We've explored Intel's wearables strategy before, and one of the first partner products to hit the market was the SMS Audio Biosport earbuds. Intel touted the earbuds a great deal around (and after) IDF back in October, and attendees were told that the company was gifting a pair to each of us. Mine arrived yesterday, so I took them for spin.
The SMS Audio Biosport earbuds are cleverly designed in that although they have some intelligence built in, there's no Bluetooth or anything to fiddle with. There's no battery, either. You just plug them into your smartphone, and they're connected. From there, the functionality of the earbuds depends on the apps you use them with.
You can simply use them as headphones and fire up music or some podcasts to enjoy, but they also offer a modicum of fitness tracking. The world needs another fitness tracker like a hole in the head, but the idea here is that you're already wearing earbuds to listen to music while you're working out; why not track your heart rate while you're at it, with an app like RunKeeper?
You can also field phone calls with the little in-line microphone/multifunction control. When listening to audio, the controller also allows you to play/pause, skip to the next track, and skip back to the previous track, all using a single button. (You have to control the volume with the phone itself, though.) A long press of the button launches voice recognition on your phone, too.
SMS Audio does have a disclaimer that the functionality of the earbuds depends on the phone, but I gave it a go with both a Moto X (2013) and an iPhone 4. In both cases, the controller was a bit finicky.
The play/pause function worked fine regardless of the audio app I was using, but the double-press to skip only worked in one app (Google Music), and the triple-press to go back to the previous track didn't work at all. The long press launched voice recognition with no trouble, but the mic couldn't "hear" me. The app kept telling me that I needed to speak up. In response, I continued raising my voice until I grew concerned that I'd disturb the neighbors. Eventually, I realized that the problem was that I needed to flip the tiny switch on the controller from "Heart Rate Mode" to "Music Mode." Once I did that, the voice recognition worked just fine.
However, that's a design flaw. If I'm out running, it's really a pain to reach up, locate the itty bitty switch, and flip it before my voice commands can work. It has the same issue if you want to receive a phone call -- if you wanted to track your heart rate while chatting on the phone, too bad. Further, the switch itself is hard to flip because it's so small, which severely inhibits the convenience of the device.
The heart rate monitor, however, appeared to work just fine. I used RunKeeper (upon SMS Audio's suggestion) to track a jaunt around the neighborhood, and you can see that the heart rate monitoring tracked me with no hiccups.
The ear gels felt odd the first time I popped them in, but they didn't weigh much more than standard earbuds, and in short order I found them to be quite comfortable. Even after a few miles, they felt like two little clouds in my ears. I got the sense that I could leave them in all day.
However, I wasn't satisfied with their stability. The right earbud (the one with the in-line mic and controller hanging off of it) fell out at least once per mile -- and that was walking. When I ran, it took less than a quarter mile for it to pop out.
And even that was just when I was moving in a straight line. If I turned my head at all, the earbuds loosened more rapidly. Imagine trying to keep these things nestled in place when performing a more high-impact activity -- it's not going to work well. (I will allow for the fact that my ears have never been particularly friendly to earbuds of any kind. Those iconic white Apple things? I basically need to tape them in place.)
SMS Audio included three pairs of earbud gel covers -- S, M, and L -- and so I tried them all to find the best fit. However, it seemed to be a pointless activity, as I could not discern any difference in the sizes.
I also noticed that the cords brushing against my clothing made a good bit of noise. When it's cold and you're wearing a jacket with a collar, the cords are constantly scraping against it. That got annoying quickly.
Making and receiving phone calls using voice commands and the controller button worked flawlessly. You press the button once to accept a call and once more to mute your voice. A long press declines an incoming call or terminates a live call. I was also impressed by the bright, clear call quality.
Hey, Nice Audio
For as unimpressive as some of the more minor aspects of the SMS Audio Biosport earbuds were, the actual audio performance was very fine indeed. For one thing, the volume was delightfully loud. Even when I kept the volume on my phone turned down quite low, voice calls, podcasts and music were all loud and clear.
The dynamic range did sound just a bit condensed, but even so, the bass response was solid -- certainly better than I expected -- and these buds also offered surprisingly strong balance between highs, mids, and lows. I even occasionally found myself glancing over my shoulder in response to a voice or a noise, only to realize that it was something subtle on the track I was listening to. Kudos to SMS Audio on such fine spatial capabilities.
It terms of looks, the SMS Audio Biometric earbuds are certainly sporty, with a black-and-electric-blue color scheme, and the cable is wide and flat. The little controller is fairly unobtrusive, and the cable is long enough that even very tall fellows can pop the earbuds in, put their phone in a pants pocket, and still have plenty of slack to work with.
The whole package feels rugged and sturdy, and it also boasts sweat-resistance with an IPX4 rating.
Knowing Its Place
Far too often, wearables are trying too hard to be something they just can't be. (Avram Piltch, of Tom's Guide -- one of our sister sites -- had a few things to say on that topic.) So many devices are aspirational, which is noble, but they typically fall short, which is a shame (and a letdown for the consumer). What's funny about these SMS Audio earbuds is that they're designed to avoid that mistake in that they're just earbuds that also happen to offer heart rate monitoring capabilities. They're not aspirational, and that's a good thing.
These earbuds are not without issues. The fact that the music controls are finicky at best (and dysfunctional at worst) and that it can be a pain to remember which mode the controller needs to be in for you to do certain action(s) are definitely problems that will turn off some buyers.
If you can live with having to fiddle with these earbuds at times to get all of the features to work, then you should be happy with the SMS Audio Biometric earbuds. They offer impressive audio performance, use simple physical plug-in functionality instead of Bluetooth, and the heart rate monitoring feature may be enticing to a number of users. They're quite comfortable, to boot.
The price is a bit of a gut-punch, though; at $149.95, you may be hard-pressed to justify the cost. The earbuds come in blue, yellow, and gray and are available now at SMS Audio's website.
This is not an Intel device, make no mistake. However, it is a device with some Intel intelligence inside, and it's yet another example of the sort of unconventional wearable product we'll be seeing more of this coming year.