TRNDlabs NOVA review: Affordability is not a silver bullet

TRNDLabs NOVA
  • TRNDLabs NOVA
  • TRNDLabs NOVA
  • TRNDLabs NOVA
  • Expert Rating

    1.50 / 5

Pros

  • Battery life
  • Case design

Cons

  • Unreliable connectivity
  • Iffy audio quality

Bottom Line

The lofty ambitions of the NOVA true wireless earbuds feel almost-entirely hobbled by poor connectivity. These might well be “genuinely affordable” but most will find them far from usable.

Would you buy this?

The Pitch

In retrospect, Apple’s early ambitions to see their AirPods crowned as the king of the true wireless earbuds category seemed pretty unrealistic. Not only had their biggest competitor - Samsung - already launched their own offering into the market first but Apple seems to have overestimated their own reputation and cache in the audio space.

Sure, the iPhone X is the luxury phone that everyone wants to own. But by comparison, Apple’s own audio products have often sat far further down on the food chain than the company would like. For many, the company’s AirPods and EarPods are the starting point. The baseline. The headphones you make do with until either they break or until you decide to invest in something that’s worth the upgrade.

Brand loyalty only goes so far - and where that loyalty ends, TRNDlabs’s NOVA earbuds are aiming to pick up the slack. According to the company, the NOVA are the first “genuinely affordable” true wireless earbuds.

Specs

The TRNDlabs NOVA true wireless earbuds are a set of that pull audio from a connected smart device via Bluetooth 4.1. They produce stereo sound with a frequency range of 20Hz to 20KHz. On their own, they tout a battery life of three to four hours. However, as per usual, the carry-case for the earbuds also doubles as a charger. All told, the total battery life here sits at approximately 60 hours, courtesy of the 2800mAh battery in the charger case.

The NOVA earbuds also arrive with a suite of customization options, including 3 sizes of ear-tip and set of foam earplugs.

Design

It sometimes feels like each successive entrant into the true wireless earbuds category has gently shaved off more and more of the form-factor involved. On this front, at least, the NOVA earbuds emerge as surprisingly cutting edge. There’s little fat left to trim here, leaving you with something could easily be mistaken for a more-mundane set of earplugs.

Read more: Samsung Gear IconX 2018 review: The path of least resistance makes for an easy upgrade

Each bud has a single strip-like button on the end, used to pause, play, pair and turn off the earbuds depending on the context. Like a lot of its competition, the NOVA relies on a simplistic one-button control scheme and while it shares a lot of the fruits of this approach with its competition, it also shares a lot of the shortcomings. These kinds of control schemes really are only as good as your ability to learn and then work within them. Oft-times, they’re rightfully relegated to a supportive or complementary role while you control your music from your phone or tablet. You can pause your music at a moments notice. Anything more complicated  will likely require you to get more-directly involved.

The NOVA earbuds don’t come with any sort of companion app. There’s no EQ or fitness tracking to be found. They’re designed for straightforward listening experiences. Likewise, there’s no solid durability rating or waterproofing here either. As far as true wireless earbuds go, the NOVA are fairly free of frills.

If there’s any part of the design that leaves an impression: it’s the case. Though it is markedly more bulky than much of its competition, the NOVA charger-case utilises a very appealing two-layered design. You slide the outer layer to one side to reveal the charging ports for the NOVA and then rotate it again to conceal them. Spinning things a second time reveals the charger ports for the case. Another rotation hides them. All told, this approach looks - and feels - really slick. The case can also be used as a more conventional powerbank, which is a nice value-add.

This slickness is neatly augmented - albeit at the expense of some practicality - by the magnetic mechanism that pulls the earbuds into place within the charger. The NOVA earbuds literally pull themselves into place, cleanly eliminating any issues where the earbuds and charger might find themselves out of alignment. Unfortunately, the flip-side of this is that while it’s easy to slide the earbuds in, it’s often very finicky to pull them back out again - especially if you have larger hands.

Read more: PumpAir Bluetooth Sportsbuds review: Price trumps polish

Performance

In terms of the audio they produce, the NOVA earbuds are reasonable but not particularly good. Vocals sounded clear. Bass carried a some loose-sense of bounce. However, that baseline listenability does come with a bucketful of caveats, as does the highly-vaunted 60 hours of battery life.

For one, despite appearances, the NOVA earbuds don’t do a great job of keeping away outside sound. I could always hear my music but outside noise was constantly leaking in and casting an audible shadow over whatever it was I was trying to listen to.

These problems were worsened by the connectivity issues I encountered during my time with the TRNDlabs’ NOVA earbuds. If I was sitting indoors and entirely stationary, they worked like a charm. However, listening to music while moving around proved itself an invitation for all manner of dropouts and stuttering sound. Sometimes one earbud would go silent. Sometimes both. The only constant here was their lack of reliability.

Going outside worsened this problem to the Nth degree. Having spent a lot of time testing out different true wireless earbuds - I’m no stranger to connectivity dropouts in outdoor environments. However, the NOVA earbuds are a strong contender for the worst offender I’ve encountered to date. They’re easily worse than the dropouts in last year’s Jaybird RUN earbuds and even the first-gen Jabra Elite Sport earbuds.

Worst of all, these issues all but negate any benefit afforded to the NOVA by its battery life. On paper, 60 hours of total battery life sounds great. In practice, it goes to waste. After all, what use is sixty hours of playback when the only way to experience that playback is to remain stationary and indoors?

The Bottom Line

At a glance, the NOVA true wireless earbuds look like the natural next step for those dissatisfied with their AirPods. They’ve got longer battery life, more-lightweight design and there’s even a sense of charm to how off-the-beaten-track their branding feels. TRNDlabs aren’t exactly a household name but there are plenty of cases where an unknown quantity has proved itself a solid alternative to the established players.

In reality, the lofty ambitions of the NOVA true wireless earbuds feel almost-entirely hobbled by poor connectivity. These might be “genuinely affordable” but most will find them far from suitable.

TRNDlabs Nova earbuds are available for $79 (USD) through their website.

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