True Wireless Stereo Earphones (TWS) are completely zero-wire, and its popularity is growing so huge that almost every smartphone owner is looking to get one, and almost every major brands have already launched their own model. In this article, I am not talking about audio quality, but rather, advising you on whether you should scrooge over the TWS or pay top dollar for premium branded ones. What are the difference between a S$300 TWS and a S$30 one?
The 2 earbuds from each ear transmits audio either through Bluetooth or Near Field Magnetic Induction (NFMI). For Bluetooth, there are 2 variants by Qualcomm: the older version passes audio signal from the primary earbud to the secondary earbud through cross-head transmission. The newer TWS Plus technology sends 2 independent signals to both earbuds at the same time. You can read more on the Qualcomm website here. Note that having a newer technology does not guarantee the transmission quality is better. It all boils down to the radio strength that the manufacturers spec on the product.
Price vs. Quality
I have reviewed countless true wireless earbuds, and there are some correlation between price and quality, but in many cases, the line is getting blurred. As a general guide, if you need reliability, then go for premium Tier-1 brands like Sony, Bose, Beyerdynamic, Jabra, Plantronics, etc. that costs S$200 and upwards. There are also brands that offer value-for-money models, which are pretty impressive, like X-mini, Sudio, Creative, Advanced, etc. that prices between S$100-200. If are happy to take risks, you can try researching on crowd-funding brands like Earfun, Mavin, PaMu, and these brands have made a good name for themselves with raving reviews.
A browse at any Popular Bookstore in Singapore will lead you to branded TWS as low as S$59.90 (after discount). Do also support local brands like Creative and X-mini, who makes rather good quality TWS, like the X-mini Liberty (RRP S$69.90) and the latest X-mini Liberty+ (S$119.90). They are good enough for most listeners, enjoyable sound quality, good strong bass and clear treble.
Other than sound quality, there are a few areas that you might need to consider:
- How long can the battery last?
- How robust is the charging case/dock system?
- How good will the earbuds transmit audio to each other? Do they work well in crowded environments?
- Are the accessories easily replaceable?
The most important function of TWS, other than the audio quality, is the battery life. If the buds last only 3 hours, you cannot even finish a movie. Then you have to place them onto the case to charge, and meanwhile, you can’t use them. Then next question: how long do they take to charge? Hopefully not another hour. Thankfully, most TWS earbuds in recent months have capacity of more than 3 hours, with some even up to 13 hours (like the Creative Outlier Gold).
Having said that, there is no need to pursue the numbers game. A 5-6 hour battery life is more than adequate. If you find earbuds that are overall great features while battery life is not massive, just think about whether you really need the super-duper long life.
Perhaps, we should also change our mindset given the earbuds last so long. Since the dawn of TWS, we have been trained to keep charging the earbuds when not in use since they started off with very poor battery life. But if the latest TWS can last 8-10 hours, then there is no need to keep charging. Some TWS cases have option to turn off the charging power, like the Plantronics BackBeat PRO 5100 and the TAC Sportsfre. It helps when the case is so amazingly lightweight.
The other important issue is whether both earbuds can receive audio reliably without any frequent dropouts. Interference will definitely occur once a while, but if it happens to frequently, you will probably get so frustrated that you will stop using them altogether. This is an issue that even branded models face. Typically, the interference occur at places with a lot of wireless radio signals, like an electronics store. The only way to tell is to do intensive research on the models and read reviews from other consumers or review sites, like Music Photo Life (yours truly).
The other consideration is the charging system. While most wireless earphones charge using standard micro-USB or USB-C cables plugged directly to the earphones, TWE earbuds charge through a special case which is plugged to a power source via micro-USB cable. If the case stops working, or worse, if the charging conductor malfunctions, the earbuds will not be able to charge anymore.
What I would look out for is the charging pins and connectors: are they big or tiny? My experience tells me that tiny ones may be susceptible to charging issues due to corrosion and dirt accumulation resulting in harder to remove. A larger surface area allows self-help cleaning, and an IP-rated earbuds may also allow you to rinse them in running water for regular cleaning.
Another no-brainer considerant: is the charging case durable? Imagine if you drop the case and it is broken. There goes your investment. Of all the TWS, the Klipsch T5 TRUE is the best. Build like a tank, styled like a Zippo case, it can withstand rolling in my pocket together with my keys.
With TWS, the points of failure are more than standard wireless earphones, which are a little more than direct wired earphones. Therefore, it’s more important to ensure the TWS you buy come with a good warranty program, or have replacement parts that can be purchased easily even after warranty. Some brands do list SKUs that allow you to purchase individually, like the charging case, even the earbud.
But then again, if TWS are so cheap, why bother? Just buy and use roughly for a few months, and if it gets broken, get a new one. If you have this mindset, then I am quite happy to recommend Alpha & Delta Elite. It is compact, supports wireless charging, and retails at S$99, but currently on launch promo for S$79 with free wireless charging pad. There is 1-year local warranty and service centre is at The Adelphi which gives you peace of mind.
But for me, I am a careful buyer and goes for balance of price and features. I value my purchases and do not discard my electronic purchases casually. To get a decent pair of TWS backed by good design, well-thought functions, and after-sales service, I would expect nothing less than S$90. I’m not generalising that branded earphones will work better, but at least they have an after-sales support to resolve any lemon sets. Hence, I personally prefer to buy local-distributed products with local warranty support than from overseas. I have heard a lot of disgruntled customers who complain some connectivity issues, and where service centres willingly replace the units to achieve customer satisfaction.
So next time when you come across cheap true wireless earphones, think carefully about the risks. The product will be a gem if it delivers long battery life, receives good reviews on audio transmission, and has a reliable charging system, preferably with direct USB charging, like PSB M4U TW1, albeit rare.
Recommendation for True Wireless Earbuds?
I’m working on a comprehensive guide article, but if you are eager for an answer, drop me a comment below on your requirements (listening preference, usage needs, etc.) and I will answer.