Apple released the AirPods Pro in October of 2019, and countless people (including myself) instantly went online to buy them, only to see the steep price tag and retreat hastily. When I first saw that the flashy AirPods Pro cost $250, I was stunned. Simply put, I could not afford Apple’s newest product without making my bank account look like my love life — empty.
Wireless earbuds are the newest fad in headphone technology, and I knew I wanted a pair for myself. I began to look for alternatives to the AirPods Pro that would be a bit easier on the ol’ pocketbook. Luckily for me, headphone-making companies everywhere have made cheaper alternatives to compete with Apple’s line of AirPods.
Have any of these competitors succeeded in besting the lofty AirPods Pro? I looked at three underrated wireless earbuds on the market and ran them through a series of tests to see how well they performed. Namely, I tested them all by making calls, jogging a few miles (sheesh, the things I do for these articles), and by comparing them to my favorite home speaker to examine their sound quality.
Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Wireless Earbuds ($100)
There are a few nice things about the Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 earbuds. For starters, the noise cancellation is incredibly effective. Additionally, you can pair the buds with the Soundcore app, on which you can customize your sound experience. You can make presets for your music, so if you want deeper bass for working out and a nice balance of tones for your car ride, it is convenient to toggle between modes. Their relatively small battery life (seven hours) is not a problem thanks to the case, which can provide charge for 28 hours.
The few nice things about these earbuds are overshadowed, however, by the many flaws. The sound quality is good — that is, if you enjoy listening to music at the volume of a mouse’s squeak. Once you turn the volume up, the quality dissipates into a mess of distortion. Naturally, the bass levels of these earbuds are overwhelmingly low. Once I went into the app and increased the lows, the quality of the highs suffered greatly.
I also have issues with the fit and the design of these earbuds. They come with five different sizes of buds — which did nothing to stop its tiny frame from quickly becoming dislodged in my ear. These earbuds spectacularly failed my “jog test”, as I often had to reach up to my ear to keep them from falling out. The earbuds have stems similar to those of the AirPods Pro — but look far worse. Their overall design, combined with the unattractive angle at which the stems stick out, would make a passerby wonder if they were looking at AirPods or generic $20 earbuds from Walmart.
Overall, that’s what these earbuds aim to be — a cheap knockoff of the top wireless earbuds on the market. Even at only $100, I would not invest in these earbuds. I would be willing to bet that the generic pair at Walmart is better.
JBL Reflect Flow Truly Wireless Earbuds ($150)
The JBL Reflect Flow earbuds were made for sport. They were designed to fit snugly in your ear and play music at very high quality and at very high volumes — and they deliver. The fit of the earbuds is so perfect, I’m convinced you could skydive in these and the earbuds wouldn’t be jostled. Sadly, I didn’t get to test that out, but they did pass my “jog test” with flying colors. They boast a 10-hour battery life, with a case that charges the buds quickly and gives 20 hours of charge. They have four different color options to choose from, including bright green and blue colors.
The sound quality in these earbuds is incredible — even when played at high volumes, the Reflect Flow buds deliver a crisp sound across all frequencies. However, I was a bit disappointed to find out you could not adjust the equalization with these buds, a feature that is becoming commonplace in wireless earbuds.
These earbuds don’t hold up by many standards other than sport. You can make phone calls with the earbuds in, but the buds don’t catch much of your voice. While on a phone call, I was repeatedly told to speak louder. Another gripe I have with these earbuds is they aren’t very convenient — the reason they fit so well is because the frame of the earbud is gargantuan. I often have to pull my ear back in order to jam the frame in my ear.
If you’re looking for a good pair of earbuds to take to your workouts, I would highly recommend the JBL Reflect Flow wireless earbuds. The sound quality is unmatchable. However, if you plan on using your new earbuds for anything other than sport, I would recommend a different pair — and at $150, you could just get the original Apple AirPods for $10 less. And for all-around purposes, those are far superior.
Soul ST-XS2 True Wireless Earbuds ($65-$80)
Considering they’re the least-pricey earbuds on this list, the Soul ST-XS2 wireless earbuds outperform expectations. The sleek design ensures an easy fit, comfortability, and a snugness that will keep them from falling out. The earbuds come with three different sizes of buds and earpieces, so you are certain to find the combination to fit your ear perfectly. There are four different colors to choose from, and they look slick when you have them in. They don’t advertise a noise cancellation feature but they do a fantastic job of blocking out noise.
The sound quality is really nice, and pleasant to listen to at any level. Additionally, these earbuds crushed my phone call test — I could hear the other person very clearly, and I was told my voice was transmitted flawlessly.
I have a few minor issues with these earbuds. The battery life isn’t great at only five hours. Luckily, the case atones for this by providing up to 25 hours of charge. I also disliked the buttons on the earbuds. They’re difficult to press, and when they were in my ear, pressing them felt like I was jamming the buds into my skull. I couldn’t adjust equalization with the earbuds — not that I needed to though, the music sounds great by itself.
Overall, the Soul ST-XS2 earbuds are easily the best of the earbuds I reviewed — and boasting a price tag of only $65 to $80, these are easily the best alternative to the Apple AirPods Pro.