The magic of going completely cordless has gone mainstream casting shade on the Bluetooth neckbuds we'd grown accustomed to.
The big names in audio were not the first to market, but they followed quickly and today there are dozens of true wireless buds on the market. The current stand-out products are the Sony WF-1000XM4, the Sennheiser Momentum TW2, the Jabra 85t and the Apple Airpods Pro but our list is constantly updated, so do check back regularly.
The buds making our list below are all priced around R1000 but they all offer something special in sound quality or other features so if you're shopping on a tight budget you can't go wrong with these buds
If you're considering TW earphones for the first time, be sure to also read our list of TW tips and tricks at the end.
Best budget true wireless earbuds
- Edifier X3
- 1More Stylish
- Anker Soundcore Liberty Air X
- Xiaomi Mi TW Basic 2
- 1More Pistonbuds
- 1More Colorbuds
- Skullcandy Sesh
- Vivo Neo TW
- Tecno HiPods H2
Our top pick of the cut-price TW buds, the Edifier X3 faced loads of competition, including from some much bigger audio brands. But these saw of all challengers with a marvellous all-round sound performance. For buds costing just R1000 they proved exceptionally sure footed across complex music in all genres and delivered a serious toe tapping experience throughout.
The soundstage won't match the expansive style of the audiophile brands' top models but the X3 delivered a surprisingly confident and balanced sound, slightly weighted for the mid-range, acoustic instruments, and vocals, yet somehow still felt exciting to listen to for pop, hard rock and bass heavy dance music.
For budget buds we were delighted with the support for both SBC and aptX HD formats, and battery life was better than average. Unfortunately, the flimsy plastic carry case does little to enhance their image.
The 1More brand has nabbed a couple of spots on our various headphone lists, and this great-sounding budget-priced offering scores them another top spot.
Made entirely pf plastic they don't feel quite as classy as other products on this list, but that makes them much lighter and, together with their add-on silicon wings, much less likely to fly out as you whip your head around in the traffic, or in the kitchen. They use the aptX protocol to preserve your music quality over Bluetooth. And the audio performance punches well above its price, with decent soundstage and enough bass.
Although they're now two years old and getting harder to find, they are still great value at the price, so they crept on to our list.
Anker is a relatively new brand in South Africa, but it's global reputation for producing excellent powerbanks precedes it. Soundcore is Anker's audio brand.
Our personal wearing style favours buds that fit fully inside the ear, and not the stemmed variety. Notwithstanding, we found the overall sound quality to be possibly the best of any stemmed-style earbuds we've ever tested, including Apple Airpods costing three times as much. The bass was surprisingly punchy for its design, and the mid-range was strongly evident for all music genres. Highs were clean and clear, but just slightly overpowering, leaving the overall sound a bit too bright for our liking. But this surprisingly powerful performance is likely down to some combination of the graphene coated drivers (full disclosure: we are fascinated by graphene!) and the aptX support.
The stems of the Liberty Air X buds are much more substantial many other earphones in this style, like Apple Airpods, and so together with the irregular shape of the stem, your fingers have something substantial to grab on to when they're wet from kitchen work or gym sweat.
While these were extremely comfortable in the ear canals, we found that they popped out of the ear rather too easily. Simply bending at the waist was sometimes enough to dislodge them, even with the optimal silicon tips fitted. Also, we can't fathom why the bottom of the case is rounded so it can't stand up properly.
These were something of a revelation. For their incredibly low price the Mi Earbuds Basic 2 produced a delightful sound, especially on pop and dance music, where the pronounced bass really counts. The sound is fairly balanced with some mid-range, and the soundstage is fairly shallow, but for casual listening on a shoestring budget these sound superb.
We like the clickable buttons which always fire more reliably than touch sensors, in our experience. The carry case is fairly sturdy. It opens flat which makes handling the buds much easier, and adds more than 10 hours of battery life.
Unfortunately, although Xiaomi sells almost as many phones as Apple worldwide, they are far less well-unknown in SA and so these excellent budget buds might be hard to find.
The Pistonbuds deliver well on 1More's promise of great earphone value. They're a solid build for budget bud, are sweat and splashproof at IPX4, and look like they can easily stand up to some rough treatment. The carry case is a good bit bigger than most, but not awkwardly so. It makes the buds easier to manage, is extremely light and adds more than 15 hours of battery life.
The sound is very good for the price with all frequencies present and clear, if not especially well balanced, and there's a generous helping of bass from the upsized 7mm driver. It doesn't support any of the high definition formats, like aptX, but it does use Bluetooth 5.0 so connectivity and battery life is optimised. The touch controls were definitely spotty but we are pleased that it charges with USB-C.
Although it doesn't strictly qualify in our budget price range, the Colorbuds do represent solid value for money, so we've elected to include them. Coming in a range of extremely cool metallic finishes they are probably the best looking buds on this list although they do disappear almost entirely into the ear canals, with a slight twist to face the pinhole mic forwards. We found the glossy carry case to be the optimal size and shape to handle with ease and to ride along in a jeans pocket, although the lid hinge does look a little fragile.
The sound is slightly weighted for bass, and that emphatic thud works out just fine for most kinds of music where its rounded out by a pronounced mid-range and slightly weaker highs. These are going to sound better with vocal and acoustic pop music than hard rock or classical. Although it lacks the perfect balance of true audiophile gear it's still a warm, friendly and engaging sound that never feels exhausting.
The aptX and AAC high definition support certainly does shine through; it's subtle but the depth and detail this brings to the soundstage is clearly noticeable. Like other buds on our list its IPX5 waterproof and so good for gym.
Read more: 1More Colorbuds
We have had mixed results with Skullcandy over the years. Although both build and sound quality have improved a lot over time, the more affordable (low priced) Skully's never seem to last as long as you might like. The Sesh are a good bit cheaper than Skullcandy's awkward Push buds and to our mind, are far better in both fit, sound quality and general usability.
The sound is decent and has some real bass but, like most buds tuned for pop music, it lacks in the mid-range.
The carry case is one of the more sturdy variety although we were a little disappointed by poor battery life overall: just 3 hours from the buds and another 7 hours of charge from the case. However, they are IP55 waterproof, and because they're not too big and do fit snugly, they might do fine for some light gym-ing.
Vivo is a fast-growing phone brand in South Africa, and it has expanded its offering with the Neo TW buds. With their slender stems, their positioning in outer ear rather than the ear canal, and the delightfully pocket-friendly shape of the carry case these could pass for early model Apple Airpods. But the similarities end there. Despite Vivo's bold claims about the audio engineering behind these buds we found the sound very shrill. overpowered by high frequencies and what bass there is lacks all punch. You can hear some bass but not feel any of it.
The buds are extremely light (just 4.7g each) and because they don't need to be squeezed into the ear canal, they are easy to pop in and out of the ears, which is convenient if you're expecting to be frequently interrupted. Obviously, this also means they're prone to falling out of the ears at the slightest shake of the head, so definitely no good for gym-ing. Like several other earphones on this list, removing the bud from the ear pauses the music, which is just as well since we couldn't get the tap controls to work reliably, even after tweaking settings in the app (apparently, a lot more customisation is possible when they're paired with a Vivo phone).
The charge case is a wonderfully svelte and glossy pod cleverly tapered on all sides, so it slips in and out of skinny jeans pockets without leaving an unsightly bulge.
One of the sleeper hits on this list is the HiPods H2 which are being bundled with entry-level Tecno phones like the Spark 5 (R3000). The audio performance of the HiPods H2, while well short of audiophile quality, made a strong impression. Although these are almost the lowest priced buds on our list, they sounded like earphones costing almost twice as much. The soundstage is surprisingly wide, all audio frequencies are present, including some noteworthy bass, and things are not overly muddled. Serious music lovers will note that the sound is slightly too bright but there is plenty of detail for buds in this price range, and it's not significant enough to be a deal breaker.
We also like the carry case which is unusual as the only dock which is less tall and more matchbox shaped, making it particularly easy to pick up and replace the buds in their tray.
The touch controls on these buds are very unreliable, and since there is no supporting app available, they're unlikely to get a firmware upgrade to improve things.
What we compared with...
The original Galaxy Buds were pretty good but the Buds +, which look almost identical, are an entirely different animal under the skin. It's easy to miss in the hype around cell phone cameras and screens that Samsung has achieved something special here. The Buds Plus tick almost every box we could think of from the delightfully balanced but still exciting audio performance to the rock solid Bluetooth connectivity, much improved mics for voice calls, and excellent battery life of around 22 hours.
Acoustically we're finally seeing the fruits of Samsung's takeover of the Harmon Kardon and AKG audiophile brands. Music sounds fantastic, certainly up to audiophile standard for TW buds. The Buds Plus makes use of Samsung's own scalable codec that automatically adjusts sound quality to suit the fluctuations in the Bluetooth connection. Then there's a bunch of trademark Samsung features like wireless charging, ambient sound control and a lot more neat tweaks available through the app.
Optimised for Android, this is the standard against which all our budget buds were measured.
Read more: Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus
TW beginners tips and tricks
- There are two basic TW styles: earbuds, the most common style, fits snugly into the ear canal while earphones fit into the outer ear, normally with a short stem extending downwards.
- The carry case for the buds doubles as a powerbank to recharge on the go and also as the charge cradle to use at the plug point. So the portability and durability of the case is critical.
- Plucking the buds from the case can be hazardous, especially if you're commuting. They're easy to drop and lose in the commuter chaos.
- Fit in the ear is important, especially if you're gym-ing or running, because its not possible to replace a single, lost bud.
- Most TW buds have a supporting phone app. This is useful for tweaking your settings and is vital for updating the firmware on your buds over time.
- Bluetooth 5 is the current connectivity standard which includes big improvements for maintaining connections, carrying music, and saving battery.
- Sound quality, especially bass, is heavily influenced by the fit of the buds, so it's worth trying several of the supplied silicon tips to get the optimal sound for you.
- All the buds in our list allow you to invoke either Siri or Google digital assistant, and do a voice search or issue other instructions.
Wireless neckbuds vs true wireless: what's the difference?
True wireless earbuds have no cord whatsoever. Having two separate buds, one in each ear, is quickly becoming the new normal.
Wireless earbuds have been around since Bluetooth was invented. They have a cord connecting the left and right earbuds buds which usually lies on the back of neck, hence the more common name "neckbuds" to differentiate them from true wireless buds.