Ears are an increasingly popular place for wearable tech to sit, with a number of smart headphone and hearable startups now entering the space.
And it's a busy time for the category, showing the appetite is definitely there for fitness coaches, personal assistants and language translators in our ears, with no bulky wrist accessory or cumbersome display necessary.
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Below, we'll explore devices which actually exist and that we've already tested, like the Apple AirPods and Samsung Galaxy Buds.
But in case you're not quite ready to buy your first connected ear accessory just yet, we've also detailed the smart earbuds and hearables to look forward to for the rest of 2019 and beyond.
Best hearable: Apple AirPods 2
With our previous best hearable pick Bragi Dash no longer available (sad face), our new hearable crown goes to Apple. The AirPods aren't quite smart enough to be a true "hearable" just yet though, more of a gateway drug and a taste of things to come. And while they might look silly, and not sound quite as good as some of the other buds on this list, there are plenty of reasons to like what they offer.
The Pods are compatible with the iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad and Mac, finding a connection instantly and pausing/resuming music as you take them out/put them in your ears. That's down to the optical sensors and a motion accelerometer that we anticipate could also unlock fitness tracking features in the future.
Apple's new H1 chip is able to deliver performance efficiencies, faster connect times, more talk time and a hands-free "Hey Siri" wake-up and voice control. Battery life is up offering you more talk and music listening time and the new Wireless Charging Case gives you an alternative way to power up your Pods.
The more streamlined hearable approach definitely works in Apple's favour. They just work and if you can live without more impressive features like fitness tracking or augmented audio, then they're well worth considering.
Best Apple AirPods alternative: Samsung Galaxy Buds
Samsung has ditched the Gear name and stripped back some features, but these iPhone and Android-friendly buds are still great little performers.
The new earbuds look quite similar to their predecessor, but Samsung has made some decent improvements under the hood that do make them a much better fit for your ears. That includes better sound, which has been tweaked by AKG, the sub-brand Samsung acquired when it purchased Harman back in 2017.
Other key features include Bixby support so you can use them to make calls, send messages or check battery life. If you own a Samsung S10 phone, you can use the phone to wirelessly charge the earbuds just by placing the case on the handset.
Battery life is strong too, with Samsung delivering up to six hours of Bluetooth streaming and up to five hours of calls. If that doesn't sound like a lot, consider that the case holds up to seven hours of charge and, best of all, can replenish just over 100 minutes worth of power in a 15-minute charge.
If you own an iPhone, the key features you're missing out on are automatic syncing and quick pairing. Other than that, you're getting a nifty set of truly wireless earbuds that sit more discreetly in the ears than Apple's AirPods.
Best for translation: Waverly Labs Pilot
Waverly Labs' Pilot crowdfunding campaign built up a lot of hype, raising a total of $4.5 million. Essentially designed to be a pair of Babel Fish earbuds, offering real-time audio translation of 15 languages (plus regional dialects), we were consistently impressed with how the Pilot was able to accurately convert languages. It's not perfect just yet β for example, it still finds noisy environments tough to work in β but Waverly Labs' first generation sets the foundations for deeper translation smarts in the future.
Wareable verdict: Waverly Labs Pilot review
It's not just its base smarts that are the selling point, either, with the Pilot also offering one of the more comfortable fits and sleekest designs on the market. And when you're not out on the streets translating, the excellent audio quality will ensure that these become your go-to earbuds when listening to music.
Waverly Labs has recently unveiled its second generation translation hearable in the shape of the Ambassador, although it's more geared towards being used in professional and educational settings.
Best for augmented audio: Nuheara IQbuds Boost
For its first hearable, Nuheara raised ten times its crowdfunding target and started shipping out units of its smart IQbuds on time. Its second generation device builds on the features introduced on its first-gen buds, but it's still all about altering your experience of hearing the world, packing in noise cancelling and letting you mix your own balance between your music and the real world.
Read this: Nuheara IQbuds review
Its new Boost smart earbuds introduces a new Ear ID feature, which evaluates a user's own hearing profile to create a more personalised hearing experience. It also offers the same audio blending features and range of presets, plus decent sound quality too.
They are some of the priciest buds on our list, but Nuheara makes a strong case in its aim to bridge the gap between headphones and hearing aids.
Best for running: Jabra Elite Sport
The wireless Elite Sport seem to do it all β real-time coaching, heart rate sensing and VO2 Max testing, plus sweat and waterproofing. Extras include audio pass-through (so you can pay attention to the world around you) and easy switching between calls and music.
In initial testing, we found the sports tracking, comfort and sound quality to be solid, but the HR tracking and charging case to be questionable. However, a software update has rectified some of these issues, as well as bumping the battery life up considerably.
If you prefer an option with wires, then you should definitely check out the Jabra Sport Pulse Special Edition headphones. They also offer stellar sound, but crucially offer more reliable heart rate tracking in comparison to the Elite Sport.
Wareable verdict: Jabra Elite Sport review
Highly commended: LifeBEAM Vi
The self-learning hearable, which raised $1.6 million on Kickstarter, offers real-time coaching based on a user's own physiology. It'll interpret data to deliver actionable insights, such as weight loss optimisation, exhaustion level management and even running technique. Plus audio performance is aided, thanks to a partnership with Harman Kardon.
In testing, we found that Vi offered good heart rate tracking and the AI coach can be useful β aside from occasional bugs, our only real beef was that the voice detection is too uneven.
The device itself looks like a standard pair of behind-the-neck running headphones, while GPS is tracked via a connection with your smartphone. Speaking of which, you can't use these to track exercise without having your phone with you. That might be a turn-off for some.
Overall, there's lots of potential here, and new features (such as treadmill tracking) have rolled out to the hearable. If you're into running and being coached to become a better runner, then these are worthy of your attention.
Wareable verdict: LifeBEAM Vi review
Here's what's coming up next in the world of hearables. Some are crowdfunding projects, some are concepts, and some are announcements from bigger companies that haven't materialised as real products yet.
Nuheara is currently developing LiveIQ buds, which are focused on noise cancellation, helping you block out the sound no matter your environment. The IQBuds Boost will set you back $449, while the LiveIQ buds will be under $200 and will ship at some point in 2019.
Alright, so technically the Bose Frames are out now β the problem is that they're just sunglasses that play audio at the moment. They're not quite hearables and they don't do anything that's too smart β yet. Eventually, Bose wants to update the Frames with the ability to do audio augmented reality, communicate with Alexa and Google Assistant, and have apps like Yelp give you recommendations. That stuff still isn't ready yet, though we did get a chance to try 'em out last year.
Soul Electronics is one-upping its already impressive Run Free Bio Pro smart running headphones by making them truly wireless. It uses the same tech to capture a bunch of running data, like cadence, symmetry, step length and more. It also has a heart rate monitor, fast charging, 96 hours of battery life and an IPX7 weatherproof design. It's completed a successful Indiegogo campaign and now backers are waiting for them to ship.