Lifestyle Travel

The Economics of Wireless Earbuds

Several years ago now apple introduced their new iPhone with the notable omission the headphone jack. I was in college at the time and I recall the move from Apple being highly controversial. I remember everyone walked around with those apple wired earbuds across campus talking on the phone and listening to music.


It was still the same as today in some ways. Android users were mocking iPhone users with the typical back and forth you’d see today. This was Apple’s push toward the “AirPods”. In truth, I believe even the apple bros were secretly nervous.

As the years passed it seemed Apple was correct. Android started removing the headphone jack from their phones. Apple also removed headphone jacks from their computers. Many other manufacturers followed suit. Sometimes computers only come with one or two USB-C plugs now with the expectation that a dock will be used.

For the most part everyone has come to generally accept bluetooth earbuds. They are readily available for prices ranging from as low as $15 for a suspiciously sourced buds from discount stores to nearly $300 for the latest Apple Pro’s.

Sony Linkbud-S

I was not sold on this though, not until 2022 when I was given a pair of Sony Linkbud S for Christmas. This is not a review for the Linkbud’s but suffice to say the are great earbuds with poor software and an average price of around $160. I came to greatly appreciate the “Active Noise Canceling” feature on the buds as well and I basically cannot live without it now. In truth, it’s the ambient mode I like. I want to be able to hear what is around me but also have the option to block noise if I want.

But my love for wireless earbuds came to a halt in less than a week.

The Achilles Heel of Wireless Earbuds

In short, batteries.

If you stopped reading now you’d probably be able to estimate where this is going but let me break down this formula for you.

In just 2 years my Sony Linkbud’s went from 8 hours of battery life to just 20 minutes today. The Sony Connect software shows the right earbud is charging to only 25% and the left earbud charges to 76%.

I’m not sure why this thought never occurred to me, but 1) Batteries don’t last forever and 2) There are 3 failure points on wireless earbuds, each individual bud and the case.

So yes, chances are in less than 4 years one of those 3 items will have a battery failure and your expensive earbuds will become garbage.

Battery Replacement

I was not the first person to come to this epiphany. Ascariss over on the Walkman Blog ( did a teardown of the earbuds and discovered that while the batteries are technically replaceable, the source of said batteries is no where to be found.

Photo courtesy of thewalkmanblog

And thus we reach the inevitable end to the life of my earbuds.

I suspect it will be a similar story everywhere. At best you may get 5 or 6 years of continuous use out of your earbuds while the batteries slowly degrade. Software updates are dependent on the manufacturer too. So if they decide to not update their software it could get dropped from the app store.

My Mini-Conspiracy

I suspect the strong push to wireless earbuds is to some extent by design. From a manufacturer’s perspective eliminating wired earbuds is a dream come true. In the past most people ended up with free earbuds or bought them for less than $30. Even if you went all out and spent $250 on a high end set they’d last you forever. When my Sony’s died I pulled my old Audio Technica ATH-M50x from the drawer that I bought in 2014 and kept on listening to music. My wired headphones will continue to serve me for years to come and will never degrade or die.

I will admit the freedom going wireless brings is a blessing in many ways, but the value proposition really doesn’t pay off in the end. It seems the average brand name earbuds go for $90 to $250 and if you only get 4 years of use out of them, how much would you spend over the course of 10 years versus my Audio Technica’s?

In addition to all of that, examining my own use case reveals I rarely need to walk across a room while wearing headphones. 90% of the time they’re paired to the phone in my pocket or computer directly in front of me.

What Now?

Well, back to wired we go. Unfortunately there are almost no more phones in existence these days with headphone jacks anymore. Headphone jacks are becoming less common on computers as well. So headphone jack to usb-c adapters are a necessity.

Unfortunately I’ve become spoiled by the Active Noise Canceling / Ambient mode on my earbuds and really don’t want to go without it.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps USB-C is a blessing here. With USB-C it should be possible to have dedicated headphones with a USB-C connector and ANC built in.

Searching online lead me to this post on Reddit where a helpful comment pointed out the following list of ANC wired earbuds as of Summer 2023

  • Razer Hammerhead USB-C ANC
  • ASUS ROG Cetra
  • ASUS ROG Cetra II
  • Dyplay ANC Link
  • Xiaomi Hybrid ANC
  • Libratone Q Adapt
  • Samsung/AKG EO-IC500 ANC Type-C Headphones
  • JBL Reflect Aware C
  • Lenovo Go USB-C ANC In-Ear Headphones
  • Pioneer Rayz Pro
  • Huawei Active Noise Cancelling Headphones 3

To my absolute amazement I checked every one of the sets on that list and only three sets are still for sale as of 2024, four if you are willing to buy from AliExpress.

Here are the contestants:

  1. ASUS ROG Cetra II – $113
  2. Xiaomi Hybrid ANC (AliExpress Only)
  3. Lenovo Go – $78
  4. Koss Stereo QZ ANC (Not listed above) $50

Right away I’m ruling out the Xiaomi because I didn’t want to mess with AliExpress and shipping speeds from China. There’s also not a great way to tell if they are the real brand or not.

The prices appear to be refreshingly low considering they have ANC.

Lenovo Go

The Lenovo had abysmal reviews however and for some reason this icon on the cable just repelled me from purchasing them like a crucifix to a vampire.

Dedicated MS Teams button anyone?


The ASUS ROG Cetra II appears to tick all the boxes having ANC, Ambient mode, dedicated controls for volume, play/pause, skip buttons, mute. The reviews show mixed results on the quality of the audio but after doing some research it seems they require some setup from the ROG Crate app.

Surprisingly they even offer 7.1 virtual surround sound too. As you might expect from a “gaming” headset it has configurable LEDs on the earbuds which I’d count more as a negative but I’ll probably set them to red or off and be done with it.

I have high hopes for these.

Koss QZ Buds

These were a bit of a surprise to me. They are actually quite an old design. Koss Stereo is a well-known established brand that has been around for many years in the audio industry. This alone inspires confidence.

It’s also worth noting that instead of a USB-C connector they utilize a plain ol’ headphone jack. To supply power for ANC it requires an in-line AAA battery. By modern standards this is typically unacceptable, but I think I see this as a pro.

You see with this type of design it’s not pulling power from the device it’s plugged into. Also if the AAA battery dies they simply continue working as normal headphones. The ANC setup here looks similar to my aviation ANC headset so I think I know what to expect from the ANC canceling. I expect they will work well for constant droning sounds but not much more else. This is acceptable to me given $50 for a set of earbuds from a well known sound company is really not bad anyway. Especially if they look this good.

I’m a fan of this look
In-Line Controls are Pause/Play/Skip and Answer/End

Also my desktop computers and laptop have easily accessible headphone jacks making this a simple plug and play experience rather than mucking with adapters for USB-C.

I envision the ASUS will work better on the go with my Pixel 5 and Steam Deck since they have USB-C ports. The Koss will work better at my work where I’m using my Thonkpad and work computer.

The Thonkpad is hungry

Honorable Mention – Fairbuds

I also noted that if you want a set of wireless bluetooth earbuds that doesn’t succumb to the battery issue I found the Fairbuds.

At $160 they are on par with other brand name earbuds from Sony, Samsung, Apple, etc. However they are completely repairable and the parts are very inexpensive.

For just under $11 USD you can get two replacement batteries for these earbuds. If I buy bluetooth earbuds again these are definitely the ones I’ll be getting.


I ended up buying a pair of the ‘Like New’ Asus for ~$50 and a set of the Koss for $50 new. I figure it wouldn’t hurt to have two pair of earbuds and the prices weren’t too bad. Also a whole mess of adapters. Especially since my wife is still using the old iphone without USB-C (fun =-/).

We’ll see how it goes, but at the rate that ANC wired earbuds are going extinct I might buy several more sets if they end up being good. By next year they may go the way of the dinosaurs.ASUS ROG Cetra II

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *