Essential Earphones HD Review: Shipping Kills the Deal

Essential Earphones HD

The Pros

  • Compatible with a wide range of devices
  • Slick, sophisticated design
  • Comfortable to wear, even over extended periods of time

The Cons

  • Expensive to ship to Canada
  • Good but not great sound
  • Not quite plug and play with computers and some Android smartphones

In a surprise announcement at the end of April, Andy Rubin’s Essential opened up its online store to customers in Canada — as well as those in the U.K., France and Japan — allowing, for the first time in the case of many of the company’s accessories, for Canadians to purchase them.

It’s an announcement I was waiting for a while for one very specific reason: the Earphones HD, one of two pairs of USB-C headphones Essential sells.

Despite the fact that more and more smartphones are abandoning the headphone jack in favour of a single USB-C port (and Lightning port in the case of Apple’s iPhone), there aren’t a lot of great USB-C headphones on the market. Unless you’re willing to take a gamble on shipping something from China, major headphones manufacturers like Bose and Senheiser have yet to release USB-C compatible headphones.

Moreover, while wireless options like AirPods are great for iPhone users, we’ve yet to see something similar that works seamlessly across disparate Android devices (though the TicPods Free and OnePlus Wireless Bullets look promising). Also, not everyone wants another electronic device they have to charge every couple of hours.

Enter Essential, one of the few companies anywhere in the vicinity of Canada selling what, at least on first blush, look like decent USB-C headphones. For the most part, the Earphones HD are great. That is until you face up against the realities of shipping an electronics product to Canada.

The Essential Phone of in-ear headphones

The Earphones HD attached to the Polar White Essential Phone

Just like the Essential Phone, the Earphones HD look sophisticated and stylish. They feature a minimalist and practical design that forgoes any branding. While not a perfect compliment to my ‘Polar White’ Essential Phone, they blend well with almost every smartphone MobileSyrup has at its office.

One particular standout of their design is the cable. According to Essential’s Dwipal Desai, the director that leads Essential accessories team, the cable is made from kevlar. Moreover, the cord also features a ribbed design that is tangle proof.

An issue I found after extended use with the OnePlus Bullets I recommend last year was that they weren’t very durable; I went through two pairs in the span of several short months.

One thing to note is that the in-line remote only features one button; there’s no volume rocker. A single tap pauses and resumes playback, while a long-press activates Google Assistant. It’s possible to use Assistant to skip songs, as well as control playback volume. Of course, using Assistant in this fashion in public often draws odd looks.

The Earphones HD come with a zippered hard shell, which works well for transporting them, as well as keeping them safe.

Finally a USB-C peripheral that works as promised

The in-line remote of the Earphones HD

When it came to compatibility between devices, the Earphones HD worked exactly as advertised. After a minimal setup process, I was able use them with both my Touch Bar MacBook Pro and Windows 10 desktop. In addition, they worked flawlessly with every single smartphone I tested, including a variety of devices that only feature USB-C connectivity like the Essential Phone, Pixel 2 and Sony Xperia XZ2.

They also worked without issue with smartphones that feature both a headphone jack and USB-C port like the OnePlus 6 — though in the case of the OP6, you need to tap the USB OTG option in the quick settings menu shade each time you want to use the headphones.

With how temperamental I’ve found USB-C peripherals in the past — see the pair of headphones that come included with the HTC U11, as well as the USB-C dongle that comes included with the new Xperia phones — one of the best features of the Earphones HD was just how well they worked with all my devices.

Another bonus on that front is that because the Earphones HD feature a built-in digital-to-analog converter, sound quality is consistent across devices.

Hi-Res Audio

The ear tips of the Essential Earphones HD

To my ear, the Earphones HD sound great. I wasn’t blown away at first, but the more I used them, the more I came to appreciate their capabilities. Like most consumer headphones, the Earphones HD prioritize bass response. If you listen to a lot of electronic and downtempo music — like I do — they’re a dream. With other types of music, the Earphones HD are less ideal.

That said, they support Hi-Res audio, outputting audio at 44.1 kHz to 96 kHz if you have the lossless tracks or a streaming service like Tidal.

One issue I had with the Earphones HD was that none of the included silicone tips perfectly fit my ears. As such, I was never quite able to get a perfect seal. On the flip side, even over the course of extended use I found the Earphones HD comfortable to wear; there wasn’t a situation in which they started to become uncomfortable.

Shipping, taxes and duties included

With shipping and taxes included, the Earphones HD cost $141.32 USD. At the time of writing, the exchange rate means buying a pair of Earphones HD in Canada costs approximately $181 CAD. That's not including any potential duties.

All told, Canadian consumers can expect to pay about $200 to get their hands on the Earphones HD. Apple's AirPods cost $219 CAD. That's not to say you should run out and buy a pair of AirPods, but $200 opens one up to a lot of great wireless and high-end wired options.

I wish I could recommend the Earphones HD without reservation, but they're not quite $200 good.

"I wish I could recommend the Earphones HD without reservation, but they're not quite $200 good"