In the past few years, wirefree earbuds have sprung up in lush profusion, like baby frogs after a spring rain. I have to admit, though, it took me awhile to come around to them.
Wirefree earbuds don’t always fit securely and they’re usually more expensive than many of the best earbuds. I’m constantly knocking earbuds out of my ears while walking, working, or adjusting my hood, and I can’t afford to be that precious about them. Just thinking about dropping a Bose SoundSport Free bud into a puddle makes me cringe.
My colleague Jeffrey Van Camp has tried to convince me that there are great affordable buds out there (more frequently after I showed up to a meeting wearing $18 EarPods off eBay), but it wasn’t until I tried the JBuds Air True Wireless that I believed him. For the past two weeks, I’ve been listening to and carrying these JBuds around in my bag. They’re not perfect, but they’re one of the smartest ways to spend $50 on headphones.
Ready to Charge
Out of the box, the JBuds’ most noticeable feature is a USB cable that’s built into the small plastic charging case. It folds right up into the bottom. As someone whose USB cables tend to fly off to the Land Where USB Cables Are Eternally Blessed, this is both a gift and a curse. I never have to worry about finding a USB cable; on the other hand, if my kid sucks on this case, I’ll probably have to buy a whole new one. Luckily, replacements are only $10.
The case is small, less than 3 inches long, but it can recharge the buds a few times before needing a top up. The buds also come with several sets of ear tips and a set of comfortable fins. I’ve had trouble fitting JLab’s in-ear buds before, but the smallest size here fit securely. And unlike some other wirefree buds, the Air are unobtrusive. They look like small black buttons. Thankfully, they don’t stick out very far, or have a weird dangling tail.
The JBuds Air have Bluetooth 5, and it’s great (as long as you have a phone with Bluetooth 5 hardware). After you’ve paired your phone, the buds automatically pair to each other and then to your phone. I never had any problems connecting to my iPhone 8, or disconnecting by popping them back into the case. In fact, the connection was so reliable while I was running errands in my house that I just walked out the front door. I got about 80 feet down the street before the connection pooped out.
They also have an advertised battery life of 4 hours. I got around 4.5 hours of listening time, with less than an hour in the case to recharge fully. That battery life is comparable to the 5 hours offered by the Bose SoundSport Free, which is a much more expensive pair of headphones. I got four top-ups before I had to recharge the case, which added up to about 16 hours of playtime, but your mileage may vary since a few of those hours were white noise played on low.
I Will Remember You
Unlike some of JLab’s other headphones, the JBuds Air are meant to function without an app. In theory, I appreciate the fact that you shouldn’t need to pull out your phone to control your headphones. But in practice, things got clunky. The buds have only one button each, under the printed logo, and different buds control different functions. For example, it took me a few days to remember that I needed to click the left bud to turn the volume down and the right to turn the volume up—or that the left bud played the previous song and the right bud played the next song.
Operating the buds just isn’t particularly intuitive; I fiddled around for a bit before I gave up and Googled how to change the EQ (three taps on the left earbud, if you need help). I bet I could have figured it out, but pushing the buttons was unpleasant. It took an uncomfortable amount of pressure to push a button when it was in my ear.
They’re rated IP55, which means they’re protected against limited ingress from dirt and sweat. This means they’re not as waterproof as my favorite Plantronics workout headphones, but excellent for the price.
JLab Audio is known for their signature sound, which tends to hollow out the midrange to emphasize high trebles and big bassy beats. It might not be the most sophisticated EQ—I played Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 and it sounded, well, just OK—but I’m the first to admit that, in general, JLab’s signature sound is perfectly suited for my taste in music.
It just might suit yours, too. It’s thrilling to walk your dogs and hear an excellent stereo mix of Childish Gambino’s “Sunrise” start resonantly thundering in your ears as you round a corner. I couldn’t believe such sternum-thumping bass could come out of an object the size of a peanut M&M.
They are also, surprisingly, perfect for Irish music. I put on the Chieftains, and the mix of sweet, shimmering flute and fast, powerful bodhráns sounded fantastic. The Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque guitar of Brothers Osborne was also amazing. I can understand how that much bass may be a bit much for some listeners. JLab also offers two other EQ settings, and it’s easy enough to switch to the balanced setting for podcasts and lighter folk music. The bass boost setting was too much, even for me.
The Air don’t have some of the features that I’ve come to appreciate in other JLab headphones. For example, they don’t have the ability to pick up ambient noise so that you’re not taken by surprise while running. They are also in-ear buds, which makes them noise-isolating by design. I ran a 60-decibel vacuum without hearing anything, and I couldn’t hear my toddler asking me a question.
Frustratingly, because the microphone is only in your right ear, phone calls also only play in your right ear. I found having a dead left ear to be so profoundly annoying that I sometimes took them out, rather than use them to receive or make calls.
Easy on My Mind
Phone calling problems aside, I found myself toting the JBuds everywhere. The case is barely bigger than a charging block, so it fit into my cord storage bag while traveling, and into my mini fanny pack while running. The connection is also so fast and easy that I could pop them in to listen to a podcast while waiting in line at the FedEx store.
They aren’t much smaller than other fully wireless earbuds, but they’re easy to use, and I felt a lot better about possibly losing or damaging them. That makes them a perfect gift for a high school or college student, or anyone who wants to try out the ease and convenience of wirefree buds without a significant financial investment. And yes, they do sound much better than a pair of eBay EarPods.
Updated Jan. 28: The official name of these earbuds is the “JBuds Air True Wireless” by JLab Audio. We altered the short name we called them from “Air True” to “JBuds Air” due to a mixup in what they’re actually called.
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