A new favourite pastime of mine as I stand inches from my fellow commuters on Sydney’s world-class public transport system is to observe their content consumption habits.
As a Technology Reporter who Loves Devices, I have wiled away many a half-hour scoping out the personal audio preferences of my fellow passengers (or, as the pre-recorded announcements so love to remind us we are: “customers”).
It doesn’t take long to notice trends, and “lifestyle audio” brand Skullcandy has clearly noticed them too.
With the release of the company’s Indy true wireless earbuds ($179), Skullcandy has sought to slice off a piece of Apple’s Airpods ($249) pie.
Perhaps because their white colour and protruding stem design makes them so easy to spot, Apple’s Airpods have emerged as the clear winner in my totally scientific and not at all entirely anecdotal research into the true wireless earbud market conducted in the admittedly geographically limited confines of the T2 line.
But there is also an emerging sector of consumers who want the look of Apple’s Airpods without the Apple price tag.
For this market, Skullcandy presents the Indy: a true wireless pair that kind of look like Airpods, but also certifiably not enough like them to warrant accusations of intellectual property theft.
Available in three different colours (none of which are white) and costing much less (but not too much less) than their Cupertino counterpart, the Indy’s look and sound like they could be a winner.
But as I’ve learned in my time with the Indy’s, sights and sounds can be deceiving.
Similar to how the Indy’s main selling point is that they kind of look like Airpods, their value proposition is that they’re cheaper by $70.
This means they can get away with not doing as much and not doing it for as long.
But much of the value of Airpods stems from the fact that they’re Airpods, and that’s something a lot of customers will continue to pay $70 extra for.
When you take Apple’s category dominator out of the equation, the Indy’s do a pretty good job of undercutting their true wireless rivals.
With only a handful of true wireless buds available for less than the $179 Skullcandy is asking, they make a pretty strong case.
Skullcandy is not the first nor will they be the last company to take an Apple design, tweak it slightly, and release it as their own.
In putting their own spin on the Indy’s, Skullcandy has added an in-ear element, a flat touch control panel, and its own logo.
This in-ear element is a welcome addition, providing increased sound isolation and a more secure fit.
Skullcandy also provides two other sizes of ear tips to help users find a better fit, as well as “stability” gels on the buds to help keep them in your ear.
The addition of these stability gels do make them easy to stick in your ear as there’s really only one way they can go in.
This has caused some other reviewers (with whom I’m both enemies and rivals) to take issue with the fitment of the buds.
It’s claimed the stability gels are uncomfortable and will prevent you getting a proper fit, so while I experienced no such issues, your mileage may vary.
Removing the stability gels also change how well the buds fit in their included charging case and how easy they are to get out of there, so while I advocate their use, it really comes down to personal preference.
One worry of mine is how well these gels will stand the test of time, given they’re held onto the bud by a strip of silicon that’s only a couple centimetres wide at best.
While they’re not essential to the product function, losing the stability gels could prove annoying in the long run, especially since you’ll be unlikely to find a replacement easily.
While lost tips can be easily sourced from another set of earphones like the promotionally branded wired pairs I assume everyone gets as many of as I do, these stability gels could pose a problem in the future.
Same goes for the magnetic charging case.
This case also looks a lot like Apple’s, but with a chamfered edge on the lid for the Skullcandy branding and a micro-USB charging port rather than a Lightning (or preferable for both: USB-C) connection.
It’s just as much fun to flick open and shut as well, but I’m in the process of training myself not to do so as I’ve noticed the lid taking on an increasingly flimsy feel even after just a few weeks.
I fear the lid is going to detach someday, and while I feel like the buds would still charge without the lid, it’d really change the ease of use, which is the main draw of the true wireless bud.
Sound quality is decidedly decent from the Indy’s, particularly given their intended use.
While some companies are planning to bring “audiophile” grade Bluetooth earbuds to the market, true wireless sets are unlikely to proliferate too widely for a few more years.
The Indy’s do support AAC as well as SBC codecs, but the quality will also depend on the device you connect to (iPhones tend to perform better with AAC than some Android phones).
There’s no aptX or LDAC support, which would be nice to have, but given the price point and Skullcandy’s target market, far from essential.
Odds are if you’ve got a pair of Indy’s in your ears you’ll be listening to music or podcasts streaming off a smartphone from a service like Spotify, where you’ll be limited to 320kbps quality at best.
Audiophiles with large collections of lossless audio (or Tidal Hi-Fi/Deezer Premium subscriptions) are unlikely to opt for Bluetooth at this stage, and even more unlikely to opt for a Skullcandy pair at that.
Numbers and data aside, the Indy’s sound nice enough to satisfy most users, but the sound quality comes with a like it or lump it edict.
While it’s fast becoming the norm for companies to have smartphone apps giving users access to different sound profiles and equalizer options, Skullcandy don’t have one.
The stock sound tuning gives quite a deep range but slightly over emphasises bass.
The temptation to target rumbling bass lines is one Skullcandy has tried to indulge.
For the most part it’s successful but lower frequencies can get a little muddy from time to time.
Highs are crisp enough but can get a little harsh at higher volumes.
Skullcandy don’t deliver world beating, or even class beating sound, but few consumers would really expect them too.
The sound quality delivered by the Indy’s is perfectly acceptable, especially given the main draw of the product is, as it primarily is with the Airpods they ape, how they look and how they connect rather than how they sound.
A few years after the introduction of the Airpods, GQ interviewed Apple’s then chief design officer Jony Ive about the product, and how it went from one that was initially dismissed as a weird fad that wouldn’t catch on, to the new normal.
What’s settled on is that the draw of the device is in how easy and seamless they are to use.
Open the case, they turn on and connect.
Take them out of your ears and they pause.
Put them away and they turn off and start charging.
Tap the right rhythm or hold the right amount and you can change volumes, skip songs, pause, take calls; it’s hard to adequately state just how good these small conveniences are in practice.
Most importantly, they make the freedom you get from true wireless Bluetooth buds worth bothering with because of how easy they become to use.
For the most part, the Indy’s accomplish all these aims as well, but sometimes not quite as well.
The buds will quite reliably be connected and ready to go by the time you’ve got them in your ears, but will occasionally sound as though they fall out of sync with each other, causing audio to sound echoey.
Removing an earbud doesn’t pull off the same pause playback magic as it does on the Airpods.
Skullcandy have attempted to compensate for this with its touch controls, wherein tapping the right earbud twice will pause.
Unfortunately tapping the earbud once will raise the volume, and the Indy’s struggle to differentiate between two quick taps to pause and one tap to raise volume, so when you’re trying to pause you inevitably end up raising the volume.
Actually getting playback to pause by tapping on the bud really comes down to luck unfortunately, and the aforementioned absence of an app means there’s no way to adjust the gestures to your liking.
Charging at least is reliable, but battery life is not as good as on the Airpods.
The Indy’s will carry around four hours on the buds and a further 12 hours in the case, which is not as good as the 5 hours Apple claim for its buds or the more than 24 hours claimed from the case, but for day-to-day use it’s enough to get you through the week before you have to think about plugging in for a recharge.
Skullcandy claim a 10-minute charge will give 1.2 hours of battery life, and given mine arrived flat, this was one of the first things I got to test.
I didn’t break out the stopwatch but in my view the claim holds up.
If you’re the type of person who uses a digital voice assistant you might be disappointed by the lack of support on the Indy’s, but Skullcandy claim they’re adding support soon.
If and when this support is added it should benefit from the same noise reduction methods the Indy’s use for phone calls, which people I’ve talked to have told me “sound fine”.
Many of the limitations the Indy’s have, or rather the advantages Airpods have, are due to the role of the Apple ecosystem that makes the Airpods a great set of wireless earbuds, but primarily for Apple devices.
The Indy’s represent a very strong alternative for non-Apple users who are mainly after the convenience and look of the Airpods but for whatever reason don’t want to buy Airpods.
The biggest challenge Skullcandy faces is that the Indy’s want to be a different product that consumers already want, without offering enough to convince these consumers to settle for something that’s merely like the thing they want.