When true wireless earphones first emerged five years ago, they made a profound impression. The magic of going completely cordless captured the imagination and quickly cast shade on the Bluetooth neckbuds we'd grown accustomed to. The first TW buds did not come from recognised headphone makers, but the big names were quick to follow and today there are dozens of pairs on the market. The current stand-out products are the Sony WF-1000XM3, the Sennheiser Momentum TW2, the Jabra 75t and the Apple Airpods Pro but our list of the best TW buds is constantly updated, so do check back regularly.
In the last few months nearly a dozen pairs of budget-priced TW buds have come across our desk, each costing around R1000. We tested them all and the list below is our selection of the best pairs available in South Africa today.
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.
How we tested
Price was the first factor. We didn't consider any buds costing more than R1500 and most of these on our list cost much less.
We then considered the overall sound quality, testing with different kinds of music, mostly played in high definition. Some of the buds on our list support advanced features like the aptX protocol which preserves music quality over Bluetooth. We then judged build quality and finally the ease of use which included the fit in the ear, the controls, the durability and pocketablity of the carry case, and the battery life.
Our reference model is the mid-priced Samsung Galaxy Bud Plus (R1800), which we think currently offers the best bang for buck in true wireless earbuds. Its specific features are highlighted at the end of our list.
Best budget true wireless earbuds, at a glance
- Skullcandy Sesh
- Anker Soundcore Liberty Air X
- Edifier X3 - OVERALL WINNER
- Tecno HiPods H2 - RUNNER UP
- Vivo Neo TW
- Astrum ET300
- 1More Colorbuds
Features: BT5.0, IP55
Weight: 56g in case
Battery: 3 + 7 hours
Scores /10: Sound 6, Fit 7, Features 6, Ease of use 7, Value 5
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.
Anker Soundcore Liberty Air X
Features: BT5.0, aptX, IPX5, cVc 8.0 noise reduction mics, graphene-coated drivers
Weight: 55g in case
Battery: 7 + 21 hours
Scores /10: Sound 7, Fit 5, Features 7, Ease of use 6, Price 5
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.
Edifier X3 [OVERALL WINNER]
Features: BT5.0, aptX, IPX5, CVC8.0 noise-cancellation
Weight: 50g in case
Battery: 6 + 18 hours
Scores /10: Sound 8, Fit 8, Features 7, Ease of use 5, Price 6
Edifier is an underrated audio brand that deserves closer attention in South Africa, particularly its wide range of TW earphones. The X3 is it's entry-level model but these still deliver a compelling music experience far superior than it's R1000 price tag suggests.
Setting aside the detailed acoustic qualities of its performance, the X3 delivered sheer toe-tapping musical qualities that won us over. Rock music sounds dramatic, soul sounds warm and melodious, rap rumbles with deep bass, classical music sounds expansive and pop songs exude energy. Even with the volume turned up pretty high on deep bass combined with delicate female vocals, the X3 never stumbled or lost definition in the complex passages of music. Once again, the aptX system puts in a strong performance here, largely overcoming the limitations of the compressed Bluetooth audio frequencies, and producing near-CD quality sound.
There's just one problem: I struggle to get these out of their carry case without dropping them. No, I don't have unusually thick sausage fingers; the gap between the flip-top lid and buds recessed inside is just too tight to get a secure grip. The buds themselves are perfectly smooth and with a matte finish so there's no way to easily pry them out of their dock. And the container itself is made of plastic so thin that it feels like it wouldn't last week in a jeans pocket.
Tecno HiPods H2 [RUNNER UP]
Features: BT5.0, aptX, IPX4, dual ENC mics
Weight: 56g in case
Battery: 4.5 + 6 hours
Scores /10: Sound 7.5, Fit 7, Features 7, Ease of use 7, Price 8
Probably the sleeper hit 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, still punches far above its weight. 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.
Vivo Neo TW
Features: BT5.2, aptX, IP54, dual beamforming mics, Al noise cancelling, AI codec
Weight: 46g in case
Battery: 4.5 + 18 hours
Scores /10: Sound 5, Fit 5, Features 7, Ease of use 7, Price 6
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.
Weight: 50g in case
Battery: 3 + 3 hours
Scores /10: Sound 7, Fit 6, Features 4, Ease of use 5, Price 8
Although the Astrum ET300 are well over two years old we have decided to include them on this list for two reasons: they have been a top performer in years past and they are still on sale at a very competitive price. To be sure they do look a little dated: they're pretty chunky and do protrude from the ears more than others, but they are still quite light and are held securely in place with little removeable silicon wings.
Two years on they still sound fantastic for true wireless buds under R1000. Music is surprisingly balanced and detailed with taught bass and crisp high end. Things get slightly muddled in the mid-range but otherwise it's hard to believe these are a two-year-old budget buy. The trade-off is in their size (decidedly inelegant by today's standards), the dropped connections and poor battery life. We got over two hours play time and the comically oversized charging case added only another 3 hours. The ET300 uses Bluetooth 4.1 which is adequate, but not nearly as reliable or as power efficient as today's Bluetooth 5.
However, these may be the perfect starter buds for the casual user on a budget, with above average sound included at this bargain price.
Features: BT5.0, aptX, IPX5, dual ENC mics
Weight: 40g in case
Battery: 6 + 16 hours
Scores /10: Sound 8, Fit 7, Features 7, Ease of use 7, Price 6
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.
What we compared with...
Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus
Features: BT5.0, IPX2, dual driver, ambient sound, smart scalable codec, multipoint connections
Weight: 46g in case
Battery: 11 + 11 hours
Scores /10: Sound 9, Fit 8, Features 8, Ease of use 8, Price 6
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.