AirPod owners aside, I have a question for you: does anybody really, actually like true wireless earbuds?
For those confused by the terminology, “true wireless” refers to those earphones without any kind of cable connecting the two earbuds, and they usually come with a case that doubles up as a charger. They look a bit silly, but Apple has ensured that people think they look fashionable rather than weird, so now it’s socially acceptable to stick small pieces of plastic in your ears. If that sounds appealing to you, knock yourself out (something eminently possible with the noise cancelling ones, as it’s very easy to miss traffic coming your way.)
I, however, am just about ready to give up on my second set. To me, they’re uncomfortable, unreliable, prone to misbehaving and impractical. Not to mention an environmental disaster in the making.
The first — a pair of Aukey buds — was returned to Amazon after the earbuds only intermittently charged. The tiny connectors in the charging case would get stuck, meaning you’d have one bud charged and the other empty.
On top of this, the whole lack of cable thing means that you’re relying on your ear canal to keep the earbud in place… which is why I spent a good ten minutes searching the pavement with a phone flashlight after one fell out of an ear midrun. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t achieve a new PB.
After sending them back, I vowed to stick with the extremely mild inconvenience of using regular wireless earphones. Not only do these have a cable to keep them stuck round your neck should your ear canals not be optimised for holding tech, but they rely on good, old fashioned USB charging, rather than imperfect little metal connections.
But then I bought an LG TV, and they came with some free earbuds — the LG Tone Free FN4, should you be looking to buy a gift for someone you don’t like very much. These are, without doubt, the worst earphones I’ve ever used. And I’m someone who used to buy earbuds in Poundland — the UK’s equivalent of the $2 store.
To be clear, the LG Tone Free FN4 are actually pretty decent when they work. The trouble is that, most of the time, they don’t.
Here’s what’s supposed to happen:
You open the charging case, and your earbuds immediately come to life and connect to your phone, fully charged. You pop them in your ears, run around for a bit, and then return them to their case where they charge, up to four times before the case itself needs charging. Marvelous.
Here’s what actually happens:
You open the charging case, and are greeted by a flashing red light. That means that the case is on low battery. Sure enough, you put the earbuds in your ear and immediately get a low battery warning.
Why is this happening? Because the damned things don’t work right. When you close the lid, the Bluetooth connection is supposed to instantly disconnect, leaving the buds to charge, but half the time it doesn’t, meaning your phone remains connected and the buds drain not just their own battery, but all the battery in the case too. I’ve often only noticed this hours later when playing a video on my phone, only to have the sound broadcast to the earphones in another room.
I’ve tried applying cleaning alcohol to the charging ports on both the case and buds, which sometimes works for a few days, but usually doesn’t. Essentially, if I want to run, I have to compensate for the lousy design by plugging them in about half an hour before I go. Every damned time.
Even then, you’re relying on them actually turning on. Sometimes you need to repeatedly put them in and out of the case before they decide to wake up. Sometimes they never do: my right bud is, at the time of writing, completely dead. I’m not worried: it does this occasionally, playing possum for a few weeks, only to rise like Lazarus for no reason at all, ready to blast out dated indie rock and disappointment. It’s all part of the crappy headphones dance.
Maybe a firmware update will fix this? It might: the accompanying app has told me the buds need updating for months now. But every time I press the button, they get a certain percentage along before failing due to an unspecified error. The app reviews suggest I am not alone in this experience — well done, LG.
The TV I actually paid money for is brilliant, by the way. But the free earphones have taught me that while there may be such a thing as a free lunch, it’s likely to be pretty bland and give you a horrifying dose of food poisoning. No wonder they’re giving them away.
In the first paragraph, I deliberately excluded Apple’s AirPods from this criticism. That’s because, by all accounts, AirPods work brilliantly, instantly pairing with devices and actually justifying the design by their convenience. I’ve never owned a pair — I don’t have an iPhone or Mac — but it sounds like Apple has made it work. Perhaps the company has a patent on the tech which actually makes the whole thing usable rather than a massive faff.
But for non Apple users, have you ever had a set of true wireless earphones that haven’t been a huge disappointment in the long run? I’m open to persuasion that I’ve just owned a couple of duffers, but for now I’m going to revert to wires…