Optoma's NuForce BE Free5 true wireless earbuds combine quality with a price that's hard to beat
Optoma offers a wide range of audio-based solutions, including a number of different headphone product lines. The NuForce BE Free range focuses on offering the greatest levels of freedom possible through the use of a true wireless design, and recently the company made available its latest addition to this line, the NuForce BE Free5 wireless earbuds. These earbuds are now available to buy and cost $99 in the US.
Specs & In the box
The NuForce BE Free5 wireless earbuds feature 5.6mm graphene drivers along with a frequency response of 20Hz – 20kHz, a sensitivity of 95dB ± 3dB, and support for AAC on devices running a minimum of Android 8.0 (Oreo). In addition, the BE Free5 are rated as IPX5 for protection against water - which makes them resistant to light water encounters including rain and sweat, but not designed for submersion in water. With these being wireless headphones they are reliant on Bluetooth (version 4.2) to establish a connection, as well as a battery rated at 55 mAh per earbud along with a charging case rated at 500 mAh. The combination of both earbud and case mAh capacities is listed to result in up to 16 hours of usage.
The unboxing experience is fairly generic, and in addition to the NuForce BE Free5 wireless earbuds, buyers can expect to find a microUSB charge cable, a charging/carry case, as well as a selection of SpinFit ear tips and the usual paperwork.
Hardware & Design
The NuForce BE Free5 wireless earbuds were first announced in May and follow on from the NuForce BE Free8 option. As a result they do not differ massively from the BE Free8 in overall design, but instead adopt a few minor changes. This is important to note as these earbuds have arrived to market at a cheaper price than the previous model and are largely considered to be more of an entry-level option, in spite of this they still offer a very similar design and build quality. With these being true wireless earbuds, in the most basic sense they are simply small black (there is also a blue option) buds with the most obvious change taking place in the outer-facing part of each earbud. As while the BE Free8 sported small ridges on the outside panel, the BE Free5 do not, instead opting for a more refined and elegant look while still adopting a similar mirror-like quality that is even more apparent when the light hits them.
This particular change is worth paying closer attention to as it’s not just cosmetic. The BE Free8 ridges did not do anything other than add a tactile quality to the buds with users having to rely on a very small button to activate and interact with the earbuds. In contrast, this new plate is effectively one big button which marks a huge improvement in design, as the earbuds are now far easier to use with wearers able to push against any part of the back plate to engage the earbuds. Although it could be argued the force needed to press and activate each earbud is a little excessive, resulting in the wearer pushing the earbuds a little hard against the ear each time.
The design of the new model means the main bulk of the earbud body is a little bigger than its predecessor while the actual ear tip is a little smaller, which brings us to the actual fit. Due to the design in use here, these are comfortable earbuds which straight out of the box fitted well in the ear and remained securely in place, and even during more vigorous head movements. Your miles will vary on this point due to the shape and size of ears, but the company does include enough ear tip options to hopefully ensure everyone does find the right fit for their ear. Individual differences aside, the general design, shape, and size, does lend itself well to a comfortable and secure fit.
Another notable change compared to the BE Free8 is the carry/charging case. The previous model came with a very large case and certainly far larger than what was needed to accommodate the earbuds. Optoma has greatly refined the case with this model and so it's not only much smaller, more compact, and easy to transport, but also better looking due to the use of a sand-blasted finish. This is all while maintaining a build quality suitable enough to keep the earbuds protected when not in use. Optoma has also added a magnetic element to the case so when the user is putting the earbuds in the case, they are pulled in and this helps to keep the buds securely in position. For example, you can literally turn the carry case upside down while open and the buds will remain in place. As the case is a charger, and the slots the charge points, this design also means the connection made between the case and earbuds is more solid and reliable than what was offered with the previous model - and similar products for that matter.
One criticism of the design of the carry/charging case is when the earbuds are in the case and charging, the case does not provide any visual indication of the current charging state. In other words, there’s no way to know if the earbuds are fully charged when the case is closed. Instead, users do have to physically open the case before any of the color-based indicators respond, or alternatively keep the case open while charging. As the case does include lights denoting battery status (they respond when the lid is open) it would have been good for these lights to also respond when the lid was closed to offset against this issue. This also goes for the charge level of the case itself, with users needing to open the case each time to see if the battery is full, running low, or almost out. Another criticism is the use of a microUSB port on the back, with this more likely to be an issue for those who have changed over to USB Type-C for all their other devices.
Overall, while the price suggests these are more of an affordable version of the BE Free8, you would not necessarily know that from the design. If, anything, the design changes in use here add to the product overall and do feel like an improvement when compared to the BE Free8. Therefore, you are in effect getting a better-designed product at a more affordable price - which is hard to argue with.
Sound Quality & Performance
As a rule - for $100 you would expect decent sound quality on a pair of headphones. However, when those same headphones adopt a true wireless design then you might expect the sound to be where they compromise. That’s not quite the case with the BE Free5 which offer a nice and pleasant output overall. To be clear, there are better quality headphones available, and in particular the vocals feel a little rough around the edges. However, the range in general is fairly well accounted for and especially at the lower end. For example, the bass is good when considering the size of the drivers, and the lower-mids come through very well. In some cases, however, a little too well which is where the vocal roughness comes in with some artists sounding a little deeper than they naturally should. Therefore, it’s that proper mid area where the sound loses a little in quality by hedging its bets too much on the lower end of the mid spectrum. This is not to say the mids quality is bad, as it's not and you can hear vocals cleanly and clearly (they are not squeezed), it's just that they sound a little deeper than they should. Tops, on the other hand, come through fairly clearly, and not to a point where they are piercing, but enough for them to be discernible and helping to balance out the lower end emphasis.
Overall, and especially when considering the complete package and what you are getting here for under $100, these earbuds do provide a solid and full sound. The point on the vocals is not necessarily something which should deter away from the value, as although it was noted during the review, this is a small compromise compared to how lacking the sound could be if the earbuds were less competent on the bass or treble ends. There is always likely to be a give with a product like this, and priced at this level, and with the BE Free5 it happens to be the mids and in a way which seems to impact more on vocals.
Performance is less of a smooth ride unfortunately due to what is a needed learning curve. This is the result of the way in which the controls operate. Basically, users will have to be very precise when it comes to timing to ensure the earbuds do what the wearer wants them to do, as well as remembering the correct combination of 'side and time' for each action. To decrease the volume the user must press the left earbud for approximately two seconds. To increase the volume, the right earbud for two seconds. What complicates this is the two-second thing really matters as pressing them for slightly less ends up pausing the music and any longer shuts the earbuds down completely. To be clear, Optoma states you have to hold either side for four seconds before the earbuds shut down, but the issue becomes more apparent when trying to avoid pausing a song when attempting to adjust the volume. This intentional bid to avoid pausing almost always results in the wearer overcompensating on how long either side is pressed for - typically resulting in the earbuds shutting down. To makes things worse, while holding down one side for four seconds shuts down both earphones, turning one earbud on does not turn both on. So each time this situation occurred, it became quite time-consuming to turn both sides back on individually and wait the few seconds from them to pair again and start playing. All just to find yourself in the same situation to begin with - in need of adjusting the volume.
Adding to the confusing combinations is double-pressing, as this also results in a different action on each earbud. For example, double-pressing the left earbud skips to the next track (there is no option to skip back) and the right earbud initiates Google Assistant (or Siri). So overall, the use of actions on the BE Free5 just feels a little convoluted. Yes, you will eventually get used to how long (and how hard to press), but in reality, users should not have to ‘get used’ to doing this so much. The actions should be more intuitive and natural than they currently are.
Battery Life & Connectivity
As is always the case with true wireless earbuds, there's the issue of battery life to contend with. While this sort of product offers the greatest experience in terms of freedom, it does typically come at the cost of battery life and the NuForce BE Free 5 are no different with the company suggesting each earbud’s 55 mAh capacity battery is capable of delivering four hours of continuous playback. To pad out what is effectively a very limited level of standalone battery life, the BE Free5 do come with a carry case that doubles as a portable charger thanks to the inclusion of a 500 mAh capacity battery. As a result, the case is said to be able to provide three full battery refills which effectively equates to an additional 12 hours of usage, bringing the suggested overall total up to sixteen hours - bud battery + case battery. This makes the NuForce BE Free5 largely identical to the BE Free8 which also offered fours hours of standalone usage and sixteen hours in total when the carry case was taken into consideration. It’s worth noting though that users should not necessarily rely on that sixteen-hour marker, as it’s very unlikely the average user will use these earbuds to full depletion, then charge to full, then rinse and repeat until the case's battery has fully discharged. Instead, most average use cases will see the carry case continually keeping the earbuds topped up after each use. The sixteen hours therefore should only be interpreted as a guide on how much you could get out of the earbuds if used in a very specific way.
In testing, the four-hour marker was found to be not so realistic with the earbuds more commonly starting to fizzle out after only three hours. It's worth noting the earbuds were tested playing audio continuously, and at the loudest possible volume. Therefore, it could be the case that as and when the volume is set to a lower level the earbuds last longer, although based on the testing it would seem unlikely they will reach the full four hours consistently. To add to this, the BE Free5 are also said to be able to deliver an hour’s worth of additional playback after a quick fifteen minute charge, but again during testing the outer limit of the suggested range could never be reached with the earbuds typically only offering thirty minutes of usage after fifteen minutes of charging - again, this was based on playback at the highest possible volume setting and so may vary somewhat at a lower volume setting.
In contrast to the playback times, Optoma is fairly spot on when it comes to charge times, as the company suggests the earbuds are capable of gaining a full charge from the carry case in about one hour and thirty minutes. This was found to be a conservative measurement and the absolute longest you should expect to wait with one hour and 15 minutes typically enough in most instances. Likewise, the case itself usually took ninety minutes to reach a full charge after depletion, and this was again very much in line with what the company suggests. So while the earbuds were not found to last quite as long as claimed, the rate of charging was quicker than expected which should mean users will never have to wait that long, regardless of how long the earbuds last.
Generally speaking, there were no major issues with connectivity due to the BE Free5 providing a good and reliable experience overall. However, there were a couple of minor issues that are worth being aware of. The first is the connection range. These earbuds are powered by Bluetooth version 4.2 and as a result should be capable of connecting to a device from as far as ten meters away. The short answer is, they can. The slightly longer answer is they become far more unreliable towards the end of that range. While that should be somewhat expected considering that is the limit of their range, they are more unreliable than other headsets that are equally limited. So while they can connect from about ten meters away, they don't reliably at all. The more common issue buyers will experience, however, are signal drop-offs. This is a system which relies on only the right earbud connecting to the playback device. This is a common design in true wireless earbuds and results in the left earbud becoming the weak point in the chain, and more subject to losing a connection with both the right earbud and the playback device - as is the case with the BE Free5. On a positive note though, the left earbud is extremely fast at reconnecting (not always the case with other headsets which suffer in the same respect) and so the downtime is minimal, and to a point where by the time you have realized the left earbud has dropped out, it has reconnected again.
Price alone makes these an option worth considering, and especially for those looking to migrate to a true wireless listening experience for the first time. Yes, there are some minor issue to be aware of, and yes, you can find better options at a higher price. However, if you are looking for a fairly decent option that won’t cost too much, when all things are considered, these earphones perform better than a number of competing options at the same price, as well as some that are more expensive, including the company's own BE Free8. In short, the BE Free5 offer complete freedom from wires, a decent sound overall, the option to keep the battery topped up when away from home, and a comfortable in-ear fit. All for under $100.