Skullcandy has long been a reliable brand when it comes to personal audio devices, but truly wireless earbuds are still a relatively new line for them with the original Push released in 2018.
This year, we’ve got the Push Ultra, sitting at at A$249.95, only slightly cheaper than the current price for Sony’s gold-standard WF-1000XM3 buds. The price means that Skullcandy would need to come up with something fairly spectacular to stand out in a hyper-competitive market, and unfortunately they haven’t.
The Push Ultra is a stark reminder of how important design is when it comes to earbuds, regardless of whether they are geared towards casual use or engineered for sports enthusiasts. One big compromise here can topple the other features like a deck of cards, and Skullcandy has taken such a risk by sticking with their Stay-Aware design.
The Stay-Aware design is the biggest point working against the buds, valuing situational awareness over sound to make them more outdoor-friendly. Cyclists, gym enthusiasts, and runners will certainly appreciate that, but the unsealed fit proves to big of a compromise here. The sound suffers massively as a result.
Much like the Powerbeats Pro, the Push Ultra is defined by its mouldable ear-hook design, well thought out to achieve a secure and comfortable fit. The problem is the rather bulky silicone-like buds that are angled so that they can’t enter the ear canal, resting just on the outside, which can press against the bone and cause fatigue over time.
On-ear controls are the same on either bud, given that you can go mono and listen to only one while the other is stored away. Volume, track navigation and power are the functions here, but oddly enough the first two are combined in the same button and can often be confused. The physical buttons are responsive but not overly sensitive, which is the ideal balance, but the functionality is overstuffed and relies too much on a specific amount of taps – one for playback, two and a long hold for preset EQs, and three for your preferred voice assistant.
Rather than feel intuitive and provide a seamless experience, the Push Ultra fumbles with these chunky rubberised buttons – it’s much easier to just control everything via your phone.
And speaking of your phone, the Skullcandy App is clean and easy to use, but disappointingly lacks in functionality. There’s no way to customise EQ, for example, relying too heavily on the grace feature – that being Skullcandy’s partnership with Tile.
The headline for these buds is that they feature Tile technology, so missing buds can be easily located. This is set up via the “Find My Earbuds” option in the app, and for all Push Ultra’s shortcomings, at least this works exceptionally well. I take great care of my buds and haven’t lost a single one to date, so I wasn’t able to recreate the stress of actually losing one, although I did test it multiple times and was able to track reliably even at a considerable distance.
A sturdy IP67 rating reiterates that these things are intended towards outdoor use, so sweat, water and dust should be shrugged off without issue.
While Skullcandy’s other, less expensive, earbuds come with a more traditional charging case, the Push Ultra opts for something that at least looks a bit more premium. That’s a large but nicely designed carry case with a zipper instead of the typical flip-open mechanism. Inside, the grooves and charging ports leave little option for how to fit the buds inside, with a very specific alignment necessary to slot them in properly.
The fact that the Push Ultra is only slightly less expensive than competitors with ANC, Skullcandy has run into a bit of a problem. I understand that they want to maintain situational awareness with the on-ear design, but it would have been much more efficient to just use mics and ANC technology so users have the option of choosing how much external noise they let in.
The decision to go with the design means that there isn’t much room for a great sound signature, with detail lacking in just about every department, most notably the low end. Bass is castrated to the point where I only really could enjoy more vocal-driven tracks like those by Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. That’s not ideal given that gym playlists would largely consist of more bass-heavy styles like EDM and hip hop. With no body, music sounds distant and loses all of its energy.
Bluetooth signal is choppy but strong, which isn’t ideal when you’re bopping up and down on a morning job. Although despite distortion, connection is sustained well on my tests with both a Google Pixel 4 XL and an Oppo Find X2 Pro. Calls benefit from this sturdiness, and although the mics aren’t impressively clear like some competitors, the Push Ultra does a great job at making calls clear for both inbound and outbound sound.
Said zippered charging case can take these buds to a total of roughly 35 hours of juice, which is certainly impressive and necessary for sports-geared earbuds. You won’t have to recharge the case very often, although without it the buds only last for around 6 hours. Charging is also quite fast, with the case able to juice playback to 2 hours in 10-15 minutes.
Verdict & Value
It’s tricky to recommend the Push Ultra at this price point. On one hand, for what it is, the designers have done an excellent job with shaping a sport-oriented pair of earbuds that will persevere through the elements. Plus, the Tile technology really is a nice touch, giving Skullcandy a necessary edge in the market. But the compromises on sound quality are just too much, especially when competitors like Jabra and Beats by Dre already achieve a fine balance between sports-friendly and great sound.
But hey, at least if you lose these buds, you can easily find them – the question is whether you’d want to or not.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Sturdy and easily moulded ear-hooks are unobtrusive; Tile technology works well; you can use one ear bud without the music pausing; Very resilient with IP67 rating; strong battery life when combined with the case; stylish charging case.
Lowlights: Massive hit to sound quality; can get uncomfortable over time; on-board controls can be easily confused; EQ can’t be customised via app; Bluetooth connection can stutter with rapid movement.
Available: Now (in True Black or Electric Yellow)
Review based on a unit supplied by Skullcandy.