Surprisingly great sound • New form factor improves in-ear comfort
Lower battery life than previous model • Still no customization for iOS users
OnePlus Buds Z are an overall improvement over an already solid product, giving budget-minded folks in need of wireless earbuds an excellent option for the price.
There must be a sizable market for people who want to fool others into thinking they have AirPods because OnePlus has mastered the art of imitation.
Earlier this year, the OnePlus Buds surprised us with their ability to look, feel, and perform similarly to Apple’s regular AirPods at half the price. They were generally excellent for $80, but OnePlus is here to let you know it can go lower. Meet the OnePlus Buds Z.
This follow-up to the original OnePlus Buds brings a different physical design that looks a heck of a lot like AirPods Pro, and at a steep discount. At $50, one could reasonably assume the OnePlus Buds Z are too good to be true. Shockingly, that’s not the case. Budget-minded folks who want decent wireless earbuds should give the Buds Z a real look.
The Good: Surprising sound, improved comfort
OnePlus made a couple of striking physical changes between Buds and Buds Z. First up is the charging case, which is now so long that nobody could possibly mistake it for an AirPods case. Given how similar the older model’s case was to Apple’s product, this is a good thing even if the new case makes for a slightly more awkward fit in pants pockets.
By the way, the case works as you’d expect. The Buds Z charge while nestled inside it, and opening it will activate Bluetooth pairing if they aren’t already paired to a device. They also pair more quickly with OnePlus devices if you happen to own one of those. Putting the Buds back into the case after using them and closing it will shut them off and unpair them from your devices.
More relevant to everyday use is the new design of the earbuds themselves. They still have the same flat touch panel on the outside from before, but OnePlus redesigned the speaker so it narrows to a point and is covered by ear tips for a more snug fit in the ear. In other words, the OnePlus Buds Z are startlingly close to the AirPods Pro in appearance. The only thing they’re missing is active noise cancellation, but that probably won’t be available in sub-$100 earbuds for a while.
From a usability standpoint, the Buds Z aren’t strikingly different from their predecessor, with little in the way of standout new features. But the new design is a welcome change. I liked the previous Buds for what they were, but inserting hard plastic into your ear can get uncomfortable during long listening sessions, and it doesn’t always feel stable when you’re in motion. The regular AirPods had the same problem.
By imitating Apple’s improvements from the AirPods Pro, the OnePlus Buds Z are noticeably more comfortable and I never really felt the need to adjust them for stability’s sake. Once they’re in your ears, you can keep them there for hours at a time without noticing. All I ask for from wireless earbuds are two things: Don’t annoy me, and don’t fall out. And the OnePlus Buds Z obliged.
A $30 reduction in price for the successor to an already super cheap pair of earbuds means some things need to be cut. OnePlus started with the audio specs: The 13.4mm driver powering the original OnePlus Buds has been reduced to a 10mm equivalent for the Buds Z. Bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to earbuds, though, as the audio quality OnePlus squeezed into these $50 earbuds is way better than I expected.
They may not be at punching weight with some of the excellent (and expensive) headphones we’ve praised around here, but the Buds Z provide a deep sound that doesn’t flatten elements in chaotic, dense recordings. By that I mean they passed the “Rosalita” test I like to administer to earbuds and headphones. If a pair of earbuds can get through all seven minutes of Bruce Springsteen’s most off-the-rails song without erasing any of the big band nuances, it’s a success in my book. The OnePlus Buds Z pulled it off.
Sounds from across the spectrum come across as they should, with an appropriate amount of bass kick whenever necessary. The new seal around the speaker also helps keep outside noise where it belongs, especially since there’s no ANC here. I was able to enjoy music outdoors and inside noisy environments like grocery stores at around half volume because I didn’t feel like the cacophony around me was bleeding in.
The OnePlus Buds Z are genuinely impressive in this regard. Unfortunately, not everything is better the second time around.
The Bad: Downgraded battery, same iOS limitations as before
OnePlus managed to maintain great audio quality using a smaller driver size with the Buds Z, but the other major technical cut to reduce price is a little less great. The original $80 Buds were rated for seven hours of playtime on a single charge and up to 30 hours when using the charging case. For the Buds Z, those numbers have been whittled down to five hours on a charge and 20 hours with the charging case.
The battery life rating is consistent with my experiences with the Buds Z, so it’s not like OnePlus is lying. They’ll still last enough time to get you through a work day or two if you put them in the case while you don’t use them. Just expect to plug the case in (using a USB-C charger) once or twice a week so it doesn’t die on you.
That battery size isn’t despicable or anything, but it’s the one area where the Buds Z showcase why they’re so cheap. By comparison, the regular AirPods can get up to 24 hours and the $99 Skullcandy Push Ultra earbuds can get up to 34 hours, both with the charging cases factored in. Those comparisons aren’t necessarily damning, but the Buds Z are clearly inferior to the competition in terms of battery life.
Another area where the Buds Z can’t meet its peers is on-device controls. By default, all you can do is double tap the flat panel on the outer part of the earbuds to skip ahead or answer calls, or hold it down to reject calls or switch between paired devices. The only way to pause playback without doing it in your music player is by taking one bud out of your ears.
Making matters worse is that you can’t customize these inputs if you’re an iPhone user. The mobile app you have to install to customize double taps and install firmware updates is exclusive to OnePlus and Android phones. That’s no different from the older OnePlus Buds, but the lack of anything beyond bare minimum iOS support is a bummer.
There’s nothing fancy, revolutionary, or even evolutionary about the OnePlus Buds Z. This is an exceedingly normal pair of wireless earbuds that one could easily mistake for Apple’s high-end model at a very quick glance. That’s not criticism, though, as a $50 price point makes the Buds Z an enticing value for people who don’t need anything more than a way to listen to music and podcasts on the go.
I was genuinely taken aback by how good the sound quality is considering everything else about the Buds Z. On top of that, the new form factor is more comfortable for longer sessions than before. It’s a shame the battery life was reduced and the feature list is still pretty barebones for iOS users. But purely as a listening device, you’ll have a tough time finding anything better for $50.