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Anker’s new audio line has few frills, some faults

The party speaker is a winner, but the headphones are not

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The Space NC headphones.
The Space NC headphones.

Portable battery maker Anker has been building speakers and headphones under the brand Soundcore for the last few years. Soundcore, like its parent brand, tries to make solid products at affordable price points. I tried four of its latest products over the last couple weeks to find out whether its new noise-canceling headphones, party speaker, and sports neckbuds stand up to the test and are worth purchasing as we head into summer.

Soundcore Space Noise Canceling headphones

The Space Noise Canceling headphones (pictured above), are among Soundcore’s most expensive offerings at $100. By wireless headphone standards, though, they’re supposed to be an affordable pair with a solid feature set, including noise cancelation, gesture control, and decent sound. But they fall short on all three fronts.

For me, the Space NC’s biggest initial attraction is its promise of noise cancelation and quiet commutes. Unfortunately, they don’t deliver. The Soundcore headphones block out sounds like wind, but similar to many noise-canceling headphones, they’re not very effective at blocking out higher-pitch noises, such as people’s voices. That inadequate noise canceling means these headphones came in handy while sitting by the southern tip of Manhattan facing the incoming wind, but they were unable to fully cancel out the din from the rush-hour crowd.

You’ll need the skill of an acupuncturist to get headphone gestures to work

Soundcore also boasts about its headphones’ gesture controls, which can be activated through a touch panel on the left ear cup. But the ear cup is not very responsive. That’s partly because the play / pause sensor is very small, so you’ll need to tap repeatedly until your Space NC turns on or off — or become an acupuncturist in order to hit the sensor really precisely to get it to work. Also, if you’re adjusting your ear cups, you might accidentally end a song you were jamming out to and skip to the next one.

Anker is far from the first to add gesture controls, which seem to be a trend among more expensive headphones like the Beoplay H7, H8, and H9 as well as the Sennheiser PXC 550. This is clearly Anker trying to add a premium feature to a cheaper device, and it’s not worth the gamble for the company here, given that it doesn’t always work.

The Space NC headphones in their case.
The Space NC headphones in their case.

Even though the Space NC’s gestures were annoying and the noise canceling couldn’t save my ears from the gnashing of trains against tracks, I hoped that they could at least keep my ears entertained. But there’s not a whole lot of range in the Space NC headphones’ sound, which feel deficient in both bass and treble, leaving pop music anthems sounding unexciting. Like most low-quality headphones, each note in a song isn’t crisp enough. Listening through these headphones for too long leaves you with a fuzzy feeling and a sensation of cabin pressure.

The disappointment extends to the materials used to make the Space NC headphones. Although they appear to be made from aluminum, upon touch, I noticed they’re actually a cheap plastic that seems like it would wear easily with extended use. At their level of affordability, the Space NC do a good enough job of blocking out background noise. But their gestures are a flawed gimmick, and the sound offered simply isn’t impressive. You’re better off saving your money for a pair of somewhat more expensive, but infinitely better headphones.

The Soundcore Flare speaker.
The Soundcore Flare speaker.

Soundcore Flare speaker

Next up is the waterproof Flare speaker, perhaps the standout gadget in Anker’s Soundcore lineup and the one I was the most excited about after testing it out. At $59.99, it delivers solid bass, and it’s a great casual party speaker for small gatherings.

The Flare speaker lights up and flashes in different colors, which is a fun feature (though one that could use improvement). While it has various modes for its light flashing, including a cool one where the light seems to flicker with the bass, the light isn’t strong enough to illuminate an entire room. The flickering effect would have been awesome to hype up a party when the bass in a song drops, but people may not even notice it, given how weak the light is.

Anker has also added a mode called BassUp, which is its technology for adding more bass to its sound. It effectively gives a moderately priced speaker more heft while still delivering on each beat. BassUp is one of the best features of the Soundcore line, as it’s a relatively cheap way for these speakers to gain more substance in their sound and add boom to a celebration. In a party speaker, bass is highly sought-after, and the Flare speaker delivers it. It’s more than a match for other speakers of its size and category.

The Flare still has a number of audio shortcomings

Despite the fact that the Flare speaker amusingly bears a resemblance to the Amazon Echo, it doesn’t have any smart assistant capabilities. It’s meant to be used as a portable Bluetooth speaker, rather than one that sits around your house. It even has a water-resistant rating of IPX-7, so you can submerge the device in water for a short period of time completely, like at a pool party. It’s compatible with Bluetooth 4.2 and charges over an outdated micro USB connection.

The Flare still has a number of audio shortcomings, given its cheap price. It’s best for less-demanding songs like pop music with higher tones and less percussion, where the details of a song are hard to discern anyway. Once you blast the Flare speaker at maximum volume, that’s when you can start to hear the distortion in sound. But most of the time, you won’t need to reach max volume, so that’s a flaw that can be overlooked.

My review unit took two attempts to pair successfully since my iPhone did not recognize the speaker’s existence at first. For regular home use, I personally don’t need a non-smart speaker, but for summer house and pool parties, the Flare appears to be a great pick.

The Soundcore Spirit, pictured on the left, and Spirit X earbuds.
The Soundcore Spirit, pictured on the left, and Spirit X earbuds.

Soundcore Spirit and Spirit X earbuds

Anker has also ventured into sports audio. It made new Bluetooth neckbuds that come with a special coating to protect them from sweat during workouts. The Spirit and Spirit X both cost $39.99. The only difference between them is that the Spirit is in-ear only, and the Spirit X is in-ear with hooks. Anker has also made a ton of sports earbuds already. I compared an older pair of Anker Soundbuds side by side with the Spirit earbuds. I found that look-wise and sound-wise, they’re virtually identical. The biggest difference is that these new ones are sweatproof.

To test these supposedly sweatproof earbuds, I lent a pair to my boyfriend, who sweats more, and we went running. Halfway through, it started raining, so I got to test these earbuds out in both rain and sweat. Both pairs of earbuds remained unaffected by the water and continued to play music undisrupted. So far, so good. But being sweatproof is one of those features that will take long-term use and comparison with a pair of non-sweatproof earbuds to determine whether it even does anything. After all, the whole point of it is that nothing (corrosive) happens to the buds if it’s working right.

The earbuds actually stayed alive for over a day for me

When testing the sound out on Spotify, I found that the earbuds deliver the drum beats and rasp of Cardi B rapping in her song “Bickenhead” and the synths and drops of Zomboy’s “Organ Donor.” But, as to be expected, the bass is lacking. The quality is comparable to Apple’s EarPods, which sell for $29. Also, unless you have particularly deep ear canals, the Spirit X will feel a bit weird; they’re pretty long, and they fit poorly.

The best part of using the Spirit and Spirit X earbuds, and why I can imagine anyone would invest 40 bucks to get a pair, is for the utility as you’re exercising or otherwise moving quickly. Whether you choose in-ear only or with hooks, the earbuds do a decent job of staying in your ears. And, although both earbuds are supposed to have nine hours of battery life, they actually stayed alive for over a day for me until they started to run out of juice and shut off without warning.

When it comes to the basics, Anker’s audio line mostly hits the right notes. It should be no surprise, coming from a brand that’s known for making affordable batteries, that each device’s main perks are good battery life and a friendly price tag. Meanwhile the rest of the features, like gestures, flashing lights, or sweatproof coating, feel like extras that sometimes don’t work or don’t add much to the experience. If you’re looking for cheap audio that will last a day without recharging, Anker has you covered. But if you’re seeking more premium-quality features, look elsewhere.