Like many technophiles, I have a soft spot for wireless audio gear. While cord-free is moving in the direction of Wi-Fi and mesh networks at home, the world of portable gear still belongs to Bluetooth. Earbuds, headphones, portable speakers - they're all different, and so far none I've tested are perfect. Once I find the perfect one in each category, I'll be sure to let you know.
A few months ago, I reviewed the MEElectronics Air-Fi AF32 - a full-size over-the-ear set of wireless headphones that ended up scoring surprisingly well while at the same time not breaking the bank. The other Bluetooth offering available from Meelec is the in-ear Air-Fi AF9, which is precisely what we're taking a look at today. In fact, I've been testing them for the last 2 months or so and had plenty of time to form an opinion.
But First - A Competitor
One of my all-time favorite Bluetooth audio solutions till this day continues to be the Sony HBH-IS800 (purchased for $70). It is incredibly small and portable, has zero cable mess, holds the charge a surprising for its size amount of time, pushes good bass and is overall almost perfect. It definitely has its flaws - for example, its BT receiver is very weak and cuts out way too often in certain situations, the volume levels are lower than ideal when watching movies, there is only a single action button, it pairs with only one device at a time, and its charging mechanism feels incredibly unpolished. But even with all its shortcomings, the IS800 absolutely destroys the competition in the most important aspects of them all - portability and comfort. Here is why:
Do you see how awesome it is? Can you even guess where the power source that provides about 3.5 hours of juice resides? When I put on the IS800 the way you're seeing in the photo on the right and head to the gym, I completely forget it exists. The cable does not get in the way - there's almost no cable to get in the way in the first place. Placed behind my head and attached with a provided clip to the back of my shirt, I don't see it, I don't feel it, I don't think about accidentally knocking it off with my hands - yet the music keeps coming seemingly out of nowhere. It's this unparalleled portability that makes a decent pair of earbuds great and irreplaceable. In fact, the IS800 has become so ubiquitous in my life that I now don't leave home without it. Keys, wallet, cellphone, IS800 - it's the new routine.
So, can our newcomer, the Meelec Air-Fi AF9, dethrone the Sony HBH-IS800? How well does it perform for the price? Should you even buy one at all? Let's see if I can answer those.
- BT volume is plenty loud. This was a very important quality I was looking for because a lot of Bluetooth products are simply too quiet. Both the JAMBOX and the IS800 are not loud enough - for instance, even with sound isolation I couldn't watch movies while on a treadmill at a gym with the IS800 because I couldn't hear what any of the characters were saying. I'm glad to report that the AF9 definitely gets loud enough to hear a movie comfortably - I even have to hit the volume down button once or twice.
- Good BT reception thanks to being positioned closer to your device and probably sporting a more powerful receiver. If you remember, one of the complaints I had about the IS800, and this goes for the majority of BT devices, is that they all invariably have connection issues at one point or another and start to cut out. I'm not talking 30 feet away - I'm talking phone in my pocket and headphones on my dome. The IS800 has terrible BT reception. While it works at a gym 100%, it constantly cuts out when I'm walking out and about around the city. Even if I hold the phone in my hand and walk around with it, it still cuts out, which gets extremely frustrating. The AF9, on the other hand, almost never has this problem - there were a couple of occasions when it did stutter, but they're so few and far between, they're barely worth mentioning.
- Decent battery life. Compared to the 3-3.5 hours I get out of the IS800, the AF9 is rated for 6+ hours of music time (in my experience it was definitely on the longer side), 5+ hours of talk time (I could never talk this long, but I trust that it's an accurate assessment), and 100+ hours of standby. Full rejuicing takes about 2 hours, which is very fair.
- Speaking of rejuicing, the AF9 comes with not one but two USB charging cables - subtle but greatly appreciated. This way I can leave one cable in my office and keep one in my backpack, or one at work and one at home. You get the idea. Of course, if it only used a MicroUSB plug, it'd be even more ideal but, alas, that's not the case.
- Great sound - the AF9 actually consists of the M9 buds that plug into a Bluetooth receiver. The M9s have been on the market for a number of years and are generally well reviewed. I thought the audio quality overall was very good, with precise, not overpowering bass, decent mids, but somewhat muddy and too pronounced highs. After tweaking the equalizer settings a little, I found that I actually enjoyed AF9's bass precision over the Ultimate Ears Super-Fi 5 Pros, which are my daily corded drivers. Compared to the Sony HBH-IS800, I enjoyed the quality of audio on both equally, which was great because I did not want to compromise on sound.
Remember: the sound quality will be highly dependent on the seal of the buds with your ears. If you don't get a good seal, the overall quality and especially bass will lack severely. Make sure you're using the right tips.
One thing needs to be pointed out though - as far as the M9s (and most other buds) go, the volume needs to be a set lot higher to produce the same level of audio as with the Ultimate Ears. This is not too surprising - Ultimate Ears are notorious for their efficiency.
- Modular design lets you use:
- The BT receiver with the included M9 buds or
- The BT receiver with your own headphones or speakers or
- The included M9 earbuds without the BT receiver using any 3.5mm jack
- Unexpected use cases - because of the modular design, you might end up using the AF9 in more situations than you might think. For example, you can add wireless audio capabilities to car and home speakers by simply plugging the BT receiver into your gear's 3.5mm jack.
In my case, my Murano does not have A2DP streaming built-in even though it supports Bluetooth, so to play music in the car off my phone, I used to use a 3.5mm cable. With the BT receiver, I ended up freeing my phone from its leash.
- A word of warning though: according to Meelec, you can't charge and use the receiver at the same time, though during my testing it seemed to charge but would enter pause mode any time I plugged or unplugged it.
- Compared to dedicated music adaptors, like this one from Sprint/HTC that costs $60, the AF9 offers a better value while achieving in my opinion pretty much the same goal. You don't get a nice MicroUSB charging port though - bummer.
- Remembers multiple BT pairings. Some BT receivers only remember a small amount of previous pairings and require re-pairing after they start "forgetting." For example, one of IS800's biggest flaws is it only remembers one pairing and needs to be re-paired every time you want to use a different device. Thankfully, the AF9 remembers multiple connections - I tested 3 different devices, and it was able to connect to every one of them without re-pairing. It may support more, but 3 should be sufficient for most folks.
- A 6-button remote with mic:
- Next (there's a downside to these two though - see the section below for more)
- Volume up
- Volume down
- Power/call/hang up/voice command multi-function
- Built-in mic
- Affordable - for $50, you get both a modular setup with a BT receiver and a set of decent headphones as well as everything needed to charge in 2 locations and fit most ear sizes.
- Good sound isolation with a choice of 4 different replaceable bud tips. Perfect for people with small ears, like the wife - she could never find buds that stay in until she tried this pair. However, there's a pretty big downside to these tips that I've never experienced in any other headphones before. More on that later.
- Clip - the BT receiver/remote has a clip so that you can attach it to your shirt, backpack straps, collar, t-shirt sleeve, etc. To me, the presence of a clip already indicates there's a problem with the design - again, more on that later.
- In the box:
- 2 chargers - convenient, since they're proprietary, although I'd much rather prefer them to be microUSB instead.
- Extension cable
- Handy carrying case
- 4 pairs of tips, as mentioned above
- Auto shut-off after 30 minutes of standby - this is a critical feature, as without it the battery would be toast if you occasionally forget to turn it off.
- Sturdy cable - I've used numerous headphones with cables that ripped within months, or sometimes weeks. The AF9's cable is nothing like that - the inner layer looks like it was made of tiny snake scales, later encased in sturdy clear plastic.
The Not So Good
- Cable mess. This is probably the biggest downside of the AF9 for me, especially after using the IS800 which set a very high standard in portability. To me, there is little point in upgrading to BT headphones if you're going to continue dealing with cables and an extra controller on top of that. The cable is just way too long, and the addition of a second clip down the middle to help make it less unruly only highlights the problem more. More on this in next bullet point.
- The whole setup is awkward to attach when wearing certain clothing, specifically t-shirts or hoodies. When working out, I couldn't even figure out where I can affix the receiver without the AF9 getting in my way. I ended up clipping it to the collar of the t-shirt on one side (which ended up poking my neck), then wrapping the cable around my neck a few times before inserting the buds. The cable is not long enough to reach my pocket, but if it could, I'd question the use of BT altogether. So the pant pockets are out too.
With a hoodie, things got even more weird, and I ended up clipping the receiver to one of the strings.
The bottom line is the cable got in my face in both situations, and that almost defeats the purpose of using Bluetooth. The Sony IS800 dominates in the portability department. An ingenious design that doesn't get in the way is what sets apart true innovators from the rest of the crowd, and Meelec, unfortunately, belongs to the latter group.
- Crackling/crunchy bud tip noise when moving them around. Turns out, Meelec is aware of this phenomenon and even has a FAQ entry dedicated to it:
Crinkling Sound: A crinkling sound experienced when inserting one or both of the driver housings is not unusual and is caused by air pressure in your ear compressing the very thin driver diaphragm. It can even lead to a temporary reduction or loss of sound after insertion. If you experience a reduction or loss of sound in one or both ears, you can pull on your ear lobe to relieve the pressure in your ear or pull the earphone out slightly, which should restore the sound. The crinkling while inserting will go away over time and use (typically 1-4 weeks with regular use). Using different ear tips may also reduce/eliminate the crinkling.
The problem is, mine hasn't gone away yet, and I've never experienced it with other manufacturers. It's not a huge deal, but it does get annoying if you adjust the bud tips in your ears from time to time.
Remote lacks rewind and fast forward capabilities. This was particularly surprising considering the AF32 was able to rewind and fast forward. The AF9, however, cannot.
- As with the AF32 and most other BT headsets, the controller uses a separate volume control rather than integrating with Android. This is a little annoying, but by far not a deal breaker. I'm not sure if modifying volume via BT is even possible without an app, so this could be a limitation of the BT protocol or Android, or both. However, this is something I thought was worth mentioning.
- BT audio lag. However, read this bullet in its entirety as it's not Meelec's fault. The audio sync issue is not a problem with the AF9, as after trying multiple headphones by multiple manufacturers, I came to the conclusion that BT lag is present no matter what and is dealt with on an application level. For example, the only app that consistently adjusts for BT and syncs audio perfectly was actually Samsung's stock video player on the Galaxy S II. Every other player I tried on the Galaxy S II and the EVO LTE which doesn't even come with its own video app, was subject to BT lag. This is highly frustrating and, if you don't have an app that adjusts for BT lag, makes using a BT headset for videos/movies useless. It's perfectly fine for music, however, as there's no video to sync audio with.
Again, BT lag is not Meelec's fault, although if modern headphones are actually capable of reducing it to almost nil, I'd definitely like to hear about them. So far I haven't seen them.
- Balance issue, "clipping" - my first set experienced a really weird issue after a little while which could be described as audio clipping - if volume were to be turned up to 70-100%, the audio would start cutting in and out, and the higher I went the worse it got. Around the same time I also noticed an imbalance between the two sides. I sent the earbuds (without the receiver) back to Meelec and received a new set which did not suffer from clipping. Looks like the initial set of buds was defective, which doesn't necessarily reflect on overall quality (sample size of 2 is far from scientific), but it was worth a mention.
The Meelec AF9 is the company's first foray into the world of Bluetooth earbuds, and for the price ($50) it does a great job, as long as you don't mind one, fatal in my eyes, flaw - too much "wire" in something that's supposed to be wireless. Such hybrid half-BT/half-conventional earbuds designs are great for certain situations but lose out to truly portable solutions every time (see the first two bullet points of The Not So Good for more info). As I was writing this review, I got the Sony Wireless Headset Pro, and while its cable is shorter, I experienced the same frustrations with its design. Argh.
Otherwise, my experience with the AF9 was quite enjoyable - its sound, while not the best I've heard, is definitely better than average. Battery life was definitely sufficient at 6-7 hours, though it certainly not best in class (the Sony Wireless Headset Pro lists 8.5 hours of BT streaming in its specs, for example).
However, I realized the real value of this headset when I utilized its modular design to play audio wirelessly in situations where wireless audio was not possible, the best example being my car. The AF9 was cheaper and arguably better than dedicated BT car dongles, and once the cable mess was out of the equation, most of the negatives disappeared.
I'm not sure if there is a perfect Bluetooth headset out there - I haven't found it yet. Until then, the AF9 will park itself in my car and serve as a wireless A2DP BT streamer - one of its many alternate uses.
- Bluetooth version: Bluetooth specification v2.1 + EDR (A2DP/AVRCP)
- BT profiles:
- Hands-free Profile (HFP) 1.5
- Headset Profile (HSP) 1.1
- Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) 1.2
- Audio Video Remote Control Profile (AVRCP) 1.0
- Operating range: 30ft - standard for all BT receivers
- Standby time: 100+ hours
- Talk time: 5+ hours
- Music playing time: 6+ hours
- Charging time: about 2 hours
- Driver: 9 mm high performance drivers with neodymium magnets
- Frequency response: 20Hz – 20KHz
- Sensitivity: 95 dB (1mW @ 1KHz)
- Impedance: 16 ohms
- Main cable length: 28.4 inches (72 cm)
- Extension cable length: 22.8 inches (58 cm)
- Total cable length: 51.2 inches (130 cm)
- Weight: 115g
- Warranty: 1 year