The hunt for a great pair of sports bluetooth earphones is continuing this time with the Sony Xperia Ear Duo earphones which landed in Australia last month.
Sony has been a major player in the earphone/headphone market around the world, but the Xperia Ear line is slightly different, with the line concentrating more on the smart assistant included rather than being a high end bluetooth headset.
Sony has opted for a new design this year, moving away from a single bud of the original Xperia Ear bud which launched in 2016 to a dual unit, one for each ear, making a functional stereo, cordless bluetooth headset. The price for the Xperia Ear Duo is at the higher end of the spectrum for Bluetooth headphones at $399.
The price is indicative of both the quality of the build that Sony has, as well as the quality you should expect from the headphones. Do they hold up to those expectations? Well, let’s have a look.
What’s in the Box?
The Xperia Ear Duo box is a simple affair, featuring the Xperia Ear Duo on the front. Inside you find your battery case, which includes the dual earpieces that make up the Duo.
Accessory wise, you’ll find a small USB-C to USB-A cable (there’s no brick to plug it into) for charging the battery case and a couple of eartips – Large and Small, with Medium sized tips already attached to the Xperia Ear Duo units in the battery case.
Of course there’s paperwork, in this case it’s the instructions on how to change the eartips, and a brief user guide. There’s an online user guide on the Sony Australia support website you can access if you lose that though, including instructions on how to wear them.
Design and Fit
Rather than a single in-ear bud which launched in 2016, the Xperia Ear line expanded this year to the Xperia Ear Duo which was announced at Mobile World Congress earlier this year.
The two Xperia Ear Duo earpieces fit not just in the ear this year, but a new design which sits both inside and then loops underneath the ear, keeping it out of the way of glasses, jewellery and any other accessories.
The design makes it a bit funny on how to put them on. The official way is to hold the lobe and slot it up, whereas I found I inserted the earpiece in and then curving the other half around the lobe a little easier.
The Xperia Ear Duo is a two part device, with the actual sound production done by the driver located in the module which sits under your ear, and piped through to your ear canal by the metal sound duct attached to the ear tips. The module also contains the microphone and smart sensing processor.
The module underneath has a touch sensitive panel which is where you can control what’s happening on your device including raising or lowering volume, pausing/playing music or answering/ending a call. You can even call your digital assistant on any device you have connected with a long press.
As far as comfort the Xperia Ear Duo are very comfortable for shorter periods – say an hour or so, any longer and they start to make your ear ache, the pipe wrapping around your ear from the bottom seems to be the main culprit here.
The choice of ear tips is paramount for getting a comfortable fit, which helps if you want to wear them for longer than an hour though. You’re really best trying all three sizes to find the one that fits best with your ear. It’s easy to pop the ear tips off and on, so take the time and try them all out.
Features and Use
As a pair of completely wireless Bluetooth earphones the Xperia Ear Duo works pretty well. They can operate by just pairing with a laptop or mobile device and then simply play music, using the touch sensitive panels. It’s when you install the Sony Xperia Ear Duo app that you get some real fun.
As a standalone set of earphones you have no idea how much charge you have in the earphones beyond a basic warning of low battery 20 minutes before they shut off “Low Battery, shutting down”. With the app installed you can see easily in the app what the battery is currently at.
The Xperia Assistant – yes, there’s a Sony Xperia Assistant – also helps on this front once enabled in the app. You’ll get a prompt that your battery is low when you turn the earphones on.
Turning them on is very easy, once paired – long press on the touch panel when you first put them on to put them in pairing mode – you simply take them out of the battery case and they connect to any device you’ve previously paired to.
The Xperia Ear Duo app has a few setup points, notably your age, a nickname (preferred name), home address and work address and language choice: English (UK) and English (US) are your only English options – both of which are in the northern hemisphere and there’s a couple of problems with that.
The first problem with the apps seemingly using this, rather than your Work or Home addresses to locate you is that the Assistant kept commenting on how warm it was – after choosing English (UK) the Xperia Ear Duo thought I was in the middle of an English summer rather than a bitterly cold -5°C Canberra morning.
If you’re over that hurdle, then you’re also faced with other localisation issues notably the News component of your daily brief is also localised to either the US or UK depending on which language you choose.
But moving on. The Daily Assist is actually pretty useful. It’s a list of things that the Xperia assistant will read out to you when you first put your Xperia Ear Duo on for the day.
The Daily Assist includes things such as: ‘On this day’ the current time (you also get a chime and a reminder in your ear at the top of each hour when they’re in your ears “It’s 3 o’clock!’), as well as the weather (it’s wrong), a list of any missed calls, or unread text messages, scheduled events from your calendar, and you can choose to have it play you music.
The other useful feature is the ability to read out notifications from apps – though I quickly turned this feature for most apps like Gmail, Telegram and a few other apps off. It was useful for text messages and other short form notifications, but anything long like a full press release email was a little too long and stilted..
Once you enter your work and home locations in, you’ll also get welcome home messages, or ‘Let’s get to work’ prompts as you roll up to your workplace. It’s pretty neat to be honest.
The Xperia Ear Duo app is also where you can tune the touch panel to customise taps and swipes. I left this stock as the setup, as it was straight out of the box was fairly intuitive.
It’s intuitive, but actually using the touch panel is a little iffy. I never truly managed to get the single touch to pause/play music first go, every go, it always took a couple of tries, to start or stop music or podcasts, or I inadvertently registered a double touch which thankfully is unassigned by default. Swiping up/down to raise or lower volume was a little better, but I still found the touchpad very haphazard.
In the app you’ll also find an ‘Anytime Talk’ feature to setup, it’s a sort of always on walkie-talkie like feature for you and other Xperia Ear Duo users, but as I don’t know any other users I left this feature untested.
Finally, the smart sensing processor in the Ear Duo allows for some funky things to do with head movement. You can simply take the Xperia Ear Duo out of your ears to deactivate them which was handy, but you can also use head gestures such as nods and shakes of the head to say yes or no to queries from the Assistant. You can also use head gestures to send sounds, but that never really found a use for me.
Battery and Charging
The battery case included with the Xperia Ear Duo includes a 740mAh battery, or enough to give you an additional 3x charges while you’re on the go. The case is charged with a USB-C cable included in the box, with an LED light near the port indicating when it’s charging (Red) or full (Green). The earbuds simply sit in the moulded case to charge with copper contacts lining up automatically.
The case is fairly compact, protecting your earbuds when not in use, and can charge fairly quickly giving you up to an hour of listening from just 7 minutes in the case – of course if the battery in the case is depleted you’re out of luck.
The Xperia Ear Duo gave me on average about 3-4 hours of use each time, with the case then recharging them while I was in the car, at work, or generally otherwise engaged. There’s indicator lights on the top of the case to show the status of each bud and it’s through these I noted that the right bud tends to deplete faster than the left, it’s likely this bud that houses the connection to your phone ergo it uses more power.
It’s not the best battery life I’ve seen in truly wireless buds, but it’s definitely not the worst.
While the Assistant is cool, the new design is funky, these are afterall Bluetooth earphones and it comes down to how they sound.
I’m a massive advocate against noise-cancelling headphones, preferring instead to allow the world in enough so that I can interact with it – not be completely shut off and get mown down as I’m jogging or biking. The Xperia Ear Duo has an open design that does indeed let the world in, but it does so without giving you the option to amp up the sound to a sufficient volume to hear well.
I’m getting older, so I tend to need a bit more volume in my earphones and the Xperia Ear Duo, while offering a decent, clear sound, doesn’t offer enough boom for buck when it comes to hearing a podcast over the awful gym music that Anytime Fitness insists on piping into their gyms 24/7.
Clarity is pretty decent thanks to the driver being inside the module beneath your ear, but you can definitely get better sound out of a pair of over the ear cans. As far as discreet, truly wireless earbuds though, in a quiet room they’re very good in terms of quality, they just lack oomph.
There is a small problem with the Xperia Ear Duo when it comes to shielding though, when entering or exiting any store with security gates you’ll notice a small interruption to signal. It’s not a massive problem, but this is the first pair of Bluetooth earphones I’ve ever noted this issue on.
Should I buy them?
The Xperia Ear Duo are a strange device for me. I’ve come to really enjoy using them, they stay in the ear really well, I’m a big fan of the open ear design that lets the sounds of the world in, but there’s a few too many issues to really recommend them.
They get uncomfortable if used for an extended period of time, lack the power to overcome the music blasting in the gym or on a crowded street and combined with the spotty touch panel and Assistant localisation issues I’m probably not going to use them as my long term earbud and at $399 these are an expensive pair of earphones.
Sony has a few good ideas with the Assistant, and they appear to be committed to the Xperia Ear concept so I’m hoping to see a second generation of the Xperia Ear Duo down the track which will address a lot of the issues.