You can’t expect the world from $39 earbuds. After reviewing a number of much more expensive products, I’ve spent the last few days trying out the new OnePlus Nord Buds. There’s something unflattering about the name for me; “Nord Buds” sounds like a prop that would have been used Mork & Mindy circa 1979. But it fits the branding of OnePlus’ budget phone range, which has proven impressive, so it makes sense for the company to extend the brand to budget earbuds. Regardless, the features and performance of these inexpensive buds are more relevant than what they are called.
The budget wireless earbud category is awash with options from Skullcandy, JBL, Anker Soundcore, JLab, and countless brands you’ll find on Amazon. Most stick to the basics, aiming to deliver a decent fit, ample battery life, and a lively, bass-heavy sound profile that can partially mask underlying audio quality compromises. With the Nord Buds, OnePlus has pretty much ticked all of those basics off.
They’re comfortable to wear, can last up to seven hours on a single charge, and their 12.4mm drivers boost bass and treble enough to make the Nord Buds perfect for uncritical listening. They’re also rated IP55 for dust and water resistance, which is more durable than what Sony’s $200 earbuds offer. OnePlus definitely scores points here.
Like other companies, OnePlus reserves some software features exclusively for owners of its own smartphones – but they’re pretty minor by and large. OnePlus phones can take advantage of a low-latency gaming mode and customize earbud settings, adjust controls, and make EQ changes through the built-in Bluetooth menu. If you have another brand of Android phone, you can install the HeyMelody app to access the same features. In that case, you’re really just losing the low-latency trick. There’s even a HeyMelody app for the iPhone, which is admirable when companies like Google and Samsung have ditched iOS software support for their earbuds. HeyMelody for iPhone had not yet been updated to support the 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 earpiece piece is glossy, but the outer stem is matte with a circular chrome accent that doubles as a touchpad for controls. The sticks are shaped like popsicle sticks, which is enough to make them feel less like AirPod clones than previous OnePlus earbuds. You get the status quo trio of silicone tip sizes in the box, and the large pair managed to keep 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 to reducing outside noise. Comfort is one area where I have no complaints; The Nord Buds didn’t cause me any pain or irritation after a few days of heavy use in the coffee shop and office.
These earphones have a very bass-heavy sound that also emphasizes treble. The highs are boosted a little more than I’d like and can come off sharp here and there on an odd track. That’s something you can dial back with the EQ adjustments on Android, and you’ll probably want to boost the mids while doing so. The Nord Buds don’t shy away from their smiley EQ curve, but they still make for a comfortable listen. You might assume that $39 earbuds would sound muffled or fuzzy, but the Nord Buds manage to excel in this regard. They lack the fidelity, presence, and detailed soundstage of earbuds in the premium category, but if you told me I’d stick with these for a couple of weeks, I wouldn’t be too upset. That’s a good spot for $39 earbuds.
The no-frills, matte charging case for the Nord Buds avoids any weakness; its pill-shaped lid has a stable mechanism and no annoying wobbling. But the case is on the higher side. No matter how you slide it into a pocket, there will be a bulge. Hopefully OnePlus can shave a few millimeters next time. The magnets hold the earbuds in place competently, although you can shake them loose with a bit of force. The case charges via USB-C and, to no surprise at all given the asking price of $39, wireless charging isn’t offered. But on the plus side, it charges quickly. OnePlus claims you can get five hours of playback from just 10 minutes of charging.
OnePlus says the Nord Buds can achieve up to seven hours of continuous playback, and my time with them to date has given me no reason to question that estimate. The case gives you an additional 30 hours of total listening time.
There has to be a consistent downside somewhere for $39 earbuds, right? Of course, and with the Nord Buds, there is this weakness in microphone performance. You just won’t want to use these for voice calls or Zoom meetings. They’re not competent for the task, and people are reporting that my voice sounded garbled and difficult to understand on test calls, even when I was somewhere with moderate background noise. It’s also disappointing that while the Nord Buds support OnePlus’ proprietary Quick Pair, they don’t take advantage of Google’s Fast Pair for out-of-the-box setup with many other Android phones.
But those are really the only flaws on the Nord Buds testimonial. Their Bluetooth 5.2 connection was reliable, and the earbuds never stalled or showed frustrating bugs over the course of several days. They cover the bases admirably, are a solid budget effort and add credibility to the North lineup. While the Nord Buds end up mostly appealing to OnePlus believers, at $39 they’re a good value that, my colleague Allison Johnson said, can make you feel like you can get away with something – just like other Nord Hardware. And even if I feel the urge to say “nanu nanu” every time I mention her name.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verand