In-ear earphones get the Bluetooth treatment

If you like sticking things in your ear, check out these new wireless earbud options


Our Cool Tools ear model shows off the different design styles of new Bluetooth earphones (from Altec Lansing on the left to Plantronics on the right).

Credit: Amy Bennett

Up-front disclaimer: I have several issues with earbuds, aka “in-ear earphones” – those things that you stick inside (or just on the outside of) your ear when you want to listen to music. For the most part, people experience earbuds when they buy their first smartphone or music player, and many don’t realize that you can graduate to less sucky devices to hear your music better.

 The first big issue for me – comfort. Put these in your ears for any length of time longer than two minutes, and the outside of your ear starts to get sore. Next comes fit – most of the time the earbuds won’t fit correctly and will slip off, forcing you to jam the earbud further inside your ear canal, which can’t be a good thing for comfort or the health of the ear. Third – with some people there’s a bunch of gunk both inside and outside their ears, and these things tend to get grimy pretty quickly (there’s a reason why earbud companies never ask me to return their review samples).

 Even with my general dislike of in-ear earphones, I agreed to try out a few new models, mainly because they now include Bluetooth wireless capabilities, something that I’m seeing more of. Despite the annoyance of earphones, it’s even more annoying to have a corded set that you attach to your phone, as the cord constantly gets in the way when you’re walking, exercising or multi-tasking.

 During the course of these reviews, I also found out from one company that many people have different sized ears. Not just two different sizes between two people, but two different sizes on the same person. For example, one person’s left ear can be larger than their right ear. Mind blown. The solution, of course, from the perspective of this vendor, was that users try different ear tips (most of these now come with small, medium and large tips) and vary them up until they find that “perfect fit.” In checking out these gadgets, I also learned much more about the parts of the ear than I ever wanted or desired.

So let’s jump in!

Altec Lansing Waterproof Earphones Altec Lansing

 The scoop: Altec Lansing Waterproof Sport Wireless Stereo Earphones, about $60

 What are these? These are in-ear Bluetooth earphones that have a cord connecting the two earbuds. The “wireless” component is the connection between the earphones and your music device (smartphone, tablet, computer). These particular earphones are designed for “exercise enthusiasts” that also deal with water – swimmers, perhaps, who want to listen to music while swimming. Or perhaps these can be used by runners who want to keep going when the rain starts falling. The earbuds are IP67 waterproof certified (feel free to peruse the IP Code Wikipedia page to learn what this means)

 Other features include multipoint connections (connect to two different phones at the same time), an in-line microphone (for taking phone calls) and the ability to see the battery life on an iPhone or iPad. Voice-guided directions while wearing the earphones help you pair the headset to your device, and also lets you know whether the earphones are powered on.

 The design includes Altec Lansing’s Freebit™ - design – in addition to the round tips that cover the opening of the ear canal, there’s a curved part that fits under the harder, less fleshy part of the inside of the external ear. This is an area between the anti-helix and the concha, at least according to a Google image search of “External Ear”, which is something I don’t recommend or ever want to do again. This extra curved part helps secure these to your ear, providing for better sound and also contributing to the seal for the whole waterproof thing.

 Why are these cool? The waterproof nature of these mean you can do more things with these earbuds than non-waterproof models. Like keeping them on when you jump into a pool, lake or pond. Or maybe you want to jam out with these when you’re taking a shower, or, as mentioned before, it starts to rain during your latest run. In addition, changing the different Freetips was easy – they popped on and off without much effort, allowing me to test for different comfort levels for my possibly different sized ears.

 Some caveats: Creating a seal that was completely waterproof leads to anxiety – are all of the proper parts covered correctly so that I don’t short out the system when I’m ready to get these wet? The little mini-USB port aimed at recharging has a gel-like covering that popped off when I opened it to charge the earbuds. If you’re not careful with this tiny covering, you could lose it and then these potentially become non-waterproof.

 Comfort was also an issue – the design aimed at creating a secure fit also caused discomfort after long periods of wearing them. In addition, the cord that connects the two earbuds seemed to be too short – whenever I turned my head from side to side, one of the earbuds would pull out. To be fair, however, I was wearing a collared shirt, which contributed to the pulling of the cord – if I was swimming or working out, I wouldn’t be wearing a collared shirt.

 Grade: 3 stars (out of five)

5150 backbeatgo3 black with case bby print cmyk 26feb16 Plantronics

The Plantronics BackBeat Go 3 earphones include "high-resolution" audio features.

 The scoop: Plantronics BackBeat Go 3, about $100 ($130 for the bundle with the included charging case).

 What are these? As the number 3 indicates, this is the third generation of Plantronics’ BackBeat line of Bluetooth wireless earbuds (although the BackBeat line also includes on-ear headphones (the BackBeat Sense) and fitness earbuds (BackBeat Fit). Plantronics says that the Go 3 style has been re-invented from the bottom up, aiming to create a “vivid, high-resolution sound” for users of the earphones.

For hardcore audiophiles, this means specifications such as 6mm custom drivers, a 20db passive noise reduction, and between 20 and 20,000 Hz frequency response. In discussing this with Plantronics, the company also told me about how they increased the size of the diaphragm to help with the small size of the speaker drivers. The bottom line – these should sound a lot better than the earbuds that come with your new iPhone.

Like most other earphone systems, the BackBeat Go 3 includes a microphone for answering calls while you’re wearing them, volume control buttons and the ability to recharge via USB. Plantronics claims a 6.5-hour usage battery life, with DeepSleep hibernation mode – if you don’t’ use these for a long time, they go into very low power usage mode.

Why are these cool? It’s interesting to see the target market for these earphones – while they’re advertised as “sweatproof”, they don’t necessarily compete with the BackBeat Fit (which I totally recommend for workouts). Plantronics says it’s somewhere in the middle – people that prefer earbuds/earphones instead of regular headphones, but want that premium sound that headphones of that type offer. So, a younger, commuter type that also wants to walk around with them, but not so hard that they need to jump into a shower afterwards.

That said, comfort is also a big deal with these earphones. The design of the ear tips are different from the Altec Lansing set – the BackBeat Go 3 include a loop that connects to the underside of the concha for that secure fit. This design was easier for me to get the good fit, as I didn’t’ have to fiddle with the connector as much.

My review unit also came with the bundled charging case – it’s a canvas-like case similar to the one that the BackBeat Sense includes, but with a bonus. There’s a charging port on the side of the case, which you can connect to a computer (or USB charger); inside the bottom of the case is a small battery that can also recharge the earphones. Also, there’s a small cable inside the case to connect to the earphones. In essence, you can put the earphones in the case, recharge them while they’re resting and recharge the bag (either next to your computer or even in the car with another adapter). You shouldn’t ever run out of power due to this setup.

Some caveats: These did provide a slightly better comfortable fit than the Altec Lansing pair, but I still think they’re less comfortable than on- or over-the-hear headphones. But at least I wasn’t tearing them out in pain after “Funkytown” ended.

Grade: 4 stars

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