Wireless earphones are the next big challenge for true high-performance audio. While consumers have plenty of wireless earphones to choose from, few (if any) have the same level of performance as a similarly priced wired pair. Convenience and the "wow" factor have been the main driving forces behind the sales growth of wireless earphones--but what about folks who would like a pair of wireless earphones that offers sound quality to compete with wired earphones? They have been left out in the cold. Optoma/NuForce claims to have bridged that performance gap with the new BE Free8 universal wireless in-ear monitors ($149). Let's see.
The BE Free8 uses a single 5.8mm full-range dynamic driver that has a unique proprietary "NuForce Sonic Coating" made up of a special alloy consisting of several refractory metals. According to Optoma/NuForce, "No other truly wireless headphones incorporate such robust technologies today." The BE Free8 is compatible with both AAC and aptX LL technologies, so it can be linked to an iPhone, Android, or Windows phone, as well as PCs and Macs. Many wireless earphones rely on a cable or tether to connect the right and left earpieces and transfer sound, but the BE Free8 uses NMFI (Near-Field Magnetic Induction) to maintain a reliable connection between the two earpieces. According to Optoma/NuForce, "A carefully engineered antenna placement enables a reliable Bluetooth range of 33 feet or more."
Battery life is often an issue with wireless earphones, which do require their own power source via batteries located inside the earphones or connected to the earphones via a tether. The BE Free8 has a published battery life of four hours of continuous, uninterrupted music, videos, games, or phone calls. The BE Free8 carrying case doubles as the charger. It can hold an extra three full charges, so you can get a total of 16 hours of listening time without having to recharge the Be Free8's portable charging case.
As you would expect from a wireless in-ear designed for use with smartphones, these earphones have a built-in CVC noise-canceling microphone for calls and a button on top of the earpiece to activate Siri and Google Assistant--and to play, pause, and skip tracks. For users who need an earphone for workouts and exercise, the BE Free8 has an IPX5 rating, which means it is water- and weather-resistant.
Accessories that come with the BE Free8 include the charger case, SpinFit ear tips, and a micro USB charging cable. The published specifications list the Be Free8's sensitivity at 92 dB with a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 KHz (no plus or minus numbers listed). They weigh a scant 1.6 ounces.
Like all Bluetooth devices, the BE Free8 must be linked via a Bluetooth control app the first time you use it. On all subsequent occasions, you merely have to turn on the BE Free8 by holding down the small button on the right earpiece for two seconds, and the BE Free8 will wake up and link with your device. The review sample I received was from an early production run that had one major difference between it and the ones that are available now: the early production model had two pairing buttons to push, one on each earpiece, instead of the single button on the current production model. I assure you, the single-button version is much better and takes half as much time to turn on. My only quibble with the BE Free8 push button on the earpiece is that it's really small and, if you have any calluses on your fingers, impossible to feel when you have it pushed in. I often had to remove the earpiece to make sure I was actually pushing the button.
Earphone fit is everything with in-ears. As with a majority of in-ear monitors, if the BE Free8 does not have a completely occluded seal, not only will they not feel right, but they will not perform anywhere near manufacturer specifications. Also, if the fit isn't correct, the BE Free8 will not stay in place, and in the long run they will end up in the bottom of a dusty drawer instead of in your ears. To get a good fit, the BE Free8 uses a new style of tip, called a SpinFit, which is a silicon tip that allows for 360-degree rotation even when the tip is inserted in your ears. It was exclusively designed for the BE Free8. Each pair comes with two different shapes and multiple sizes of SpinFit tips. For me, the fit was 50 percent perfect: the BE Free8 in my right ear, once positioned, stayed in place even during a rigorous 1.5-hour workout. However, the left earpiece required fairly regular re-seating to stay properly occluded.
Since the BE Free8 earphones are so light, once they are positioned correctly you will hardly feel them. Noise isolation is better than an open-backed earphone, but not as complete as what I get from an Etymotic ER4XR; so, you'll still have some situational awareness when wearing them, but they won't disturb anyone sitting next to you when playing at reasonable volume levels.
If you look at the history of audio, one of the primary goals has always been the highest signal-to-noise ratio possible. For listeners, a high signal-to-noise figure translates into a silent, "black" background where the music emerges from an electronic void. My complaint with all the wireless earphones I've heard to date is that they have too much background hiss. The BE Free8 is much better in regards to hiss, but not perfect. I can still hear a small amount of low-level hiss during pauses in the music.
The BE Free8 has decent bass extension, especially for a single-driver design. That being said, the bass doesn't have quite the level of definition that I hear from multi-drive Balanced Armature designs, such as Optoma/NuForce's own HEM8, but it does a remarkably good job of providing solid, substantial, and musical low-frequency fundamentals.
The BE Free8 creates a convincingly dimensional soundstage; what it lacks in "out of between-your-head width," it makes up for with good localization. Listen to Jamie Lidell's "What Are You Afraid Of?" from the album Extended Beginnings on TIDAL, and you'll hear how well the BE Free8 handles the synth bass transients and places the backing vocals to the extreme outer edges of the mix.
Dynamics through the BE Free8 were better than I expected, given that all the power for the built-in power amplifier came from the batteries inside the earpiece capsules. To my surprise, though, the BE Free8 had some serious jump factor with dynamic selections. Jade Bird's "Cathedral" from her album Something American has some big drum sounds that gave the BE Free8 a workout. Up to about 65 percent on my iPhone SE's volume slider, these earphones did a great job, but above that the sound gradually came unglued.
Unlike many mid-priced earphones that feature a lot of hiss and boom but hollow out the midrange to do it, the Be Free8's midrange is well-represented. Through the BE Free8, Jason Isbell's lead vocals on "Last of My Kind" from The Nashville Sound had a rich, velvety quality that sounded natural and very right.
� The BE Free8 has a relaxed, natural sound with good bass extension.
� The BE Free8 offers 16 hours of battery life per case charge.
� These earphones do not require a tether or connection between earpieces.
� They are moisture-proof with an IPX5 rating.
� When idling with no signal, there is some hiss.
� The on/off/mute button on the earphone capsule is tiny.
� The manufacturer-supplied tips are all of one kind.
� The supplied charger case is glossy and slippery.
Comparison and Competition
While there are scads of "tethered" wireless in-ears, as well as conversion tether cables to change wired in-ears into a "wireless" versions, the BE Free8 is among the first wave of completely wireless in-ears to hit the market. Other completely wireless in-ears include the Bose Soundsport Free ($249), Apple Airpods earbuds ($159), and upcoming PSB M4U Tw1 (price to be determined). I'm sure that more will be available very soon.
I'll admit that before I received the BE Free8 I had a bias against wireless in-ears. The ones I had tried did nothing to turn that bias around and actually reinforced it. But the BE Free8 wireless in-ears have changed my opinion. I used them for three weeks of sweaty workouts, and after the second workout I never wanted to go back to wired in-ears while working out. I'll admit, they spoiled me--no more wires or tethers. Between their sound, ergonomics, and build quality, the Optoma/NuForce Be Free8 in-ears satisfied all the requirements to create a well-above-average, high-value earphone that's perfect for the gym or airport.
� Visit the Optoma website for more product information.
� Check out our Headphones + Accessories category page to read similar reviews.
� Optoma NuForce HEM8 In-Ear monitor Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.