2016 has been a big year for true wireless earbuds. Bragi and Earin got the ball rolling in 2014, crowdfunding competing earbuds that cut all cords — both the one between headphones and device and the one between the two buds. Both Bragi and Earin shipped this year, alongside products from bigger names like Jabra, Samsung, and Sol Republic. A notable exception is Apple — since announcing their AirPods during the iPhone 7 event, Apple has delayed their true wireless earbuds indefinitely. Apple might have good reason to do so — so far, most of the true wireless earbuds to come out have been marred by serious connectivity issues and short battery lives that have made many wonder what the benefit of truly wireless earbuds really is.
One of the many hats in the ring belongs to a new company called Alpha Audiotronics. Their true wireless earbuds, Skybuds, were funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign last year. Instead of going the fitness route like Jabra or Bragi, the company went for something sleeker and more lifestyle-oriented. Ultimately, they got traction by pitching the idea of a companion smartphone case that could be used to store and charge the earbuds while not in use — an idea that had to be shelved in order for the earbuds themselves to be launched alongside the competition this year. While CEO Jamie Roberts Selzer told me in a Skype chat that the case idea is still being worked on, Skybuds are standing on their own as an audio product for now.
The case wasn’t the only appeal of Skybuds. Alongside the Jabra Elite Sport Plus, they’re one of the few true wireless earbuds to use near-field magnetic induction to connect the two buds to each other, instead of Bluetooth (the buds still connect to your smartphone using Bluetooth). That means more stable connectivity between the two buds, which should mean fewer problems with the buds cutting out while in use. After trying them out for a couple weeks, I can say that’s true, although in the end, Skybuds still suffer from enough issues to make it clear that there’s a lot more work left to be done to make true wireless earbuds desirable.
Tracklist: Haim – “If I Could Change Your Mind”, Coolio – “Gangsta’s Paradise”, Godspeed You! Black Emperor – “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!”, Steely Dan – “The Fez”, Luciano Pavarotti – “Una Furtiva Lagrima”, Godspeed You! Black Emperor – “Storm”, Orff – “Carmina Burana III. Veris leta facies”, Pink Floyd – “Wish You Were Here”, Ludovico Einaudi – “DNA”, Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Jethro Tull – “My God”, Goodie Mob – “Greeny Green”
The Skybuds are some of the smaller true wireless earbuds available. There are benefits to that size, but one of the biggest trade-offs is in driver size. Inside these earbuds are 5.18 mm balanced armature drivers, which is likely a constraint due to the size of the buds. The main trade-off here is bass — sub-bass is virtually non-existent, while bass lacks the kind of clarity you’d want when listening to something like a bassline. The mids can be a little muddy, too, and the highs aren’t crisp.
All that’s about what I would expect from 5.18 mm balanced armature drivers, particularly the lack of bass — because true wireless earbuds need to rely on battery power instead of a direct line to another device, bass performance needs to be sacrificed to keep battery life high (the Skybuds do indeed have better battery life than most competing earbuds). Alpha tried to get around this by using psychoacoustic algorithms to trick the brain into hearing bass that isn’t there — I don’t think they have much effect now, but the good news is that being connected earbuds, the Skybuds can (and do) receive regular firmware updates that can improve performance over time. Volume wasn’t an issue, although I usually needed to turn them almost all the way up to use them outside, and even then I felt like some of the quieter details in the music were being lost. If the Skybuds were cheaper, I would think audio quality to be fair for what they are, but for $250, it feels like they need to offer a bit more.
Where the Skybuds shine in comparison to their competition is in connectivity. We experienced serious problems with both the Earin earbuds and the Samsung IconX in this respect, due to problems in communication between the buds and between the master bud and the music player alike. The Skybuds benefit from the use of near-field magnetic induction technology, a stronger means of short-range connectivity that was originally pioneered by hearing aid companies. The decision paid off — I never experienced one of the buds cutting out on me during use. Most other true wireless earbuds (Jabra being the most notable exception) use a second Bluetooth connection to sync the two buds, and it never ends well.
The Bluetooth connection between the buds and my phone was more spotty. I didn’t have any issues when using them indoors, but I experienced my fair share of skips when walking outside. They were more frequent than I would experience with wireless in-ear headphones that connect the buds using a cable (like the Optoma NuForce BE Sport3), but about on par with what we got using the Earin and Samsung buds. My guess is this is ultimately a power issue, but whatever the reason is, it’s pretty distracting and can make a person wonder if true wireless earbuds are really worth the trouble. There is some good news, though — the Bluetooth connection was good enough to where I could watch a video without the audio lagging.
The Skybuds do have microphones that allow for voice calls. Considering that the mics are all the way up in your ears, they’re similar to other true wireless earbuds in that they aren’t that useful for taking and making phone calls while outside (they’re fine inside, as long as there isn’t too much background noise). It’s almost certainly the reason why Apple kept the stems on their AirPods, and so far, they’re the only ones to have a solution to this problem (well, they would be, if the AirPods would ever come out).
As we’ve noted, some sacrifices had to be made for the sake of battery life. Fortunately, they paid off. Alpha advertises three to four hours of battery life, which agrees with what we got during testing. That’s on the upper end of the true wireless buds we’ve tried thus far, and while a lot of that may be due to sacrifices in audio quality, it’s also worth noting that the Skybuds don’t have any fitness features to power. They’re just an audio product, which should be fine for anyone who already has their own preferred fitness wearable (if they prefer one at all).
While the smartphone case charger is still held up in R&D, Alpha has created a separate charging case for the Skybuds. They’re better than most of the competition in this respect, too — Alpha says the case provides 24 additional hours of charge, and that once again holds up (if anything, we found it to be a conservative estimate). The buds recharge very quickly — the right bud (the one that actually connects to the phone and drains faster) went from dead to full in 45 minutes. Battery life is still a bit of an annoyance if you want the Skybuds to last all day, uninterrupted, but that’s an unlikely use case, and it’s very easy to put the buds back in the case for charging when they aren’t in use.
Here’s where the Skybuds really shine. They aren’t the best performers, but they’re some of the best-looking true wireless earbuds we’ve seen yet, and that’s not for nothing. The fitness-focused buds (Jabra, Samsung, Bragi) aren’t lookers — they’re massive in the ear, in ways wired headphones or wireless, cable-connected earbuds never would be. With a smaller body, sleek curves, and subtle LED lighting around the power buttons, the Skybuds look really nice in all colors. It’s no mistake — by leaving fitness features off, Alpha committed to making a lifestyle product and hired an industrial design firm to oversee the aesthetics. Physically, they’re just made of plastic, but we prefer that here to keep the buds light and secure in the ear.
Speaking of which, the Skybuds fit and stay secure really, really well, which I found out the really, really hard way. I tested the Skybuds while running on a particularly foggy night, and unwisely wore my glasses. My glasses fogged up, there was a tree root poking out of the ground, and I ate it extremely hard on unforgiving (and uneven) pavement. My hands and knees weren’t doing so well, but I’ll say one thing — those Skybuds were still in my ears. They didn’t even come loose! Credit to the team for that, especially considering the Skybuds lack extra stabilization parts like ear hooks. It also helps that the buds are sweat resistant and come with three sizes of silicone ear tips.