Sleep-centric earbuds compared

Plus: Google Meet's subscription squeeze, a clever weather app, and more scheduling trickery

For reasons I haven't quite grasped, my body's become convinced that I'm an early riser. Almost every morning, I start stirring about two hours before I'm supposed to, and from then on it's a struggle to relax myself back to sleep.

So when a company called QuietOn reached out a couple months ago about loaning a pair of its active noise cancelling earplugs to review, I was intrigued. Distracting sounds are part of what keep me up, and while I've tried using cheap Bluetooth earbuds to pipe white noise into my ears, they're too big to wear comfortably without lying on my back. QuietOn's buds are much smaller and entirely focused on silencing outside sounds.

It turns out this isn't a unique concept, but rather one entry in a budding category I'll describe as "smart earplugs." Compared to regular Bluetooth earbuds, these devices have limited features—they can't, for instance, take calls or play music from your phone—but they're small enough to keep side sleepers from crushing their ears.

After getting a pair of QuietOn 3 earbuds to review, I decided to try a couple others to see how they compare. While they each have their strengths and weaknesses, they've all been helping me get better sleep when my body clock won't cooperate.

QuietOn 3: Anti-snoring simplicity

QuietOn 3

The most interesting thing about the $200 QuietOn 3 buds is that they don't connect to your phone at all. Just open the case and pop the buds in your ears, and the on-board microphones automatically start cancelling noise.

The buds' foam ear tips come in four sizes, and do a decent job blocking higher pitched sounds—birds chirping, kids yelling—but the active noise cancellation helps with lower-frequency sounds that ear plugs alone can't eliminate. Publicly, I can neither confirm nor deny that my wife snores, but hypothetically if someone happened to be snoring right next to you, the earbuds would mask enough of the sound to not be bothered by it.

Still, I had a couple of gripes that made made me want to investigate other solutions. QuietOn's earbuds started to feel uncomfortable to me after a couple of hours, partly because of the hard plastic behind the eartips, and partly because my ears are sensitive to active noise canceling in general. (If you're someone who experiences the "eardrum suck" effect in noise canceling headphones, it's present here as well.) And while simplicity is part of the appeal with QuietOn's earbuds, the lack of any ambient noise options resulted in more silence than I prefer.

Bose Sleepbuds II: More useful, less noise canceling

Bose Sleepbuds II

Looking for smart earplugs with ambient noise options led me to Bose's $249 Sleepbuds II, which take a much different approach to solving sleep problems.

They don't offer active noise cancellation, and the floppy silicone eartips, which come in three sizes, don't plug your ears as tightly as QuietOn's foam tips. But because they pair with an app on your phone, they can pipe in ambient noise, nature sounds, or soothing tones to cover up outside sound. They also have an alarm function to wake you up without disturbing your partner.

While you can't connect the Sleepbuds to any other apps, I was mostly happy with Bose's built-in sound selection. Digging the app's settings menu also revealed some helpful features, such as a sleep timer and a "phone-free mode," which lets the buds play a preferred sound right when you remove them from the case. I only wish you could mix multiple sounds together at the same time.

Best of all, Bose's buds were comfortable enough to leave in my ears for hours, even while sleeping on my side. You'll still notice them, of course, but the soft silicone enclosure and wingtips give the buds some much-needed cushioning when your ear's against the pillow.

Amazfit Zenbuds: A cheaper alternative

Amazfit Zenbuds

Amazfit's Zenbuds are clearly an attempt to undercut Bose's Sleepbuds. The silicone eartips have a similar design with wingtips on the end, and they pair with a mobile app for ambient sounds and alarms. Amazfit also tries to go further on features by optionally monitoring your heartrate and sleep positions throughout the night. At $150, they're the cheapest smart earplugs I tested, and they were even cheaper when I grabbed them for $92 on Prime Day.

Unfortunately, the lower price also comes with some noticeable trade-offs. The silicone feels a bit firmer and less comfy than Bose's buds, and the selection of sleep sounds is much more limited. Amazfits' Zepp app also pulls double-duty as as health tracking app for other Amazfit products, which means it's cluttered with features that get in the way of the Zenbuds' sleep functions.

Worst of all, the Zenbuds' silicone tips blocked out less noise than the other two pars of earbuds I tested. That means you really have to crank up the buds' ambient audio levels if you're trying to mask snores or other distractions.

The verdict

I realize that I've only scratched the surface of high-tech sleep aides—I've yet to experiment with Bluetooth sleep masks, anti-snoring pillow inserts, or full-blown smart beds—but I was drawn to smart earplugs because they seemed like a lightweight and unobtrusive solution to my inexplicably early mornings.

While QuietOn's buds could be a fine option for those who prefer to sleep in silence and aren't bothered by the effects of active noise cancellation, they ultimately weren't for me, and the company really ought to offer more than 14 days to try them out. By contrast, the Zenbuds are bound to Amazon's 30-day return policy, and Bose offers a generous 90-day trial period through its website.

That policy worked as intended: While I originally expected to keep the Zenbuds and return Bose's Sleepbuds II, within a few nights the pricier smart earplugs won me over. They're the ones I find myself reaching for the most in those pre-dawn hours.


Need to know

Google Meet's subscription squeeze: With the worst of the pandemic hopefully over, Google is setting a one-hour limit on group video calls in Google Meet, down from the prior 24 hours. Lifting those limits now requires a Google Workspace subscription, which starts at $6 per user, per month for teams. If you're keeping score, Microsoft Teams is still offering 24-hour meetings at no charge, while Zoom has never wavered from its 40-minute free limit outside of the occasional holiday.

Incidentally, Google has also rolled out a version of Workspace for solo users, priced at $8 per month until next January and $10 per month thereafter. The subscription removes the group call time limit in Meet and adds extra features such as call recording, hand raising, and breakout rooms, plus it comes with a scheduling tool that seems similar to Calendly. Between this and the end of unlimited Google Photos storage, the search giant's big subscription pivot is coming into full view.

Apple's iPhone battery: Apple is expanding its line of MagSafe accessories with a $99 battery pack for the iPhone 12. Charge the battery up with a Lightning cable, and you can snap it into the back of the iPhone whenever it needs a boost.

Apple MagSafe battery

But before you buy one, make sure to read 9to5Mac's detailed comparison between Apple's battery and those from Mophie and Anker, which cost about half as much. While the third-party batteries deliver more charge time and can power other devices, Apple's battery charges the phone automatically—no power switch needed—and its charge level is visible within iOS. Apple's version also charges the iPhone faster than third-party options, and you can top up both the battery and iPhone with a single Lightning cable. And of course, you get to do it all while brandishing the official Apple logo.

Valve's big hardware bet: The Steam Deck, a forthcoming $400-and-up portable gaming system from Valve, admittedly falls outside Advisorator's normal coverage area, but I can't resist commenting on it anyway. The ostensible goal is to capitalize on people's enthusiasm around the Nintendo Switch with a device that can run a huge number of PC games, but it'll also be a big test of Linux's competency at gaming (and, by extension, of Valve's system for making Windows-only games work on Linux.)

Also notable: You'll be able to install any operating system you want on this thing, Windows included, so the potential exists to use the Steam Deck as a portable computer, especially with the TV docking system Valve plans to sell separately. It's supposed to ship in December; I couldn't resist throwing in $5 to reserve one.

The NSO-Pegasus hack: Since it seems like the biggest topic in tech right now, I feel obliged to point out this story about Pegasus, a surveillance tool that infected iPhones and Android phones without any user interaction. (In the iPhones' case, the malware was delivered through iMessage.)

Because the software targeted politicians, activists, and journalists, it's a story with potentially big implications. But it also falls into that murky bucket of "things you probably needn't fret about if you're not a Person of Interest." The biggest takeaway for the rest of us seems to be that even iPhones aren't hack-proof, but then no technology ever has been.


Tip of the moment

Weather Strip

A clever weather app: Via John Gruber comes word of a nifty new iOS app called Weather Strip, which visualizes the weather as a timeline you can scroll through. Temperature, precipitation, cloudiness, and UV levels appear as points on a line graph, and you can either swipe the upper timeline for hourly changes or the lower timeline for daily ones. It's dense, but in a good way, plus the data comes straight from the National Weather Service. (On the downside, that means it's U.S.-only for now.)

My only gripe with Weather Strip is that there's no apparent way to search for the weather in specific cities outside your present location. You can tap on a map for weather in other places, but you'd better have brushed up on your geography first. Weather Strip is free for 30 days, then $1 per month or $4 a year, which seems reasonable given the lack of ads or data collection involved.


Now try this

Window Swap 2.0: One year after I first wrote about it, Window Swap is still one of the most tranquil spots on the web, letting you virtually hop around the world to peer outside people's windows. Version 2.0, which launched earlier this month, lets you create an account for saving your favorites window videos. It also supports adjustable sound levels—the best views tend to have a touch of background sound as well—and includes a "loop mode" for sticking with your current window. Check it out if you haven't already.

More scheduling trickery: In my newsletter from a few weeks ago on smart scheduling tactics, I wrote about using automation to make web pages load at certain times of the day. Since then, I've been loading my daily agenda in Todoist both in the morning and the early evening, and it's been a great way to take stock of the day instead of just blindly jumping into whatever task is right in front of me. Turns out it's pretty hard to ignore your to-do list when it pops up on top of whatever you're doing.

Anyway, I wrote a longer how-to on setting up that kind of automation—either in Windows or on a Mac—over at Fast Company, so take a look for further instructions.


Around the web


Spend wisely

AirPods Max

Apple's AirPods Max headphones are finally starting to see some price drops. Amazon is selling them for $455 in most colors, which is $94 off the regular price. They're still on the pricey side for noise-cancelling headphones, but they're a fine option for those who value integration with Apple products. As with other AirPods, you'll get easy pairing and built-in controls through iOS.

Other notable deals:


Thanks for your support!

Got any sleep tech preferences of your own, or other gadgets you want me to investigate? Send me an email, or hop into the Advisorator chat room on Slack, where the current topic of discussion is headphones that make minimal contact with your ears in the first place. I'm always happy to hear from you either way!

Until next week,

Jared

This has been Advisorator, written by Jared Newman and made possible by readers like you. Manage your subscription by clicking here, or reply to this email with "unsubscribe" in the subject to cancel your membership.