Episode 29: The Best Wireless Earbuds

How (and Why) I Spent Many Hundreds of Dollars to Find the Best Solution

I won’t be dealing with these anymore… Photo by rupixen.com on Unsplash

The Background

I became a dad in December of 2018. As a human, I was delighted, astounded, and excited to spend time with my son. As a technologist, I wanted to see how I could use tech to simplify my life while being with him. I started with the powerful computer in my pocket: my iPhone 7+.

I wanted an easy way to answer calls and listen to music/podcasts that didn’t include my son getting tangled up in wires, cords, or adding weight around my neck. This eliminated solutions like my white Apple headphones, my wife’s “neckband” style of Bluetooth headphones, and even my reliable and lightweight Aukey “wireless” headphones which still include a wire to join the two earbuds together.

No, friends, I needed something small, easy, intuitive, and fun. Enter: wireless earbuds.

The Earbud Revolution

Wireless earbuds were, for me, like magic when I saw them for the first time. There were no cords, they hung in your ears without falling out (or so I was told) and some even included voice integration with Alexa, Siri, and other assistants. Cool.

Therefore, I did what any technologist worth $0.02 would do when faced with a newborn child and a non-emergency technology curiosity: I stayed up too late, lost sleep, and did a ton of research into which earbuds I should buy. Good news: now you won’t have to. :)

At the time I began my research - November of 2018 - there were really only two companies that were considered top-tier contenders: Apple and Jabra. Let’s briefly examine each…

The New Kid on the Block: Apple

We’ll begin in September of 2016 when Apple announced the original AirPods. Here’s a link to just that portion of the Fall Keynote, with Apple’s favorite Teddy Bear on stage, Phil Schiller:

The original AirPods got mocked. They looked funny, they were expensive at $150, and reviewers (and comics) pondered how easily they’d fall out of your ears. But despite the initial reception, Apple had a hit: in 2017, they sold 14-16 million pairs; in 2018, sales jumped to 35 million; and in 2019, they sold an ear-plugging 60 million devices. Today, analysts claim that “AirPods make up 60% of the global wireless headphone market…

But Apple wasn’t the first to begin offering good-sounding, premium-quality, easy-to-use, wireless earbuds. Not by a longshot.

The Old Guard: Jabra

Jabra’s been creating audio gear since 1983, which is a long time by tech standards. Based in Denmark, they were acquired by the even-older GN Group in 2000, a company with over 150 years of audio expertise, including building the first telegraph connection from Europe to China. Their achievements in audio engineering and consumer electronics are just as amazing as Apple’s, honestly:

  • In 2014, they created the first made-for-Apple hearing aids and the first wireless headset with heartrate monitoring.

  • In 2011, they created the first Bluetooth 2.1 in-car speakerphone.

  • In 2006, they created the first dual-connection wireless headset, so you could have one headset to connect to BOTH your phone, and computer.

So, yeh: they know what they’re doing…

Fun Fact: Why Bluetooth is Named That

Bluetooth - the wireless technology that allows all wireless earbuds and headphones to work - is named after the Danish King Harald “Blåtand” Gormsson. He united Denmark and Norway in the mid-to-late 900s but also had, er, a sub-optimal dental situation. By that, I mean that he had one, discolored tooth. His nickname “Blåtand” translates literally to “blue tooth”. No, I’m not joking. Check the translation for yourself if you think I’m kidding.

Even the logo/symbol for Bluetooth draws its origins back to the good King! If you combine the two runic letters for H and B (for Harald & Blåtand), you wind up with a combined letter that you might recognize…

The First Purchase - $180 - Jabra

I first purchased a pair of Jabra Elite Active 65t’s. The cost, at the time, was about $180. The reviews were solid and I knew that I wanted something that was rugged enough for me to take outdoors, even into the wet and rainy Pacific Northwest where we live. The Elite Active 65t’s fit nicely in my somewhat large ears and didn’t budge no matter how hard I shook my head. More importantly, they offered one-touch operation for answering calls, summoning Siri, adjusting the volume up or down, or playing/pausing my music and podcasts.

What You Get in the Box

The earbuds come with a convenient charging case (shown in red, below) and can offer an additional two full charges. Even better, just a few minutes in the charging case can provide quite a bit of additional talk time if you’re needing the extra boost. You may notice I’ve got two pairs of earbuds - each a different color - in the photos. I’ll explain that in a bit, ok…?

What You Get in the App

Jabra’s Sound+ app - made for both iOS and Android - is a must to download and install. It’s easy-to-use and includes functions like updating your earbuds’ software (known as “firmware”), changing audio settings, activating the step-counter feature, playing ambient noises to help you focus, and locating your earbuds if you’ve misplaced them. Nice.

Here are a few snapshots from the iOS app including the pages for a voice assistant setup (left), the Find My Jabra function (center), and updating the firmware (right):

My Experience

The Jabra Elite Active 65t’s didn’t disappoint. The sound quality was fantastic for calls and podcasts and average for listening to music. They were very easy to use with one hand, so mission accomplished during my baby time! One of my favorite features: I set the preference in the Sound+ app to announce my calls. This was an AWESOME idea. Now, when the phone rang, instead of having to pull the phone out of my pocket to see who was calling, my Jabra 65t’s would announce the caller and then - I love this! - give me the option to answer or reject the call using my voice.

VERY NICE feature. Here, I’d been looking for one-hand operation and Jabra exceeded that desire by providing me with me zero-hand operation. Well done, Jabra. Well done.

As promised in their literature, my earbuds were fully sweat-resistant. Actually, they were way more than sweat-resistant, so check this out…

One day, not too soon after purchasing my earbuds, I left them in my pocket - out of their charging case - and then promptly forgot about them. Because my wife is so diligent about our laundry, my brand new Jabra Elite Active 65t wireless earbuds went through an entire wash cycle in our washing machine.

For 24 minutes.

When I realized where I’d left my earbuds, I went up to the hamper to fetch them, saw that it was empty, and ran to the washing machine. By then, it was too late: the washing cycle had finished. My heart sunk. I fished out my still wet earbuds and dried them. Five minutes later, figuring all was lost, I stuck them in my ears and hit the power button.

They powered on as before, instantly paired to my iPhone and then… worked perfectly. I could hear both music and my callers with the same clarity as I had before washing them. But… how?!?

Well, friends, my Jabra Elite Active 65t are rated “IP56” which means that they’re not only extremely good at preventing dust from getting inside the units, but they’re also rated as being really water-resistant. Well, OK, but the tests to achieve those ratings were only conducted by researchers for a maximum of three minutes, not a 24-minute washing cycle.

Did I get lucky? Maybe. Or Jabra is very good at what it does. Keep the IP rating in mind when making your purchase.

The Good

The Jabra’s fit nicely in my ears, sounded amazing, and everyone could hear me plain as day when I spoke to them. The one-hand and zero-hand functionality is incredible, easy to get used to, and has - as I’d hoped - made parenting while listening to a podcast or taking a call far easier. Also, did I mention that the earbuds went through a 24-minute washing cycle like a champ? Right. Lastly listening to music was “fine” or “average” but got the job done.

The Bad

About 33% of the time, my callers report hearing an echo when I’m using my Jabra Elite Active 65t’s. That’s a not-insignificant number. And so I’m clear, I didn’t have a faulty unit. I lost my first charging case and wound up buying a brand new, second, bright-red pair of 65t’s because replacement charging cases weren’t available. WhatEVER, Jabra. I can, therefore, honestly report that the same echo problem occurs with the second pair. Could it be my slightly older iPhone 7+? Perhaps. But, honestly: it’s still not OK.

Lastly, a small detail: it seems that only one Jabra earbud - the right one - powers on when I place both in my ears. That’s easily solved by powering on the left earbud by pressing its main function button and holding for a few seconds, but still: it’s a $180 pair of earbuds (or were): find a way to turn them both on when they’re placed in my ears, Jabra!

The New

Since purchasing both pairs of my Elite Active 65t’s, Jabra has released a newer model: Elite Active 75t’s. The newer model features an improved battery life, a slimmer design that’s better for smaller ears, a longer charging time on the charging case, better microphones, and - if you can believe it - higher IPX ratings for dust and water. The new IP rating (IP57) indicates that you can take the earbuds into water for up to 30 minutes and a depth of about 40 inches so… you can actually take these bad boys swimming with you or into the shower. Not surprisingly, Jabra markets them as “waterproof”.

Calls in the pool or shower? Uh, no, not for me, thank you. But listening to podcasts or tunes while showering or working out while doing laps? Uh, yes, please. :)

The problem: the huge number of 1-star reviews from customers about their 75t’s indicates that there’s probably a known issue with the left earbud not charging. As a result, I can’t recommend the 75t’s.

Which Model Should I Get?

As I can’t recommend the Elite Active 75t’s, buy the Elite Active 65t’s. They used to be $180 but are now a svelt $120. That’s an insanely great price for such amazing earbuds since they’re literally half the price of Apple’s Airpod Pros. A reminder: try them on first, if you can. Not every earbud fits every ear.

The Second Purchase - $250 - Apple

If you have an iPhone, read on. If you don’t… “meh”. The true joys of the AirPods Pro can’t really be had on an Android device, so just keep that in mind.

My wife got a pair of Apple Airpods Pro and loved them. I got jealous. They looked sleek, they worked the second she put them in your ears, and the interface to connect them on her iPhone was dreamy. I was hooked. I bought a pair for myself. It pissed off my wife - and rightly so - because I already owned two pairs of Jabra earbuds. So I promised to sell those. That, surprisingly, hasn’t happened yet. More on that in a bit.

What You Get in the Box

Apple’s packaging is second to none: their products are sleek, white, and clean. The Pro version of Apple’s best selling earbuds is no different: it comes packaged with a small, sexy charging and additional rubber ear tips to help nestle the devices in your ear correctly. You get up to 4.5 hours of listening time or up to 3.5 hours of talk time on a single charge. Apple claims the charging case offers “more than 24 hours of listening time or more than 18 hours of talk time” and that “if you charge your AirPods Pro for 5 minutes in their case, you get around 1 hour of listening time or talk time.”

I found those stats to be about the same in my experience.

What You Get in the iOS Interface

Because Apple makes both the iPhone and the Airpods Pro, the seamless integration between the hardware and iOS amazing. Once paired, simply opening the Airpods Pro case near your phone results in a near-immediate on-screen status report. That report shows your product rotating in a sexy 360-degree fashion along with the battery status for your product in green:

The AirPods Pro are built around providing you with an amazing sound experience. What you listen to should sound great so Apple’s engineered these puppies to make your music and audio sound incredible. More amazingly, the Pro version of Apple’s AirPods includes a built-in feature to cancel outside noise. It works incredibly well and is one of the main reasons to buy a pair of these beauties.

Through iOS, Apple gives you several, easy ways to switch between the various sound modes on the Airpods Pro.

  • One way to switch is by opening up the iOS Control Center and tapping on your AirPods Pro volume controls:

  • Another way is to ask Siri to turn on or off “Noise Cancellation” or “Audio Transparency”

  • The final way is to press and hold the touchpad area of either AirPod Pro which switches between modes.

Tips & Tricks

Because sound is so important to Apple’s AirPods Pro, you should ensure that you’ve got the best sound possible. And, to help you do that, Apple’s included an audio test that you can launch from your iPhone (sorry Androiders!). Apple calls this test the awkward-to-say “Ear Tip Fit Test”. The good news: it’s an excellent thing to include on this kind of high-quality audio equipment. The bad news: the audio test is impossible to find, so I’ve made a short video to assist you're finding it:

For those who’d like a deeper look at some of the tips and tricks available on the AirPods Pro, may I suggest this useful video, hosted by a woman who - given her energy - probably eats Uranium for breakfast.

My Experience

The Apple Airpod Pros were amazing at some things and, honestly, disappointing at others. The tight integration with iOS is unbeatable if you own an iPhone. And the design and tech inside the earbuds are off the charts. One example: each AirPod has sensors on it, so it knows if it’s in your ear or not. This allows for some neat tricks. For example, as soon as you place one AirPod in your ears, they both power on and set themselves as your preferred audio device (if BlueTooth is turned on). Plus the active noise cancellation feature is disturbingly amazing. One second, you hear background sounds; the next moment… they’re just kinda gone. Neat.

The Good

The audio quality on the AirPods Pro is outstanding for music, calls, podcasts, and more. Basses and trebles sound great so your music really comes alive. I didn’t experience that with the Jaba Elite Actives. The tight Siri integration allows you to speak to your phone (or to change the settings of your AirPods) providing zero-hand operation. The touch bars on each AirPod are angled in an awkward way. This makes answering/ending phone calls or starting/stopping music a bit awkward until you’ve gotten used to it, but you will: hang in there.

Apple’s earbuds really do stay in your ears and don’t fall out. I shook my head pretty vigorously with them in thinking they’d fall out for sure. They didn’t. I guess they tested that before selling 5 billion pairs, right? Right.

Another nice touch, once you’ve paired the Airpods Pro with any device that’s registered to your AppleID account (Phones, computers, tablets), the AirPods Pro automatically becomes available an audio option on all of your other AppleID devices. That’s a nice time saver. It’s also a smart move by Apple: pairing your AirPods Pro with your AppleID allows you to locate them if you misplace them just like you can with your Apple computers or phones. Use iCloud or the Find My app and you can make one or both of the earbuds play a repeated tone.

That will help you find your AirPods in one of the four locations where they always wind up being: in your pockets, under a sofa cushion, under the bed or wedged between the side of the driver’s seat and where you click in your seatbelt.

The Bad

When my wife puts in her AirPods Pro and turns on the Active Noise Cancellation Mode, the outside world disappears. She can walk right past me while I’m talking to her - even in a loud voice - and not hear a single thing I’m saying. That’s how well her AirPods work for her. I think that’s pretty impressive.

Do they work that way for me? No. I can hear the noise cancellation kick in, but I can still hear the outside world quite easily. Using Apple’s Ear Tip Fit Test resulted in a suggestion to adjust or try a different ear tip. Apple provides three, differently-sized ear tips with each pair of AirPods. I tried all three of them and got the same result with each. I’ll chalk it up to my ears being big or misshaped or not “Apple Ears”.

Your mileage may vary. Once the pandemic ends, go to an Apple Store or try a friend’s AirPods Pro to see if they work well for you in this regard before you purchase them.

The second problem worth sharing is a doozy: my AirPods crapped out on me within weeks of opening them. The sound in both ears was fine at first but then… it sounded like there was some kind of rattling paper in both of my ears. It made listening to music or to using my Airpods Pro for voice calls impossible.

I got in touch with Apple via their tech support chat and explained the problem. I’d purchased AppleCare+ for my AirPods but was NOT charged money for the exchange, which was the right thing, given the timeline. Instead, Apple simply offered to send me a new pair in exchange for my malfunctioning pair. The chat with their tech support was easy, quick, and I had my new AirPods within a few days. The new pair is working well so far, but…

It appears that several THOUSAND other people have had the same issue as me. Apple: if that many people are reporting a problem with your product, you need to admit you have a problem and be proactive, not reactive, about it, please.

It’s worth noting, my wife has had ZERO problems with her AirPods Pro. She loves them and you might as well, especially if you’re an Apple-or-bust kind of consumer. And, so I’m fair, Apple sold 60 million pairs of AirPods last year. About 2100 people posted they had this problem on Apple’s discussion page. That’s 0.0035% of the total number sold, an extremely low figure.

For those of you that die-hard Apple fans, here’s a link to purchase Apple’s best-selling and iconic earbuds:

My Final Recommendation

For me, the choice is clear when I compare everything about both earbud choices side-by-side: Jabra wins, hands down.

Advantage Apple
  • Incredible sound quality for music, podcasts, and phone calls

  • Active Noise Cancellation makes the sometimes loud world fade into the background.

  • Seamless integration with iOS and AppleID for those who already own an iPhone or other Apple hardware

Advantage Jabra
  • The battery life on both Jabra models is better than Apple’s.

  • I can simultaneously pair my Jabra’s to two different devices, say an iPhone and a Macbook Pro. That means if I open my phone and my computer, my earbuds will work with both devices instantly: there’s no additional need to tell each device to switch to using the Jabra. Not so with the Airpod Pros.

  • Thanks to my Jabra Sound+ app, it’s easy to know when it’s time to update the earbud firmware. I’m unclear about firmware updates for my Airpod Pros.

  • Any earbuds that can survive a 24-minute washing machine cycle like a champ with no damage gets my vote. The newer Elite Active 75t’s are fully water-proof can be used in the shower or pool (for up to 30min). The Airpod Pros are not waterproof, so don’t try taking them into the shower, the pool, or the washing machine, please.

  • Jabra’s can pair either with Siri or Amazon Alexa as a voice assistant. The Apple Airpod Pros… just work with Siri.

  • My Jabra’s can announce numbers and callers.

Pricing: $200 for the Elite Active 75t, $120 for Elite Active 65t, and $240 for the Airpod Pros

Water resistance: both the Elite Active 65t (IP56) and Elite Active 75t (IP57) are better-rated for water resistance than the Airpod Pros (IPX4) which don’t even have enough data to give a dust-resistance rating (that’s what the “X” indicates).

If you’re an Apple-only kind of consumer, the AirPods Pro is a fantastic set of earbuds that will deliver you a premium experience. You’ll pay more for that experience and, in my opinion, get less for that financial investment, but the sound quality will leave you wanting more.

Just spring for the extra AppleCare+ package, OK?

And that’s a wrap for today’s episode, everyone. Thank you again, for reading and for being a subscriber. Let me know your thoughts & questions in the comments section. All subscribers can read & leave comments.

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Lastly, please know that some of the links in this story pay me a small commission if you decide to purchase a product that I’ve recommended. While it’s not a lot of money, I need to be transparent. Every product and service I recommend are those I’ve personally purchased, tested, or use myself. Other recommendations may include products that I’ve deeply researched before making a recommendation.