Less than a year after releasing their Kickstarter-backed Zolo Liberty true wireless headphones to the public, Anker’s bringing the same tech to a slimmed down set of earbuds that look a lot like Apple’s AirPods, at a much lower price.
Retailing for $80 (or less if there’s a deal), Anker’s SoundCore Liberty Air headphones cost half as much as Apple’s AirPods, and it’s not hard to spot where they cut corners to hit that price point. Compared to AirPods, the Liberty Airs sound fine, but a tad muddier, especially on the low end, and exhibit a subtle hiss that you might notice when your music’s paused. The charging case is a bit larger than Apple’s too, yet holds slightly less charge (20 hours vs. 24), and feels like it’s made from a fairly cheap plastic compared to the solid and well-built AirPod case. And don’t get me started on that grody old microUSB charging port.
But I think that’s all pretty forgivable given the lower price point. In my mind, there are two differences that really matter: the W1 chip (and lack thereof on the Liberty headphones), and sealing ear tips.
Anyone that’s ever owned a pair of AirPods or a recent pair of Beats knows that Apple is the only company that’s really nailed the Bluetooth pairing and management process, and that’s because they own the whole stack, from the W1 Bluetooth chip on the headphones, all the way up to the devices that you pair them to. AirPods pair effortlessly to Apple devices, toggle between your iPhone, iPad, and Mac with one click, make it easy to check your battery level, and can do cool tricks like pausing automatically when you remove one earbud.
You’re not going to find any of that on the Liberty Airs, or really on any Bluetooth headphones that aren’t made by Apple. They handle pairing as gracefully as they can, automatically connecting to your last-used device immediately after removing the right earbud from the case, without needing to push a button. But if you want to switch to a different device, you’ll have to completely turn off Bluetooth on your primary device first, or hold down on the right earbud’s touchpad for about 10 seconds. Yada yada yada, first world problems, but after owning AirPods, it feels archaic.
I’ve also noticed a few minor quality of life issues that underscore Apple’s lead on the pairing front. For example, while you can use either the left or the right AirPod independently (say, for making a call), you can only use the right Liberty Air earbud in this manner since the left bud connects to the right, rather than to your phone directly. There was also one instance where I found my music playing through the Liberty Airs when they were both inside the charging case. Normally, putting the Liberty Airs back in the case automatically paused my music, but the experience just wasn’t as consistent as what I’ve come to expect from Apple.
Of course, if you use Android devices, this is all moot. Pairing sucks for you no matter what. No gods, no kings, only forgotten button combinations and Bluetooth menus. The Liberty Airs will be just fine for you. And to their credit, they do feature a rock-solid Bluetooth 5.0 connection no matter what kind of phone you’re using. I could easily walk around my entire apartment with my phone plugged in in the bedroom, and I never experienced any skips, stutters, or disconnects.
If Apple’s AirPods have a fatal flaw, it’s that they don’t seal off your ear canal to block out noise. That’s fine if you’re going for a run and want to be aware when cars are coming by, but if you’re trying to focus in a noisy office, or listen to music on a plane, AirPods aren’t the right tool for the job. And if they just don’t fit in your ears? Too bad, Apple only makes one size, try growing better ears next time.
The Liberty Airs, like most sensible Bluetooth earbuds, include four sets of interchangeable rubber ear tips in the box. Once you find the one that fits you best, the ‘buds will stay solidly anchored in your ears while blocking out nearby sounds. Seriously, I shook my head around like I was at a Black Sabbath concert, and I couldn’t get them to fall out. People keep clamoring for Apple to make noise-canceling AirPods, but honestly, low-tech noise isolation is way simpler, and probably works better too.
So, hypothetical headphone buyer who is choosing between AirPods and Anker’s I-Can’t-Believe-They’re-Not-AirPods...which should you buy?
Well, I am an iPhone, iPad, and Mac user whose ears happen to be perfect fits for AirPods, so it’s really no competition for me. I do wish they sealed off my ears, but I’ve taken to packing a pair of noise-canceling over-ears when I fly, which is the only time AirPods really fall flat for me.
If that doesn’t describe you though—if you use non-Apple gadgets, say, or don’t like how AirPods fit—then sure, get the Liberty Airs! They isolate noise, they sound good enough for non-audiophiles, and they’re nearly as small as Apple’s headphones, at a fraction of the price. In the sub-$100 true wireless earbud market, they’re as sleek and high-performing an option as you’ll find.