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OnePlus Buds Z
November 1, 2020
3.8 x 2.3 cm (earbud)
7.5 x 3.6 x 2.9 cm (case)
Although it’s easy to get roped into the glitz and glam of premium true wireless earbuds, sometimes all you want is something cheap and functional. The OnePlus Buds Z afford just that. These durable earbuds can endure all of your exercise regimens, and feature a companion app available to nearly all Android devices.
Do the Buds Z fall into the typical trappings of cheap earbuds, or are they a diamond in the rough?
Editor’s note: this OnePlus Buds Z review was updated on January 4, 2022, to address the OnePlus Buds Z2 and JBL Tune 230NC TWS as alternatives.
Who should get the OnePlus Buds Z?
What is it like to use the OnePlus Buds Z?
OnePlus didn’t take any design risks with the OnePlus Buds Z: these earphones look much like their predecessor, which is just a long-winded way of saying they look like the Apple AirPods. The familiar stemmed design makes it easy to insert and remove the earbuds, while the dedicated nozzles seal to the ear and keep the buds in place. Even though the Buds Z maintains a secure fit, the stems can get caught on face mask strings. There were a few instances when the earbuds clattered to the floor as I removed my face mask, something that never happened with the Jabra Elite 85t and similarly shaped buds.
The earbuds merit an IP55 rating, which denotes some degree of dust and water resistance. Rock climbers and gymnasts, in particular, will appreciate the dust-resistant build—though, a thick layer of chalk on your fingers will make it hard for the touch panels to register contact. Ultimately, while you can workout with the OnePlus Buds Z, the limited onboard controls are a hindrance. You’re better off with a more versatile pick from JLab or Anker Soundcore.
You need to download the HeyMelody app in order to access your smart assistant from the OnePlus Buds Z.
You can control playback via each earbud’s touch-capacitive panel. The default settings are limited: a double-tap of either earbud skips to the next track, and that’s it. You can only pause the earbuds by removing them, which is annoying. Granted, OnePlus has automatic ear detection nailed down really well, so playback immediately pauses when one bud is removed and resumes when it’s reinserted.
Related: Ultimate headphone buying guide
Should you download the HeyMelody app?
The HeyMelody mobile app is the only way non-OnePlus smartphone owners can access firmware updates, or remap the OnePlus Buds Z earbuds’ onboard controls. The only requirement is that your device must be running Android 6.0 or later; it’s not yet available on iOS.
HeyMelody is still in development, and it shows: this is a very barebones app with just two real functions (firmware updates and control configurations). It’s frustrating that you need to download this app to be able to play the previous track directly from the earbuds, but at least the option is available. As of this review’s publication date, the HeyMelody app doesn’t support any kind of equalizer, be it custom or preset options; it doesn’t have a “find my buds” function; and it doesn’t support ambient aware mode. Perhaps as the application matures, we’ll see more features brought into the fold.
Does the OnePlus Buds Z stay connected?
The OnePlus Buds Z stayed connected to my Samsung Galaxy S10e and OnePlus 7 Pro, as long as I kept within the 10-meter range. Connection stability was consistent with two layers of drywall between the earbuds and my smartphone. When I rode my bike and listened to music in mono mode, a few connection hiccups occurred, but that was rare.
Become an expert: Bluetooth codecs 101
The OnePlus Buds Z are Bluetooth 5.0 earbuds and support two Bluetooth codecs: SBC and AAC. The latter of those is great for iPhones because iOS encodes the high-quality AAC codec with ease. Android, however, struggles with AAC across different devices. These performance inconsistencies may even push you to force SBC streaming from your phone, depending on which handset you own.
How long does the OnePlus Buds Z battery last?
The OnePlus Buds Z lasts precisely 4 hours when subjected to a constant 75dB(SPL) output. This doesn’t match the official battery life of five hours, but it’s about average for true wireless earbuds. Since you’re always tossing the buds into the case when they’re not in use, you shouldn’t run into many immediate battery life issues.
The case provides an extra four charge cycles and can fast-charge the earbuds. All you have to do is place the earbuds into the case for 10 minutes to get 180 minutes of playtime. It takes a couple of hours to fully charge the case, and there’s no way to wirelessly charge it—for that, you’ll need to get the standard OnePlus Buds.
Do true wireless batteries last?
Just like your smartphone, and most portable electronics, your true wireless earbuds are packed with lithium-ion batteries, only the cells in your buds are very tiny. It’s expected that lithium-ion batteries degrade over time, but the unending charge-and-deplete cycle of true wireless earbuds puts their battery cells on the fast track to degradation. As it stands, most true wireless earbuds used on a regular basis lose a significant amount of battery capacity by the two-year mark.
There are changes coming down the pike, and Apple is spearheading the way. One of the features released with iOS 14 was battery optimization software. This instructs the AirPods (3rd generation) and AirPods Pro cases to halt charging at 80% capacity, until the earphones are ready for you to use. It takes time for the software to learn your daily habits, say you have a regular commute time that you use to listen to music, but once it knows it will preserve your earbuds’ battery life in the long run. This is still a very new feature, but hopefully, we’ll see it with other headsets outside of the Apple ecosystem eventually.
Does the OnePlus Buds Z block out background noise?
When the silicone ear tips fit properly and seal to your ear canal, plenty of background noise is blocked out. Sure, the passive isolation can’t compare to a great set of noise cancelling headphones, but it’s more effective than most cheap in-ears. The isolation chart depicts ideal isolation performance, so your real-world mileage may vary. If none of the supplied ear tips fit you well, you may need to pick up a pair of memory foam ear tips.
How does the OnePlus Buds Z sound?
The OnePlus Buds Z models a consumer-friendly frequency response with how it boosts bass and treble notes. The 10mm dynamic drivers may not read as impressive, but this is a solid, consumer-friendly sound for the price.
If you’re an audiophile, look elsewhere for your low-cost earbuds: the frequency response is more intended for a general consumer audience, and can’t yet be equalized unless you use a third-party app. Bass notes sound twice as loud as midrange notes, subjecting vocals to auditory masking. This phenomenon is when loud sounds, like a kick drum, make it hard to perceive relatively quiet ones, like vocals. Again, this isn’t inherently bad—after all, many of us seek out bass-heavy headphones—it’s just not an accurate representation of how the musician and sound engineers intended for the music to sound.
Can you use the OnePlus Buds Z for phone calls?
Microphone quality is fine, but at the end of the day, the OnePlus Buds Z still uses an embedded mic system which has its limitations. You can skate by with these for conference calls, and take casual calls without issue, but audio clips quite often and background noise can be heard at all times. We recommend taking calls inside with these buds when you can, because your friend on the other end of the call will hear all of the wind and street noise that surrounds you.
OnePlus Buds Z microphone demo:
How does the microphone sound to you?
As of July 15, 2021, 1,026 readers have rated the above mic sample as somewhere between “okay” and “good.” This is a pretty typical result for true wireless earphones and about what you should expect to get out of any products of this type.
OnePlus Buds vs OnePlus Buds Z: Which is the best OnePlus Buds?
The OnePlus Buds Z has better, more consistent sound quality than the OnePlus Buds. This may come as a surprise since the OnePlus Buds is pricier than the Buds Z, but it’s a physical limitation of how the OnePlus Buds leaves your ear canal unsealed. This introduces background noise that masks your music and makes it hard to hear detail. A mediocre fit with the OnePlus Buds Z feels more secure than an ideal fit with the original model. Both earbuds are water-resistant, but the Buds Z has the OnePlus Buds beat here too: the former is IP55-rated, while the latter is just IPX4-rated. You can do most cardio workouts with either headset, but the cheaper version is ultimately more comfortable and durable.
Must read: OnePlus Buds review
There are still some redeeming qualities of the OnePlus Buds, though. If you live in a busy area and like to keep an ear on your surroundings at all times, the OnePlus Buds is the way to go. Sure, sound quality takes a hit, but if it keeps you safe and aware of oncoming traffic, it’s well worth the sacrifice. Another perk of OnePlus’ debut true wireless earbuds is wireless charging. It isn’t necessary for most of us, but it’s still a cool party trick.
Should you get the OnePlus Buds Z?
The OnePlus Buds Z is a very good pair of earbuds for anyone on a budget, and it’s’ among our favorite true wireless earbuds under $50. Sure, the limited onboard controls are an inconvenience, but that can be addressed with a firmware update. What the earbuds do, they do well: fast charging is superb, as is the IP55 durability certification. If your budget doesn’t go beyond $50, the OnePlus Buds Z is a great pair of high-value buds that hearken back to the company’s philosophical roots.
Editor’s note: this review was written with firmware version 305 installed on the OnePlus Buds Z.
What should you get instead of the OnePlus Buds Z?
Aside from the OnePlus Buds, the most obvious alternative to the Buds Z is the OnePlus Buds Z2. This set of buds has an IP55 rating, making it resistant to both dust and water. With Bluetooth 5.2, you get better connection stability than before with the same AAC and SBC codec support. Unlike the standard Buds Z, the Buds Z2 has active noise cancelling.
If you really like the stemmed design but don’t want a pair of OnePlus earphones, the JBL Tune 230NC TWS may be more your style. Like the Buds Z2, the Tune 230NC TWS has noise cancelling. You also get comprehensive in-app support that works smoothly on any mobile OS. Listeners who like a bit more bass to their tunes will grow to enjoy this headset, even with its drawbacks.
The Anker Soundcore Life A1 is as affordable as the OnePlus Buds Z, and more compact too. The fit is very secure, thanks to rubberized bands that encompass the earbuds. The greatest drawback to these uniquely cheap earbuds is their very bass-heavy sound, but you can play around with the in-app EQ presets to find something better.
Spend a little more on the Nothing Ear 1 or OnePlus Buds Pro
The OnePlus Pro is a big upgrade from the OnePlus Buds Z, and the Pro model includes active noise cancelling, a sleeker design, and a more ergonomic fit. You get more advanced features like Bluetooth 5.2 and support for SBC, AAC, and LHDC. The earbuds automatically pause and resume music when they sense removal and insertion, plus they have an IP55 rating and come in an IPX4-rated case.
The Nothing Ear 1, on the other hand, has a very unique design with its semi-transparent earphones and case. Nothing is OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei’s latest project, so you’re bound to see similarities between the Ear 1 and OnePlus Buds. For $99 USD, you get in-app support, auto-play/pause, fast and wireless charging, and a great fit. Currently, the app only supports a few EQ presets and the ANC isn’t great, but this is still a feature-packed option for the price.