Noise-cancelling earbuds with Rock Cred Take on Apple for $149: hands-on

If you are looking for a pair active noise canceling true wireless earbuds, and don’t want to pay the $200 or more for something like the Apple AirPods Pro, you might be interested in the AXS Audio Professional Earbuds. The AXS earbuds cost $149, in satin white or satin black, and come from the same person who brought us the Riva Audio Arena smart speaker, live music veteran Rikki Farr. Just got some buds and went ears.

Farr draws on his 60 years in the music industry – from the Isle of Wight Festival to live acts like Guns N’ Roses – to bring what he says is the most musical set of ANC earbuds for the money. He claims the company voted them for “every instrument they could think of.”

“I don’t believe at our price point…I don’t think there’s really a competitor,” Farr told me, but then revised his answer to “maybe Sony.”

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The AXS buttons have hypoallergenic tips.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The headphones promise a noise cancellation of 25 decibels – which can mean the difference between loud traffic and rustling leaves – and they feature Bluetooth LE 5.2 technology for a faster and higher quality connection.

The AXS Audio Professional Buds have a battery life of 10 hours in the ear and up to 38 hours when using the charging case. Farr says the company won’t get “hugely rich” from the earbuds because it had to develop a special battery for them, which was not mass-produced.

The design of the Professional Buds is unmistakably inspired by Apple’s AirPods with its tall stems and color scheme—to the extent that my 9-year-old asked if they “could have a pair of those AirPods, too.” The stems come with capacitive pads for volume control, playback and the ANC function. Meanwhile, the earbuds’ earbuds are hypoallergenic and the headphones are IPX4 certified to resist sweat.

So how do they sound?

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The AXS Audio Professional Earbuds vs. the Sony WF-1000XM3 vs. Apple AirPods 3rd Gen

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

I compared the AXS earbuds to the now heavily discounted and discontinued Sony WF-1000XM3 ($130 at Target) because they offer a similar feature set. I listened to a range of different music from ambient to rock, pop and online video, and also evaluated them for call quality. Regardless of the music style, I found the Sony earbuds were warmer and sounded more direct, while the AXS earbuds had a flatter response, which was also a bit more open.

The AXS knobs sounded clean and offered a surprising amount of bass, although I preferred the Sony’s “classic” sound. I’m not sure if it had to do with the newer Bluetooth implementation, but when using a Samsung Galaxy S20 phone, I noticed it took a few minutes during one listening session for the song to come into stereo focus, but the Sony had accurate imaging from the start. During one track, the AXS sounded confused at the beginning of the track with no stereo separation, but fused in the middle of the piece.

The earbuds also offered more bass than I’ve heard from any other pair of headphones that also boasts of the music industry’s reputation — the $179 Marshall Mode II† However, the fit of the AXS headphones is snug, leading to better noise isolation, and it provides the ANC that the Marshall lacks.

AXS carrier bag on purple background

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

There were a few more random issues that popped up in my review set. For example, at one point there was a low hiss in the buttons, and turning on the ANC made it clearer. This happened regardless of whether the earbuds were plugged in or not, but it only happened once while the Sony didn’t suffer from this problem. Furthermore, compared to each other, the level of noise reduction was about the same. The only other odd thing was that the headphones randomly turned up the volume on their own once, and while the company couldn’t explain why, it was a hot day and I believe sweat may have played a factor.

Call quality? Surprisingly, it was a bit in the AXS’s favor — the Sony can have a noticeable whistling tone on your own voice that can’t be heard by the other party. Meanwhile, my own voice on the AXS sounded normal, and while the other person said both calls were of similar quality, the other party sounded a bit worse on the AXS.

Finally, unlike the Sony’s, which have a very “universal” design, I also found that it was easy to accidentally put the AXS in the wrong ear and this would mean the controls clearly don’t work as you expect.

Outlook

As Farr himself said, there are many in-ear earbuds out there, but fewer with any degree of credibility in the industry. I enjoyed my time with the AXS earbuds and found that they offered both useful features and sound quality that stood out from the crowd. While I’d still rather grab the Sony for the $130 retail price, the downside is that the 1000XM3’s carrying case is larger and they have a slightly shorter overall battery life of 32 hours. If you’re looking for a pair of headphones with a great fit, clear sound and good call quality, the AXS Audio Professional Audio is worth considering.