My first experience with Onkyo’s new ES-BT1 Trainer Bluetooth Headphones was in the packed Onkyo/Gibson tent at this year’s International CES. Literally dozens of wannabe guitarists were milling around, strumming this year’s Les Pauls and SGs; voices struggled to rise above the din. And yet when I strapped on the ES-BT1, I was duly impressed by the performance. That was doubly surprising for me, since I don’t particularly care for Bluetooth headphones as a rule. Given any particular Bluetooth headphone, I’m of the opinion that you’ll generally get much better performance opting for the wired equivalent.
The thing about the Onkyo Trainer Bluetooth Headphones, though, is that there aren’t any wired equivalents. The company hasn’t simply snipped the cable from one of its popular on- or over-ear models and thrown in a Bluetooth antenna for good measure. The ES-BT1 is designed – as its name implies – for the athletic listener for whom dangling wires are an outright hassle, not merely an inconvenience. As such they’re lightweight, snug-fitting, and simple in design, with an unfettered, sporty aesthetic and simple yet sturdy materials.
Unlike most Bluetooth headphones, they’re also incredibly affordable at just $99.
Eager to put the Trainer Bluetooth Headphones through their paces, and impressed by what I heard on the noisy show floor, I brought a pair home with me, charged them up with the included USB cable, and sat down for some critical listening this weekend.
First things first, I found the ES-BT1 incredibly easy to pair with my iPhone 5S. Simply hold the Play/Pause button on the right ear (the same button you use for power toggling, by the way) for five seconds and the Trainer goes into pairing mode. Seconds later I was rocking out to the tunes beams straight from my phone to the Trainer.
But, as it turns out, sitting on my living room floor, eyes closed, digging through my favorite headphone stress test tracks, was exactly the wrong way to approach the ES-BT1. In the quiet confines of my home, isolated from the noise of the outside world, judging the Onkyo Trainers as I would a proper pair of audiophile headphones, the experience was a little underwhelming. The overall tonal balance I look for in a good seat of headphones wasn’t there. Midrange frequencies were a bit boosted. Treble was a little thin.
So why did I like these new Onkyo headphones so much at CES, but not so much at home? You’ve probably already guessed the answer to that question: location, location, location. So I leashed up Bruno, my energetic 75-pound pit bull, suited up, strapped on the Trainer Bluetooth Headphones, and went for a jog to evaluate their performance in their intended element.
Despite the fact that I live in the boonies of Alabama, my neighborhood is actually quite a noisy place. I live on a pretty major through-street, so traffic is a constant. The driveways and side streets are generally filled with kids shooting hoops or doing the other sorts of raucous things that kids do. I can barely traverse a block without hearing the roar of a delivery truck of one sort or another. So when I’m out for a jog, I typically opt for noise-isolating in-ear headphones. But there are downsides to that approach, of course. There is an argument to be made that isolating myself from the noise of the neighborhood isn’t the safest approach.
The Onkyo ES-BT1, by contrast, is designed with open, airy cloth ear pieces that let all of that environmental noise in. Noise isolation is next to negligible. That shouldn’t be confused with a loose fit, mind you, because these headphones do adhere well to the head, and are flexible enough to accommodate virtually any sized noggin. Width adjustments are handled by the stretchy rubberized headband; length adjustments are via nice, tight retractable metal bands. The ear cups themselves also have a bit of wiggle room and can be rotated to match the shape of your ears.
I was honestly surprised during the course of my jog just how well the ES-BT1 clung to my head without being uncomfortable in the slightest. I only had to adjust them once during a 3.5-mile circuit around the neighborhood.
What impressed me more, though, was how much better I liked the sound when I listened to the ES-BT1 in its intended environment. Against the backdrop of constantly whooshing cars and trucks, and the omnipresent drone of the nearby industrial park and Air Force base, the rather forward midrange of the Trainer Bluetooth Headphones turned out to be a blessing. Vocals in particular cut through the cacophony nicely. The guitars and piano of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Jessica” – one of my favorite workout tracks – rung through with appreciable clarity. Bass certainly wasn’t what you’d call overwhelming, but I found that low frequency performance was a bit better than you’d expect based on Onkyo’s published specs.
Given that the temps were in the upper 40s at the time, I’ll admit that I didn’t do a lot of sweating until a couple of miles into my jog, and not much even then. But I still found that the ES-BT1’s cloth earpads did a nice job of wicking that moisture away, keeping my ears nice and comfy. And my fingers quickly learned their way round the ES-BT1’s volume and transport controls. But best of all, I didn’t have to deal with the constant swish-swish-swish of cables rubbing against my jacket.
So while the Onkyo ES-BT1 Trainer Bluetooth Headphones definitely wouldn’t be my go-to cans for quiet listening within the home, they’ve turned out to be one heck of a workout buddy. They fit great, they’re stylish, and in their element (the outdoors) they sound better to my ears than a good number of Bluetooth headphones costing two or three times as much.