Last year’s LG TONE Free buds were pretty good, but the emphasis was more on their UV cleaning gimmick than the sound quality. I actually can’t remember if they sounded any good, which is rarely a positive sign. This year’s LG TONE Free HBS-FN7 Wireless Earbuds continue the confusing and shouty name convention, but bring memorable, excellent sound quality at a relatively affordable price of $299.
The big features are active noise-cancelling, new spiral ear gels for better fit, Meridian-tuned spatial sound, a re-engineered audio unit for deeper bass, UV Nano lighting to kill bacteria, touch controls, IPX4 rating, 7 hours on-board battery life with an extra 14 in the case, and they’re small and light. You get the idea.
So, since true wireless earbuds and their non-repairable, non-replaceable batteries are everywhere, how do these compare to the rest? And did the designers achieve their goals?
When it comes to true wireless, the fit is almost more important than the sound quality. The best audio drivers in the world mean nothing if you can’t get them to stay in your ears, or they hurt. The new spiral ear gels actually make a real difference. I’ve been able to run and play the drums with these on with only the left feeling insecure (which is fairly standard for my ill-behaved ear canal). They’re comfy enough to wear for hours at a time, and light enough that I’ve occasionally forgotten they were there.
It’s also great how tiny the case is. I’m absolutely going to lose it, but it will also fit in the miniature pockets sewn into my women’s jeans until I do.
If you’re looking for the best noise-cancelling experience ever, you should not be looking at tiny true wireless headphones yet. Particularly not ones under $300 like the LG TONE Free. If you’re looking for “reasonably adequate, I guess” noise-cancelling, then these are definitely that. With them in and music on, I could vaguely understand what my wife was saying to me. When she tried to wear them, the fit wasn’t as good for her, and so she could hear me perfectly.
If there’s no music, the outside world is pretty clear, just with the volume slightly turned down.
This noise-cancelling is active in the way that I am actively considering cleaning my desk one day: it needs outside help and motivation to get the job done, and still doesn’t nail it most of the time.
This is where the LG TONE Free buds shine. The folks at Meridian are wizards, and while I know they’re not quite as involved in the production of these as would be optimal (which explains why they cost less than a house deposit), everything they touch sounds the best it can.
The bass truly is full. A song like ‘High In The Grass’ by Sleater-Kinney is sparse, and relies on the fidelity of the bass guitar to move it along, and I’m frankly shocked by how good it sounds on these.
The Marian Hill remix of ‘Same Soul’ by Pvris is another song that relies on bass and space, and these ear buds nail it. It doesn’t distort or get muddy on the low tones, while still allowing those high-pitched digital hi-hat notes to add brightness, with none of the details getting lost. Because the ANC on these buds is kinda pathetic, that also means that they don’t suffer from that hum that some ANC can get. So, those little meaningful silences before the bass drops get to lie, allowing for extra drama and impact.
It’s the same with Something For Kate’s cover of ‘Cardigan’, being a live track adds extra complexity to get the details, but it’s so immersive, and the details shine through so well that it feels like putting on a warm cardigan (heh).
Something more layered like ‘Heavy Lies The Crown’ by Conquer Divide is normally a big challenge for true wireless buds. The layering of the frantic double kick bass, crashing cymbals, multiple guitars and screamed vocals can be a bit much for other headphones. Interestingly, the TONE Free buds captured the feel of the verse far better than the brighter chorus, when usually I find it’s the other way around on headphones.
But on songs where there isn’t a bass line driving it, the rest of the music seems to be brought down a bit. ‘Dawn’ by Dario Marianelli just doesn’t have all the brightness that I’ve come to expect, it’s a touch darker in shade. ‘Black Roses’ performed by Clare Bowen emphasises all the low notes, with the higher strings, piano keys and brightness of the brushes on the snare pushed to the back.
It all sounds great, nothing is distorted, it’s just an EQ with a very different focus than I’m used to, which is changing the way I hear songs I’m familiar with, bringing out different details.
I wouldn’t recommend them to people who focus on classical, country or folk. But if detailed, driving bass is important to you, then I don’t think I’ve heard a better pair at this price point.
I should preface this by saying that the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency have released statements about their concerns with using UV to kill germs in a home setting, particularly when related to Covid. “Concerns include the variability of effectiveness of lamps and the potential to provide a false impression of safety if the intensity or duration of exposure is not sufficient to kill the virus. In addition to varying reliability, there are also serious health risks if skin or eyes are exposed to UVC light.”
That said, LG has made this product so that the UV light supposedly only does its thing when the headphones are charging in their case, the lid is closed, and the case is plugged in. I have no scientific proof that this light is actually doing anything to the headphones, but one person’s false sense of security is another person’s anxieties over germs lightly soothed.
As always, I hate the touch controls on these. Sometimes I just want to slightly adjust the ear bud without pausing the music and turning off ANC. I understand why they’re there, but I really can’t wait until we innovate past them.
The LG TONE Free app supposedly allows you to control settings, adjust the noise-cancelling, and check battery levels. I say supposedly because every time I open it, it tries to connect to the buds, opens too many permissions pop-ups, and then crashes, even after resyncing, deleting the app, reinstalling and restarting my phone. The app is a very nice idea in theory.
All up, these LG TONE Free HBS-FN7 headphones sound amazing on all the genres of music I usually listen to. There are some that I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for, but if you mostly listen to pop, rock, alternative, or those operatic songs where they go hard on the baritone, they’re great. $299 isn’t a small number of dollars, but looking at what else is out there, you’d be hard pressed to do much better in this form factor, at this price.