True wireless earbuds’ main benefit is convenience; after all, you can connect without any wires, how cool. As it stands, though, wireless tech is only as good as its connectivity and there are a handful of obstacles that a Bluetooth signal must overcome in order to successfully transmit data.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on February 2, 2020, to add information about Bluetooth multiconnect and true wireless earbuds with Qualcomm True Wireless Stereo Plus integration.
How true wireless earbuds work
Just like traditional wireless headphones, true wireless headphones receive a Bluetooth signal from your phone via a 2.4GHz wavelength. The path of transfer renders your phone a transmitter and the earbuds receivers. Unlike typical wireless earbuds—which receive the signal simultaneously since the earbuds are connected by wire—truly wireless earbuds designate one earbud as the primary receiver, and the other becomes the secondary receiver.
Of course, there are exceptions like the Earin M-2. According to Earin CTO Olle Linden, “A 10MHz signal is transferred through the head, from ear to ear, via magnetic induction not around the head like the [Earin M-1].” Each M-2 earbud houses an antenna system and allows for a more stable connection.
As stated before, there are a few ways that the environment can hinder your truly wireless earbuds’ performance. Here’s a quick rundown of what they are and how to minimize interference in a given situation.
As Bluetooth earbud users know all too well, connectivity issues arise as soon as that phone is plopped into your pocket. It’s not just your true wireless earbuds, it’s a problem across the board.
|Pocket to earbuds (dBm)||Far pocket to earbuds (dBm)||Signal strength: 0m from phone||Signal strength: 1m from phone||Signal strength: 2m from phone||Signal strength: 3m from phone||Signal strength: 5m from phone|
|JLab JBuds Air||-42||-50||-22||-45||-59||-63||-83|
|Rowkin Ascent Micro||-50||-55||-29||-48||-55||-57||-72|
|OnePlus Bullets Wireless||-42||n/a||-23||-39||-55||-63||-72|
With the table above, we measured dBm to gather signal strength information for a variety of true wireless earbuds and the OnePlus Bullets Wireless earbuds for comparison. The closer to zero the dBm measurement, the stronger the signal.
As you can see, distance makes a difference because the signal has to travel a further distance and relay your media in a timely, nearly immediate manner. Since air is a factor that can degrade connection quality, it’s no wonder that our bodies serve as impediments too.
While there’s no way to render your body a massless substance, you can try placing your phone in a closer pocket, say a breast pocket or even a coat pocket as most of them rest above the hips. This lessens the distance the signal has to travel and reduces the amount of mass it has to penetrate.
The 2.4GHz band is highly trafficked
You can get a read on the FCC’s 2.4GHz breakdown if you’re so inclined, but all you need to know is that Wi-Fi and other wireless products all ride the same 2.4GHz wave so to speak. It’s comparable to how I-85 is an inefficient wreck to drive on since it’s the only viable option for commuters to get in and out of Atlanta.
This explains why connectivity can be dubious in places like a gym, the subway, or on city sidewalks. There’s just too much signal interference. To counteract this, some earbuds use the path of least resistance within the 2.4GHz band to make for a more streamlined data transfer.
There isn’t much that we listeners can do about this barrier, other than avoiding these places as much as possible when using true wireless earbuds. Of course, you could shell out for the more premium earbud options like Earin’s or Bose’s, but that comes with a higher asking price.
If the stuttering doesn’t bother you much, it’ll quickly become a negligible hiccup but if it’s too frustrating, you may be better off using wired or regular wireless headphones until truly wireless ones advance a bit more.
True wireless earbuds are small, they have to pack in a wide array of technologies into the housings and don’t have the benefit of wires connecting the internals. This means that manufacturers are working within unprecedented constraints. In order to maintain a reasonable earbud size, the housings are jam-packed with components each delegated with a deliberate task.
This one is up to manufacturers and general technological advancements, but keep an eye out for products that have connection-fortifying features like the Earin M-2.
What we can learn from the Apple H1 chip
Apple’s proprietary hardware is top-notch and enables instantaneous usage across iOS devices, from the original AirPods to the AirPods Pro. The older W1 chip has been updated by the 2019 H1 chip, which is designed to perform just a few tasks incredibly well. The secret ingredients, so to speak, are shrouded but we know that the H1 chip includes a Bluetooth modem, Digital Signal Processor (DSP), and co-processor for interpreting sensor information. Not only does this improve battery life but it also reduces latency by 30% compared to the W1. Switching between devices is twice as fast compared to the old chipset, and anyone who’s gone from an Android phone to an iPhone knows that even a W1 chip is leagues ahead of Android devices because of a widespread latency problem.
There exist a myriad of alternative Bluetooth chipsets that function just as well as the H1, but Apple is able to keep things so tidy and streamlined because of its gate-kept ecosystem. There are fewer variables, fewer manufacturers, and fewer software hiccups to consider. Bluetooth 5.0 has helped tremendously with regards to power consumption and multipoint connectivity but has yet to afford the same level of stability we’ve seen from Apple-to-Apple devices.
Ideally, Qualcomm’s QCC5100 chip will permeate the wireless audio market, but it’s expensive compared to its competitors, scaring off manufacturers. It’s a shame as the QCC5100 supports True Wireless Stereo Plus. Until companies bite the bullet and pony up for Qualcomm’s flagship chipset, we may be left with primary-to-secondary total wireless connection pathways indefinitely.
Should you buy true wireless earbuds?
If they appeal to you, absolutely. It’s an exciting and relatively new technology that may be fallible, but for many, the pros still outweigh the cons. It’s hard to beat the liberated feeling of stepping onto a train car with true wireless earbuds and no longer worrying about snagging a cable on a disgruntled passenger. Plus, recent models have included the technology like the $50 Edifier TWS1, which also support aptX, and the 1More True Wireless ANC. The latter is a bit pricier than Edifier’s earphones, but remains cheaper than the Apple AirPods Pro.