We put five hearables to the test in sound, smarts and fitness
It’s the year of the hearable and we couldn’t be happier. At last, it feels like this category is reaching the point where we’re happy to cut the cord and embrace our in-ear smart assistant, rather than treat them with paranoid contempt.
Hearables still aren’t perfect, and there are plenty of improvements to yet make before they become part of all our everyday lives. More’s to come this year too; Pilot promises to launch its real-time translating hearable, and there’s a chance Apple will go all the way with fitness-focused AirPods.
When we say hearable, we’re not talking about your everyday wireless Bluetooth headphones; we mean earbuds with actual smarts. Some focus on fitness, some on smart assistance, and some on augmenting the world around you.
Which is what makes directly comparing hearables quite difficult – they all have slightly different agendas. But we’ve taken that into account, and below you’ll find a roundup on how we think they perform in different categories, and how well they fulfill their own promise.
Samsung Icon X – 5th place
Of this entire list, Samsung’s fitness earbuds were first on the scene, so it might seem a little unfair to pit them against the Bragi Dash Pro, which arrived a year later. But hey, this is the hearable Samsung is selling right now, and they still do some things better than rivals.
Firstly, they have a snug fit, and we find the wingtips sit more comfortably than the ones on the Jabra Elite Sport. We had no problem keeping these lodged in our ears during workouts. We also really dig how they detect when you’re putting them in or taking them out, powering up/off accordingly. Touch sensitivity on the sides is a little high, meaning you have to be very deliberate in gestures, but then no hearable on our test has got that feature down pat. Jabra does it best, but it uses physical buttons.
Like the Doppler Here One and Bragi Dash Pro, Samsung has its own version of ‘ambient sound’, allowing a certain amount of outside noise to pass through while your music continues. In practice, we found the passthrough much better on the Here One, but it still works fine on the Icon X.
As for fitness, the optical heart rate sensor had a tendency to report some strange readings now and then. It also fluctuated a little more compared to the chest strap in the higher heart rate zones. We wouldn’t say it’s terrible, but the Jabra buds performed better.
Where the Icon X fall down most though is in compatibility. The Icon X can work with iOS, but only for listening to music, so you won’t get any of the fitness tracking due to Samsung not having its Health app on iPhone. Given there’s a good chance this is the reason you’re buying them, that’s quite a big black mark. Another is for the stinky two-hour battery life.
Features and smarts: 3/5
$199, samsung.com | Amazon
LifeBEAM Vi – 4th place
LifeBEAM’s voice assistant, Vi, makes it a unique entry on the list. She’s not like other assistants; she’s much more lifelike, powered by hundreds of thousands of recordings taken from a real human voice.
The device itself looks like a standard pair of behind-the-neck running headphones, and indeed Vi is all about tracking fitness. Heart rate? In testing it’s been good, we reckon about on par with the Jabra Elite Sport, while GPS is tracked via a connection with your smartphone. Speaking of which, you can’t use these to track exercise without having your phone with you. That might be a turn-off for some.
But where Vi falls down is in the voice interaction, and it’s a shame because this is its main USP. Vi acts as a fitness coach, encouraging and updating you through your workouts, but when it’s time to talk back to her too often she doesn’t understand what we’re saying. Annoying.
So the illusion of the human assistant is quickly shattered, which is sad because Vi has more personality spark and coaching know-how than any others in the list. Also worth noting that you’re limited to outdoor running for these right now – which are pretty expensive at $249.
Features and smarts: 3/5
$249, lifebeam.com | Amazon
Jabra Elite Sport – Bronze medal
Like the Vi, the Jabra Elite Sport are heavily pivoted towards fitness, but while you’ll get feedback (and they track heart rate of course) the coaching isn’t as heavy as on the Vi or something like the Moov Now.
Similar to what we found in the review, Jabra’s heart rate data was pretty good on averages in testing but jumped a bit higher than the Polar H10 chest strap on max HR. We found it better than Samsung’s and Bragi’s mind. You do also get VO2 Max here, as well as support for cross training in rep counting and coaching.
Bluetooth connectivity is really good, and we experienced no drop-outs in testing. Sound is… Ok. You need to get a good seal, which is harder on the Elite than expected, and even then, while it’s well-balanced and less bass-heavy than many other Bluetooth headphones out there, it lacks a fullness of others on this list.
Recently, Jabra upped the battery life from 3 hours to 4.5, meaning they’re now able go for twice as long as Samsung’s and Doppler’s offerings. We also find the physical buttons on the earbuds much easier to get along with than the touch pads on the Samsung Icon X and Bragi Dash Pro, where we kept mistakenly telling them to do things we didn’t want them to.
If this were a list just for fitness hearables, Jabra would probably come out top, so if it’s a workout companion you’re looking for they might be enough for you.
Features and smarts: 3/5
$249.99 jabra.com | Amazon
Doppler Here One – Silver medal
Doppler hit the scene in 2015 with a pair of earplugs and then came back with the Here Active Listening earbuds in 2016, but there was a glaring problem: you still couldn’t listen to music. The Here One change that, but their main ability – what separates them from others on this list – is how they augment the sound around you, letting you choose what comes in and what stays out.
We love the way the Here One filters sound, and a recent update with suggested filters based on location as well as slightly longer battery life has made the experience marginally better. The Here One look good to boot, and come in a small case so you can charge them up when you’re not using them.
However they don’t do anything in the way of fitness; you can wear them out running, and they stayed in place perfectly well during testing, but they won’t track anything. The battery life is also still pretty poor: 2 hours and 15 minutes if you’re streaming and 3 hours if you’re solely using the filters. In our testing we did a mixture of the two, so we were getting a maximum of 2 hours before it was time to put them inside their case.
Doppler’s Here One are a showcase of hearable smarts, but it still feels like the best is yet to come. Indeed Doppler recently treated us to a taster of its on-ear translator, which should make its way to the Here One in the future, and will better Bragi’s version on merit of being built into the earbud itself.
Granted, without any workout features, Here One actually score lower than the Jabra, but it’s not all about fitness. The Here One is, we believe, a closer representation of where hearables are headed. Right now they’re one of the smartest things you can stick in your ears.
Features and smarts: 4/5
$299.99, hereplus.me | Amazon
Bragi Dash Pro – Gold medal
Don’t ever call Bragi’s products earphones; the company prefers the term ‘ear computers’, and frankly these have earned it. The Dash Pro is Bragi’s latest swing at a hearable, and while the results aren’t perfect, it’s enough to earn it the top place on this list.
The new model easily comes out on top in fit and comfort as Bragi is offering a (more expensive) custom-molded version, in partnership with hearing aid company Starkey. If you opt for that, you’re getting a far better fit than anything else on this list. Go for the regular Bragi Dash Pro and they’re still perfectly snug.
When put up against the competition, it quickly becomes apparent how the Dash Pro is the most well-rounded in features. These earbuds – sorry, ear computers – play music with very good audio quality; they track heart rate data for any workout, including swimming; they can translate languages in real-time via the iTranslate smartphone app; and they also offer some interesting gesture-based interactions including the ‘4D menu’.
That’s not to say they do all these things perfectly. For instance we found the heart rate monitor accuracy falls short of the Jabra Sport Elite, with the Dash trailing behind the chest strap by a lengthy margin as we hit the highest intensity. Bragi is good at updating its devices though, and we’re hoping this is something a software tweak can nix.
The Dash also have the advantage of onboard storage though, so you can still play music without a paired smartphone (sadly you can’t on Jabra’s).
In other smarts, the 4D menu and some of the gesture controls are a taste of a future that’s not quite ready. In fact, input is the Dash Pro’s biggest weakness, as there are many things to keep track of, and too often we mistakenly told it to skip tracks when we really wanted to pause or do something completely different. LifeBEAM’s audio assistant is much more appealing in these situations – if only she were better.
Bragi comes out number one not only for being the most feature-rich hearable on our list, but for giving us fewest reasons to remove its hearable from our ears. And that’s how it should be. Battery life at five hours isn’t bad, while audio passthrough means you can hold conversations without removing the Dash.
Hearables still have a lot of work to do, but Bragi’s Dash Pro convince us better than any other device that we’ll get there soon – which is why it earns top place in our test.