REVIEW: Earshots take massive step forward

February 10

Last year I got to try out a new Kiwi product ideally suited to my active lifestyle.

Earshots were inspired by founder James Bell-Booth's adventure race in Tongariro National Park, designed to use magnets to stop them falling off or needing adjustments while on the move.

And while there was a lot to like about the five years of research and development that went into those earphones, there was one thing that sadly lacked - audio quality.

Bell-Booth reached out after my first review, saying he appreciated the honest feedback and promised something better in the second-generation version.

So has that been delivered? And are they capable of taking a share of the massive earphone and earbud market in Aotearoa?

I've been using the second-generation Earshots for a couple of weeks now and here are my thoughts.

The good

There's nowhere else to start but on the quality of audio. Could they really have solved last year's issues so quickly?

The first song I picked was, deliberately, the same song I listened to with the first-generation model, Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man'.

To my absolute delight I was welcomed by a bass-heavy sound that obliterated the shallowness and lack of quality of the previous version.

I'm a big fan of thumping bass in rock music and hearing Geezer Butler's work stand out was brilliant.

I did make an adjustment, however, after another couple of songs. Using my phone's inbuilt equaliser, I turned on the 'Reduce Bass' setting to drop it by just a little.

Doing that elevated the sound to rival that of just about any earphones I've tried recently.

Vocals were clear, there was enough bass that it wasn't lost in Bruce Dickinson's operatic screaming during Iron Maiden's back catalogue and the overall fidelity means I'd have no hesitation in using these on my morning walk or around the house in the future.

In a direct comparison, swapping the two versions in and out, I was scarcely able to believe how much better they sounded. What an achievement.

That's also backed up by a seriously impressive battery life, around 10 hours when they're fully charged. There's not many earbuds that offer that kind of life.

Even more impressive is the 150 hours you'll get from the supplied case. 

But there's a trade-off, of course. This case isn't one you're going to slip in your pocket; it's a sturdy beast of a thing that's going to allow you to transport your earbuds in a backpack without any fear of damage. It looks like it was built for a power tool of some kind.

But that doesn't bother me in the slightest. I generally have either a backpack or running vest on when exercising, both of which easily hold the case. If I'm heading for a quick run then I'll just leave it at home. The payoff is more than worth it.

One thing that hasn't changed dramatically from last year is how secure these feel when on, although it's worth noting they do fit my ears better overall.

The magnetic SHOCKLOCK system ensures once these are on they are going nowhere. It's not so strong that you'll feel it pull your ears in any way, but it's enough you can move your head constantly without any fear they're going to fall off.

The better fit is helped by being able to adjust the red part that actually goes in your ear. There are five different orientations to get the one that feels most comfortable and natural to you.

It takes a little while when you first put them in to make sure you get it just right, but once you do you simply don't need to worry about it again.

I don't tend to take many phone calls while exercising, but I staged one for the sake of testing out that functionality here and it worked as it should.

I never expect the highest quality of audio on calls using earphones and so as long as the other person can hear me and I can hear them then it's good enough. That proves to be no problem here.

The Earshots are also IPX4 certified, meaning that a shower of rain or an extra-sweaty workout won't be a problem. A very humid early morning walk up Maungawhau proved the latter comprehensively.

I also liked the fact the earphones are able to function independently. If you chose to only wear one - perhaps because you want to be extra aware of your surroundings - you still are able to retain play/pause and skip controls of your music, albeit with slightly different ways of pressing the button.

Alternatively, you could charge one while listening to the other, meaning you could run the miler at the Tarawera Ultra Marathon a few times without needing to take a break from your music.


The bad

There's not a lot wrong with the second-generation Earshots, but there are a couple of misses - one deliberate and one presumably not.

I've become so used to Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) that I'm now amazed when I put a pair of earbuds in my ear and the background drone isn't silenced immediately.

Even the scary prospect of being left with just my own brain for company hasn't dampened my enthusiasm for the functionality.

There is no ANC here, but that's a deliberate choice given these are designed for those who need to be aware of what's going on around them.

I can't see it being missed on long runs or bike rides - but in a noisy gym while I'm pounding on the treadmill, it could be useful given how terrible all gyms are with their music playlists.

That said, I understand and accept that's just not a priority here.

Secondly, the lack of volume control on the earphones is a little disappointing.

There's a single button on each earphone which allows you to play/pause what you're listening to and you can skip and go back a track, depending on which you press. They also allow you to answer or reject phone calls.

But not being able to adjust the volume without taking out your phone isn't ideal. Of course, Earshots aren't the only earbuds to do this - Apple's AirPods don't have on-bud volume control either.

Apple's do have integration with a smart assistant, however, even if asking Siri to turn up and down your music is less than ideal. There's no such assistance here.

Lastly, the increased quality comes with a big jump in price. Last year's models would have set you back $169, but you'll need to fork out $289 to pre-order these, which are due out shortly.

That's a lot for earbuds considering the alternatives you can get for the same money with much more functionality, but I'd argue they're aimed at different audiences.

It may be relatively expensive, but it doesn't feel inappropriate for what they offer those who desire security and quality.

The verdict

The massive step forward Earshots have taken with their second-generation is to be admired.

I can only imagine how much it must have hurt founder Bell-Booth to read my distaste at the tinny, soulless sound of last year's models, but that's no longer a problem.

Instead we have a new, NZ-designed set of headphones specifically made for those who like to be active and need long battery life as well as secure headphones.

Just remember, they're not an alternative to high-end ANC headphones where isolation and audio quality are the only consideration - there's a specific audience in mind here.

If you like to hit the trails, whether that's on your feet and on your bike, the new Earshots won't let you down and you'll have your favourite music and podcasts to help you along your way.

I can't wait to get a pair and head to Riverhead Forest.

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