I’ve now spent five weeks with Rowkin Bit Charge earbuds — “the world’s smallest,” the company claims. On the upside, these sound better and fit more comfortably than my AirPods did. That said: everything about these earbuds, from turning them on to pairing them up — requires more time and effort than it should.
They’re Really Tiny
Each earbud weighs less than six paperclips. A Rowkin earbud is no bigger than a shelled, boiled peanut. (For you non-Southerners, that’s about the size of a NyQuil LiquiCap.)
That doesn’t leave much room for controls. But Rowkin squeezes a flat, narrow silver button on one end (for pausing music, taking calls, and summoning a virtual assistant) and a tiny sound port on the other.
They’re Really Comfortable
The sound port accepts one of three sizes (small, medium, large) of soft, silicone nubs.
With the right size nub in place, the earbuds do a great job of blocking out all but the loudest environmental sounds. As a result, I can enjoy my music at a lower volume while still hearing the level of detail I prefer. I can also use the Rowkins on a plane — something I couldn’t do with my ill-fitting AirPods.
They’re Really Discrete
Stick Apple AirPods in your ears, and everyone will know it, because those external antennae stick out and downward from your ears like a piercing gone wrong.
Rowkin earbuds are so small, they virtually vanish inside your head. Unless someone is really looking you over, they’ll never know you’re wearing earbuds at all.
They’re Really Hard to Tell Apart
Each of the earbuds is identical, which brings me to my first frustration with them: there’s no way to tell at a glance which earbud goes in which ear.
When you crank these babies up, one (the “primary” or right earbud) will pair with your phone. The other (the “secondary” or left earbud) will pair with the primary. The only way to tell the right from the left? Stare at the winky-blinky LED just above the button on the external end of each earbud. (The primary blinks less spastically than the secondary.) In other words, every time I power these up, I have to peer at them for several seconds just to tell which is which.
Readers inclined to DIY solutions might ask, “Why not put a dot of red nail polish on the right one?” That won’t help — because each time you turn the earbuds on, either earbud could end up being the primary! It’s annoying.
They’re Really Bad for Phone Calls
As I mentioned before, the primary earbud plays the right channel, while the secondary plays the left.
Until you take a phone call, that is. Once you do, the secondary unit falls silent (why?) and sound (and control of the call) is limited to the primary earbud.
While I can hear callers pretty clearly, they tell me I sound like I’m down in a well (or lost in a cave, or walking down a long, dark tunnel). I suppose that’s not surprising, because the microphones on these tiny ear buds are wedged deep in my skull.
They’re Really Prone to Dropouts
My trusty LG Infinim HBS 900s — earbuds connected to a springy, neck-hugging battery/transmitter by retractible cords — never, ever suffered from dropouts. Ever. Not once.
So far, though, every wireless earbud I’ve tried is prone to annoying, jarring dropouts (including Apple’s AirPods). But the Rowkins dropout very frequently — about three or four times during my seven-minute walk to work. It’s annoying.
Given that my phone is never more than twenty-four inches or so from the Rowkins, that’s pretty terrible performance. Dropouts can be minimized by always keeping your phone on the same side of your body as the primary (right) earbud. (No jokes, please, about how I’ve gotten so fat Bluetooth signals cannot penetrate my massive bulk.)
You can further reduce dropouts by always making sure the narrow silver buttons on the external end of the earbuds are kept parallel to the ground. But even then, something as simple as looking both ways to cross the street can stop the music. (And, as a pedestrian in Midtown Atlanta, I’m not giving up looking both ways to cross the street, because that could end the music — permanently.)
They’re Really Rechargable
My earbuds came packaged in a large, lightweight charger about the size of two cigarette lighters placed side-by-side. While I could force this case into my pocket, I’ll never do so.
Why such a big case for such tiny earbuds? The case conceals a big fat battery — big enough to recharge the earbuds fifteen times (they play for about two hours on a charge) or your iPhone 7 once.
One end of the case features two charging pits; drop each earbud into a pit, and it will snap snugly and satisfyingly into place through some magnetic magic. That connection is solid, by the way — you don’t have to worry about the buds falling out.
The case/recharger combo is cleverly designed and looks a bit like a high-tech taser when the buds are stuck in one end. But unless you carry a messenger bag (also known as a man purse), it’s just too big to carry with you — which is ironic, since anyone interested in tiny little earbuds is likely seeking maximum portability.
They’re Really Not for Bedside Charging
I suspect the same engineers who designed the Rowkin’s winky-blinky LED earbud lights designed the LED indicator on the charging case.
Most of the time, this very bright blue light blinks once, twice, three, or four times to indicate whether the batter is twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five, or one hundred percent charged. (Again, I find myself staring at little lights.)
But when charging, the light blinks pretty constantly, and, as mentioned earlier, it’s very bright. If you, like me, charge your electronics on a bedside table, this is a very bad thing, because you are going to feel as though you’re trying to sleep through a demo of a Tesla coil.
And no, you can’t just put the blinking edge of the charger flat on the tabletop, because that’s the end the cable plugs into. So: charge in the daytime … or buy a sleep mask.
They’re Really Very Fiddly
Powering up the earbuds requires two hands: one earbud in my left, one earbud in my right. While holding each earbud in a way that lets me monitor the winky-blinky LEDs on one end, I must depress the wide, narrow metal button on each with a thumbnail for four seconds.
The LEDs flicker while the two earbuds pair with each other. That done, I place the earbuds in my ears — very deliberately. keeping the wide silver buttons on each parallel to the ground, with the winky-blinky LED light above the button.
Long story short: in the time it takes to power up, pair, orient, and insert Rowkin earbuds, you could probably pop Apple AirPods out of their case, into your ear, and back in their case … several times. If you don’t already have an appreciation for Apple’s dedication to keeping controls simple, owning Rowkin earbuds will give you that.
They Sound Really Incredible
Once they’re finally in your ears, Rowkin earbuds sound very, very good (when they don’t dropout) — much better, in fact, than Apple AirPods.
No earbud will generate the thumping bass of a Sonos Sub, but the bass response from the Rowkin earbuds is … adequate. Songs played over my AirPods sounded like they were being performed by a tiny band of mosquitoes over AM radio; the same songs over Rowkin earbuds have a more satisfying depth and solidity.
They’re Really Just for Music
Since the Rowkins make my Spotify sound so great, I was looking forward to watching a movie with them.
Unfortunately, when watching video, the Rowkins suffer from a terrible and distracting amount of lag. I never noticed this lag with AirPods or my LG Infinims — but the Rowkin earbuds make every video look like it’s been shot in Chinese and overdubbed into English.
Maybe it’s because I work in media production, but I just can’t watch a video with out-of-sync audio. Since I’m someone who watches a lot of movies on long flights, for me, this is a deal-killer.
They’re a Really Mixed Bag
The verdict: for short walks to work, the Rowkins are fine. They sound better and look more stylish and futuristic than Apple’s AirPods.
That said: I do find myself avoiding getting the Rowkin earbuds out some mornings. Sometimes, before I’ve really gotten going, the start-up ritual (remove from charger, put one in each hand, press the button four seconds, watch the lights, check orientation, put them in my ear just so) just feels like more than I want to deal with. Constant dropouts make Rowkins even less attractive for day-to-day wear.
I would never watch a video with them on, though, and battery life (at about two hours per charge) is too short to depend on them during long plane trips.
Despite my obsession with tiny wireless earbuds, I find myself drifting back toward my trusty LG Infinims. They set a standard for comfort and sound, they have no sync issues, and they offer incredible battery life after years of service.
I’d prefer a wireless solution — but I begin to suspect that, for all the hoopla over wireless earbuds lately, the technology isn’t quite ready for prime time. For now, I’m back to my Apple AirPods for walks to work, and my LG Infinims for travel.