Update, January 2, 2021: This review was updated to include a microphone poll.
The OnePlus Buds Z don’t try to rope you in with fancy materials or unnecessary features. Instead, these are the earbuds for anyone on a budget. OnePlus learned from its debut true wireless earbuds, and now almost any Android smartphone owner can access firmware updates with these earbuds, rather than just OnePlus owners. Are these the budget buds to beat, or are there better options for you?
Who should get the OnePlus Buds Z?
- OnePlus 7 and OnePlus 8 series smartphone owners will get the most out of the OnePlus Buds Z. These are the required handsets for Dolby Atmos support; everyone else gets standard stereo playback.
- Listeners on a budget will appreciate these earbuds for their premium features like IP55 dust- and water-resistance, and extremely efficient fast charging.
What is it like to use the OnePlus Buds Z?
The OnePlus Buds Z feature a stemmed design, much like original OnePlus Buds and the Apple AirPods. At a glance, you could easily mistake the Buds Z for the original Buds, but there’s one big difference between the two headsets: the ear tip design. The OnePlus Buds Z have nozzles with silicone sleeves that seal to the ear, something the OnePlus Buds lack.
Must read: OnePlus Buds review
OnePlus provides three ear tip sizes (small, medium, and large), which makes the Buds Z much more comfortable than any kind of open-type earbuds. Not only are they more comfortable, they stay in place as you move. I took these IP55-rated earbuds rock climbing, and they stayed in place even as I dropped a few meters before hitting the cushioned ground. This is something that can’t be said for the unsealed design of the OnePlus Buds.
Each earbud has a touch-capacitive panel for playback control. The default is set so that double-tapping either earbud skips to the next track, and the only way to pause playback is to remove one earbud. Doing so automatically pauses playback, and reinserting the earbud automatically resumes playback. Just as with the original OnePlus Buds, automatic ear detection is immediate and very reliable.
Should you download the HeyMelody app?
In order to receive firmware updates and remap the controls, you must download the HeyMelody mobile app. Any Android device running Android 6.0 or later can use the app, but it’s not yet available on iOS.
You need to download the HeyMelody app in order to access your smart assistant from the OnePlus Buds Z.
HeyMelody is very sparse. All that you can do is update the firmware and remap the controls. It’s silly that you have to download an app to go to the previous track from the earbuds, but at least the option is available. The HeyMelody app is still in development, and features are subject to change as the app matures.
Do the OnePlus Buds Z stay connected?
During my testing period, the OnePlus Buds Z remained connected to my Samsung Galaxy S10e and OnePlus 7 Pro, so long as I stayed within the 10-meter wireless range. When outside, connection hiccups occurred every now and then regardless of whether my phone was in my left or right pocket. The connection never fully dropped, though.
The OnePlus Buds Z use Bluetooth 5.0 firmware and support just one high-quality Bluetooth codec: AAC. Most Android smartphones struggle with the AAC Bluetooth codec, because the operating system cannot consistently encode the codec. This means iPhone owners will benefit from consistent high-quality streaming, while most Android owners are left with SBC, the lowest-common denominator of Bluetooth codecs.
How do the OnePlus Buds Z sound?
The OnePlus Buds Z have a safe frequency response as its very consumer-friendly. Most headsets amplify bass and treble notes to make music more engaging, while simultaneously making it sound like all detail (treble notes) is preserved.
The Buds Z frequency response is similar to the OnePlus Buds, despite the smaller drivers — the former has 10mm dynamic drivers while the latter has 13.4mm dynamic drivers. Both earbuds amplify bass notes to sound about twice as loud as midrange notes, which gives your music more “oomph.”
It’s a clever trick and one that appeals to most of us, but you may find it hard to hear vocal detail, resonances in particular, from the OnePlus Buds Z. This is a consequence of auditory masking, when a loud sound (bass notes) makes it hard to hear a relatively quiet one (midrange notes). It’s not a huge deal when commuting or exercising. However, if you listen to your beloved songs that you know like the back of your hand, don’t be surprised when it seems like detail is missing.
Passive isolation is quite good, so long as you get a proper fit with the provided ear tips. A proper fit is absolutely paramount to optimal sound quality, so take a few minutes to play with the provided ear tips. OnePlus includes small, medium, and large sleeves that you can change out. Worst case scenario, you can always invest in a third-party pair that better fits you.
How long does the battery last?
The batteries lasted exactly 4 hours when subjected to a constant ~75dB output. Although this falls short of the official 5-hour playtime, it’s average for this tier of true wireless headset. The case provides an additional four charge cycles. One of the best features of any OnePlus headset is fast charging. If you drop the earbuds into the case for just 10 minutes, you’re rewarded with three hours of playtime. This is a great feature for frequent flyers and roadtrippers alike.
The case charges via USB-C and does not support wireless charging. For that, you’ll have to upgrade to the OnePlus Buds.
Do true wireless earbuds batteries lose their charge?
True wireless earbuds use lithium ion batteries, which degrade over time. The life cycles of these battery cells are shortened because they’re constantly being charged and depleted. Currently, most true wireless earbuds have an optimal lifespan of two years before the batteries need to be replaced, or you have to buy another pair.
If you want something for the long haul, true wireless earbuds aren't it.
Apple leads the way when it comes to battery optimization as iOS 14 instructs the AirPods and AirPods Pro cases to limit charging the earbuds beyond 80% capacity, until they’re ready to be used. It takes a time for the software to acclimate to your habits, but it soon registers the usage trends, and will fully charge the earbuds only when it approaches that expected time. This should extend the battery life of the AirPods line, and is something that other headset manufacturers might implement with future firmware updates.
Can I use the OnePlus Buds Z for phone calls?
Microphone quality is okay, but nothing special. You can take quick calls with this, and even get away on internal conference calls, but you’re better off getting a more premium headset for important client calls. Audio clips quite a bit, and background noise is hardly rejected as you can hear in the demo below.
OnePlus Buds Z microphone demo:
OnePlus Buds vs. OnePlus Buds Z: Which buds are better?
If you want the best sound quality, you should buy the OnePlus Buds Z. Sure, the OnePlus Buds have larger dynamic drivers but they let in much more background noise than the Buds Z. Even the best possible fit with the OnePlus Buds can’t compare to a mediocre fit with the OnePlus Buds Z. Another reason to get the OnePlus Buds Z over the OnePlus Buds: they’re more durable. The former boasts an IP55 rating, while the latter has only an IPX4 rating. Both headsets will survive most cardio workouts, but the Buds Z are the better pick for rock climbers and training gymnasts.
There are, however, a few reasons to get the OnePlus Buds over the Buds Z. Some people like to be aware of their surroundings at all times, which is something you can only do with the OnePlus Buds Z when listening in mono mode. Another benefit of the original OnePlus Buds is wireless charging. While this isn’t a make-or-break feature for most of us, it is nice to have.
OnePlus Buds Z review: Should you get them?
The OnePlus Buds Z are a great solution for listeners who don’t want or need anything fancy. If your budget absolutely stops at $50, then the OnePlus Buds Z are one of the best value headsets available. The limited controls are a pain, but drawbacks are expected at this price point. If you want even more affordable buds, you may want to consider alternatives like the Anker SoundCore Liberty Neo and JLab Go Air, both of which are durable earbuds with consumer-friendly sound profiles.