Hands-on review: Key Series T18NC wireless noise-cancelling earbuds
Image credit: Key Series
No sooner have we stuffed our ears with one set of desirable true wireless noise-cancelling earbuds than another impressive pair comes along.
Like the Urbanista London earbuds we reviewed recently, these Key Series T18NC (yes, the name could probably use some creative work) are true wireless, noise-cancelling, long-lasting, great-sounding, IXP5-waterproof, Qi-compatible, Bluetooth 5 earbuds. They're also a Red Dot design award winner, no less.
In terms of making a buying decision, everything you need to know about the T18NCs is right there in that description. They tick all the 2020 boxes. With more and more true wireless ANC (active noise-cancelling) earbuds coming on stream, competition is fierce across what is proving to be a relatively level playing field, given that almost anyone nowadays can spec out a decent-quality set of earbuds and ask a high-tech Chinese factory to churn them out in quantity.
In order to succeed, to rise above the morass of me-too competition flooding the world by the container shipload, a product has to possess some additional techs appeal, to exhibit some unique mojo. In the case (pun intended) of the T18NCs, it's probably the dedicated charging case.
The novel spherical design of the case, with its 'rainbow' arc-ing movement to slide open and close the compartment that holds the earbuds, is a very pleasing design to hold. The human hand appreciates smooth, round objects and this case is a tactile delight. If you have normal-sized hands (sorry, Donald) you can operate the whole thing with one of them, opening and closing with one hand whilst placing or retrieving the earbuds inside with the other. Perhaps a little satisfying, and reassuring, click as the smoked plastic rotating door closed would have been the cherry on the icing of this particular cake, but that's a minor point. It's a very nice case. In a world of fine margins, it's the little things that make a big difference.
It also holds up to a whopping 24 hours of charge, so you're unlikely to ever be caught short. Up to seven hours will be in the buds themselves, with the rest held in reserve for future charging on the go. Naturally, as with all battery life claims, it's highly dependent on what apps you're using and volume levels, but this is true for all battery-powered devices. The T18NCs never let us down during our tests or embarrassed themselves in comparison with other earbuds in our collection, so all power to them.
Looking at the buds themselves, they largely follow the design of the original AirPods. Stylistically, new earbuds tend to fall into one of two camps: either the stubby short-body form, à la AirPods Pro, or the longer, slender stalk design, à la original AirPods.
The T18NCs come rocking the extended stalk look. However, they eschew the ubquitous-to-the-point-of-cliched white housing of AirPods for a more elegant and sophisticated dark grey with subtle gold accents. They look good and make a refreshing change, visually. Having the longer stalk is also helpful, we have found, when manhandling them in and out of your ears, or when trying to adjust fit on the fly without accidentally triggering unwanted actions from the touch-sensitive earpieces. You've got something to hold onto. The fit is also customisable, with different sizes of silicon tips supplied.
There won't be many complaints about the sound of these buds. They offer, subjectively speaking, excellent hi-fidelity sound. Good balance, depth and stereo presentation. Clear without being edgy. Bassy without being woolly. Rich without being congested. No obvious failings or flaws. They have impressive custom 13mm titanium drivers for a quality sound across the usual frequency range of 20Hz-20kHz.
The active noise cancellation aspect can reduce environmental noise levels by around a stated -25db, helping to isolate your audio playback or conversations for greater clarity. As with most ANC buds we've tried, they sound at their best with the noise-cancellation on. There is a dual-microphone set up in each bud to maximise effectiveness of the ANC, better reducing wind noise and limiting background noise.
Controlling your audio via the earbuds involves a variation on the familiar tap-tap routine, enabling you to play and pause music, skip tracks and answer phone calls. ANC can also be tapped on and off, as desired. The T18NC buds are also IPX5 rated, so can be considered splash waterproof and dustproof. No swimming or showering whilst wearing them, but running and gym workouts will be fine.
Some earbuds offer a companion app for further customisation, such as EQ options to tailor the sound to individual preferences or the ability to change the touch controls. As it is, the signature sonics of these Key Series buds are set out of the box and as far as controls go, well, you'll just have to commit the ways of the T18NCs to memory. It will be a joyous day indeed when earbud manufacturers all agree on a standard set of tapping controls.
There's a lot to like about the Key Series T18NCs. If you're in the market for a new pair of earbuds, our opening paragraph sets out their stall perfectly. If you like the cosmetics, too, you can't really go wrong.
They're not cheap, but they sit confidently somewhere in the mid-range in terms of pricing. They're not troublingly expensive, like the AirPods Pro, but they're also priced significantly above - and do perform accordingly better than - the seething tide of sub-par sub-£100 buds threatening to engulf landfills everywhere.
What these Key Series T18NCs do (much like their mid-tier competition, e.g. Urbanista's London) is to offer a little more in terms of functionality and sonic quality than, say, standard AirPods, whilst still saving prospective customers a little money. Best of both worlds? Quite possibly.
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