When a representative for headphone company Jaybird pointed to the thin silver band that wraps around the outside of the company’s new truly wireless earbuds, I let out an “ooh.” After spending the last couple years testing countless truly wireless earbuds, and finding them lacking far too often at maintaining a constant audio link with my phone, the idea of putting an antenna on the outside of the new $149 Jaybird Run earbuds felt like a novel and potentially solid solution.
I was wrong about the second part.
I’ve spent the last few weeks using the Jaybird Run earbuds on and off during my commute to work, and every single time I have them in my ears I experience audio dropouts. Sometimes they come in fits and starts, leaving me with cherished minutes of uninterrupted listening, but the rest of the time the problem persists.
The apparent flaw seems to stem from the fact that the earbuds use Bluetooth to talk to each other. When you make truly wireless earbuds, you don’t really have a choice but to use Bluetooth to get the signal from the smartphone to the buds. But some companies use what’s known as Near Field Magnetic Induction to connect the master earbud (the one that does all the communication to the phone) to the second one. NFMI is tricky to work with for a few reasons, but companies like Bragi have made it work well, and it does a better job passing through our thick, watery heads than Bluetooth.
The result of Jaybird’s complete reliance on Bluetooth is an experience that’s simply a mess. The right earbud seems to have no problem keeping the connection with my iPhone, but the left earbud constantly and inevitably loses its connection with the right one. When this happens, the result is often an aural oscillation as the earbuds try to put their audio signals back in sync with one another. It’s as uncomfortable as it is inelegant, and it was the case with two different review units I tested.
Jaybird’s best guess at the cause of my trouble with the Run is the signal-heavy environment of a big city. This “many wireless radios” problem is one that companies often like to cite as a reason for a reviewer’s troubles. But it neglects the fact that other wireless earbud makers have had to solve for this problem in the past, too, not just Jaybird. Hell, even Boosted had to find a way to make its electric skateboard hang on to a signal in crowded spaces. Signal-rich environments might cause some of the trouble I experienced, but that’s a factor that should have been well known going into a project like this, and it’s no excuse for the device not to work. Customers shouldn’t have to live with a product that doesn’t work in a reasonable everyday setting and location. They shouldn’t have to leave the city to use wireless earbuds.
The company also argues that the best-case scenario for using these earbuds is running, as implied by the name. Running means you might have your smartphone more exposed, or strapped to your arm, and in that case, the connection might be more solid. I would believe that, because the only time the earbuds have worked consistently well for me is when I’ve clutched my phone in one of my hands.
Even without these connection problems, I don’t think the Run earbuds would be head-to-head competitors with Apple’s AirPods or Bragi’s The Headphone earbuds (that name remains the worst), two of what I consider to be the best options on the market. The Run earbuds feel cheap to the touch, and come in an equally plasticky (and bulbous) charging case that fits awkwardly in a pants pocket. Their design is a bit garish, though more forgivable when in all black. Pushing the buttons on each one can sometimes be uncomfortable as the action squeezes them deeper into your ears — though, to be fair, that’s also a problem many other wireless earbuds have yet to solve.
The Run earbuds are comfortable. Jaybird does a good job of including multiple tips and wings to help make sure the earbuds fit your ear without feeling loose (like AirPods do on me) or like they’ve been hammered into place (like I felt using the Jabra Elite Sport). And the integration with Jaybird’s app, which lets you customize the way the earbuds’ sound, is as good a feature as it seemed when it was announced last year.
The connection problems I had are a total non-starter, though. Jaybird typically receives high marks for its around-the-neck wireless earbuds, and it even has a new pair of those that was announced alongside the Runs, the Freedom 2. So if you swear allegiance to the Jaybird brand, I’d stick with one of those options. The Jaybird Run earbuds are an obvious first attempt at truly wireless earbuds that would have been bad two years ago when companies were still figuring out the basics of the idea. They’re definitely not worth your time now that there are working options out there.