What does a company do need to differentiate wireless earbuds in 2021? Since good hardware is almost ubiquitous, this question is becoming increasingly difficult to answer. I’ve probably tested around 10 different sets of buds over the past year and, frankly, they were all pretty good.
Companies like Nura and Nothing are taking interesting approaches in the category, but for hardware manufacturers who also sell their own phones, sometimes just being the best pair of headphones for a given mobile device is enough.
OnePlus finds itself in a gap between the two worlds. The company makes its own phones, of course, but doesn’t pull in numbers that approach Goliaths like Samsung and Apple. Fittingly, the OnePlus Buds Pro go that line – they serve as solid buds that play well with their own devices, while at least sprinkling in some interesting additions that set them apart from a crowded field.
OnePlus’ work in the category was – up to this point – inconspicuous at best and downright lackluster at worst. I was very unimpressed when the company finally moved into the all-wireless device category after a tethered game in space last year. The price under $ 100 was nice, but otherwise they felt like a set that could have flown maybe three or four years ago, when the loot was much leaner.
Fortunately, the pros are better in practically every way. That must be a bit of a relief to the company as one of its co-founders launched their own new headphones within a month of their product. At $ 150, the product costs a $ 50 premium over the ear (1) and its standard buds. However, it’s a fair price for what you get here if you take a closer look at the current landscape.
I should note that I took the headphones with me for this review with a non-OnePlus Android phone I had on hand as well as an iPhone. This requires using the HeyMelody OnePlus / Oppo app which is missing in a word. But it does the job with some key functions. There is a leak test to make sure you have a good seal and OnePlus Audio ID which you can use to create a custom sound profile.
The latter is a rudimentary version of what Nura offers with an old school sound test that walks you through a range of different tones and asks if you can hear the playback. It’s a bit of a slog, but it ultimately makes a difference. The result was a bit fuller and richer when I finished. Unfortunately, there aren’t many EQ adjustments beyond that. Aside from relying too much on the bass, I don’t have much to complain about in terms of sound.
The noise canceling, which can be controlled either via the app or via the stems of the headphones, is also effective. A long (three second) click of the stems, meanwhile, will pop open one of the buds’ most unique properties: Zen Mode Air. It’s a clever, albeit unnecessary, addition at a time when every tech company is considering mindfulness. The function directs white noise into your eyes. The default setting is “Warm Sunrise” – a kind of meadow soundscape with chirping birds and insects. There are four other pre-installed sounds, including campfire and beach. It’s not a feature that I ever thought I would need, but in a year where everything is basically stressful all the time, I kind of like it.
On the design side, companies nowadays have one of two options. You can either hug the AirPod or defiantly try something different. At a glance, it’s pretty clear which direction OnePlus has gone. It’s a little less pronounced on the matte black pair the company sent for review, but the white versions are unmistakable. The metal handles seem to have been thrown in so as not to get hurtful close to the market leaders.
From a comfort standpoint, they’re hard to beat. I’ve had them in and walked with them for a long time and have no complaints. I think there is something about the design of the AirPods after all. The battery life is pretty outstanding with five to seven hours on the buds (depending on ANC usage) and a combined 28 to 38 (ditto) with the slim case. The case also supports wireless charging – an increasingly ubiquitous feature at this price point.
OnePlus clearly wanted to get closer to its budget roots by first launching on the $ 99 buds. But I think there’s something about Google’s approach of showing what you can do with a higher quality model and then slashing the budget. There are strong arguments that these were the headphones OnePlus should have released a year or two ago. But hey, better late than never.