I was in the market gathering interest in wireless earbuds of all shapes and sizes. Since my previous attempt at buying Leaf ear buds did not go so great as I thought it would, I had to scour the market again for something better. This is when I chanced upon Samsung UFlex with the BYOD pricing which was tempting for me to buy and use since I almost got it at 50-60% of the cost. What it proved to be for me is a detailed story!
As is the case wireless bluetooth earphones come in two different forms, one with the neckband and one without (the true wireless variety). The problem with the former was that there was always a band that was either too big or got caught in between collars, Id cards, or even worse seat belts of the car. The pros included great battery life, and good connectivity. The issue with the latter was the lack of wires meant losing the buds easily, mediocre battery life and constant connectivity drops every now and then with skips and jumps in music playback. The connectivity was first between the buds and then with the phone which made it even worse.
Contenders in the market
When you go to buy something there are always a few major players amongst the scores of other smaller ones, which are marketing their products more than the others and also manage to sell in large numbers thanks to their brand power. Here it was no different. The models I started considering was Jabra elite 65t, Apple Airpods, Bose SoundSport and Sony. The dark horses in all these were the One plus v2 bullets wireless which is perpetually out of stock (and again with the neckband), and the Focal Spark. There were a few more like Jaybird, Bragi and AKG which also were doing well. The Leaf and UFlex are brands I already owned and hence did not bother to look again.
Factors influencing my next purchase
Some of the things I was looking for after my two earphone purchases went awry were these
- - true wireless preferably (read as avoid large neckbands)
- - Good connectivity between buds
- - Easy pairing
- - Reasonably good battery life
- - good distribution of lows, mids and highs in the music
- - excellent call quality
- - bass thump was a bonus
- - very less or zero ear pain on long hours of usage
- - portability and compatibility
- - medium price if not too low based on bang for buck
Models I considered
I started considering Apple airpods, Bose Sound Sport, Sony, Samsung IconX, and Focal Spark and was not so interested in the other ones in the market. The thing with Jabra is I did not know where to go to try out a pair. Same with Focal spark, Bragi. For sony there was Croma or Sony world, for Bose there was the bose store and for Apple there was the inviting Apple store as usual.
A friend of mine bought the Focal spark on a very good discount of almost 60% off and that tempted me to get one too. While my product was on the way with a zippy order placed on Amazon, I managed to use his earphones to get a feel of how they would fit and sound. My reference point were the Bullets V2 wired earphones from OnePlus for the fit, feel and sound and I was pleasantly surprised at how close the Focal Spark was to those.
The focal spark earphones come with a great fit and finish, the white ones were particularly good and I got them at a discount of almost 60% on Amazon - somehow the brand is not as well known here as much as elsewhere in other countries. Frankly Focal builds some very good earphones and they know their business well. The frequency separation was excellent and never once did my music sound very tinny or the bass muddy. In fact in my entire comparison the bonus of having thumping bonus were delivered only by two of the four earphones I considered. And Focal was on that list. After listening to my friend's earphone, I knew I did not make a mistake with Focal.
Let us get one thing straight at this point of the article.
It is very difficult to find an earphone that satisfies all criteria and even so to say two of the most important - music and calls in one product.
Initially I did believe Focal achieved that, but due to their rather narrow neckband, one had to wear them like a necklace for people to be able to hear audio. I did a small test to find out that wearing it in front did improve audio quality but not wearing it around the neck. In fact in the latter case it was so bad people could not hear me.
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When it comes to battery Focal provides something like 4-5 hours max on continuous use, and its definitely better than the Samsung UFlex. Charging was quick for me and the connectivity to the iPhone was stable without much fuss. The audio quality is astounding and you really feel your money's worth when you buy this earphone. Especially when you know it sells for 100$ and you are getting it at 30 or 40$.
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I already have reviewed the Leaf Earbuds in isolation on this blog earlier and some of my opinions may have been provided due to not having a chance to test other earphones which were available to me at this point. The best part about Leaf is its an Indian Startup who are into the business of making earphones.
The sound quality is decent but a bit muddy. They advertise the earphones are sport earphones with good amount of bass for the price. But in reality for the same price other lesser known manufacturers either give clearer bass or no bass at all. So its in the extremes so to say. The fact that the Leaf mixes up the sound signature specifically with muddy bass means it may not live up to the likes of Focal or Bullets or other better brands.
The price is real low no doubts on that with Leaf, but the fit strains the ear (more of a blocked feeling) after a while since the buds are not really soft compared to other brands. They can switch to better quality silicone for the same. The main button is so hard to press that you would perhaps push the earbud all the way upto your brain if you try that hard ( :-) just kidding - but its messy nonetheless). The other physical buttons are placed a bit uncomfortably and obviously the usage is as irritating as expected.
Bose Sound Sport
For Bose and Apple there was only one way to find out whether or not your investment is worth it. Wear it in a showroom use it and get to know. One thing I am sure of with Bose is whatever product they sell be it small or big, everything is on display in their showroom. So off I went to check out that nearby. After some basic enquiry the lady at the store did offer me the SoundSport black for testing it against my iPhone. It also comes in Citrous & Orange colours which are good to see.
I had a little trouble wearing it properly but in the end I guess it's a bit of getting used to. The clip is so soft that the earphone stays securely in the ear. The first thing you notice when you wear it is the rather unruly size of the earbud. It's huge. Its not the typical type of earbud that sits cozy in the ear. It's pretty big.
Coming to sound quality when you a buy a Bose you cannot go wrong. The product is well rounded and provides rich sound with well separated lows, mids and highs, and bass. For the phone calls I did a test, I went to the noisy part of the mall, with my wife inside the shop and asked her how much of surrounding noise the earphones picked up. The microphone on the Bose is pretty sensitive and picks up quite some background noise - now do not get me wrong, its not disturbing, but you do know there is that noise around you. Its not isolating it completely and filtering out only the vocals of the person talking.
For the price though, Bose did not offer something great that other earphones at half the price could not offer. At nearly 20k INR this was surely the brand that you were paying for more than the product.
Samsung Gear Icon X
Samsung have recently introduced their Gear Icon X 2018 true wireless earphones. Since the Samsung store was near by home, I buzzed them and they said I could come and take a look at the product, although they did not have stock to sell - and this worked perfectly for me as I was not in the mood to plonk nearly 13k INR on a product I was not sure of especially after the UFlex fiasco. Of course comparing the two is like comparing Apples (pun intended) and lemons due to the price range and build type.
Anyway I went to the store and as promised was given the Icon X truly wireless buds to try out. These are not as bulky as the Bose, and they managed to fit snugly into the ear. After pairing with the iPhone I started playing some songs to test out the frequency separation - a favourite of mine being Despicable Me from Despicable Me 3. It clearly shows the separation of the bass from the vocals and other instruments.
The overall sound was a bit low, not really loud. There was no bass thump either and it was similar sounding to the lesser priced cousin UFlex. The point here is that its not unclear or muddy, its not loud and does not have thump. That said it does have some touch controls like single and double tap, swipe up and down for volume and so on. But I really got jolted when I tried touching the controls and the earphone went on to ask me to get ready for a workout in the midst of the music being played in a showroom. I went into a frenzy to get it to a stop. I had not configured any buttons as such on my iPhone so am not sure why this happened.
But clearly the implementation of the interpretation of hardware touch within Samsung software is really crazy, and the earphone is too sensitive in the way it interprets these touches.
All I wanted is an earphone that has good music and call quality but this one had so many other things in the mix like workout schedules and so on for which it started issuing many prompts in the middle of what I was trying to do. This is not something I appreciate much, and I feel you would also not like the way this is implemented much. I did not get a chance to test call quality, but I believe it will definitely be good enough in reasonably noisy environments. The UFlex is a testimony to that and I see no reason why the Icon X would not better it in some terms.
After my experience with Bose and for the fact that I own Apple iPhone 8 plus, the only natural choice for me was to go to the Apple store and test out the Airpods. The store did not have a sample piece!!! And they were not sure when they would get one. But the guy at the store did not want to lose a potential customer, so he offered his personal airpods to test out at my end.
With Apple one thing is a given - no matter what product they make, however less advanced it may be compared to Samsung or the likes, it will be 100% easy to use, and I can bet my whole life on it.
Airpods were no exception. Open the case and after the initial manual connection, the Airpods were always recognized by my phone. To be frank I am not a big fan of the shape of the Airpods. I have a wired version of lightning earphones and these earphones cause a lot of ear pain. Apple airpods are no exception though Apple may say it is made for a wide variety of ears - but that list did not include my own ears I guess.
For the wired version I even tried soft covers around the buds, but to no use. Ear still pains and you will need to live with it. Now having thrown that grouse out of my mind, let me come to the positives. Connectivity is a breeze both for the phone to realize the presence of the buds nearby and stay connected without losing the connection. Music does not have the bass that the Focal or the Bose or even the Bullets V2 wired have, but it is not flat, whatever is there is okay to contend with. Music remains clear and very audible at higher volumes effectively isolating the noise outside.
I was not so sure about how the call performance would be. But you need to use the buds to see it for yourself. Absolute clarity on both ends of the call and it never misses a beat. Absolutely stays connected at all times and lasts that way for hours. The airpods promise the most amount of hours and the best connection out of the battery and hardware, and Apple has not gone wrong here.
The intuitive controls are absolutely a delight to use. Add to it the fact that once you plug in the buds (or even a single one) the phone goes into BT mode for audio. Remove the buds and the phone will go back to normal mode. Double tap can be configured on both right and left earbud for Siri or music playback/pause and call answer. With Siri Apple claims you can do anything you want as such with the phone.
Remove the bud when music is playing and it stops like a charm, put it back and it plays. This is how hardware must be - designed around the user who uses it. Not the other way around. However funny the design of the Airpods are, they sit in the ear tight. And don't fall out - ever - even if you run or exercise.
Instructing Siri to do stuff is so accurate that I could not believe that it worked the way it did.
For the buds being so far away from the mouth, the microphone is astounding. The flip side is the pain - the max you can do is about 30-40 minutes with it, you will have to remove it a bit after that to relax your ear. This is why it works best for reasonably long calls but that not that hours-together-call-with-your-date call.
Ratings in percentages based on my experience
Disclaimer: These are purely my personal opinions after using each of the mentioned products. Your mileages may vary appropriate to what you feel, but my scores are as below.
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Final call - what did I buy?
Its the moment of truth. Can you guess what I bought and what I am likely to live with? Remember its a real world usage thing. And not being with the messy wires thing. And the good battery, music and calls thing.
Though I did initially think the UFlex would be with me for long, I had to let it go due to the horrid neck band which was weighing on my neck and interfering with my other stuff like the ID card, seat belt etc. When the batter goes weaker it sometimes also did drop a few bits of sounds here and there which was annoying even when the phone was nearby. I was so gung-ho about the IconX that I thought I would walk out of the shop wearing a pair of them but the kind of gimmickery it did with the gestures thing, I was a bit shaken. Its seriously sensitive and badly implemented for the price it commands.
The Leaf ear with its muddy bass leaves a lot to be desired. I also saw and heard that the Sony truly wireless needs charging within three hours so it was not in my list at all at least among top contenders. The Bose was out due to the price and the fact that I could answer calls only through the right bud for that price, which I find to be silly on the part of the company that made this. When you ride on brand value, give us the value for money. Having physical buttons on truly wireless earbuds is not the best idea.
The Focal Spark was the closest to the Bullets wired V2 which in my opinion is a fantastic feat even for a 100$ price. The fact I got it at 35-40$ is an icing on the cake for the bass thump, which was a bonus. The neck band could have been 10-20% longer which is something the company can fix in their next iteration and it is quite an annoyance to wear it like a necklace for people to be able to hear you properly. For music the Focal rocks, for calls it sucks. But it stays with me as a faithful companion for some more time.
The Apple Airpods won the competition at least for me. Excellent connectivity, almost zero effort discovery between phone and pods, astounding call quality in the noisiest of environments, and truly wireless nature won this one for me. Of course the stick out design and the ear pain it causes is something I cannot live with or even excuse in lieu of its good qualities, and I am seriously hoping the next version of the Airpods are much better in terms of design. But there is a small edge that the other qualities of this product outweighs its niggles. So I have come to terms with them.
At the point of writing this article I have not tested the Jabra Elite 65t which has a lot going for it in terms of sound, battery life and so on. Also I could not test the Sony truly wireless earbuds but that is more of a choice due to hearing about the poor battery life. Each of the truly wireless earphones comes with its own charging case which extends the battery life to make it last the whole day by charging when not in use. The semi wireless earphones like Leaf, or Focal have micro usb charging and as such not a case.
If you liked this comparison, let me know what is your take and how you decided to purchase your favourite pair of earphones in the comments section below.
Till the next review - happy gadgeting !