Earphone technology has changed dramatically over the years. Cheap, cabled versions have given way to noise-canceling models, followed by Bluetooth earphones that don't need to be plugged into a music source.
In the endless quest for smaller and lighter gadgets, it was inevitable the last remaining cable – the one that connected the two earbuds – would also disappear. Sure enough, that's exactly what's happening. Smaller companies such as Earin and Bragi started the craze, with Apple and others joining the party by the end of 2016.
On paper, and in slick marketing videos, cable-free earphones seem a great idea for travelers. They're small, light, sleek and discrete – all features travelers love. So, if you're in the market for a new set of earphones for your next trip, you should head straight out and buy a pair, right?
Not so fast.
Over the last couple of months, I've been intensively testing two different pairs of totally-wireless Bluetooth earphones. Pioneers Earin sent their M-1 model, a tiny pair of earbuds with no extra features. Bragi shipped out The Dash, a larger, fancier and more expensive version. In each case, I've spent dozens of hours with them in my ears: at home, around town, working in cafes and in planes and airports.
The Earin M-1's come in a small metal case that doubles as a charger and a way of ensuring you don't lose them. That'd be easy to do since without the cable connecting the two buds, one or both could (and have) easily fall out of a pocket. In my ears, they're super-comfortable thanks to the variety of Comply foam tips that shipped with them, and rarely work themselves loose.
Sound quality is generally fine. There's a little background electronic noise, but it's only really noticeable in the silence between tracks or long pauses in podcasts.
Without having a microphone, or any kind of controls on the earphones themselves, the M-1's are best for long, uninterrupted listening sessions. If you get a call, you'll need to answer it on your phone. The same goes for changing the volume or starting, stopping and skipping tracks, which is a hassle.
The Dash is a different beast in many ways. Physically, the case is noticeably larger, as are the earbuds themselves. I also found them less comfortable for extended wear, and more likely to come loose, no matter which of the included tips I used.
Where the Dash shines is in its vast range of features. With a complicated mixture of taps, presses, and swipes, you can control almost everything from the earbuds themselves. Volume, starting and stopping music, taking calls, and much more, is accompanied by a disembodied voice telling you what's happening.
You can track exercise, including steps, cadence and pulse rate, and turn on “transparency mode” to let the sounds of the outside world intrude when you need them to. You can even load music and podcasts onto the Dash's inbuilt storage, and listen to them without being connected to a phone or anything else. That's particularly useful while running, or underwater. Yep, the Dash is waterproof down to three feet as well.
Sound quality was acceptable, although the ill-fitting tips let in more outside sound than I would have liked. In terms of packing a lot of tech into a small, wearable device, though, the Dash is hard to beat.
The Problems With Going Cable-Free
So what's the problem with them, then?
The first is one that's common to all totally-wireless earphones: the human head.
All that bone and brain blocks radio signals, which makes it hard for Bluetooth earphones to stay connected and synchronized. With this type of earphones, the sound source connects to a "primary" earbud, which then connects to its partner in your other ear.
While everything worked well when seated with my phone in front of me, it didn't while on the move. I needed to keep my phone on the same side of my body as that primary earbud, to avoid the sound cutting out. Even then, though, I noticed ongoing audio glitches on both models. Sound will cut out, or appear to “move” from one ear to the other, on a regular basis. It's distracting, to say the least.
Ill-fitting earbuds are also a bigger problem with this type of earphone than others, because of the lack of wires. Traditional earphones stay connected to your phone if they fall out of your ears, and the cable connecting the two earbuds on standard Bluetooth models keeps them around your neck.
Not so with totally-wireless versions, though -- if they fall out, they'll hit the ground a second later. Depending on where you are at the time, that could end up being a very expensive second.
The biggest issue for travelers, though, is the battery life. While manufacturers will happily throw around figures like ‘up to 15 hours on the go', they're misleading. I got three hours of battery life from a single charge on the M-1's, and only a little more from the Dash.
A full charge of either model took up to two hours, and since they needed to sit in their cases while doing so, it meant they couldn't be used. So yes, while you'll get 10-15+ hours of total use out of your earphones, they'll be in their case for up to eight hours during that time as well.
Other cable-free earphones (Apple's Airpods, for instance, or Bragi's The Headphone) promise faster charging and longer battery life, but even those cap out at a theoretical 5-6 hours. That's better, sure, but still not long enough to get you through a decent bus ride or long-haul flight.
For lengthy travel days, you're still going to need to pack a second set of earphones or wait impatiently while your fancy Bluetooth ones charge up again.
Overall, I'm conflicted by cable-free earphones like these. On the one hand, the technology (especially of The Dash) is very impressive. These devices pack a lot into a small space, and if you only want to use them while commuting or working in a cafe for a couple of hours, you'll probably like them a lot.
For travel, though, they're less impressive. That short battery life is a real problem – if I'm spending upwards of $150 on a pair of earphones, I don't expect to have to use a second set every few hours. It might almost be forgivable if the sound quality was amazing and glitch-free, but that's not the case either.
Apple's Airpods are currently the best of a mediocre bunch, but while they're better than the others in some areas (charging and battery life), they're worse in others (the one-size-fits-all approach doesn't fit everyone's ear canals, and an open design lets in a lot of the background noise you're trying to avoid).
Until the technology and design improve then regular travelers should leave cable-free earphones on the shelf. As old-school as a dangling cable might seem, it's better than not being able to use your earphones for hours each travel day or losing an earbud at a crucial moment.
Do I think things will improve? Yes, undoubtedly. This is new technology, and like all tech products, the early versions are never the best. Within a few years, wireless will undoubtedly be king.
For now, though, a good pair of cabled, noise-isolating earphones costs under $100 (I've been using these Shure SE215's for years), and provide better sound and avoidance of outside noise, with no battery concerns. For now, they're staying on my packing list.