You can’t expect the world from $39 headphones. After reviewing a series of much more expensive products, I spent the last few days trying out the new OnePlus Nord Buds. There’s something unflattering about the name to me; “Nord Buds” sounds like a prop that would have been used on Mork and Mindy circa 1979. But that matches the branding of OnePlus’ budget phone range, which has proven to be impressive, so it makes sense that the company would extend the brand to budget headphones. Either way, the features and performance of these inexpensive buds are more relevant than their name.
The budget category of wireless headphones is awash with options from Skullcandy, JBL, Anker Soundcore, JLab, and countless brands you’ll find on Amazon. Most stick to the basics and aim to offer a decent fit, ample battery life, and a lively, bass-rich sound profile that can partially mask their underlying audio quality compromises. With the Nord Buds, OnePlus checked just about all of these fundamentals.
They’re comfortable to wear, can last up to seven hours on a single charge, and their 12.4-millimeter drivers boost the bass and treble enough to make the Nord Buds perfectly enjoyable for uncritical listening. They’re also rated IP55 for dust and water resistance, which is more durable than what the $200 Sony headphones will give you. OnePlus definitely earns points there.
Like other companies, OnePlus reserves a few software features exclusively for owners of its own smartphones, but they’re pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. OnePlus phones can take advantage of a low-latency gaming mode and are able to adjust headphone settings, customize controls, and make EQ changes with the built-in Bluetooth menu. If you have a different brand Android phone, you can install the HeyMelody app to access the same functions; you really only lose the low latency trick in this case. There’s even a HeyMelody app for iPhone, which is admirable when companies like Google and Samsung have dropped iOS software support for their headphones. HeyMelody for iPhone has yet to be updated to support Nord Buds at the time of this review, but that should change soon enough.
The Nord Buds don’t look as cheap as they cost: the earbud is glossy, but the outer stem is matte with a circular chrome accent that doubles as a touchpad for the controls. The stems are shaped like popsicle sticks, which is enough to make them look less like AirPod clones than previous OnePlus headphones. You get the status quo trio of silicone ear tip sizes in the box, and the large pair managed to hold them firmly in my ears with a good seal and decent noise isolation. The latter is an important factor, as the Nord Buds don’t include active noise cancellation, so a tight seal is crucial for reducing outside clamor. Comfort is an area where I have no complaints; the Nord Buds gave me no pain or irritation after a few days of prolonged coffee and office use.
These headphones have a very low sound that also emphasizes high frequencies. The highs are a bit more lifted than I would like and can be sharp on a weird track here and there. This is something you can dial back with the EQ settings on Android, and you’ll probably want to boost the mids while doing so. The Nord Buds aren’t hampered by their smiling EQ curve, but they still make for a pleasant listen. You might think $39 headphones would sound muffled or indistinct, but the Nord Buds manage to over-deliver in this regard. They lack the fidelity, presence, and detailed soundstage of high-end headphones, but if you told me I’d be stuck with these for a few weeks, I wouldn’t be terribly upset about it. This is a good place for $39 headphones.
The matte, no-frills charging case for the Nord Buds avoids any fragility; its pill-shaped lid has a sturdy mechanism and no awkward movement. But the box is bigger. However you slip it into a pocket, there will be a bulge. Hopefully OnePlus can save a few millimeters next time. The magnets do a decent job of holding the earbuds in place, although you can shake them with some force. The case charges via USB-C, and to no one’s surprise considering the $39 asking price, there’s no wireless charging on offer. But, on the plus side, it charges quickly. OnePlus claims you can get five hours of playback from just 10 minutes of charging time.
OnePlus says the Nord Buds can achieve up to seven hours of continuous playtime, and my time with them so far has given me no reason to question that estimate. The box will give you another 30 hours of total listening time.
There must be a consequent downside somewhere for $39 headphones, right? Of course there is, and with the Nord Buds that weakness is mic performance. You just won’t want to use them for voice calls or Zoom meetings. They’re not competent for the task, with people reporting my voice was garbled and hard to distinguish on test calls if I was anywhere with even moderate background noise. It’s also disappointing that while the Nord Buds support OnePlus’ proprietary Fast Pair, they don’t take advantage of Google’s Fast Pair for instant setup with many other Android phones.
But those are really the only failings on the Nord Buds’ record. Their Bluetooth 5.2 connection was reliable, and the headphones never got in the way or exhibited frustrating bugs over several days of use. They cover the bases admirably, are a solid budget effort, and lend more credibility to the Nord range. Even though the Nord Buds end up appealing mostly to OnePlus loyalists, they’re good value for money at $39 which, in the words of my colleague Allison Johnson, may leave you feeling like you’re getting away with something. – just like other Nordic Gear. And even if I want to say “nanu nanu” every time I say their name.
Photograph by Chris Welch/The Verge