Dear phone industry, you screwed up. I’ve followed you as a loyal fan for decades. I’ve admired and supported you. But this whole mess of removing headphone jacks from phones before the technology has caught up to make those jacks unnecessary has been a massive pain in the neck for a great many people. The latest candidate to try and solve that problem is the $99 pair of USB-C earbuds from Essential, which I have for review. They categorically fail to live up to their price tag, and it just reminds me of how dire this entire situation still is.
I’ve lost count now of the number of times I’ve been asked to name an affordable, versatile pair of USB-C earbuds that work across people’s phones and laptops. Ask me to recommend an analog pair of such earphones, and I’d be able to rattle off a dozen choices, with the Zero Audio Carbo Tenore and Final E2000 being the sub-$50 standouts. USB-C, the anointed successor to the 3.5mm jack, on the other hand? I have nothing to offer you south of $149. It’s a desert.
If you’re looking for good USB-C earbuds below $149, they don’t exist yet
If you’re curious about exactly how frustrating and enervating the search for good USB-C earphones is, please refer to my colleague Helen Havlak’s account of hunting down USB-C buds for her Pixel 2. In the time since, I’ve been able to review the “Made for Google” Libratone USB-C buds, which I really liked but cost a pricey $149. If all you’re after is a decent pair to toss into your daily commuter bag and not worry about losing, Libratone’s offering is far too dear.
Andy Rubin’s Essential, the company that was among the early wave of Android vendors to ship a phone without a headphone jack, offers the more affordable $99 Earphones HD. These are the subject of my review today. They are not very good.
At first blush, you might find them promising. It’s great that they’re compatible with every USB-C device I have, including my MacBook Pro, Google Pixel 2 XL, and a variety of other Android devices beyond Essential’s own Phone. The wire is encased in a nice thick rubber that doesn’t tangle easily, and there are metal casings for the USB-C plug, each earbud, and the play / pause control that also houses the microphone. If I had to grade these Essential buds purely on their design, I’d rate them quite highly.
The Essential Earphones flatter to deceive — but their sound is just ugly
Pop these into your ears and you would, once again, get a positive impression. The volume you can achieve with the Essential Earphones HD goes to uncomfortably loud levels, and, to their credit, there’s not much breakup or distortion even when you blast them. The quantity of bass is satisfyingly exaggerated. The fit, seal, and comfort inside the ear are all good.
And yet, they just don’t sound good. No matter how much I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, the Essential earphones kept letting me down and making my music sound unpleasant. Vocals are hollowed out and yet sibilant at the same time, and the soundstage seems to be crushed somewhere at the top of my head. Yes, I appreciate the extra bass that these put out, but it’s not clean or taut or punchy like I could get from, for instance, the $99 Beyerdynamic Byron BT. The uneven treble response is what disturbs me the most, though, as it’s liable to throw out unexpected sharp spikes in volume. It’s like milk that’s gone just slightly sour: you can try to ignore the flaws, but your mind will rebel and yell at you to stop drinking it.
Like most USB-C headphones, the Earphones HD have their own digital-to-analog converter built in. They receive a digital signal from your laptop, phone, or other USB-C source, and then they convert that data into sound. What that means is that they’ll sound the same no matter what they’re plugged into. That's good for ensuring a consistent level of quality across devices, but bad if the quality itself is lacking.
The microphone is good
One redeeming feature that the Earphones HD have is a high-quality microphone, which I was told during testing made me sound very clear and easily understandable. That is a bit of an achievement. But even when holding conference calls, the iffy treble of these earphones reared its ugly head and added an unwanted hiss when the person on the other side pronounced “s” sounds.
There’s no way I can recommend these $99 earbuds. Essential also has a $49 pair, but if it sounds anything like this, I would advise against it, too. Essential ticked off a whole bunch of product design checkboxes, but it ultimately failed at the thing the company is least experienced in: sound quality. It’s frustrating to watch an industry trying to catch up with its own rash decision. The companies that are experts in audio and the companies that can build universal USB-C accessories are not one and the same.
Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge