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Testing Out True Wireless Earbuds

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After wandering around Best Buy during the current holiday season, I was surprised to see a burgeoning selection of true wireless earbuds actually available for sale in store. "True wireless" meaning that they're just two earbuds with nothing connecting them. First to market contenders already existed since a year ago: the Earin and Bragi Dash and the like but I figured the first ones of this product type would most likely not be very good and subsequent reviews pretty much affirmed that view. But the brightly packaged and slick-looking Skybuds attracted my attention so I decided to give them a shot. I subsequently also tested out the Sol Republic Amps Air and Jabra Elite Sport True Wireless Earbuds as well to try to get a better idea on what the audio quality of these latest Bluetooth earbuds were like.

But before we get started, I just wanted to make clear that my primary use case for earbuds is to listen to music and watch videos during my commute. So sound quality and control set are the more important criteria for me. With that out of the way...

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So first off, the Skybuds. They come in Nimbus (grey), Charcoal (black) and Pearl (white) but I believe Best Buy only carries the former two. The store I was at only had the Nimbus in stock so that's what I wound up with. Made of a smooth, water-resistant plastic, these were the smallest and slickest-looking of the trio. Each earbud had one, light-rimmed button that glowed blue when giving feedback. To wear them you're supposed to stick them sort of at a 45 degree angle from the vertical into your ear and then swing the back end of the earbud down to a more horizontal position. I found this horizontal position to be uncomfortable after extended use though so left it sort of at an angle inbetween the starting 45 degree angle and horizontal. This worked better and didn't make the earbud any less secure in my ear.

Initial setup was flawless and just really well done. The female voice that guides you was clear and pleasant-sounding and I was connected to my iPhone 7 and listening in a surprisingly short amount of time. The way the Skybud connection works is only one earbud connects to your output device, the second earbud connects to the primary one. In my case, the primary earbud was the right one so if I was listening to something and took out the right earbud and moved it farther than an inch or so from my head, you would lose the sound in the left earbud.

Audio control from the single button on either earbud was also skimpier than I'd like. One click to play/stop. Two clicks to jump to next song. Three clicks to put the earbud into Bluetooth pairing mode. Coming from a full-featured wired earphone with volume control and the ability to skip forward and back, this reduced feature set was a bit disappointing, but not something I wasn't expecting.

As for the sound quality... when I first started listening to it I thought that they were shooting for a wider soundstage with the Skybuds. Unfortunately, the most noticeable aspect of the sound was the complete lack of mid-low to sub bass. I'm not a basshead by any means but I still like to "feel" something, anything in the low region. Without the low end it just sounds like you're missing a good chunk of the sonic range of the song. So that was rather disappointing. And then on top of that, after extended use, I started to notice that what I originally thought was an attempt at a wide soundstage effect was just a complete imbalance of the sound between the two earbuds. Normally with earbuds, you hear the vocals smack dab in the middle of your head. Not with these. The vocals here were noticeable primarily on the right side. It's not that there was no sound coming from the left, it just seemed like the sound from the left earbud was softer or they intentionally skewed most of the sound to come out from the right earbud. So instead of the vocals in the middle with the other instruments arraigned around it, the Skybuds picked up the entire sound and placed it two steps to the right.

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The Skybuds also has a slick-looking companion smartphone app (iOS & Android) that currently only shows you the amount of battery life you have on both earbuds and the charging case. And you can also use it to upgrade the firmware on the earbuds, which I promptly did the evening I got them. Now on the update part of the app, there was a section that noted that the "Update could take up to 3 hrs to complete." And I remember thinking, "Wow, 3 hours? Really?" And wouldn't you know it, it really took 3 HOURS to complete. And the kicker to that is that you need to keep the app open while the update is happening so you can't do anything else with your phone while you're updating. But 3 hours aside, it's pretty cool that you can upgrade the firmware on your earbuds. Maybe the sound issues I noted above can be fixed with future updates.

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The charging case for the Skybuds is this flattened tubular case that slides out on one end so that you can slot the earbuds into each side. You can quickly tell how much charge is left in the case by pushing the large oval blue-ringed button on the end that slides out. Taking the earbuds out of the case was a little problematic at first. Because of the smooth, slippery plastic material that they're made of, trying to pull the earbuds directly out of their slot was tricky. Until I realized that you can just swivel the earbuds towards you first before pulling them out which was much easier.

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Next up, the Amps Air by Sol Republic. These share a similar shape with the Skybuds but were a bit larger, probably due to the rubberized coating around them that's meant to protect them from sweat and moisture. So I wore them pretty much the same way as the Skybuds but because of the larger size they were a bit more uncomfortable, even with, or maybe because of, the rubberized coating. Each earbud had one uncoated, smooth plastic button that took up pretty much the entire face that it's on so at least it was easy to access.

Initial setup was also relatively easy but the notification tones and voice that the earbuds emit when you're controlling them aren't as clear as on the Skybuds. They sound fuzzy even. Subsequent pairings though, were occasionally problematic as only one earbud would pair correctly. So I would wind up popping both back into the charging case, taking them back out, pressing the button once on each earbud and wait until the light on both came up as white, and then try to pair again manually. Not really hard to do or too time-consuming but can be a bit aggravating if you just wanted to pick up and go. The reason why this half-pairing issue appears to begin with is because unlike the Skybuds, each earbud for the Amps Air connects to your listening device by itself. So you do have the option of connecting only one earbud if you wish. I don't know why you'd want that but it's an option. One advantage of connecting this way is that if you remove one earbud from your ear, the other doesn't lose sound.

Audio control on these were just downright pathetic. Single click to play/stop. Two clicks to bring up Siri or Google (depending on what smartphone you're using). And that's it. Since I normally use headphones with my phone to listen to music during my commute and never use Siri/Google, this was completely useless.

Where the Amps Air redeems itself though is in the sound quality, but with a caveat. These earbuds pack the best bass out of the three. The low/sub bass actually has a kick to it and it's pretty good. I don't think it overshadows the mids too much but then again, for earbuds I'm going to use out and about, I'm not as picky as I would be for stay-at-home headphones. However, the one caveat is that I kept hearing a weird sizzling sound in a particular range of the mids. It's not very noticeable at times, especially when I'm walking around outside in an urban environment, but when a song comes up that's more vocal based and lower-pitched, like Adele's "Someone Like You," it gets rather distracting. And once I hear it I can't unhear it. I don't know if this was particular to this set of earbuds that I got or just something with my ears. But if you don't hear it, then these really have the best audio out of the 3 reviewed here.

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The Amps Air comes with a pretty slick clamshell charging case that uses magnets to snap the earbuds into place when charging. Four tiny LEDs on the front show you much charge is left. And as an added bonus, the case also doubles as a portable device charger since it packs a 2200mAh battery and has an extra USB port that you can connect your device to. Pretty smart and handy in a pinch.

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And lastly, we have the Jabra Elite Sport True Wireless Earbuds. These are the largest earbuds, but for good reason (which I'll get to momentarily). Even though they were large, I didn't have any issues with the fit. The medium sized silicone tips + the smallest EarWings (a rubberized piece that fits on the opposite end of the tips to help keep the entire thing in your ear) was sufficient to keep it immobile in my ear. Because of the size, it takes a bit of getting used to but it wasn't too much more uncomfortable compared to the Skybuds or Amp Airs. And these are actually dust & waterproof instead of just sweat/water-resistant. And instead of having just one button on each earbud, there are two. And they all do different things.

Initial setup was also rather simple but the notification sounds were also somewhat muted like with the Amps Air. These work similar to the Skybuds where only one of the earbuds pair to your device. So if you take off the main one and move it too far away, your other earbud loses sound. Also didn't have any further issues with pairing after the initial setup.

Audio control is where these earbuds shine. Because of the larger buds, Jabra was able to fit two buttons on each earbud and even better, have them all do different things. The controls on the left earbud handles volume and music control (next/previous) while the controls on the right does on/off, control of the smartphone app (if you use it), and turns the HearThrough functionality on/off. Coming off the limited control set of the Skybuds and Amps Air, the controls here was really fantastic, and worked well too. I would have been happy with just being able to skip tracks forward and back but to be able to control volume too was just icing. The HearThrough functionality, which allows you to hear street sounds around you so you're not completely sealed off from your surroundings, worked impressively well. It made it sound like I wasn't wearing in-ear headphones at all at times.

As for the sound quality, the best I can say is that it was pretty standard. Still missing low/sub bass but not as badly as the Skybuds. Everything else sounded as they should but just... boring. Not much else to say about the sound.

The Jabra also comes with a pretty nice companion smartphone app that's primarily fitness oriented. The earbuds themselves come with an in-ear heart rate monitor which was interesting to see. And with it the app can track and analyze your overall fitness, have personalized audio coaching plus a bunch of other fitness features that I would most likely never use.

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The charging case that comes with these is the smallest of the three, just a bit larger than both earbuds. But it's got one powerful hinge that's used to keep it shut. I nipped my fingers on more than one occasion while closing it before I learned better.

And before I finish, I just wanted to remark on a few other issues that people may be interested in hearing about when it comes to wireless earbuds. One, audio lag. I did not encounter any noticeable audio lag while watching videos with any of these earbuds. I did feel like I encountered a little bit of lag while playing a game though. Like the sound that I usually hear while pushing on a game object seemed to come in a tiny bit later than usual but nothing too detrimental. Two, call quality. I only tried calling a few times with the Amps Air and Jabra Elite while out and about and didn't have any issues with hearing the other party or them hearing me. But I think the Jabra was a little better in this. I unfortunately didn't get to try it with the Skybuds so don't have anything to add there. And three, connection drops. I experienced occasional drops with all three sets and pretty much every time it was very slight, like a brief hiccup. And they seem to like occurring at major intersections here in NYC. Like 34th & Broadway or 42nd & 5th. But nothing major.

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So after trying out all three, I can pretty much safely conclude that none of them are really for me. Ideally, my perfect set of true wireless earbuds would be something that had the looks, notification sounds and firmware upgradability of the Skybuds with the sound quality of the Amps Air (minus the weird sizzle) and the controls and HearThrough feature of the Jabra Elite. Unfortunately, such a thing doesn't exist yet. But if I had to choose one set of the three now, it would have to be the Jabra Elite. It's comfortable enough and has great controls and feature set. It's just a little large and the sound quality is nothing special but those two negatives don't hold it back very much either. The lack of controls on the Amps Air makes it a no go for me even though I place more importance on sound quality. At least give me a next/previous song control on one of the buttons, that's all I ask. And if the Skybuds can fix the weird sound quality via firmware upgrades, they may be worth another look. For now though, I'm placing my hopes on a yet unreleased product, the simply-named Air. It's about the same size/form as the Skybuds and with just the minimum amount of controls that I need. If the sound quality can live up to what they're showing, then I'll be pretty happy. Plus the price is right as well. But I definitely will be looking forward to it because having gone wireless for awhile, it's pretty sweet. No longer have to worry about my headphone wires snagging on anything on or around me. Can take my iPhone out to take photos on the go w/out trailing that wire around. Can use earmuffs with them without the earbuds losing a bit of seal in my ear because the earmuff is pressing down on the trailing cable. We'll see, maybe it'll take another year or two before a true wireless earbud is released that will satisfy all of my requirements.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 20, 2016 12:26 AM.

The previous post in this blog was 4-Way In-Ear Headphone Showdown.

The next post in this blog is Testing Out True Wireless Earbuds Addendum.

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