Food, Travel and Tech

I tried $69 high-tech earbuds that are competing with Apple Airpods

Jimmy Im

AirPods have become, as The Wall Street Journal writes, a "superior tech/fashion status symbol." And thanks in part to this phenomenon, many brands now make wireless earbuds — Amazon is even reportedly coming out with a pair that's charging case that will link to Alexa.

But many of the popular brands are just as or more expensive than Airpods, which sell for $159 to $199 a pair. (The popular RHA TrueConnect wireless earbuds, for example, cost $169 with charging case.) And a new version of Airpods going into production later this year is rumored to have an even "higher price," according to CNBC.

Enter PadMate. Since March, tech company PadMate has raised more than $4 million on Indiegogo with more than 80,000 backers to produce its second generation PaMu Slide Bluetooth earphones with wireless charging case, a product that PadMate says will compete with Apple AirPods because of similar features. (Its first generation wireless buds released in 2018, weren't comparable to AirPods.)

But PaMu Slides, which were released in June, cost a fraction of the price at $69.

I wanted to see how the more affordable Pamu Slides measure up to AirPods, so PadMate sent me a pair to review, which I used with my Samsung Galaxy Note 9. I borrowed a pair of Airpods from a colleague and used them with Apple iPhone 8, which I have for work.

I tried them both out for a week, and in my opinion, Apple might have some new competition on its hands.

Jimmy Im

Sound quality and controls

Not everyone loves the sound quality of AirPods, and I thought the PaMu Slides audio came across sharper and cleaner than Apple's. I also thought the AirPods had terrible noise isolation — for instance, I could hear the subway train rumbling over my music, which I listen to very loud. (It is rumored, though, that Apple may have noise isolation on its third generation headphones.) In addition, the bass and treble on full volume were cleaner on the Pamu Slides.

However, in order for Pamu Slides to reach the high level of volume I prefer when listening to music, I had to turn up the earbuds' volume control all the way, as well as max out the volume on my Samsung phone; only then did they get as loud as the AirPods. But that made it loud enough so that I did't hear anything while playing them, including the train.

As for phone calls, I initially worried that Pamu Slides wouldn't have great audio for them, something I find frustrating with the Bluetooth earphones I've used in the past. However, after testing it on six phone calls, they exceeded my expectations. The calls connected fast and I could hear the other caller perfectly (and they never mentioned they had trouble hearing me). The AirPods also had a good phone connection and sound quality, but Pamu Slide's audio was still cleaner.

When it comes to sound control features the two are very similar: With both PaMu Slides and Airpods my Spotify starts playing as soon as they are placed in my ears, thanks to a sensor; and with both versions, a double tap to the right earbud forwards to the next song, while a tap on either earbud causes it to pause or play. The only difference seems to be that with PaMu Slides you tap once on either earbud to accept a phone call, while on AirPods you double tap.

Comfort and features

The Pamu Slide earbuds fit comfortably in my ears. The Apple AirPods were also snug, but not as form fitting for me, and I found myself adjusting them more often.

As for features, both sets of of earbuds offer voice-activated control. You tap the left PaMu Slide twice to connect with Google Assistant. I asked it what the weather would be like, and Google Voice told me the temperature. It also worked with Siri when I set up the PaMu Slides with my work iPhone. The AirPods connected well with Siri and my Samsung.

The PaMu Slides are also water resistant (not waterproof), meaning it's fine if you sweat with them in or get caught in the rain. I wore them to the gym during a cardio session and twice during rainy weather and they were unaffected.

Apple AirPods, however, are not water or sweat resistant, so I did not try them at the gym because I did want to damage them. Water damage is currently not protected by Apple warranty.

Battery life

After using the Pamu Slide earbuds for a week, I can confirm the battery lasted all day on just one charge (the average battery life, according to the PadMate, is 10 hours), and the wireless connection was strong. In fact, after an easy Bluetooth pairing set up with my Samsung Galaxy, I never had a connection problem.

Apple AirPods only last up to five hours on one charge, according to Apple. And the 2019 AirPods I tried lasted about four hours and 45 minutes.

My biggest gripe with the PaMu Slides had to do with the battery: When the power reached 11%, an automated voice said "battery low, please recharge" every 10 seconds until the battery completely died, so about eight minutes. I would have preferred having the message once and listening to my music without any interruption until the battery died. Apple AirPods have a beep alert, but no audio message.

Charging case

Like Apple's $199 AirPods, PaMu Slides comes with a wireless charging case, which allows you to charge the earbuds anywhere. The mesh top of the case slides halfway to let you put the earbuds in, while Apple's case is a hatch on the top of the case. I preferred the PaMu Slide case, simply for its aesthetics. However, the AirPods' case is smaller, making it a little more convenient to slide in your pocket.

But a nice perk is that the PaMu Slide case works as a wireless cell phone charger too. I tried it with the case plugged in to the power adapter and without, and it worked fine in both cases. AirPods don't offer a phone charging case.

Are they worth the price?

Overall, I think they Pamu Slides are worth the $69. I felt the sound quality was better than Apple AirPods, the battery lasted longer, the charging case can charge my cell phone and the earbuds are perfect for the activities I like to do, like going to the gym and riding the subway.

However, potential buyers should note there is at least one big difference between PadMate and Apple: As CNBC tech editor Todd Haselton points out, buyers might not get the same level of support from PadMate. For instance, PadMate will replace PaMu Slides within one year of purchase due to manufacturer's defect, according to the website, but there is no return policy if you don't like the product or warranty if you damage them yourself. Apple, on the other hand, offers 14 calendar days to return a product if it's purchased at an Apple store or Apple retail store, no questions asked. There is a one-year limited warranty that covers a defective battery.

Potential buyers should also note there are always risks with crowdfunding, according to Indiegogo. "Indiegogo does not guarantee that contributions will be used as promised, that campaign owners will deliver perks, or that campaigns will achieve their goals. However, if our Terms of Use are violated, we will take action on behalf of our backers to make things right," the website reads.

All things considered, I think Pamu Slides are great for the lower price. But if that's still too pricey, a search on Amazon yielded many true wireless earbuds with similar features selling for as low as $32, some of which received four-star or higher reviews.

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