When Apple unveiled the headphone jack-less iPhone 7 on September 7 at an event in San Francisco, it also introduced a set of wireless earbuds that was meant to make the transition away from analog audio smoother. But almost as soon as Apple’s Phil Schiller pulled the curtain on the so-called “AirPods,” the general reaction was almost universally negative:
Apple fans are a notoriously loyal bunch, but I think even they wouldn’t deny it: the AirPods are ugly and overpriced (so far, reviewers agree). With the recent news that its launch has been delayed, it’s time for iPhone 7 users to look into other options.
It’ll also come in black.
They look pretty nice, right? The Air is going to be launched via crowdfunding, and its Indiegogo site launches tonight. Early supporters can get this set for $89.
I actually stumbled upon the earbuds by accident when I visited Crazybaby’s office in Shekou (in Shenzhen, southern China) over the weekend. I had gone with the intention to talk about the company’s award-winning ”levitation speaker” (which I tested a couple weeks ago). But instead, I saw a prototype unit of the Air sitting on a table, which immediately caught my eye.
An early demo unit of the Air.
I asked Allen Zhang, the young founder and lead designer of the company, if I could try them on. Once I did, I realized that while the floating speaker was cool, these are way more practical.
For one, the Air feel very comfortable in the ear. Sound quality was good, though I didn’t have the proper time nor lossless audio files on hand to give it a proper test. It feels sturdy and well-made, and it’s also water-resistant. Zhang says the Air will offer 4 hour of battery life standalone, and 15 hours with the slick metallic charging capsule. But what stood out was how fast it paired with my phone.
Zhang says the instantaneous pairing is due to the Air using the newest audio chip from CSR (which was recently acquired by Qualcomm).
“[Other bluetooth headsets, like] Bragi’s uses CSR 8670, which has been out for more than a year,” says Zhang. “The chip we used with the Air, it only began production in quarter three of this year. So it’s not even available in the market yet until early next year.”
Zhang claims the Air offers “the most reliable” connection for not just iPhones and Androids, but any bluetooth accessories. While that’s almost certainly marketing speak, Zhang does have over a decade of experience in designing audio products. He began working for Chinese electronics company TCL in the early 2000s, and within a couple of years started his own product strategy and manufacturing company, Kinspring, that worked with Disney, Polaroid and U.S. headphone makers Skullcandy in China.
The latter, Zhang claims, came to Kinspring in early 2004 with nothing more than a logo.
“At the time Skullcandy only had five people only, so we basically helped them build everything but their logo.”
But Zhang wanted to do more than just help other brands build and market products. And so in 2014 he started Crazybaby, with the goal to bring, in his words, “high quality, innovative lifestyle technology products” to the public at a reasonable price.
“We’ve been working in Shenzhen, the hardware manufacturing capital of the world, for 12 years,” he says. “We know how to build high quality products.”
The “we” he’s referring to is his team. Zhang himself has never studied audio engineering, but he claims his team of audio engineers are the cream of the crop, “like the ones working at Sony and Harman.”
Zhang, only in his early 30s, already have more than a decade of experience in building audio products. And yes, he’s wearing the Air. (Photo credit: Ben Sin)
Truth be told, wireless tech hasn’t advanced to the point that it will please diehard audiophiles, and the Air isn’t going to change that. But if the levitating speaker, which won the “Best of Innovation” award at CES last year and a “Best Product Design” prize from Red Dot, is a sign of things to come, the Air should be received positively.
So why launch through crowdfunding? Budget is obviously the main reason, since Crazbaby is a small startup with only 50 staffers. But Zhang adds that it’s also great marketing.
“Our marketing budget is very limited, so to promote the Air on a crowdfunding is a very effective and low cost marketing,” he says.
Of course, that levitating speaker, dubbed the Mars, was also launched the same manner, and it was a complete success, tripling its requested $100,000 goal in the first week. The campaign finished with $829,803 from 4,500 backers.
Crazybaby is hoping the Air can replicate that success. Its Indiegogo page launches today. Zhang says backers can expect the earbuds to ship by January.