I backed the Zolo Liberty+ (Zolo Liberty Plus) kickstarter–it’s part of my semi-conscious push to get more companies to do better wireless audio for portable use cases. Neckbuds and the like can DIAF, as I’m thinking it is really just not a viable solution for mobility due to durability and cost problems. For clarity’s sake, note that there’s also a non-Plus version of the Zolo Liberty+ (which is just called Liberty). Zolo is a new brand and the Liberty/Liberty+ are their first foray into this product category.
The Zolo brand is Anker’s consumer audio label, they have these earbuds and a set of Alexa and Google Home enabled speakers under the brand. So it’s easy to see why the Liberty+ has a great charging case, as that’s in their wheelhouse. The Liberty+ has an aluminum charging case with extended charges, and supposedly so does the earphones with longer battery life. The Plus also has audio pass-through (similar to ANC headsets that pipes the microphone through the headset for ambient listening), compared to the non-Plus Liberty. The normal Liberty do not have a non-aluminum charge case and it has supposedly half the battery life, but since I don’t have one I don’t know in detail the differences. It is the one shipping as of this writing from Amazon, where as the Plus is not yet shipping (and won’t for Christmas) unless you are a backer.
In the box: It comes in a box with nicely presented opening experience, I guess? There is the buds, the charge case, a nice (braided) USB-A to USB-micro charging cable, and paperwork. There are also a set of tips of different sizes, and 4 pairs of earbud jackets (that are the same AFAIK, so just for replacement I guess).
Battery life: The Liberty+ should have 24+ hours of battery life from the case, but I don’t know how much each bud is. I have ran non-stop over 1.5 hours and it seemed rock solid, and I think it’s suppose to get over 3.5 hours, but I have not tested either capacity.
Looks: These are okay buds, they set in your ear with a “lock in” kind of mechanism. It comes with a rubber tip (the folded kind that you find common with low end in-ears) but also with a earbud jacket that you attach to the business end of the bud. Made of plastic, these have a weight to them but it isn’t too heavy, and probably just light enough that it doesn’t move around if you run with them. The non-business end (the one facing out) has a round “zolo liberty” labeled button. So you got one on left ear and one on right.
The Liberty+ comes in black, white, or backers edition (which is black with gold trims). I got the black ones because they ship first. I’m assuming backers editions are not available in retail.
Handling and use: The buds are a little tricky to pick up out of the case, or maybe my fingers are too fat. They have magnetic pins in the case that lines up to the buds, and they only fit one way so it isn’t hard to put them in. The build quality is not 100% best because sometimes the buds don’t rest completely on the pins, and you have to jiggle it a bit. Maybe with a bit of practice and breaking into it would be better down the road. Also, it would be nice if the finger holes in the case were a tad bigger so it’s easier to clean any ear wax or the like that falls into the case. (I have dry earwax.)
The buds themselves are pretty big in terms of holding it between my fingers and being able to insert into my ears and remove from my ears. I don’t particularly handle them with confidence, however. In a way the Apple Earpod’s stem provides a good contrast, but the Zolo Liberty+ is easy enough to handle even while on the move, it just needs a bit more caution.
The aluminum Liberty+ case feels good in the hand, and it has motion-sensitive battery indicator led that looks neat. I would say that aluminum makes it a tad more slippery than you’d want, and the lid is a tad hard to open for me, because the “lip” part is pretty small to get a grip on–again, it’s okay to handle while on the move but i wish they made it a little more confidence-inspiring tactilely.
To use the buttons, pressing it to turn on (each bud has to be turned on individually). Press it while it’s paired to start/stop music or pickup/hangup calls. Pressing it for 2 seconds to skip (left bud skip back, right bud skip forward). Pressing it for 3 seconds enables audio pass-through mode. Once I got used to it, the buttons all made sense and it wasn’t a problem pressing them while the buds were jammed in my ears.
The only real complaint about handling and use, besides maybe the case can have a better opening experience and the seating of the buds could be better built, is that it really jams into your ears. Zolo says it has some kind of ear lock thing, where you put it in upright and twist for a good seal. For me it mostly works, although I didn’t have to twist much. But I found that using the default size cups is not the most confident fit so I went one size larger. It is definitely a tighter fit and it doesn’t move around, but it’s also a tad uncomfortable for a long time. I think I will get used to it though.
Bluetooth: The pairing process was painless, if you read the instructions first. It’s definitely not intuitive in a way, but given there are just 2 buttons, I doubt you can screw it up. Basically, once your buds are charged, you press the buttons on the buds once each. It will give you a power up sound if you happen to have them in your ears while pressing the button. Then you just go to your phone and pair, that’s it. I believe this is both applicable to iOS and Android. There are no fancy tech or anything in these.
I haven’t figured out how to reset the pairing yet (or rather, I read it and forgot what it said in the instructions), or if it can be paired with multiple devices. None of that is a huge deal though.
Sound quality: So the Zolo Liberty and Liberty Plus have graphene drivers. I think it’s kind of like other statically driven earphones/headphones I’ve used, on the budget end. In other words, it sounds kind of like an appliance speaker with fairly muddy mids/highs and generally uninspiring sound. On the Zolo, it’s better than most membrane phones in this price range in that it has some bass, and if I EQ a bit the mids and highs can distinguish themselves a bit better. Consider I got the 2nd round early bird kickstarter price on these, they’re definitely decent sounding, if even good, for $90. I think they would also give Airpods a run for their money, but the sound quality leaves something to be desired. That said, a pair of Shure 215s would blow these away, as a measuring stick.
The isolation on these are on par with IEMs, maybe a bit worse because they don’t have great tips. I wish I can just use my Comply tips with these, it would improve comfort, although that might mean I couldn’t run with them.
Lastly, these buds don’t support Aptx or any advanced BT audio codecs–which might not be a big deal because the sound quality on the Liberty+ is barely at that point where you can tell the difference. That would still be nice to have though.
Other notes: There is a companion app to the Zolo Liberty. On the Plus, you can use it to control the buds’ passthrough mode and other commands you can otherwise do via the buttons. That is also how you EQ the buds–I couldn’t find any custom settings, just the presets. Also, the app for this, Zolo Play, has the same icon as the other Zolo app, Zolo Life, on Android. Maybe not the best idea.
I can criticize the case some more. It’s small and easy to pocket (for me), but the marking in the back kind of ruins the look when it’s in the hand. They should’ve saved all the regulatory writing inside the case or something. It feels like they are 95% of the way there to a great case, but it has these minor things I can nitpick.
Conclusion: This is a new and exciting product category that I feel is made for me. As someone who has been listening to music on his phone on the go since the dumb phone days, who bypassed iPods and went for phones as soon as possible, this is like, the second realization of that wireless vision. But at the same time I understand too well as to the challenges in this product category, and why we haven’t landed on wireless audio nirvana yet. The Zolo is a democratic brand, not for audiophiles, but hopefully they can raise the bar and do something to bring the pragmatic aspects of their devices to pair with actual high end audio. With the Liberty+ I think they got the gist of it, they just need better phones.