Faceoff - 10 Wire-Free Bud Options That Block Noise So You Can Hear Music
Sound & Vision|June - July 2021
Noise-canceling true wireless earbuds
By Stewart Wolpin

What The World needs now is active noise-canceling (ANC) true wireless earbuds. ANC buds meet the needs of the moment by providing a way to boost audio quality during Zoom calls while simultaneously isolating us against intrusive environmental factors (remote-schooled kids, other work-from-home adults, etc.). And fortunately for us all, they are getting better-sounding, more feature-packed, and less expensive.

When considering which ANC buds will satisfy both your ears and lifestyle, you may need to reverse your usual headphones-buying qualifications. You’re a Sound & Vision reader, so sound quality is critical. But while you will discern differences in frequency response and soundstage dimensionality from one set of buds to the next, the more critical metrics for comparing true wireless ANC in-ear models are convenience and operational features. You’ll also find a wide disparity in noise-canceling performance from bud to bud. Once you narrow your choice to a model with the right feature set, and noise-canceling effectiveness—the latter of particular importance if you regularly travel on planes, trains, or buses—sound quality can serve as a final determination.

As the range of available ANC bud options expands, buyers should expect a minimum set of standard features and functions. When comparing models, consider the following:

  • An easily pocketable charging carry case (2.5 inches wide or 1.5 inches thick max).

  • At least five hours playtime on a single charge, plus a case that allows three recharges at minimum.

  • At least three pairs of different-sized silicone ear tip options.

  • A complementary app to customize the sound, noise-canceling, and operational functions.

  • Automatic playback-pause when you remove a bud from your ear.

  • Charging via a USB-C cable.

  • A selectable “ambient” mode to clearly hear external sounds such as announcements, or to conduct conversations without removing the buds from your ears.

  • On-bud control to access an Alexa or Google voice assistant.

  • Either IPX4 or IPX5 water protection (dust-plus-water protection would be expressed as two digits, e.g., IP56).

As you compare different models, you’ll see references to “adaptive” rather than “active” noise cancellation. This basically means that the otherwise active noise-canceling automatically adjusts—or can be adjusted with a control app—to accommodate environments with varying degrees of ambient noise. Also be aware that all earbuds that feature ANC use external mics to detect external noise, which can result in whooshing wind sound getting amplified.

We auditioned nearly 20 sets of buds in varying outdoor and indoor situations: walking around midtown Manhattan, riding the subway, pedaling a bicycle through a gusty 15 MPH wind, and sitting in a room with 75db of YouTube-sourced airplane cabin noise plus a TV blaring with chattering talking heads to simulate in-flight conditions. For each of these acoustic environments, we streamed a variety of classical, jazz, classic rock, modern pop, and hip hop tracks, from Beethoven (“Ode To Joy”) to Dave Brubeck (“Take Five”), The Beatles (Abbey Road 50th anniversary mix), Bruno Mars (with Mark Ronson on “Uptown Funk”), and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion (“WAP”), plus others from Apple Music on an iPhone 12 Pro Max. After auditioning nearly 20 different models of ANC buds, here are our top 10, in alphabetical order.

AUSOUNDS AU-STREAM HYBRID ANC($189.95) ausounds.com

RATINGS

Sticker shock is an apt description of what I felt after auditioning these AU-Stream buds. Nothing about their performance, features, or functionality matches up to other models in their general price range, though if they were half the price, I could recommend them as a perfect option for listeners with smaller ears.

With its emphasis on bass, the AU-Stream’s sound will appeal to younger ears hungering for deep sounding beats. Bass is appropriately pounding on modern music mixes, but less so on classic rock and older tunes. While the soundstage is tight, voices sound a bit subdued, so you’ll need to turn up the volume to hear a satisfying, full-throated vocal performance.

The effectiveness of Ausounds’ hybrid noise-canceling is middling. With no music playing, airplane cabin noise is reduced to what sounds like an air conditioner on low, and nearby voices become muted but still decipherable. As with most ANC buds, playing music drowns out most remaining ambient noise. With the Monitor ambient sound mode selected, the conversation is understandable but sounds muffled, as if it were coming through a thick face mask.

There is no companion app to modify the AU-Stream’s functions and features. Tap controls are limited to play/pause, answer/end calls, skip track, and enable voice assistant. You can also use them to cycle through the Off, On, and Monitor noise-canceling modes, though to do so you need to tap-and-hold a bud for three seconds twice in a row and pause the music so a voice-over can tell you which ANC mode is active—an overly complicated sequence. Removing a bud from your ear also does not auto-pause music playback, which I found to be an annoying oversight.

You get 5 hours of single-charge ANC assisted listening—an average amount—plus a below-average 9.5 hours of additional ANC playback with case recharges. For non-ANC listening, single-charge playback is a slightly above-average 8.6 hours plus an additional 15.4 hours with recharges, while a 15-minute quick charge yields an impressive 3 hours of playback time. The AU-Stream buds are also IPX5 water-protected and their case can be charged via a USB-C cable or wirelessly on a Qi pad.

AU-Stream’s biggest caveat is their smallishsilicone ear tips. The “large” tips are sized more like the medium tips included with most other buds, which makes these buds more appropriate for those with smaller ear canals. I usually require large tips and found it challenging to achieve a sound-isolating seal. The buds themselves are small, weighing a barely-there 0.23 ounces, and once properly seal-fitted remained comfortable for several hours of wear. Sounds tiny pebble-shaped case, meanwhile, measures a mere 2.5 x 1.5 x 1.25 inches and can be easily stashed in a pocket.

THE VERDICT

The Ausounds AU-Stream delivers deep bass and decent ergonomics, but it’s too expensive overall for what you get.

BOSE QUIETCOMFORT

($279) bose.com

The QuietComfort (QC) earbuds carry on Bose’s tradition of noise-canceling proficiency, pairing ANC with near-audiophile sound reproduction to create one the best-sounding bud options we’ve heard to date. But compared with the Jabra Elite 85t, our top choice in this test, the Bose buds come up short in several ways. The QCs aren’t as light or comfortable, and their fit isn’t as firm. They also offer few controls and no sound customization while priced $80 higher than the Jabra.

I’ve only heard a handful of other truly wireless buds that can match Bose’s sound quality. The music displays a full frequency range with loads of detail and wide dynamics, and the soundstage is spacious. For portable listening, the QC buds have few sonic peers among the wireless ANC bud bunch.

If Jabra’s noise cancellation in this test rates a 5, the Bose QC gets a 4.99: I heard a smidge more whisper in airplane cabin engine hum, but wind noise was dampened far more than by the Jabra. Once the music playback begins, all external sound disappears, and you can adjust the QC’s ANC level from 1 to 10 depending on your environmental situation. The QC also bettered the Jabra at ambient noise handling, with only a negligible difference between “live” sound and Bose’s ambient (no ANC) setting.

Bose’s limited on-bud controls and customization features include double-tapping the right bud to pause playback and sliding a finger up or down to raise or lower volume, respectively. A Shortcut mode lets you touch-and-hold the left bud to either skip forward a track or hear a voice-over announce the remaining battery level. Double-tapping the left earbud cycles through three “favorite” ANC levels, which you can set from 1-10. The practical shortcoming for this function is that you simply can’t tap to instantly turn ANC on or off to hear the ambient sound; instead, your best option for listening to announcements is to remove a bud to automatically pause music playback.

Bose says you’ll get 6 hours of listening on a single charge but doesn’t say if this is with ANC on, off, or somewhere in between. You get 12 additional hours of listening from case recharges—a low amount even for buds priced half of what Bose asks for the QC—although 15-minute recharge nets a hefty 2 hours of additional listening time, and total bud/case recharging takes just 2 hours.

The Bose QCs are IPX4 water-protected. Instead of having the usual round silicone tips, they have oval ones with attached ear wings to keep the buds in place. Obviously, comfort depends on your ear canal shape and size. I usually use large ear tips but had to step down to the Bose QC's middle #2 bud/wings to create a comfortable, noise-isolating fit. If you find even large ear tips to be too small, the Bose QC is your bud.

The otherwise lightweight 0.3-ounce QCs extrude from your ears a bit further than other buds and thus feel a bit off-balance. As a result, they were more prone to accidental dislodging than I expected. Overall, the Bose buds proved comfortable for hours-long listening sessions, but their fit just felt looser than with the other buds I tested.

Bose’s case for the QC is awkward. At 3.5 x 2 x 1.25 inches, it’s near twice the size of the Jabra Elite 85t case, so forget squeezing it comfortably into your pants pocket. It’s also equipped with an annoying latch that seems designed to keep it from accidentally opening (not a problem I know of with wireless bud cases) that I often found myself needing to pry open. Like the Jabra Elite 85t, Bose’s case can be wirelessly recharged.

THE VERDICT

The Bose QCs are among the best-sounding buds that we auditioned for this test and offer top-notch noise cancellation, but they’re also bulky and pricey.

EARFUN FREE PRO

($60) myearfun.com

Noise-canceling true wireless buds for $60? What’s the catch? In the Earfun Free Pro’s case, it’s not-great ANC, primarily. But with surprisingly decent sound quality, battery life, and comfort, these Earfuns prove you don’t need to spend hundreds of bucks to get a decent set of wireless buds.

I was quite frankly stunned by the robust sound the cheap Earfun Free Pros provided. You get bouncy if over-emphasized bass in an otherwise airy, open soundstage—a perfect combination for today’s pop chart-toppers.

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