UPDATED January 21, 2021: New entries added
We're constantly receiving new true wireless headphones to test, and two models in particular have stood out in the months since the original publication of this piece.
To that end, we've added impressions for the Razer Hammerhead Pro and the Oppo Enco X. TL;DR: both are excellent choices for mobile gamers, with just a couple of caveats. Read on for more info, alongside our original thoughts.
True wireless earphones are big news, largely thanks to Apple and its AirPods line, not to mention the endangered nature of the 3.5mm headphone jack.
These compact in-ear headphones give smartphone users personal audio in a highly compact and convenient form factor, and with absolutely no wires to snag on your coat zip.
All hype aside, though, how good are these true wireless headphones? And how to they stand up to mobile gaming?
We assembled a bunch of true wireless AirPods alternatives from across the price spectrum to get a general feeling for this vibrant category. Should pocket gamers bother going wireless, or should you stick with wired?
Meet the groupI've been using six [JM: eight since publication] pairs of true wireless earphones on an off for the past several months. Some of these were selected because of their positive reputation, while others just happened to be made available to me at the right time. As a group they're pretty representative of what's out there, with a broad price range of between £90 and £280.
Our true wireless contenders are: Huawei FreeBuds 3i; Kygo E7/1000; Jabra Elite 75t; Cambridge Audio Melomania 1; Sennheiser True Wireless 2; and Razer Hammerhead.
[JM: And now you can add the Razer Hammerhead Pro and the Oppo Enco X to the group]
What follows is a summary of the pros and cons of each pair. While gaming performance is obviously important, we'd assert that this isn't the only thing most gamers are looking for in a set of headphones. Audio quality and design are also key, as is the ease of set-up and use.
Let's run through the key components of each set of 'buds, before summing up with a discussion about one particularly crucial element that gamers need to consider.
Huawei FreeBuds 3i (£90)The Huawei FreeBuds 3i give you an AirPods Pro-approximating experience for roughly a third of the price. You get a similarly intuitive and easy-fitting hook-like design, as well as proper in-ear isolation, adequate sound quality, and competent (if far from stellar) active noise cancellation.
I didn't find the set-up to be quite as intuitive as some of the others on the list though, and the fact that the 3i plays best with Huawei phones isn't exactly a great 'feature' to have in today's market (the Chinese manufacturer is really being squeezed in the West). But if you demand ANC for less than £100, it's a solid bet.
Pros: ANC at a great price, easy fit, AirPods Pro-like design
Cons: Sound nothing special, works best with Huawei phones
Kygo E7/1000 (£150)The Kygo E7/1000 underwhelms with its core offering, but still provides a handful of stand-out features. On the negative side, the sound quality is rather meh, the build feels a little plasticky, and the case is a huge and unwieldy pill box. It's not flat out bad, but you can do better for the money.
On the plus side, the pairing process is one of the most intuitive here, and this is the only set of the six that comes with both waterproofing and optional wings that firmly lodge into your upper ear creases. This makes the E7/1000 the best for workouts and regular outdoors usage, while a range of tips (including premium memory foam) contribute to a highly customisable fit.
Pros: Easy pairing, very customisable fit, optional wings for workouts, waterproof
Cons: Mediocre sound, cheap build, huge case
Jabra Elite 75t (£170)The Jabra Elite 75t is perhaps the best all-rounder here. It's got something approaching the sense of opulence and the expansive sound of the Sennheiser True Wireless 2, with a handy hear-through sound mode so you can still pick up ambient noise. But it's a little more compact and manageable day to day, not to mention much cheaper.
Jabra even found a way to add ANC capabilities via a free firmware update. All in all, the Jabra Elite 75t offers a very well-rounded package with pretty much no major downsides.
Pros: Good sound, classy design, ANC via update
Cons: Not the best in any one area
Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 (£90)Alongside the Jabra Elite 75t, the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 was the set of earphones I found myself reaching for most often when running out of the door. That's down to a combination of a simple, classy and compact bullet-like design (with optional memory foam tips), the most pocketable charging case of the lot, and some of the best-balanced sound.
There are few frills - not even USB-C - but they're among the cheapest sets here, and the limited production budget has been put to great use. The Melomania did suffer from arguably the worst gaming latency here, but it's a pretty unexceptional field bar one in that regard.
Pros: Excellent sound, clean and classy design, compact case, outstanding value
Cons: Old Micro-USB charging standard, particularly poor latency
Sennheiser True Wireless 2 (£280)The Sennheiser True Wireless 2 isn't the kind of earphones set that you pop in while nipping down the shop for a Snickers. It's too big and expensive for that. Rather, with incredibly rich sound and class-leading active noise cancellation, the Sennheiser True Wireless 2 is best viewed as a set of luxurious travel 'buds for whenever you want to sit back and tune the world out for a couple of hours.
It's a shame Sennheiser dropped aptX LL support from the first model, or these would have easily won our top overall pick. Avid gamers might want to keep an eye out for the original on the cheap, though they should note that it's otherwise inferior to its successor.
Pros: Great sound quality, top active noise cancellation
Cons: Bulky, expensive, dropped aptX LL support
Razer Hammerhead (£100)The Razer Hammerhead is the only set in our round-up that's been specifically built for gamers. That's not just a case of snazzy marketing either - this genuinely is your best (and maybe only) pick of the six if gaming is what you do most of on your phone.
Thanks to its rare support for the aptX Low Latency standard, activated with a triple tap of the left earpiece, you'll get decreased audio lag when playing games. Elsewhere, the sound isn't particularly nuanced or well-isolated thanks to the lack of a proper in-ear seal. But this is a specialised tool for dedicated mobile gamers.
Pros: aptX LL support for top gaming performance
Cons: Leaky open design, sound quality not the best
Added January 2021:
Razer Hammerhead Pro (£200)
Our original test batch, listed above, included the Razer Hammerhead, which (spoiler alert) were the only true wireless earphones that were dedicated to gamers. Since then, Razer has released a second set, and they're even better.
They sport the same Bluetooth Low Latency technology for lag free gaming, but they add proper sound isolation through the addition of in-ear buds, active noise cancellation (albeit not a particularly good implementation), and THX tuned sound. This means that the sound quality is way better - though you'll need to pay double the money for the privilege.
Pros: Low Latency Bluetooth support, good THX-tuned sound
Cons: ANC not the best, quite expensive
Oppo Enco X (£170)
With an advanced coaxial dual-driver approach to sound output and tuning by Danish audio specialist Dynaudio, the Oppo Enco X sounds great. Add in strong ANC, a tidy AirPods Pro-like design, bang up to date Bluetooth 5.2 support, and a wireless charging case Bluetooth, and you have a compelling package at the price.
The only drawback is compatibility. iPhone users don't get an app, which takes it impossible to setup and gain full control. Meanwhile the high quality LHDC codec sounds good, but it's not very well supported by phone manufacturers right now.
Pros: Fine sound quality, good ANC, reasonable lag, wireless charging case
Cons: No good for iPhone users, little-supported LHDC codec
Summing upTrue wireless earphones are indeed the real deal. The sheer convenience of using them, and the absence of the usual snags and wire-noise that you get with wired earphones, is a revelation.
But as a product category, it's not at all well geared up for gamers right now. There's a considerable issue with latency here, with a pronounced lack of support for aptX LL (or equivalent).
With the notable exception of the Razer Hammerhead, all sets in this test exhibit a noticable lag between the actions on screen and the sound being played. This verges from the annoying to the downright game-breaking, as in competitive shooters like PUBG Mobile.
As a result, the Razer Hammerhead is the only one of these six true wireless earphones sets that I can actively recommend for regular gaming use. If you're after a more rounded audio package for general use, with a little (non competitive) gaming stirred into the mix, then I'd recommend grabbing one of these other top picks.
The Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 gives you the best no-nonsense audio experience at the keenest price, while the Jabra Elite 75t offers the best balanced all-round package. For the frequent traveller, meanwhile, the Sennheiser True Wireless 2 will give you a peerless audio bubble in which to isolate yourself - at a price.
[JM: The Razer Hammerhead Pro is the best set of gaming-focused earphones that I've used as of January 2021. They have all the benefits of the non-Pros, but with good sound and ANC. You'll have to pay more for them, but you'll get a set of earphones for literally every occasion.
I'd also add the Oppo Enco X for consideration if gaming isn't your main or only focus - and if you have an Android phone that supports the LHDC codec. They sound great, have decent ANC, and the gaming latency isn't too bad. But compatibility isn't as good as the others in this feature.]