Written by Young Jeohn
(Updated with video: 5/12/18, Review published: 4/27/18)
The ERL Bluetooth sports earbuds are a huge financial success. Instead of hitting their target amount on their IndiGoGo campaign, they've managed to go 9,730% OVER it, raising $786,789. But now that the prototype stage is over, what's it like? Is it worth the money?
When I first saw the box, I was disappointed to be honest. If first impressions count, it's like meeting a blind date who has on a pair of loose sweats and hoodies from Walmart - the packaging is on the cheap side with the earbuds housed in a paper box.
Visible question marks would rise around my head as I noticed the lack of information; it was mostly generic text like "Unrivaled Playtime", "Unbeatable Audio Quality", "Works with ________" (the blank wasn't even filled!)
You start to think of what your friend told you as s/he set this date up - your date's really hot, they know how to hold a conversation, they don't care that you're shorter than they are...
To be fair, the most important bits were there - a contact email for after-sales support and "1 YEAR WARRANTY" printed in bold (and tiny) letters. Ok, I'm starting to see a hint of a smile under that hoodie somewhere. Hey, maybe this won't be such a bad date after all!
STYLING / DESIGN / COMFORT
Opening the box and seeing the actual product helped shift the mood to one of hope. And truth be told, they look quite nice. They're small, lightweight, and have a closed loop on top that helps keep the earbud snug in your ear. This loop also gives you a quick reference point showing which way is up.
The insides of the earbuds reveal two metal contact points for charging when placed in the case. Which brings us to the case. That dang case.
While I'm sure it does a fine job of charging the earbuds, the case is made of materials that don't instil much confidence. Tap it with your fingernail or squeeze it on the sides, it'll start creaking and making that empty eggshell noise. Bottom line? You can't just toss it into a bag, for fear of having to pick out bits of crushed plastic later. You need to strategically place it in a padded compartment or an upper pocket of your backpack and pray you don't get too rough tossing it around throughout the day. It's like being asked to get into your date's trusty Trabant - a car made of cotton and wood - and hope it doesn't fall apart on your way to the ballgame.
Other than that, the fit of the earbuds are quite comfortable. It's never popped out of my ears and pushing the power button doesn't require the kind of pressure that would hurt the inside of your ears. The circular lights that blink around the earbuds are quite attractive as well. So far, so good then - they're batting 1 for 1, earning a point for their "Sublime Comfort and Fit".
And to help customize the fit of the earbuds, you're given a choice between three pairs of silicon tips.
With the economy being what it is, we're all looking for hidden gems in an increasingly crowded market - that is, great value and performance for your money. And you know what?
These earbuds aren't it.
In fact, when it comes to performance the ERL earbuds lack any hint of high frequencies. A recording of a person shouting "It's Perfect!" will have you wondering why you can't hear the high pitched tsk of 'S's or 'P's. The longer I used them, the more it became apparent that no amount of burn-in was going to help.
After hours and hours of listening to various genres from classical and metal to drum and bass, I sadly had to confront the fact that these weren't the great sounding earbuds I was hoping for as promised on ERL's website - and also as promised on the paper packaging on the box. At this point, their notion of
1) "Unbeatable audio quality" was starting to feel misleading and
2) "Developed by audio engineers from MIT" had me questioning the university's credibility.
Take heart though, because there is some light in this tunnel. The story takes a very different turn when it comes to bass, because boy, has it got some real slamming OOMPH. You can feel it in addition to hearing it, especially if something is crashing and burning. "Fire, more fire!" I can hear you say, as you watch the explosions in Terminator 2.
It's a shame then really, because we can see ourselves being blown away by the sound - had the high frequencies been present. Even the T-101 Terminator might have given a nod of approval after having a listen. But there's still the fact that it's missing a major component - cake without sugar doesn't taste very good. So it's a swing and a miss this time, batting 1 for 2.
The mic quality is fair. When compared to other Bluetooth earbuds, the volume level is lower and sounds somewhat hollow. It also doesn't pick up the lowest frequencies of my voice, which suggest that people like Morgan Freeman (who have very deep voices) should look elsewhere for their Bluetooth chat needs.
If you want to hear for yourselves, our friends at firstl00k.com conducted a mic test comparing several Bluetooth earbuds (including the ERLs). It isn't a scientific test, but it's real world'ish to give you a rough idea.
The "Unbreakable Bluetooth Connection" breaks down quite often in fact. As I'm taking a walk with the music player in my pocket, the audio is constantly cutting out every couple of minutes. Even when the player is sitting right in front of me on a table, it cuts out chunks of music at a time, though eventually it will play smoothly. At least for a while.
I wondered how much of the interference was caused by me, so I started moving myself and my music player in various ways. I found that if my player was in my right pocket, looking left would suddenly stop the music. Being that my whole body was in the way of the Bluetooth radio wave, it couldn't penetrate me at all. Even placing my hand over my ear would be enough to stop the music stream.
So much for the unbreakable connection. Unfortunately, that's another strike, making it 1 for 3.
BATTERY / PLAYING TIME
3.5 hours of playing time sounds great for a workout or commute to/from work. The ERL earbuds provided us with almost 3.5 hours of battery life - provided we use one earbud at a time. What does that mean, you ask? It means we only got between 1.2 to 1.4 hours of stereo sound when using them as a pair.
"But you said you got almost 3.5 hours. Using the buds separately only adds up to about 3 hours" you may be thinking. And you'd be right too, except further testing revealed that the right earbud somehow received a better battery, lasting 20% to 30% longer than the left one.
Real battery life - Right earbud: 2 hours. Left earbud: 1.4 hours.
A 30 minute difference is huge considering the total play time, and this is a failure in terms of quality control. It's like telling one customer "Sorry, the other guy got lucky with his batteries. But just to let you know, anyone can get up to 3.5 hours of playback time - next time, be lucky." For me, maybe I'm part lucky because one earbud plays longer than the other.
Since the battery life is another miss, we have a success rate of 1 for 4. In baseball terms, it means we should walk - walk away from this product.
CHARGING / CASE
So far things haven't been looking up at all. It disappoints me (yet again) to say that this trend continues with the charging case. Forget about the materials and plastickiness I talked about earlier. What's even more of a letdown is the non-existent "More than 40+ hours extra playtime" claim.
The reality, two more charges is all we got - giving us an additional 2.8 hours of stereo sound. That's only 7% of that 40+! And the quick 15 minute charge? You can forget that too, it takes a full hour to charge'em up.
Have you started walking yet? If you haven't, then keep reading - there's more.
USABILITY / FUNCTION
My right eye is twitching. And it's not from winking at a hot, attractive earbud I want to stick in my ear. We found the instructions sparse and unclear, making it difficult to pair them. In order to succeed, you have to follow a specific sequence or you'll be rewarded with little more than beeps and... not much else. What adds to the confusion is that both the right and left earbuds have different names for pairing.
The key here is that either earbud can be made the master - you have to connect one first, then turn on the other as a slave. From a usability standpoint, it doesn't make any sense for the target market - you know, general consumers like you and me who want to listen to music. In stereo. Steve Jobs would have gone ballistic had he seen - no, even suspected such a thing as this being developed under his watch. Heck, even I was confused at first, and I have a computer science degree!
For shits and giggles (and with more hope than we should have shown,) we experimented with setting each earbud, in turn, as the master and slave to see if the batteries would last longer. There was no discernible difference, but heck, it was worth trying.
The ERL earbuds have an IPX4 rating according to the literature, meaning it's water and sweat resistant. I'm happy to say that sweating and rinsing these with water doesn't affect the sound.
It's worth noting that water may get trapped in the tips after rinsing, so don't be alarmed if you don't hear things clearly. Simply remove the tips and blow out the excess while blotting out the membrane of the earbud with a cloth or tissue. They'll work just fine. Yay!
I know this counts as a plus, but we already left the ballpark and the umpire retired for the day.
QUESTIONABLE ODDS & ENDS
There are two traits of these earbuds worth mentioning:
1) Low battery shut off
You only have 10 seconds before the unit turns off after a low battery warning, which is way too short. What if you're on an emergency call? Or on hold with customer service for that past 30 minutes? Are you going to have to call back and wait another 30 minutes?
2) No reaction from earbud buttons for the first 30 seconds
Immediately after connecting via Bluetooth to a music player, pressing the earbud button to start playing will reward you with no reactions. So you keep pressing and nothing happens. But 30 seconds later, the audio will suddenly start and stop by itself, depending on how many times you've pressed the button.
It's really odd, like waiting for hot water to come out of the showerhead in winter -in a tall apartment building with uninsulated pipes. The water's going to be cold cold cold... nope, still cold... then HOT all of a sudden.
The only reason we can think of is that they haven't fully "booted up" yet and the button presses are stored in memory until it's ready to function.
I wanted to like these ERL sports earbuds. I really did. But ERL has outdone even the Treblab X11's by making wild claims they couldn't deliver.
"3.5 hours of playtime" is closer to 1.4 hours. "40+ hours more charging from the case" is actually a paltry 3 hours, with each charge taking 1 hour. The missing treble and extended bass is just overbearing and hard on your ears.
But even if I forget all that and focus on the good things like the looks, the snug fit and sweat resistance, none of it matters when the music keeps cutting out every couple of minutes from the unreliable Bluetooth connection.
- - -
The ERL Sports earbuds -as they are now- are simply too unstable for everyday use. I don't know if they're working on fixing some of these issues, but their communications with us ceased when we brought up the problems discussed in this review.
Hopefully, their version 2 of this model or even the next product (if they keep developing) will improve on the technology that really needs to work. It's either that or watch their fans -who paid good money- take their dates to other ballparks to watch players who can actually hit the ball.
For the moment, save yourself some grief and look elsewhere for your Bluetooth earbud needs. There are no lack of choices.
FINAL RATING: 2 of 5 stars
Ratings Breakdown: (number of stars)
Design/Comfort: 3 of 5
Usability/Function: 3 of 5
Sound quality: 2 of 5
Mic quality: 2 of 5
Bluetooth Connectivity: 1 of 5
Overall Performance: 1 of 5
More Info: www.geterl.com
(Test unit provided by ERL for this review.)
What the stars mean
1 - Not good (Doesn't work or needs major improvement)
2 - Ok w/caveats (works, but has some issues)
3 - Good (as expected or better, may have minor flaws)
4 - Excellent (up there with the best, no flaws/issues)
5 - Outstanding (goes above and beyond highest levels of innovation)