Tim Cook called them a “cultural phenomenon.” They’re backordered for six weeks on the Apple online store right now, and some independent Apple resellers tell me they can’t get any to sell.
Apple’s new AirPods wireless earbuds are unquestionably an engineering feat, and while reviewers such as our own Julio Ojeda-Zapata and Josh Centers have identified a few weak points, the AirPods are generally well-received (see “Apple’s Wireless AirPods Were Worth the Wait,” 20 December 2016).
The main negative is the $159 price, which makes the likelihood of losing or damaging one of the AirPods all the more worrying. While that price may seem high, most of the full-fledged competitors to the AirPods are at least as expensive, if not more so (see “CES 2017: Gadget Finds on the CES Show Floor, Days 3 and 4,” 11 January 2017).
So what if I told you that you could buy a competing product for less than a tenth the price? Seriously. Don’t expect it to be as good as the AirPods, not by a long shot, but for somewhere between $5 and $20, you can buy a single Bluetooth earbud that does basically what the AirPods do — put a speaker and microphone in your ear without awkward wires.
I first heard about this product category from a Cornell running buddy, Rob Kurcoba, who bought his first earbud from a Chinese reseller on eBay. At only $6.99, it was incredibly cheap, but he had to wait six weeks for it to arrive via slow boat. He paired it with an Android Wear smartwatch that could play music, the Sony Smartwatch 3 SWR50, and started wearing it on his solo runs. Soon, he was evangelizing it to the rest of us when we ran with the High Noon Athletic Club.
Amused by his excitement, I looked on Amazon and was amazed to discover that the single-ear Bluetooth earbud had become almost a generic item, with numerous companies selling products that look nearly identical. I chose a $15 Nocobot model that had slightly better reviews than the others and got it a few days later — no need to wait for the slow boat with Amazon.
It paired with my iPhone and my Apple Watch, and worked fine for listening to podcasts while doing yard work and a few times while running. This was all before the AirPods came out, and I lost track of it once yard work stopped for the year. But after the AirPods were announced and finally started to trickle out to users, I was a guest on MacBreak Weekly and mentioned the earbud while we were talking about the AirPods. That comment hit a nerve with listeners, generating lots of requests for more details. So here we are!
Nocobot Bluetooth Earbud -- The earbud I bought and recommended on MacBreak Weekly was manufactured by a company called Nocobot and sold by another firm called Duto. It cost $14.99 and came with a custom four-inch USB charging cable with a needle-like tip that plugs into a tiny hole in the earbud. In my testing, battery life is about 3.5 hours of audio; I’m not entirely sure how quickly it recharges because there’s no way to check how fully charged it is.
The earbud itself is black, and shaped like an old-style hearing aid, in the sense that it’s designed to fit snugly into your right ear. That’s either a plus or a minus, depending on your ear. It fits tightly in my ear — so well, in fact, that I have to pop it out by pulling up on the top of my ear and pushing gently from the back. It feels a little odd initially, but after a few minutes, I stop noticing it. I could easily see it not fitting in someone else’s ear. It fits only in your right ear, and in case my use of the singular hasn’t made this clear, it’s only a single earbud — your left ear remains uncovered. I consider that a plus for running or biking, where covering both ears is dangerous, but it’s a liability for when you want to block the outside world.
The earbud has a single button that you use for pairing, toggling power, and starting and stopping audio:
Press and hold the button for 5–10 seconds to put it into pairing mode.
Press and hold the button for 3–4 seconds to turn it on or off.
Press and hold the button for 1–2 seconds to switch its audio feedback between Chinese and English.
Press the button quickly to start or stop the audio, or to answer and hang up calls.
Press the button twice quickly to redial the last number called.
The annoying part of the button is that it’s somewhat stiff, and pressing it means pushing in on your ear, which can be a bit uncomfortable. On the plus side, it’s unlikely to be pushed accidentally in your pocket or bag.
Its only other interface is a recorded voice that tells you that it’s powering on or off, that the device is connected, if it’s ready to pair, and when you end a call. It also tells you when the battery is getting low, and I once heard it say “Battery high.”
The quality of the audio is good, but not great. I mostly use it for podcasts while working outside, where it’s totally fine. When I first used it to listen to music while running, I experienced some skips and dropouts. I was able to resolve those by moving the Apple Watch to my right wrist or, when I’ve had the iPhone in a waist belt, sliding it around to the right side or front. The volume is loud enough for most environments, but some additional power would have been nice at times. Put bluntly, this is not an audiophile solution.
I hadn’t used the Nocobot earbud’s microphone for calls of any sort until writing this article since I very seldom talk on the iPhone. When I called Josh, he reported that I sounded OK, but not great. For me, his audio was nice and clear, though not quite as loud as I would have liked. Using the iPhone’s built-in speaker and mic worked noticeably better for both of us. Our Skype test was less successful, likely due to the slow hotel Wi-Fi network I was using. The earbud can’t invoke or be used with Siri, unfortunately.
You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t linked to this earbud yet. That’s because the particular one I bought isn’t available on Amazon anymore. Nor can I find any indication that Nocobot and Duto are even in business. We’re talking about sketchy Chinese companies here — that’s why it’s so cheap. However, the $14.99 G-Cord Ultra Lightweight Wireless Bluetooth Hands-Free Earbud looks identical, down to the logo on the button, so if you’re looking for one of these, give the G-Cord a try.
QCY Q26 Bluetooth Earbud -- After I mentioned the Nocobot earbud on MacBreak Weekly, a listener recommended a competing product from QCY, which is a higher profile brand, to judge from a Google search. At its heart, the QCY Q26 is extremely similar to the Nocobot, being a single-ear Bluetooth earbud controlled by presses on a single button and responding via audio feedback. It costs $13.59 from Amazon and comes in a variety of colors.
The QCY Q26 uses a stalk-like industrial design that has pros and cons. On the plus side, it should fit in anyone’s ear, and it comes with three sizes of rubber ear tips so you can choose the one that best matches your ear. That design also enables it to block sound better than the Nocobot earbud. Although it’s designed to go in your right ear, with the button on the top, you can flip it over and put it in your left ear, with the button facing down. It might not work well for calls in that orientation. Either way, the button is easier to press than the Nocobot’s button because you can pinch the QCY Q26 between your fingers while pressing.
It’s not all good, though. The stalk design means that it doesn’t fit into your ear nearly as snugly as the Nocobot, and I’d be more concerned about it falling out accidentally. Plus, I find that the rubber ear tip blocks so much external noise that it almost feels like my ear has water in it — it’s somewhere between disconcerting and uncomfortable. (The Nocobot doesn’t block the ear canal as much, avoiding that situation.) The QCY Q26’s button is easily pressed in your pocket or bag, which can turn it on and run the battery down inadvertently or even pocket dial if it’s pressed twice in quick succession.
Battery life isn’t quite as good as the Nocobot, at about 3 hours in my testing. The QCY Q26 comes with a micro USB cable for charging, and it plugs into a port on the other side of the earbud from the button. The port has a cover that’s devilishly hard to open; I can get it open only with the sharp point of a safety pin.
Controlling the QCY Q26 is almost identical to the Nocobot, with a long press to put it into pairing mode, shorter presses to turn it on and off, quick presses to control audio or answer/hang up calls, and double presses to redial the last number. The audio feedback is similar too, though it doesn’t seem to talk in Chinese.
Audio quality in comparison with the Nocobot is both better and worse. The QCY Q26 has a bit more oomph, and when Josh and I tested the microphone quality, he reported that it was a little better, but still reminiscent of AM radio. The rubber ear tip does block more ambient noise too. However, music sounded a bit muddier, and at least in my test unit, there’s a quiet background hiss. You don’t hear it when audio is playing at any significant volume, but it’s noticeable when the volume is very low or off. Plus, when I tried to use it while running with my iPhone in a waist belt, audio cut in and out enough that I stopped and swapped it for the Nocobot. It was fine when I used it to listen to music while standing at my desk, however.
Making a Choice -- I won’t pretend that either of these earbuds is anywhere near as good as Apple’s AirPods. Their Bluetooth pairing can be annoying, audio quality isn’t as good, battery life is shorter, it’s more difficult to plug in their charging cables, their microphone quality is weak, and neither supports Siri or voice commands. And heck, you only get one, something that AirPods allow but don’t require.
But these earbuds are so cheap that you may not care. I wrote this while at the ASMC Summit, a conference for independent Apple resellers, and when I showed these two little earbuds to one attendee, he said that he didn’t even bring his AirPods to the conference for fear of losing them. Just as the best digital camera is the one in your pocket, the best earbud is the one you have with you.
Also, I’m talking about a category that contains much more than these two entrants. When you search for “Bluetooth earbud” on Amazon, you’ll see a variety of comparable products with slightly different industrial designs that you might find more compelling. Some are as cheap as $5, and there’s no reason I can see to spend more than $20 given how similar they look. I wouldn’t expect any of them to last for all that long, and they’d be easy to lose, but a super low price makes up for a lot of sins.
My friend Rob, who got me started with these earbuds a year ago, tells me that he has since bought eight more, four of which he’s given away to family and friends. Of those he kept, he lost two and one broke, but at $7 each, he doesn’t feel bad about it.
So hey, if you’re looking for a cheap wireless audio solution for one ear, give one of these earbuds a try. It’s not a big investment if it doesn’t work, and you might be pleasantly surprised.