crinacle's

Buyer's Guide

Best (sounding) True Wireless Earphones

Ah yes, “wireless”. A word that sends shivers down the spine of any self-proclaimed audiophile and the catalyst for many an internet argument. And yet its popularity grows, unfettered by claims of inferior audio and further bolstered by the success of Apple’s AirPods.

But you know, given its appeal to what is mainly the mainstream consumer market, there doesn’t seem to be anyone doing a proper comparison of these true wireless buds solely on the metric of “sound quality”. And so here I am, bringing to you my perspectives on these little things ranked in the order of worst to best.

Here is when I remind everyone again that this is my opinion on the best sounding TWS earphones. Let the other tech review sites talk about the build, the usability, the UI etc. whatever. I’ll focus on what I’m good at and what most readers skip to in the first place.

Changelog

14/07/19: Guide created with the following IEMs

  • Audio Technica ATH-SPORT7TW
  • AVIOT TE-D01b/d
  • B&O  Beoplay E8
  • Jabra Elite Active 65t
  • Master & Dynamic MW07
  • Samsung Galaxy Buds
  • Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless
  • Sony WF-1000XM3

01/12/19: Added the following

  • Apple AirPods Pro
  • Audio Technica ATH-CK3TW
  • Audio Technica ATH-CKS5TW
  • Bose SoundSport Free
  • Fostex TM2
  • Nuarl NT01
  • Nuarl NT100

05/12/19: Added Noble Falcon

13/12/19: Added the following:

  • Advanced Model X
  • Hifiman TWS600
  • Jaybird Vista
  • KZ E10
  • QCY T5

All awarded grades are in reference to the IEM ranking list.

#21: Hifiman TWS600

"TWS: The Worst Sound"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://hifiman.com/products/detail/299

MSRP: $200

What is this.

Why does this exist.

Who signed off on this.

How does this have positive reviews?

Look, I get it. Hifiman’s a popular audiophile company and it’s hard to believe that they would intentionally churn out garbage thinking it would sell regardless. I had the same thought going into the TWS600: man these suck, maybe somethings broken with them? 

… welp, both channels match. Guess this is how it’s really supposed to be.

The TWS600 is a tonal monstrosity that probably singlehandedly tanked my last remaining respects for Hifiman. It sounds like a 1950s telephone with just as much resolving ability, and doesn’t even come with the courtesy of a budget pricetag. No, you’re going to get the full-fat Fang Bian experience here, just without the final pricing justification.

Why are they so expensive? Because they sound so good.

I wish, Mr. Fang. I wish.

Grade:

#20: Audio Technica ATH-CKS5TW

"Acoustically Challenged"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://www.audio-technica.com/cms/headphones/1bc89a627d695608/index.html

MSRP: $150

Right at the bottom of this list, we have this.

Now, you know think that a company like Audio Technica, the one responsible for the massively popular M50X, would naturally have the capabilities to create at least a decent true wireless earphone. But if the CKS5TW is any indication, they should just stick to their wired stuff instead.

The main issue with the CKS5TW is the deadly combo of a massive, uncontrolled bass boost (that smears all the way into the midrange) with a near-nonexistent treble presence. It is a muffled, dark mess that doesn’t even have the redeeming quality of a natural midrange tonality; it’s just bad compounded on bad.

Grade:

#19: Audio Technica ATH-CK3TW

"The Imbalanced"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://www.audio-technica.com/cms/headphones/52e062e6ba52ec2d/index.html

MSRP: $100

Audio Technica continues to disappoint with the CK3TW.

I will give the CK3TW some credit; it’s cheaper than the CKS5TW yet arguably better, but unfortunately that’s where the compliments end. The bass shares the same problems in that it lacks control and detailing, and while the treble thankfully isn’t nonexistent in this case, the CK3TW goes in the complete opposite direction and pierces you with an unabashed sharpness.

It’s not a great IEM, wireless or not. Look elsewhere.

Grade:

#18: B&O Beoplay E8

"The Overrated"

Frequency response measurement

Product pagehttps://www.bang-olufsen.com/en/earphones/beoplay-e8

MSRP: $350

Right off the bat, there’s channel imbalance. A heavy blow to both Bang and Olufsen but hey, at least they look fancy. For this test, I managed to get them matched via basic DSP so there is no issue after that at least.

I don’t get why these have been so highly praised. They sound wonky, tonally wrong and don’t even have the technical chops to compensate. B&O attempted for the E8 to be neutral but pretty much fell flat in every regard, following no scientific measure of neutral nor sounding anything close to “flat” to my ears. I could name a few sub-$50 wired IEMs that could wipe the floor with the Beoplay E8s (but I won’t for the sake of word count, just take a look at “The List“), so consider these an absolute embarrassment in both absolute sound quality and relative value.

Grade:

#17: Advanced Model X

"The Pandering"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://www.adv-sound.com/products/model-x

MSRP: Discontinued

Alright, so technically the Model X is discontinued per Advanced’s site, but it’s still available for purchase where I am so whatever I’m adding it to the guide.

I don’t have much to say about it, it’s a very typical V-shaped sound taken to the extreme and, while it doesn’t sound outright  horrible, it’s far too intense to be taken seriously.

Bloated bass combined with sharp, piercing treble is not a great combo for any IEM, wireless or not. And considering the relatively quick discontinuation, it just gives off the impression the Model X is Advanced’s pandering response to the TWS market.

Grade:

#16: Jaybird Vista

"The Has-Been"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://www.jaybirdsport.com/en-us/vista.html

MSRP: $180

I remember the brand Jaybirds for their insanely popular “Bluebuds” lineup. The original X was such a popular model that it went on to have another 3 further iterations, now plateauing at the X4.

Comes as no surprise that Jaybird’s entry into the TWS market came with massive fanfare. I’ve personally gotten at least one request a week asking to add the Vista to this guide, but I think I’m about to crush some fans’ dreams now that I have. The Vista is… well, not the worst at least, but definitely losing the fight.

I’m not a bass hater by any means, but the Vista has too much. Now this is a preferential thing of course, you may personally like this level of bass emphasis and I’m in no position to tell you that your own tastes are wrong. But for the purposes of this comparison, against everything else on “The List” or even just this guide itself, the bass tuning of the Vista is poorly done. It starts to smear into the midrange and it’s not the most defined bass out there, so I have to dock points in both regards.

The Vista attempts to counter the extreme bass boost with a less extreme treble spike, but in my opinion it kind of makes things worse. The treble is uneven, sibilant and fatiguing for longer listening sessions. I personally felt the listening fatigue set in after just two songs.

Sorry Jaybird, times have changed.

Grade:

#15: Master & Dynamic MW07

"The Hypebeast"

Frequency response measurement

Product pagehttps://www.masterdynamic.com/products/mw07-true-wireless-earphones

MSRP: $300

Potentially the most expensive entry on the list as well considering that Louis Vuitton sells a reskinned version of these for $1,000, the MW07 is the epitome of the consumerist sound signature. The extreme V-shape appeals to the average shopper who asks “do you have something with bass?” the moment they walk into an electronics store, offering an exciting sound saturated with both low end thump and high end sparkle.

There are still many, many problems with the MW07 that I won’t go into details with but shall summarise: bass that bleeds extremely easily into the midrange, unnervingly recessed vocals, splashy (read: unnatural) treble, piss-poor staging and just a general bastardisation of any source track you throw at it. That said I’m still not as “offended” by the MW07 as with the E8; it at least sounds okay but you can do so much better for $300. For $200. For $100.

You know what, maybe your money is better spent elsewhere.

Grade:

#14: Noble Falcon

"The Unmagical"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://nobleaudio.com/en/shop/wireless/

MSRP: $156

Driver configuration: single DD

Now this is a pretty surprising play by Noble.

I’m not going to lambast an audiophile company for going the TWS route because, hell, everybody’s doing it. It’s a popular format and the Falcon will most likely outsell everything else Noble offers in terms of sheer volume.

Since this is the great Noble we’re talking about, let’s just dive into the sound. It has easily the most un-Noble sound signature out of their entire lineup: an extreme V-shaped response only rivalled by Master & Dynamic’s MW07 but just a bit better done. Make no mistake, this is a product purely meant to pander to the masses rather than the audiophile crowd, so in that regard I think Noble has at least succeeded. Nothing else much to say, it’s a pretty generic TWS IEM that doesn’t have any exceptional or outright terrible qualities.

With great brand power comes great expectations, and the Falcon fails to live up to the image Noble has painstakingly cultivated. Feels like a bandwagon cash-grab that doesn’t even compete well with budget offerings in the highly saturated TWS market.

Grade:

#13: Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless

"Carried by Name"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://en-us.sennheiser.com/truewireless-details

MSRP: $300

Ah Sennheiser, how the mighty have fallen. Once the messiah of the audio world now resorting to cheap tricks and gimmicks designed to entice the lowest common denominator. Or perhaps that’s just my hatred for the HD820 leaking out again.

The Momentum True Wireless isn’t bad by any means, but it is pretty much similar in performance to its wired counterpart. Though I have to stress that the Momentum In-Ear and the Momentum True Wireless are not identical, differing slightly in presentation.

The more I hear the MTW, the more I don’t get it. It’s a mainstream kind of sound for sure but it isn’t impressive in the least in technical aspects such as definition, speed or even tonal accuracy. It doesn’t sound wrong outright, but then again if it did it’ll be ranked much lower than it is right now. 

The only explanation I can give is that the MTW is solely carried by the name that is “Sennheiser”, leading to a level of cognitive dissonance for the inexperienced. 

Grade:

#12: Nuarl NT100

"Local Hype"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://nuarl.com/en/nt100/

MSRP: 120SGD (~$90)

Here’s an interesting one from a brand that many of you probably haven’t heard of yet: Nuarl.

It’s a Japanese brand that’s more known well in my hometown of Singapore for reasons still unknown to me. The NT100 is one of the cheaper TWS models in this list and is pretty much the kind of sound that you would expect for a sub-$100 IEM. Pretty standard and almost generic V-shaped signature that should appeal to many, but ultimately doesn’t really stand out from the crowd in any technical way.

Safe buy I guess. You get what you pay for.

Grade:

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#11: Nuarl NT01

"Middle of the Road"

Frequency response measuerment

Product page: https://nuarl.com/en/nt01b/

MSRP: 200SGD (~$150)

The bigger brother of the NT100, the NT01 places itself at a higher price point and so commands larger expectations for what it is capable of.

It doesn’t really live up that expectation though. If it were up to me to choose between the two, I would probably just get the NT100 and pocket the remaining cash.

Grade:

#10: AVIOT TE-D01

"Eastern Appeal"

TE-D01b frequency response measurement
TE-D01d frequency response measurement

Product pages:
https://aviot.jp/product/te-d01b/
https://aviot.jp/product/te-d01d/

MSRP: 240SGD (~$177)

The marketing of AVIOT makes it real clear: these are Japan Tuned. Glorious Nippon steel folded one thousand times-type stuff here, so understandably they have a lot to live up to.

Both of the TE-D01s have the classic V-shaped signature and it’s done adequately, just like the Nuarls. Or at least, it’s up to the standard of its budget wired counterparts. One issue I have is with the TE-D01d; the bass can get overpowering and starts to creep into the mids slightly. Overall though I don’t have much to say, it’s an average True Wireless IEM with adequate performance that most should be satisfied with.

Grade(s):

#9: Audio Technica ATH-SPORT7TW

"Combo Breaker"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://www.audio-technica.com/cms/headphones/1120979bd3a753ac/index.html

MSRP: $200

And so Audio Technica breaks out of the D ranks and into the high Cs.

The SPORT7TW has a more unique tuning, sporting (heh) a U-shaped signature that emphasises the sub-bass and upper treble regions. Unfortunately, there is also rather bad sub-bass rolloff so the SPORT7TW can’t quite dig deep when the track calls for it. The treble boost also unfortunately strays into the sibilance regions, resulting is potential harshness and stridency for many ears.

In general, the SPORT7TW earns the award of being “above average” having clean bass lines and tonally correct (if a little shouty) midrange, which is already more than what I can say for many wireless earphones here.

Grade:

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#8: Fostex TM2

"The Exotic"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://www.fostexinternational.com/docs/products/TM2.shtml

MSRP: $300

Fostex’s TM2 is an interesting product as it is not uncommon to see audiophiles purchasing one simply for the MMCX Bluetooth module itself. To which I ask: why not just get a TRN BT20S?

Overall, the TM2 is certainly a decently good sounding dynamic IEM in its own right, but the high price tag is still a tough pill to swallow. The midrange is clean and free from any bass bleed, though the biggest problem I have with it is the upper midrange and treble peaks that makes things a little too shouty and sharp for my sensitive ears.

I know I’ve told you all that I’ll only focus on sound quality in this list, but this is an important point: the charging case does not contain a battery for on-the-road charging. You still get roughly 10 hours of use off of a single charge, but that’s still a pretty big dealbreaker for many people looking for a TWS set.

Grade:

#7: QCY T5

"The Threat"

Frequency response measurement

No proper product page so here’s an affiliate-less Amazon link instead:
https://www.amazon.com/HIFI-Wireless-Bluetooth-Headset-Headphones/dp/B07YZ6CKS8

MSRP: $35

Yeah, you saw the price right. A sub-$50 TWS IEM that can dip below $30 if you’re lucky. And, it’s not utter trash.

Even calling the T5 “not garbage” would be doing it a massive disservice. The T5 is good, not just in the realm of the highly-priced TWS market but even in the highly competitive budget IEM market.

You’re obviously going to have to make concessions in terms of build, usability and unit QC, but you all know that I’m not here to talk about all those. In terms of sound and tuning, the T5 is tasteful. Inoffensive yet competent, exciting yet clean.

Everyone else should treat the T5 as a massive threat to the status quo of highly-priced, average-sounding TWS buds. You don’t have a place in the market anymore.

Grade: ★★

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#6: KZ E10

"Mould Breaker"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://www.linsoul.com/products/kz-e10

MSRP: $60

Driver configuration: 1DD + 4BA hybrid

This E10 was kindly provided by Linsoul.

Colour me surprised, KZ made a pretty good pair of IEMs. And it’s TWS!

The E10 has its fair share of flaws, for instance the overly-shouty midrange that pushes vocals straight in your face, or perhaps the slightly thinness in the midrange that isn’t as satisfying as the other lower-midrange heavy stuff on the guide. But apart from all those, the E10 does the whole neutral Diffuse Field-y signature very well.

It’s definitely the most un-KZ sounding IEM in KZ’s lineup, so diehard fans of the brand should stay away. It’s not going to have KZ’s traditionally massive bass boost nor its liberally-tuned treble response, and it’s for that reason that I really believe that the E10 is the best KZ IEM you can get.

As a TWS IEM though? (Almost) no contest. At 60 bones max, it outshines many of the mainstream competitors and establishes itself as a unicorn in the TWS market: a neutrally-tuned option.

Grade:

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#5: Apple AirPods Pro

"The Mainstream"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://www.apple.com/airpods-pro/

MSRP: $250

The AirPods Pro needs no introduction but I’ll do one anyways: it is Apple’s first true wireless in-ear and their third IEM overall (shoutouts to the legendary Addiem and the less-legendary iPod in-ears in case anybody remembers these relics).

Now I know what you’re thinking: this is Apple we’re talking about. There is no way that an audiophile would ever like something so mainstream. And in terms of the EarPods and the original AirPods, you would be right. They aren’t bad, but they certainly don’t do anything to distinguish themselves in terms of tuning or raw “sound quality”.

But the AirPods Pro is a little different. It is, and I can’t believe I’m saying it, pretty dang good. Yeah sure, it’s pricey and you can probably still do better with other models on this list. Yeah, it’s probably not going to be better than other established wired IEMs in the same price bracket. But you can certainly do a lot worse.

The AirPods Pro is tuned to be somewhat reminscient of the Diffuse Field target but with that last-octave sub-bass boost, with a smooth and natural midrange tonality that many IEM companies tend to get wrong. My only real gripe with it is that it probably could use some extra midtreble presence, but overall this is a surprisingly good entry by Apple that shouldn’t be overlooked in the audiophile community simply for being mainstream.

Grade:

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#4: Bose SoundSport Free

"The Open"

Frequency response measurement

Product page: https://www.bose.com/en_us/products/headphones/earphones/soundsport-free-wireless.html

MSRP: $200

Yeah, I know. Buy Other Sound Equipment, No Highs No Lows etc. etc. and all that. We audiophiles all know that Bose has a reputation of churning out subpar products and masquerading them as “hifi” as part of their marketing. I too, had low expectations going into the SoundSport Free and had no qualms bansishing them into the depths of the lowest ranks if required.

But alas, the SoundSport Free… impressed me. The tonal balance is almost spot on, with minor niggles regarding the upper midrange/treble presentation being a tad too subdued. The bass boost is beautifully done, and the fact that it extends as low as it does despite the open-backed construction is a grand feat by itself.

Yeah, the SoundSport Free kind of cheats in soundstage size by virtue of essentially open, but the benefits in stereoimaging performance is undeniable. It may not be the most detailed, but its combination of great tuning and imaging certainly warrants its high placing on this list.

Grade:

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#3: Jabra Elite Active 65t

"The Popular"

Frequency response measurement

Product details: https://www.jabra.com/bluetooth-headsets/jabra-elite-active-65t

MSRP: $190

I’ve never held Jabra to a high regard before. They seemed to cater to an audience that were more interested in making handsfree calls than actually listening to music; or at the very least, they gave off that impression.

The Active 65t is… balanced. Very balanced. There is clearly an emphasised bass response but I’d struggle to call it V-shaped; it doesn’t quite have the upper end sparkle for that classification. There are its faults of course, extensions on both ends are mediocre though nothing that really constitutes as a dealbreaker IMO. But as a whole, as one big coherent package, the Active 65t is a damn fine IEM, even in the realm of wired gear.

In a way, they’re a dark horse in that I expected almost nothing yet got served with a nice, ice-cold bucket of reality. A solid product that should deserve its popularity, if there weren’t a thousand posts a week on r/headphones asking for technical support about it.

Grade:

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And speaking of dark horses…

#2: Samsung Galaxy Buds

"The Dark Horse"

Frequency response measurement

Product details: https://www.samsung.com/global/galaxy/galaxy-buds/

MSRP: $130

I didn’t think too much about these. I got it for free bundled with my S10 and just thought it would make a great sleeping IEM. Hey, it’s probably some cheapo, tinny sounding thing that Samsung slaps with their phones because they can, right?

In retrospect, the Galaxy Buds have every right to be as great as they are. Following Samsung’s acquisition of Harman International (and so AKG too), it would make sense that Samsung would make use of all that acoustic research now at their disposal and boy, it shows. The Galaxy Buds outperform nearly every TWS IEM on this list, and I daresay would give a huge chunk of similarly priced wired IEMs a run for their money as well. Controlled sub-bass boost, decently high resolution, proper tonality; it ticks so many boxes that many would struggle with.

As per usual, even the Galaxy Buds are not without its faults. The Harman Target (which these tries to follow) are characterised by a rather large upper midrange boost which can be, to put it nicely, a little intense. I like to call this signature “weeb” in that it sounds more suited for anime OSTs and their high pitched female vocals, but I digress.

Grade: ★★

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#1: Sony WF-1000XM3

"Top Dog"

FR (NC on)
FR (NC off)

Product details: https://www.sony.com/electronics/truly-wireless/wf-1000xm3/buy/wf1000xm3-s

MSRP: $230

The WF-1000XM3 was mainly tested with noise-cancelling on due to slightly better sound quality.

Technically, I think the Galaxy Buds are just as good as the WF-1000XM3, but for my own money I’d pick the Sonys. A more mainstream sound, better bass response, noise cancelling… sorry, I caught myself straying away from audio for a moment there.

And yet, I don’t have a lot to say about the WF-1000XM3 without getting pretentious and technical with my words. It’s just… good. Or as James Pumphrey would put it, a new level of new good. They called it… great.

You’re pretty much getting “the works” with the WF-100XM3: boosted yet clean bass, correct tonality, treble that sparkles but doesn’t pierce, good definition and actually good imaging (this one is a rarity for me, I don’t mention this often). Similar to the Galaxy Buds, this is a great sounding set of in-ears regardless of technology, wires or not.

Grade:

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17 thoughts on “Buyer’s Guide: Best True Wireless Earphones of 2020”

  1. I suggest you try out the nt01ax. They’re heavily discounted right now since Nuarl is releasing an updated line of wireless earbuds. They have a pretty balanced sound when you find the right eartip to use. Also has a good reputation on the head-fi thread.

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