When Alpha Audiotronics first introduced Skybuds on Kickstarter in 2015, it did so in a world where truly wireless earbuds were a dream. Now, with the product hitting retail shelves, the company finds itself in a far different environment.
Truly wireless options are showing up more and Apple has even entered the fray with its own iteration, AirPods. With Cupertino on the move, wireless earbud companies need to act quickly and make sure they deliver a product that can withstand Apple’s onslaught, a tough task but not impossible.
Skybuds have a lot going for them, including best-in-class sound for the form factor, but do they offer enough to overcome a high price of $219 and increased competition?
Image courtesy of Alpha Audiotronics
The first thing my girlfriend said when I put Skybuds in for the first time was: “You look like a Power Ranger.” Whether a compliment or not (it wasn’t), the statement is indicative of the current state of wireless earbuds. They’re not yet prolific, meaning every time you see someone with them you wonder “what the hell are those?” and, maybe, “are they a Power Ranger?”
Over time wireless earbuds will become more common and the inherent awkwardness of wearing them will fade, but for now there is still an unease using them in public if you’re a typically incognito person. AirPods have the benefit of being an Apple product, meaning consumer awareness is higher and they will be talked about, debated on and discussed. The Verge recently ran an article examining the fashion merits of AirPods; that’s not something that will happen with Skybuds. Like any product living in the cover of Cupertino, these earbuds will draw more questions, because people haven’t seen Lil Buck jookin’ with them in his ears across the primetime slate for weeks.
None of this is to say the design here is inferior. In terms of pure aesthetics, they take an approach similar to Samsung’s in the smartphone sector. Where AirPods are all simplicity and modernism, Skybuds embrace their technological roots. They’re science-fiction come to life, robotic with aggressive lines. Like a Power Ranger.
In terms of build quality, they offer an all-plastic construction which makes them incredibly light, but feels a bit fragile. Anytime they fell out of my ears, which didn’t happen often, they handled the tumble fine, but what would happen when falling from great heights or onto unforgiving surfaces is unclear, though I fear the worst.
Each bud has a physical button for easy control; it’s not as slick as AirPods touch controls, but it works seamlessly, and you look like a secret agent when pausing your music, which is a plus. The buttons let you perform simple tasks like playing and pausing music, skipping a track and powering on the device. Sadly there is no way to adjust the volume through the buds themselves, that can only be done with your smartphone.
One huge advantage here is fit. Where AirPods offer a one-size-fits-all answer with the familiar EarPods shape, these include three sizes of ear tips for a variety of fit options. Historically, I hate earbuds, wireless or not, for their inability to fit in my ears but I’ve found success recently thanks to the wide array of size options companies like Jaybird give with their products.
But fit is an amorphous thing, what works for me may not for you and vice versa. If you’ve never had trouble with earbuds in the past, you won’t here. If you have, Skybuds do a valiant job in giving enough options, and are well designed to stay in your ears, but you could still be out of luck.
From the first attempt, using the standard medium-sized tips, I had no trouble getting them to fit, and stay, in my ears. In day-to-day average use, meaning while sitting or on a walk, they stayed put. Only when I ratcheted up my activity level did I have trouble; the minute I started running or jumping during a workout, they were quick to pop out of my ears. Eventually, I switched to the small ear tips for a more secure fit, which curbed my troubles when exercising. Though tough to pin down a verdict on, fit is important for a truly wireless product. If they don’t fit in your ears, they’re going to fall out. If they fall out, they’re going to get lost. Like Apple, Alpha Audiotronics will help users find their lost buds with a locator function in the companion app. The feature is not yet available, but the company’s website says it will be “soon.”
Fit is one thing, comfort another. Though they’re light and fit well in my ears, Alpha Audiotronics’ headphones were not beyond causing fatigue. I was able to withstand about an hour using them with little discomfort, but after that, ear fatigue would set in and I’d have to take a break. Again, you may be different. I use earbuds so sparingly that my ears aren’t used to having anything in them, which I imagine is partially to blame for fatigue issues.
Like AirPods, Skybuds come with a companion case that doubles as a charging dock, conveniently named Skydock. The buds are slated to get four hours of battery life, a number I found to be optimistic. I got around three hours before having to charge, less with the right earbud which handles Bluetooth relay and thus dies quicker. Skydock adds an extra 24 hours of life, another number I would deem optimistic, but the dock does mean you don’t have to worry about charging every day. It should last you several days, depending on how frequently you use it to recharge the buds, but you’d be wise to check its percentage regularly.
All monitoring is done in the companion app, which is as basic as it gets. It offers a look at battery levels, plus a few extra settings like power saving mode and deep sleep. The former extends battery by 15 percent when engaged, but does so at the cost of audio quality. The latter is on by default and turns the buds off automatically if they’ve been inactive, and are outside the dock, for more than 30 minutes.
The dock also provides a few nifty features similar to those found with AirPods, like turning the buds off automatically when they’re docked and turning them on when removed. Though they don’t come with a special proprietary chip like Apple’s, Skybuds do a great job of connecting to the last device you used them with (provided you keep Bluetooth engaged on that device).
While they claim to have a reliable connection that is somehow superior to other Bluetooth headphones, the experience here is similar to any wireless headphones you may have used in the past. Connection was often stable for me but could cut out at random, even if my phone was just sitting on a desk no more than a few feet away. One of the main arguments against Apple pushing the wireless revolution last year was that Bluetooth isn’t good or reliable or easy enough to be the primary form of connection. While Apple introduced its own chip in an attempt to quell some of those issues, Skybuds are operating with the same ole Bluetooth. That means, if you purchase these, do so knowing it’s not going to be perfect. There will be connection frustrations.
As it always comes down to with audio devices, none of the above matters if the sound quality is poor. You don’t want to shell out for a nifty pair of wireless earbuds if your music is going to sound like it’s coming through a CB radio.
Skybuds are on par with the best earbuds I’ve used. They stack up well to Jaybird’s best offering, the Freedom, but lose points for not offering the kind of sound tailoring those headphones do. You’re not going to hear anything new in your music but you will hear a good amount of detail and representation from all frequencies. Bass lovers may be disappointed, but the low end is present and, best of all, doesn’t overpower the sound.
The most impressive aspect of the sound is its clarity and warmth. I didn’t expect these to be able to present the amount of detail they do, and expected the overall sound to be far more dull. I’m still disappointed at the lack of an equalizer or anything in the app to let you customize the sound; it’s such an interesting and important part of Jaybird’s take on wireless earbuds, and I’d love to see other companies take a crack at it. I can appreciate simplicity, but Alpha Audiotronics takes it a step too far, sacrificing features for the sake of straightforward.
Even without the bells and whistles, though, I have very little complaints about the sound presented here. I’ve listened to a number of headphones over the last year and the Skybuds stack up well to the best in similar form factors. For what most people will use these for, as a pair of headphones to take on the metro or a run while listening to a podcast or streaming music with Spotify, they are perfectly fine. Not audiophile-level, nor should anyone expect them to be. They are a good tool for convenient listening, when you want to jam on the move.
What it comes down to in the end, as all these consumer electronics do, is price. At $219, it’s my estimation that Alpha Audiotronics has priced most buyers out of its product. The final question in that Verge breakdown on AirPods’ fashion cred was if any of the panelists would buy them. Most, once they learned what the price was, unequivocally said no. AirPods are $159.
I like Skybuds. They’re slick, have a nice charging system and sound great. I would not buy them. The future of audio is wireless, but unless you can’t stand the single cord found on other wireless headphones, there’s no reason to shell out $200-plus on a pair that’s truly wireless. It’s too much money to spend on something you may lose, have stolen or accidentally step on during a jog. If you’re itching to jump on the wireless revolution, Skybuds are a great pair to get you started, but you’d be better off waiting for the future to arrive in full force.