the greatest gift

What Are the Best Truly Wireless Earbuds to Give (That Aren’t Just Apple AirPods)?

Our top pick: the stylish Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless earbuds. Photo: Courtesy Sennheiser

Where can you find the nicest scarf? Who makes the best wool slippers? Every year, around this time — like holiday classics on the radio — certain gifts become popular all over again. To determine the very best versions of those gifts, we’re talking to experts, adding our own opinions, and even testing products ourselves to find the absolute best (plus several runners-up).

Truly wireless earbuds are expected to be one of this holiday season’s top gifts, according to research from the Consumer Technology Association, and if I asked you to name a brand or model of truly wireless headphones — that is, Bluetooth earbuds that don’t have any wires connecting the earbuds to the device or to each other — Apple’s AirPods would probably be the first and maybe only product to come to mind. But even though these little white, floating earbuds are the most obvious choice, they might not be the slam dunk gift for an audiophile, especially if you’re buying truly wireless headphones for someone who has a non-compatible Android device.

So I went on a hunt to find the best truly wireless earbuds to give this holiday season: AirPod alternatives that are easy to use, that sound at least as good (or better) than AirPods, and that are both Apple- and Android-compatible. And after testing five pairs of truly wireless headphones over the course of two weeks, and judging them on sound quality, style, and comfort, I found the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless earbuds to be the best among them, overall, even though they just hit the market this month.

Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless Earbuds
$300 at Neiman Marcus

We’ve talked about the German audio company’s excellent wireless headphones before; two years ago, my Intelligencer colleague Jake Swearingen named the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless over-ear headphones the best wireless headphones for audiophiles, raving about their lucid range of sound, which is able to clearly project both the deep bass of U.K. trip-hop and the “percussive frippery” of mid-aughts indie electronic music.

But what surprised me about the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless earbuds is how little quality and functionality is lost even with the dramatic downsizing. There’s this scene in A Star Is Born, written and directed by Bradley Cooper, where Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine, explains how he got tinnitus by sticking his head inside the cone-shaped speaker of a record player as a kid because he wanted to be enveloped by the sound. That’s what listening to music through these earbuds feels like. The rest of the world gets a little bit muffled, even if it’s as loud as a subway train rumbling by while I wait on the platform, and the music — or podcast, or even conference call — that I’m listening to shines above, floating from treble to bass and back without any issues. (Also like Jake, I almost missed a subway stop because I was so fully immersed in the music I was listening to — even though, in my case, it was a Shawn Mendes song.)

In terms of packaging and design, the Sennheisers are the most stylish of the truly wireless earbuds I tested. The earbuds have the simple, vintage feel that have become Sennheiser’s signature, with no extra knobs or whistles or unsightly, protruding ear-hugging attachments. The lack of accoutrements makes them comfortable to wear, and I loved how the earbuds vacuum-sealed into my ears, creating that sound-tunnel effect.

The biggest downsides: These earbuds only last 12 hours on a single battery charge, which pales in comparison to the AirPods’ 24-hour battery life. They also cost $300, which is almost twice as much as any of the other truly wireless earbuds I tested. But if you’re looking to maximize sound, style, and comfort, or want to finally upgrade your AirPods, you cannot do better than with these Sennheisers.

Runners-Up

Jabra Elite 65t Alexa-Enabled True Wireless Earbuds with Charging Case – Titanium Black
$120 at Amazon

The Jabra Elite 65t are the closest in sound-quality to the Sennheisers: they have a suction-like grip on your ears and block out ambient noise, and like the more expensive Sennheisers, the Jabras are controlled by tapping the little metal discs on the earbuds themselves, with easy-to-learn gestures. Where the Jabras fall short is in style. The case is made of black plastic, which snaps shut and sometimes sticks, making it tricky to open. It’s also not perfectly magnetic, so when you flip the already-opened case upside down, the earbuds drop out. But the Jabra Elite 65t definitely outperform for the price — about $160, comparable to a pair of AirPods — making them a great option for those looking for a straightforward alternative to the Apple headphones or a less expensive upgrade.

Bose SoundSport Free Truly Wireless Headphones - Bright Orange
$169 at Amazon

Unlike the truly wireless earbuds from Sennheiser or even Jabra, the Bose SoundSport headphones do not block out ambient noise. But that’s a good thing when you’re working out or and need to be aware of your surroundings, and it doesn’t mean the sound quality suffers. The sound from these is bright and clear, especially in an already-quiet room, and they are still able to bring out the bass on some bangers. They’re decidedly sporty headphones, too, especially with their shiny color options, like bright orange and a new “Ultra Violet” purple. There’s also a so-called “Sport Tip,” a plastic hook that helps secure the earbuds to your ears even while you’re bouncing around, which I found to be a bit excessive for everyday wear. One workout-friendly feature that I did like was the ability to pause music and adjust the volume by using the raised buttons at the top, which are a little easier to control when you’re on the move than the sometimes-fiddly touch patterns of the Sennheisers or the Jabras.

Rowkin Ascent Micro True Wireless Earbuds
$100 at Amazon

What’s most striking about the Rowkin Ascent Micro is their size, which is smaller than that of the AirPods, and they also boast superior battery life among truly wireless earbuds, promising 17 hours of use on a single charge. But the sound quality isn’t the best among the earbuds I tested; out of the box, everything sounded a little tinny and bright, and deep bass struggled to really thump (though if you download the accompanying app, you can play with the EQ levels). The style is a little utilitarian, but for the price, the Rowkin Ascent Micro earbuds are a solid option, especially if you’re buying these for a teen or someone else who’s prone to breaking or losing their gadgets.

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What Are the Best Truly Wireless Earbuds to Give?