Velodyne | vFree | vFree Bluetooth headphones review

vFree Bluetooth headphones review
vFree review
published in March 29, 2013 ComputorEdge
Tangle-free vFree wireless headphones
Product name: vFree On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones
Manufacturer: Velodyne Acoustics, Inc.
Website: http://velodyne.com/headphones/vfree-headphones.html
price: $299
The terms “wireless earphones,” “wireless canalphones,” and “wireless earbuds”
could be considered misnomers. Such “wireless” accessories for listening to a
mobile music player, in many cases, actually have an exposed wire connecting
the accessory’s two earpieces; one example is the BackBeat GO earbuds
previously reviewed in this column. Their wire could be as susceptible to tangling
or breakage as the one that non-Bluetooth competitors have. An alternative
accessory without an exposed wire that avoids spaghetti-like misbehavior is
“wireless headphones” such as Velodyne Acoustics’ vFree On-Ear Bluetooth
Headphones (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Many “wireless” accessories for portable music playing devices have an exposed wire, but
vFree headphones look completely wireless (the wire connecting vFree’s two earpieces is hidden).
vFree headphones come in an eye-catching package—it’s a white cardboard box
measuring about 10" x 10" x 2" with a black molded-plastic lid attached to the box
with four oval pieces of clear tape. Two of the box’s sides advertise Velodyne’s
name, the third has copyright details, and the fourth has a plastic piece for hanging
the box from a metal rod in a brick and mortar’s display. The box’s back side
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includes a photograph of vFree headphones surrounded by English and French
text describing their main features and specs. Inside the box is a white moldedplastic liner that has a concavity aligning with the black lid’s corresponding convex
bulge to accommodate the headphones (Figure 2). The bulge might remind
prospective buyers of Han Solo encased in carbonite.
Figure 2. vFree wireless headphones come in a distinctive white cardboard box with a white moldedplastic liner and black molded-plastic lid. This package includes a black cloth carrying pouch, audio
bypass cable, USB charging cable, USB charger, and a small paper sheet with Bluetooth pairing
instructions on one side and a diagram explaining the headphones’ buttons on the other.
This package’s contents (Figure 2) include a 4' micro USB charging cable, a USB
wall charger, a 4' audio bypass cable with 3.5 mm (1/8") connector, a black cloth
carrying pouch (about 9" tall x 6" wide) with a drawstring for security, and a
single-sheet 3.5" x 2.5" quick-start guide (this sheet has English and French
instructions about Bluetooth pairing that are set in a minuscule font on one side,
and a diagram of the vFree’s controls on the other). The contents do not include
a printed user guide; instead, it is available for download from Velodyne’s web
site (a search found the guide here).
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Removing the four pieces of tape and the black lid reveals the glossy jet-black
vFree headphones securely nestled in the white liner’s concavity. Their
plastic earpieces are a futuristic teardrop shape measuring roughly 3.5" tall x 2.5"
wide x 1.5" deep. They have oval padded cushions (~1/2" thick) with slightly
(~1/8") smaller dimensions and are interconnected by a adjustable length metal
band housed (along with a wire) in a glossy jet-black plastic band that has a
similar padded cushion (Figure 3). The metal band has a hinge on either side so
that the headphones can be folded (Figure 3), reducing them to a size that fits in
the carrying pouch. One benefit of vFree’s thin plastic framework is its light
weight (5.9 ounces) so that it feels more like a hand towel on the user’s head and
ears than a pair of dense rocks. A potential drawback, however, is the potential
perception that vFree is flimsy or cheaply engineered. As we’ll see momentarily,
these headphones are anything but cheaply engineered.
Figure 3. vFree headphones can fold thanks to a metal band with two hinges (red arrows). When folded,
the headphones easily fit in the included carrying pouch. The metal band has a padded cushion similar to
the ones on the earpieces (blue arrows).
vFree’s left and right earpieces are readily distinguishable due to the presence of
different controls on each. The left earpiece has a micro USB port (for use with
the aforementioned USB wall charger and cable) and an audio port for the audio
bypass cable (blue oval in Figure 3) plus an LED (red circle in Figure 3) which
indicates that the headphones’ battery is low (flashes red every 10 seconds). The
right earpiece has two raised buttons for adjusting audio volume (red rectangle in
Figure 3)—one increases volume, the other decreases—located next to the
padded cushion (blue arrow in Figure 3) on the plastic side that faces toward the
wearer’s back. Below these two buttons is a multipurpose LED (red circle in
Figure 3) that indicates vFree’s power status (blue on, red off), Bluetooth status,
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and call status (details are included in the downloadable user guide). In addition,
the right earpiece has a microphone and a sideways-facing plastic cover divided
into three irregularly shaped and sized buttons (Figure 4). One of these buttons
controls power on and off, another controls play-pause and phone-call functions,
and the third controls next/previous tunes.
Figure 4. vFree’s left and right earpieces are readily distinguishable because of their distinctive controls—
the left one has audio and USB ports plus an LED indicator; the right has buttons that control volume,
power, play/pause, next/previous, and phone call functions. The right earpiece also houses an LED
indicator and microphone.
The following audio and wireless specs appear in vFree’s user guide.
driver size: 34 mm
frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz
sensitivity: 98 dB/1 kHz/1 mW
impedance: 32Ω
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frequency range: 2.4Ghz – 2.4835GHz
transmission range: Up to 10 m (33’)
supports Bluetooth v2.1 + EDR, A2DP v1.2, AVRCP v1.0, HSP v1.2, HFP v1.6
supports codecs SBC, AAC, apt-X
The following battery specs appear on Velodyne Acoustics’ web site.
power: Lithium-ion polymer battery, 3.7V/430mAh (rechargeable)
100 hours standby
10 hours talk and music
1.5 hours recharge time
These specs provide evidence that vFree headphones are anything but cheaply
engineered. Their earpieces accommodate 34 mm drivers (speakers) that pump
out remarkably high quality audio (details in a moment), Bluetooth technology that
wirelessly receives audio from a mobile music player and calls from a cellphone
located up to ~30' away, and a battery that officially supports 10 hours of talk/
music and 100 hours of standby. Fitting all of that hardware, plus the
aforementioned controls, into the two earpieces is quite an engineering
accomplishment.
The battery specs might be a case of underpromising and overdelivering. These
specs easily were bested in the present review’s battery test which resulted in a
whopping 16 hours of Bluetooth music play time and a complete recharge in
under 1.25 hours. The test consisted of repeated looping through one playlist on
an iPhone 4S with vFree’s audio volume set at an intermediate level. Although
your mileage may vary, the present results indicate that a user potentially could
listen to music and/or make phone calls for more than two hours daily (say, while
commuting) without needing to recharge for almost two weeks.
What I like about vFree headphones, in addition to battery performance and
freedom from tangled wires, is their audio quality. It is terrific. At first, my
impression was that they sounded like what you would expect after turning the
treble knob on a car’s or home’s sound system a tad past the neutral position. After
adapting to the earpieces, however, the audio quality became increasingly
impressive to this bassaholic. Bass instruments (brass, percussion, strings) sound
so clear and to the front that each note is distinctive and deep without sounding
muddy at all. vFree users almost certainly will notice voices and/or instruments in
their favorite tunes that they did not notice with Apple’s standard earbuds and/or
other audio accessories. In a nutshell, then, Velodyne Acoustics’ “bring the bass”
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slogan would be more appropriate for their vFree headphones than their vPulse inear canalphones.
vFree’s strengths—terrific audio quality, outstanding battery performance, and
freedom from tangled wires—are offset by several noteworthy drawbacks. One
drawback is the earpieces’ padded cushions. For me, their comfort lasts only
about an hour before both outer ears’ pain strongly compels me to remove the
headphones. This issue, however, might be specific to my eyeglasses’ earpieces
and/or my ears’ anatomy. A related issue is that the padded cushions provide a
weak seal (especially compared to in-ear canalphones)—ambient noises readily
compete with vFree’s otherwise outstanding audio. Perhaps this product’s audio
quality would be even more terrific if the cushions provided a better seal.
Another drawback is the right earpiece’s three control buttons. Although they are
big enough to minimize the likelihood of pressing one when intending to press
another, they behaved inconsistently during testing. On some occasions, pressing
the power button did not turn the power on (if it was off at the time) or off (if it was
on) regardless of how long the press lasted; on others, pressing the power button
did produce the appropriate result. The play/pause button likewise performed
inconsistently. Perhaps a future version of vFree headphones will have uniformly
shaped and sized control buttons that function consistently and have a raised
symbol indicative of the button’s function (such as the power on/off symbol on the
corresponding button) to further facilitate correctly pressing the desired button.
A third drawback worth noting is the lack of information about vFree’s battery.
vFree’s user guide and web page do not include information about the battery’s
expected lifespan, how to tell what the battery’s current charge level is, whether
power automatically switches to standby mode or switches off after a period of
inactivity, and whether the headphones continue functioning with the audio bypass
cable after the battery has died and needs to be replaced. With regard to
replacing the battery, the user guide teases “Replace only with the same or
equivalent type. Service should only be done by a VELODYNE factory authorized
service representative,” but doesn’t provide any further information about battery
replacement such as price, how to arrange, or how long replacement will take.
In conclusion, it would easy to give vFree headphones a low rating based upon
their MSRP—$299. Why pay an amount that’s roughly equivalent to the cost of a
high-end smartphone, tablet, or portable music player? The concept that “you get
what you pay for” applies to vFree headphones, however. Their MSRP reflects
some amazing engineering that incorporates terrific audio quality, an exceptionally
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long-lasting battery, and freedom from hassling with wires. vFree’s strengths offset
the drawbacks sufficiently to warrant a strong rating that encourages music lovers
to consider giving this big bass product a serious listen despite its MSRP.
Review contributed by Barry Fass-Holmes
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