Ever since the likes of Bragi and Earin introduced us to true wireless earbuds, we’ve seen a deluge of competition from giants like Apple, Samsung, and Jabra to crowdfunded efforts like Skybuds. We’ve gotten to try a handful of them over the past year or so, but none of the products on the market have satisfactorily answered a question many have been asking — how do you make sure you don’t lose those tiny buds?
True wireless earbuds, as the name suggests, have no cords. Unlike Bluetooth in-ear headphones that have a single cord connecting the two earpieces, true wireless buds are just two wireless buds on their own — usually, a master bud connects to a phone over Bluetooth, then uses a second wireless connection to sync up with the other bud. That leaves you with two small buds that can very easily disappear behind furniture, get lost on a messy desk, or worse, fall out onto the street.
In steps LG. LG isn’t well known for audio, but they’ve carved out a niche for themselves with their neckbands. Their LG Tone earbuds are the tech equivalent of a cult classic — earbuds that retract into a big and very noticeable neckband. It’s not the easiest look to pull off, but it’s practical in its own way — more battery life, for one.
LG has extended that idea to true wireless earbuds. Usually, those little buds are stored in a separate charging case, but that case often becomes yet another thing you need to keep track of. Not so with the LG Tone Free — when not in use, the buds are stored on the neckband, which can charge them up and keep them from going missing. It’s a great concept, but the LG Tone Free still make a lot of the same stumbles that many other true wireless earbuds have made.
In general, true wireless earbuds aren’t known for great sound quality. That’s sort of reasonable — given their size, they need to have small drivers. Because they run on very limited battery power, bass tends to be weak as a trade-off for longer battery life — the only true wireless buds I’ve tried that have great bass performance are the Sol Republic Amps Air. The LG Tone Free have bass presence, but it tends to be flat. For their size, I think they sound pretty good as long as you’re not expecting to be blown away by sound quality. The companion app does have EQ settings, but they didn’t move the needle for me.
Bass performance is hampered by fit problems, too. The LG Tone Free only come with two sizes of silicone tips, and neither of them created a good seal for me. In fact, the buds fell out of my ears a couple times, something that hasn’t happened with any of the other true wireless buds I’ve tested — I definitely wouldn’t recommend them for runners or cyclists. Not only does the poor fit hurt bass performance, it means these buds don’t do a great job of blocking background noise.
Here’s another way the LG Tone Free struggle in the great outdoors — connectivity. Wind and the urban canyon effect regularly cause choppiness in playback, but I found the right earbud can drop out for a split second at any time. The right earbud also didn’t always connect to the left successfully when I put the buds on — I’d need to put them back on the neckband and take them off to get them working properly.
In fairness to LG, these problems are the norm, not the exception. Almost all of the buds we’ve tried (save for the ones that use NFMI connections between buds) have had these connectivity issues to some extent — it’s a pitfall of Bluetooth in general, and when true wireless earbuds use Bluetooth to connect the buds to the phone and the buds to each other, it just doubles the likelihood you’re going to have issues. Anyplace with wind, tall buildings, or a ton of people using wireless devices in the same spot will prevent a stable connection and make you look in the direction of your favorite pair of wired buds.
Those problems extend to the mics. The dual MEMS mics are OK for taking calls, but in those situations that affect connectivity, you’re not going to have a great experience (and these mics don’t do well against wind). When used inside in a quiet environment, they work just fine, although call audio only goes to the left bud (music is stereo). The neckband will also give you a little buzz when you get an incoming call — I was grateful that LG didn’t have the neckband vibrate for all notifications. Just having vibrations for incoming calls seemed reasonable to me.
The good news for LG is that most of these problems are industry-wide. Once Bluetooth improves, LG will be well positioned, because I think they got the concept right with the Tone Free buds. The neckband is lightweight and comfortable, and snapping the buds back in place on the tips is easy and secure. Battery life on one charge is great (I got about four hours), but given how often I snapped them back on the neckband when not in use, they were able to last me a whole day easily. LG also has a charging case with a larger battery capacity available (sold separately), but I rarely felt the need to use it.
The important part here is that the LG Tone Free buds can last all day while always being accessible. It’s way more convenient to just pop the buds off the neckband than it is to fish out the charging case from wherever you stashed it. Plus, with the neckband always on you, it’s way less likely you’ll end up misplacing the buds at some point. It’s a smart design, and it can be improved from here.
Admittedly, it’s not the easiest look to pull off. The gunmetal color looks nice, but the neckband is very noticeable. If you’re big into fashion and accessorizing, it’s going to be tough to work into outfits. But, if you’re the type to wear boring old work clothes, I don’t think it’s as much of a concern. In any case, because of the drawbacks I mentioned above, these are going to be better for indoor use than outdoor use, so not all that many people will catch you wearing it. Then again, it’s worth mentioning that you don’t need to wear the neckband at all — the buds don’t need to be in range of the neckband to work, so you can leave it at home if you want.