The OnePlus Buds Z are the company’s latest set of wireless earbuds. They are OnePlus’ second set of truly wireless earbuds after the OnePlus Buds launched a few months ago.
Unlike the OnePlus Buds, the OnePlus Buds Z have an in-ear design along with an IP55 dust and water-resistance rating. They also have a reduced claimed battery life of 5 hours of continuous use, compared to 7 hours of claimed battery life on the OnePlus Buds.
However, the OnePlus Buds Z are cheaper than the OnePlus Buds, which makes them a bit more interesting. They are also one of the cheapest set of TWS earbuds on the market from a name-brand and at least on paper, seem to have a full-set of features. In this review, we will find out how well the OnePlus Buds Z perform for their price. Later on in the review, we will also see how they stack up against the more expensive OnePlus Buds, and which ones you should be considering for your next purchase.
The OnePlus Buds Z earbuds have the signature OnePlus design that the company has used on all of its wireless audio products since the OnePlus Bullets Wireless 2. This includes an oblong shape that houses the drivers with a large, flat, circular back panel with a CD-like pattern that is also touch-sensitive. The speaker housing looks nearly identical to those on the Bullets Wireless 2/Z, except for the long stalk that sticks out at the bottom and houses the battery, antenna, and other electronics.
On the inside, the OnePlus Buds Z uses silicone ear-tips, which are comfortable but not as plush and snug-fitting as those on the Bullets Wireless 2/Z. Next to the ear-tip are the two contacts that charge the earbuds when they are inside the case, and also what looks like a pressure release port.
The area surrounding the ear-tip is touch sensitive and is used to determine when the earbuds are inside your ears. This is a less precise and more error-prone alternative to using an optical proximity sensor as found on more expensive TWS models but likely used here to save costs.
Overall, though, the OnePlus Buds Z are quite well-designed and built. They also have an IP55 rating for dust and water-resistance, which makes them safe for use during light rain or sweaty workouts.
Despite the fact that the earbuds have stalks on them, the case has a horizontal instead of a vertical design. Even then, the case has an impressively small footprint.
On the outside, the case is made out of hard, glossy plastic. On the front is an LED that glows red when the case is charging and green when it’s full. On the back is a USB-C port with a button for pairing. There is no wireless charging feature on this case.
Open the lid and you will find the earbuds placed in a rather peculiar manner. At first glance, this doesn’t seem that odd or problematic. However, after using them for the first time, it became apparent what the issue is with this arrangement.
The problem with the layout of the earbuds inside the case is that the speaker modules are facing outwards with the stalks pointing inwards. If you think about how you’re holding an earbud with a stalk in your hand once you remove it from your ear, the speaker modules will be facing up or towards the inside of your arm. So if you remove the right earbud, the speaker module will be facing up or to the left if you turn your wrist. But because the case has the speaker modules pointing outwards, you then have to turn the earbuds around in your hand every time you have to put them in the case.
This likely sounds like the greatest first world problem if you’ve never used them and in some ways, it is. However, it is also a pretty basic oversight on behalf of the team that designed this product. Having to turn the earbuds between your fingers literally every single time you remove or place the earbuds in the case significantly increases the probability of dropping them, especially with your less dominant hand. And this isn’t just an assumption on my part; as a right-handed person, I have dropped these earbuds while flipping them around with my left hand.
The easiest solution to this nightmare design is to open the case pointing away from you. This results in the right earbud being on the left side of the case but the speaker modules and the stalks are pointing in the correct direction to just pick up and place them in your ears without having to twiddle them around first. Similarly, when you are done, you can just place them in easily. The only problem is that the case lid doesn’t open particularly wide but it doesn’t get in the way too much.
Once I got used to simply opening the case with it turned away from me, it became relatively easy to use this product. It’s a cataclysmically daft design but at least the solution is simple.
The OnePlus Buds Z are a comfortable pair of earphones. The earbuds are extremely light and the in-ear design doesn’t put too much pressure on your ears. You can wear them pretty much for the entire duration of their battery life without any fatigue or discomfort.
The earbuds also don’t stick out too much from the side of your head so you can wear them while lying on your side in the bed. You can still feel them but it’s not uncomfortable.
As usual for earbuds with stalks, make sure you are careful when moving your hands past your face so you don’t hit the stalks and knock these out of your ears. The ear-tips can occasionally prevent them from popping out but with enough force they could get dislodged and there’s no cable to prevent them from flying off.
Similarly, while they do tend to stay put while running or jogging with them, I would still use neckband-style earphones for greater peace of mind while working out.
Software and features
The OnePlus Buds Z work with two different apps on Android, one for OnePlus phones and a different one for the rest.
For OnePlus phone, you get a built-in app called OnePlus Buds. This app doesn’t really show up unless you have the OnePlus Buds or OnePlus Buds Z connected to your phone and even then the UI only shows within the Bluetooth settings when you go to configure them.
Here, the app will show you the battery life of the earbuds, change the touch gestures, change the codec (AAC or SBC), toggle the Bluetooth profiles, and update the firmware. There is also a Find device feature that lets you see their last known location using Google’s Find My Device app and also make them ring in case you misplaced them somewhere close to you.
OnePlus Buds UI is integrated within the Bluetooth settings
The gesture feature is unchanged from the OnePlus Buds. You can only double-tap the side panel on either earbud to activate one of the four preset functions. You can either play/pause, activate the voice assistant, go to the previous track, or go to the next track. You can also press and hold for three seconds to switch between the currently paired and previously paired device.
The tap gestures feel lackluster, mostly because it lacks basic options like adjusting the volume. You also can’t single-tap or triple-tap to access a second or third set of gestures and double-tap is all you get.
However, my biggest issue with the OnePlus Buds app is just how buggy it is. Testing on our OnePlus 8T review unit, the drop-down notification that would appear every time the earbuds were connected always had blank windows where the earbuds’ pictures should be. If you quickly opened and closed the lid of the earbuds, the drop-down notification would just glitch out completely for a few seconds before disappearing.
How it looks • How it should look
The more annoying stuff was the earphones simply powering off at random intervals for no apparent reason. Sometimes, just one of the earbuds would power off, sometimes both. In this case, you’d expect putting them in the case and pulling them out would power cycle them and cause them to work normally again, but this wasn’t the case. Putting them in case and pulling them out often did nothing and the earbud(s) would continue to just not work. At times it took several such power cycles, other times I just had to wait a few minutes before whatever spirit possessed the earbuds had left and they would start working normally again. Just to be clear here, the battery was never even close to being low in these situations, so it wasn’t due to a lack of power.
These issues seemed to be stemming from the Buds app because when the earphones were paired with an iPhone XR, they worked pretty much flawlessly. In fact, the battery life test runs were done with the iPhone, as I had absolutely no faith in the OnePlus 8T and the Buds app, and during multiple runs the earphones continued to work fine with the iPhone.
Taking a quick look at the reviews for the OnePlus Buds app on the Play Store seemed to confirm that this is an app issue, as other users were also facing the same problem with their earphones.
If you have a non-OnePlus Android phone, then you can install the HeyMelody app, which supports Oppo and OnePlus Bluetooth audio products. Like the OnePlus Buds app, this will let you change the double-tap gestures and also update the firmware of your earphones from any other Android phone. This app caused no issue with the OnePlus Buds Z, which worked perfectly fine when used with a Pixel 3 XL running the HeyMelody app.
HeyMelody app for Android
As for iOS, there is no app you can use on this platform to access any of the features or update the firmware. The earphones still work just fine and you can use their gestures, which will be set to their default but if you have changed them to something else on an Android device then the earphones will remember that setting and also use them on iOS. iOS will also not report battery life of individual earbuds or the case but just a single percentage for both earbuds. This limits their functionality compared to Android but they still mostly work fine and are perfectly usable.
The OnePlus Buds Z have good audio quality for the price. They have a warm, bassy sound but with some high-end sparkle thrown in for good measure.
The OnePlus Buds Z have a very strong low-end. The bass is consistently elevated across the range, which results in a very prominent and resounding low-frequency response. This lends some additional body to percussion instruments, which may not always be welcome as you don’t want the conga to sound like the bass drum, for example. However, for electronic music, this is less of an issue as you’re not really reproducing the sound of an actual instrument, so the accuracy is less important and then it’s a matter of personal preference. For me, the low-end is a touch too warm but your mileage may vary.
The mid-range is a mixed bag. The lower mid-range is reproduced really well, which gives great body and presence to a lot of male vocals. This comes through in music but in also other types of content, such as podcasts. It also lends itself quite well to some string instruments, such as the bass guitar and the cello.
However, the upper regions of the mid-range is where the sound drops below the intended target. This makes female vocals and most string instruments to lose energy and also causes some male vocals to sound hollow. It also makes the overall sound a bit dark and muddy.
This depression continues into the lower regions of the treble, which has similarly low levels of energy, which results in some obfuscation of resolution and detail in the sound. The frequency response then makes a comeback further down the range, which results in a hike in the sibilance range. This adds some sparkle or air frequencies to the sound but without an accompanying response from the low treble and upper mids, this regions feels isolated from the rest of the audio mix and feels like an out of tune tweeter was added to the mix.
The overall audio signature shows strong energy in the upper and especially lower end of the audio range but a big part of the mid-range is lackluster. How this affects your experience depends on what you primarily listen to. Content with more female vocals or string instruments will sound darker and unfocused. However, mainstream electronic or even 80s and 90s pop, which is often quite bright, can come through quite well despite these shortcomings.
The OnePlus Buds Z also have good imaging performance, which is helped a bit by the peak in the upper ranges of the treble. The soundstage is underwhelming and I often found it tempting to enable the Movie preset in the Dolby Atmos sound settings on OnePlus phones to create a wider, more three-dimensional sound.
There is a slight background hiss with these earphones when they’re on but it’s mostly not audible unless you are in a really quiet environment.
The microphone performance on the OnePlus Buds Z is adequate. It performed okay in our recorded audio test and during actual voice calls the headset had no issue relaying voice to the other party. For basic voice and video calls, the microphone performance here is acceptable.
The OnePlus Buds Z have reasonably low latency. OnePlus claims 103ms but only in the Fnatic mode, which can only be activated while playing games. I did notice a slight improvement in latency with this mode active, but it could very well be placebo and without proper measurements it’s difficult to confirm.
However, even though OnePlus doesn’t advertise the latency figure outside of the Fnatic mode, the latency was fine for watching video. It’s very slightly noticeable compared to using a wired headset or the speakers but your brain adjusts to it very quickly and soon you can’t really notice any latency at all.
The OnePlus Buds Z had reliable connectivity during testing. As mentioned before, they did occasionally just power down but this seemed to be an issue that could potentially caused by the app. Outside of those instances, the connection was quite reliable.
The OnePlus Buds Z have a claimed battery life of 5 hours of continuous use and 20 hours combined when you add the three additional charges it can provide. In my testing, the OnePlus Buds Z went on for just over 4 hours consistently across every run till the case was emptied, resulting in just over 16.5 hours of total battery life.
Personally, I am less concerned with the total battery life of TWS earbuds and the continuous usage is what’s generally more important. At just over four hours, the battery life is about average for a product in this class and not particularly impressive.
OnePlus also claims 3 hours of battery life after a 10-minute charge. However, this is when both the earphones and the case are charging, and if you read the fine print, the battery life is actually 1.5 hours if only the earphones are charging inside the case, which is a more likely scenario. Replicating this test resulted in exactly 1.5 hours of battery life, so the claim is correct. I just wish OnePlus highlighted the proper figure from the more likely scenario.
Compared to the OnePlus Buds
Launched just a few months ago, the OnePlus Buds Z came under a lot more scrutiny than usual, being OnePlus’ first TWS earbuds and also for being rather unabashed in replicating the AirPods design.
As a product, it’s well-made with decent build quality, sound, and battery life. But now it also has to compete against the OnePlus Buds Z, which does most of those things and is cheaper ($50 vs $60).
In terms of design, it’s up to personal preference whether you like the in-ear style design of the OnePlus Buds Z or the standard AirPods-style earbud design of the OnePlus Buds. For me, the OnePlus Buds don’t fit that well as they are a size too big and there’s constant threat of them falling out. This is always the issue with this design, as it can never fit everyone the way the in-ear silicone tips can on the OnePlus Buds Z.
Moreover, the OnePlus Buds Z also have IP55 dust and water-resistance rating while the OnePlus Buds are rated for just IPX4. This makes the OnePlus Buds Z much more durable.
In terms of features and software, both the OnePlus Buds Z and the OnePlus Buds are identical. Both also use the same OnePlus Buds/HeyMelody app, although I didn’t face any bugs or reliability issues with the OnePlus Buds.
As for the audio quality, the OnePlus Buds are surprisingly the ones that sound generally better overall, although only marginally so. Both have a fairly deep bass but the OnePlus Buds have more fleshed out mid-range and treble response with less of the sizzle at the top that the OnePlus Buds Z has. Unfortunately, there is no way to get consistent sound out of the OnePlus Buds due to the way they sit in your ears and different ears or even just moving them around slightly in the same ears can often dramatically change their sound and especially the bass response, which is not the case with the OnePlus Buds Z.
Finally, the OnePlus Buds have the better battery life, which is often upwards of 6 hours of continuous use. It’s odd as the OnePlus Buds Z have larger battery on paper, both inside the case and the earbuds themselves but the OnePlus Buds still somehow tend to last much longer.
I’m going to end this on a cop-out as there’s no clear winner between the two. The main differences are the shape, the battery life, and the price. If you prefer the shape of the OnePlus Buds, then combined with the battery life it’s worth the additional $10. If you prefer an in-ear design then the OnePlus Buds are no longer a consideration.
The OnePlus Buds Z are priced at $50, which is a great price. It’s an even better price if you’re in India, where they cost just INR 2999 ($40).
For that price, I would say you are getting more than your money’s worth. The audio quality, while not exceptional, is leagues beyond what you usually find in this price range. The battery life is similar, where it’s not great but also not bad. They are comfortable and the build quality and finish is on par with what you’d find on AirPods that cost three times as much.
The issues are minor but best described as death by a thousand cuts, where seemingly trivial things such as the awkward layout of the earbuds within the case that requires you to either fumble around with them or turn the entire case around that rob the product of any sort of delight or true satisfaction.
Then there’s also the weird glitching with the UI of the OnePlus Buds app, oddly with OnePlus’ own phones, or the earphones just straight up switching off sometimes, which are more severe issues and further proof of the company’s increasingly abysmal quality control standards. Fortunately, these particular issues could be fixed with an update.
Having said that, I still think these are worth purchasing for anyone shopping in this price range. The software issues aren’t too severe and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better deal in this category.
- Good audio quality for the price
- IP55 rating
- Awkward layout of earbuds inside the case
- Buggy software
- No volume control