Budget blue-tooth headphone purchase thought process

Hitanshu Gandhi  

Intended audience: Someone with a limited budget who would wish to conspicuously trade off choices more than the average guy, and wants to save some research through my considered advise. Please note I am NOT an audiophile – my primary purpose is calling so if you’re looking for tight bass etc – please skip to the YouTube channels I mention below and check reviews there.

TL;DR – If you are:

  • On a tight budget: OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z (2k)
  • Gamer seeking low latency: Buy the cheapest low latency headphone of your own phone manufacturer.
  • Decent calling quality but are willing to live with ~90 min single call life: Oppo Enco W31
  • All around excellent performance under 10k: Jabra Elite Active 65t
    • It is fairly resistant against water / sweat
    • The ear fit is snug
    • The app offers hearthrough which ensures you don’t miss road noises or horns when walking on public roads
    • It delivers 5 actual hours of speaking time
    • The mic response is closest to Voyager 5200
    • Downsides:
      • The case doesn’t have magnetically hold the earbuds and is a bit fiddly so needs care.
      • Once in ten days you may not place the buds properly and they would fail to charge as a result.
  • Unbeatable all day call quality and battery but not songs: Plantronics Voyager 5200
    • Battery life: It delivered 6.5 hours talktime even after 1.5 years.
    • Call Quality: This was better than Airpods on calling as of 2018 and had excellent ability to be audible even in noisy places. I have used versions of this over the years as a consultant and LOVE it. Only in the worst of networks would someone complain “Are you on a bluetooth headset? Can’t hear you”.
      • The mic was one of the highest rated for isolation of your voice vs noise
    • Downside? The price rose from 5400 to 8000 post march 2020 lockdown, which is too much IMHO.

Fundamentals:

  1. The immutable truth of life is TANSTAAFL: There Ain’t Such a Thing As A Free Lunch. So you can get two of one primary audio feature, battery life and low cost, NOT ALL of them. Choose wisely.
  2. Hence, there is no all-rounder – you basically buy something within your budget that just about meets the threshold for what you want

Youtube channels whose work I liked – these are future (as of Jun 2020) celebrities but not the most well known names like Unbox therapy and suchlike –

  1. Smart Like a Pro (Hinglish with English captions): Very thoughtful honest middle class guy who is up front with middle class thinking and constraints. His audio tests are epic – e.g
    1. Correct environment simulations with the right use cases: indoor, indoor with fan running, indoor with cooler running, on the roof with road noise in the background.
    2. Diligent effort such as battery draw-down tests
  2. Techddict: Excellent demonstration of lag in this Hindi video.

Please shortlist the devices you’re looking for, basis the constraints that matter most to you:

  • Airpod form factor because neckbands don’t have noise cancelation for calls since they all target a price below 2k. This is non-trivial
  • It has eartips for noise isolation which is useful when one is walking and talking. This helps you hear the other person clearly and is the primary reason for me not buying Mi True Wireless Earphones 2.

Dimensions on which bluetooth headphones can be judged:

  • Form-factor:
    • Neckband will have great battery but in order to cut cost, the solitary mic of most is far from the mouth, except in the case of 1+ bullets wireless Z. Hence their audio is just about decent and struggles outdoor
    • Airpod clones need eartips as seen in Airpods Pro. That ensures appropriate ear fit which is key to noise isolation.
    • Airpod clones will have lovely calling because they use the equivalent of beam-forming mics plus 2 mics in each unit to deliver excellent noise cancellation. Excellent tech explanation on Youtube
    • Airpod clones weigh 4-5gm vs 30gm neckbands. Hence they necessarily have pathetic call talk times unless you buy expensive versions. Hence the 1+ bullets wireless Z is an epic choice because it offers 14-15 hours of real world listening with <30 min charge times.
    • Cheaper airpod clones should ideally not fall out – check for reviews before buying. This issue hasn’t been completely eliminated in 2020 and is key for folks who are active runners.
  • Noise isolation: This ensures that you only hear the audio playing on your earphone but external noises do not filter in. This is easy and cheap – you need simple in-ear earphones to do the trick. Any inexpensive earphones with cheap foam tips can do the job though good devices will have comply foam tips (~$5-10 apiece).
  • Background noise cancellation (listening): By far the most over-rated piece – basically constant droning noises (like an aircraft engine) can be eliminated. Top over-ear headphones can charge you $500 for this luxury which can be useful for frequent fliers. For inexpensive airpod clones, it doesn’t matter as much. Noise isolation is key – I have used white noise apps with fitting tips and slept just as fine as an expensive headphone.
  • Wind noise elimination (calling): A subset of the above – where the dual mics in each airpod together with beamforming mics help eliminate background noises substantially. This is useful for those on the move. Most Airpods above 4k do this – cheaper ones like the Realme Buds Air Neo do not!
  • Latency (only for gamers). This is annoying – you will click shoot and hear the shot a bit later, which is very annoying. Due to Android ecosystem issues, the only solution is to buy a headset sold by your manufacturer who would have built a hardware software solution that works well. Check Youtube for your particular desired phone-headset before buying.
  • Battery life on calls: For this, choose neckband devices or the Voyager 5200. Entry level pods are terrible. Imagine a ~25 min charge time and 70 min discharge time on calls. You would spend much of your day only replacing pods in case to be charged.

If you wish to buy a costly device, you MUST check out www.rtings.com which tests North American market devices brilliantly. they helped me decide on 65t. Here is a comparison link that focuses on the phone call aspects between 65T and Voyager 5200, specifically noise handling. Mind you, 65T is itself VERY decent but Voyager has 27db i.e 9 levels better noise handling than 65T. I still bought the 65T since its noise handling is at par with devices twice its costand I am no longer a consultant thus I could sacrifice this aspect consciously.