Most of us hate the throwaway nature of consumerism – and gadgets have oft been tagged as a chief offender here, with fresh smartphone iterations arriving annually alongside all-new corresponding earbuds. But the fact is that while the true wireless headgear sector is much better than it used to be in this respect (and here I'd like to give a shoutout to Fairphone's new FairBuds XL, which feature a modular, truly replaceable approach) your Bluetooth headphones have a shelf life.
Time waits for no one. Components deteriorate, connections falter, grime builds, battery health diminishes – and all the while, new technology bursts onto the scene in ever-smaller, lighter and more comfortable designs.
So if you're now looking at your portable listening gear and thinking yes, it could use an update, the good news is that Memorial Day sales are arriving thick and fast. Here are six solid reasons you should snap up a new set this weekend, as well as key products you might want to consider – and of course, the best deals.
1. Bluetooth bandwidth is increasing: hi-res audio is coming
The simple fact of the matter is that the Bluetooth chipset in your earbuds or headphones isn't getting any younger. And look, that's just fine; if they work and you're happy with the audio quality, you do you and enjoy the music, friend.
But the delicate truth is that as Bluetooth technology advances and improves year on year, certain versions of Bluetooth will be left looking a little old-hat. There are a slew of new features you may want, but can't get because your old listening apparatus doesn't support it.
This is the case with Bluetooth 5.2, which opens the door to Bluetooth LE Audio (first unveiled at CES 2022), the highly desirable LC3 codec and Auracast audio sharing. Do your earbuds support the slightly older Bluetooth 5.0? You might want to consider an upgrade.
And with the Google Pixel 7 being one of the first smartphones to get Bluetooth LE Audio support with the LC3 codec (introduced in Android 13), plus scope for Auracast audio-sharing, earbuds boasting the potential for high-bandwidth scenarios are in the pipeline.
How much better can BLE Audio-toting earbuds be? We're talking "more than double the Bluetooth LE data rate – up to four to six megabits, maybe even up to eight megabits depending on the way the specification sorts out," according to Chuck Sabin, Bluetooth SIG’s senior director of marketing, who was speaking at a recent media briefing on the future of Bluetooth. And the crucial bit is that you won't need any special LDAC, aptX HD or other special-sauce codec support.
So which earbuds will support it? First off, the OnePlus Buds Pro 2 earbuds, and according to Technics, both of the company's new EAH-AZ80 and EAH-AZ60M2 earbuds will support LE Audio following an update later in 2023.
2. Size matters
Remember when computers once took up a whole room, yet now you tote one around with you – it actually sits the palm of your hand for an alarming percentage of your day? Apply that concept to your earbuds and you'll see where we're going.
The hardware (including xMEMs Labs' new teeny tiny solid state speakers) being squirreled away into your earbuds is advancing easily as quickly as the software nestled beside it – and while we're on this subject, do check out the proprietary RoomFeel processing in Canada PSB Speakers' new M4U TWM true wireless micro planar earphones, or the world's first Wi-Fi lossless headphones, made by virtually unknown audio outfit, HED Technologies. And this means smaller, more ergonomic and comfortable earpieces.
I still think the Sony LinkBuds S, which weigh just 4.8g / 0.17oz per bud, are the absolute best earbuds for smaller ears – look how far we've come since the flagship Sony WF-1000XM4, which weighed in at 7.3g / 0.26oz per earpiece. That's a whopping 40% or 2.5g difference per earbud, so 5g of earbud no longer sticking out of your shell-likes in total – the same weight as a nickel. The newer Sony WF-C700N are also a great shout, at 37% lighter and 38% smaller than the top-tier WF-1000XM4.
And manufacturers get it! The Technics earbuds above come with no fewer than seven ear tip options – and thanks to extensive research into what fits, they work.
All I'm saying is, if your earbuds don't fit properly, feel heavy or fall out easily, there are newer, better, lighter options available since the last time you shopped.
3. Your earbuds' batteries will die, eventually
This truth does not make me happy, and indeed it came as quite the shock when certain expensive wire-free earbuds initially launched, and subsequently died on me. Accustomed as I was to the lifespan of my trusty wired EarPods (and other wired headphones) it's a big shift to accept that the batteries within your earbuds will conk out at some point. The realization that those $350 earbuds you bought (Bowers & Wilkins, I'm looking at you) might only last you a few years with daily use – particularly if you use them in the gym – can feel like a swindle, and I hear that.
Then again, I'm someone who resolutely carried a separate juice pack around with my old iPhone 7 until last year (yes, even as a tech journo) because I refused to believe that my handset was a) obsolete and b) had such poor battery health that it could no longer function alone – no, not even for half an hour. I'm also able to remember the days when I could switch out the battery in my Nokia 3310 (there's now a new variant with onboard built-in earbuds). And I've taken Apple's nixing of self-administered upgrades onboard, haven't I?
How long should you expect your earbuds’ batteries to last? Hard to say for sure. A fair few factors affect this, including how often you use them, how frequently you charge them (and whether you leave them plugged in overnight), how often you make calls or deploy ANC (both of which drain juice relatively quickly, thus requiring more charging) and even whether you clean your earbuds regularly.
The thing you need to know is this: the batteries in your earbuds will deteriorate over time. Why? A layer of crystalline buildup will slowly coat the battery’s inside walls, thus increasing electrical resistance. The result is a gradual reduction in the amount of play time said batteries are able to deliver, even after a full charge.
4. Earbuds kickstart a fitness drive like nothing else
If you're a swimmer or long-distance runner, chances are the best bone conduction headphones are on your (tech) radar – although check out SONR's head-puck for something different – but for many of us, a set of good-sounding inexpensive earbuds, in a pocket in your gym bag, is the ideal way to kickstart your running or other fitness regime – particularly now that Spotify's fully integrated with Strava.
Which earbuds might we suggest? Oladance offers a lovely open-ear but secure design; the IP68-rated JBL Reflect Aero sound excellent for the money (but any of the best waterproof headphones in our buying guide are also great options); and we also like the super-affordable JLab Go Air Sport. That said, my personal favorites are the comfortable and secure Jaybird Vista 2.
5. You're sick of carrying over-ears on the commute
As I said in my mini roundup of the three best ANC earbuds to pack in hand luggage this year, we're all out and about a lot more these days, aren't we?
Maybe those luxury over-ears you bought to drown out the washing machine noise at home during lockdown aren't the best option when you're trying to stuff them into your bag on a packed train because you're back in the office three days a week now – and if you're taking flights, hand-luggage size and weight restrictions aren't exactly being relaxed.
Even the best noise-cancelling headphones can feel heavy and cumbersome when you're not actually wearing them, particularly as the latest crop lost the ability to fold up into their headband, and instead simply lie flat in their hard carrying case. Earbuds though, will simply slip into a pocket quietly until you need them – and there are so many price points to choose from! Cheap and cheerful pick would be the JLab Go Air Pop. My ultimate, money-no-object luxury buy? The Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2.
6. Fierce competition + deals events = even better prices
Did we mention Memorial Day weekend? We did? Well, it bears repeating, because the deals will come – and thanks to our handy Memorial Day sales vs Amazon Prime Day guide, you'll know exactly when to pounce and when to wait.
As always, if you see a deal on a set of earbuds you like the look of (and they've reviewed well at TechRadar – consult our audio visual reviews on this and please, don't just buy any old brand on Amazon) you should go for it, and be happy with the fact that you're buying a TechRadar-approved product at a discount.
Happy shopping – and as always, enjoy the music.
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Becky is a senior staff writer at TechRadar (which she has been assured refers to expertise rather than age) focusing on all things audio. Before joining the team, she spent three years at What Hi-Fi? testing and reviewing everything from wallet-friendly wireless earbuds to huge high-end sound systems. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, Becky freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 22-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance starts with a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo and The Stage. When not writing, she can still be found throwing shapes in a dance studio, these days with varying degrees of success.