Everybody wants truly wireless earbuds these days. And every company seems to be producing them, to various results. Anker's take was with launching its sister brand Zolo, through a Kickstarter campaign to which I was one of the lucky Super Early Bird backers. The promise was for superior quality buds with unbreakable conection - their words.
The first thing to notice on the Liberty+ is the box. Anyone used to the standard white and blue box Anker uses with most of its products will be impressed with the Liberty+ box. It's overly nice, with fine details such as the thick carton with magnetic clasp and the plastic interior cover which allows for viewing the product without properly opening the box. All this has a clear goal: retail stores. Anker's white and blue box are completely fine when you sell only through Amazon or your own website. People go there for the product quality and specifications, not a nice box. Things change when you have to put it on shelves. The box has to pop, and this one certainly does. It even has the classic shelf hook on top, proof that it was designed with retail shelves in mind.
Inside the nice box, after you remove the foam tray with the buds themselves and the charging case, you are treated to a collection of tips and jackets in another clear plastic covered nest, and the traditional pull-out box with cables and manuals. They kept yet another surprise in the form of the yellow braided Zolo branded charging cable. All the quality we came to expect from Anker products is visible there as well. The Anker customary "Happy?" card also comes in Zolo yellow. I've tried the buds without connecting them, and it was maybe the best course of action, as I realized I would need to change the tip and maybe also the jacket.
The tip goes off and on as virtually every other earbud. The jacket, though, has an incredibly tough grip on the buds, making them hard to come off and to put on - which is good, you don't want the unit coming off the jacket during use. But, instead of following their recommendation to fully charge the buds first, I would recommend you try them on, so you can change the tips and jacket right away. You might take some time to get the jacket right, since it has to stay aligned with the charging plugs and don't have any air pockets to avoid ripping. The second jacket was easier to put on, maybe because I was already expecting some resistance. Since you, hopefully, only have to change jackets once, it's not much of a trouble.
Now for the juicy part - after all, nobody came here to read about boxes and jackets. The buds fit nicely in my ears after I got the tip and jacket right. It fits better in my left ear than on my right, but it's more because of my faulty anatomy than the buds - I have the same problem with all silicone-tipped buds. That's not to say they are loose on my right ear, they aren't. But I feel the one on my left would stay in place even if I was run over by a car or something - I hope I never have to test this hypothesis. The Liberty+ shields you from exterior sounds as well as any passive noise canceling earbuds, if you get the right tip for your ear. If anyone ever used one of those silicone ear plugs, the effect is about the same. And then, you start playing music, and it's everything you could hope for. They sounded better than I was expecting. To compare properly, I played the same song through a set of wired Sennheiser buds, and the Liberty+ held its ground. I'm no audiophile, but I could distinguish between instruments in the song and hear clearly the singer's voice. Using the companion Zolo Life app, you can adjust the equalization to five presets. For the type of music I listen, the last one, Balanced, was the best. But, of course, this is a personal choice. Other than EQ, however, there's not much use for the app other then eventual firmware updates.
You can perform a series of commands using the single button on each of the buds. I feared pressing the buttons would displace the buds, causing them to go deeper in my ears, but it was not the case; you can press them gently enough for them to work without noticing much of a change in the buds fit. A single tap pauses/resumes the song and answer/end calls. That's the easy part. A double tap calls your voice assistant - in my case, Siri on my iPhone 8. No problems there also. Siri could hear me just fine without me raising my voice. Then there's the more complicated presses: a 1-second-long press on the right bud skips to the next track, and on the left goes back to the previous track. I could go back to the beginning of the track with the left bud - it would require another "go back" command to actually go to the previous track, as with all other earbuds - but I had a hard time advancing to the next track, which took me into day two and some hit-and-misses to really get the hang of. I had more success with another long-press command, the Transparency: a three-second-long press on either bud will allow external sound to your ears. That one was fairly easy to master, but there's a learning curve to keep in mind.
Pairing was easy, nothing to talk about. The connection between the buds is indeed strong, rarely breaking in the three days I've been using it. It might just be my imagination, but even in just three days it seems that the connection gets more reliable over time. When I call Siri, she responds only in the right bud, and when the music comes back, it starts playing in the right before the left catching on. It's a minor thing, but it's noticeable. Once you pair it the first time, opening the case will connect it again with the last device you paired with - given that it is within range, of course. Fun fact: in the first day, I was so eager to continue my testing when leaving work that, after placing the buds in my ears and press the button to start playing, to no response, I realized I had forgotten my phone on my desk. The buds connected when I got close enough without the need for putting them in the case again - it was a short time, I believe they'll turn off automatically after a few minutes without connection.
The Transparency feature is almost a gimmick. It turns the microphones on, so you are just listening to a "broadcasting" of the sounds immediately around you. It's a low-quality, unbalanced version of the sounds your brain would automatically filter. Typing this review on my mechanical keyboard I've put them on and turned on Transparency. The key strokes are about as loud as they are without the buds, but in a different pitch. So you are listening to an artificialized version of the world. The Liberty+, as mentioned before, cancel exterior sound as better as any passive noise canceling earbud, which is to say that it dampens exterior sound without ever truly blocking it. Once music is playing, it's true you probably won't hear much of the outside - though loud noises will still come through, and if you pay attention you'll notice changes in ambient sound when going from inside to the outside and vice-versa. For me, this is a non-issue. I try not to listen to music too loud because I want to keep some exterior sound coming.
Call quality is OK. It had less volume than the music but is still clear. The person on the other side hears you well, tough they mentioned the voice got a little robotic at times - from what I could gather, when I moved farther from there phone. It's a bummer that the calls, like Siri feedback, comes only trough the right ear. I would like to understand why this choice. One of the best things about answering a call with earphones is hearing with both sides. But, again, minor inconvenience. In my SoundBuds IE20 I can hear on both ears, but call quality is really bad - tough music sounds good, go figure.
The buds have a protecting mesh right in the middle of the tip that I fear will catch some earwax with use. Still, it seems better than the unprotected hole most earbuds have.
The charging case also exudes quality. It's smaller than I expected - regardless of seeing numerous photos in diverse contexts - but just as light as I imagined. Returning the buds to the case is easy - there's a magnet pulling the buds to the right place - and it fits nicely on my bag. I wish I could get a better sense of how much charge is there on the case, though. There're three small LEDs on the front to indicate it, but no way to check how much charge you actually have on the case - you can check the buds themselves on your phone. The case illuminates the LEDs when you open it and when you put the buds back in. It's no deal-breaker - in fact, it won't bother most people.
The big issue with any truly wireless earbud is, of course, battery life. This being an Anker product, you can expect great battery life, if you keep in mind the product's limitations. No true wireless earbud, to date, lasts longer than a couple of hours while listening. If you expect to put the Liberty+ on - or any other true wireless earbuds - and expect to run for five hours without emptying the battery, I have two things to tell you: 1. Congratulations. Running for five hours straight is quite an accomplishment! Keep on doing that. 2. You need either other type of earbuds or a more realistic approach to wireless. You can probably get through your typical 1-2 hours gym session without a problem. You can get through your daily commute after said gym session without issue. The buds themselves carry enough juice for a 3.5h listening session, and the charger case can provide juice for about 13 of those sessions. That's the promise. I haven't tested it exhaustively - I wish I had the time for a 3.5h music listening session - but in my case, for my use, the promise is kept. After the first time of use - when I abused it testing functions - the buds went from 100% battery to 93%. After my first commute, it went down to 80%. It was at 100% again by the end of the day from the charge provided by the case, and at 87% when I got home in the first day. Similar numbers showed up during my three-day testing, during which I haven't charged the case. I have a commute of about 30 minutes going to work, and about 1h going home - I usually do some grocery/drugstore shopping on the way home. Every time I wanted music in my ears, I had it. That said, I intend to charge the case every other day simply to not risk being without juice on the go.
There is an interesting issue, not with this particular product but, I believe, with all truly wireless earbuds, and it's not tech-related, but rather cultural. It's weird not to remove the buds when talking to someone you met on the street, or to a cashier, but at the same time once you remove them you don't really have where to put them for a short amount of time, and keeping them in your hands while you pay for something isn't really ideal. Eventually, people will catch on to the concept and realize you can hear them fine once you turn the music off. But there's no real way to be sure the person turned it off, and I'm aware of it as the person wearing the buds, so my instinct is to remove them and don't know what to do with them after. Still, having actual functioning truly wireless earbuds fells like the future.
The Liberty+ will retail for 149$ US, about the same as Apple's AirPods. If you got a great deal being a Kickstarter backer, you got effectively more than you paid for. But at that price iPhone users would be tempted to buy Apple's instead - I'n not aware of any other brand that keeps the promises the Liberty+ delivers at this price point. Keep in mind, tough, that Anker has deals all the time, so you can expect to find the Liberty+ for less than that if you have the patience. If you are in the market for truly wireless earbuds, the Liberty+ will be a great choice once it hits shelves - I'm aware of the Zolo Liberty, which lacks some of the functionality and offers less battery on the charging case, and is thus cheaper.
All in all, the Liberty+ is a great product, with its faults but also with some room to grow. Expect the technology to advance quickly as truly wireless buds become more ubiquitous, and expect Zolo to be riding on the edge of it.