When OnePlus announced the Bullets Wireless Z earlier this week, we already knew we were in for a new generation of the company’s neckbuds. And perhaps the most compelling thing about them is the price: they’re just $50 (free if your pre-ordered a OnePlus 8 or 8 Pro), and you can probably expect the same respectable sound and strong battery life previous generations have offered. But in 2020, neckbuds are decidedly not the kind of audio accessory befitting a $900 smartphone: it’s true wireless or bust, OnePlus, and everyone knows it.
While the neckbud design does offer a few advantages like longer battery life, a much lower likelihood of getting lost, and more affordable pricing, the advantages of true wireless buds—comfort, convenience, portability, and, frankly, style—are now too great for any company in the personal audio space to ignore. Given that, the Bullets Wireless Z just seem out of step with the times.
I was early to advocate for the true wireless earbud, and was fully converted when I tried the original Bose SoundSport Frees back in 2017, even if they had some real dealbreaking flaws. I’ve never gone back to any kind of corded audio solution when using my smartphone or laptop since: if I’m not wearing my ANC over-ear headphones, I’ve got a pair of Jabras or Galaxy Buds+ in. And while I agree in principle that a market for wire-tethered-wireless earbuds like the Bullets Z exists, I also strongly believe OnePlus’ accessory portfolio demands a true wireless solution if it’s going to stay in the personal audio game.
What could OnePlus bring that others haven’t to this space? The same thing the Bullets have from day one: a high quality, fully featured white label Chinese product with a small markup that significantly undercuts other players in the space. In short, OnePlus’ wireless earbuds should seek to disrupt the market, offering superior performance to the super cheap true wireless buds all over Amazon and Aliexpress, while missing out on relatively little when compared to higher-end brands like Google, Jabra, and Apple. At a target MSRP of $100, I imagine OnePlus could find a manufacturing partner who could do just that, and probably make them halfway decent looking, to boot.
One feature OnePlus could capitalize on, for example, would be full left and right independent operation. Right now, most TWEs not made by Apple are only able to use one earbud, typically the right one, in standalone mode. The cost of making both support independent connectivity is probably just a matter of being willing to eat a few extra dollars on every pair sold, something many personal audio companies are loathe to do. Similarly, licensing ANC technology would result in marginal loss of profit (and again, is something some brands are unwilling to do, since it undercuts their much pricier over-ear ANC headphones), but act as a substantial feature upsell even against premium options like the standard Airpods or Google’s new Pixel Buds 2. Wireless charging in the case—which, as an aside, is basically built for the OnePlus 8 Pro’s reverse wireless charging—would be a no-brainer. And given OnePlus’ newfound love of IP ratings, some heavier duty gaskets for durability would be a few cents well spent. I bet OnePlus could even design its own one-touch pairing system that would at least be workable for its own smartphones.
All in all, my point here is that there are clearly very good reasons for OnePlus to be getting in on the true wireless earbud game. It’s an area with tons of players, but none of which have truly cemented themselves as the default, go-to recommendation for Android phones. While AirPods have a lock on the iOS market, I feel confident in saying that, while there are some pretty solid TWEs out there for our favored smartphone platform, none stand head and shoulders above the rest right now. There’s absolutely room for someone to come in here and change the game, reset expectations, and make the incumbent players rethink what is and isn’t a “must-have” feature.
The OnePlus 8 Pro’s built-in wireless charging give me hope OnePlus knows that this is the case, and perhaps the true wireless Bullets of our dreams are just a work in progress. But right now, as nice as the Bullets Wireless Z look for fifty bucks, they still look like a product from five years ago. Times have changed, and it’s time for the Bullets to change with them.