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Tiny Tech Tips: The Best Wireless Earbuds

December marks the 5th birthday for AirPods, the first truly wireless earbuds that led us to where we are now — with headphone jacks having vanished from pretty much every smartphone in the land.

Despite all the memes flying around its original release, we see AirPods in ears everywhere, from straphangers to olympic athletes. Their introduction in 2016 coincided with Apple's decision to remove the antiquated, but much-used, headphone jack from its iPhone 7. Sure, I've saved countless frustrating minutes untangling wired earbuds since, but I still mourn the loss of the best-sounding and (yes) coolest-looking buds of them all - ones with a wired connection. Then again, when it comes to sound quality, most can't seem to tell the difference.

Having to carry around a $9 dongle (which I lose) to play music out of my phone (while not being able to charge it) has kept my iPhone 6s in service a lot longer than expected. But I digress. Headphone jacks on phones have vanished, even on Android, while wireless tech has matured, and there are plenty of options at every price point. Plus, wireless earbuds won't get tangled in your mask, or get in the way of your favorite winter hat.

Before we dig in, always choose the largest tips you're comfortable wearing to create the best seal in your ear. Sound quality will dramatically improve (especially bass), as will the passive and active noise-canceling features many wireless buds have. Also, do your future self a favor and always listen at moderate volumes. (Plus don't forget the earplugs at live shows, natch!)

Nothing ear (1) ($99)

Nothing ear (1)
Catie Dull / NPR
Nothing ear (1)

Not since the original AirPods has there been so much hype around a set of earbuds — Nothing ear (1)'s are selling like hotcakes. If you're lucky enough to snag a pair, you're rewarded with a slick design that's super lightweight. Of all the buds in this roundup, I'm able to wear these the longest without fatigue due to their size and weight. They have noise-canceling and ambient modes that are adequate, but sound dramatically better with noise canceling switched on. The app includes a toggle-on mode for "More Treble," "More Bass" and "Voice," but I stick to "Balanced." My favorite feature is being able to adjust the volume by sliding a finger up and down the stems. Most importantly: they sound good. Plus they're feature-packed (wireless charging too!) for a good price — especially if you tend to misplace things as often as I do.

Panasonic RZ-500W ($179)

Panasonic RZ-500W
Catie Dull / NPR
Panasonic RZ-500W

I would describe the sound of the Panasonic RZ-500W's as honest. Whenever I'm mixing with my flat-response monitors at home and then listen with these buds, things sound exactly as I intended. They also provide decent noise-canceling, blocking out most rumbles as long as you get a good seal. They're a little bulky, but thankfully lightweight. The downloadable app for your phone is also solid — which is rare at this price — allowing you complete control over how much ambient sound and noise canceling you prefer. There's also a five-band graphic equalizer for tweak heads, in addition to "Bass Enhancer" and "Clear Voice" toggles. No wireless charging here, but that's the least important criteria, IMHO.

Apple AirPods, 3rd generation ($179)

Apple AirPods (3rd generation)
Catie Dull / NPR
Apple AirPods (3rd generation)

At least one thing that Apple stuff does better than everyone else: work seamlessly with other Apple stuff. My favorite feature of the AirPods is the option for my iPhone's notifications to be read aloud. With this setting, my music or podcast fades down as Siri reads my messages or tells me who's calling. It's kinda magic. Gen 3 borrows its controls from the Pro version, incorporating a touch-sensitive area on each tip, alleviating the need to tap on the buds causing an annoying thump. This design doesn't use rubber tips and is more comfortable. The tradeoff? Active noise-canceling and ambient sound modes are non-existent, and their hard plastic design simply won't stay in all ears. [Editor's note: Mine, for example.] If you want to use them on an airplane, get the AirPod Pros (street price under $200) or the newer Beats Fit Pro ($199) instead. The Beats are made by Apple and include the H1 chip, which makes the magic happen. They feature noise-canceling, bigger bass and wing-tips for a more secure fit, but lack wireless charging.

Other than the missing noise canceling and ambient sound, the 3rd-gen AirPods are packed with new features. They include wireless charging via MagSafe, so they won't slide off Apple's charging pad sold separately ($39). Bass is improved with "adaptive EQ." If you drop them in your pocket they won't start playing, because they have skin detection. And they're finally water-resistant. The Pros, 3rd gen AirPods and Beats Fit Pro all support "spatial audio" and are a great choice for anyone residing in Apple's ecosystem. (Oh, and your iPhone will alert you if you've left any of these buds behind!)

Sony WF-1000XM4 ($279)

Sony WF-1000XM4
Catie Dull / NPR
Sony WF-1000XM4

In the case of Sony's newest flagship wireless earbuds, size does matter. This iteration is certainly smaller than the previous XM3's, but compared to everything else I've tried, they're still big. The tradeoff is that they sound incredible. Not flat or balanced, just incredible. Sony's app for your phone is the most customizable, giving you complete control over EQ, noise-canceling and ambient modes, which can sense your environment and make adjustments automatically. You can assign what each touch control on each bud does. "Speak-to-chat" will sense when you're talking and fade down your music and switch on ambient mode. They're water-resistant and have wireless charging. But their best features are the noise-canceling and "Clear Bass" enhancement.

If you're only interested in blocking out the world and hearing thumps in your music you never knew were there, these are the buds for you. The included eartips are memory foam and create the ultimate seal, so after about an hour your ears may need a rest. But they'll keep pumping out the jams for eight hours on a single charge, much longer than many wireless buds.

Bowers & Wilkins PI7 ($399)

Bowers & Wilkins PI7
Catie Dull / NPR
Bowers & Wilkins PI7

With metal touch controls and a comfortable form factor, no pair of buds exudes a sense of luxury quite like the Bowers & Wilkins PI7. The case is plastic and a bit big, but includes a feature you can't find anywhere else: it can be plugged into a standard headphone jack and transmit audio wirelessly to the buds! I love using this feature after my partner has gone to sleep to watch late-night TV. And on a recent flight, I used the inflight system to watch two movies before having to drop the buds into their charging case (which can be charged wirelessly). Their sound is crystal clear, with high-resolution audio (aptX) and adaptive noise cancellation, but bass heads should probably opt for the Sonys. They are expensive, but if you like the design, the lower-tier PI5s from Bowers & Wilkins sound and look just as nice and for $250, but don't include the audio-transmitting case.

So which buds should you buy?

The number of truly wireless earbud options is staggering. Bluetooth 5 has improved battery life and range and there are new technologies that take advantage of higher bit rates and spatial audio. Do your research, read the reviews and, eh-hem, listen at moderate volumes. I'll still bemoan my iPhone's missing headphone jack (and all those dongles), but the future is here, it's convenient and it's finally time to ditch the cords, once and for all.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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