Gadget of the Week: Earbuds that clean themselves

What is it?

A wireless earbud is a wireless earbud is a wireless earbud. Apple, Samsung and Jabra compete annually to raise the bar on in-ear sound quality. As a result, it becomes increasingly hard to differentiate between the numerous models on the market, and the purchasing decision is usually based on price or brand loyalty.

Now LG is giving consumers a reason to rethink that choice.

Its new Tone Free FP-9 earbuds, released in South Africa last month, offer two highly distinctive features.

The first is one of those “why-was-this-not done-before” innovations, namely the industry’s only auto-cleaning UVnano charging case. It uses ultraviolet light to reduce bacteria on the earphone speaker mesh by a claimed 99.9% within five minutes of beginning charging. First introduced in 2020, it may well become an expectation that LG will create in the rest of the market.

The Tone Free buds take the thinking a step further: they feature medical-grade, hypoallergenic ear gels.

As they say in the cliché classics, but wait, there’s more.

The FP series earbuds introduce LG’s new Whispering Mode, which allows users to hold the right earphone close to their mouth and whisper into its microphone, “enabling crystal clear and completely private phone calls”, according to LG. It cites public environments, like a library or crowded restaurant, but one can imagine numerous settings in which this feature would be a winner.

We were tempted on several occasions to offer our devices on loan to people who violated phone etiquette during conferences and in restaurants – but mainly because they clearly had not heard of Whispering Mode. The problem was that, if we did dare to convince them, they would not wait the 5 minutes it would take us to zap the buds with UVnano – and we don’t trust the auto-cleaning claims THAT much, to hand our buds to strangers.

In all seriousness, though, the combination of these two features makes the FP-9 a serious contender against, well, any earbud on the market.

In terms of standard features offered by most market leaders, it includes Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), which eliminates low-frequency sounds that are not blocked by normal earphones. Each unit contains three microphones that listen for ambient noises and neutralise them by producing identical, though inaudible, soundwaves.

It pairs with PCs, gaming consoles, and other devices, either wirelessly or via a USB-C to AUX cable. This means one can also use an AUX cable to listen to music when Bluetooth is unavailable, for example in airplane mode.

The LG Tone Free App provides an Ambient Sound Mode that allows sound to be adjusted to the volume of the surroundings, or have messages read without using one’s phone. A Find My Earbuds function on the app allows the buds to be located when misplaced.

The Tone Free range also features Meridian Audio, a sound technology that uses digital signal processing to make sounds appear to originate from all directions. Its equalisers can be adjusted via the app. On top of that, it adds a 3D Sound Stage feature, which claims to “expand the sound point via spatial up-mixing and allowing you to hear your favourite tracks in a simulated 3D space”. Not only that, but “With larger, upgraded drivers and diaphragms featuring silicone edging, allowing for more flexibility and movement, the new Tone Free models now deliver more powerful bass without compromising on clarity or detail”.

Let’s be honest here, or hear: your hearing must be pretty good to pick up all of that. Certainly, when compared with equivalent models, 3D sound does not set it apart from the competitors.

But then, it already has plenty to set it apart.

What does it cost?

The LG Tone Free FP series is available in South Africa in Charcoal Black and Pearl White. The FP5, FP8, and FP9 models retail for R1999, R2699, and R3699 respectively.

Why should you care?

As LG puts it, “wearing a headset for too long, especially during sweaty workouts, can result in irritated skin or painful ear infections.”

Workouts aside, the ears are among the most germ-ridden parts of the body that come into regular contact with electronics, so it is quite astonishing that no other earbud maker has come up with an equivalent solution to the UVnano cleaning-and-recharge case.

What are the biggest negatives?

  • Its claims for audio innovation are incredibly complex, and may not tally with the average user’s experience.

What are the biggest positives?

  • Ergonomic design technology resulted in a sleek Arc Design, reducing the stem by 4.4mm for a more snug fit.
  • Great battery, with 10 hours of play, another 14 hours of recharge from the case, and Fast Charging in 5 minutes for 1 hour of play. Also compatible with wireless charging.
  • The most hygienic earbuds on the market.

* Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter @art2gee.