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Shure AONIC Free
October 20, 2021
Original: $199 USD
April 2022: $179 USD
Ear tips: 12mm, 10mm, 14mm
Audio professionals know Shure as the maker of beloved microphones like the SM7b and the SM58, which you can find in recording studios and on stages everywhere, so what is it doing making true wireless earphones? Well, it’s doing a very good job. The Shure AONIC Free brings the same attention to important details as the luxurious AONIC 50 to earbuds.
We spent weeks with the AONIC Free to see how this first attempt at hookless true wireless earbuds goes for Shure.
Editor’s note: this Shure AONIC Free review was updated on May 25, 2023, to add the Sennheiser MOMENTUM True Wireless 3 and Sony LinkBuds S to the list of alternatives, to answer FAQs, and to update formatting.
People who want excellent isolation will appreciate Shure’s performance. Audio tinkerers can utilize the in-app EQ features to suss out their favorite settings with the AONIC Free. Anyone looking to take advantage of improved aptX codec support can use the ShurePlus PLAY app to switch between important codecs.
What’s it like to use Shure AONIC Free?
The Shure AONIC Free looks like a cross between the Sony WF-1000XM3 and the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. The large pill-shaped buds aren’t exactly discreet, but it’s a design that proves popular time and time again. Composed mainly of graphite metallic plastic with lighter grey logos on the outside, and black plastic on the inside, the AONIC Free has a pretty restrained look. For a more fun colorway, there’s a metallic crimson option too. Each bud has a single tactile button on the top edge for all your commands.
Shure includes three sets of Comply foam ear tips, which do a surprising amount of heavy lifting. The memory foam tips perform the bulk of isolation and stabilization to lock those large buds in. The nozzles are about 3mm in diameter, should you explore other third party options. The large ear tip size is about 14mm, the medium is around 12mm, and the small is 10mm. I recommend kind of screwing the AONIC Free buds into your ear canals, rather than just shoving them in. This gentle approach ensures a solid seal, and it protects your ears — we put things in them every day but remember, ears are delicate.
While the foam ear tips do the majority of the stabilizing, the inner facing black housing curves a little bit like the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, in a kind of bean shape. For larger ears, this offers some extra security as it rests against the helix. Those of us (myself included) sporting smaller ears might not have an easy time getting that bean shape to fit just right. While the AONIC Free buds stick out further than ideal, the fit is still secure.
The AONIC Free has an IPX4 rating, and Shure covers damage from sweat under the included two-year warranty. Ergonomically, the earphones may not be the best for exercise, but they will survive so long as you keep them out of the pool.
How’s the AONIC Free charging case?
The Shure AONIC Free charging case is large, but still smaller than the Shure AONIC 215 Gen 2 battery case. The matte black case is short and wide with a single LED on the front to indicate battery status. On the bottom is a USB-C connector, and yes, it ships with a cable. Due to the rounded corners, the case can sometimes tip over if you try to stand it up. If connected to the USB-C it will only lay on its side.
The lid flips open and shut (using magnets) with a good amount of security and no play in the hinge. Because the buds are roughly symmetrical, I don’t always get the placement correct when in a rush. Overall, the case works well, but its size is more suitable for a jacket pocket than jeans pockets.
How do you control the Shure AONIC Free?
Like the Shure AONIC 215 Gen 2, my favorite control on the AONIC Free is that volume control is one tap and then a tap and hold. It’s like pressing the volume button on your phone. Adding the initial first tap prevents you from accidentally cranking the volume. The right ear is volume up and the left turns it down. It’s simple and genius. The only caveat is that you cannot change this setting like the other controls.
Otherwise, you can program up to three functions per earbud for music and three more per bud for phone calls. These consist of one to three clicks of the button.
Should you download ShurePlus PLAY app?
You should download the ShurePlus PLAY app if you want updates, EQ control, and Environment Mode (audio passthrough). You can even pick different languages and alert tones, and their respective volumes. This app is shared with other Shure products, such as the AONIC 215 Gen 2, and it’s available on iOS and Android.
The app has an equalizer for every person’s needs. For most listeners, the presets will do the job. If you select a preset and then tap Manual, it shows you exactly what the app’s EQ does. The feature acts as a good learning tool to see how each EQ preset affects certain frequencies. That way, you can make educated decisions about how to boost or cut a given frequency. Should you choose to customize your settings, you can save it as a user preset. The AONIC Free saves whatever you last set your buds to. On the other hand, if you like the default setting, just turn off the EQ.
In ShurePlus PLAY, you can adjust the Environment mode with a slider to bring in as much, or as little, of your environment as desired. It’s quite clear, with only a small amount of gain-related noise, which is impressive compared to other wireless headsets with the same feature.
The ShurePlus PLAY app saves your preferred EQ settings directly to the earbuds.
If you have an expansive library of audio files, you can upload them all to your ShurePlus PLAY app, which means your entire audio experience can happen all in the same app. On Android, you can do this via USB connection to a PC or your internal storage. iPhone users will use iTunes, iCloud, or AirDrop. Of course, you can also ignore this and continue with your preferred streaming service.
What Bluetooth codecs does the Shure AONIC Free support?
Included with the AONIC Free is support for aptX, AAC, and SBC via Bluetooth 5.0. On Android, it should default to the superior aptX codec, which has a higher resolution and reduced latency for video synchronizing. Folks with iPhones eke the most audio quality from the AAC codec option.
Meanwhile, this connection works faithfully, never dropping signal over 10 meters through walls and doors. It’s very stable, and it subsequently pairs quickly once you’ve done the initial setup with a device.
How long does the Shure AONIC Free battery last?
When tested at 75dB(SPL), the AONIC Free battery lasts 5 hours, 31 minutes. Your results will vary depending on how loud your music plays, as well as a few other variables. In any case, this result is okay, but outdone by many other earbuds these days.
The charging case supplies an additional two charges for about 16 hours, 30 minutes of listening cumulatively. If the battery dies, 15 minutes of charging gains an hour of power.
Does the Shure AONIC Free have good isolation?
Surpassing the 37dB figure that Shure cites, in our tests, the AONIC Free attenuates up to 50dB above 10kHz and essentially mutes these frequencies. Passive isolation typically works best at diminishing those high-pitched sounds. However, the 10-25dB reduction of noise below 1kHz is impressive and unusual. Typically, active noise cancellation (ANC) works better for those lower frequencies, but with a cogent in-ear seal using those Comply ear tips, you can expect excellent performance out of just foam. You don’t get any ANC with the AONIC Free, but you probably don’t need it either.
Of course, if you need to pipe in some of your surroundings, given the isolating nature of the AONIC Free fit, turn on the Environment Mode.
How does the Shure AONIC Free sound?
The Shure AONIC Free sounds very good for a pair of consumer earbuds and its default frequency response mostly follows our target curve. The AONIC Free reproduces louder bass and low-midrange notes than our house curve, but it won’t generate many complaints.
It boosts 80-400Hz sounds a bit, but by no more than 5dB. Interestingly, besides the 10dB peak at 5kHz, treble frequencies aren’t prominent. This is especially apparent in the chart above 7kHz, where there’s a steep roll off. Experientially, high harmonics will sound quiet. Frankly, the fundamentals of music sit in lower frequencies than the roll off, so it’s not a huge issue. If you want more treble detail, select the Treble Boost EQ preset or do it manually in the PLAY app.
Lows, mids, and highs
Turning on Didn’t I by Darondo reveals the pleasantly mellow, clean rhythm guitar in the center that pans to my left ear, anchoring the track alongside a quiet organ. Darondo’s prominent falsetto vocals occasionally compete with backing singers, the string section, and flute — all of which occupy higher registers. Cymbals and snare sound much too quiet, though they are mixed quietly to begin with. I miss the sounds above 7kHz that give some harmonic detail. The cacophonous mids and highs also take focus off of the already quietly mixed bass sections.
However, with the more modern hyped-up rework of the same track by Dave Allison, the added percussion is much more audible, suggesting this is in part due to mixing and mastering decisions. Darondo’s voice still sounds too quiet relative to more treble-emphasized earbuds. The same goes for the strings and flute. It is nice, however, to hear the bass guitar more prominently. Fortunately, I can turn the EQ up for those absent highs to yield a more complete experience of the song.
Can you use the Shure AONIC Free for phone calls?
Yes, you can use the AONIC Free for phone calls but you might want to use the Environment Mode to hear a bit more of your surroundings during a call. The AONIC Free has no built-in sidetone feature, so it can feel disorienting to only hear your muffled voice alongside whoever is on the call.
The AONIC Free uses one earbud’s mic system at a time. It optimizes sound based on whichever side has the best audio and uses a digital signal processor (DSP) to improve the quality. With competent mics, the AONIC Free transmits voices quite accurately, though occasionally sibilance comes through, it’s not overwhelming. Noise rejection rates as okay, but your friend will still hear some environmental sounds.
Shure AONIC Free microphone demo (Ideal):
Shure AONIC Free microphone demo (Office):
Shure AONIC Free microphone demo (Wind):
Shure AONIC Free microphone demo (Reverb):
How does the microphone sound to you?
Should you buy Shure AONIC Free?
For unparalleled isolation performance and pretty good out-of-the-box sound, the Shure AONIC Free is a very good initial foray into conventional, hookless true wireless earbuds for the veteran audio manufacturer. It doesn’t exactly have a groundbreaking look, but its functionality eases any second guessing.
With the ShurePlus PLAY app, the AONIC Free renders your experience about as involved or uninvolved as you want. The hands-off listener can just use it for updates, but a tinkerer can tweak the EQ in a way most can only dream of on other apps. If you want a one-stop app experience, you can load up your music collection too.
Battery life is okay, and the case could be a little smaller, but it’s decent and sturdy. Usually, at this price point I might point out that cheaper buds have ANC, which the AONIC Free does not possess. However, the isolation on the AONIC Free is so good that you may not find yourself wishing for ANC.
What should you get instead of the Shure AONIC Free?
Sennheiser likely counts as Shure’s stiffest competition in the true wireless market in addressing the needs of audio enthusiasts. The Sennheiser MOMENTUM True Wireless 3 come in a smaller case with an IPX4 rating. They utilize a similar enough frequency response as the AONIC Free with a bit more volume in the higher registers. The MOMENTUM True Wireless 3 also have ANC, which filters more low pitched noises than the AONIC Free’s isolation, however, Shure still blocks more high pitched sounds. Like Shure, Sennheiser has a good app and uses aptX. The overall smaller size is one of the main reasons to choose the Sennheiser buds over the Shure buds. Find a set for $199.95 at Amazon.
Another competent option are the Sony LinkBuds S, and they have a frequency response that by default is very close to the same as the Shure AONIC Free curve. Plus, you can use the Treble Boost EQ in the Sony Headphones Connect app and it gets extremely close to our preference curve. Like the Sennheiser MOMENTUM True Wireless 3, the LinkBuds S rely on ANC for most of the noise attenuation, and it isolates okay but not as well as the Shure AONIC Free. On the other hand, they’re smaller and often a bit cheaper, for $148 at Amazon.
Frequently asked questions about the Shure AONIC Free
The Shure AONIC Free and Sennheiser MOMENTUM True Wireless 3 compare to each other quite favorably. Sennheiser gets a little closer to our target frequency response by default, but the ShurePLAY app can get you close with the equalizer, and the app is less fussy than Sennheiser’s app. Both have similar battery lives, and arguably, the MOMENTUM True Wireless 3 are more conventional and smaller in overall size than the AONIC Free. Sennheiser has Sound Zones, and these allow the user to create custom settings depending on your location, plus ANC.
The Shure AONIC 40 is a vastly different headset than the AONIC Free, since the former is an over-ear headset with ANC. You should get the AONIC 40 if you have an aversion to sticking things down your ear and want something with better battery life. By and large, you get the same app experience with the two Bluetooth headsets. The AONIC Free is more durable with its IPX4 rating, while the AONIC 40 is without any water resistance, but hey, at least it has a headphone jack for lossless playback.
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The market changes frequently so checking the our picks for the best cheap ANC earbuds is your best bet. Off the cuff, the Sennheiser CX Plus True Wireless supply a good value ($69.95 at Amazon) with ANC and a frequency response that’s not too dissimilar to the Shure AONIC Free.