The earbuds market is getting very serious now. On the one side, there are the challengers to the Apple AirPods throne. And then on the other, it is a race to democratize the sort of wireless experience that more expensive earbuds offer, at lower price points. There have been some very capable examples thus far. The Samsung Galaxy Buds and the 1More Stylish True Wireless have, in their own unique ways, made the wireless earbuds experience quite premium without actually charging a premium for it. And now we have the TicPods Free, throwing down the marker again, slightly lower down the price band. This is made by the Chinese company Mobvoi, better known for the TicWatch smartwatches based on Google’s Wear OS platform. These buds started out in life as a Kickstarter crowdfunding project, and believe me when I say this, I’m glad Mobvoi got the funds they needed to make this real. These are priced at around Rs 8,499 but we would recommend scouting for some discounts before splashing the cash.
Setting these up is a breeze and the Bluetooth connectivity is up and running in a few seconds. The pairing with iOS, iPadOS, Android and Windows is slick, with no unnecessary complications rearing their ugly head during our testing. Open the charging cradle, take these buds out, wear them and by the time you pick up the phone or tablet, you would find these are paired and ready to stream whatever it is that you want to listen to. The in-ear detection works every time without fail and there are no connection dropouts. A lot of its rivals, particularly the more affordable ones, tend to struggle with weird connectivity issues, such as no audio in one earbud. The TicPods Free delightfully don’t have any such eccentricities.
Dressed for the task at hand
Earbuds have to look good. That is a fact. You don’t want to be seen in public wearing buds that don’t look the best. The TicPods Free are the sort of design which will grow on you. The colours help—Lava, Ice and Navy. I quite like Lava, but then again, I like most things in red. These are also IPX5 rated, which means it is dust and moisture resistant. Even if you are caught in heavy rain, these buds will not complain. Mobvoi have done well to give these buds a slightly more grippy finish, compared with the more slippery glossy finish that a lot of its higher priced rivals also have. Basically, they won’t slip out of the grasp of your fingers as you are taking them out of the charging case, for instance. That is good. I don’t like my earbuds ending up on the dirty floor. The silicone ear tips help them sit better in-ear, and anyone who plans to go jogging or running with these will like the secure fit. The extensions are a tad longer than I had hoped for, but that’s a very AirPods-esque thing to do. That is absolutely not to say these resemble the Apple AirPods, but I quite like the chunkier form factor in comparison.
Touch controls are best ignored
That being said, some of the touch controls on the buds rarely work smoothly. You can slide up and down on the TicPods Free bud to adjust the volume, long press to activate whatever virtual assistant you have set up on the phone (Hey Siri or Okay Google) and double tap to skip to the next song. Except for the third gesture, which is to skip to the next music track, I noticed that the swipe gestures don’t always respond and the long press duration to invoke an assistant isn’t always the same duration. Perhaps a lot has to do with the pressure of the touch, but believe me, I tried everything.
The companion app isn't much of a companion
What also doesn’t help is the fact that the Mobvoi companion app for the smartphone (free for Android and iOS) doesn’t really offer much in terms of device settings, tweaking the audio quality and more. It feels like Mobvoi has the same app for some its other smart home devices, because there is the “Add Routine” option in the app, but that is of no use for me as a TicPods Free user. I’m quite sure that I didn’t miss out on some other app, because a search for “TicPods” on the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store lists the Mobvoi app, and then a bunch of apps with names in Mandarin—but surely, they aren’t what we need. In all the time I have had to review the TicPods Free, there has not been a single software update for these earbuds, at least the app hasn't notified me of any. That just seems odd, at a time when regular software updates are sent out by companies to constantly improve performance issues or add new features, for existing users.
Sound, just works for most music and usage scenarios
Let us get to the business end of the TicPods Free. The sound, and how they compare with the rivals in general. The snug fit, thanks to the silicone ear tips, helps in isolating much of the noise around you. These aren’t noise cancelling earbuds, but with the right sizes tips, you can actually block a considerable amount of din. The TicPods Free start from what is a fairly neutral sound signature and that makes it versatile for a variety of music genres and listening environments. This isn’t the peppiest sound you’ll find on earbuds, but it is instantly likeable. The vocals are crisp and clear and the mids remain well separated all through. Bass isn’t the most powerful, but it is more than adequate for a pleasant listening experience. The lower frequencies do not overshadow the mids at any point, even on lazy interludes and trance tracks. If your music playlists are filled to the brim with classic rock, then the TicPods Free are exactly what you need. And that goes for pop, remixes, blues, jazz and trance genres. But just to illustrate the strong and the not so strong points of the TicPods Free, these probably do not have the lower frequency focus that hip-hop music perhaps deserves, or the excitement at the other spectrum of the frequencies of you listen to heavy metal. All in all, this is versatile and ticks off most of the music checklist.
let this troubleshooting tip be our little secret
Weirdly enough, sometimes, the left earbud refuses to work. No matter what, it remains unresponsive. The trick to make it work is wear the TicPods Free buds, connect it with the phone, laptop or tablet you want to use it with and then tap both earbuds five times. It in a way resets the sensors and the bud starts working. Till the next time it doesn't, and you repeat this.
Strong battery life
No surprises on the battery life front. This lasts a bit more than 4 hours on a single charge, and the charging case can top this up to offer as much as 15 hours of additional usage. It is perplexing that the charging case has the micro-USB port for charging, in an era when one would expect USB-C. Honestly, that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker though.
The Last word: TRYING TO DO TOO MUCH, BUT THE BASICS ARE FINE
The thing with the TicPods Free is that they are incredibly lovable. I kept going back to it even though I have other earbuds in for review as well. The overall package, comfortable sound, a well-designed case and good battery life are exactly what you need from your next wireless earbuds, and the TicPods Free deliver on that. No nasty surprises, though there are certain niggles with the TicPods Free. That being said, none of those are deal-breakers. Irritants and niggles, but nothing you will sacrifice the experience because of. The price tag is certainly quite interesting, but it does face a still battle from Samsung and its decidedly brilliant Galaxy Buds and also the 1More buds, which offer less complication and therefore lessrough edges so to speak of.