OnePlus Buds Z review: high on value, low on compromises

Finally, affordable true wireless earbuds that don’t suck

OnePlus Buds Z review

Bottom line

The $49 OnePlus Buds Z are affordable true wireless earbuds that don’t suck. They are ideal for those who prefer earbuds with silicone tips, or those who enjoy earbuds with a more bass-heavy sound.

Overall
4

Pros

  • Excellent value
  • Decent sound
  • Competitve battery life
  • Passive sound isolation

Cons

  • Too bass-heavy
  • Less comfortable than some
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If you’ve been shopping for true wireless earbuds on a budget recently — for something way more affordable than the $159 Apple Airpods (currently $129) or $129 Samsung Galaxy Buds — you’ve probably noticed that things are a bit of a mess. Amazon and other online retailers offer a broad selection of cheap (and often crappy) no-name products from unknown brands. But what if you’re looking for something from a trusted company?

The $79 TCL SOCL500TWS and $79 OnePlus Buds (on sale for $59) are two of the best options I recently reviewed. Enter the $49 OnePlus Buds Z, which might be an even better choice for some folks. Unlike the regular OnePlus Buds, which are a “half in-ear” design like the original AirPods, the Buds Z are full in-ear earbuds with silicone tips. As such, they provide better passive noise isolation, a more secure fit, and stronger bass.

What is it?

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OnePlus sent me white OnePlus Buds Z to review. I’ve been listening to them for a few days, and here’s my quick review. The existing OnePlus Buds are my current go-to true wireless earbuds for casual listening, so I’ll be comparing the two. Keep in mind that I’m picky about audio — I’m somewhat of a (reluctant) audiophile — and the OnePlus Buds sound great to me, even though their fit is less universal, and that impacts sound quality.

While the case for the OnePlus Buds is similar to the original AirPods case, the Buds Z come with a shiny white pill-shaped case reminiscent of the case for the Galaxy Buds+. There’s a status LED in front (green for charged, red for charging, white for pairing), and a USB Type-C connector and pairing button in the back. The hinge is plastic (not metal like with the OnePlus Buds), and the mechanism doesn’t feel as premium.

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Obviously, at just $49, there’s no support for wireless charging. This case is small/light enough to fit almost anywhere. As for the white earbuds themselves, their design is very similar to the OnePlus Buds, but instead of having an original AirPods-like “half in-ear” hard plastic tip, they are full in-ear earbuds with silicone tips. OnePlus provides three silicone tip sizes in the box, along with a short USB Type-A to -C charging cable.

The Buds Z’s stem is similar to the OnePlus Buds’, but the charging contacts have been relocated from the base of the stem to the main body. Similarly, the flat, circular touch surface on the main body is pretty much identical in both design and function. By default, double-tapping these touch surfaces skips to the next track, but this behavior can be changed using OnePlus’ HeyMelody app or any OnePlus phone.

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You can also tap and hold to switch between paired Bluetooth devices, and the Buds Z feature in-ear detection to automatically pause/resume playback when you remove/place them in your ears. The dual mic design includes wind and noise reduction during calls, but at $49, there’s obviously no active noise cancellation (ANC) for audio playback. Finally, the Buds Z support Quick Pair — just open the case lid to pair with most devices.

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While most of this functionality is identical to the OnePlus Buds, the Buds Z are rated IP55 water and sweat resistant (vs. IPX4). Battery life is also slightly different. The Buds Z are supposed to last 5 hours on a charge (vs. 7 hours for music and 4h for calls with the OnePlus Buds), and up to 20 hours for the case and earbuds combined (vs. 30 hours). I was able to listen to music for about 4h hours before running out of juice.

How is it?

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Beyond price, the biggest difference between the Buds Z and the OnePlus Buds is fit and sound quality. The Buds Z will fit almost anyone’s ears securely and comfortably thanks to the three silicone tip sizes supplied, and audio performance will be very consistent as a result. With the OnePlus Buds, the once-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for everybody, and impacts sound quality depending how you place them in your ear.

The Buds Z provide more passive noise isolation, since the silicone tips form a seal, but they’re also less pleasant to wear for extended periods compared to the OnePlus Buds. I have no problem with fit using either of these true wireless earbuds, but I find the OnePlus Buds more comfortable than the silicone tipped Buds Z. Then again, I have fancy in-ear-monitors (IEMs) with custom ear molds if I want better passive noise isolation.

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For me, sound quality is the only area where the Buds Z stumble a little. Now don’t get me wrong — they sound pretty decent, especially for $49. I prefer a very neutral and flat frequency response. Unfortunately, the Buds Z are bass-heavy by design, which is not my thing. I was able to alleviate this somewhat by adjusting their position inside my ear canal, but that’s not ideal and defeats the purpose of a proper fit.

Highs also roll-off too quickly for my liking. While this makes the Buds Z sound warmer and more analog, they lack the crispness required to reproduce cymbals accurately. OnePlus did a great job with mids and imaging, however. Vocals sound lovely on the Buds Z, as I quickly discovered while listening to Anderson. Paak’s “Reachin’ 2 Much”. Overall though, I think the OnePlus Buds sound more balanced and refined.

Bottom line

Ultimately, at $49, the OnePlus Buds Z are a breath of fresh air — affordable true wireless earbuds that don’t suck. The familiar brand is just the icing on the cake. I highly recommend the Buds Z, especially for those who prefer earbuds with silicone tips, or those who enjoy earbuds with a more bass-heavy sound. The rest of us will just go ahead and spend an extra $10 for the excellent OnePlus Buds.

In the US, the OnePlus Buds Z are available in white from OnePlus and Amazon for $49 on November 2nd. A special-edition colorway by Steven Harrington will be released at a later date — pricing TBD.