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Erato is the next company trying 'truly wireless' earbuds

Engadget Engadget 3/05/2016 James Trew

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Cast your mind back to 2014. Now imagine a pair of wireless headphones from that time. Most likely, you thought of an "over the head" pair of cans, like the SMS Sync, or a pair of tethered earbuds like Powerbeats. These days, the definition of "wireless" is being taken to its logical conclusion: buds not joined to each other in any way. The concept first came to many people's attention via Bragi Dash or Earin. The idea is catching on, though, with more headsets -- including known brands -- getting in on the action. Is this the future of wireless earbuds? Newcomer Erato, with its Apollo 7 set, seems to think so, and -- like Bragi and Earin -- it's hoping you'll be excited enough to fund it on Kickstarter. I got to try an early set for myself, and see if truly wireless really is the way to go.

The first question you might be asking is: What does the Apollo 7 offer that existing products don't? We've already mentioned the main rivals (Bragi Dash and Earin), but to recap, the Dash costs $300 a pair and comes with a mic, fitness-tracking features, a slick app, touch controls, an onboard media player and a host of sensors. The Earin is just headphones (no mic, so it can't be used for calls). Earin is also a lot smaller than the Dash and, at $250, more affordable. The Apollo 7 buds look similar to Earin, and will also cost $250 a pair -- but only for early birds on Kickstarter. The retail price will be $299, putting them on par with the more feature-rich Bragi.

Price aside, Apollo 7's really going after Earin's lunch, if design is anything to go by. In particular, the winning feature here is a microphone for handling calls. Basically, then, Erato took the one key function Earin doesn't have and made an otherwise very similar product. In my opinion, the Apollo 7 has a decent second advantage as well. Each bud has a small button so you can control tracks, change volume and answer calls. With Earin, you control music playback via the media player (and there are no calls to answer, obviously). But for the price, there aren't many reasons to choose these over the Bragi, unless you really prefer the smaller bud.

But what are they like to use? Those little buttons actually work surprisingly well, given the lack of available real estate. A long press will switch each bud on or off and activate Bluetooth pairing. A single press answers calls or pauses music. A double press, meanwhile, will increase or lower volume depending on the side (press the left ear for volume down, right for up) or activate Siri/Google Voice. The buttons aren't as fancy as the Dash's swipe/touch controls but are less prone to flaking out (as is sometimes the case with Bragi's headset).

One other benefit with Erato's design is that you pair each bud individually (they then connect with each other). This is different to how Bragi's Dash works, which uses a technology that requires both buds be close to each other to function. With the Apollo 7, two people could listen to the same track with one bud each. You could also just use one as a hands-free headset, and swap it for the other when the battery goes. Which it will: a common feature of all these headphones is short battery life. Apollo 7 is no worse than the others, but you're still looking at about three hours on one charge. (The battery in the case can charge them two full times before you need to find an outlet.)

The first thing I noticed when wearing the Apollo 7 is that they stick out a bit. My wife told me I looked like Frankenstein's monster. It's not that bad, but they are a little on the pokey-outey side. Otherwise, they're comfortable to wear, and never felt like they were going to fall out, even during runs. While most of the Apollo 7 sits in your ear where no one sees it, there are four colors to choose from, which eerily/un-coincidentally match the colorways of the iPhone (dark gray, light gray, metallic pink and gold). The buds are so small that there's not really a lot to judge them on, looks-wise, but they're not ugly.

Far more important than looks, of course, is sound. I'll admit that at first I found the Apollo 7 a little harsh. Mid-frequencies had a bite to them that I didn't take to at first, while lower tones were better (and not overpowering). After extended wearing, I did find them to be less harsh, but it's not clear whether I adapted to them, or there was some of that fabled "burn-in" going on. In summary, the Apollo 7 sounds adequate, but you might be used to a superior sound if you're accustomed to paying the same price for wired headphones.

There's a bigger problem than metallic midtones, though. Much like Earin, the Apollo 7s frequently lose connection with each other. This usually results in one, but sometimes both, ear buds going silent for a second or two while they reestablish connection. It's a pain, and makes for a generally frustrating experience. It's not a deal-breaker, as they do seem to settle after a few minutes and then the connection holds for good, but your threshold for minor annoyances may vary.

The far bigger problem, and this is true for all three headsets mentioned, is that they can struggle to maintain a connection to your audio source/phone when you're outside. If you walk along holding your device in your hand, or your chest pocket or backpack, there's no problem. But should you slide your phone in your front trouser pocket, it's pretty much game over. The distance between the headphones and the handset is just enough for the signal to keep dropping in and out. If this is going to your primary use scenario, then stick with conventional Bluetooth headphones, or a wired set.

This really is the theme across all these "truly wireless" headphones I've tried so far. The absence of any cables seems to mean contending with flaky connections and tolerating short battery life. I'd suggest, for many, that an untethered experience might not be worth it.

This is a real shame, because the Apollo 7 does sometimes offer a good experience. I used them all week while at my desk, and even wandering around the office (some distance), and the connection held up. It's just the great outdoors that seems to flummox small Bluetooth devices, and wireless earbuds are definitely that. Again, this appears to be a limitation of the form factor and Bluetooth, not this specific product, but that's likely little consolation if you're hoping to enjoy these in the sunshine.

So is it time to join the truly wireless club? I'd say hold off for now. All three products I've tried have their merits. They also have some pretty big drawbacks. When they work well, they're great. When they bug out, it's no fun at all. What's more, if companies like Intel and Apple have their way, the 3.5mm jack will be a thing of the past, and you'll want to consider wireless headphones even if right now you're not interested. Should that happen, let's hope companies like Erato will have ironed out these kinks. If you're not fazed by the above, and are ready to cut that last cable, you can put your money where your ears are over on Kickstarter.

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