Skybuds review: great sound, but not much else

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The original idea from Alpha Audiotronics, the team behind Skybuds, was audacious and unique. The startup’s promise,

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The best thing about Skybuds is they sound great, especially for tiny wireless earbuds. In many settings I think they even sound better than either of Bragi’s earbuds, and on par with wired earbuds in the same price range. They’re bass-heavy like the Dash, but the bass doesn’t stomp all over the finer details in the middle and high frequencies. They also don’t sound quite as flat as the Headphone.

Instead, Skybuds sit somewhere in the middle. They create rich, clear sound, but songs with lots of loud bass and drums also hold up well. There's a roominess and warmth to the sound, too. This all appears to be owed to the digital processing being done by the buds themselves — something you can actually turn off in the Skybuds app in order to squeeze an extra half hour or so out of the battery.

Companies have mostly solved the Bluetooth problem, so we can finally focus on sound — and Skybuds sound great

Frankly, it feels like a luxury to finally talk about sound quality when discussing wireless earbuds. Many, if not most, companies that were early to wireless earbuds struggled to make a reliable connection between the earbuds and the phone. That meant sound quality was always secondary — what good is good sound if you can’t even hear it to begin with? But now companies big and small have started to crack this problem, which means the quality of sound can be a more important part of the equation when considering whether or not to buy a pair of wireless earbuds.

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With that in mind, the Bluetooth connection between Skybuds and my iPhone 7 was not bulletproof. These earbuds are a bit more susceptible to signal interruptions than something like Bragi’s Headphone earbuds, or the Erato Apollo 7s. The hiccups are sporadic — they’re not as frequent as they are on the Bragi Dash, or the Motorola VerveOnes, or most other first-generation wireless earbuds. They tended to happen only when my phone was in my back pocket, or when the phone (or the right earbud, which controls the signal to the phone) was briefly covered up. Like basically any Bluetooth headphones, Skybuds struggle when they lose line of sight. But the connection is otherwise mostly solid — the latency is even small enough that you can use them to watch videos and play games on your phone.

The pivot to a carrying case design was a good one. The new case is small enough to fit comfortably in your pocket. It’s about two to three times the size of a Zippo lighter, and it has a battery inside that can recharge the earbuds about six times over — a total of around 24 hours of charge. If I’ve learned anything testing wireless earbuds in their infancy, it’s that they’re only ever going to be as good as the case they come with. Alpha Audiotronics got this part right.

While I like the case, there are too many things I don’t like about Skybuds in light of the hefty price tag. For one, they feel far too cheap for a $250 product. They’re made mostly of plastic, and the seams are exposed all the way around. They just feel too easy to break, which is not good for something as easy to drop as a tiny earbud. That plastic build means they’re very light, but I personally still found them uncomfortable to wear. They sit deeper in my ear canal than most other buds, which left my ears aching after about two straight hours of use.

Skybuds are also a bit simple. They have a microphone that works just fine enough to make a call, or pose a question to your phone’s digital assistant. But there’s no way to adjust the volume from the earbuds, and there’s also no audio passthrough feature, both of which are crucial for on-the-go use. If you want to ask Siri or Google a question, you have to press and hold the button for two seconds, but if you hold it for too long, the earbuds turn off. There’s also no fitness tracking — a feature I still don’t think I need with wireless earbuds, but something to keep in mind if you’re buying.

Despite all this simplicity, the battery life on Skybuds was inconsistent. The company claims up to four hours of use, but I only ever got about three — and the right earbud almost always died well before the left one, likely because it’s the one that handles the Bluetooth relay.

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This was the year where truly wireless earbuds stopped being an idea of the future and became something you could actually buy. Better yet, a few companies ironed out the worst kinks of the first generation, resulting in earbuds that work well enough that you can enjoy them without needing to ignore or forgive their faults. It’s a product category that’s finally made it out of beta.

In some ways, the simple approach was probably a good thing for Skybuds. It’s allowed the team at Alpha Audiotronics to focus on sound quality, and their work in that area shows. Despite the problems I had with these earbuds, I badly wanted to like Skybuds because of how great they sound.

If you backed Skybuds on Kickstarter, you’re probably going to be happy with what you get. You might already be using them now, as they started shipping to backers earlier this fall. But they’re not the kind of product I’d want to fork over $250 for at a store. The price of wireless earbuds is already dropping fast, and Skybuds is not the only company to get the basics right.


Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

 

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