Models: Earshots Stereo Speakers
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones + iPods except iPod shuffle 3G
Kubxlab Earshots Stereo Speakers
Small wireless speakers have become so common -- and affordable -- that cable-dependent alternatives are beginning to feel outdated, depending on how they look, work, and sound. Kubxlab's new Earshots ($50) embrace this fact in an interesting way: they simultaneously mix old-school functionality with a modern industrial design. Attractively packaged in a foil-accented box that makes their painted metal grilles look like components of an early 1980's boom box, the Earshots are so named because they're only a little smaller than shot glasses in size, and pitched as "powerful" with "massive sound." They wouldn't be our top recommendation at their price point for a variety of reasons, but they're not bad, either.
Build quality is the single best feature Earshots brings to the table. Each of the one-inch audio drivers is housed in a machined aluminum tube in your choice of silver or red. The top is covered in perforated black metal, and the bottom uses swirled metal lined with a ring of black stabilizing rubber. A tiny dot light on each speaker’s bottom turns blue for power on, also glowing through a micro-USB port on the speaker’s side, or red for charging, which similarly becomes obvious through each speaker’s 3.5mm audio port. The speakers are identical to one another, neither labeled left or right, which we’d normally consider a bit unusual for stereo speakers. There are no volume controls or other buttons on the speakers, either.
Why does that sort of make sense here? Well, for better or worse, two sets of included cables handle everything: one of the cables is purely for audio, with an iPad/iPhone/iPod-ready 3.5mm headphone plug on one end, and two speaker-ready 3.5mm plugs at the ends of Y-split coils. These coils let you spread the speakers substantially apart from one another—feet apart, if you’d like. Whichever speaker you plug into the unlabeled “left” side of this cable becomes the left channel driver, and the other handles the right channel, so though actual stereo details during audio playback may be modest, you’ll generally be able to hear them. Unusually, each speaker’s power light turns on automatically when the cable is connected, and turns off when the cable is disconnected; consequently, you’ll need to disconnect each speaker manually to stop them from drawing power. There’s also another audio cable-related issue: the 3.5mm device-ready plug housing is thick enough that we had problems connecting to encased devices, particularly iPods and iPhones. Depending on whether or not you use a case, and how large the headphone port hole is in that case, your mileage may vary.
Charging works in the same way. Kubxlab includes a full-sized USB cable with two micro-USB plugs on a Y-shaped splitter. If you want to recharge the separate batteries found inside the speakers, you need to connect both of them to the USB cable and a computer or self-supplied wall adapter. By contrast with having to disconnect the audio cables every time you want to turn off the speakers, this may seem like a trivial inconvenience, but Earshots’ battery life is only five hours between charges. There will thus be plenty of plugging and unplugging over these little speakers’ battery life, so it’s a good thing that their metal housings feel so sturdy. It’s also worth a brief note that no carrying case is included in this package for the speakers or cables, so although Earshots are small enough to toss into a pants pocket, you’ll need to remember and manage their cords on your own.
Beyond cable connectivity issues, Earshots’ biggest problem is sound quality. While it’s in no way surprising that two otherwise unassisted 1” speaker drivers at a $50 asking price will struggle to deliver superb audio, the overall sonic performance offered by the speakers is only okay. When connected to a current-generation full-sized iPad performing at roughly 75% on its volume slider, Earshots are roughly as loud as the iPad’s built-in speaker at its peak volume—and perhaps a little less impressive in frequency response. The good news is that the Earshots can be turned up higher than that, for a markedly louder performance, though the audio remains flat: midrange focused with only a little sparkle in the treble, and very little bass. Seriously bassy tracks sizzle at high volumes when played through the Earshots, too. There are reasons that budget speaker developers are often willing to give up stereo separation in favor of bigger, clearer, or deeper sound in small speakers such as JBL’s Micro II; tiny drivers just struggle too much on their own. iPhone and iPod users will likely find Earshots’ performance more useful, as even the best speaker in the iPhone 5 has markedly less power and fidelity than the full-sized iPad’s.
Overall, while we really liked Earshots’ look and feel, their sonic performance and various cable inconveniences detract from what might otherwise be good, relatively inexpensive offerings. There’s nothing particularly great about portable speakers that need to constantly be unplugged and plugged into things, provide no easy way to manage their cables or even be carried around. By current standards, these are only okay offerings in sound and functionality, rendered a hint better than that by atypically nice housings. If you’re an iPod or older iPhone user looking for a speaker, Earshots aren’t bad, but we’d typically consider other peer-priced options—particularly Bluetooth speakers—first.