Earshots Headset Review: Bluetooth Open Ear Headphones

earshots headphones

The Earshots headphones are could be the perfect headphone for runners, mountain bikers, and anyone else who wants headphones that don’t block off the rest of the world.

They’re not without their faults though. What I’m going to do now is list a litany of issues I have with the first generation Earshots. And then tell you why I’m not convinced the second generation has addressed them.

But First, An Earshots Comparison Against Aftershokz

aftershokz titanium
I bought my Aftershokz at 99 Bikes

It’s a small niche that the Earshots have entered into. In a market obsessed with blocking out all external noises, a few headphones sit apart. The most notable among these are the Aftershokz bone conductive headphones.

sony linkbud open ear headphones

Sony Linkbuds

Sony have just entered this market with their Linkbuds. I haven't tried them yet but with Sony's development nouse behind them they could be a great addition to the open ear headphone market.

Aftershokz don’t cover your ears at all. They sit in front of your ears and conduct sound through the bones of your head. Leaving your ear exposed like this is perfect in so many ways. It makes riding while listening to an audiobook safe. For me, it makes running with my dog so easy when I can hear the tinkling of her harness behind me. It makes kayaking with dogs super convenient when people want to talk to you and tell you the same joke about the dogs not doing any work. It even made working in the office so much better, having the ability to talk to people and answer questions without going, “What?” as I removed the headphones.

I’ve owned several pairs of Aftershokz and the Earshots are the only other headphone I’ve come across that allows me to hear my environment while listening to something else. As such, I’m going to use Aftershokz as my comparison for much of this review.

Ease Of Use, Not Great For The Earshots

There is only one button on the Earshots. One on each, that is. They both have the same function, turn it on/off, play/pause.

There is no double-tap to fast forward. No long press for Google/Siri. No volume up or down. I repeat, no volume up and down! On a premium-priced earphone I still have to get off my stationary cycle to turn the volume and and down on my Netflix movie. I have to fumble for my phone while riding outdoors. At this price, this is just insanity.

To make matters worse, the lone button isn’t particularly user-friendly. You need to press really hard to use it. At first, I found this a bit painful. With the earphones on, I was pressing them into my own ears. After some use, I found a method that was simple enough in which I squeezed the earphone and not my ear. It’s not a single finger press like you’d be used to (with every other headphone on the entire goddamned market!) and I still get it wrong half the time and find myself mashing the headset into my ear.

The lesson here, monkey boy, is you need to use your opposable thumbs for even the simplest of functions. (And I mean simple, since this button will pause/play and turn on/off. That’s it.)

 

monkeys cannot use Earshots
This monkey didn't buy Earshots because he couldn't use them

To make matters even worserer, the Earshots don’t turn on when you remove them from the charging case. Nor do they turn off when you place them in the case. I sort of got used to this after a while but it’s such a simple feature and something I would expect, I can’t train myself to always remember to do this simple something that the headphones should do for me.

It’s annoying when your Earshots wake you up at 2am telling you they’re turning off, even though they’re in a closed case and should be asleep already. 

Turning on the Earshots needs an extra-long press. Long press is a scourge that’s over-used on modern products. I find myself long pressing on just about everything these days, from my phone to my bike lights, when a normal press should suffice. The Earshots long-press is just long enough for you to wonder if it’s actually working. It’s much longer than any other long press I’ve every come across. Couple that with a button that needs a vise-like grip between finger and opposable thumb and you’ve got a small hiccup that now pisses me off every single time I use them. 

When you do turn them on the woman inside them yells at you, “Power on.” What the hell has got into this woman’s head that she thinks she needs to yell at me so loud? It’s sort of okay during the day but in the dead of night you might want to power them on before you put them in your ears so you don’t have this lady shouting directly into your ears. In fact, I generally do this all the time, powering them on and off when they’re not in my ears. I don’t need a woman yelling in my ears at twice the volume of the stuff I was listening to.

You should also be careful about maintaining a decent battery level. If you’re like me, and you like to relax a bit before sleeping, you might get startled out of your pre-slumber by that same lady yelling at you, “Battery level low!” Aaaaaugh! What? My heart leapt through my chest. 

That button. I can’t move on without mentioning that button again. It is stiff and awkward. The Aftershokz, by comparison, have a nice button on the side you can press with one finger. And you don’t need to mash it halfway into your brain. It’s a simple solution, a simple design fix I’d hope and expect they’d change on the next iteration.

Earshots Sound Quality, Meh

You probably don’t come to this niche, the open ear headphone, expecting great sound quality. And you don’t get it. The Aftershokz and the Earshots both provide the kind of sound quality that is fine so long as your expectations are low.

I had a tune in my head the other day, so I scrolled through Spotify and popped on the Earshots. Thirty seconds later I hit pause. Why waste a good song on some decidedly ordinary sound?

Apparently iteration two has improved this. I’d also mention that the latest iterations of Aftershokz, which I have tried, have better sound too. (And amazing battery life. And volume control buttons…)

Don’t get me wrong, if you were running or riding, the sound quality would be good enough to keep you motivated. If you’re relaxing and listening to tunes, find something else. There is no bass and the sound is thin and reedy. 

I own a pair of $40 Edifier TWS headphones that absolutely kill these for sound quality. They were no competitors for the Jabra headset I owned (before my dog ate them). Open ear headphones are generally quite specifically for workouts where you want to hear your environment. They’re not for enjoying tunes in the quiet of your own home. Earshots are definitely no exception there.

What I do have to mention though is these headphones amplify wind noise. Riding into a headwind verges on being painful, just from the wind noise. I swapped them out recently for a standard in ear headphone (using just the one ear) and the difference in wind noise was chalk and cheese. This is a problem with headsets that have a frame. Further down, I compare the wind noise favourably to Aftershokz. 

Earshots Call Quality Is (Absolutely) Woeful

The microphone quality is awful. Completely useless. I can’t emphasize this enough, it is really completely and woefully terrible.

Let’s think about these things as being headphones rather than a headset. 

I did not talk to anyone who didn’t complain about the call quality. Most calls required me to swap to the handset so the other party could understand me. The only way to have a conversation with these things connected is to swap your phone to the phone speaker. They are completely useless as micophones. 

It’s extremely disappointing to have had one of the main functions of a headset fail so badly. Such a big glaring fail is hard to forgive. I can’t believe I paid good money for a headset that doesn’t have the call quality of something well over $100 cheaper. Stupid, unforgivable and very annoying. 

Comfort, A Big Win For Earshots

This is a very subjective issue. I find Afterhokz excruciating in a very short amount of time. On the other hand, my wife converted to Aftershokz as soon as she tried mine on. It was a revelation to her, a woman who hates putting earbuds in her ears. She finds Aftershokz so comfortable that she’ll often wear them for hours after she should have taken them off. She might answer a phone at work and find the phone collides with the Aftershokz headphones next to her ears. Otherwise she might not realize they’re there.

For me, I know that the clock is ticking as soon as I put the Aftershokz on. If it wasn’t for this fact I probably wouldn’t own a pair of Earshots. As much as I loved everything else about Aftershokz, I really needed an alternative that I could wear comfortably for longer periods.

I’ve been listing to the cricket while at work, wearing a single Earshot for hours. I’ve had no discomfort. I think in part, this is because the loop that goes around the ear is flexible, meaning it can mould to the ear. In contrast, the Aftershokz is stiff plastic. If it doesn’t fit your ear, then you’re in trouble.

Durability, another win...or not...

I broke several pairs of Aftershokz. That stiff plastic doesn’t like being mistreated. And I’m not real good at looking after stuff. I actually own a pair of hand-me-downs from my wife. They’d started to rattle a bit so she replaced them. I snapped them the other day while they were still on my head. 

As the sort of person who finds ways to carelessly mistreat everything he owns, I like the apparent durability of the Earshots. I’ve only had them a month so I can’t speak for their long term durability. But so far they look like a product I can use and abuse in ways that comes naturally to me.

The big issue is they don’t like sweat. Yes, you read that right. The headphones developed specifically for the outdoorsy/exercisey market don’t like sweat. (I expand on my warranty issues below.) In chat with Earshots they mentioned that they’d had some problems with people putting the headset away while it was still damp. Fair enough I suppose. Except I’ve never had anything remotely similar with any other headset I’ve used. 

Now I have to remember to let my Earshot dry completely before putting them to bed. I’m a forgetful person and for me this is another barrier to using them. Usually they’re not charged when I need them because I forgot to put them to bed after they dried out. 

Worse yet, they don’t function when I sweat. Indoor cycling with them is a mess. They work for a while, until the sweat kicks in, and then they start malfunctioning. They’ll do stupid things like turning off my music or video. Then the left one will cut out. It’s hopeless using these things for physical indoor excerice. This is a massive and unforgivable fail. 

Charging

It’s sort of hard to judge the charging because quite often they wouldn’t charge. See the section about sweat, for instance. But even when they did charge it wasn’t impressive. I’m used to having modern headsets that will give you an hour from a five minute tickle with the electicklrey. These things don’t do that. If they charged at all. Too often the “charge me” lady would be talking over my content when I thought I should have lots left. 

I let them charge for seveal hours today and got about 1 hours from the left headset. 

In Use, Yes Here The EarShots Shine

As I said in my intro, there is really only one headset I’ve tried that fits in this niche, the Aftershokz. The Bose Open-Ear would also compete here but it’s difficult to get price and availability on them. They’re Bose, so they’re no doubt excellent (and expensive), but good luck getting a pair. From the look of them, and from reviews, they have a big chunky frame that doesn’t sit well with glasses. And here we can start to see where the Earshots shine.

I could never get my Aftershokz to play well with glasses. I feared the Earshots would be the same. I needn’t have worried though because they fitted with ease. (Update, the new Aftershokz have a lighter, more flexible frame, and they’re much easier to situate with helmets and glasses.)

There are those magnets, which feature prominently in their list of features. They work well to hold the headphones in place. You’re not going to lose these things during exercise. My dearly departed Jabra 65t headphones (that proved that puppies and headsets aren’t compatible) stayed in place through anything I could throw at them. Most other headphones would not. Indoor cardio is the worst. I sweat up a storm. Sweat plus movement makes most headphones lose their grip. This is never going to happen to the Earshots. (Plus, my wife can’t sneak up on me while I’m working out to Netflix or YouTube videos.)

I can’t be sure, but I’m reasonably convinced that the Earshots make less wind noise than the Aftershokz. I’ve been able to listen to podcasts and stories by using one headphone in one ear in situations where I reckon the Aftershokz would have been too noisey (eg headwinds). Also, the ambient sounds from traffic and people is quite clear above the wind and podcasts noise.
Open ear headphones are so good to use in so many ways. Just walking the dogs I’ll bump into people who want to say hello or have quick chat. A quick press on the headphone button (using a simple press to the front mounted button on the Aftershokz, or an awward grip and squeeze if you’ve got Earshots) and you can converse like a normal person. You don’t need to pull out your headphones, just pause the track and keep talking. I mentioned kayaking earlier. I paddle with my dogs and people talk to me all the time, usually from a distance. With open ear headphones I can usually hear them well enough to make ambiguous wave and smile motions that seem to fit the context of what they might have said. And really, just about anything you might do in public is better when you have open ear headphones.

Here in Australia, we don’t have bike lanes. What we have is an extra-wide footpath that is a shared bike/pedestrian lane. If you’re hitting 80, like my mum, then you hate sharing with moving vehicles. Having 20-something cyclists weaving past you isn’t an enjoyable way to stroll. They’re not great for cyclists either, having to negotiate distracted pedestrians. And the worst are people with headphones. They have no idea what’s going on and act like it’s your fault when your passing bike scares them. I can see the attraction of enjoying good tunes. I can’t see why you’d block the world out though, not when you’re in a fluid environment. As a cyclist, you’d be barmy if you blocked off the world like this. That’s not a recipe for longevity. As a pedestrian, you should try and keep some awareness too. And that’s where Earshots are so great. I wear just the one and that’s perfect for podcasts and audiobooks. (I don’t ride in busy city environments, usually riding a combination of bike/pedestrian paths and quiet streets. I wouldn’t ride with anything in my ears if I was still tackling city streets. That would be a horrific act of stupidity.)

I Give The Earshots Two Stars...Or Maybe One...

I feel like the Earshots I own are a beta product. They nailed their main function (of providing open ear style headphones) but have so many other issues it’s hard to rate them highly. I really wouldn’t buy them again. I’d take a punt on the newer Aftershokz and practically any other headset on the market before returning to Earshots.

I read a bunch of other reviews about the Earshots prior to purchasing this pair. I feel like those reviewers had the rose coloured glasses on when they wrote their rather glowing reviews. None mentioned the litany of issues I’ve outlined. Earshots are a local(ish) start-up made by a guy in New Zealand. We Aussies love our Kiwi brothers and sisters and I think the other reviewers wanted this product to do well. My feeling is, at the asking price, they should be much (much!) better. I feel like I’m buying into the first iteration of a product in its infancy and the next version will address many of these issues Ive mentioned. If that’s true, then I’m happy to have supported a product that can be so much better. If I’m an early adopter of what becomes a successful and mature product, then I think my investment will have been worthwhile.

For you, if you’re reading this review and deciding whether to buy Earshots, I’d tell you to consider your needs. Do you need headphones that don’t cut you off from the world outside? (Yes, you bloody well do. Are you a moron?) Then buy these. They’re something of a single-minded product, being good at just that one thing and bad at so many others. But that one thing is reason enough to for Earshots to be part of your repertoire of audio devices.

Update, Earshots Warranty Procedure

UPDATE: Earshots responded to my Facebook DM. They apologised for the long delay getting back to me. They’ve had COVID problems, much like the rest of the world.

My left Earshot stopped charging. What it does instead is it gets very hot. This is potentially a warranty issue. The procedure on the Earshots website is to fill in their form and send it to them. Which I did.

I got no reply.

I then tried direct messaging them on Facebook. I noticed they’d put up a post the day prior so I knew they were active on Facebook. 

I got no reply.

A few days later, I went back to their website and noticed they had included a chat function. Emily was online. So I sent a message to Emily.

I got no reply.

Earshots everntually got back to me. They’d been bogged down by covid. Fair enough. They gave me contact details so I could start the warranty procedure. In the meantime, the left earphone started working again. It’s been fickle since then though, so I may still warranty them. I’ll keep you posted.

Earshots Mark II

Since I first wrote this review, Earshots have released their second version. At $189 they’re in the premium headphone market. Sadly, they’re still missing premium headphone features.

Still no volume control. 

Still no Google/Siri.

They promise better bass, better microphone and they’ve got a front-mounted button. Yay! I can only hope that button isn’t the same as the first generation. I’d hate to have to push the headset halfway through my head just to pause a track. 

If anyone has had experience with the second generation, I’d love to hear you feedback. I’d be semi-tempted to try Earshots again if they’ve addressed some of my issues. But I’d really want the niggles sorted out if I’m going to pay $AU199. I couldn’t put up with a super-long press to turn them on, just to have the lady shout in my ear. I wouldn’t put up with them being averse to sweat. And I’m already struggling with the concept that there is no volume button on a $199 headset. W T Fuck!

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