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Every new bluetooth speaker, set of headphones and earbuds that I buy is met with the same confused, discontented face from my wife. Many of you, perhaps, think that constantly buying new audio stuff is a bit excessive…the best recent example I have is when describing to a coworker my ‘go-to’ headphones and earbuds for video conferencing, I listed off three or four different options. He of course called out the sheer number of headphones that I use regularly, which is the point at which, if my wife were listening, she would roll her eyes.
Each of those 4 options highlighted a particular area of performance: comfort, audio quality, noise-canceling or pass through, and microphone quality, and as I pointed out to him at the time, the best microphone quality would almost always win out the choice for the day. But, the priority of those different areas can change from call to call depending on my level of involvement, and so too may my choice of device.
Video conferences are the easiest example of a situation where the ‘best all around’ headphone or earbud performance would be desired because we live in an entirely different world now than we did a year ago. And, while I’ve said before (and will say again as many times as I can) that you should never set out to buy a pair of headphones expecting great microphone quality, there are a few outliers in the space that perform exceedingly well, but do so at a price (this is where names like Sony WH-1000XM4, Plantronics Voyager 8200UC, and Bose 700 might ring a bell). Those who have invested in these were perhaps more prepared than others for the pandemic.
Still, there are folks out there who refuse to shell out over $300 for a pair of headphones, and like my wife, they are arguably the more sane of all of us. That doesn’t mean, though, that the cost of entry to great-sounding audio and a quality microphone has to be so high…necessarily. There are plenty of lesser-know (but still relatively mainstream) brands out there that aim to do just that like JLAB and VModa. Another player in this space with a relatively limited product line is Mobvoi, who you may recognize more as a maker of Android Wear smartwatches (TicWatch) than consumer audio equipment.
Mobvoi released their TicPods free a couple of years ago as a budget competitor to the Apple AirPods, and have since released a couple of additional earbuds with a similar body style. And, at sub-$100 prices, they are compelling to say the least. In 2020, they followed their in-ear style headphones with a pair of over-the-ear headphones with active noise-canceling for $129. As an active user (and huge fan) of the Sony WH-1000XM3 (and now, XM4), I’m always on the lookout for the next great set of headphones. And, while I hardly ever assume that a budget pair of headphones will outperform those higher-end headphones (which, cynical or not, are priced the way they are for a reason), there is a part of me that always wonders—can it be done well for less?
This was the biggest motivator behind the purchase of these headphones (and a 30% off coupon that I had), so these $129 headphones came in under $100 after tax. The design and build fits this price tag well, with a mostly plastic body (even including the joints and accents, which may not be as durable as the metal alternative). In fact, the slide mechanism for size adjustment feels particularly cheap to me, and has seemingly useless number indicators along the band.
The headphones overall look a little chunky, but they have a good weight to them despite this. The cups fold inward which help them fit into the hard shell zippered case which is included, and the ear cushions are easily removed from the headphones in the event they need to be replaced. There is a wired connection as well, which can be used separately (without power) as standard headphones, or in conjunction with active noise-canceling. For charging, Mobvoi only could equip this with Micro-USB at the price, which at the price, I’m OK with.
It’s interesting, by the way, how few devices actually remain that I use regularly with anything other than USB-C connections…so when I need to fish out one of those cables, it’s always a bit awkward. Fortunately Mobvoi provides a cable with these headphones, although does NOT include a charging brick (which is OK, since you likely have a few hundred of them spread throughout drawers in your house like I do).
The onboard controls are relatively basic: there is a play/pause/answer/hang up button that doubles as a pairing button when held, volume up/down buttons that double as track back/forward buttons when held, and a noise-canceling control button that doubles as a power button. I like the utility of this, but there is one strange idiosyncrasy that puzzles me.
The volume ‘down’ button is toward the front of the headphones, while the volume ‘up’ is toward the rear. That alone seems backwards, but the volume down button doubles as the track forward button (not the track back button), which is even more confusing. The issue here is, using one button for more than one function is troublesome enough for someone who uses a few different pairs of headphones, but even more troublesome when the multiple functions being done with a single button don’t seem to be consistent with only a single product. Put another way: “up is forward, down is back” makes more sense to me than “up is back, down is forward;” and generally, the ‘forward’ button should advance the track forward. For Mobvoi—I think this is honestly something they just missed…or perhaps I’m just wrong.
But what about performance? Well, at a sub-$100 price tag after discounts, I didn’t have high hopes….which is good because, the noise-canceling performance is right in line with that price tag. For $130 retail, I’d like to see something a little better than what the TicKasa headphones offer, although I think part of the shortcoming of the noise-canceling performance is impacted by poor noise isolation. It’s possible, perhaps, that the easy removal of the ear cups creates gaps that allow in ambient noise that isn’t adequately canceled. This is further demonstrated when pressing inward on the headphones while wearing them; I noticed that reducing this gap through compression did help isolation and, in turn, cancelation of noise. If there is a place the noise cancelation shines, it is with lower frequency…but when I say “shines,” keep in mind that it is far from great performance.
Sound quality, on the other hand, couldn’t be more different from the performance of ANC. Straight out of the box, although they did come across pretty bass-heavy, I was shocked at the audio quality especially considering the lackluster ANC performance. In a totally unfair comparison, I got out my then go-to Sony WH1000-XM3 headphones and did some comparative listening to the same audio tracks on both sets of headphones, and found the TicKasa headphones to hold their own for what I would call ‘real world’ listening scenarios. At medium volume and lower, while I could detect a difference between the two (mostly notably a difference in sound stage), I was not at all upset at how the TicKasa headphones performed. In fact, sound quality in general for these headphones is good at low, mid and high frequencies—again, provided you don’t turn the volume up too loud. Anything over 50% volume cracks, pops and falls apart quickly.
The onboard microphones, which are limited in number and oddly positioned, are another area where expense was spared by Mobvoi. There is a dedicated mic along the top of each ear cup under the frame of the headphones, and a dedicated separate mic on the right ear cup for calls. Here is the reaction to the sound quality from a friend:
The audio on the receiving end of the headphones was bad. The sound was distant, muffled, and overall sounded like it was low quality. The worst part of it was that every time Jake talked there was a slight buzzing or ticking…as if you could hear whatever electronics that made up the microphone “working (Screeching)” to produce the sound.
And, when pressed further:
It was as if Jake was standing across the room talking through a Pringles can. The sound was distant, muffled, and had this horrible metallic rattle. I told him to never call me again on this mic.
Fortunately, we’re still friends…but to say the least, the microphone performance on these $130 headphones is, well, just about as good as you might expect—and totally in line with the ANC performance.
One nice feature here is the inclusion of Bluetooth 5, which provides for excellent range. In fact, while most of the headphones I’ve tested lately (and presumably, any future headphones) have been equipped with Bluetooth 5, it occurs to me that I’ll have to find a better way to test range—since my usual approach of starting a song from my phone in the second floor office and heading down to the basement, then waiting for degradation, never results in anything exciting. What is exciting (if we’re going to reminisce a bit) is that we don’t really have to deal with the Bluetooth issues of even a few years ago anymore, even on a more budget set of headphones like the TicKasa headphones from Mobvoi.
Mobvoi claims 30 hours of playback, which I can neither confirm nor deny—although there is no way on the headphones themselves to identify the remaining charge; you’ll have to rely on your device to provide that information.
Also worth mentioning, there is no app (at least right now). Mobvoi does have an app platform for many of its other devices, but that list doesn’t include the TicKasa headphones. But, no app means no equalizer, which I consider to be a minimum requirement for most headphones and earbuds (third-party options are available, though).
When it comes to comfort, the TicKasa headphones offer a mixed bag of results: the leather material is soft, the ear cushions are plush and overall the pressure along the jawline is mild-to-moderate. But, Mobvoi’s claims of “breathable mesh” and “All-day Comfort” don’t quite reflect reality…most notably, discomfort from heat/sweat and some wear fatigue along the crown make for a less-than-ideal wearing experience for longer sessions.
Overall, the TicKasa headphones are best summarized as “headphones that look budget and try to act like something more.” There are areas where they can certainly improve, although for the price you are getting relatively comfortable headphones that have a good weight (although, I think they could be a bit lighter). They sound good—unexpectedly so—as long as you keep the volume at a reasonable level. But, don’t even bother with the microphones.
Generally speaking, a lower price suggests lower quality, less durability, and a less premium design, all of which are present here. In the end, though, you have to allow for some shortcomings when you get a pair of headphones at such a low price. I think that Mobvoi is going to make improvements if they pursue a second generation or alternative version like they did with the TicPods line, but in the meantime, these are clearly a “first-gen, needs improvement” product that sound at least a little bit better than they probably should.