The market for “truly” wireless earbuds (with two separate buds and a charging case) is widening. Phiaton, a supplier of mid-range audio gear, is hoping to stand out with a competitive $140 price and unique features with its “Bolt” BT 700 design.
That unique selling point is a Bluetooth speaker integrated into the case, so you can blast music at full volume when you’re ready to share it. And that feature is, well, pretty much a total bust. Elsewhere the design of the BT 700 is solid, and having to lug around a tiny ancillary speaker with your case is a sacrifice for good earbud audio quality, decent battery life, and excellent wireless performance. Phiaton whiffs hard on the Bolt’s most marketable feature, but considering how comfortable and reliable these buds are, they might still be worth it for some users.
No Strings on Me
At first glance the BT 700 looks more or less identical to the rest of the truly wireless crowd: two buds, a charging case, automatic pairing when you pull the buds out the case, shave and a haircut, two pence. And as amazing as that concept was just a short time ago, now it’s somewhat old hat.
But Phiaton has nailed the essentials of a wireless earbud design here, an impressive feat on its first model. The buds stay connected through thick and thin, or to be more precise, through three walls and about fifty feet of my house. They’re also ready to go in just about any condition you’d actually wear them: through hours of walking in windy weather and riding my bike at a maximum of about 20 miles per hour, the earbuds stayed connected with my phone (and with each other) the entire time. They get full marks for wireless stability, which is something that isn’t always a given with this category.
The buds themselves were surprisingly comfortable, at least to my fairly average-sized male ears. I used the pre-installed silicone tips (there are three other options for bigger and smaller in the box) and the stability “wing” that’s permanently affixed to the plastic body of each bud, I couldn’t get them to shake out of my ears even with some had bobbing that would win me nods of approval from an 80s hair band. Very occasionally the stability wings would come out of my ear, but it was easy enough to get them back in and comfy again.
The buds probably won’t stick around for twelve rounds of a boxing match or a dip in the pool, but they’re good to go for pretty much any other exercise you can throw at them. Speaking of exercise: Phiaton rates them at IPX4 “sweat resistant,” so they’ll be able to withstand a heavy workout or a spring shower, but that’s about it. I didn’t notice any obvious problems from my (pretty sweaty) workout sessions.
In terms of longevity, I found the buds lasting for a little more than four hours with my mix of music and podcasts at moderate volume. That’s not great compared to the offerings from Apple and Samsung, though it’s much better than the cheapo designs quickly filling up this category. The case will give you three charges for a maximum of 16 hours and change of music away from your charger (a micro USB charger, more’s the pity). I found that 20 minutes of charging in the case was enough to last me for the last hour of my workouts, which is par for the course.
Hooray for Real Buttons!
Controlling the buds while they’re in your ears uses a mix of conventional silicone-covered buttons and touch-sensitive plastic. Each bud has volume up and down on the top and a multi-use button on the side. These control a variety of functions, with the ones connected to the conventional buttons (track forward/back, manual power on or off for either bud) being much easier than the touch-sensitive buttons. You’ll need to tap and/or hold those touch buttons for play/pause, accepting or ending calls, or checking the battery via a voice message.
The touch-sensitive buttons take a bit of getting used to: it’s tricky finding the correct spot and the right cadence for the double-tap command. I know this stuff is all the rage and makes the design look smooth, but there’s nothing you can do with this that couldn’t have been accomplished with a third conventional button on the outside of the plastic case. Additionally, it means that you can only control play/pause on the right bud and “audio transparency” on the left.
What’s audio transparency? It’s when the integrated microphones on the buds (typically only used for calling) let in a bit of outside audio so you can be aware of your surroundings. I was excited to try this, as riding a bike with conventional headphones is dangerous if there’s anyone else around (and practically suicide in traffic). Unfortunately, this was a bit of a waste: even a light breeze will fill your ears with static, so the feature is all but useless when riding or jogging. And using it while out and about to be more aware of those around you isn’t much help either, since normal human speech gets the wah-wah effect of Charlie Brown’s teacher, and was almost completely inaudible to me even when my music was paused. Skip this feature and go for bone conduction headphones if you need to be aware of your surroundings.
The audio and call quality help make up for some awkward controls and transparency features. While no earbuds are going to deliver thumping bass, the BT 700 has solid performance through the mid and high ranges and enough volume to put you in your own little world. With a typical frequency range of 20 Hz-20,000 Hz, I was able to pick out subtle bits in my music that weren’t audible using cheaper wireless headphones. Call quality was rock-solid as well, with no problems hearing on my end and the other party unable to tell I was using wireless earbuds outside. The external noise cancellation seems especially good since I couldn’t hear the groundskeepers working with lawnmowers in my local park.
A Speaker No One Asked For
The Bolt’s charging case carries an integrated Bluetooth speaker, though I have no idea why. I suspect that someone on the design team was told to come up with a selling point that no competitor had thought of, and this was the best they could do: a tiny, one-inch driver that can either share your music with others or let you listen when your buds are charging.
But the speaker is, in a very literal sense, a waste of space. It makes the charging case massive in comparison to the AirPods and Galaxy Buds, more than four inches long and an inch around—about the size of a prescription pill bottle. With thick plastic and sharp corners, it’s also uncomfortable in your pocket, meaning you’re less likely to carry it with you, especially during a workout. That sabotages the basic concept of a portable charging case.
And for what? A speaker that’s barely any louder than the single speaker in my Galaxy Note 8 phone. That might be forgivable if the speaker was high quality or there was one on both ends for stereo playback. But no dice on both points. At the highest volume—which you’ll want to use—you can hear huge amounts of distortion all through the audio range.
In searching for a unique selling point, Phiaton has undermined the basic form and function of wireless earbuds. It’s a glaring problem on an otherwise excellent design: I can’t see anyone using this speaker over the one in their phone, even if the phone speaker isn’t particularly loud or clear.
The Bolt BT 700 frustrates me a lot. The earbuds themselves are great, even if the touch buttons are finicky and the audio transparency feature doesn’t work well. Good audio and fantastic wireless performance are real crowd-pleasers. But the huge carrying case and nearly useless Bluetooth speaker drag the experience down.
Pricing is competitive at $140—a good bit lower than Apple, tied with Samsung, and a reasonable bump over much worse budget models. But I can’t help but wonder if Phiaton could have gotten the price under the $100 mark, and made the charging case much smaller and more pocket-friendly by omitting the regrettable speaker altogether. I’d encourage them to do so on the next generation.
As is, it’s hard to see anyone picking this design over the Galaxy Buds at the same price. If you’re looking for a reliable wireless connection over all else, and you rarely use your earbuds for more than four hours at a time, the BT 700 might be for you. Ditto if you constantly use a bag or purse, and the chunky carrying case won’t bother you should you need a recharge.
Here’s What We Like
- Excellent wireless performance
- Buttons are better than most
- Good audio and call quality
And What We Don't
- The speaker audio quality is awful
- Charging case is massive and annoying in your pocket
- Audio transparency is iffy at best