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OnePlus Buds review: Fantastic $80 AirPods knockoffs

OnePlus Buds review: Fantastic $80 AirPods knockoffs

Bluetooth headphones are a dime a dozen, but good headphones — especially good true wireless headphones — are anything but cheap. OnePlus used to be known for its “flagship-killer” mantra, and now the company is bringing the same approach to Bluetooth headphones with its new OnePlus Buds. For just $80, you can get a good-sounding and very comfortable pair of truly wireless earbuds (or, more honestly speaking, AirPods clones), and they’re easy to recommend.

Design, hardware, what’s in the box

Both the OnePlus Buds and their case look like slightly stylized AirPods clones, almost down to the precise positioning of the various openings on the two earbuds’ curving plastic bodies. It’s neither good nor bad in itself, but you can’t ignore the similarity. The biggest design difference is the back of the earbuds, which sports what OnePlus calls its “seashell-inspired CD pattern.” It’s not the most attractive accent, but branding is branding.

If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the now ubiquitous design, one end of the buds rests in your outer ear canal, while the long thin tube dangles out as a sort of handle for putting them on and taking them off. At the bottom of the tube are a pair of contacts for charging inside the case. You tap the pattern-accented back for touch controls.

This AirPods-style design is a departure from OnePlus’ previous Bullets line of headphones, which have soft tips and an in-ear design.

The case itself is just short of being a flattened circle, slightly taller than it is wide, flipping open at the top with a durable-looking metal hinge to store the individual earbuds. On front, you’ve got a light for stuff like charging state and pairing mode. A button takes up the same spot on the back to control pairing. Charging comes courtesy of the Type-C port on the bottom — no wireless charging.

The buds come in three colors: White, Gray, and Nord Blue. I’m not sure if any colors will end up being limited or exclusives just yet, but Nord Blue is the color to get — it’s pretty hot.

My only complaint with the design is that it’s hard to remove the Buds from the charging case if they are even the least bit oily from your ears. You might not think it’s a problem, but all of us at AP who have used the OnePlus Buds have run into this issue.

The OnePlus Buds don’t come with much: just the usual warranty, safety, and instructional pamphlets, plus a very short (~10″) USB Type-C to Type-A charging cable in the usual OnePlus red and white.

Sound quality, features, and battery life

When I first got the OnePlus Buds, I thought they sounded a bit fatiguing and shrill. I don’t know if they just needed to break in or if my attitude changed — to be fair, a lot of muscle relaxers were involved — but a week in, I really like the sound. Bass is a bit weak, and sometimes the soundstage feels weird, but I like them a lot otherwise. I think they’ll probably be my go-to for walking around town in the future, and AP’s UK Editor Scott Scrivens has already proclaimed them his new all-the-time headphones.

I do feel the need to qualify the weak bass statement, though. The bass is definitely there, but it isn’t very pronounced or as loud as it is on other in-ear style headphones that firmly seal against your ear canal. At higher volumes, you’ll still hear it, but it isn’t anywhere near as strong as you might otherwise expect. There’s enough of it to produce what I consider a fairly full sound, though.

That loss of bass is a deliberate compromise this sort of open AirPods-style design imposes. However, it does make for a more comfortable fit for most folks.

There was some noticeable latency using the OnePlus Buds with stuff like video, but it was consistent and not too bad. I didn’t find it distracting in normal use. OnePlus claims the earbuds will get Dolby Atmos support via a future Oxygen OS update (for the OnePlus 7 and 8 series only). When it comes to codecs, we’re told the OnePlus Buds support AAC but not aptX. Call quality was also pretty good — no one had any issues with how I sounded.

Sound isn’t all that matters in modern headphones, though. Controls and other features can be almost as important, and OnePlus both dropped the ball and knocked it out of the park.

We know that some changes are coming in the future, but the touch controls for media playback are frustratingly limited: all you get is “skip track” via a double-tap. There’s no play/pause, no previous track, etc. You can take them off to pause — it even works by just removing a single earbud, which I love — but that’s not the same. Sometimes you want that additional control without having to put your earbud away or risk dropping it, and other headphones with ear-detection don’t have play and pause touch controls for no reason.

I’m told we’ll get further customization options in the future — so, if you wanted, you could set a double tap for play and pause — but you’ll still be limited to double taps and long-pressing. I’d really have preferred more input methods like a single-tap or triple-tap, and the OnePlus Buds should have launched with the ability to customize those controls. The company told me excluding single-tap and triple-tap controls was an intentional design decision, but it isn’t one I agree with. OnePlus also tells us it’s working on a companion app for the Buds for use and control customization with non-OnePlus phones, but it doesn’t have a firm timeline just yet.

There’s also inconsistent feedback for the commands you have, leaving you guessing pretty much constantly. I wish the OnePlus Buds made some kind of noise after a double-tap so I can tell the difference between a missed touch and a soft, slow song intro. Conversely, the sound to let you know the OnePlus Buds are paired — both when taking them out of the case if you’re too quick, and when switching devices — is a bit too loud.

On that note, the OnePlus Buds have one seriously killer feature. You can long-press the earbuds to quickly switch between two different paired devices. So you can use them at home with a laptop or desktop productivity device, and with a literal press, easily switch to the phone in your pocket as you walk out the door. I’m not being too hyperbolic when I say: This might be the greatest thing that’s ever happened to headphones. Other Bluetooth earbuds might support multiple device pairing, but this fast and easy headphone-side control is way better than any other implementation I’ve used, and I wish all my headphones had it.

Pairing is also dirt-simple with Fast Pair. You’ll get a notification when you first flip open the earbuds, and a single tap takes care of things. Manual re-pairing is a bit more obnoxious (via a long-press of the case button while the buds are in it and it’s open), and I had some trouble with it at first, but it seems to work reliably as well.

But by far the most frustrating issue I ran into is one you may not even experience. Some devices (like my iPhone 11 Pro Max, Vivo X50 Pro, iPad, and even my Galaxy S20) would stutter intermittently and to varying degrees while playing content. Sometimes and for some devices, like my iPad, it was an every-few-minutes thing, but it could also be a near-continuous nightmare. It wasn’t a consistent issue, though, and I had no problem with a OnePlus 8 Pro or Pixel 4 XL, and almost no issue with my Galaxy Z Flip. Still, I feel it’s worth pointing out. (I suspect being in an RF congested environment is a contributing factor.) OnePlus tells us it’s the first they’ve heard of the problem, and they’re looking into it.

The 7-hour claim for battery life on the OnePlus Buds seems pretty accurate, and I was able to charge them using about three or four times before it died as well, about hitting the rated 30-hour longevity when including the case. Though I didn’t have the chance to measure a specific rate, charging the case itself also seems pretty fast.

Should you buy it?

Yes, absolutely. The only potential caveat is your own taste.

Over the last week, the OnePlus Buds really grew on me. I like the sound, and I love the fit, which I can keep in my ears for hours at a time with no fatigue, pressure, or pain. Some earbuds become annoying if not downright painful after an hour or two, but you can almost forget these are there. On top of that is the $80 price, which is very surprising considering the performance. The only drawback is the lack of wireless charging — which I find even more convenient in earbuds than in phones — but it’s hard to get fixated on that when these are so cheap.

When you get down to it, the few remaining problems are really just hiccups that either come down to taste or can be glossed over by price. The semi-open hard-tipped design, popularized by Apple’s AirPods, isn’t for everyone; it either works with your ear shape or it doesn’t, and there’s no real way to know until you try. The case design does make it a little hard to take out the earbuds if they’re even the slightest bit oily, but that’s what fingernails are for. The touch controls could also be better, but at least some customization is coming.

Although that stuttering issue was a point of frustration for me on some devices, it didn’t affect all phones in our testing, and the company is looking into it. However, it’s the sole drawback keeping us from giving these phones our Most Wanted award.

For those that can afford it, there are better headphones out there at higher price points. If in-ear with soft tips is your style, the Galaxy Buds+ are hard to beat, though they do cost more. The Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 might also be a better choice, though, again, they’re slightly more expensive. Tons of other manufacturers are also making their own AirPods clones, and the TicPods 2 are also available for $20 more. Furthermore, you can always get the real deal — they work okay on Android devices.

But for $80, I don’t think you can really go wrong with the OnePlus Buds (though it might be a different story in other markets). If you actively want to hear ambient sounds, you’re deep into OnePlus’ growing ecosystem, and you like the AirPod-style design, these are probably the headphones to get.

Buy them if:

  • You like AirPods-style hard tips and open designs.
  • You’re on a budget.

Don’t buy them if:

  • You can spend more money.
  • You prefer in-ear headphones or stronger bass.

Where to buy:

The OnePlus Buds run $79, and they’ll be available for purchase on July 27th through OnePlus’s storefront. An earlier flash sale is also planned for July 22nd.

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