My Favorite Earbud, an Inexpensive AirPod alternative

August 11, 2018

Ever since I saw the movie, Her, wherein the earnest, mustachioed Joaquin Phoenix has a romance with a Siri-like voice assistant, I’ve wanted one of those earbuds. In that universe, the earbud and voice commands were the primary way to interact with a computer. The tiny earbud in Her contained seemingly infinite computing power and battery life by today’s standards, but realistically, I just wanted a dumb bluetooth version of that.

I’ve been into cheap, sub-$30 bluetooth headphones and earbuds even before the untimely death of the headphone jack. I built up a small collection of them over time, purchasing about a pair or so each year. Every year the offerings would steadily improve battery life, sound quality, and size. With each iterative purchase, I refined my personal rubric for a great bluetooth audio device.

Great bluetooth earbuds, for me, would have to fulfil the following requirements:

  • Mostly for podcasts - I listen to a lot of podcasts and spoken word programs when walking the dog and doing chores around the house, so wireless earbuds are great for that.
  • Good on dog walks - Even when I had stereo bluetooth earbuds, I would keep one earbud out for when I would inevitably need to talk to another dog walker. My dog is a pitmix, so other owners get a bit nervous around her. “She’s friendly! Nope, that’s not a muzzle, just a Gentle Leader…”
  • Safe for biking - Similar to above, my stereo earbuds would turn into mono earbuds when I was listening on my bike so that I could maintain awareness and avoid being run over. So with these two cases, a good earbud would need to be lightweight, and probably not even need to be stereo.
Mpow EM1

Enter the MPOW EM1. This inexpensive single earbud can be had for about $17 on Amazon, has decent audio quality for what I use it for, and has surprisingly good battery life of about 6 hours. It charges through a magnetic USB adaptor (of which they include two) and comes in case I never use – I just slip it in my jeans’ watch pocket. Three different rubber tips are provided, so it’s easy to get a good fit – I never feel like it’s going to fall out even when riding my bike or running around. Listening to music on it is also surprisingly decent, loud, and bassy. It’s certainly not the first bluetooth monobud, but it checks all of the boxes and works for me.

Any wireless bluetooth earbud article in 2018 would be remiss if it didn’t compare it to Apple’s Airpods. Now, I like the idea of Apple’s EarPods, I really do, but I just can’t get over the cost. I understand that it has plenty of subtle, well-designed features, like automatically pausing when you remove them, touch sensitive controls, a charging case so you end up getting 24 hours of listening time, ergonomic (but ugly) stems to help with insertion and removal, and the ability to switch between multiple Apple devices seamlessly. With all that, I still can’t bring myself to spend 10 times what the EM1 costs.

Mpow EM1 disassembled
Look at all that tech packed in there

Here’s the breakdown, keeping in mind my own personal use-cases and the fact that I’ve never actually used the Airpods myself.

Pros of Mpow EM1 vs. Apple Airpods

  • Better sound isolation
  • Better fit with those three rubber tip sizes
  • More discreet than AirPods, No ugly stems
  • 10x less expensive than AirPods
  • Helps maintain awareness of surroundings
  • I wouldn’t be pissed if I lost them

Cons of Mpow EM1 vs. Apple Airpods

  • Lacks fancy charging case
  • Not as multi-device friendly
  • Mono, not stereo
  • Button is a little hard to click
  • Siri is not great on it, there’s a delay before you can issue commands
  • Audio doesn’t sync with video

There you have it – an unnecessarily lengthy and detailed love letter to my favorite audio gadget of recent memory. If your needs match mine, you’d probably love them too.

Update 2018-08-28: Looks like the Mpow EM1 is no longer sold, but there’s a newer version (EM13), that’s cheaper and synchronizes with audio with video.

by Vance Tran
purveyor of varied digital products