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Wireless headphones vs true wireless earbuds: which design is best for you?

Image credit: Shutterstock (Image credit: Shutterstock)

There’s no doubt about it: wireless headphones are here to stay. Cutting the cord between your cans and your device, they rely on Bluetooth to transmit your music into your ears.

Just a few years ago, we might have persuaded you to opt for a pair of wired cans instead, as dodgy Bluetooth connections and poor sound quality plagued cordless options.

That’s all changed now – thanks to advances in Bluetooth technology like aptX HD, the best wireless headphones have never sounded better.

These advances have also paved the way for true wireless earbuds to dominate the audio market. You just have to look at the popularity of the Apple AirPods (2019), Beats Powerbeats Pro, and Samsung Galaxy Buds, to understand how successful the true wireless market has become in recent years. 

While regular wireless allows us to wear headphones a few feet from our music players, true wireless goes one step further by cutting the cord between the earbuds themselves.

But which kind of wireless audio tech is best for you? We take a look at some of the most important considerations when it comes to buying a new pair of headphones, including price, design, features, and sound quality, and give our verdict on whether you should opt for wireless headphones or true wireless earbuds.

Apple AirPods true wireless earbuds

The Apple AirPods are incredibly popular true wireless earbuds (Image credit: TechRadar)

Wireless vs true wireless headphones: what’s the difference?

Wireless headphones can be split into three different categories: wireless earphones connected via a neckband, wireless on-ear headphones, and wireless over-ear headphones – all are battery-powered and use Bluetooth to connect to your smartphone, laptop, portable music player, or even your turntable. 

For wireless over-ear and on-ear models, you simply lose the wire connecting them to your device – otherwise, they look pretty much the same as your regular pair of wired cans, and give you the noise-isolating prowess of over-ears without the need for cumbersome wires to connect to your device.

Wireless in-ear models, earphones, or earbuds (depending on your preferred vernacular), have a neckband connecting each earbud, making them ideal for runners who want the freedom of a wireless connection with the security of a wire keeping their earbuds firmly around their neck. 

True wireless earbuds on the other hand, have no cord whatsoever; no wires to get caught in your zipper, and nothing to keep each bud connected to each other. For some, this means true freedom; for others, untethered true wireless means constant danger of losing their expensive audio kit down the drain. 

Sony WH-1000XM3 wireless over-ear headphones

The Sony WH-1000XM3 wireless over-ear headphones (Image credit: Sony)

Wireless vs true wireless: which is best on a budget?

Like all types of headphones, prices vary, and neither wireless or true wireless models will necessarily be more expensive than the other – it really depends on the brand. 

Our favorite wireless over-ear headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM3 cost $349 / £300 / AU$499, for example, and offer superb noise-cancelation, a comfortable build, and an impressive 30-hour battery life.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get wireless over-ears and on-ears for budget-friendly price – skip out on the noise cancelation and premium materials, and you can get models like the Jabra Move Wireless headphones for $99 (£79, AU$126).

Wireless in-ear headphones tend to be even cheaper; our favorite model, the Optoma NuForce BE Sport4s are quite often on sale under $60 / £70 / AUD$85.

True wireless earbuds vary in the same way; with our favorite models ranging from the $299 / £259 / AU$449 B&O Beoplay E8s to the wallet-friendly, $99 (about £75 / AU$135) Optoma NuForce BE Free5s. 

Verdict: Both! Price depends more on the brand and the materials than whether your headphones are wireless or true wireless nowadays. 

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Optoma NuForce BE Sport4s

The Optoma NuForce BE Sport4s (Image credit: Optoma)

Do wireless headphones sound better than true wireless earbuds? 

Not necessarily – these days, sound quality depends more on the drivers inside your headphones or earbuds rather than whether they use wireless or true wireless technology.

With recent advances in Bluetooth technology like aptX HD, wireless and true wireless listening is getting better all the time; sure, audio purists will argue that wired headphones will always offer superior sound quality. 

This is because, traditionally, wireless headphones transmitted a compressed version of your music from your device to your headphones over a Bluetooth network. This compression lowered the resolution of your music, sometimes making it sound artificial and digital. 

While the latest versions of Bluetooth are able to transmit Hi-Res Audio wirelessly, you need a device and headphones that support these high-quality codecs to feel the full benefits – otherwise, you may find yourself listening to a compressed version of your tunes. 

Wireless headphones are vulnerable to interference from other devices. According to Decibullz, “any device that gives a wireless signal matching the frequency of the signal used by your wireless headphones can interfere and degrade sound quality”.

Grado GW100s headphones

Over-ear and on-ear wireless headphones like the Grado GW100s (pictured) tend to sound better than in-ear models – but not always. (Image credit: TechRadar)

This can be an even bigger problem with true wireless earbuds – after all, there’s an extra step of Bluetooth transmission (between the left and right buds) than wireless models for problems to occur. 

That’s not to say wireless headphones sound better than true wireless headphones as a rule; in optimum conditions, with a decent music playback device, there’s no reason for one type to sound substantially better than the other. 

Instead, sound quality usually comes down to the drivers used inside your headphones’ speakers; powerful drivers in premium materials make bass frequencies sound more thumpy and give your music more oomph. 

Generally, over-ear headphones sport larger, more powerful drivers than their in-ear counterparts, and for some users, this gives a more enjoyable listening experience.

Don’t dismiss in-ear wireless or true wireless models, though; the Earin M-2 true wireless headphones sound fantastic despite their small size.

Verdict: Wireless over-ear headphones (usually).

Sony WH-1000XM3s

The Sony WH-1000XM3s (Image credit: Sony)

Should I buy wireless or true wireless headphones for noise-cancelation?

Sound quality is also affected by the seal of your wireless or true wireless headphones; the more snugly they fit against your ear canal, the better noise isolation you’re going to get, and the better your music will sound. 

In-ear models, wireless or true wireless, tend to offer a more snug fit as they sit against the opening of your ear canal, creating a seal.

It’s also worth considering noise-cancelation; this is when your headphones block out sound from your environment, allowing you to enjoy your music in peace  an important factor for those listening in noisy environments like planes, trains, or loud offices. 

Noise cancelation comes under two categories: passive and active. Passive noise-cancelation is when your headphones physically insulate your ears from the noise of the outside world.

Over-ear headphones tend to do this better than in-ear models, by virtue of large, padded ear cups that enclose your entire ear. 

Active noise-cancelation (ANC), rather than using the physical barrier of an earcup, uses clever electro-acoustic technology to “make a mirror-image of the disrupting noise’s sound wave”, effectively canceling it out. 

As they don’t rely on the physical barrier of over-ear headphones, active noise cancelation can work with in-ear models too – but a combination of both passive and active noise cancelation is your best bet for blocking out the world around you. 

As you can’t get true wireless over-ear headphones (each can is of course connected to the other), you’re best bet for effective noise cancelation is to buy a pair of over-ear wireless headphones with ANC technology built-in – like the Sony WH-1000XM3s, for example. 

Verdict: Wireless over-ear headphones.

Monster iSport Victory wireless in-ears

The Monster iSport Victory wireless in-ears are our favorite running headphones. (Image credit: Monster)

Are wireless or true wireless headphones best for working out?

No-one wants to wear a pair of over-ear headphones for a sweaty workout – so this one’s between wireless in-ears and true wireless earbuds. 

As long as they have a sweat resistance IP rating – IPX4 and above – and offer a decent level of bass to bolster your running performance (your workout is probably not the time to listen to contemplative folk music), either wireless or true wireless can be fantastic. 

The question you need to ask yourself is whether you want to additional security of the neckband afforded by wireless in-ear headphones – if you’re paranoid about losing a true wireless earbud down the drain, stick to wireless.

That being said, if you hate the feeling of a wire pounding against your neck as your run, true wireless is the way to go; no cords to get tangled in makes for a freeing running experience that can’t be rivaled by neckband models. 

Verdict: Wireless in-ear headphones or true wireless earbuds.