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B&O Play Beoplay E8 wireless earbuds review

For $300, you shouldn’t have to deal with audio interruptions

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My hope when I stuck the $300 Beoplay E8s into my ears for the first time was that they’d immediately stand out as the best truly wireless earbuds I’d ever tried. For that kind of money, and with B&O Play’s strong reputation, why shouldn’t they? At well over $100 more than Apple’s AirPods, earbuds that are this expensive should ace all the critical criteria for this still-new category. They should have a good, comfortable fit without any risk of coming loose. They should sound excellent. They should offer strong battery life and a reliable connection between the left and right buds. Above all else, they should deliver that sense of gadget magic that comes from listening to earphones with no connecting cord in between them. Not everyone has an iPhone; plenty of people still haven’t experienced that wow factor.

Unfortunately, the Beoplay E8 earbuds don’t check off every box. They’ve got the best fit and seal I’ve ever experienced, but that can vary person to person. They deliver refined, smooth sound, and they’re at par with the competition when it comes to battery life. But intermittent dropouts in the left earbud and other playback bugs were enough for me to ultimately return the pair I’d purchased.

In that respect, even the $300 E8s still feel like early, not-quite-there truly wireless earbuds and come with the pitfalls shared by the rest of the competition. I’ve tried several of these now, from the Bose SoundSport Free to Sony’s noise-cancelling buds, and none except for the AirPods can provide a listening experience that’s completely free of interruptions. It’s a shame, because everywhere else, the B&O Play E8 earbuds are so close to what I want.

My favorite thing about the E8s might be how low-profile and inconspicuous they are inside your ears. You don’t get that tinge of self-doubt that can come with wearing AirPods in public for the first time; even Bose’s truly wireless buds stick out to the point of being immediately noticeable. Bragi, Samsung, and now B&O Play have done the best at following the principle that these products should resemble regular earbuds in both look and feel.

The earbuds themselves have a premium design that B&O Play says is sweat-resistant. I haven’t seen any official rating to back that up (IPX4 is the standard for earbuds), but the Beoplay E8s are a well-crafted mix of aluminum, rubber, and plastic, and there are no physical buttons on either bud. There just aren’t many points for water or sweat to seep into.

The design is unobtrusive, which you can’t really say about the AirPods

Four sizes of silicone ear tips come with the E8s, but I immediately preferred the also-included Comply foam tips, as they provide superb noise isolation once you roll the ends with your fingers and stick them into your ears. You can hear outside noise fading away as they expand to form a tight seal in your ear canal. When I used either the Comply foam or the medium-sized silicone tips, the E8s completely stayed put and never budged. That being said, my colleague Dan Seifert had a very difficult time finding a good fit, so as with any in-ear headphone, your experience may vary.

The earbuds are magnetically (and very firmly) held in a leather, clamshell-style case. The case is rather small and very pocketable, and its hinge never flipped open accidentally. But B&O Play loses points for using MicroUSB to charge it up. At this stage, and for such a high-end product, I’d have expected to see USB Type-C as with the latest Beoplay over-ear models. The braided cord that hangs off the case is a nice touch. You can either run some fingers through it for a secure grip, or wrap the cord around the case itself if you’re worried about it opening in a travel bag.

The case provides two additional charges on top of the E8s’ usual four-hour running time for a total of 12 hours. Four hours might be disappointing if you’re constantly listening to music at the office and don’t want to deal with a mid-way charge, but it’s basically par for the course, if a little bit less than the AirPods’ stamina. Three tiny LEDs on the case indicate battery status; the one inside flips from yellow to green when the earbuds are done charging and the two around back turn solid when the case is fully topped off.

The tap controls are responsive but take time to memorize

That B&O logo area on each earbud is where your index finger will be reaching to use the tap-based gestures for controlling music or triggering the Transparency Mode when you need to hear the outside world. B&O Play calls these gestures “simple,” but they definitely take some getting used to. Here’s the reference guide for them:

I can appreciate the level of flexibility you get with this approach; there’s not much you can’t do if you remember the right gesture. And you can tap lightly without uncomfortably shoving the earbuds into your ear each time. But some of these commands aren’t the most obvious (i.e. three taps for invoking Siri or Google Assistant) and can be counterintuitive. Unless your tap-and-hold move is perfect, those answer/reject call gestures could easily get mixed up and result in you picking up calls you meant to avoid, which happened a couple times in my testing.

Like other truly wireless earbuds, the E8s turn on immediately when removed from their case. To put them in pairing mode, you hold a finger to each earbud for 5 seconds. B&O Play’s accompanying app lets you customize EQ settings and save those personalized customizations, but I preferred the default mode and rarely found any need to alter the sound. The B&O Play app also handles firmware updates for the earbuds, and updating the brains of your truly wireless buds can be rather annoying. For one, the process takes an unbelievably long time — upwards of 15 minutes. And to make things worse, it took several attempts to update the buds the first time I did it.

But after you’ve dealt with pairing and loading up the latest firmware and learning your taps and swipes comes the most important part: the listening. B&O Play says the Beoplay E8s have been tuned by Bang & Olufsen’s audio engineers for “an authentic and powerful experience” and “sound which is as natural as possible.” But I wouldn’t describe the output from these earbuds as flat, which is what you might expect from “natural.” The 5.7mm dynamic driver in each earbud produces balanced, lively, and warm audio with a wide soundstage. Bass, assuming you’ve found the right seal / fit, is fully present and a step above the AirPods, though B&O Play can’t quite match the low-end performance of Bose’s SoundSport Free. The highs avoid being shrill or fatiguing.

Across genres, I’d describe the performance from the Beoplay E8 earbuds as crisp, sculpted, and enveloping. And if the out-of-box tuning isn’t to your liking, you can push the E8s to sound “excited,” “warm,” “relaxed,” or “bright” through the equalizer in the app. These aren’t on the level of audiophile-grade reference headphones; I don’t think any truly wireless buds are in that category. But when I listen to them, I feel satisfied for the (comparatively high) price.

Even better, there’s no noticeable audio delay when watching videos on your phone or PC. Other headphones, such as the Bose SoundSport Free mentioned earlier, are nearly unusable for watching a YouTube clip on your commute, but these are perfect for the job. Though the E8s connect to your phone over Blueooth, the connection between the buds is handled by a technology called Near Field Magnetic Induction (NFMI), which likely contributes to the lack of delay. NFMI is used in some hearing aids (and Bragi’s earbuds), and it creates “a magnetic field around your head” that speeds up signal transfer between the left (slave) and right (master) earbud’s sound “without any loss of quality or drop-offs.”

Problem is, there are dropouts, whether you’re just listening to music or watching video. Sometimes they’re infrequent, but in other situations the left earbud is plagued by intermittent, split-second interruptions. (The right earbud almost never lost connectivity in my experience.) If those brief dropouts were rare, maybe I could overlook them. But they’re not. $300 earbuds just can’t be this finicky.

It’s the randomness and unpredictability that really mar the experience. Sometimes the left earbud will throw a fit when I’m walking down a street on the way to our office, only to behave perfectly on that same block a few hours later. On the treadmill or sitting at a coffee shop, the E8s never misbehaved. But no one’s buying earbuds strictly for indoor use, and there’s no way to know what will happen when you venture outdoors.

Dropouts and other bugs detract from the excellent sound quality

Another weird issue is that sometimes the bulk of the music balance will suddenly shift from the center over to the left earbud. The right one continues playing, but it’s very apparent that the mix has been wildy thrown off. The only way I found of fixing this was toggling off Bluetooth and reconnecting, or putting the earbuds back in the case to shut them off.

The “transparency mode,” which pumps in outside audio using the built-in microphone, is marginally useful if you need to order something at Starbucks, hear nearby conversations at work, or have a sense of your surroundings when running outside. You can choose to hear only outside noise or you can allow a certain level of music to be mixed in with it. Things sound tinny, but it gets the job done if you need to pay attention to your environment. Phone calls with the E8s sound good, and people I spoke to didn’t have any complaints about my end of the conversation.

But the dropouts are enough to negate these positives.

When you’re paying $300 for truly wireless earbuds, I think the goalposts move significantly relative to AirPods or the many alternatives that sell for under $200. At this price level, intermittent dropouts (however short) are inexcusable. Playback needs to be flawless. B&O Play isn’t alone in missing perfection; aside from AirPods (which don’t fit me), I still haven’t found it in the current lineup of what’s out there.

B&O Play got a lot of things right: the E8s look great, they come with a snazzy, compact case, and deliver on sound quality. But if you base expectations off of traditional, relatively trouble-free Bluetooth headphones and earbuds, you will be frustrated by the dropouts. B&O Play got ahead of itself in trying to enter the truly wireless earbud market with a high-end, expensive product. The technology just wasn’t there yet in 2017, but things are still only getting started in the hunt for the perfect truly wireless earbuds.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge