The race to make AirPods obsolete is heating up, thanks to a new contender from OnePlus.
Less than a month removed from the release of the fabulous Samsung Galaxy Buds 2, the OnePlus Buds Pro are here to offer another alternative to Apple’s dominance in the wireless earbuds game. With a $150 price point, OnePlus is stepping out of “bargain” territory, but staying firmly in the “a nice set of features for the price” arena. Active noise cancellation (ANC), strong sound quality, and plenty of options — regardless of which phone you have — are all here.
A few small technical hiccups stop the OnePlus Buds Pro from pulling away from its competition, but they’re still a strong follow-up to the Buds and Buds Z. And yes, you should get them instead of the entry-level AirPods.
So much better looking
The main reason to get the OnePlus Buds or Buds Z was that they were both cheap as hell. Both came in at less than $100 and delivered better-than-expected sound, but man, they also looked cheap. If someone had to make fake, non-copyright-infringing AirPods as a prop for a Law & Order episode, they’d come out looking like those earbuds.
I’m pleased to report that OnePlus seriously stepped up its game with the Buds Pro. Like, holy smokes, these look nice. They’re not especially original, mind you, as they just kind of look like a glossy white or matte black speaker with a rubber ear tip and a shiny AirPods-like stem that you pinch to activate touch controls. Nothing too fancy there: One squeeze for play/pause, two to skip ahead, three to rewind, and hold for one second to switch ANC on or off.
I didn’t have any long-term comfort issues with the OnePlus Buds Pro, despite wearing them for several hours at a time during testing. The box comes with a handful of different ear tip sizes, as has become standard for these types of earbuds, just in case you experience things differently with the first one you try. A small rectangular charging case that can be charged via USB-C or wirelessly rounds out the package.
The OnePlus Buds Pro are about as physically conventional as wireless earbuds get, but the software side of things is different.
Credit: screenshot: oneplus
One unique feature is that you can pinch the stem for three seconds to turn on “Zen Mode Air,” a built-in white noise machine for meditation, sleeping, or any other time you might need it. This is by no means necessary (music streaming services have plenty of ambient tracks) but it’s a pretty thoughtful inclusion. There are a handful of white noise choices, including birds chirping in a forest and an Iceland-themed one, which you can choose in the device settings in a OnePlus phone or the HeyMelody mobile app on iOS or Android, if you don’t have a OnePlus device.
I went the HeyMelody route since I didn’t have a OnePlus phone on hand, and I don’t have any complaints. The app’s home screen gives you a battery percentage readout for each earbud, as well as the ability to switch between ANC modes, customize touch controls, take a rudimentary fit test, and set up a “OnePlus Audio ID.” That last point is a cool one, as you’ll take a three-minute or so hearing test so the Buds Pro can determine a custom listening profile that works for you. I think the hearing in my right ear is slightly worse than the left, and after the test, the audio was jacked up slightly on the right side for better balance.
As always, I’m greatly appreciative whenever a pair of wireless earbuds work equally well across a suite of different devices. Earbuds from device manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, and Google always work better on their native phones, but OnePlus put in the effort to make a totally fine app you can download on any phone. Basic usability and comfort are not problems here, and for the most part, I can say the same for the listening experience.
Smart ANC isn’t that smart
I was always impressed with the sound quality in the cheaper OnePlus Buds. They packed a way harder punch than sub-$100 earbuds usually do, and as expected, the more expensive model doesn’t let up in that regard.
I’ve still heard better sound quality out of wireless earbuds (thanks, Bose), but the Buds Pro are fully capable of kicking your teeth in if you’ll let them. Everything is crisp, the bass hits satisfactorily, stereo effects travel from one side to the other beautifully, and dense compositions don’t lose anything. Take Sturgill Simpson’s “Call to Arms,” a dizzying anti-war rollercoaster with what feels like 27 different instruments going buck wild at once. OnePlus Buds Pro give that song exactly as much impact as it should, without losing anything.
I trusted the Buds Pro to deliver high-quality sound, and they do. Active noise cancellation, however, is an entirely new feature and can be incredibly iffy on lower-priced wireless earbuds. For the most part, OnePlus got it right, with three modes to choose from in the app: Regular ANC, “Smart” ANC, and maximum ANC.
The difference between regular and maximum simply comes down to how much noise is drowned out, with the former blocking up to 25dB and the latter up to 40dB. Both do a fine enough job of blocking out ambient noise, though exceptionally loud environments like subway platforms will always penetrate ANC on all but the most powerful headphones. The “Smart” option attempts to adjust the amount of sound that gets let in on the fly, and this is where I had problems.
I just never felt like this stab at adaptive ANC made enough of a difference to be worth using. Ordering a breakfast sandwich at the deli was still easier by switching over to transparency mode, to give one example where ANC that turns itself down would have helped. There was also one outlier scenario where I was walking around a busy section of Brooklyn beneath an above-ground train with my music paused, and the ANC became actively unpleasant. It felt like it was transferred entirely to the right ear, as if someone was blowing wind into the ear canal or something.
It’s hard to explain, but man, it was uncomfortable. The good news is, I never experienced anything close to that outside of that five-minute burst of discomfort. I’d recommend sticking to one of the more rigid ANC options depending on your preferences.
The last bit of performance analysis I have is regarding the battery. OnePlus rates its earbuds for 38 hours of listening time in a fully charged case without ANC and 28 hours with it. As for a single charge of the earbuds, I was able to get a little less than four hours with ANC turned on before they shut off in my ears. That’s far from disastrous, but it’s not really impressive, either.
A small price cut would change everything
For $150, you mostly get the goods with the OnePlus Buds Pro. That said, the sub-$200 wireless earbud market has only gotten more intense over the past year, and I can’t just wholeheartedly recommend these without some reservations. Let’s compare and contrast:
- OnePlus Buds Pro ($150): Great sound, good comfort, decent ANC, middling battery
Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 ($150): Stylish, tremendous comfort, fantastic ANC, battery and sound are just OK
Amazon Echo Buds 2 ($120): Nice sound and ANC, cheapest of the bunch, too much Alexa
Apple AirPods 2 ($160): No real reason to get these anymore unless you love Siri
If OnePlus could cut the price down by $10 to $20, it would be a lot easier for me to say you should run and get the Buds Pro at the earliest opportunity. As it stands, though, I could make a real case for either Samsung’s or Amazon’s offerings instead, with the former especially shining for Samsung device owners.
But if you own an iPhone and aren’t comfortable giving Amazon money (a smart call), the OnePlus Buds Pro are another great alternative to the obsolete AirPods. This conversation could change if and when Apple finally updates its entry-level earbuds, but until then, OnePlus has got your back.