Sony showed off a concept pair of smart, Bluetooth connected earbuds at last year’s Mobile World Congress, and has returned this year with the production-ready version, called the Xperia Ear Duo, which are now available for purchase. Designed for anyone who wants to listen to music without entirely blocking out the world around them, they’re also smart enough to keep you updated with the latest events, and details about your location. We tried them out.
Fit and form
The design is really unusual. The Xperia Ear Duo’s look like no other earbud out there. Rather than follow the true-wireless trend of stuffing all the tech inside a single, bulbous earbud, Sony has put the components inside an oblong section that’s slung under your ear, with the tiny earbud itself connected to the end of a fixed, curved pipe. Think of them like upside down hearing aids. This does make fitting an art. You have to slide the earbud into place while maneuvering the main component to nestle under your earlobe.
Once you’ve got them on (after a little practice it does get easier), the Xperia Ear Duo are comfortable and very secure. They’re unlikely to fall out even during the most vigorous exercise. There is another benefit to the unusual design, too. They don’t get in the way of glasses, and they don’t interfere with earrings either. It’s a clever, if challenging design. Opinion was split on the style. I liked them, but fellow DT mobile writer Brenda Stolyar wasn’t so keen.
Listening, gestures, and smart assistants
The earpiece is circular and made from rubber. There’s a hole in the center, and the pipe directs audio into your ear. You can hear the world around you perfectly while music plays at a reasonable volume, including perfect conversation comprehension. Turn up the volume and voices get drowned out, but not at the expense of sound leakage. You had to get very close in order to hear if something was being played, making them great for privacy and for sociability.
The Xperia Ear Duo’s look like no other earbud out there.
They’re controlled using gestures and touch. A basic finger-swipe up and down to adjust the volume, and a tap to pause, is to be expected; but the headphones also react to head movements. For instance, a nod accepts an incoming call, and a shake to the right skips to the next track. It worked really well when we tried, although finding the correct position for the touch controls took more work. It’s not clear whether this was a software issue, or if we were struggling to find the right spot on the earbud.
Our hands-on demonstration was short and primarily concentrated on the smart features, and the ambient conversations around us while music played. At regular volumes the Ear Duo’s sounded good, if a little lacking in bass response, and continued to be clear and without distortion as the volume increased. We only heard Sony’s test track, rather than our own music, so it’s difficult to compare with other true wireless earbuds. We don’t think these are earbuds for the audiophile, though. Unlike open-back headphones, designed for a more open soundstage, the ambient sound in the Ear Duo was more of a fidelity hindrance than a boost.
Music isn’t the only thing you hear through the Xperia Ear Duo. They’re controlled through a smartphone app where location-based alerts and information can be configured. For example, an early morning briefing on calendar events and weather can be read when you’re about to leave the house, as can your emails when you get to work. Additionally, they’re compatible with both Google Assistant and Siri for smart assistance on the move, and will dictate messages and other phone notifications.
The Ear Duo’s quoted four hours of battery life per charge isn’t any better than most other true wireless earbuds, and an hour worse than our favorites, including Apple’s much cheaper AirPods and Jabra’s new 65t. The case recharges them for a total of 16 hours use, which again is about average in the market. Handily, the case has a quick charge feature where seven minutes plugged into a power socket will return an hour of earbud use — perfect for a journey home if the battery unexpectedly runs out.
The Xperia Ear Duo’s design splits opinion. But, while ambient-sound tech is nothing new, there’s no denying how helpful (and how much safer) the ability to hear the world around you can be, while still listening to music. Everyone from cyclists to frequent travelers will appreciate this feature. That said, having not tried them in noisy locations, we don’t know how they’ll perform on the subway, or on a busy street, and that’s the real test. The other features suggest Sony wants you to wear them most of the day, therefore versatility will be important.
When it comes to price, Sony’s new buds are on the high side. Following a May 1 pre-order, the Xperia Ear Duo headphones are available at select retailers for the announced price of $280 or 280 euros.
Updated 5-24-2018 to reflect the current availability of the Ear Duo.