The Buds Air may look like AirPod knockoffs, but these headphones punch well above their weight for the price, especially if you’re into heavy dance beats, house, hip-hop and electronica. However, there’s no guarantee they’ll fit your ears well, and if they don’t, you’ll end up adjusting them every 30 seconds.
You might assume that Realme's Buds Air truly wireless headphones sound as good as they cost – good, but nothing mind-blowing for the asking price of $150. But you can't judge a book by its cover, and while everything about them suggests standard sound quality, their audio quality is surprisingly solid.
Sure, there are some truly wireless products that sound better, but few headphones in this price range sound this good.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.
The tech in the Buds Air is fairly standard as far as truly wireless headphones go. But again, it's quite impressive when you consider the $149 price tag:
- Bluetooth 5 (SBC and AAC)
- Carry case with USB-C and QI wireless charging
- Up to three hours of battery life (at 50% volume)
- 14 hours of additional battery in the carry case
- Less than 120ms latency
- Inbuilt support for Google Home
- Active noise cancellation during phone calls
- Touch controls on each bud
Realme makes a lot of noise about the '12mm big bass driver' and custom-made Dynamic Bass Boost processing. It's a bit abstract but the message is clear – these are for fans of bass.
They also have a feature called 'quick connect' that links the headphones to your device via Bluetooth as soon as you open the case. This feature works flawlessly and is a far cry from our experience with some other brands.
These headphones have more detail, dynamics, headroom, separation and a general sense of excitement than you'd expect in this price range. Music that falls under the 'doof-doof' colloquialism, like house, club, electronica, R&B and hip-hop sound particularly good, with a rich, strong presence.
Bass has a nice warm resonance (most of the time) that gently fills the mix while enhancing mid- and high-range frequencies. Percussive effects in the top-end, for example, can sound quite playful as they dance around the bassline's solid body. Rarely does music feel hollow or retrenched as a result.
The Realme Buds Air have 17 hours of battery life.
Genres with less pronounced bass, such as rock, metal, punk and so on, can sound a bit flat and tinny as the bass feels punchy rather than warm and resonant. Hard guitar riffs and wailing solos are a little crunchy; big, in-your-face moments become harsh from time to time; and there's some noticeable roll-off where the frequency response stops dead in its tracks.
The Buds Air clearly rely on the impact of bass which is OK as everything is still clearly defined, easy to place and frankly still sounds good. Vocals in particular are quite rich and bold. Really, there aren't many genres that the Buds Air can't handle, and when a pair of $150 headphones can reproduce string reverb in an acoustic guitar track, their small shortcomings are easy to forgive.
No noise-cancellation (sort of)
The Buds Air only provide active noise cancellation (ANC) during phone calls, according to the spec sheet. So music, video and games audio is stuck with passive noise cancellation (PNC) which basically relies on headphone design to naturally block outside audio.
Here, the PNC lets in some outside sounds, especially in noisier environments such as public transport or near busy roads. But it's unlikely to cause significant distractions, so you can still focus on the music.
Lossy vs lossless
We assessed the Buds Air by streaming content from Spotify (using the highest quality settings) to the headphones via Bluetooth, on a mobile device. This is because music streaming services are ubiquitous, particularly for people on-the-go.
However, we also tested sound quality with a few lossless (FLAC) files. We didn't expect them to sound that much better but the uptick in quality was noticeable. Most of the flaws listed above went away, particularly in big, in-your-face rock songs, and they didn't seem as dependent on bass to sound good. The lossless files showed what the Buds Air are truly capable of and frankly, it was impressive.
One of the biggest problems Bluetooth headphones face is latency. That's the delay between the time the audio signal leaves your device (the smartphone for most people) and when it reaches your ears. This isn't an issue if you're just listening to music, but it can be very distracting during video, when an actor's voice doesn't line up with their lips.
'Gaming mode' is an optional setting that fixes this so games and videos sync up with the headphones. It works, really well. Although there were obvious sync issues when gaming mode was turned off, dialogue and sharp and defined sounds such as gunshots lined up perfectly when we activated it.
These headphones opt for the one-size-fits-all approach, rather than including silicon fittings that can be swapped out to suit different ear canals. Unfortunately, in our experience, one size does not fit all.
Movement is the main issue. They felt comfortable when sitting, but walking, talking and eating caused the buds to slip down and hang at the bottom of the ear canals. Not only was this incredibly annoying, with constant readjustment required, the poor fit affected sound quality and passive noise-cancellation. Bass, in particular, had much less of an impact.
The earbud fit isn't adjustable.
It's disappointing because you don't really buy small portable headphones to use while sitting still. Plus, you have no way of know if they'll fit correctly until you put them in, and stores don't accept returns on used headphones.
The specifications don't mention anything about water/splash resistance including sweat, or any sort of environmental protection. So, we can only assume that they don't have any sort of protection which means you run the risk of damaging your Buds Air with something as simple as sweat on a hot day.
Each bud has controls to play/pause music, skip songs, answer calls and turn gaming mode on or off. These are responsive and work well, though three taps to jump to the next song is a bit cumbersome. Also, you'll end up pausing songs all the time as you constantly readjust the fit which is very annoying.
Fortunately, you don't need to install and register an account with any apps to use these headphones. This is a relief as most other brands force you to install their software that only offers bare bones features.
An optional app is available but it's a general program designed to be a central control hub for all their products. Features are limited to adjusting the touch controls or turning them off altogether and monitoring battery life. Though useful, an equaliser would have been a nice addition.
The case supports wireless charging.
The Buds Air can be used to make and take calls and control smart devices that support Google Home. If you have these in a smart home ecosystem then the experience is basically the same as using your phone.
Commands work as expected, but you'll have to repeat yourself from time to time and the digital assistant's response may not be what you're after. Though that's pretty standard across all digital assistants and smart devices as it's still emerging technology.
Outgoing audio from your end can sound a bit muffled and distant for the recipient, but the clarity is still there. Incoming audio, however, is clear and easy to understand, partially thanks to the active noise cancellation which only turns on during calls.
This isn't total noise cancellation, however. Instead, it lowers environmental noise and makes it much easier to focus on the conversation. This is better in a way, as you can still hear your voice quite clearly so you won't end up barking in the middle of a crowded train.
The carry case is compact and it has 14 hours of additional battery life. The headphones charge when you put them inside.
The Realme Buds Air headphones have fantastic sound quality for the price; Google Home and call functions work really well; and the latency reduction tech fixes lip-sync issues with the press of a button (or bud, technically speaking). On these grounds alone, we'd definitely recommend these for anyone wanting a pair of affordable headphones for day-to-day use.
However, the fit was poor in in this tester's ears making it a frustrating experience. If they fit you, awesome, you have a great pair of headphones. If they don't, you're out $150 because there aren't any adjustment options and you can't return used headphones. Unfortunately, that means the Buds Air are a bit of a gamble, and that's not very reassuring.