Beats Electronics’ Beats by Dre lineup redefined aesthetic expectations for traditional headphones — the fashionable and typically glossy plastic designs have become all but ubiquitous with fans of over-ear and on-ear headphones, losing more prospective customers to high pricing than their widely-acknowledged sonic limitations. Despite several major successes, Beats misfired with Beats Wireless, a $280 on-ear Bluetooth headset with nice looks but less than thrilling sound for the price. Scosche subsequently one-upped Beats with a similar $200 over-ear model called RH1060, and now SuperTooth has released Freedom ($149), which drops the price even further while making some interesting strategic tweaks to the design, technology, and frills.
There’s no question that Freedom borrows liberally from the Beats design playbook. Sold in glossy black or white plastic versions with either gray or blue rubber lining, they look and feel like Beats Studio headphones minus all the metallic and colored plastic accents. While there actually is metal inside the headband — thick arm extensions enabling Freedom to accommodate different head sizes — the hinges found in most Beats are missing here, leaving only one option for compacting these headphones for travel: swiveling the earcups to reduce their thickness. A soft drawstring carrying bag, USB recharging cable, and 3.5mm headphone cable are all included in the package, but no other fancy touches; for instance, Beats and RH1060 both came with carabiner hook-laden semi-hard carrying cases and cleaning cloths, not that their omissions here are deal-breakers.
Freedom has one major technological advantage over its rivals, though, and that’s support for Bluetooth 4 wireless — the latest version of the standard, enabling these headphones to pair and de-pair instantly from recent vintage iOS devices, as well as conserving power when they’re sitting idle. While Bluetooth 4 offers fewer advantages in headphone battery life than once had been hoped, it does improve wireless efficiency enough that Freedom is able to offer 15 hours of play time between recharges. That’s a marked improvement on Beats Wireless’s promised 10 hours and RH1060’s 8 hours of continuous play time. Additionally, we were able to get Freedom to stream reliably from well over the promised 33-foot distance, walking up to two rooms away from an iPhone 5s without interruptions in music. From a wireless standpoint, SuperTooth is on very solid ground here.
Sonic quality for the price is also arguably in Freedom’s favor. While SuperTooth hasn’t really stepped up from the aggregate performance level we’ve heard in other wireless headsets, we haven’t been completely blown away by the sound of any of the $200-$300 wireless headphones we’ve tested, as they’re all using audio drivers that are better suited to $100-$150 models. Freedom’s audio is in fact a bit flatter than Scosche’s RH1060, with less treble and a bit less oomph in the bass, but it’s also free of the audio interference we heard in Scosche’s model, and runs basically silent even when no music is playing. If asked to choose one model independent of price, we’d give the edge to RH1060, but Freedom’s only a bit less dynamic, a little cleaner, and noticeably less expensive. Freedom also works in wired mode with the included 3.5mm audio cable, requiring no battery power to play back music, a convenience for some users.
Controls are one area where Freedom falls a little short. Unlike Scosche, which integrated relatively large buttons into both of its earcups, SuperTooth hides super-thin buttons on the right earcup’s rear edge, as well as making the entire side of the right earcup a giant play/pause and call answer/end button. While the latter control works exactly as expected — apart from an overly loud tone when you end a call, and a tendency to activate accidentally if the headphones are powered on and resting on your legs — the tiny power and volume controls are hard to figure out at first. The power button is flush with the rest of the molding, so you mightn’t be able to feel it, while both of the volume buttons have identical single-point elevated dots to let you know by touch that they’re there. A very modest redesign or relocation could have made the power button easier to recognize by touch, and the volume buttons easier to tell apart.
We also experienced issues using Freedom for phone calls. In addition to having problems getting Siri to recognize some voice commands with Freedom’s integrated microphone, callers told us that we sounded somewhat muffled to them, and that they heard echoes of their own voices when talking to us. While the muffling on our side didn’t completely impede calls, the echoing on their side did; consequently, we’d have a hard time recommending Freedom for phone calling purposes.
Overall, SuperTooth’s Freedom has a few assets on its side: an attractive price, a derivative but competent design, a wired mode, and a relatively strong combination of wireless and battery performance. These positives are offset somewhat by the controls, the microphone performance, and the low-frills approach to pack-ins. If the microphone hadn’t exhibited echo issues, a higher rating would have been easy to justify, but as-is, Freedom merits a flat B and general recommendation. It’s a very good pair of budget fashion Bluetooth headphones, demerited substantially by its weak microphone performance.
Company and Price
Compatible: All Bluetooth-Capable iPads, iPhones + iPods