I'm a big fan of cutting the cord. But this time I'm not talking about cancelling your cable and moving your Judge Judy marathons online - I'm all about going wireless in the audio department. Wireless speakers, wireless streaming, and, of course, wireless portable audio.
My Previous Bluetooth Daily Driver - Sony HBH-IS800
Up until a few weeks ago, I was using Sony's HBH-IS800, which deserves a separate review of its own if I ever get to it. Sony attempted to make something quite revolutionary at the time, and for the most part succeeded - the IS800 is absolutely unbeatable at a gym due to its size, seal, surprisingly decent audio quality (although it's crucial you create the right seal, otherwise they sound terrible), and price point.
Yes, there's a BT receiver and a charging port built into one of the buds
However, what I found was that the HBH-IS800 fails in everyday situations if you sprinkle a little bit of electrical interference or hinder the "line of
sight reception" with only something like a laptop on your lap. Heck, sometimes even placing the transmitter (phone) into a pocket on the wrong side of my body would introduce audio hiccups from time to time.
Enter MEElectronics Air-Fi AF32
When I got a chance to review MEElec's latest (and possibly the only at the moment) wireless offering, the Air-Fi AF32 BT headphones, I jumped at the opportunity. I didn't have high expectations at all, but I was curious if the Bluetooth reception can improve - after all, if Sony's buds are having trouble even at a few feet away, maybe all Bluetooth headphones have issues.
After receiving the box, I couldn't help but notice how attractive both the packaging and the headphones were. The red leather accents were buttery smooth. I'm talking so smooth that I'm not even sure it's actually leather - it sure looks like leather, but I've never felt one so soft to the touch.
Also immediately apparent was the presence of not one (like on the IS800), not three, but six controller buttons. I'm going to talk about them later in more detail, but let's just say I was very pleasantly surprised.
The pairing process was extremely simple and worked like a charm. No manual necessary. I just held the power button until I saw some flashing red and blue lights, set my device (Sprint's Epic 4G Touch Galaxy S II) to scan for BT accessories, clickity-click, and voila - I was paired.
And then I turned on some of my favorite tunes.
The AF32 is relatively light - it's by no means a studio quality headset, but don't be fooled by that - the sound that came out blew me away, mostly because I didn't set my expectations high for something that only costs $79.99 and has wireless technology built-in. After all the chips, buttons, and leather, how much budget did MEElec have to spend on the drivers themselves? Turns out, quite a bit.
The headphones are very comfortable to wear, with one caveat which I'll talk about later.
The next hour was spent on watching the wife excitedly hop around the room in disbelief that something untethered could sound and look so good, and, you know, that there was no cable to get in the way. And that's the most important part - after a while, you don't want to go back. Life is good on the other side.
As you can probably tell, my initial impressions were good. Really good. I was blown away. But even the greatest gadgets could end up having at least some flaws, so I put off the review for several weeks to get some solid testing time.
It's now been 2-3 weeks, and I'm finally ready to issue the final verdict, though not before discussing all the ways the AF32 excels and mentioning a few things it could have done better, all in my favorite bullet-point style. Let's have a look.
- No wires - obviously, it's one of the main strengths of Bluetooth headphones. Freedom to move. No more cord noise. No more yanking the buds out of your ears or headphones off your head. Once you go wireless, it's very hard to go back, and every time you do, you feel like you just grew an extra pair of tentacles that always get in the way. In Elaine's words, "I don't know how you guys walk around with those things."
- Sleek looks - you have to admit, these headphones look good. Plain and simple. Sometimes I wish the black plastic wasn't so shiny, but it's really not even worth a mention. Who knows, maybe it would actually look worse then.
- The leather, or whatever it is, feels very soft and nice. As I said before, it's buttery smooth. Smoother than my sheepskin leather jacket. There is also quite a bit of padding, making the headphone parts themselves very gentle on the ears.
- 6-button controls - every single one of the buttons works perfectly with Android (I was using PowerAMP). The buttons are:
- Power and Call, which also double as Pause when playing music. Unlike the other buttons, I think these two actually perform the same tasks, because you can press either of them to turn the AF32 on or off, pause and un-pause, answer a call, etc.
- Previous track (single click) / Rewind (hold).
- Next (single click) / Fast Forward (hold).
- Volume Up and Down. Unfortunately, this volume is independent of Android's BT media volume, which seems a bit silly. I usually end up setting the BT media volume to a few notches away from max and control that range with AF32's own volume. It's really not a big deal.
- Solid Bluetooth reception - much, much, much better than Sony HBH-IS800. It's almost perfect. More on why it's not totally perfect later.
- Built-in microphone - want to take a call or use voice commands? There is a small mic at the bottom of the right ear, which I found pretty good. However, sometimes I experienced some serious issues when answering or placing calls. I'll talk about them later.
- Great sound - the sound when playing music is truly terrific, much better than I expected. The frequency range seems very good, the bass is good (not as precise as my Ultimate Ears Super Fi 5 Pros, but still pretty good). Not once did I cringe when I put these on, and while I'm not a hardcore audiophile, I look for sound quality in all of my audio products.
- Long battery life (4-5 days of pretty heavy usage - 4-6 hours a day). MEElec told me the AF32 is rated for 12 hours of music playing time, 10 hours of talk time, and 100 hours of standby time, but they have tested much longer for all three of those.
- 3.5mm audio jack in case you need to connect to a transmitter that doesn't have Bluetooth. The 3.5mm-to-3.5mm cable is included in the box.
- No extra charge port - the same 3.5mm jack is used for charging via a special USB->3.5mm adapter (also included in the box). Brilliant, I've never even seen one of those before.
- Foldable design and a handy carrying case.
- Headband adjusts for larger head sizes.
- Multi-function light (blue, red) that indicates the pairing mode status as well as on/off and charging states.
- Easy pairing. Just turn it on and keep holding the power button until the lights start flashing red/blue. Then initiate a Bluetooth search on your device, select AF32, and voila - you're done.
- Last but definitely not least, price. $79.99 is very-very affordable for this product in my opinion.
What Could Be Better
- I've experienced very few occasional interruptions and slight volume jumps, but these could not be reproduced by MEElec. It's possible that there was interference around me at those times, or my SGS II has a finicky BT radio, but still - these (highly isolated) incidents did take place.
- On a more serious note, sometimes I had problems with placing or receiving calls. Shortly after I would pick up the phone, the sound would cut out altogether and the AF32 would disconnect from the phone. When I forced it to reconnect to continue the call, the audio quality suddenly became atrocious and highly staticky until a full BT recycle on the phone. Again, it could be interference or the phone, but I'm running out of excuses. Since I don't use my phone much for talking and tend to not have the headphones on when doing so, I am not too bothered by these. Both of the above were isolated incidents, and most of the time everything was OK.
- The AF32 doesn't keep the noise out very well at all. Noise isolation is one of the main reasons why I adore in-ear buds, so going back to hearing ambient sounds or not being able to tune out the engine in an airplane kind of bother me. There is lots of wind noise while biking. You get the idea. One positive side effect of this is your ears don't feel like they're in a sauna after 5 minutes of putting it on.
- While it's plenty loud when listening to music on my phone, I found it to be not nearly sufficient for watching movies, for example, on a plane using the Transformer Prime during my last trip. The Ultimate Ears plugged into the same tablet did not exhibit the issue.
- It's prone to falling off while I'm hopping around or even simply glancing down - it almost fell off when I was biking and decided to look down at my handlebar's speedometer. For this reason, it's also not good for the gym - the Sony HBH-IS800 is a clear winner there. If you get a short buzz cut, there is even less for the soft padding to grab onto - the shorter your hair, the easier it could slip off. A solution is to shift the headband a bit closer to the back of your head, but that still doesn't work 100% of the time.
- No battery level indicator - you only find out it's going to die when the battery gets low.
- Minor: something to think about: because there are no wires, it's easier for a thief to yank it off your head and run off. Now that I thought about this, I hope it never happens to me.
- Minor: the glossy plastic surface makes for an excellent fingerprint magnet and provides plenty of smudges to feed a family of four smudgensons.
- Very minor: red accents could use a richer red color, it kind of looks a little faded.
So, am I happy with the AF32? Absolutely. For the price, it's absolutely fantastic. Sexy, sleek, functional (all controller buttons work, 3.5mm jack, microphone), and affordable, the AF32 suffers from only very-very occasional connection flukes, which I would imagine could be a problem with most Bluetooth devices in general (due to electrical interference). The sound that comes out of these soft ears is rich and has very decent bass. All in all, the pros far outweigh any cons, so definitely give it a try, especially if you've never owned Bluetooth A2DP headphones before.