Review: Going truly wireless with Earin Bluetooth earphones
Last June, a team led by mechanical and design engineer Olle Lindén embarked on a Kickstarter campaign to bring some new Bluetooth earphones into production. There are a good many wireless earphones already available of course, but what made the Earins stand out from the crowd was a world's smallest claim, and that they really were wireless. Where other BT plugs, like the NuForce earphones we reviewed a couple of months back, have a cable running between each earpiece, the Earins have none. Project backers started to receive their Earin earphones in early October, and they've just recently been made available for non-backers to buy, too. Gizmag was sent some to try out.
Back in 2008, when Lindén was working for Nokia Denmark, a romantic comedy called Definitely Maybe hit cinemas around the world and simply blew audioholics away. Not for its sometimes catchy soundtrack, or the Dolby/DTS/SDDS audio mix, but for an intro that sees actor Ryan Reynolds pop in a pair of small profile, totally wireless earphones and make his way through busy New York streets. The following months saw hi-fi community boards abuzz with chatter, queries and theories about exactly what was being used to replace the sounds of the city with "the other perfect song." Despite virtual forum fingers pointing to Sennheiser, Plantronics and Motorola as possible manufacturers, only frustration resulted from fruitless online searches.
Spin on six years to June 2014 and a project launched on Kickstarter aimed at bringing a pair of movie-inspired, slick-looking wireless ear bullets called Earin to market. The goal was to develop Bluetooth plugs that offered "one thing, and one thing only ... the best and most comfortable music experience possible." The effort attracted 8,359 backers and a crowdfunding pledge pot of £972,594 (about US$1.6 million at campaign close), with a promised delivery date for the first units of January 2015. Now, a little later than originally planned, the Earins have jumped off the production line and into the ears of most – but, as of writing, not all – Kickstarter supporters.
Stylish looks, quality feel
Even before getting to the Earins, there's a quality look and feel to the stylish hard card box. Its lid is held in place by magnets and the lower section of the box sports four shaped, sunken recesses. There's a slot for the Earin charging capsule, one for each of the Earin earphones (which are held in place with magnets) and another for a slide-open box of accessories containing medium Comply foam earphone tips (two pairs are provided with consumer versions), a short USB charging cable and a pair of ear stabilizers. Basic operating instructions are printed on the inside of the lid (a more detailed user guide is available on the Support section of the Earin website if needed).
The aluminum charging capsule contains a 600 mAh Li-ion battery. An LED status indicator next to the micro-USB port to the top changes from red to green when fully charged via the USB cable. Each Earin earphone has its own mini Li-ion battery, rated at 60 mAh and promised to last 2 hours and 50 minutes of continuous wireless playback. The polycarbonate housing sports a conductor to the rear that's printed directly onto the PCB assembly, and is also home to a Knowles balanced armature driver and amplifier.
The battery in each Earin is topped up by sliding open the capsule, popping the earphones into the tray so that the conductors touch the three pronged contacts at either end of the charging bay and then closing the drawer until the LED on the front goes out. The capsule's energy bank can juice up empty Earins three times before needing a top up itself.
There are no power on/off buttons on the Earins. They're in an off state when placed in the capsule and come to life when removed. But they do go to sleep after a short period of inactivity for battery saving (around 60 seconds) and restarting involves placing the earphones in the capsule and removing them again.
Wearing a wireless wonder
The Earin earphones connect to a music player using Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology, with an A2DP profile and aptX codec support for high quality streaming. Pairing was straightforward enough, simply being a case of looking for Earin L in the Bluetooth settings screen of the source device. The wireless signal is sent to the left Earin, which auto syncs with the right earphone over a secure and interference-free wireless connection.
Each Earin unit has a slightly angled nozzle for optimum placement in the ear canal. Though we had initial concerns that, like many bud-based earphones before them, the Earins would just fall out during use, we found the supplied foam tips sufficient for holding each 3.5 g (0.123 oz) unit securely in place. Stabilizers – or Concha Wings – can be attached for more help in this regard, especially during physical activity. The earphones are sweat-, splash- and water-resistant, but not completely impervious to ingress. The charging capsule is not water-resistant.
We tried a number of different foam and silicone tips, including double flange and sport buds, but found the supplied Comply pair the best for a secure fit, most comfortable for marathon music sessions and pretty good at keeping the sounds of the outside world from spoiling the party.
On the few occasions when an Earin did come loose and fall out, the safety net offered by other Bluetooth earphones – the cable running behind the neck – wasn't there of course, resulting in a frantic floor scramble to find the missing unit, embarrassingly demanding that anyone in the area stand perfectly still while the search for the missing thumb nail-sized unit was undertaken.
Once in situ, the 14.5 mm diameter by 20 mm long (0.57 x 0.78 in) Earins look the business. With the tips firmly lodged in the ears, the earphone housing only just pushes out beyond the antitragus/antihelix. Still, as they're not a common sight (yet), they do manage to attract a fair amount of appreciative and puzzled looks in roughly equal measure. When explanations are given as to what exactly is plugged into each ear canal, looks of wonder and amazement generally follow. Very few of our many conversations while out and about turned to audio quality, but we'll take a look at that now.
Cool-looking wireless buds, but how do they sound?
Since Bluetooth is handling the wireless streaming, playback of hi-res music is pretty pointless but we found the quality of the MP3s and AAC files pushed through the balanced armature drivers to be quite high. In fact, the Earins served up a goodly offering of quite impressive clarity and detail, with instruments spaced out nicely and good stereo imaging. The company's Sebastien Domingues told us that the sound signature has been designed for natural reproduction of the source audio, which found favor with us.
That said, though the lower registers proved nice and tight, such things as kick and bass were perhaps a little less pronounced than we would have liked. The better the seal afforded by the foam tips, the stronger the bass proved to be. But even at their most secure fit, Beats lovers may not find satisfaction without massaging the EQ on the source player or the app (more an the latter presently).
We did note that the volume of source devices was consistently pushing the upper limits in order to achieve comfortable listening levels through the Earins, particularly during commutes, in bustling shopping malls or in a busy cafe. And we also detected an ever-so-slight operational hiss, which only appeared detectable between tracks and not during playback, even in quieter musical moments.
Some users have reported frequent dropouts, even when the source device was well within wireless reach. Though we did experience a few "in range" dropouts with our review units, with the right Earin losing sound for less than a second before connection was reestablished, to be fair, even big name Bluetooth in-ear headphones with a cable running between the earphone capsules can suffer such connectivity blips.
As there's no microphone in either Earin, phone calls can't be taken using them. When a call is received on a paired smartphone, the music will stop playing and the phone's ringtone will sound from its speaker(s). An Earin will therefore need to be removed and the call taken as normal. Music playback through the Earins is resumed when the call is ended. Having said that, there are a number of apps available that allow users to control which route audio takes through a smartphone (such as SoundAbout), but it's much simpler just to use the smartphone for calls.
Powering through a commute
As mentioned earlier, the batteries in the earphones have a claimed continuous use time of just under 3 hours, but in tests, we got a regular 2 hours of comfortable volume playback through the Earins. About 10 - 15 minutes before dying, the left Earin emits a little tinkly tune to prepare you for the upcoming silence.
For times when stereo listening is not needed, mono mode is available by leaving one Earin in the capsule and pairing with the other (which also has the potential for increasing up time).
Each time the Earins are placed in the capsule for safe keeping or transport, the battery of each gets topped up. This can be both blessing and curse. On the plus side, the Earins will always be at their best. But we found it quite difficult to keep on top of how much charge the capsule's battery actually had remaining at any given time.
This led to a couple of dying Earins and dead capsule instances in the beginning, before lessons were learned and the capsule connected to a power source more often – problem solved. Some sort of capsule charge level indicator would be useful though.
Charge time of an empty capsule's battery using either a standard 5 V/1 A USB charging adapter or a free USB port on a laptop proved to be consistently between 70 and 80 minutes.
Basic but useful Earin app
With no controls on the earphone units, tone and volume tweaking is undertaken via hardware controls on the source device, and/or through the settings of the app selected to play the music. The folks at Earin have developed their own companion app however, which offers some under-the-hood access to the earphones.
The Earin app for iOS/Android shows the battery status of each Earin unit, allows users to adjust the left/right balance and boost the bass (though at the expense of sonic clarity – it can get pretty muddy in there). If, like us, users find the default volume level to be a touch on the low side, there's also an option to increase the gain. Caution is advised here, however. There is a risk of adding unwelcome distortion if this is set too high, not to mention the potential for hearing damage.
The app fires up Bluetooth when launched and it will remain active even when a user exits the app, which can have an impact on source device battery life. It's therefore beneficial to ensure that both the app and Bluetooth are disabled when not in use. "It's perhaps a bit annoying, but it apparently helps to get around a bug in the Android BT stack on certain phones," revealed the company's Sebastien Domingues.
The bottom line
The Earin project aimed to create small, stylish, completely cable-free Bluetooth earphones with a focus on sound quality. And, despite being a little on the quiet side, the Earins deliver. There's also something of an Apple-esque quality about them, they generate the same kind of fuzzy warmth coolness that accompanied the first iPhone or iPad. And the build quality and attention to detail are just as impressive.
Though our user experience wasn't totally niggle-free, we suffered no major issues and of those, some kind of come with the territory (occasional Bluetooth dropouts, for example). The mobile app is a useful, if a little basic, addition to the Earin arsenal, and should improve as development continues.
Battery life was more than ample for the longest of our commutes, and the ability to refresh the earphone batteries just by plonking them in the charging capsule meant full power for both outward and return journeys. And even enough juice for a lunchtime listening session. Nice.
At the time of writing, with all but a handful of Kickstarter project backers having received their Earins, the company has started sending over supplies to Best Buy in the US, priced at US$249. The current plan is to make the Earin earphones available in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, France and the UK from this month.
Product page: Earin