Yes, Lenovo Makes Earbuds — and They’re Better Than I Expected

Yes, Lenovo Makes Earbuds — and They’re Better Than I Expected
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Wait, Lenovo makes wireless earbuds? I felt silly about this gap in my knowledge after spending years reviewing the company’s laptops. Curious about what the PC maker could achieve in the audio space, I jumped on the chance to test its Smart Wireless Earbuds, which — and here comes another revelation — aren’t the first from the brand.

Where the previous effort was a basic pair that cost $US50 ($69), the Smart Wireless Earbuds add noise cancellation and the ability to connect to multiple devices simultaneously, among other perks. At $US100 ($139), they are twice as expensive but fit nicely within the “affordable ANC” price bracket alongside the 1More ComfoBuds Pro, Nothing Ear (1), and Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro. As such, Lenovo is aiming for these to be a more affordable alternative to the AirPods Pro ($US250 ($347)), Sony WF-1000XM4 ($US280 ($389)), and other flashier models.

Having the latest features does only so much to help these stand out in a suffocatingly crowded field. After using the Lenovo buds for the past few weeks, I’m not convinced they do anything thing better than the competition. Still, the Smart Wireless Earbuds are a good value at $US99 ($137) — and potentially a great one if you can find them on sale.

Lenovo Smart Wireless Earbuds

WHAT IS IT?

A $US99 ($137) pair of wireless earbuds with ANC from PC maker Lenovo

PRICE

$US100 ($139) but can be found on sale for $US80 ($111)

PROS

Comfortable to wear for several hours; Connect to two devices simultaneously; Great call quality; Long battery life; Robust companion app with EQ; Decent sound quality (see Cons)

CONS

Chunky, uninspired design; ANC doesn't do much to block out ambient noise; Treble can sound harsh

Searching for an identity

Where the previous models had a compact circular shape requiring deep insertion, the new Smart Wireless Earbuds have the stemmed design made popular by Apple’s AirPods. Lenovo sent me the black versions (they also come in white) which have matte gunmetal grey on the outside of the stems and a black interior. They would look nearly identical to Anker’s Soundcore Liberty Air 2 (and the many other competitors) if not for some aggressive angles.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/GizmodoPhoto: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

The same goes for the case, which is just as much a clone of everything else on the market. Where the previous models had a unique casket-shaped (sorry for the dark imagery) sliding case, the Smart Wireless Earbuds case is a rounded rectangle that opens like a trunk. The case is all black — down to the invisible Lenovo logo on the top. Lenovo has done a fine job of sculpting a design language across its laptops, but I don’t see the same thing happening with these earbuds. The styling here is anonymous, easily lost in the sea of wireless buds you can buy on Amazon. Hopefully, Lenovo can land on a signature look, and hopefully, it’s more unique and less clunky than this one — oh, and while we’re at it, let’s think of a more memorable name.

At least the Smart Wireless Earbuds are comfortable. They’re so lightweight, at 4.5 grams (AirPods Pro are 5.6 grams), that I quickly forgot about them as I buried myself in work. Like other earbuds with stems, these rest gently on the lower part of the ear (the intertragal notch, if we’re being snobby) and the silicon tip timidly enters the outer ear canal. The bulb-shaped casing is rather large, though, and I could feel light pressure against my concha. For that reason, they aren’t quite as pleasant to wear as the AirPods.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/GizmodoPhoto: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Included with the Lenovos are four ear tips in various sizes (SS, S, M, L), which should accommodate most folks. My wife, who has trouble finding earbuds that fit her tiny ear holes, said the SS (small small) silicone tips kept the buds secure with minimal pressure. She even did a 40-minute Peloton ride without them falling out. For me, the mediums fit great, and not even a headbanging session to my favourite childhood emo rock band Rise Against could set them ajar.

When I took them to a climbing gym, only a failed dyno made them fall out. They did, however, start to come loose as I clung upsidedown to an overhang so I’m not sure I’d trust them on a run. They also started slipping once sweat entered the equation, but at least their IPX4 water resistance rating (they’re splashproof) reassured me that they wouldn’t crap out. To be clear, these aren’t the first earbuds I’d grab for fitness — that’s a two-horse race between the wonderful Jabra Elite Active 68 T and Beats Fit Pro — but the Lenovos will do just fine for the occasional sweat-breaking Yoga session.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/GizmodoPhoto: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

I have no qualms with the charging case nor do I have much praise to heap. It’s a black squircle with three white LED battery indicator lights on the front edge. On the back is a USB-C charging port, but if you’re living a wire-free life, the case supports Qi wireless charging. If I had a bone to pick, it’s with the size of the case. It’s not large, per se, but it is considerably taller than the AirPods Gen 3 case and didn’t feel comfortable in my semi-skinny jeans, which means it definitely won’t squeeze into the sad excuse for a pocket on a women’s pair of jeans.

Multi-device pairing, hooray!

Pairing the buds to my laptop and phone was a cinch, and with the multipoint feature, I could keep them connected to both devices simultaneously. I think I might have thrown my fist up in celebration when the buds automatically re-connected to my Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio and Google Pixel 6 after they’d disconnected. I’d go as far as to say that these are about as good as it gets from outside Apple’s garden wall — with one caveat: multipoint only supports pairing to two devices.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/GizmodoPhoto: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Getting back to the initial pairing process: connecting these is as easy as lifting the lid on the case and holding a circular button for three seconds. That action puts the buds into pairing mode so you can choose “Lenovo PS-1551B” from your Bluetooth settings. Bluetooth 5.2 connectivity from the buds to my Pixel 6 and Surface Laptop Studio was strong. The connection didn’t stutter when I awkwardly stood in the corner of my apartment facing the wall.

My tinnitus and I aren’t fans of the whole “push the plastic piece into your ear” thing, but the touch controls on these buds are sensitive enough to where a gentle tap registers an input. That’s good and bad. On the one hand, my sensitive inner ears were saved from having a nozzle plunged into them; however, there were instances where a single tap was registered twice, causing the song to skip forward instead of pausing.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/GizmodoPhoto: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

I also encountered a delay between the moment I tapped the outside of these buds and the silly bubble-popping sound that alerts you when that action registers. When this happened, I would try again, only for the buds to register all of my attempts. And finally, I wish the surface area of the touch controls was larger — your finger has to land right on the top of the stem to get these to take action. I don’t want to sound too harsh because the controls work fine most of the time, but those one-in-10 misses can infuriate.

The touch controls handle playback with one tap (on either bud) for pause/play, two taps for the next song/answer or end a call, and three taps to go to the previous track. A long press on the left bud rejects a call or brings up the voice assistant while a long tap on the right bud turns ANC on or off. These take some time to remember but felt intuitive once I got the hang of things. If you forget these gestures, the Lenovo Smart Wearable app (more on this later) lets you view and custom them.

High Lows and Low Highs

Driver size is often a useful measuring stick for sound quality, and Lenovo’s 11-millimetre dynamic drivers are among the largest in their class, matching those on the Nothing Ear (1) and $US249 ($346) Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus. But developing a balanced sound signature is much more nuanced than using the biggest equipment available, and these Lenovo’s inconsistent performance proved as much.

Weak bass, the usual Achilles’ heel of wireless earbuds, wasn’t the culprit this time. Rather, the Smart Wireless Earbuds delivered a satisfyingly weighty low end but struggled to tame peaky treble tones on certain tracks. During the chorus of The Killers’ classic “Mr. Brightside,” the overlapping guitar twangs and cymbal smashes muddied into a messy cacophony of shill tones that punished my sibilant-sensitive ears. I was relieved switching over to the AirPods 3 and Jabra Elite 68 T, which did a better job of rounding down those high notes.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/GizmodoPhoto: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

To a lesser degree, those sharp treble sounds could be heard on other rock and alternative tracks like in the pitter-patter of the drums in Still Woozy’s “Kenny,” the funky electric tones in slenderbodies’ “mirror,” and the closing crescendo in Frightened Rabbit’s “I Wish I Was Sober.” In a rather surprising twist, the Smart Wireless Earbuds performed best on songs with deep bass rhythms. I’d grab these Lenovos before the AirPods 3 when listening to the aggressive, rhythm-driving sub-bass thud of Jay Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” or even the subtle, soft tapping in Tora’s “In Deeper.”

Fortunately, most of the Smart Wireless Earbuds’ sonic shortcomings can be corrected using the Equaliser feature in the Smart Wearable app. Here, you can choose from six presets, one of which gives you manual EQ controls. Switching between these — Extra Bass, Natural, Vocal, Jazz, Treble, and Custom — alters the sound signature significantly. The default “Natural” setting wasn’t always the best choice — I preferred Mr. Brightside on the “Extra Bass” setting, even with its wobbly low end.

M&D MW07 Plus, Jabra Elite 68 T, Lenovo Smart Wireless, AirPods Gen 3, Surface Earbuds (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)M&D MW07 Plus, Jabra Elite 68 T, Lenovo Smart Wireless, AirPods Gen 3, Surface Earbuds (Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo)

I had an admittedly random selection of earbuds at my disposal, and overall, Lenovo’s Smart Wireless Earbuds landed somewhere in the middle for sound quality — ahead of the 1More ComfoBuds (not pictured above) but behind the M&D MW07 (remember, they’re $US300 ($416)!) and Jabra Elite 68 T — but again, this is genre-dependant.

ANC, Call Quality, and Battery Life

The active noise cancellation is not effective. It reduces ambient noises like the sound of a heater or AC hissing in the background or the drone of an aeroplane engine played through a speaker (damn pandemic), but only minimally. Those low tones were still audible, just not as present as before. Everything else, from people speaking to a TV playing in the background, is essentially ignored — mids and high tones are slightly dampened but not enough to notice. Also worth mentioning is that turning on ANC introduces a very slight hiss, though it’s not loud enough to hear when music is playing.

The Smart Wireless Earbuds do a better job of deliberately letting sounds in than keeping them out. Turning on ambient noise listening boosted the volume of everything around me and made me alert to my surroundings so I could safely use these outdoors or chat with my wife without removing them from my ears.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/GizmodoPhoto: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Everyone I spoke to said the six microphones on these buds made my voice sound clear. Eager to see what the fuss was about, I opened Audacity and recorded a short clip using the headphones before switching to the mics on my Logitech C920 webcam. I was shocked. The earbuds sounded so much clearer — it was as if I was speaking into a proper USB mic. Well done, Lenovo.

The combined battery life of the buds and case is 28 hours with the buds lasting for seven hours on a charge during audio playback and the case carrying another 21 hours of juice. Video or phone calls drop the runtime of the buds to 4.5 hours. Lenovo doesn’t specify, so we can assume this is with ANC off (I reached out and will update once confirmed). Turn on noise cancellation and those runtimes will drop some. Regardless, those are excellent numbers, particularly the seven-hour runtime of the buds, which tops the Nothing Ear (1) by an hour and embarrasses the AirPods Pro (five hours).

Should I buy the Lenovo Smart Wireless Earbuds?

Lenovo’s Smart Wireless Earbuds were better than I had anticipated considering I’ve never been hugely impressed with the sound quality of its laptops. Most people will find these comfortable and you get just about every modern feature, including noise cancellation, wireless charging, and customisable EQ settings, all at an agreeable price. The six microphones sound great for phone and video calls, and the ability to connect to multiple devices simultaneously is a handy feature that’s notably absent from competitors.

Photo: Phillip Tracy/GizmodoPhoto: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

There is room for improvement. While comfy, the design is clunky and uninspired — which means these will likely fall under the radar. Also, while the 11mm driver can sound good, they struggle with certain genres, and the active noise cancellation is so weak that it might just be worth keeping it off to conserve battery life.

So, should you buy them? That’s a tough question to answer because it’s beyond anyone’s reach to compare the innumerable wireless earbuds options on the market. What’s clear is that the Lenovo Smart Wireless Earbuds offer a compelling set of features for only $US99 ($137). These are a good option if you’re on a budget, but if you value design or sound quality above all else, be sure to check out the Nothing Ear (1) and Sennheiser CX True Wireless.