A deeply split experience
Running is my way of exercising. I run as often as I can, and I do it without listening to anything but my surroundings. I like to hear my environment, including my own steps and breath.
But they say variation is good, and even I find myself inside a gym every now and then. That changes everything, as they say. There is pretty much nothing I am interested in hearing in a gym. Other people? No. The sound of machines? No? Over-energetic background music? No. The sound of TVs rolling channels with regular ad breaks? Definitely not.
Plus, I am stuck in one place the whole time. It did not take many sessions until I brought along the phone, some headphones and dove into podcasts. But my otherwise prefered headphones are so gloriously, joyfully unsuitable for exercise that my mind soon went in a direction I had never really considered before: in-ear bluetooth headphones. The combination seemed perfect: small, a minimum of cables to get tangled in things and the potential of really good isolation of other sounds.
So, I headed straight to the Wirecutter and picked up their runner-up recommendation (the winner was and remains unavailable around here).
Here they are, they Jaybird X2:
Marketed especially for exercise and with a lifetime sweat warranty, they seemed just right for me (this sweat thing, I am really good at it). I like all aspects of the design, both in terms of look and - much more importantly - how everything works.
Judgning the X2 is deeply affected by them being both my first in-ear buds as well as my first bluetooth anytype listening devices. All the quality bluetoothiness has me in love. There is also USB charging, fitting good battery life into such small devices, pretty solid connections to paired devices unless I put a wall or two inbetween, and also having a decent headset. All stuff I have never done before. I quickly fell in love with being able to leave the phone on a surface and just walk around. Pairing and re-pairing with various devices is about as easy as can be on a device with exactly one button available for the task.
The review had prepared me to expect a bit of work finding a good fit, so I made sure to go through what instructions I could find. A bare minimum of help is included on paper in the package, but the website has both a manual as well as some vert stylish setup and documentation videos. The first one covers nothing but unboxing, in great detail and with great enthusiasm. Subsequent ones go into the much more important subject of fitting the plugs in just as much detail, and that was very welcome.
I tried to follow the instructions carefully and feel my way forward. Included in the package are two types of covers for the plugs, each in three different sizes. I had trouble finding what felt like a good fit and was curious to see if over time I would get much better at inserting them snugly and getting a tight seal. When I take the time to put them in carefully the X2 sit quite securely, but the seal is definitely not very tight. I was hoping for the kind of seal earplugs can provide, and the X2 are far from that. The outisde world is as present as ever, but I do not need much volume to hear what I want to listen to clearly. Another way I notice the seal is decent is how all sounds from inside my head are amplified when I wear the X2. Classic example: brushing teeth.
I like how the X2 sound. I like the sound of my big over-ear phones better, but the X2 sound good too. The sound feels very … crisp, clear, something like that. Things are easy to pick out. Detailed, perhaps? Not much in the way of bass (not compared to the much larger phones which are all I compare too) but not too much treble either.
There are some strange interactions between headphone and phone volume controls. I can get the volume to turn off in my ears while the phone is still showing one dot. And the same dot on the phone can mean slightly different volumes in my ears. It is a little odd, but never a problem.
A long and winding road
As I write this sentence, I have owned the X2 for almost two months. On one hand, I have not used them that much. On the other, I have not done a lot of gym training either, and that was my main expected use case. But that is not, I think, the main reason. The main reason is physical fit, split in two parts:
The first is that I can rarely fit them as well as I would like in my ears, and the fitting process itself is more uncomfortable than I would like. Once in place the X2 feel just fine, but it takes a bit of discomfort to get there.
The second part is that a poor fit means both a higher chance of the plugs actually coming out and a lot less isolation of outside noise than I was hoping for. I think my ears would do better with a longer, narrower plug. Now I feel as if I am jamming hard plastic into the outer part of each ear, never getting quite deep enough to begin to form a good seal. I have periodically been a very frequent user of ear plugs, so I know what a good seal feels like in my ears and what a difference it can make. For a while I thought this would be a deal-breaker, and I did think regularly about returning them inside the first 30 days. All other nice aspects made me hold off however. So here I am, still an owner.
I wonder if my ear canals are simply too narrow (and perhaps winding) for the X2? I have to say I am disappointed. Not in an angry way, not feeling like I have been cheated or wasted money. Just in buying something well made with high hopes and finding it lacking. Lacking for my particular ears. If only I had another pair of ears to compare and contrast with.
I also keep wondering if other in-ear plugs would do better, but considering how well rated the X2 seem to be I kind of doubt it. In the typical human way, I really like everything else about them even as I am bothered by them not working well for me. I do not really want other in-ear plugs, I want these ones, but working for me. (Also: am I wishing for more than anyone could deliver?)
Makes sense? Of course not, but I am human. This is how we work.
Then I drift off and wonder idly how custom-made foam plugs would feel and sound. Or if I can still find a better way of putting the X2 in.
And yet …
… I find so much to like about the X2. I appreciate everything they do and how they do it. I appreciate how they do not try to do a bunch of needless things. I do enjoy listening to them as soon as I get a decent fit, despite the slightly raw feeling in my ears afterward.
Maybe I should just keep practising plugging them in …