What’s so difficult about designing earbuds?

Update, Friday 7th December: After a couple more 2-mile walks, neither earbud has fallen out so the ‘large’ tips seem to be working. On the downside, one earphone still talks to me in a foreign language, the bluetooth connection kept failing on one walk, and I still can’t put them in without mis-pressing the big ‘K’ button.

These are my first impressions of Kuai Fit ‘K’ wireless earphones. Initially they’ve been disappointing but I’m hopeful my next experiences with them will be better.

The Good

They were - literally - one tenth the cost of my PixelBuds. And the PixelBuds are not good earphones - I find PixelBuds uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and awkward to use. (I got this price of around £15 by backing them on Kickstarter. Right now they’re £30 on Amazon, and that comes with only 3 months of app subscription, not the 6 months I got.)

So, these are cheaper and that’s Good. And they don’t try to summon the Google Assistant every chance they get, which is also Good.

These earphones are independently wireless. Not only are there no wires connecting to the phone, there are no wires connecting one earphone to the other. It’s very neat. And instead of the complexity of a multi-button setup, there’s just one big K button at the centre of each earphone, and the button doesn’t take a lot of force to press. (I have another pair of earphones where I had to press really hard on a button to get it to work, and, y’know, it’s an earphone - if you press it really hard, that really means you’re pressing into your ear really hard, and that’s painful.)

They came with a subscription to the Kuai Fit app for 6 months, but appear to be completely independent of it. They’re just bluetooth earphones, which is exactly what I want - not cheap hardware to upsell a service I don’t want.

The Bad

So far I’ve paired them and worn them on a two mile walk. It did not go well.

The instructions are not good. There’s a basic leaflet that says how to pair the earphones but it leaves some important things out.

For instance, what’s the normal operation? That’s what I’ll be doing most of the time, so what is it? Do I turn both on at exactly the same time? Turn one on and wait 5 seconds before turning the other on? Does it matter which one is turned on first? How do I tell which one is the right stereo channel and which is left? What LEDs are displayed in normal operation? Is it normal for no LEDs to be on, or is it normal to have a persistent or flashing blue light - I’ve seen both behaviours in other earphones, but I’ve no idea what’s supposed to happen with these because the documentation doesn’t tell me. It only tells me what LED patterns to expect during pairing.

The instructions have a section on pairing only one of the earbuds - is that a common operation? Does it mean I can choose to just use one earbud? What happens to the other earbud? Can I pair it to the same or a different phone as another single earbud? Do they both have microphones so a single-bud can be used to make and receive phone calls? I’ve always had a hankering to look like Uhuru from Star Trek with one fancy earbud for comms with the other ear open to the bridge, so this is a compelling use case for me.

None of this is covered in the instructions. It may be answered on the web site, but if you’re giving these as a gift you should be able to expect a reasonable level of instructions without the gift-receiver having to resort to web site support.

Anyway, I paired both earbuds and got them playing music and the fit seemed fine, so I went out for my walk.

On the walk, one earbud didn’t play any music and the other fell out of my ear three times.

The Ugly

I’ve no idea why one earbud lost its pairing. I don’t know if it’s paired with the other earbud but not with the phone, or if the problem is with the phone’s bluetooth. It was 1°C on my walk and my hands were cold inside my gloves so I didn’t feel like troubleshooting there and then. I persisted with the walk and with music in just one ear.

It wasn’t that the non-playing earbud was switched off. When I pushed the Big K button, it spoke to me. I’ve no idea what it was trying to tell me because the female voice was speaking in a foreign language. Maybe it was saying "Don’t push that button again."

On the subject of the big K button - it’s very big. It’s pretty much the entirety of the exposed bit of the earphone. I suppose the intent is that it’s hard to miss it when you need to push the button, but it raises what seems to me an obvious problem - how do you push the damn earbud into your ear when the only fucking surface you can push is the button that turns the thing off? (Yes, I found this a bit frustrating.)

You may think this explains why one kept falling out, but it doesn’t. I persisted with pushing it in, even using the button, but it wouldn’t stay in place. And this was just while walking - I’ve no idea yet what it would be like on a run, and these are supposed to be earphones specifically for training.

And seriously, what is the fascination with putting LEDs in everything these days? If I’ve accidentally pushed the big K button when putting the earphones in, using LEDs to tell me whether they’re on or off is useless - the earphone is in my ear! The only way I can see those LEDs is to take it out of my ear, and then I’ll probably push that button again while putting it back in my ear. Why do people think I want lights coming out of my ears anyway?

Other Stuff

They use regular micro USB ports for charging, so regular micro USB cables should be fine. That’s good because the fancy split-USB cable that comes with the earphones is too short for where I charge things. Oh, and they came charged enough to be ready to use.

I know you’d probably expect some comments on sound quality, but I’m not sure I can really comment. I’ve only had one earphone working (when it wasn’t falling out) so I can’t say if it’s good or bad yet. There were definitely some bluetooth connectivity issues though, with the music dropping out for a second or two sometimes. That didn’t usually happen with the PixelBuds, but it might be a result of the bad pairing, or perhaps the other earphone was actively interfering.

I’m still hopeful that these teething problems can be worked out. I’ll probably find some way to put the earphones in without hitting the big K button. I’ll maybe find a way to position the phone so I get a stable connection, or maybe even find out that the connection is fine when both earphones are properly synced. And I can probably solve the annoying flashing LEDs by applying some black tape, the same way I have to cover most electronic devices these days.

I need to work on getting the right fitting (although there are only three options, small, medium and large, and the medium doesn’t seem big enough). But why did only one earphone fall out? I don’t think there’s a substantial difference in the size of my ears...

And seriously - one tenth the cost of PixelBuds.

Tags: Weird Interweb Stuff
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