The one that got away
When one thinks of Sony True Wireless earbuds, it usually sways towards its flagship devices. As I had made this purchase a couple of months ago, at that time it was the WF-1000XM3, since superseded by the XM4. Sony being Sony, there are even more intuitive alphanumeric codes that comprise the product range. There is the WF-XB700 for those who adore the Extra Bass that comes with the poorer audio quality at the lower price range and then there is the WF-SP800N for those who still can’t afford the flagship device but crave ANC, again at the expense of sound quality.
At the time of purchase, I was not interested at all in Sony’s range of TWS buds. The XM3 did pique my interest but the size, weight was a huge deterrent in addition to the fact that I am not much of a fan of active noise cancellation. And then came the WF-H800.
You can’t blame me for not being aware of this as it seems that it had a limited release only in Asia. Moreover, in India, it is exclusive to Flipkart and only available in black which unfortunately also reduces a lot of the fanfare associated with this model as it is available in pretty interesting shades. But then, you take it as it comes.
At this point, I should introduce the reason for going for a new pair of TWS buds. If you can recollect, you would know that I had posted quite a glowing review of the Samsung Galaxy Buds+ after 4 months of ownership. Turns out it takes even more time to form an informed opinion. Even now, I would give it a 4 out of 5, specifically based on the lower price it is selling for presently. However, it was close to a year of ownership that I had enough of the device.
The most egregious of the issues with the Buds+ was the fact that one of the buds simply chose to play dead. After a few months of ownership, the left buds started draining much faster than the right to the point where it would reach near-zero while the other one was at around 40%. Slight differences in battery life in terms of pairing and usage is acceptable but this one was anything but slight. This came to a head one day when the left bud simply refused to work and appeared disconnected within the app. Dropping it into the case simply lit up the LED as green indicating it was completely charged. It was only after rummaging through the Samsung forums that I came to know of the solution which was to keep dropping the dead bud into the case till it started kicking again with 1% charge. Samsung’s tryst with software is nothing new but yet again, it indicates a lack of finish. This battery issue was coupled with the already irritating ambient noise pickup during calls, poor Bluetooth range and the poor fit which resulted in the buds popping out while walking.
Long story short, I was looking for a new set of buds that first and foremost were light and had a good fit. I didn’t know how the H800 would fare when I purchased it but the weight figure was where I placed my trust. Luckily, I wasn’t disappointed. If there is anything I adore about these buds, it would be the weight and fit. It is just about as perfect as it can get. Of course, this came at the expense of not having an IP rating (which didn’t make it any worse than the Buds+) and the ambient noise feature. I do miss the latter to an extent but it is not a deal breaker because my outdoor ventures with the buds have reduced considerably over the past year and at the same time, wearing these buds outdoors is no different from the wired and neck buds I used in the past when walking on the street. As long as you keep the volume down outdoors, which you should, it doesn’t really matter as the ambient noise seeping through is enough to have a complete awareness of the surroundings.
The other headline feature missing from these buds is of course ANC. As I mentioned previously, I am not a fan of it and generally don’t need it either. One thing that the H800 does well is turn up to 11 and it absolutely annihilates any ambient noise. I am absolutely at ease with the passive noise isolation that this thing provides.
Besides the fit, the H800 has a few other things going its way with the design. The first one is the inclusion of sensors to auto-pause on removal. This is mighty convenient to quickly get into any conversation that requires your attention and then proceed from where you left off as soon as you are done with the distraction. This feature is often left out at the lower price range and it is good to see it included. The other feature, which I initially thought of as a price-saving measure, but which completely changed my outlook was the inclusion of physical buttons. The Buds+ had the capacitive touch pads which were a nuisance on multiple occasions, mainly when lying down, as head movements would engage the controls inadvertently, not to say you had to push the buds into the ear for the controls. You could lock the controls but then that required management from within the app. On the other hand, I couldn’t love the physical buttons enough. They are springy, never miss a touch and also work with non-conductive gloves. The downward location also means that there is little risk of dislocating the buds or conversely pushing them further into the ear. The button customization is a bit limited but does its job with my favoured approach being to assign playback control to the right and volume control to the left.
The other part of the hardware is the case. The case is certainly quite compact but at the same time holds just one complete charge of the buds. It is thoughtfully rounded which indicates that it is to be kept in the pocket rather than the table which is quite practical. On the whole, a total of 16 hours of usage is not a bad price to pay for the all-around lightness and compactness. Also, the case has a red LED indicating the charging process which switches off when fully charged. Unlike the Buds+, the LED indicators for the buds are present on the buds itself which also assists with the pairing process, so yet again, a thoughtful inclusion.
Before moving to the sound, a word on the range. After the struggles with the Buds+, I was pleasantly surprised with the range I could get with the H800. The app has a setting to prioritize sound quality or connectivity. I, of course, always prioritize sound quality but even then it has twice the range of the Buds+ and I can use it across two rooms which is all I can ask for when moving around the house. All in all, the connectivity is extremely solid. It doesn’t have multipoint connectivity but switching between iOS, Android and Windows has been anything but difficult as it just requires the device to be selected from the list of paired devices.
And now, for something different. I am of course, speaking of the sound quality. This is where the H800 differentiates itself from the other cheaper options as it doesn’t compromise on the sound quality like the others. It makes little sense to compare it directly with the XM3 as it is certainly not XM3 without ANC. But at the same time, it has a distinct sound signature while retaining the quality. By that, I am implying that the sound is clear, full with good separation that makes everything sound really great, certainly better than the Buds+ I used before. Thankfully, the app also includes an equalizer that can be synced with the cloud across devices. Tuning may differ but you can see mine below. It indicates how I perceive the sound to be. While this one doesn’t have the “Extra Bass” tagline associated with it, it is still quite punchy for me and hence I have set it flat whereas I feel more of the energy of the song when I raise the mids. The treble is quite strong too but not as overpowering as the bass in my perspective. Overall, it is quite likely that you will love the sound signature out of the box.
It also comes with the other bells and whistles that Sony offers in its higher end devices like DSEE HX and 360 Reality Audio. The former might be useful for upscaling the audio but I have my music encoded to AAC on my mobile devices at the setting used by iOS and thus I feel it adds nothing to the music but at the same time I save battery life by keeping it off. Speaking of AAC, that is the only codec supported along with the default SBC. Works a treat with iOS. Android users might be a bit miffed but quite a bit of the blame has to go to Android’s AAC support, though I don’t have any issues in using it with my Android tablet. The latter is more of a novelty and the included demo sounds great while the ear shape analysis is quite easy to conduct. However, with limited support by third-party services, it is unlikely that this feature will be of much use, especially considering that Dolby Atmos is more mainstream.
Amidst the discussion on sound quality, usually the microphone quality gets left behind. This one doesn’t set the cats amongst the pigeons in any way. It doesn’t belie any expectations either. It is what I would “call” on-par with its competitors. The third microphone on the Buds+ just made life more difficult by teleporting me to the middle of the street even when I was at my home. In that respect, the H800 simply presents a broken form of me, something that would fail voice recognition tests but will probably work with humans desperate to hear my voice.
To conclude, it is a bit unfortunate that this pair of buds is lost between the more mainstream options. It probably didn’t help that Sony priced this on par with the XM3 at launch. However, I purchased it for the equivalent of $90 when the XM3 was priced at double of that. In such a scenario, it presents a great proposition if you are someone focused on audio quality at the expense of features like ANC and ambient noise. At the same time, Sony does a great job with the connectivity as well as the firmware/software which is often overlooked when making a purchase. At the end of it all, it’s a Sony.