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July 21, 2020
52x 59 x 37mm (case)
Phone manufacturers are releasing true wireless earbuds in droves, and today we’re looking at the OnePlus Buds. For just $59 USD, you get a pair of uncanny valley AirPods with a limited feature set—unless you’re using a recent OnePlus smartphone. Do these earphones have anything to offer for those of us independent of the OnePlus ecosystem?
Editor’s note: this OnePlus Buds review was updated on January 3, 2022, to include the OnePlus Buds Z2 and Urbanista Libson as alternatives and to expand the list of buying options.
Who should get the OnePlus Buds?
- OnePlus smartphone owners were initially the only, long-term beneficiaries of the proprietary true wireless earbuds. OnePlus expanded firmware update access to all Android 6.0 and later devices with the HeyMelody mobile app.
- Budget listeners who are okay with compromise may like the OnePlus Buds’ playful style. You also get other useful features like some of the best fast-charging on the market, a very good microphone system, and an IPX4 water-resistant build.
What’s it like to use the OnePlus Buds?
The true wireless experience begins with the charging case, and the OnePlus Buds makes a great first impression. Its matte finish feels more premium than the pedestrian plastic lets on, while the rear design makes no attempt to distinguish itself from the Apple AirPods case. Aside from the pairing button on the backside, the underbelly houses a USB-C input for fast charging. Just below the lid seam sits one LED that flashes white when the headset is in pairing mode, and displays a green or red color after the lid is closed to communicate healthy or low battery life, respectively.
OnePlus users benefit from Fnatic Mode, which is great for gaming and reduces audio-visual latency.
An audible snap emanates from the metal reinforced hinge which seems resistant to breakage. Inside are two precisely scooped out inlets for each earbud, and the earbuds are raised above the case, so removing them doesn’t require great small motor skills. The Nord Blue colorway is a fun shade and is accented by a loud neon yellow, so the whole thing screams of whimsy. Too bad OnePlus didn’t apply an accent color to the white variant’s interior like Samsung did to its Galaxy Buds 2, but I suppose some people love a classic all-white look.
The earbuds look like a mashup of the OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z and the Apple AirPods with their stick-like shape and nozzle-free design. Apple may have popularized this semi-open build, but it does a disservice to both sound quality and comfort. Having this hard, round, and large plastic object hang onto my outer ear was only comfortable for 30-minute stints. If I moved too much (e.g., skateboarding or general workouts), the earbuds fell out. When they managed to stay in longer than 30 minutes, I manually removed them to calm outer ear pain. Fit is a highly subjective matter, so you may have better luck than I when wearing the earbuds.
Does the OnePlus Buds come with a mobile app?
Upon the headset’s release, the OnePlus Buds automatically received updates only with OnePlus smartphones, but now all Android 6.0 and later devices can access updates for the OnePlus Buds and other headsets via the HeyMelody app. The OnePlus 7 and OnePlus 8-Series smartphones (and later) are the only devices to receive an update enabling Dolby Atmos support through the headset: earlier OnePlus handset models don’t support Dolby Atmos.
Onboard controls are limited
CD-inspired touch panels allow users to take control of skipping songs, answering calls, and more. The default controls are as follows:
- Hold either touch panel for three seconds to alternate between the current and last-used device
- Hold either touch panel for five seconds to reject a call
- Double-tap either touch panel to skip tracks
- Double-tap either touch panel to answer or end a call (when applicable)
After the initial OTA update, the double-tap function can be customized to play/pause music, skip to the next and go back to the previous track, answer or end a call, and activate your smartphone’s voice assistant.
How to enable Fnatic Mode from your OnePlus smartphone
Fnatic mode is great and reduces latency to 103ms, which is great for Bluetooth technology. Here’s how to enable Fnatic Mode from your OnePlus, so you can watch YouTube videos, stream from Spotify, and more.
- Open the Game Space app.
- Tap the “+” in the top-right corner of the screen. Select the apps you want to add to Game Space.
- Slide up notification card that reads, “Gaming mode is on.”
- Tap the first slider to enable Fnatic Mode. A pop-up will appear, warning you that all notifications and calls are blocked while in this mode and more.
- You may now select the app from which you wish to listen or watch video from with the lowest latency settings.
Your OnePlus smartphone will then know that these apps are designated for Game Space, and will notify you that “Gaming mode is on” when you open them from your phone’s app drawer or home screen. From there, you may enable Fnatic Mode by pulling down the notification shade and selecting the Android System card. From there, tap Fnatic Mode for low-latency streaming.
How is the OnePlus Buds connection strength?
The earbuds use Bluetooth 5.0 and have a 10-meter range, which is pretty common for true wireless earphones. Bluetooth multipoint isn’t supported, so you must manually switch back and forth between devices via the touch controls.
Our OnePlus Buds review units failed to maintain a consistent connection, and complete dropouts occurred multiple times over my 10-day test period. This happened whether I was using a Samsung Galaxy S10e, Macbook Pro, Google Pixel 3, or HP Omen desktop computer. While this was frustrating, the earbuds immediately re-connected and resumed playback before much delay.
This is something that can easily be remedied in future firmware updates. Connection drops seldom occurred when I used the headset with a OnePlus 7 Pro.
How do you pair the OnePlus Buds with a smartphone?
When pairing the OnePlus Buds to a OnePlus phone, you may use Fast pair to immediately establish a connection between the two devices. Any Android device running Android 6 or later may use quick pairing; otherwise, pairing the OnePlus Buds with your iPhone or old Android device is easy, too, and only requires a few steps:
- Enable Bluetooth on your mobile device
- Open the OnePlus Buds charging case, and keep the buds in place
- Press and hold the button on the back of the case until the external LED flashes white
- Select “OnePlus Buds” from your phone’s Bluetooth menu
After the headset has been paired with your smartphone, it will automatically reconnect for future uses. If you’ve paired multiple devices to the earphones, they will automatically reconnect to the last-used device.
What Bluetooth codecs does the OnePlus Buds support?
Only one high-quality Bluetooth codec is supported: AAC, which was a bummer seeing how the OnePlus Bullets Wireless 2 and Bullets Wireless both support aptX. Given AAC’s somewhat inconsistent performance on Android, some Android users may want to force SBC streaming depending on their handsets
Firmware updates can now be accessed by any Android 6.0 or later device with the HeyMelody app.
While this may seem disappointing, it isn’t a devastating specification because sound quality has more to do with audio engineering than Bluetooth codec support alone. Plus, the earphones’ semi-open fit means that your media is constantly subjected to auditory masking; in other words, loud environmental sounds make it hard to perceive the relatively quiet sound of your music—this particularly affects low-frequency notes.
How long does the OnePlus Buds battery last?
Upon subjecting the headsets to our testing—a constant 75dB output from 100-0%—the OnePlus Buds lasted 6 hours, 12 minutes on a single charge. This falls short of the listed 7-hour battery life, but most listeners will get closer to that by listening to lower volumes. Bear in mind that using the headset for phone calls is much more demanding: you’ll get 41% less usage out of the headset when using it for calls alone, compared to streaming music.
The charging case uses the same Warp Charging technology as OnePlus smartphones.
When the earbuds’ batteries are depleted, you can instantly top back up thanks to the company’s fast charging technology. All you have to do is leave the buds in the case for 10 minutes to be rewarded with 100 minutes of listening. You may also fast-charge the case: 10 minutes of charging via USB-C cable yields 10 hours of battery life. It takes 80 minutes to complete a full charge cycle of the earbuds.
True wireless earbuds battery life: not great, but improving
Perhaps you’ve heard that true wireless earbuds aren’t built to last. That sentiment still rings true: no matter how durable your earbuds are, there’s a persistent problem relating to the constant charge-and-deplete cycle of the battery cells. Although the OnePlus Buds didn’t release with Optimized Battery Charging, as seen with the AirPods on iOS 14, there may be room for improvement in the future.
Can the OnePlus Buds block out noise?
Unclear audio is a problem with all semi-open earbuds, because of a phenomenon called auditory masking, which is when a loud sound makes it difficult for you to perceive a relatively quiet sound. This open build is a big reason the exaggerated bass response exists to this extreme degree.
We experience this every day. Think about the times you’ve been listening to music while standing on a train platform. As the train pulled into the station, it was hard for you to hear your music. It’s not like you manually decreased the volume right as the train pulled up. Instead, your brain focused more energy on processing the loud, potentially threatening, sound of the train car compared to your quieter music. Our brains are only afforded so much bandwidth for processing auditory stimuli, so it prioritizes sounds that could threaten our lives. This is great for survival, but not so great for registering instrumental detail from your favorite ballad. If OnePlus opted for dedicated nozzles and ear tips to create a proper seal to the ear, auditory masking would be much less prevalent.
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As you may have already guessed, all this means that passive isolation is very poor. OnePlus’ decision to run with a nozzle and ear tip-free design, means that background noise is always heard. This isn’t great for audio fidelity, but is good for listeners who want to remain aware at all times. It’s a lot easier to prevent getting hit by a car if you can hear it coming, for example. You can prioritize safety without compromising fit as the Plantronics BackBeat FIT 3100 and Jabra Elite Active 45e have demonstrated.
How does the OnePlus Buds sound?
The earbuds feature Dirac Audio Tuner technology and emit a consumer-friendly bass-heavy sound. As the frequency response chart shows, the 13.4mm dynamic drivers emphasize bass notes under middle-C pretty aggressively. When you listen to these earphones, this emphasis is immediately noticeable and renders vocals a little tough to make out. This is fine for casual consumers but listeners in search of accurate audio reproduction won’t find it with the OnePlus Buds (though this type of user probably isn’t going to look for sub-$100 TWS earphones to begin with).
Lows, mids, and highs
The song Sour Candy by Melt lacks clarity. It opens with an electric keyboard rotating through the chords Fm-G-Bb, which sound okay during the intro. Once Veronica Stewart-Frommer begins singing, auditory masking becomes apparent. If you already have the OnePlus Buds, skip ahead to 1:32; you should notice lost detail as she sings, “… but I guess you can’t control those damn cards we’re dealt!” This is especially apparent as the instrumental accompaniment ramps up during the last three words of the phrase.
External noise masks the OnePlus Buds' bass response, making it seem like bass is lacking when it's, in fact, emphasized.
Due to a combined lack of clarity and extreme bass emphasis, instruments can be indistinguishable from one another in certain situations. This may be heard in Sour Candy once the bridge ramps up at 3:00. The kick drum makes it hard to hear the cymbal hits, and the primary electric guitar is very hard to hear anytime the horns come in.
While this sound isn’t pleasing to me, many listeners coming from cheap pharmacy earphones will love how these buds sound in comparison. OnePlus’ bass boosted tuning makes songs more engaging because of the added oomph. Again, if you’re okay with a loss of perceived detail in favor of a loud low-end, then these earphones will be right up your alley. For the price, however, you can find better sound quality simply by looking for a pair of buds with ear tips.
Can you use the OnePlus Buds for phone calls?
The OnePlus Buds’ microphone system is very good at relaying clear, accurate audio, and even uses noise canceling technology to combat background noise. Each earbud has the same three-microphone array, so you can take calls with either earbud in mono mode. Not only did the headset do a great job of limiting background noise in my apartment, it also effectively reduced wind noise outside.
OnePlus Buds microphone demo:
How does the microphone sound to you?
OnePlus Buds vs OnePlus Buds Pro
The OnePlus Buds Pro is the company’s most premium headset to date and it includes active noise canceling (ANC), IP55 rated earbuds, and an IPX4 rated USB-C/wireless charging case. OnePlus retains the stems with the Buds Pro, and the earphones use Bluetooth 5.2 and support SBC, AAC, and LHDC. LHDC support is a bit funny since not all OnePlus smartphones support it, but an improvement is an improvement.
OnePlus Buds vs OnePlus Buds Z2
OnePlus walked its open-fit design back with the OnePlus Buds Z and kept it that way with the OnePlus Buds Z2. These earphones still rock a stemmed design, but are even more durable than the original OnePlus Buds as the IP55 rating denotes. OnePlus includes three sets of swappable silicone ear tips, which feel a bit flimsy but effectively block out some background noise. You’ll need to get the best fit here to take advantage of the noise canceling. Like the OnePlus Buds, the Buds Z amplifies bass notes.
Unless you absolutely need wireless charging, we recommend the OnePlus Buds Z2 over the OnePlus Buds when it comes to sound quality and value.
OnePlus Buds vs OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z
Both the OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z and the true wireless buds in question target the budget audio market. This makes sense as OnePlus is attacking all budget-friendly fronts as the Buds accompany the OnePlus Nord’s release. Both headsets are water-resistant but the Wireless Z is more durable than the totally wireless earbuds (IP55 vs IPX4). What’s more, battery life is more impressive with the company’s wireless neckband headset, and controls are more comprehensive and intuitive.
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If you value sound quality, go with the OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z over the OnePlus Buds: the former has dedicated nozzles that physically block the ear canal from the outside world, making it easier to perceive accurate audio from the headset. Then again, if you value constant vigilance, the semi-open design may be more appealing to you. In which case, the OnePlus Buds could be a better buy.
Should you buy the OnePlus Buds?
Owners of OnePlus smartphones may well enjoy the OnePlus Buds, but other mobile device owners should consider the abundant alternatives floating around.
I appreciate the effort OnePlus put into the case’s fast charging capabilities, but that’s not enough to compensate for the poor fit and finicky connection. I loathe seeing the growing trend of phone manufacturers making headsets that only receive firmware updates with their particular brand of smartphone. We’ve seen it with Apple, Huawei, and temporarily with OnePlus. It felt like a shortsighted money grab, and one that only shortens the life cycle of a headset. It is, however, nice to see that OnePlus righted its wrongs by allowing nearly all Android owners access to firmware updates.
If you’re someone who finds seal-less earbuds comfortable, then the OnePlus Buds have some redeeming features such as microphone quality and fast charging. In that case, go ahead and nab a pair of earbuds for $59 USD. But for most of us, there are better options available.
What should you get instead of the OnePlus Buds?
Readers who are looking for something a little more versatile than the earbuds in question have plenty of options available from true wireless noise canceling earbuds, to true wireless workout earbuds, and more. Here are two direct competitors to the OnePlus Buds that feature a similar design and cost just a bit more.
Listeners who want to keep the open-fit design of the OnePlus Buds may enjoy the stabilizing wing tips included with the Urbanista Libson. This set of fashion-forward earbuds is about more than looks with its comfortable design, solid battery life, and reasonable price ($49 USD).
Alternatively, the Anker SoundCore Liberty Air 2 is an excellent true wireless headset with a solid microphone. The stemmed earbuds use ear tips that create a more comfortable fit and block out background noise. Although the Liberty Air 2 also has a very bass-heavy sound signature, it can be remedied via the SoundCore app. Battery life is very good as the earbuds last just over seven hours on a single charge, and fast charging is supported—which happens to be more efficient than fast-charging the OnePlus earbuds.