Tested: The Best Totally Wireless Earbuds – Outside

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For exercising with music, wire-free headphones are the holy grail. But are Apple’s AirPods the closest to perfection? We tested half a dozen of its competitors to find out.
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When Apple released the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus this year with no headphone jack, it didn’t bother me. I was already a convert to Bluetooth earbuds—the not totally wireless kind with their cord looping behind your neck. I suspected that the unveiling of the $160 AirPods—the supposedly perfect listening device for iPhone users—was a cheap ploy to grab more of our dollars. I also suspected that they would sound lousy, based on Apple’s track record with earbuds and laptop speakers. I also had no faith whatsoever that they would stay in my ears during the one activity I routinely need them for: running. 
Well, after two big delays that got me even more worried, I’ve received the AirPods ($160). I've been using them for a week and, as that god of song Eddie Money crooned, I think I’m in love. I’d spent months testing some of the many other brands that have jumped in to fill this niche, with varying degrees of success, and the AirPods beat them all. It’s not a slam dunk—there are good reasons to consider some of the competitors, not the least of which is that it’s good to support the little guys (many of them Kickstarter projects) and keep the market competitive. But here’s what I’ve learned from using Apple’s newest release.
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If (a) you are not an iPhone user, and/or (b) you would rather support younger companies who have some of their own clever ideas, here are some other names to consider.
Until the AirPods came along, this was my favorite pair of 2016. They’re the most compact model I’ve seen—just two small cylinders and nothing extra—and they produce amazing sound for such a tiny device. I liked the simple old-fashioned on/off button, which was a welcome contrast to other companies’ use of touch controls or optical sensors to detect that they’re in your ears. Their shortcoming, aside from the $300 price, is a not-infrequent loss of connection in one ear or the other that lasts about one second. This was a problem for me because I run with my phone in my shorts pocket; if you wear your phone in an armband case (i.e. closer to your head), you’ll probably be fine. The company’s new models—the Muse 5 ($180) and Rio 3 ($130)—will be released this month.
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After being one of the first to market with its debut model, the $300 Dash, Bragi undercut the AirPods’ price with a simplified second release that replaces touch controls with a power button, removes the onboard music storage, and does away with fitness tracking. Where the Dash had serious connection issues, the Headphone has been much more reliable, and they sound very good, although at top volume they fall a bit short of the Apple and Erato. Like the earbuds themselves, the charging case is noticeably bigger than with any of the others, so you’re less likely to bring it with you when you leave the house. The Headphone is available for preorder on Kickstarter, with delivery expected in January.
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This well-designed Swedish import was one of my favorites off the bat, largely because the design is so sleek: a lipstick-size cylinder that slides open, James Bond style, to reveal the buds nestled in their drawer. Sound was above average, but battery life was lower here than with the others. More problematic was the difficulty with pairing and the frequent loss of connectivity. I can’t totally recommend the M-1’s, but this is a company I would keep an eye on.
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A solid pair of medium-size buds that connected just fine with the iPhone and had very nice sound, though they’re really intended for Android users.
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