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Razer Hammerhead USB-C ANC review: easy isolation

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For $99 you can buy some great USB-C earbuds

If you haven’t purchased wireless headphones, then you’re most likely afflicted by the removal of the headphone jack in most new flagship tech products. As my colleague Vlad pointed out, the situation is slowly changing for the better: manufacturers are finally addressing needs they’re responsible for creating. But now with the question whether or not you can find decent, affordable USB-C earbuds answered, it’s time to see what happens once the price (and quality, presumably) goes up.

Razer’s new $99 USB-C earbuds offer one thing that makes them stand out in their size class: active noise cancellation (ANC). It’s a complete USB-C earbud package that includes a carrying pouch, four different sizes of ear tips (including a memory foam pair), a braided cable with in-line remote, and light-up Razer logos on each aluminum earbud (that you can’t turn off).

The reason you might want to spend $99 on USB-C earbuds is to get better build and sound quality than what $29 USB-C earbuds offer. That holds true in the Hammerhead’s case. Other USB-C earbuds like the $20 Bullets have good noise isolation because of their design, but they don’t have ANC. Even if the active noise cancellation isn’t super effective in every scenario, the Hammerhead USB-C ANC is one of the better-equipped USB-C earbuds you can buy that works with your new phone, iPad, or laptop.

Razer’s Hammerhead USB-C ANC have an excellent shape and angle for most ears, so a comfortable fit is less reliant on the size of earbud tip or material (there’s three different sizes of silicone and one memory foam). In my case, the medium-sized silicone and conforming memory foam tips had the best fit.

Well-fitting ear tips are the foundation of comfortable earbuds. The Comply foam pair are my favorite of the four earbud tips included in the box, because they offer the tightest seal and perform best when ANC is turned on. After all, noise isolation is what the Hammerhead ANC is about -- even if it takes a few minor adjustments to get comfortable while the memory foam expands in-ear. You’ll come to appreciate them once the earbuds establish a tight seal and as a result, don’t fall out.

Employing the Hammerhead’s noise isolation capability is a subtle, but satisfying improvement that becomes more noticeable when I’m listening at higher volumes.

On a train, you’ll still hear nearby conversations but the screech of tracks below gets filtered out. I especially enjoy how that lets me tune out the subway car and focus in on Billie Eilish’s cooing voice on “come out and play.” But it’s also easier to appreciate the ANC in the back of a car than it is sitting on a Manhattan J train because of your quieter surroundings. In both of those scenarios, there’s a definite improvement in noise isolation granted by using ANC, but I wouldn’t count on the Hammerhead to isolate my hearing as thoroughly as a pair of over-ear headphones. The Hammerheads just don’t have that capability.

Sound quality is one of the Hammerhead USB-C ANC’s stronger suits. Mids are crisp and clear, the highs can grab your attention, and while the bass is on the tamer side, there’s still a satisfying low rumble with enough gravitas to bring life to a Metro Boomin production. Overall, they’re surprisingly well balanced despite not coming with an accompanying app. This is refreshing, because there are often equally (or more) expensive wired and wireless earbuds that require some equalizing before they sound their best. To assist with producing that clear, uncompressed sound, Razer included a DAC (digital audio converter) that works at 24bit/96kHz.

The Hammerhead’s audio quality sounds best when you’re listening to hi-fi audio files (Tidal, Deezer, or your own uncompressed music), especially if you’ve only been listening to Apple Music and Spotify (and can tell the difference). On the flipside, if you’re gaming, it’s a much better to play Fortnite with noise-cancelling earbuds than it is to wear a bulky pair of over-ears or wireless earbuds that don’t have noise cancellation, like the MW07. Mobile gaming should be gaming in its most portable, lightweight form -- that has to carry over to the accessories you use, too.

One of the most important aspects of USB-C earbuds is that they’re universally functional. As long as it fits in the port, it should work. However, as we know all too well, the reality is not always so simple. The Nintendo Switch USB-C port, for example, doesn’t work with USB-C headsets due to Nintendo’s own design, and that incompatibility includes the Hammerhead.

Similarly, I had issues with the Pixel 3 XL’s all-digital USB-C port, which would occasionally cut out and pause music. To make sure it wasn’t a hardware fault, I received a second fresh pair from Razer, and found that I still had occasional cut-outs when I placed the phone in my pocket. Perhaps there’s a connection conflict between my Pixel’s USB-C port and the Hammerhead? Meanwhile, I’ve reached out to Razer to see if there is a potential fix.

On the bright side, the Hammerhead worked with pretty much every other USB-C-equipped device I tested it with. That includes the MacBook Pro, Alienware m15, Razer Blade 15, Razer Phone 2, the new iPad Pro, a Windows 10 desktop, a OnePlus 6T, and the Pixel 2 XL. Even though I’m far from pleased about the Hammerhead’s issues staying connected to my Pixel 3 XL, it had zero faults with the vast majority of devices I tested it with, whether ANC was on or off.

By sticking to the essentials and keeping them simple, Razer’s best version of the Hammerhead earbuds are my favorite USB-C earbuds to date. Compared to other USB-C earbuds, the Hammerheads offer ANC at a lower price than the Libratone earbuds, a more comfortable fit than the Pixel Buds, and better build quality than the OnePlus Bullets. They’re truly plug-and-play, don’t require an app to use special features, and they’re comfortable to wear.

Spending $99 on earbuds might be tough to swallow for some, but for those that are willing, you’re making a solid investment here. First, by buying into the future of “one-port-fits-all” granted by USB-C, and second, the confidence of having a pair of solid, noise cancelling earbuds, so you’re not disturbed the next time someone tries to solicit their mixtape while you’re walking down the street.

I just wish there was way to turn off the illuminated logos, because sometimes I feel like a walking traffic light.

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