In this Optoma NuForce BE Free5 Review we will look at Optoma’s latest well-priced earbuds specifically designed for delivering quality audio during sport for both smartphones AND music-enabled running watches.
This is a long form review and looks at some general topics as well as giving a detailed review of the Optoma NuForce BE Free5 earbuds. Skip ahead to the sections that most interest or sit back with your coffee and enjoy.
Sports Earbuds – What’s In An Earbud?
Clearly the main ‘point’ of a pair of sports earbuds is that you can listen to music whilst exercising. That most basic of requirements means that a degree of sweat-proofing and dust-proofing is a pre-requisite.
To play music, the sports headphones must link to your source of music, or contain a source of music themselves. We have seen an evolution in that link away from an AUX (auxiliary/line) model, where a single plug is pushed into the socket of a Walkman, iPOD, smartphone, or something similar.
With Bluetooth compatibility comes the ability to have a remote connection to the music source. Typically this source has been a smartphone but we could also connect to gym equipment, computers or, more recently, to some of the best running watches.
Thus we have seen the emergence of a notable number of ‘wireless’ earbuds designed for sport.
The evolution from wireless headphones has been to ‘true’ wireless earbuds. With ‘true’ wireless, the cable joining the two earbuds (often also containing a charging port and control unit) has gone. Those functions for charging and controlling have been moved to within one of the earbuds and so there is no cable/wire whatsoever. Although sometimes ‘true’ wireless earbuds have an optional ‘tether’ or wire which has the sole purpose of ensuring the earbuds are secured together whn required.
As well as a source of power from an internal, rechargeable battery, the headphones or earbuds may also contain a microphone. Some, more sportily-advanced models also contain accurate optical HRMs or accelerometers. And, of course, by linking to that ever-present smartphone app the manufacturer can add lots of functionality of many kinds.
The future will see the sporty earbud & set of headhones morph into a more general class of ‘hearables’ that will do ‘other stuff’. That’s partly beyond the scope of this post, today!
Even in that potted history you can see that the simple headphones have the potential to be ‘not so simple‘. The not-so-simple headphone could well also contain: a heart rate monitor; activity tracker; noise cancelling technology; audio-to-environmental sound management (hear-through); a microphone to control Alexa or Google Assistant; a remote control to take calls; an audio feedback mechanism for workout cues (audio coach says, “speed up!”); audio quality and frequency configuration through an equalizer; and more.
Or they could even play your running favourite songs 😉 But then they could even do that cleverly by adding caching into the earbud/headphone to mitigate against a dropped bluetooth connection – although that might give playback delays against, for example, video.
Indeed that’s the FIRST BIG ISSUE: audio dropouts. If your heart rate monitor missed a beat..or maybe even 10 beats…in reality you wouldn’t notice it. But you would, for sure, notice even a fraction of a second of audio dropout.
A SECOND BIG ISSUE that comes from the evolution towards the earbud; in that it becomes a significant design challenge to make an earbud fit everyone’s ear AND stay in it whilst exercising. And I think this is why we will always see a significant number of headphones (rather than earbuds) where the purchaser realises that a solitary earbud can be much more easily lost than a pair of headphones tethered together in some form.
Yet another BIG ISSUE is battery life. The increasingly clever stuff that headphones can do needs more battery power but a physically bigger battery is not always the solution as aesthetic concerns also come into play as the headphones or earbuds get larger.
Finally we come the BIG ISSUE of audio quality. Audio fidelity is lost in a variety of places on its way to your ear. The biggest UNIQUE concern with bluetooth headphones or earbuds, is that the bluetooth connection has bandwidth limitations. In order to fit within those bandwidth limitations, audio codecs lose certain audio frequencies and hence quality suffers. The default SBC codec is alright but better ones exist like aptX HD but which are less well supported on smartphones and rarely (if at all) supported on running watches.
“Simple” earbuds? Nah! Definitely “Not so simple”.
Optoma – Sports Audio Pedigree & History
Founded in 2002, Optoma are a relatively ‘new’ company who specialise in audio-visual proucts including projectors, DACs and headphones/earbuds. More recently they have introduced sports-specific models.
All the audio headsets and earbuds for sport appear to be sub-branded as NuForce. As far as I can make out Optoma have 2 models that are suitable for sports usage – the SPORT and the FREE, each with 2 variants:
- BE Sport3 & BE Sport4
- BE Free5 and BE Free8
The ‘Sport’ models are wireless for sport. And the Free models are true wireless earbuds for sport.
Other ranges and products include the Be6i which has aptX codecs (for audio quality) and IPX5 sports support – although it’s not marketed as a sports product per se. Then there is the HEM line of products which are WIRED in-ear headphones some of which are claimed to be ‘studio-quality’ and which do have impressive specs.
Optoma NuForce BE Free5 Specifications & Feature Comparison
The BE Free5 and BE Free8 are similar in looks and similar in specs. Let’s see if it’s worth looking at the next model up.
- Frequency Response – 20 – 20,000 Hz
- Driver type – 5.6mm dynamic (Free8 is 5.8mm)
- Sensitivity – 95 dB/mW (Free8 is 92 dB/mW)
- Impedance – 16 ohms (Free8 is 32 ohms)
- Battery Life -Up to 4 hours with 12 additional hours from the charging case. 2 hour recharge time (3 hours for charging case)
- Microphone sensitivity -42 dB (1V/Pa at 1 kHz)
- Bluetooth 4.1 with a 10m range
- True Wireless
- Supports standard SBC & AAC codecs (Free8 supports aptX but not aptx HD)
- Water resistant to IPX5
- Built-in cVcTM noise-canceling microphone
- A button on top of the earpiece to play, pause and skip songs or activate Siri and Google Assistant.
Take Out: The slightly older Free8 model probably has slightly better audio quality (not tested by me)
Hopefully all that has laid the groundwork and we can now proceed with the Optoma NuForce BE Free5 Review
More Info:: MANUAL :: Link to optoma.co.uk
Optoma NuForce BE Free5 Review – Unboxing
The box is nice enough but the material things you get are
- Charging case (with standard micro USB cable)
- The earbuds themselves
- 3 sets of clear Ear Gels/Ear Plugs
- 3 sets of wings
Optoma NuForce BE Free5 Review – Design Details
The charging case is a battery as well. So when you put the earbuds back into the case they will be recharged by the case. Cool!
Another neat feature is that there is a magnet in the case which ‘pulls’ the earbuds quickly into the correct position – this sounds trivial but is a feature missing on comparable, and some more expensive, earbuds.
When the case is opened/closed and the earbuds removed/inserted there are automatic power on/off features.
Naturally there are various LEDs on the earbuds and on the case. We’ll come back to that.
Here you can see the right earbud with one of the gels removed. Fairly standard stuff and nothing unusual here at all.
If you choose to wear wings then their placement is relatively obvious and a little tricky at the same time.
This is the position of the wings on the right earbud, both the bud and wing are marked ‘R’
Viewed from the side the tricky part is to keep the wing OFF the multifunction button and yet also be in a snug enough position to avoid movement whilst on the earbud. For that last reason I had to have the wing as shown below which was slightly further away from the multifunction button than the manual recommended.
Here is the right earbud correctly and fully inserted into the charging case. As you can see the design of the case DOES accommodate the wing in-situ.
Optoma NuForce BE Free5 – Pairing
I tried the Optoma NuForce BE Free5 earbuds out with several sports watches that play onboard music.
Feuble: The Free5 WILL pair with just the right earbud turned on. However all that shows as available to pair is a MAC address and pairing was very difficult on my smartphone requiring numerous attempts. Fix: You need both earbuds turned on! Then pairing will be super-simple as we shall see now…
First up we have the top-end Garmin Fenix 5S Plus (reviewed here) which is possibly the best, ‘Pro’ sports watch AND which is also suitable for smaller-wristed people. Across all devices the headphones are discoverable as BE Free5, as shown below.
Hey. You know how to pair stuff. Once you have, you can get into your favourite car and listen to your favourite regally-named pop artist.
Next up was the Polar M600 (reviewed here) WearOS sports watch. This is probably still the best WearOS watch for sports even in August 2018. It’s a little more fiddly pairing via the touchscreen but I got there in the end,
WearOS is pretty cool in how it is integrated to Google’s Play Music on your smartphone. I’d imagine other music apps are available for WearOS too.
The last watch I tried was the Amazfit STRATOS (reviewed here). This is a super smart sports smartwatch running a proprietary operating system – hence why I tested it with the Be Free5. And the STRATOS watch is pretty cheap too. It looks awesome with lots of features including simple music playback of music stored onboard. Like many sports watches its music playback functionality is basic
Once again…it worked…
What’s that? You have a smartphone? Yep ,they work too. Well, this one did.
I guess none of you have heard of the Ting Tings? “We started nothing” is a great song with relatively original production.
I can’t guarantee this will work on your device. But I had a 100% success rate – provided both earbuds were turned on 😉
Optoma NuForce BE Free5 – Controls & LEDs
There are LEDs on both the earbuds and the charging case. Each earbud’s entire flat surface is a button. There is a button on each earbud.
The LED functions are not simply explained in the manual. Usually a simple table is provided by the manufacturer.
This might be helpful but you might also find more nuances at various places in the manual
- Charge Mode: The LED indicators on the earbuds and the right LED indicator on charging case flash orange.
- Charge Status: >25% charge (left LED white), <25% charge (left LED orange)
- Pairing Mode: Earbuds flash white/orange (also an audio prompt)
- Paired: LED flashes white and an audio prompt
Quick test..what does this mean then?
Taking the earbuds out of the charging case is the easiest way to turn them on and, you guessed it, putting them back is the easiest way to turn them off. Various presses of each side’s multifunction button will turn one or both on. Without the audio prompts I would have had ‘issues’. Or, i guess, I would have just kept pressing it in different ways until it worked 😉
More Info:: MANUAL :: Link to optoma.co.uk
Optoma NuForce BE Free5 – Wearability
The NuForce BE Free5 fits easily and the gels (tips) pull off and push on easily enough to further enhance the fit.
The correct ear fit and appearance is something like this…
The person shown above has averagely sized ears and the fit out-of-the-box was good. Probably if you had smaller ears then these earbuds (and earbuds more generally) are perhaps not for you.
There are a LOT of factors affecting sound quality not least of which might be personal preferences.
For the money and for a sports earbud – the quality you get with the BE Free5 is good.
Another review I read on the internet said that the bass was ‘lacking’. I found that a strange comment. Perhaps the one thing that stood out to me with the BE Free5 was that the bass was clearly “there” across a wide range of music types. If anything, my complaint was going to be that the bass was a little too well pronounced. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
I would say that the definition was perhaps a tad lacking over all the frequencies but that was probably more than compensated for when I whacked on a decent AAC track from my smartphone (AAC support is becoming more common). Oh yes, and of course the price MORE than justifies the sound quality.
I would also caution the reader to try out different devices as the source of music for the BE Free 5 as well as different audio formats and bitrates. You may well find that what you think may be relatively poor audio quality is in fact caused by something else…you’ll know that as soon as you find those tracks that sound clearer and better defined. For example my smartphone definitely sounds a fraction better than my music-enabled smartwatches (on the whole).
Ultimately what you hear will pretty much represent the quality of the worst part of your music ‘system’.
So. Lossy 128/190Kbs bit rates are not a good place to start if you want quality audio. Lossy 320Kbs is a sensible place and, for example, can equate to the maximum rate at which some bluetooth audio signals are transmitted. Even better go for a source that is lossless ie no quality is lost despite it being compressed. But then again you may find that bit rates at and above 320Kbs are not supported by the Bluetooth codec being used and so bitrates, and henve quality, will be reduced at source. #ItsComplicated.
Take Out: These Optoma NuForce BE Free5 headphones will not be the choice of an audiophile. But if you appreciate a decent sound, a low price in a sports format earbud then you may well struggle to find better overall package elsewhere.
Optoma NuForce BE Free5 – Running Experience
They were pretty good. Even without the wings they stayed in for faster interval runs. If I were using them more frequently I would use the wings.
Being light, they are not at all intrusive to wear.
I also tried both the standard silicone tips and the SpinFit tips (CP350). I didn’t notice any particularly better fit from the SpinFit tips compared to other tips/gels.
The standard silicone tips, for me, formed an excellent seal. Very much like swimming earplugs. That was great for an immersive audio experience but less so for safety whilst running as very little ambient sound gets through.
Take out: Fine for me for running with caution away from traffic.
Microphone & Calls
As with other headphones/earbuds the received audio on these headphones from calls from a landline sounds ‘distant’. I’m not at all worried about that. It’s perfectly fine and clear for conversational purposes.
The sent-audio from the microphone was perfectly fine too – for a microphone.
With a double-click of the right multi-function button you can also say ‘OK Google’ to your heart’s content and have a limited conversation with your favourite imaginary internet friend.
The Optoma app
There isn’t one for music AFAIK
One of the issues with running smartwatches is that they tend to only have volume control. So there is no way of boosting the bass or using a graphic equalizer unless some sort of preset can be applied to the headphones. This is not possible without an app AFAIK.
However if you are playing back audio from your smartphone then there are 3rd party apps that enable equalization – I didn’t test that.
I didn’t experience dropouts in normal use with the audio source on my right arm or right wrist.
The stated 10m Bluetooth range was just about possible with a clear line-of-sight.
If I wear my watch on my left wrist then there can be dropouts (same with most other devices in this scenario). This is a bit annoying if you wear your watch on your left side normally – which I do!! The reason there can be dropouts is that the antennae appears to be in the right hand earbud and the bluetooth signal can’t travel through your body.
Best Running Watch With Music
Whilst these earbuds will work with most smartphones, the choice for ‘proper’ sports watches that can also play music is somewhat limited. There are more choices emerging now and I’ve covered just about all of them in this rather large post on running with music.
Price, Availability & Discount
The Optoma NuForce BE Free5 earbuds are now generally available, including on Amazon. Prices vary slightly around £/$/Eu95, which is a good price for a sports earbud.There seems to be a great choice of colours. Great…if you like BLACK 😉
I keep wanting to compare the BE Free5 with earbuds at twice the price…or more None of which are twice the quality but many of which do have slightly more functionality…but not always.
I could be a little critical of the manual. A little critical of the slight vagaries of audio definition. A little critical of a design that could be improved slightly in places.
But I can’t be critical of the price.
Bearing those factors in mind the Optoma NuForce BE Free5 still comes out as a ‘buy’ for sports earbuds with nice audio quality.
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