $399 their price equals that of the audiophile-quality Astell&Kern earbuds.
If you are an Android user then it will be a toss-up between the Sony LinkBuds S , the Google Pixel Buds Pro and the Huawei FreeBuds Pro 2 with the Pixel Buds Pro offering better sound quality but the LinkBuds S offering better ANC and software (although the Pixel Buds Pro software is still good). The Hauwei FreeBuds Pro 2 sat in between them.
In the end, at this price range, the sound and ANC quality is extremely similar and it may be the fit that will tip you one way or the other. You may want to try and test them out somehow first though as the Pixel Buds Pro may not fit all that well into some ears with their different design — they do not feel as comfortable in my ears, that’s for sure. The $50 you save when purchasing the Sony earbuds compared to the Google earbuds may tip you over the edge towards the Sony LinkBuds S.
Those on a tighter budget who want great sound with decent offering in all the other categories, look no further than the JBL Live Pro 2. These offer a surprisingly great quality sound — JBL’s signature sound apparently — along with great ANC and software. They don’t quite offer the polish of the more expensive offerings in this shootout but that value for money cannot be overstated — they aren’t that far behind them.