Sound quality usually takes a back seat when talking about the “Best True Wireless Earbuds.” I want the best sound I could get – everywhere I go. And I’m the breed of audiophile who will bring his Chord Electronics Hugo 2, custom IEMs, Audioquest Jitterbug, and Danacable USB cable with me as a “portable” headphone setup. That’s over $4,000 worth of gear just for the sake of higher fidelity on-the-go.
However, sometimes setting up all this gear while traveling becomes a bit of a hassle. From waiting with your luggage at the terminal, sitting in tiny seats on an airplane, Uber rides, and quick hotel stays. All the bulk and cables start to take away from an enjoyable listening experience. So, I had to put my snobbery aside and started to look for a practical solution.
True Wireless + Sound Quality
I figured the only logical step was to buy a bunch of truly wireless earphones and find out which one sounds the best. Luckily, I don’t exercise, I don’t talk to humans on the phone, or listen to in-ear monitors for long periods of time (It’s not good for you). So IPX ratings, call quality, and battery life isn’t as huge a deal for me. I also don’t care about range, noise cancellation, isolation, or how much these buds stick out. Hell, I don’t care if they’re hot neon pink – sound quality rules everything around me.
So, this post isn’t for those who are willing to settle for “good enough.” This is for the HiFi enthusiast who wants convenience without sacrificing too much fidelity.
What does sound quality mean?
Sound quality may mean different things to different people. We have bass-heads, neutrality dorks, treble chasers, and tone freaks. It depends on what someone has actually heard, what they’re listening for, and what keeps them engaged. So a generic “sound quality” rating doesn’t make much sense. Simply put, it depends on one’s reference point.
If you rarely attend unamplified concerts or listen to live music or instruments – then your point of reference is whatever you hear in your home stereo, your car, or through your laptop. You may not get an idea of how your favorite performers really sound – BUT it’s a sound you’ve grown accustomed to. So although it doesn’t sound “real,” it’s just a sound you may have an affinity for. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Music acts as an index into our memories and emotions over the course of our lives. And there are plenty of social, biological, cultural, financial, and personal reasons for what sound quality means.
How do you know what the artist or sound engineer intended?
Unless you ask them directly, you don’t. But generally, most of them will mix for the masses on a pair of terrible sounding Yamaha NS10s and other range-specific speakers. Different microphones sound different and their placement is critical depending on what they’re trying to achieve. There are just too many variables. That said, I’m not sure why an engineer or artist would want their music to sound colorless…(shrug)
This is why when evaluating gear, you need to listen to an assortment of music from the various recording studios. For example, a good place to start is the Billboard Top 100. If Ed Sheeran and Billie Eilish start to sound the same – you know something’s up. You’ll discover a “common ground” where a piece of gear “sounds right” across most artists and genres of music. This is not something you could determine from a frequency response graph or by buying the most expensive gear.
How about measurements? Show me dem curves!
An impressive frequency response chart doesn’t equate to better sound quality. The only way know is to listen. It doesn’t matter if you’re an avid concert-goer, musician, sound engineer, or dancer. A person’s opinion is only as valuable as their experiences. When they say: “The sound is clear, tight, and punchy” what is that relative to?
In fact, the best measurement device would be one where electrodes are hooked up to your brain while you evaluate gear. 🙂 So, unless you know of a way to measure the following, trust your ears. They’re more complex than any manmade measurement device.
- Transparency / Resolution
- Articulation / Control
- Timbre / Essence / Tonal Variance
- Separation / Delineation
Why can’t I just equalize the sound to perfection?
If you’re lucky, you might be able to. But not all music players are the same – or have parametric equalizers. Not to mention, you’re at the mercy of the physical limitations of hardware, design, and headroom tolerances. Large boosts and cuts will typically clip or distort the sound – and do more harm than good. There are some room and headphone correction software that allow you to equalize to a curve of your choosing, and those might be good enough. You could even use Roon with REW.
The bottom line is, your results will depend on what you’re trying to achieve and the design of the product you’re working with. Surely, you’ll be able to adjust to taste and work within the thresholds – but there will be hard limitations with every piece of gear.
So, what makes me an expert?
I don’t believe you could ever stop learning. However, unlike many of these gadget reviewers, I listen to audio gear for a living. To the point where I’ve been burned out and jaded – and as such, I’m able to isolate my biases very well. 🙂 I spend most of my income, time, and energy training my ears. My taste in music is also very broad. I listen to all types of music (with the exception of large ensemble classical). This includes jazz, rap, rock, metal, electronic, acoustic, folk, and opera. I love Coltrane, 2Pac, Metallica, Kristin Chenoweth, and Joshua Bell. The list goes on.
Over the years, I feel I’ve gotten a good grip on what sounds natural and how that relates to the compromises in audio systems. Although listening to music has been an integral part of my life, I’ve spent the past five years full-time to discovering the best in HiFi. Saying I’ve accumulated 10,000 hours of critical listening in the past few years – is probably an understatement. I’ve heard over a thousand HiFi systems from sub-$100 to well past $1 million. And I’ve realized there’s no such thing as a perfect system. In fact, I would say over 90% of them don’t sound natural and probably aren’t aligned with the intent of the artists – but impressive in their own ways. Tradeoffs are just made for different aural palates.
How to obtain a good audiophile reference point
For me, good sound quality is natural, dynamic, and textural. Those are the key qualities I find that brings the most emotion felt from a recording. And the only way to know what sounds “right” is to listen to real people, performing on real instruments, preferably in an unamplified space. This could be anything from a musical or concert to a small cafe or dive bar. Even if live performances were amplified, you still get insightful information on the characteristics of a vocalist’s singing style, a drummer’s energy, and the motion of a saxophonist. I call this “essence” and it’s what I look for when I evaluate any piece of gear. The beauty is, even if those elements are mucked within the recording studio – more often than not, the essence is always there.
Aside from being a melophile, I think it’s still important to listen to your surroundings. Pay attention to the sound of nature, traffic, fireworks, group conversations, barking, and even your espresso grinder. Most of us do “background listening” rather than making the conscious effort of listening intently. So when you hear a river stream, wood chopping, or birds chirping in a recording, it’s easier to determine which piece of gear sounds more realistic. The Game’s My Life is a good example of dogs barking, glass breaking, and gunshots. 🙂 OR, stuff by Yosi Horikawa.
What makes something sound natural?
To me, a natural sound breaks down into accuracy in four regions. Unfortunately, most HiFi gear you’ll encounter will get at most three of these right. None of us want tradeoffs, but we have to deal with reality.
- Tonal Color: If it doesn’t sound like blood is flowing through the voices and the instruments are made of the right material, I’ll always be taken out of the illusion.
- Resolution: Some believe more is better but in an actual performance, there’s just “enough” detail to convince you they’re performing in front of you. Too much or too little and it’s hard to be convincing.
- Density: There has to be a gravity and gravy to the sound. It has to carry weight and body in order to be engaging. Real people and instruments have a material presence – and it should sound that way.
- Coherence: If there are any rough gaps or peaks on the soundstage, it’ll also sound artificial.
How did you choose these true wireless earphones?
Almost all of these earphones were based on recommendations by friends and readers of the site. They were aimed to be the “best of the best” true wireless earbuds today – filtering out all the crappy stuff. I started with over 50 truly wireless earbuds, most being under $70. Needless to say, I threw almost all of them out. Truth is, it’s tough to find good sounding TWS earphones under this price point. Most of these companies are spending money on noise-canceling, packaging, fake Amazon reviews, and water resistance. The sweet spot seems to be around the $125 mark.
I’ve taken many of them on trips and have spent a least a few weeks with each one. As you probably know, I don’t have time to read reviews, watch videos, or post on forums. I prefer to just form my own opinions based on my extensive listening experience. Also, most of these guys focus on other gadgets – and are also more “casual” listeners. Achieving higher fidelity just isn’t their top priority. So hopefully, this will be a fresh and “innocent” perspective
Wireless Earphone Caveats
- Height information: You’ll be losing fidelity just because you’re using Bluetooth – which has a lower bandwidth than a wire. Also, you’ll lose most of the height information with IEMs (in-ear monitors) because you’re not using your entire ear to listen.
- Crossfeed: When music is mastered, it usually performed with a pair of monitors. Both of your ears would hear a little bit of both of these speakers. With headphones, you’re usually hearing the channels discretely. None of these earphones had any kind of crossfeed option. This results in poorer imaging and depth than you would get with speakers.
- Premium price: Premium price doesn’t mean premium sound. As you’ll see, $200 earbuds may sound worse than your $50 ones.
- Ear tips: Your ear tips and fit make an enormous difference in what you hear with IEMs. So try different tip materials and insert depths until you could improve channel balance and maximize the performance. Bigger tips usually mean more bass and softness while smaller tips are thinner and higher-pitched.
- Optimal volume: Without getting technical, some headphones sound better at certain volume levels. Before you judge, adjust the volume.
- Equalization: Almost all of these truly wireless headphones require equalization to sound their best. I’ll go over the settings I used to squeeze out the most performance. Most of these companies have their own apps that allow you to customize the sound. Most of the presets are crap but there are a few exceptions.
- Codec: Whether the earphone uses AAC, SBC, or aptX HD – there’s usually no correlation to overall performance. It really depends on how they design and tuned the earphones. Having the right ears on the team will go a long way for these companies.
- Side Notes: I’ll have a “side notes” section that will go over non-sound quality-related stuff that may be important.
- Firmware: Some firmware updates of these earphones seem to change the sound so I’ve listed the appropriate versions. I’m using the latest versions for app and firmware at the time of this post.
- Your networking gear: Whether you like it or not, your modem, router, switches, and even Ethernet cables will change the sound of your streamed music. The cheapest way to hear this is to buy a cheap UPS and hook up your modem/router to it. I have two of these. Yes, this also impacts music streamed over WiFi (I know, I know).
Onto the impressions…
This comparison took months to write. Like any rational audiophile, I’ll be using my $80,000 sound system as a reference. Listening was done primarily through Roon, Tidal, and Spotify on a Pixel 3.
This is not a sponsored post and serves as a journal for my own curiosity. I plan to do a wireless over-ear version of this list next. If you want to support posts like these, the affiliate links give me a tiny kickback at no cost to you – or just some caffeine injection will do.