Hands-on review: Grell Audio TWS/1 earbuds
Image credit: Grell Audio
Audiophile in-ear listening for the discerning and financially frugal music lover.
The Grell TWS/1 'in-ear headphones' are the debut product from the eponymous company headed by renowned audiophile headphone designer and engineer Alex Grell.
While the company may be a new name to many, Grell himself is a long established, highly regarded operator in the headphone world, having previously been the lead designer at Sennheiser. Whilst there, he helped tune and perfect some of the finest headphones ever made, including such models as the current flagship HD800S (that's a £1,400 pair of cans to you, mate).
Having also worked with Swedish lifestyle audio brand Urbanista, Grell recently left Sennheiser to start his own brand, Grell Audio. Taking everything he learned from three decades in pursuit of sonic excellence, his new company's first fruit - the TWS/1, reviewed here - has been designed to the same exacting high standards. World-class sound, with clarity, transparency and detail, includes attention to detail at every stage of the manufacturing process, using high-quality components.
The result - as Grell states - is true wireless headphones with minimalistic, industrial-style design contrasting the complexity and richness of the acoustic output, without sacrificing a comfortable fit.
The price has also been carefully positioned to be neither eye-watering nor wallet-busting. By selling directly to consumers from the Grell Audio website, with an online-only sales model appropriate for the new digital generation, the company can offer higher quality products for lower prices, removing some of the economic barriers to entry for budding audiophiles.
Rather than using premium pricing as a quality differentiator in the marketplace, Grell has opted to use the online direct sales advantage to offer a product that should, and would - if sold by either a third-party retailer or produced by an established audio brand - cost considerably more, given its high performance.
In essence, these are stellar-sounding wireless earbuds, with all the high-tech, high-spec features you could wish for, but at a price that significantly undercuts 'big brand' alternatives costing much more, but often delivering less (naming no names).
The TWS/1s have custom 10mm dynamic drivers; a 30-hour battery life (with ANC on); transducers with a tolerance of +/- 1 dB; Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), using Qualcomm cVc Noise Cancellation, plus Grell's original 'Noise Annoyance Reduction' (NAR) technology; true wireless performance; glass touch fields for gesture commands on each earbud; voice assistant support; SoundID-enabled personalisation; support for SBC, AAC, Qualcomm aptX, aptX HD, aptX adaptive, LHDC audio codecs; a frequency range of 4Hz-22kHz; Bluetooth 5.2 compatibility, using the Qualcomm 5141 chipset; an operating range of up to 50m (164 ft); an IPX4 waterproof rating, and support for mono mode, whereby you can use just one earbud.
Delivered in a distinctly no-frills package - just a brown cardboard outer box, with brown paper envelopes for the short USB-C charging cable and selection of foam or silicone ear tips - the utilitarian message here is that all the money has been spent where you really need it: on the earbuds themselves.
The wireless-enabled aluminium charging case feels like a nice solid object and holds up to four recharges. Intriguingly, the earbuds are placed in 'cross-wise', i.e. as you take the right earbud out of your ear, you place it in the left-hand slot in the case. It seems counter-intuitive, but actually makes more sense, as this is how the human body naturally moves. It's a small thing - and may initially confuse you - but it's a nice touch and a sign of someone thoughtfully considering every aspect of a product.
The industrial design of the earbuds themselves is also worth a mention. Predominantly metal, with some plastic parts (due to acoustic wave considerations), their outer dimension is barely any bigger than a 5p coin and we found that the shape and curvature of the body section fitted very comfortably into the ear canal, with no discomfort after long periods of wearing them.
Touch control is straightforward enough, with core tasks assigned (and non user-configurable) to each 'bud. The surfaces are quite sensitive, so the brushing of a finger whilst adjusting your hair or clothing can trigger unwanted actions, although this is also true of many touch-sensitive devices.
We've had the TWS/1 Space Grey set on test for a couple of months and can unequivocally say: these are awesome earbuds. Given that Grell was putting his own name as well as his hard-earned reputation on the line by starting his own audio company, it makes complete sense that there would be no compromise in the sonic quality.
The sound is up there with a great sounding pair of on-ear headphones. Balanced sound across the spectrum, with a wide and distinct audio picture, yet without becoming overly analytical and dry - always with a thoroughly enjoyable musical sensibility uppermost in the delivery. Bass where you want it; warmth where you need it; air and space where it does the most good. Superb.
Happily, this is also still the case when ANC and NAR are switched on. As with almost all things ANC-equipped, the music sounds that little bit better - richer, fuller - when it's switched on, so 90 per cent of the time that was our default setting. You can choose to allow in more of the world whenever necessary simply by pressing and holding the glass surface of the left-hand earbud.
The ANC feature behaves like you'd expect, largely (if not completely) eliminating the low rumble in your surrounding environment. The NAR (Noise Annoyance Reduction) mode, meanwhile, is Grell's own answer to higher-frequency issues. It works in tandem with ANC, using a psycho-acoustic model to balance noise reduction across the frequency range. Using NAR with ANC has a more subtle effect than using ANC alone - anything too heavy handed would be liable to interfere with the music you're enjoying - but it can make a positive difference. Both modes are optional, anyway.
Should you feel compelled to tweak the signature sound of the TWS/1s, you can use the third-party SoundID app to personalise your listening experience. More than just a simple EQ, SoundID aims to help you identify your unique listening profile, tailored to your own hearing ability and listening preferences, using smart algorithms and machine learning that evolve and improve over time. Creating a SoundID profile is free and it is automatically saved directly onto the headphones. For the most exacting audiophiles, the ability to fine-tune an already fantastic set of in-ears in this way could be a dream come true. Firmware updates for the TWS/1 'buds are also delivered via the SoundID app, so it's likely that you'll engage with it at some point.
We have had a few teething issues with the earbuds, which is perhaps to be expected with the first batch of the first manufactured product from a new company. Sometimes walking fast caused dropouts in the Bluetooth connection. Sitting at our desk, though, never a single one. There were also occasional times when the earbuds and the phone would abruptly forget they ever knew each other, so had to be reintroduced by putting the buds back in the charging case and re-pairing them with our phone. This is the work of a few seconds, so only a brief irritation.
These minor quibbles are easily forgiven and forgotten when the TWS/1s sound as good as they do. Regular readers of our reviews will know that we've spoken highly of other similar products before, but these are now unquestionably the best pair of in-ear true wireless, noise-cancelling earbuds that we've tested to date.
It's true that you can spend less than the $200 (£150, approximately) price tag of these Grells and still get a decent-sounding product. However, if you are genuinely in the market for some of the finest audio reproduction available (within financial reason), from a product properly equipped to go the distance with you, then these audiophile-grade earbuds arguably lead the pack.
$199.99 (£150, approximately)
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