You no longer need to spend a fortune on good wireless headphones

While entry-level and mid-range wireless headphones have long remained mediocre, a new generation brings features and quality that no longer has much to envy of premium models.

Nothing Ear 1 headphones

Nothing Ear 1 headphones // Source: Frandroid

Five years ago, in 2016, Apple laid the foundations for a small revolution by launching AirPods, its first wireless headphones. Admittedly, these were not the first models of their kind since this title goes to Dash de Bragi two years before. Even more well-known brands like Samsung (Gear IconX) or Jabra (Elite Sport) have beaten the pawn at Apple. But it is clear that it is the Cupertino company that popularized this format of headphones … and their price.

For five years, wireless headphones have rhymed with substantial budgets. If the first AirPods had been launched at 179 euros, the AirPods 2 and the AirPods Pro, both launched in 2019, were offered at 229 and 279 euros respectively. However, Apple being the large majority in the wireless headphone market with more than 50% of the market share that year, there was no reason for the competitors to launch headphones at a much more accessible price. Wireless headphones were a luxury item and should be assumed to be such. Admittedly, there were many models at lower prices, but the flaws were still numerous: poor sound quality, non-existent comfort and, above all, disastrous connection stability.

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A few months ago, during the video test of the Sony WF-1000XM4, I was looking to define the wireless headphones market. To do this, I assumed that the models under 100 euros offered audio quality “Rather blah”, a comfort “Rather blah”, functions “Sometimes non-existent” and rarely noise reduction. Three months later, I have to beat my ass.

Apple loses its luster

During the summer of 2021, manufacturers have continued to launch wireless headphones. It must be said that this is one of the most promising types of audio product at the moment. Market analysis institutes have concluded that 74% of stereo Bluetooth products purchased in 2021 will be wireless headphones. Suffice to say that everyone wants to take their share of the pie. Especially since Apple, long in a hegemonic situation in this market is gradually starting to falter. As we have seen, the American firm had more than 50% of market share in 2019. Last year, this figure fell to 31% and the Couterpoint Research institute forecasts an additional drop of 4 points in 2021, at 27% market share. A decline even as the number of headphones sold this year is expected to increase by 33%, from 233 million to 310 million units.

Apple AirPods and AirPods Pro

Apple AirPods and AirPods Pro // Source: Frandroid

What would explain this decrease is above all the rise in power of other manufacturers and above all an increasingly attractive offer, especially on entry and mid-range. “Apple will maintain its number one position thanks to its loyal customers, but its market share will inevitably fall with increasingly intense competition”, analyse ainsi Counterpoint Research.

And this intensive competition has several names. We think for example of Xiaomi, Samsung and JBL, respectively 2nd, 3rd and 4th market players, but also of manufacturers who seem to have found a formula that works to offer accessible headphones with more than adequate sound, excellent comfort and even effective noise reduction.

The Huawei FreeBuds 4i transducer grid

The Huawei FreeBuds 4i are offered at 80 euros // Source: Frandroid

I have spent the last two months testing a number of true wireless headphones from all walks of life, but mainly models under 150 euros. And it’s an understatement to say that I had a hard time deciding between them. Whether it is Nothing ear (1) (99 euros), OnePlus Buds Pro (149 euros), Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 (149 euros), Huawei FreeBuds 4i (79 euros), Honor Earbuds 2 Lite (99 euros) or Beats Studio Buds (149 euros), all have very strong arguments to make. And it’s not over. In this market for headphones less than 150 euros, we can even count Xiaomi with its Redmi Buds 3 Pro – whose test will arrive this weekend – and even Jabra. The Danish manufacturer, accustomed until now to only offering high-end wireless headphones – before their price drops when the next generation is released – has taken the lead by launching its Elite 3, wireless headphones at 79 euros.

Widespread active noise reduction

All these headphones without exception offer active noise reduction. This function, which was still the prerogative of the most premium models two years ago, is now accepted and has penetrated the entire market. So much so that when Qualcomm – which manufactures the Bluetooth chips fitted to many of its headphones – conducted a survey to ask consumers what purchasing criteria were important to them, 71% answered noise reduction. A criterion that comes first, ahead of high definition (68%), lossless (64%) and 3D audio (57%). Today, active noise reduction is ubiquitous in true wireless headphones. And that wasn’t the case just six months ago.

The Jabra Elite 75T

The Jabra Elite 75T // Source: Frandroid

Difficult to assess the role of Qualcomm in this generalization of noise reduction on wireless headphones. But it is undeniable that the American firm has played a role by offering various manufacturers its own noise reduction solutions. It is no coincidence that these headphones were launched at the start of the year even as Qualcomm presented its solution last September. Adaptive ANC, a turnkey formula for manufacturers to add active noise reduction to their headphones. It is precisely this Adaptive ANC that enabled Jabra to update its Elite 75T to add active noise reduction.

Headphones not always designed by brands

This increase in quality on the entry and mid-range could also be explained by reduced research and development costs. A manufacturer told me recently that it was complicated to fight in this increasingly saturated market because of the number of products launched by certain brands, suggesting that some manufacturers were content to buy white-label headphones from factories, to modify the software to adapt it to their application and to attach their logo to it.

OnePlus Buds Pro headphones

OnePlus Buds Pro headphones // Source: Frandroid

If the claim is complicated to verify, the fact remains that the Huawei FreeBuds 4i and the Honor Earbuds 2 Lite are strangely similar – even though the two companies are now separate – that nothing seems as different from a pair of Xiaomi headphones than another pair of Xiaomi headphones and that the OnePlus Buds Pro have almost nothing in common with the previous ones OnePlus Buds and OnePlus Buds Z. Either builders change their design language every six months … or they buy elsewhere.

Sufficient audio quality for the general public

There remains a size criterion for wireless headphones: they are intended for listening to music and the audio quality therefore has a primordial role. However, here too the manufacturers have made great progress. While they have long been inspired by the open design of AirPods, most of them have realized that Apple’s headphones are one of a kind. No competitor manages to offer such endless audio quality. From then on, they mostly fell back to in-ear models, often with more than correct sound.

Let’s get it right, the audio quality is often the poor relation of these headphones at less than 150 euros, with a few exceptions – we think for example of the Sennheiser CX True Wireless or to Divacore AntiPods 2 – but it remains largely acceptable given the price range. Wireless headphones are by definition Bluetooth and, until Qualcomm released its new codec aptX Lossless, Bluetooth does not allow you to listen to files in CD quality. In addition, they are often used in mop, the music serving mainly to accompany the user. Audio quality is important, but it must be admitted that talking about sound signature, dynamics, scene or frequency response only concerns a small number of users who are sensitive to these qualities. In the State of Sound study from 2021, Qualcomm found that audio quality was only one of the main criteria for 51% of wireless headphone users, on par with battery life and only three points ahead of price (48%) and six points ahead of comfort (45%).

Les Sennheiser CX True Wireless

The Sennheiser CX True Wireless // Source: Frandroid

The builders have understood this. Now most of them offer audio quality which, although not breathtaking, is decent and flawless.

The truth is that these headphones between 70 and 150 euros are more than enough for the general public. Admittedly, not all are equal, some may have big concerns about active noise reduction, others connectivity problems and the 250 euros models from Sony, Bose, Jabra or Apple remain benchmarks thanks to their mastery of the end. at the end of the day, comfort, sound quality, noise reduction or autonomy. But today, we can without fear acquire a pair of headphones for 90 euros without ending up disappointed.

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