Zolo Liberty+ wireless earbuds mini review
This could have been a shining review of a more-than-capable set of truly wireless earbuds that retail for a mere $150. Instead, it's a cautionary tale.
I was genuinely excited for the Zolo Liberty+ earbuds. Zolo's an audio-centric offshoot of Anker, the company that makes pretty much everything, makes it relatively inexpensive, and makes it reasonably well. So a Kickstarter campaign for $99? I was in, saving about $50 off the retail price in the process. A few months later (plus a little extra time because white earbuds are hard, apparently), and I was exercising with a new set of Bluetooth buds, and without a connecting wire snagging my neck.
The format is simple at this point. You've got two independent — as in truly wireless — earbuds, and a case for charging and carrying them around. You charge the case, the case charges the buds. (And you can, of course, charge the case and the buds at the same time.) Zolo says to expect 3 hours or so of playback time before the buds need to be charged again, but that was fairly moot for me, since I'd just pop 'em back in the case when I was done with my workout, and they'd charge right back up for next time. The charging case itself is supposed to get you more than 48 hours of use. But, again, I'd just plug it in once I got home, and we'd be back to 100%. Because when it comes to hitting the gym with no music, you don't mess around.
- Price: $149 (retail)
- Tech: Bluetooth 5.0, AAC, SBC
- Drivers: 2x 6mm graphene dynamic
- Battery life: 3.5 hours before recharge, 48+ with charging case (microUSB)
- Water resistance: Sweat-proof IPX5
- Apps: Android, iOS
The buds and case are nicely constructed. The only real complaint here is that the case uses Micro-USB for charging — a step backward for anyone expecting "the future" of USB-C to actually take hold at some point. (Wireless charging would have been great, I guess, but it's not too surprising not see that as an option.) Hell, even the in-box experience is nice. I'll gripe about Micro-USB, but also enjoy the fact that Zolo included a braided yellow (because branding!) cable for charging.
Fitting the buds was simple enough. Just stick it in your ear hole, and twist a little to fit. I didn't have any issues with it falling out while on an elliptical or with light jogging. But if you do need to fiddle with the fit a bit, you've got options in the box. Nice touch.
Sound quality was just fine, too. I wasn't expecting the best for $150, but wasn't disappointed at all either. There's decent passive sound isolation as well. There's an option in the included Zolo app for "transparency," with which the microphone is used to feed in sound from the outside world. It was worthless in the gym, though — just too much noise from the overhead music and weights clanging, so I just left it off. There are a few built-in EQ presets, but none of them really suited me, so I just stuck with the default.
The buds themselves have the basic one-button operation going on. I don't do much beyond play/pause and picking up the occasional phone call, so that's simple enough, but it also ties into Google Assistant on Android, or Siri on iOS, which is just fine.
All in all — perfectly usable, truly wireless earbuds at a decent price. Of course, post-purchase is where companies really start to stand out, right?
Don't lose the charger. Or an earbud. Because you'll be SOL.
Admittedly, I screwed up. I grabbed the Liberty+ case as I was getting out of my car, forgetting to extract the buds and leave the charger behind. I realized that, and didn't bother walking 50 feet back to the care to lock the case inside. Instead, I left it in an open-face cubby, along with my sweatshirt and keys. I'm pretty sure the case was at least partially visible. And when I finished my workout an hour or so later, it was gone.
The joke's on whomever ganked the case, I guess, because the earbuds were safely in use in my ears. But I was left without a way to charge them.
Time for a little detective work. Not to have my YMCA check security footage — ain't nobody got time for that, and Karma's a bitch. No, I wanted to see how the upstart Zolo Audio handles this sort of thing.
That you can't actually buy the Liberty+ yet — it's still listed as "coming in 2018," though Zolo says to expect it at the end of January — wasn't a good sign. And there's no "buy a spare charger" listing on the site, either. That's no good.
I emailed customer service, which promised to get back within 48 hours. Three days later (Saturday evening, no less), I got the bad news. There's no way to buy a spare case. You'll have to buy a whole new set. (Same goes for earbud tips, I presume, which also aren't listed on the site anywhere.)
How does this compare to other players in the space?
Apple will replace a single AirPod for $69 and the charging case for $69. That's reasonable.
JayBird — whose X3 wired Bluetooth buds I had (and in the interim have been) enjoyed — sells a new charging case for $69, a spare earbud for $59, and new tips for $9. Also completely reasonable. (I've since ordered the $179 Run buds — more on those at another time.)
Sony's WF-1000X buds? Nothing.
The bottom line
Good earbuds are one thing. Good earbuds at a good price are another. But it's worth remembering that the purchase is just one part of the product lifecycle, and really should be just a part of your decision to buy. I was happy spending money on the Zolo Audio Liberty+ — especially at the discounted Kickstarter price. (Remember, they'll retail at $150.)
A good product can fall apart if post-sale support falls flat.
The earbuds worked great. I didn't have any problems with the audio cutting out, they sounded great, and worked really well.
But accidents do happen. And if I do something dumb — like leaving the case out where someone might happen to walk off with it — then I should also have the opportunity to redeem myself, without having to pay full price for a full new product. That's where companies can (and do) differentiate themselves.
And there's where an upstart like Zolo Audio fell flat in this case.