Bluetooth headphones can be a life saver, as long as you know which one fits your needs.
It may hard be to take $100 Bluetooth headphones seriously when you know what $100 in wired headphones can get you these days, but there are plenty of folks out there today who need that portability in order to get their audio fix throughout the day.
Fortunately for these users, there are several options in this price range that both look nice and pack some interesting features. The somewhat unflattering name "neckbuds" stands out as the popular name for this category, due to the ability to hang the hardware around your neck all day and have Bluetooth headphones whenever you need them.
We're talking today about the Samsung Gear Circle, the LG Tone Infinim, and the recently released Moto Surround neckbuds, and while you can't go wrong with any of the three we're going to take a look feature for feature and see which one stands out in the crowd.
Comparing Neckbud Designs
The core of these neckbuds is the ability to stay on your neck all day, so you can just reach for the buds and put them in your ears when you want some music. To do that, the headphones need to be easily accessible when you want them and out of the way when you don't. As a secondary feature, being able to vibrate when you have an incoming call or an important notification is cool.
LG's design is by far the most practical. The Tone Infinim buds hide inside the casing when you need them, and the design allows you to retract them with a button press when you don't. This means the cables are never in your way, and you only have the pull the cable out as far as you need to reach your ear instead of having a bunch of cable to get caught on something when moving around a lot. Unfortunately, this also means the casing that hangs around your neck is a little on the chunky side when compared to Samsung and Motorola's offering. Still, retractable cables are a pretty big deal.
Samsung's Gear Circle looks like it would be the most lightweight, but there's something the promo pictures you see don't tell you about this design.
Motorola opted for a design that lays flat against your neck, with flat cables that magnetically connect to the ends of the plastic "U" shape around your neck. The magnets are more than enough to keep the buds in place in normal movement, but if the cables get caught on something the ends disconnect quickly. If the cables didn't stick straight up from their side mounting positions, this design would be subtle enough to keep under a button up shirt without anyone knowing you had neckbuds at the ready for a music fix, but they do so you can't. It's a great look, but the cables need some better management.
Samsung's Gear Circle looks like it would be the most lightweight with a design that is the easiest to hide under a shirt or something, but there's something the promo pictures you see don't tell you about this design. The block of plastic in the back of this circular design, which holds the battery, moves all over the place unless you use the clear plastic holster, which completes the rigid neckbud look Samsung was trying to avoid. The earbuds themselves magnetically connect to one another, with control buttons on the sides for playback and call answering. At first glance it looks like a clever design, but that tacky clear plastic piece is a requirement for long-term comfort and ruins the whole look.
One of the big things that helps these neckbuds stand out is the use of the APT-X audio codec, which compresses the audio in a way that can lead to better sound than your average Bluetooth audio connection. It means there's less quality loss in transmission, but the headphones themselves still have to have quality parts in them to take those bits and turn them into decent sounds. For our tests, each of the three neckbuds were connected to a Samsung Galaxy S6 edge and an HTC Nexus 9 and subjected to identical samples of music, movies, and games.
Were it not for that background noise, Moto Surround would produce the most complete sound.
The Tone Infinim buds deliver a nice clean sound, with reasonable mids and highs and very little of the background noise so commonly associated with bluetooth audio. Lows aren't quite as good, and as you might expect with earbuds like these there's almost no bass at all. It's fantastic for spoken word or instrumental, but you'll notice something missing with most popular music.
Motorola nailed the bass with its Surround offering, but it comes at a price. There's background fuzz, that almost static-like sound so commonly associated with Bluetooth audio, in everything you listen to. It's not something most folks would notice when listening to music, but stands out clearly in spoken word and instrumental as something that doesn't belong. Were it not for that background noise, these headphones would produce the most complete sound of all the neckbuds used today.
Samsung's offering with the Gear Circle is alright, but doesn't really do anything particularly well. These buds aren't particularly loud, but that also means there's practically no distortion at the highest volume, which is nice. It's a decent sound for Bluetooth earbuds, which means lows exist but are kind of muddy, and mids and highs are a little on the flat side. They get the job done, but compared to LG and Motorola it's hard to say the Gear Circle does anything special.
Each of these neckbuds offer more than just audio. Communication with your phone or tablet is enhanced by an app, and each of these manufacturers opt for different features in their companion app.
LG's Tone and Talk app makes it easier to pair to the Tone Infinim, and gives you control over notification and call settings from within the app. You can choose what notifications are spoken aloud and which apps are allowed to use the service, but this mostly applies to messaging and social networking apps. It's nice to be able to have your messaged read to you when you're working out, or if you're in a position that limits how frequently you can check your phone. The degree of control you have over speech type and speed is impressive, but ultimately it's the kind of thing you'll either use all the time or never bother with.
Moto Connect gives you a faster way to pair with Moto Surround, and once you're connected you have access to battery percentage and basic connection information. The app also gives you the location of the last place the phone was connected to the neckbuds on Google Maps in case you misplace your hardware. You got some basic control over spoken notifications from the neckbuds, but only for connection information and battery information. It's a simple app with basic information, but it looks nice and could really come in handy if you've already got the app installed when you lose your Moto Surround.
Samsung's Gear Manager app is used for all of the Gear accessories, but with a Gear Circle attached you gain access to battery level and some basic settings for audio quality and notification controls. You can adjust audio through an equalizer to change the audio coming from the Gear Circle, and the app will speak out notifications you have received, but often only the name of the app sending the notification. As nice as it is to know you've got an Amazon order ready for delivery, hearing "Gmail" and nothing else every few minutes is irritating. Fortunately the controls here are fairly granular. This setup is easily the best of the three, but being limited to Samsung phones and tablets only ruins that somewhat.
Measuring Battery Life
If your daily routine is such that having any music is more important than having the highest quality music, you may only be interested in the battery life of your neckbuds. That's a perfectly reasonable position to have, whether you're out hiking for a weekend or the daily grind includes a loud environment that you'd like to tune out by any means necessary.
The LG Tone Infinim promises 17 hours of talk time, 23 days of standby, or 14 hours of continuous music playback. In our tests, 10 hours of media playback got us to a low battery warning. That low battery warning continued for just over an hour before powering down.
The Moto Surround promises 15 hours of talk time, 30 days of standby, or 12 hours of continuous music playback. In our tests, 11 hours of media playback got us to a low battery warning. That low battery warning continued for two hours, but increased in frequency during the last 30 minutes and made listening to anything essentially pointless.
The Samsung Gear Circle promises 11 hours of talk time, or 9 hours of play time. In our tests, the Gear Circle loses 11 percent of battery every hour, with low battery warnings happening at 15 percent remaining.
And the winner is...
It's clear that you couldn't go wrong with any of these headphones, but if you're looking for the best overall experience the LG Tone Infinim are the way to go. Retractable cables more than make up for the added bulk, and the design is comfortable enough to be worn all day without issue. The audio quality is good enough, especially for Bluetooth, and you're going to enjoy the battery life these neckbuds provide.
If you're not sold on the Tone Infinim design or you care about slightly better audio, the Moto Surround should be your next stop. Not only are they cheaper than the LG Tone Infinim, but as long as you like the one color they come in these neckbuds have some style to them.
As for the Gear Circle, not only are these neckbuds the worst in battery and overall design, the sound just isn't that great. Considering these are also the most expensive of the three we're looking at today, it's hard to justify choosing these over the other two.