Hygiene concerns with wireless earbuds aren’t often discussed, but there are important points to be made for the potential harm they can can cause. They are, after all, fitting right inside of your ear canal. Films of dirt and dust can form on the tips that often touch the outside of your ear drum, trapping bacteria which can thrive and grow in the moist tunnel that is your ear canal. Nasty? Yep. The hard and fast rule is avoid sharing earbuds, or clean them with alcohol-based disinfectant regularly.
Or, you can pay attention to what LG have cooked up for their Tone Free HBS-RN6 true wireless earphones, a rare play from the company into the already overstuffed world of buds. In 2020, it feels like just about every tech brand on the planet has tried to get a slice of this ever-growing tech sector, which makes it all the more important that we start to discuss hygiene. The conversation with overhead headphones just isn’t the same.
Why all this talk about cleanliness? Because the Tone Free buds stand out on the market thanks to one neat grace feature that seems to work rather well. Granted, I don’t share earbuds anyway, so for me the feature is mostly redundant. Still, it’s nice to have a UVnano charging case packaged with the buds, rated to kill up to 99.9% of bacteria that cause S. aureus (staph) and E. coli. Staph in your ear is especially nasty, so having that extra piece of mind for anyone who could use a little hygiene for their personal audio – truly priceless.
Although perhaps most important is that LG are clearly not resting on this feature alone, offering a pair of buds that are exceptionally comfortable, sturdy and put forth a respectable performance at a reasonable price point.
The design is unapologetically AirPod-like, with stems drooping down from each bud along with the standard capacitive touch controls. You only get three pairs of hypoallergenic silicone eartips for the more typical ear sizes, which is disappointing for those fall between the more defined small, medium, large sets. Still, the soft, small-profile design allows for a very secure, comfortable fit that importantly doesn’t rattle around once the buds are secured in the ear.
Unlike many earbuds in 2020, the on-board controls don’t feel overstuffed, and are very responsive with only the basic functions included. Notably, this map of touch controls can also be rearranged via the companion app, adding a nice layer of customisation. It’s unlikely you’d want to change the pattern though; the defaults are very intuitive – single tap to play/pause and answer/end calls, double tap on the left to lower volume, and on the right to raise it, triple tap on either for the next track; and long-press to toggle ambient listening modes. Given the small surface area on the buds, there’s not enough space to introduce the easier swipe functions of overear cans, but tapping does just fine once you get used to it.
These are lifestyle headphones through and through. They aren’t designed for more rugged conditions, so even just an IPX4 rating is more than expected for the design. This means the buds can shrug of light splashes and gym sweat, but I’d tuck them away if it starts pouring outside.
LG are obviously banking on the attractive UVnano-enabled charging case being enough to set the buds apart from the competition. Again, it’s more useful for friends or family who would want to share them, but it’s still a nice touch. The small, circular case uses USB-C for its juice, and sports a simple flip-up lid that flips on a nice blue light inside. It all looks very forward-thinking, with a snug looking interior that turns into a germ-destroying UV cradle once the buds are in and the lid is closed.
Straight out of the box, the buds sound great, but don’t maintain the same kind of faultless balance and naturalistic sound as a lot of sturdier competitors. Thankfully, the LG Tone Free app has some a customisable eight-band EQ for those looking to shape the sound to their personal preference. LG’s long working relationship with British luxury audio brand Meridian comes in great use here, designing a number of EQ presets as well, giving plenty of flexibility to how one listens to their favourite media.
Low-end is definitely where the buds excel, which is the short-cut to consumer satisfaction in most cases. A bass boosting EQ preset also adds a great deal of sub-bass nuance to the mix, so my preference of bass-heavy hip hop sounds invariably great. Something like Snoop Dogg’s “Set It Off”, with Timbaland’s obnoxious, unrelenting low-end pumps, does well to highlight just how strong these small buds can be, and how well they maintain that posture even at max volume.
Importantly, this preference towards bass doesn’t topple the rest of the sound signature, as long as you’re dealing with your standard sound signature and no presets. The mids and highs have plenty of presence and sound appropriately bright for vocal-forward songs like Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. But this largely inconsistent if you’ve given preference to the low-end with bass boost. It’s clearly better to try and keep as much processing off the board as possible for those that are trying to preference the mids and highs, otherwise the bass can leap forward a bit too much.
In terms of mic clarity, you’ve got enough clear pick-up here for stable, intelligible phone calls. I used these around the office for a few days and not once did I come across as distant or distorted to the person on the other end, despite the fact that the Bluetooth 5.0 can stutter at times.
This comes down to individual use, but I was easily getting a full day of use with the buds, as long as I kept the charging case pumped up overnight. LG promises 6 hours standalone juice on the buds with an additional 12 hours of usage when coupled with the case. That’s standard, and although the promise is obviously based on lighter use than I’m used to, there’s nothing here that suggests LG fall behind competitors when it comes the battery at this price range.
Verdict & Value
At a retail price of $259, the Tone Free’s are $150 less expensive that Apple’s widely reference Airpods Pro. And I think they do more than enough to balance that cost with value. Meridian’s hard work on the LG Tone Free app is key to this, offering enough flexibility in performance so users can dial in the exact sound signature they want for the reasonably powerful drivers. You won’t be getting perfect balance, and they make less sense when the best sounding buds on the market – Sony WF-1000XM3 – are currently only $20 more, but it’s hard to discount what LG has done here.
Throw in the hygienic factor and these are undoubtedly the best choice for anyone that wants to share earbuds amongst family members or friends, or anyone who just wants to make sure their personal listening device is free of any potential bacteria at all times. Although do note that what kills staph and e.coli bugs, won’t work as reliably when it comes to COVID-19 – although it’s still better than nothing.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: UVNano case is a nice, unique touch; very comfortable fit; EQ is very flexible and can find a way to satisfy even the most critical of listeners; can customise the onboard controls.
Lowlights: As good as the sound is, there’s better at this price point; stem design not for everyone.
Review based on unit supplied by LG.