What do you wear headphones for, and what do expect from them? These are two important questions you must ask yourself before even considering the Sony Xperia Ear Duo. Your answers will impact any buying decision more than the vast majority of audio products out there and are as important as, say, confirming you know how to drive before buying a car.
Think we’re exaggerating? Perhaps a tiny bit, but we’ve been wearing the Xperia Ear Duo for a few weeks now and know them pretty well — warts and all. Here’s our review of Sony’s unusual “hearable” that’s very different from other pricey headphones out there.
What makes the Xperia Ear Duo different? These true wireless audio devices are designed from the core to keep you aware of the world around you by not isolating you from it, while still letting you listen to music, plus take phone calls and chat to your voice assistant of choice. The headphones reproduce sound using what Sony calls a Spatial Acoustic Conductor, where audio units hide inside a small chassis that hangs behind your ear, while sound is pumped into your ears through little tubes, which end in rubber rings to support them.
See what we mean? This sounds less like headphones and more like hearing aids, and that’s exactly how the look has been described by several people who’ve seen me wearing them. The major difference in the look when compared to other true wireless headphones is that the headphones hang behind your ears instead of poking into them.
You need to put them on differently than other headphones, too. It’s complicated enough that Sony provides instructions on how to do so, even using your phone’s camera to make sure they’re positioned correctly. You have to twist them around your earlobe, but I found it easier to put the ear part in and gently pull the earlobe into place. It’s a weird, and not very comfortable process.
You can wear them for hours without any fatigue, overly sweaty ears, or risk of infection.
Once they’re on, the 10-gram Xperia Ear Duo are comfy. They hang a little from your ears but are not heavy enough to be distracting. They don’t feel like headphones, true wireless or otherwise, and as alluded to above, are probably more like wearing hearing aids. Because the rings don’t actually go in your ear canal, we’d often unconsciously try to push them deeper into our ears, because they feel like wearing in-ears that are about to fall out.
This approach has its benefits. You can wear them for hours without any fatigue, overly sweaty ears, or risk of infection. Air flows freely around the Xperia Ear Duo, therefore they are a very safe and sensible alternative for anyone with ears sensitive to the increased heat generated by wearing headphones for extended amounts of time. They refused to fall off, even when cycling or using a treadmill.
The real reason Sony has made the Xperia Ear Duo this way, however, is to keep them from blocking out the world. You can hear absolutely everything going on. Conversations, traffic, birds singing, everything. This means there is a time and place for wearing the Xperia Ear Duo. We loved using them when out cycling, as we could hear the sound of impending doom and avoid it, as well as in the office where we could still hear our name called out.
Wear them in an enclosed and noisy environment, though, and it’s not so much fun. The Xperia Ear Duo are pointless on the subway, as you can’t hear anything they play, and it’s the same in a noisy gym. Even places with lots of ambient noise, like a busy cafe, can upset the delicate listening balance of the earphones. In essence, the Xperia Ear Duo are a waste of time in terms of listening to music in any situation where you’d normally benefit from noise cancelation.
Gestures and app
Controlling the Xperia Ear Duo is done via touching the body sections behind your ears, or by some head movements. The left Ear Duo is for all the music controls. Tap for play/pause, swipe up and down for volume, and double tap to advance to the next track. There is a trick for doing this properly, and that’s to hold the in-ear piece with one finger while using another to tap or swipe the body. Otherwise, you end up mostly tapping your ear due to the body hiding behind it.
You also have to be considerate with these gestures. It’s a slow swipe along the length of the body to adjust the volume. If you don’t, it’s all too easy to annoyingly keep playing and pausing tracks. The earphones can be slow to react too, resulting in maddening play/pause loops.
Press and hold the right Ear Duo module to call up the voice assistant on your phone. We used the Ear Duo connected to an iPhone X, so it was Siri at our beck and call. It worked extremely well, and the Ear Duo’s microphones don’t require you to shout, plus they picked up our voice even in noisy public environments. Voice assistant control worked well when walking or cycling around, though this is not a feature unique to the Xperia Ear Duo.
If you connect the Xperia Ear Duo to an Android phone you can use the Daily Assist feature.
The Ear Duo have their own app for Android and iOS phones that Sony recommends downloading. We received one firmware update in our time with the headphones, which was performed through the app. It has a guide on how to put them on, instructions on the different gestures, and a chance to turn on the head gestures. Activated, you turn your head to the right to advance tracks, or to the left to answer an incoming call.
Unfortunately, it’s a pronounced head movement, and it makes you feel rather self-conscious. A tap was more preferable for us, but the feature did work as described.
If you connect the Xperia Ear Duo to an Android phone you can use the Daily Assist feature, which isn’t available through the iOS app. This is Sony’s own AI assistant, which tells you traffic, weather, calendar, message, and other information right into your ear. It’s decent, and because you can tailor the information it provides in the app, it remains relevant. The female voice is clear as she relays emails and messages. The roundup of the day isn’t a huge perk though – it’s very similar to the “Hey Google, how’s my day,” command for Google Assistant, just not as personal.
If you have friends with the Xperia Ear or Ear Duo, Anytime Talk works like a walkie-talkie, enabling conversation between you and three others. It uses a data connection, but we haven’t been able to test this feature.
Battery, connectively, and calls.
The Sony Xperia Ear Duo connect using Bluetooth 4.2 LE, and we had no issues with stability, and the connection was instant and automatic on our iPhone X and a BlackBerry Key2. The battery inside each Ear Duo has a capacity of 56mAh, and happily lasted several hours. We always took them out before the battery expired, even after three or more hours, showing they’re good for the claimed four hours use time.
The Ear Duo don’t “do” bass, and detail escapes into the air around them.
A charging case with specially molded sections inside keeps the Ear Duo secure when not in use, offering three extra charges for the earbuds while on the go. This is in-line (if not slightly behind) with what we expect from true-wireless headphones at the moment. There’s a handy quick charge feature too, where seven minutes of charge time returns an hour of music. The case is charged using a USB Type-C cable.
Once placed into the case, LEDs light up on the Ear Duo to show charging status, which can also be seen through the case itself. When no lights come on, the case needs charging up.
You’ve got the Xperia Ear Duo on, and you’re in an environment that suits them. How do they sound? It should already be clear these aren’t designed for the audiophile, so if you’re concerned with “hearing sounds you’ve never heard before” after putting on a pair of ‘phones, you’re going to be very disappointed. Headphones don’t like waving around in the air, they like being sealed, which helps reproduce bass and make detail more apparent. The Xperia Ear Duo don’t “do” bass, and detail escapes into the air around them.
These are not — we repeat, absolutely not — headphones for those who care about high-quality sound. They simply don’t reproduce it. It’s not a fault, it’s just not what they’re designed for. Is sound terrible? No, but it lacks bass. When the environment is right, the Ear Duo do provide clear sound, and music with which you’re familiar still sounds like it should — just tinnier. Crucially, though, they’re not annoying to listen to like bad quality headphones are. You just won’t put these on and be enthralled by a wide soundstage, sparkling detail, or thumping bass.
What will happen is you’ll still be able to carry on a conversation, listen to others in the background, or simply be in touch with the world, while still listening to background music. That’s ultimately what the Xperia Ear Duo produce — background music to set a mood or cut down on outside noise with the music of your choice, where you are unlikely to listen that closely. They do it very well. Yes, you can whack the volume right up, but when you do there is substantial sound leakage, and the sound does become quite shrill.
Anyone who loves constant musical accompaniment to life will adore the Xperia Ear Duo.
Now do you see what we mean about asking yourself key questions? If audiophile sound quality is something that’s right up at the top of your list for any headphone, then the Xperia Ear Duo won’t be for you. Similarly, if a traditional design is important, then the unusual look of the Ear Duo will also be a turn-off. So, what are they good for? All those times where wearing any other type of headphone would be rude, dangerous, or annoying. That’s where the Xperia Ear Duo come into their own.
Anyone who loves constant musical accompaniment to life will adore the Xperia Ear Duo. You can still interact with everyone around you, avoid being knocked down by cars when you cross the road, and still have your music follow you everywhere. You can realistically wear them at work, within reason, and still be present enough to be a productive employee. It’s hard to say that about any other headphone available.
Warranty, price, and availability
In the U.S. and the U.K., Sony covers the Xperia Ear Duo with a one-year warranty for any manufacturer defects. The price is a rather hefty $280, or 250 British pounds in the U.K., and you can purchase them through Sony’s own online store, Amazon, or a wide variety of retailers. Finding them won’t be a problem. Justifying the price may be though — $280 is a lot to spend on headphones of any type, let alone ones that will only satisfy some people, and even then, not in every situation.
The Sony Xperia Ear Duo are not your average pair of headphones, and certainly won’t be for everyone, but they do have genuine niche appeal. Wear them in the right situation, and few products come close to matching them for blending the real world in with your favorite music.
Is there a better alternative?
Those looking for simpler design, better value, and impressive transparency mode will want to check out Jabra’s Elite 65t and Elite Active 65t, which offer a more traditional fit and great sound quality to boot, all at a great price, making them our favorite true wireless earbuds. The transparency mode is accomplished using microphones, meaning you hear the world around you almost artificially and on demand, unlike the unfiltered, constant sound offered by the Ear Duo. That said, transparency works quite well in practice and is much more versatile.
Bragi’s Dash Pro are another obvious competitor to the Xperia Ear Duo, offering head gestures as well as their own microphone-dependent transparency mode. They cater to a very different audience due to the fitness tracking features, waterproofing, and higher sound quality, but they also have their own quirks that knock off some points – especially since they cost $330.
The Xperia Ear Duo may actually be closer to the Apple AirPods. Apple’s true wireless headphones don’t seal very well and let in plenty of ambient sound. We’ve found they’re also relatively poor performers in noisy environments. Their quirky looks have a degree of gravitas which the Ear Duo don’t have, and like the Elite 65t, they’re cheaper too.
How long will they last?
Build quality is superb, and there are no concerns over the pipe leading from the body to your ear bending or breaking. Sony has rated the Xperia Ear Duo IPX2, giving them protection against a few drops of rain or some sweat, but not for use in the shower, or swimming. We expect the Xperia Ear Duo to last for many years with sensible treatment, or until the battery stops accepting a charge.
Should you buy them?
No, but this is primarily only because of the price. The Sony Xperia Ear Duo work very well, and we have enjoyed using them, but only in very specific situations. Oddly, for a pair of headphones, these situations didn’t really include concentrating on listening to music. They aren’t the all-round, high-performance headphones you’d want, or likely expect, after paying $280. When the situation and environment were right, it was hard to imagine any other audio device matching the Xperia Ear Duo for ability, though. Sony just needs to price them around the same as the AirPods and other competitors to make them truly desirable.