No matter who you are or where you come from, I think we can all agree that 2020 has been, well, a massive dumpster fire. This can be credited to multiple things that have happened this year, one of the most prominent being the global pandemic that's thrown the entire planet for a curveball.
This has changed all of our lives in varying ways, including a heightened awareness of personal hygiene and cleanliness. We're washing our hands more often and longer than ever before, hand sanitizer is in every store you go to, and wearing face masks in public is the new norm. Given all of that, LG couldn't have picked a more perfect time to launch its new Tone Free true wireless earbuds.
These earbuds have built-in UV lights in the charging case, which according to LG, kill 99.9% of bacteria from your earbuds whenever they're placed inside. It's the perfect gadget for a post-COVID world, but ultimately, the Tone Free HBS-FN6 end up dropping the ball in the most fundamental way. The end result? An ingenious idea executed poorly.
At a glance
LG Tone Free HBS-FN6
Bottom line: The LG Tone Free couldn't be released at a better time. As our planet battles with an ongoing pandemic, there's something especially intriguing about true wireless earbuds with a bacteria-killing UV light built into the case. That, combined with a great design and flagship features, means these could have been the audio gadget to get in 2020. Unfortunately, the incredibly poor audio quality and steep price tag ultimately make the earbuds a really tough sell.
- Comfortable in-ear fit
- UV light kills 99.9% of bacteria
- Excellent companion app
- USB-C and wireless charging
- IPX4 water-resistance
- Terribly flat audio quality
- Doesn't have active noise canceling
LG Tone Free HBS-FN6 What I like
That's a fairly bleak intro, but there's actually a lot about the Tone Free HBS-FN6 that I like quite a lot. Let's start first with the design/build quality, specifically, the charging case.
The circular case has a distinct design from a lot of the competition out there, and thanks to the soft-touch plastic finish, it feels nice and grippy in the hand. Fingerprints and smudges are a bit too noticeable in direct sunlight, but that's a very minor complaint. You'll find a USB-C charging port on the back, an LED light on the front that shows the current charge status of the case, and the top lid locks into place when you open it.
You get all of this is a very compact form factor, with the Tone Free case being among the smallest of all the earbuds I own. It's not quite small enough to fit in the tiny coin pocket on my jeans, but there's certainly nothing big or bulky about it.
Talking about the Tone Free's case, we have to mention the elephant in the room — those UV lights. Right underneath the housing for the earbuds are lights that shine up into earbud tips that go into your ear, with LG referring to this as its "UVnano" technology. This setup is rated to kill 99.9% of bacteria found on the speaker mesh of the Tone Free earbuds. That may sound like a bunch of malarky, but ultraviolet lights have been proven to be extremely effective at killing bacteria of all kinds. This isn't an alternative for practicing regular hygiene like you already should be doing (especially since LG only calls out bacteria and not viruses), but given the world we currently live in, having a feature like this is really nice. Some users will place more value in it than others, but personally, I'm glad to see it.
As for the earbuds themselves, they take the shape of something like AirPods Pro: a short stem-like body with a glossy plastic finish. The Tone Free HBS-FN6 don't look all that special in pictures, but in my testing, I found them to be extremely comfortable to wear. They're lightweight, the customizable touch controls are easy to use, and they form a tight seal that allows for really good passive noise cancellation.
Using the Tone Free on their own is a pretty great user experience, but things get even better when you download the LG Tone Free companion app. There's a lot you can do in the app, including:
- See earbud battery status
- Change EQ settings
- Customize the Ambient Sound feature
- Re-map touch controls
- Lock touch controls
- Enable notifications from select apps
- Find your earbuds when lost
You can use the Tone Free HBS-FN6 and never touch the companion app if you don't want to, but I'd highly recommend it. It's a really clean app that's laid out nicely, has a ton of powerful features, and gives the Tone Free a nice edge over some of its competitors.
Rounding out the Tone Free HBS-FN6, you have things like an IPX4 water-resistance rating, the ability to automatically pause music when you take an earbud out of your ear, and up to six hours of continuous playback with another 12 hours provided by the charging case (for a total battery package of 18 hours).
LG Tone Free HBS-FN6 Where things fall apart
If all of that's so great, why did I phrase the into to this review the way I did? It all comes down to one crucial thing: audio quality.
After testing out a near-endless number of pairs of audio gear (specifically, true wireless earbuds), I've established a good understanding of what sounds good and what doesn't. The LG Tone Free HBS-FN6 most definitely fall into the latter of those two categories.
No matter what song I listen to on the Tone Free, it's played back lifelessly, with a narrow soundstage and very little dynamism. There's no soul or breadth to anything that I listen to. Bass is extremely weak even on the preset Bass Boost EQ profile, songs with lots of heavy guitar/vocals often turn into a muddy mess, and just about everything — from songs to podcasts — has a muffled quality to it.
These are all traits we'd typically expect with dirt-cheap earbuds you get from a random no-name seller on Amazon, but that's not at all what the Tone Free HBS-FN6 are. These are supposed to be premium earbuds from an established tech brand with Meridian audio tuning. That side of the earbuds is evident by the $150 asking price here in the U.S., but nothing about how the earbuds sound in day-to-day use comes close to justifying that cost.
LG Tone Free HBS-FN6 Competition
Unfortunately for LG, the disappointing audio quality of the Tone Free HBS-FN6 isn't helped by the seemingly endless competition that exists for wireless earbuds. Take the Pixel Buds as just one example. Andrew recently re-reviewed them after two months of regular use and gave them a nearly perfect 4.5-star rating. The Pixel Buds cost a little bit more than the HBS-FN6, but they offer an even better design, really great sound quality, and a plethora of smart features that only Google could create.
There are also the earbuds that have become my personal favorite, the Aukey Key Series EP-T18NC. Compared to the HBS-FN6, the T18NC deliver longer battery life, active noise canceling, and substantially better audio for even less money.
Should you be looking to spend less than half what the Tone Free cost, you can also get something like the TOZO T6. These are among my favorite cheap true wireless earbuds, seeing as how they sound great, offer wireless charging, IPX8 water-resistance, and long-lasting battery life at a seriously impressive price.
LG Tone Free HBS-FN6 Should you buy them?
Who they're for
- If you want bacteria-killing UV lights for your earbuds
- If you want earbuds with a powerful companion app
Who they're not for
- If you value good audio quality to even the slightest degree
- If you want to get much better earbuds for similar or less money
The LG Tone Free HBS-FN6 may be one of the most frustrating products I've ever reviewed. On so many levels, these are excellent earbuds. They're incredibly comfortable, the charging case is compact, you've got USB-C and wireless charging with long battery life, and the companion app gives you access to endless settings and features that further elevate what the buds can do. Tie all of that together with the timely UV light for killing germs, and this should have been a home-run.
As stated above, however, none of that really matters when something so fundamental — audio quality — is handled so poorly. These do not sound like $150 earbuds. Heck, they don't even sound like $50 earbuds. I really don't enjoy listening to music on the HBS-FN6, and that puts a damper on all of the things LG got right.
I'd be really interested in a gen-two model of the Tone Free HBS-FN6, but with the earbuds in their current form, I can't see myself recommending them to anyone. That's not the conclusion to this review I was hoping for, but that's what we've been dealt.
So close, yet so far
LG Tone Free HBS-FN6
Don't underestimate the importance of good sound
From the compact case, comfortable fit, and UV lights for eliminating germs/bacteria, a lot about the LG Tone Free works incredibly well. Unfortunately, all of those cool features and ideas don't mean much when the earbuds sound as mediocre as they do. For the price LG is asking for the HBS-FN6, you can do much better for similar or less money.
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