Updated 26/01/2019 – see end of article for more details.
With most new phones beginning to omit the headphone jack, most users have begun a mass migration to Bluetooth wireless audio solutions. Many of these are traditional headphones which are somewhat bulky, but there has been an increase in interest smaller form factors especially since the introduction of the Apple AirPods. Unfortunately, while such earpieces seem great, they are still very expensive and suffer from limited battery life.
I was contacted by Cowin after publishing the review of their Cowin E7 Pro to see whether I would be interested in reviewing their new HE5A SportFree Active Noise Cancelling Wireless Bluetooth Earphones. These take a half-way approach by integrating in-ear earphones with a Bluetooth module and battery housed in a thin and light neck-band. This results in a light-weight and compact solution that maintains active noise cancellation abilities without the high price and limited battery life of the earpiece-designs.
As a result, I agreed to review it under Gough’s Review Challenge to see what it’s like.
The unit arrived in a slightly crushed, thin, matte-black box with grey-white printing. The front features a line-art drawing of the unit inside with the rear containing the contact details and serial number details. The box doesn’t actually have any other information or specifications which is rather unusual.
The underside of the box contains a warning about listening at high volumes. It has an FCC ID and approvals from CE and CCC only. There is no Regulatory Compliance Mark for Australia unfortunately, which may make selling this unit problematic in Australia.
Within the box reveals a blow-moulded tray which contains the unit itself. The wires for the right-hand side doesn’t fit the moulded tray quite perfectly.
Aside from that, there are two pairs of silicone tips, a microUSB charging cable, a user manual leaflet, an FCC statement, a Thank You card and a donation information card.
The neckband has two nodes – one on each side. The left-hand node has the branding subtly engraved on the outer and presumably houses the battery.
The direction is marked within the inside face of the pods. Each pod then connects to the earpieces through a thinner cable.
The right side pod appears to contain all the intelligence. The underside has an exposed microUSB-B connector for charging, which could be exposed to sweat (unfortunately). The outer face contains the buttons, including noise-cancelling on/off, volume up/down and power. Two LED indicators are also provided – one for the ANC status and the other for power/pairing status.
The right-side pod also contains the microphone on the inside.
Each of the earpieces has a rather angular design and is slightly chunky. The left/right earpiece indication is moulded into the strain relief of the cable, which is a nice touch. There is a port on the inside, top and rear. The port on the rear exposes the internal noise-cancelling microphone in each earpiece.
If there’s any doubts about the unit being heavy or bouncing around – it won’t. It’s lighter than I expected, tipping the scales at just 24 grams.
Testing and Opinion
What follows are the results of some testing on the HE5A and my subjective opinions. Please understand that everyone perceives audio slightly differently – what might be good for someone might sound terrible to someone else. It very much depends on what other headphones/earphones they might have experienced in the past. My headphone/earphone resume is pretty extensive and covered by many reviews in the past so I won’t repeat it in depth but to say that my preferred headphones is an AudioTechnica ATH-M50x with its sharper “analytical” sound signature.
Unfortunately, there was no way to open the unit as each earpiece is firmly glued together and the pods on the neckband are screwed together with small Torx screws (smaller than T4) which I don’t have a driver to open. As a result, there is no teardown for this unit.
Pairing, Connectivity and Codecs
The device starts into pairing mode if not already connected to a device, or if the power button is held down. I had no problems pairing the device with various computers running Windows 10 and Android mobile phones. Using the Bluetooth logging features of my Android phone, it seems to support SBC only.
The first audio configuration packet I found seems to suggest support for 44.1Khz and most SBC modes. The second audio configuration packet may reflect the negotiated parameters with the phone in question (which is also capable of aptX).
In the case of my first pairing out of the box, I found the unit seemed to drop out continuously until the unit was turned off and on again. This was probably a once-off bug as it never seemed to happen again.
Connection range seems to be as good as most other units as long as the transmitter is at roughly the same height as the pods. I could walk around my room comfortably in this scenario. However, if the source is placed in the left pocket, the signal occasionally has a drop-out when walking as the signal has to traverse “through” the body to the right pod to be received. As a result, I suspect the positioning of the pod and the metal casing may affect the range slightly depending on the direction. This did not prove to be a major issue.
Subjective Audio Quality
I found the audio quality of the Cowin HE5A to be relatively sufficient for a “commuting” or “outdoor” use device. In a quiet environment, it’s noticeably boomy and bass-oriented with a consumer-style sound signature. Female vocals and some sibilant sounds are somewhat recessed by comparison and midrange is slightly reverberant, but not in an unpleasant way. It is actually quite good to listen to when on noisy public transport, although the boominess does result in a little listening fatigue.
Active noise cancelling was found to have a positive effect on the listening experience, but is a little more subtle than in over-the-head headphones as the in-ear pieces themselves isolate noise fairly well on their own. Engaging ANC results in low frequency rumble being noticeably attenuated (e.g. fan motor noise, bus motor noise). It’s not as good as the best over-the-head headphones, but it’s a fair effort given that there is not much noticeable hiss with it switched on which is a good balance.
Compared to the AudioTechnica ATH-ANC23 wired active noise cancelling in-ear earphones, I’d have to say that the Cowin seems sharper on the high end, a little more muffled in the mids but with an equally effective noise cancelling performance and the convenience of being wire-free. Both have a darker/warmer low-end emphasis in the sound signature. As a result, I’d still have to commend Cowin on the result.
Build Quality and Ergonomics
Each of the pods is made of an aluminium shell with plastic ends. The two pods are interconnected by a thicker plastic cable, whereas the earpieces are connected through thinner cables. As the cables do “dangle”, the earpieces can be vulnerable to being tugged at, so a little care is necessary. No protective bag or casing is provided, which is unfortunate, but keeps the price low.
Each earpiece is a little chunkier than usual to accommodate the noise cancelling microphone. The stem is angled at a relatively steep angle, which I found to be a slightly odd fit. The standard supplied silicone tips were of average comfort, not being irritating nor specifically comfortable in any way.
Buttons on the right pod feature a different shape for distinguishing by feel between volume and power. But without dimples, it’s hard to know which button is volume up/down without trying. To access features such as next/previous require long-pressing the button. LED indicators are used to indicate the status.
Generally, the unit is easy to work even without reference to the manual thanks to the incorporation of voice prompts. Unfortunately, some of the prompts aren’t easy to understand – e.g. one of them sounds like “thought connected” to indicate the device is connected. Others are grammatically strange, such as “please charging” to indicate low battery. When not playing in standby, low battery is indicated by a periodic “beep”, and an incoming call is signaled with a voice prompt as well (not recorded).
One problem seems to be that ANC is switched separately to the Bluetooth. While this allows you to use ANC function alone, it also results in cases where you may turn off the Bluetooth and leave ANC running which can run down the battery. In other cases, you can power up the Bluetooth and forget to engage ANC until you notice the noise intruding into your listening.
The light-weight nature of the unit makes it easy to wear and unobtrusive when out walking with no noticeable cable thump. Best of all, it takes up little space in your bag and doesn’t mess up your hair (assuming it is short). The open microUSB B charging port may not be the best design choice, especially if sweat gets into it as it could be a corrosion risk.
To find out the capacity of the battery and the amount of time needed to charge the earphones, I used my Keysight U1461A with a modified USB charger doctor to measure the current over time.
Of three charging cycles, the charge time is about 1 hour 18 minutes to 1 hour 24 minutes. Total delivered change is between 184mAh to 189mAh (which would be the effective capacity assuming a linear charge circuit and discounting the current consumption of the charging LED). On the whole, the charge time is quite reasonable – if you run out of power, it won’t be long to a full charge. The bulk of the charge is achieved within the first 45 minutes.
On that note, this unit does not allow charging while listening. Once the USB charging cable is plugged into power, the unit shuts down and begins charging.
Play time was logged by hand over three discharges. The manual claims a play time of about 8 hours. In my experience, I achieved 9h 8m, 8h 45m and 10h 10m, all of which exceeds the claimed 8 hours.
The low battery warning appears to come on at almost exactly 30 minutes before the unit shuts down due to insufficient power.
Unfortunately, in my eyes, 8 hours of battery life is a little on the low side and is likely a sacrifice necessary to maintain the compact form factor. It is enough for a regular day or two of commuting between charges, but won’t last long enough to cover a long international flight.
Testing of the microphone shows the microphone is able to produce intelligible and clear audio, although the volume is a little low. A sample of the audio is provided here.
The Cowin HE5A is an interesting low-cost mid-way between a Bluetooth wireless headphone and Bluetooth wireless earpieces. Combining the isolation and compact size of the in-ear earphones with active noise cancelling technology and Bluetooth wireless connectivity in a “neck band” arrangement, it offers an advertised 8 hours of play time in a compact and light package.
The HE5A has a consumer-oriented sound signature which seems to emphasises the bass over the high-end, which is somewhat boomy in character. Midrange is slightly muffled, but not objectionably so and the treble is somewhat recessed. The active noise cancelling does not seem to be as apparent owing to the isolation that in-ear earphones already offer, but engaging it results in an unobtrusive reduction in low-end rumbling noises. The unit charges relatively quickly and exceeded the claimed 8 hour play time. Build quality feels relatively good with metal shelled pods which feel robust.
On the downside, it lacks a protective case or bag and snagging the earpieces is a risk when transporting it. The ANC function is also not linked with the Bluetooth system, so it can be left running inadvertently. The microphone is clear, but somewhat low in volume and Bluetooth connectivity across the body occasionally results in interruptions. The voice prompts are also slightly awkward, but these are mostly minor issues given the price compared with some other options in this market.
On the whole, it seems like an acceptable set of compromises to make something that is compact, with a decent play time and with active noise cancelling functionality. You can find more about the HE5A SportFree Active Noise Cancelling Wireless Bluetooth Earphones and other Cowin products from their official website.
Update: Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, the unit has failed on me and I can no longer recommend it. Instead, I have posted a follow-up article which looks at a destructive teardown of the unit and the cause of failure.