Review: Motorola Buds SF500 Stereo Bluetooth Headphones

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I can just envision how the Motorola Buds came around. During a meeting between Motorola’s then-new Google overseers, Motorola Mobility was presented with some harsh news: “Your Bluetooth headphones are crushing my head. Fix it.

It was news they had probably read in countless reviews, blog posts, and from friends and family. But I suspect it took parent company Google to tell them to fix it, that actually got them going. Cash from Google, something else Motorola Mobility sorely needed, probably didn’t hurt either.

I’m Crushing Your Head, I’m Crushing Your Head

Apologies for the old Kids in the Hall reference. It isn’t on Netflix, or Hulu today. We checked… but it is on YouTube for you kids out there.

See, Motorola was a pioneer in Stereo Bluetooth headphones. The S10 was Motorola’s first A2DP Stereo Bluetooth headset for the masses. And it was, to its credit, quite innovative.

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Arguably the Buds most direct predecessor – the Motorola S11

But it had a huge design flaw. Because the headset wrapped around the back of the head, terminating at the ears, the only way to keep the headset in place was to use the head of the owner to hold the headset in place. That meant applying pressure – above the ears – to keep the headset in place. The earbuds then dropped down below the pressure-point (literally) to go into the wearer’s ears.

While it worked, it was painful. Many people couldn’t stand to wear them for more than 30 minutes at a time. Which, considering you should get 30-60 minutes of exercise a day, doesn’t sound so bad. But unless you were actually exercising – it became quickly the biggest pain on most wearer’s bodies. So that 30 minutes for most, became three minutes of enjoyable wearing time. Or about one or two songs.

So when Motorola suggested we try the Buds, we were a bit apprehensive… and took a couple doses of Motrin first as a safety precaution.

New Hotness vs Old & Busted

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The Motorola buds, at first glance, are a bit reminiscent of the S10. But they work and act completely differently. The Buds, like LG’s rival HBS700, go over the neck, rather than the back of the head. The earbuds then rise upward from magnetic connectors, into the wearer’s ears.

This is something everyone a few years ago, missed. And it’s a blissfully elegant design revision. The Buds is only slightly lighter than the S10, but where the weight is put matters so much. Buds places its weight on the top of the shoulders, around the neck – where the body is naturally designed to bear weight, rather than where it isn’t.

Controls are not only elegant too, they become a design statement. Most people find them attractive that I ran into. The controls are arced out to the front of the body, rather than behind the ear as with Motorola’s older headsets.

Some will find this unattractive, because you will have a reverse-headband sticking out your neck… but as I mentioned, most actually don’t from my experience. Unlike Google Glass, the Buds are below the eyeline of the face, so they are more akin to a necklace than an appliance not typically seen on a non-Borg body.

The controls are standard for a Motorola headset, four buttons that control track forward, play/pause on the left. On the right side, two buttons control volume. The power button is on the back of the headset.

Buds also has a built-in microphone, like its predecessors, and like rival HBS700. The controls change to answer and end call, respectively on the left side, when in a call.

Finally, volume is independent. Some headphones defer/allow the phone to control volume, but Buds doesn’t. You can set the volume independently. I personally prefer this as I can leave the device’s volume at 100% and not worry about if the headset is connnected or not.

Performance & Room for Improvement

Multi-pairing, or lack thereof…

Lack of support for multiple devices is by far my biggest disdain for the Buds. Buds shares firmware with Motorola Whisper and other headsets. Hence, it will proudly announce “Device 1 Connected!” when your device links up.

Unfortunately, there is no support for a second device. If you leave Buds paired to multiple devices, that’s when things get problematic. Buds by default will connect to the first device for which there is a completed pairing. That can be a problem if you turn the headset on, and say, your tablet, laptop, and smartphone all have saved pairings. Buds will link up to the first device in range that it sees. The other devices, then cannot connect at all.

The solution for this is simple, but a bit time-consuming. You simply, when changing devices, have to remember to delete the Bluetooth pairing on the old device. Then turn the headset back on – holding down the power button to initiate pairing mode. Finally, pair with the new device and use it.

This is in part such a problem, because of how useful Buds is as a device. It grows on you, and I find myself wanting to quickly toggle over to my laptop, rather than plug in wired headphones in a quiet place. Or, use with my tablet so I don’t have to pay for Spotify.

Phone Microphone

The Buds built-in microphone is also something that could be improved on. People on the other end of a call report muffled speech, albeit it more understandable than other headsets. This is because Buds benefits from a boom-esque microphone, terminating right below the wearer’s mouth. In terms of reach, it’s actually closer to the mouth than some on-ear headphones.

But that comes at a cost. Buds can’t rely on bone conduction to cancel out noises. Nor does it have a dual-microphone, so talking into the left side is beneficial – albeit very unattractive. Thankfully in normal circumstances, that isn’t necessary – it only becomes necessary when there’s a high level of background noise.

A second-generation version of Buds would greatly benefit from Motorola CrystalTalk technology and dual microphones on each side of the headset.

The Earbuds

Music performance with Buds is great, but not wired-beating. Compared to Apple EarPods, Buds is quieter, though just as clear. Also buds are in-ear with soft plastic covers designed to adhere to the surface of the ear.

Personally, I prefer hard earbuds that rest in the ear, rather than try to adhere to it. EarPods are one of the best balances out there. There are times that I kinda want to whip out the soldering iron, and try grafting EarPods onto my Buds.

There are a couple of ways to attack this from a design standpoint. One would be to offer removable/changeable terminating buds. Another, more radical approach, would be to offer “bring-your-own” headphones support, and offer a cable management system to route other earbud headphones elegantly around EarPods.

EarPods already has a rubber-band management system, allowing for the user to adjust how much the headphone is loose around the head. Additional bands could be used to accept earbuds from other manufacturers.

Personally, I don’t expect Motorola to be as daring with Buds as to allow a BYO solution. But, if I was the program manager, I’d offer two versions of the product – one with BYO headphone support, and another with interchangeable buds – making the latter an online-only affair for customers already sold on the product design.

Closing Take – A Game Changer

I’m someone that doesn’t like noise pollution. If you’re abusing chewing gum, I’m pretty guaranteed to not want to talk to you, or just more inclined fire you, throw you out of a very tall building, etc. I prefer xeriscaping not because of the water savings, but because it means I don’t have to be bothered by leafblowers. Seriously, on a sidenote, leafblowers are evil.

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It’s rare that a product actually, tangibly, makes my life better. Modern smartphones were probably the last major thing that have improved my life as tangibly as Buds. I have elegant, noise-cancelling headphones at the ready always, without adding any tangible weight or frustration to my body. The plastic shell lets my skin breathe, and it never falls off. The call quality is better in many cars than the built-in Bluetooth that adorns most modern vehicles.

And, probably the most surprising thing about Buds is the cost. While they debuted around $80, they’re now under $35 on Amazon and elsewhere. They’re available in three colors (black, white, and blue), all pictured above.

Buds is a product that wins because of the sum of its parts. Each factor on its own is not exactly best-in-class. But the light weight, combined with being so affordable and elegant, is what makes it stand out. When Google says they set Motorola back on course to be a stable operation, Buds is one of the products that is a testament to that.

This is the only thing other than my phone, keys, and wallet that I will absolutely storm back to grab if I forget on the way out the door. And that’s the best way to sum up the Buds that I can think of.

Christopher Price is the Founding Editor of PhoneNews.com. Today, he leads the team building Console, Inc. – a new kind of Androidâ„¢ device. He still likes to pontificate… a lot. You can visit his personal blog at ChristopherPrice.net.

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