The ultimate victor would need to provide a secure fit, be sonically comparable to a wired pair of in-ear headphones, boast excellent battery life and support hands-free calls. Noise-cancelling and access to a users' voice assistant of choice would be nice, but not vital. And the makers of said wonderbuds would need to be able squeeze all of this into a package priced at or under the AirPods' £160/$160. A tall order.
One manufacturer that may not have been on your list, is Cambridge Audio. However, as regular readers of this publication know, the realm of hi-fi can often throw up a surprise or three. Previously, the British hi-fi manufacturer had only dipped its toe into the headphone market with a pair of average-sounding wired in-ears back in 2017.
Premium sound, budget price
Skip forward to 2019 and the firm's Melomania 1 earbuds arrived on our doorstep on a sunny day in June. On first holding them aloft, we frowned. The slightly grubby grey finish on our test pair wasn't really to our taste. The charging case was the same hue too, producing an overall aesthetic that could easily be mistaken for a box of dental floss.
But we've learned never to judge a product purely by its packaging and we proceeded to run them in and slip them into our bag for an evening commute. It wasn't until we got lost in music on the London Underground later that night that the Melomania 1s began to truly reveal themselves.
No, the charging case wasn't stunning to look at, but it slipped happily into our pocket and kept the Cambridge buds juiced up when not in use, using a discreet little light show to show how much battery life was left.
And the buds paired perfectly. Once we started listening, our tube carriage (along with every other commuter stuck on it) simply began to melt away. An expansive, detailed, layered, agile sound was being fed into our ears. All from a cheap pair of earbuds. As a great milonguero (or tango dancer teacher) once said to his students, "Nobody cares how you look. Nobody cares how you smell. They only care how you dance."
And, the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1s do not care how they look. They do not care that there's no app support, nor that they don't offer noise-cancelling (though of course, that would be nice in a Melomania 2...). They only care about how well they work and how they deliver music. And, like the great milonguero, they've mastered their craft – and risen to the top of the budget wireless earbud pile.
Amazon swings and misses
Then, in November of this year, the tech giant known as Amazon decided to step into the ring with the Amazon Echo Buds. It already boasted a solid line of Echo wireless speakers with Alexa voice control built-in, so the outfit had the experience of the wireless audio market, not to mention the multi-billion-dollar muscle, to truly wow us with its own true wireless earbuds.
For a similar price to the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1s, Amazon's Echo Buds also included voice control via Alexa and noise-cancelling courtesy of Bose as part of the package. Could the Melomania's reign as our favourite budget wireless earbuds be under threat?
Both those elements work well on the Echo Buds - the noise-cancelling is worthy of particular praise for its effectiveness at blocking out the hum of everyday life. The accompanying Alexa app even includes an 'eartip test', which lets you know if you've got a good seal between your ears and the silicone eartips.
But, while the Cambridge buds excel when it comes to sound quality, the Amazon Echo Buds miss the mark by quite some distance. We were surprised to find major inconsistencies in sound quality at different volumes. In our opinion, that's something that just shouldn't be happening. It feels as though the sound quality element is still in its pre-production phase.
Cambridge Audio, on the other hand, delivered the goods from the start, foregoing some features but nailing the most important part: sound quality. A great win for the British hi-fi underdog and proof that sonic knowhow can still triumph, even in this age of smart everything and all-powerful tech behemoths. Roll on the Melomania 2s...