Essential Earphones HD review: $99 USB-C headphones that make the best of an awkward situation
USB-C headphones need a guiding light.
Essential is riding a mixed bag of press over the past 6 months, but you can’t argue it’s had a good run of being able to stay in the news cycle one way or another. Between sales, software news, and accessories, it’s the little company that just won’t quit. Its latest announcement is on the accessory front: the “Earphones HD” USB-C headphones, a $99 pair of in-ear buds sold directly on its website.
While my immediate reaction to Essential releasing a pair of $99 earbuds was “why don’t you focus on living up to the initial promises of your phone that you haven’t yet fulfilled,” I was willing to give them a try. After all, there’s an extreme shortage of good USB-C audio accessories out there today, and with the increasingly popular trend of companies (Essential included) not including headphones with their phones this category is becoming important for those who won’t cave and go to Bluetooth.
Here’s what Essential can offer USB-C headphone buyers for $99.
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As for the basics, things are very simple considering these are just in-ear headphones. The earbuds, USB-C connector and associated pieces are all a deep grey metal that feels suitably thick, and the cord is a silicone-coated tangle-free style. You get small, medium and large earbud tips along with a zippered hard case to keep it all tidy when you’re not using the headphones. There’s no branding or hallmark design touches on the earbuds, cord or carrying case, which is fine — I care far more about the headphones themselves being well made.
They’re basic, solid headphones — and they sound good for little earbuds.
Along the right earbud cord you get an inline microphone and multi-function button, which is for play/pause with a short press and summoning Google Assistant with a long press, which all works just fine. Unfortunately there aren’t volume control buttons, which is a bit of a bummer — you’ll find a volume rocker on a majority of wired earbuds and all Bluetooth headphones nowadays.
Now, let’s get to audio quality. No matter how much you pay, in-ear headphones are going to be extremely limited in their audio quality by their size. But Essential is doing things right here, with rather large 9.2mm drivers and USB Class 2 audio — that means it supports 24bit/192kHz playback, provided the device you plug them into also supports Class 2.
Yup, the earbuds sound good. To my untrained ears, they were clearly a step ahead of cheap pairs, but didn’t blow away other $50-something pairs I’ve used from the big names. Playing with the equalizer settings in Google Play Music I could crank up the bass without much distortion (and then promptly turned it back down), and I actually felt like the earbuds had a good range. Podcasts were predictably crisp. As ever, the headphone cord rustling on my clothes transferred so much noise when walking around with the earbuds that it really didn’t matter how good the actual earbud sound quality was — such is life.
The earbuds themselves are quite small and comfortable, which was somewhat surprising to me considering they don’t employ any sort of extra support, cushioning or ergonomic design elements. They’re just basic metal barrels with standard silicone tips on the end. My large ears were filled just fine by the default tips that came on the buds, and provide a little bit of passive noise cancellation in the process — though nothing on the same level as other foam-tipped and deeper earbuds I’ve tried.
The most impressive thing to me is that Essential has built USB-C headphones that “just work” in a way I haven’t come to expect from USB-C accessories. The Earbuds HD work the same plugged into my Essential Phone as they do my Google Pixel 2 and HTC U11 (a notoriously finicky phone for this) — my MacBook Pro even recognizes them right away as a USB audio accessory. Finally, a pair of USB-C headphones I can actually rely on.
If you’re determined to go wired without an adapter, these are a great pair of headphones at a reasonable price.
At first I balked at the $99 pricing of the Essential Earphones HD. But after browsing the extremely small number of USB-C headphone options out there, seeing price tags at or above $99, I kind of understand it. Essential has made a pair of earbuds that sound good, are well made, and most importantly follow USB-C standards to work across a variety of devices. In a market that’s months (years?) away from being crowded, it can comfortably charge $99 as it really doesn’t have much competition.
There are inherent shortcomings to USB-C headphones, but taking that as a given, the Essential Earphones HD make the best of an awkwardly bad situation. If you want to stick with wired headphones on your headphone jack-less phone without resorting to adapters, these are a great pair.
The real question is how many people are actually considering USB-C headphones. You can find really solid pairs of traditional 3.5mm earbuds for $20-50 and use them with a USB-C adapter, and just as easily find great Bluetooth headphones for $50-100. Essential itself makes the “Earphones Mini” with very similar design to the HD model for half the price, $49 — and perhaps those are the pair that potential buyers in this segment should be considering most often.
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