Hands-on review: Urbanista ‘London’ ANC wireless earbuds
Image credit: Urbanista
This is London calling.
First, true wireless earbuds were the high-water mark for new Bluetooth audio gadgets. Now, it's true wireless earbuds with active noise cancellation - the ANC often seen in product names, such as with these 'London' buds from hip Swedish audio brand Urbanista.
'London' follows previous Urbanista city-linked releases, such as Stockholm, Paris, Athens, Chicago, Boston, Madrid and Berlin - all different styles of earbuds and headphones, offering various features, functions and design shapes to embody the Urbanista motto, "Life in motion". London is obviously considered a fairly lively city (read: noisy) by our Swedish friends, as these are the first Urbanista buds to feature ANC. The sound of London here is the sound of silence.
The noise-cancellation technology essentially has three options: off; on, but with 'Ambient Sound Mode' to allow more noise through; or the full immersive, acoustically isolating ANC experience.
In terms of listening to music at its best or when you want no external distractions and to escape from the world that surrounds you - be that in the office or at the beach - the full ANC experience is your best choice. You have to activate this every time by lightly pressing and holding the top of the right earbud until a virtual lady tells you that it's now on (or off, depending on status), but you'll notice the difference in the music every time. It becomes instantly richer and deeper - and still impressively natural and real, not hyped at all - as if a degree of low-end had been missing with ANC off.
This is quite common with ANC earbuds and headphones: they invariably sound at their best with all circuits and functions activated. In Ambient Sound Mode (and with ANC off entirely), you do lose a little of the richness in the sound, but this is a fair compromise if you need to hear more of what's going on around you. If you're walking or cycling on the streets of London, an awareness of other road users can be a lifesaver.
Ambient Sound Mode is also designed to boost the sound of speaking voices both in podcasts and nearby, so if someone needs to get your attention they shouldn't have to shout or throw a shoe at you.
If you're the type of earbud user who prefers to just take one bud out to talk, anticipating the device to intelligently pause the music, courtesy of proximity sensors, the Londons deliver. This is a feature we like a lot and we've almost come to expect it - especially in earbuds at this level of quality and price point. When both earbuds are taken out, your music will stop playing completely.
The London earbuds are impressively smart in that they instantly scan for and connect to a known device as soon as you take one bud out of the charging case. It's a matter of seconds, every time, without fail. By the time you've got both buds in your ears, your music will probably already be playing.
The only caveat here is that in the case of our test iPhone, the earbuds defaulted to automatically playing from Apple's Music app every time, which will be fine for many iOS users, although if you actually prefer to do most of your listening in another app, e.g. Vox, this can be mildly annoying. It's not a big deal, though.
The small matchbox-sized carry case is compatible with any Qi-certified wireless charging pad. When fully charged - which only takes an hour or two from flat - the case holds a further four full charges for the earbuds, with indicator lights on the case to show remaining capacity. Playtime is approximately 4-5 hours for each charge, depending on ANC use, volume, music style etc.
Charging can also be done wired if you prefer, with a USB-C cable included in the box. The earbuds themselves are IPX4 protected, which allows for splashing water from any angle, but not immersion. Three sizes of silicone earbuds are also supplied to help you find your best fit. The connection is Bluetooth 5.0, with voice control of the buds available for Apple's Siri and Google's Assistant. Alternatively, there is the usual range of manual 'tap or hold' controls available on each bud to memorise.
Four different colours for London are available, chosen (according to Urbanista) to "reflect the city’s dynamic vibe and fresh modernity": Midnight Black, Rose Gold, Dark Sapphire and White Pearl.
We wore the London earbuds whilst listening to music in a variety of sample rates and file types; streaming videos via various channels and apps; during Zoom team meetings, and for personal FaceTime calls. The buds are small enough and sufficiently discreet that many people don't notice you wearing them, but are of such good quality that the conversation both ways comes through loud and clear (you can have conversations in stereo, if you wear both buds for phone calls). The built-in noise-cancelling dual microphone retains clarity.
For listening to music, they're fantastic. With the ANC fully on, the London buds deliver a very lovely and engaging sound, with the added bonus of a dramatic reduction in ambient noise. It's not a total shutout so there's no unnatural sense of isolation, but all the low-level rumble and distracting chatter of the urban landscape is gone. Urbanista devoted significant engineering time and energy to perfecting the acoustic performance of the London buds and the results are clear to hear. The micro-speakers with 10mm drivers produce a strong, natural and cohesive sound with great detail, all the way from deep bass to airy treble.
We've tested a lot of wireless earbuds over the last couple of years, so we feel fairly well qualified to say that there is some intangible magic to these London earbuds. They work perfectly; they look great (we had the 'Dark Sapphire' blue pair on test); they sound like money well spent and even the carry case feels good to hold, with a silky, tactile coating. It's hard not to love London.
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