Note: This review was first published on 8 Apr 2021.
As a borderline hypochondriac, I welcome the greater emphasis that has been placed on hygiene and cleanliness in the past year. Personal hygiene is such an elementary and essential aspect of life and yet it takes a pandemic before all of us take it seriously. And I especially welcome LG’s new true wireless pair of earbuds, the Tone Free HBS-FN7. The reason being its charging case has a built-in UV steriliser.
Let’s face it, true wireless earbuds are a dime a dozen these days and a self-cleaning feature is a pretty slick way of standing out. More importantly, LG claims it kills 99.9% of bacteria, which is helpful when you consider how dirty your ears can be. Before delving further, take a look at the unboxing video that I did some time ago for what you can expect out of the box, how does the feature work and more:-
The LG Tone Free HBS-FN7 shares a lot of design cues with a certain lifestyle brand from Cupertino. The earbuds have an in-ear design and prominent stems, and the charging case is wonderfully compact. It’s available in two colours: white and black.
Not everyone is fond of headphones with an in-ear design because, well, they protrude into your ears. The upside, however, is that, with the right ear-tips, they can block out a lot of the outside world. To help, LG provides the Tone Free HBS-FN7 with three differently-sized hypoallergenic ear-tips made from medical-grade silicone. They are soft and I found the large size ones to fit me unobtrusively. The earbuds are also IPX4 certified, which means they can withstand splashes of water and are therefore suitable companions for workouts or if you just get caught in our random tropical storms.
A particular highlight for me is the charging case. It’s a small puck that’s only about 5.5cm in diameter and easily fits in the palm of your hands and slides into pockets. And it’s not like it’s skimping on battery life or features. The case charges via USB-C and provides an additional two charges (that's an additional 14 hours). It also supports wireless charging, and, remember, it has a built-in UV steriliser.
This is LG’s flagship true wireless earbud and it comes with all the bells and whistles – features that you’d expect from flagship-class true wireless earbuds.
To begin, there’s active noise cancellation. However, unlike typical active noise-cancellation systems, the one in the Tone Free HBS-FN7 has been tuned to be more effective at cancelling out high-frequency noises like human conversations.
The active noise-cancellation was mostly good. Travelling is out of the question now so I did the next best thing which was to play plane noises through my speakers. The Tone Free HBS-FN7 did an admirable job of suppressing them. I also live next to a busy road and I found that it was effective at nullifying traffic noise too. As for human conversations, I didn’t find the feature to be as effective. I could still hear my wife when she takes meetings at home and I could still hear murmurs from the TV.
All in all, together with the passive attenuation offered by its in-ear design, I would rate the Tone Free HBS-FN7 noise-cancellation capability as one of the best. But if I were to nitpick, some of its rivals, like the AirPods Pro and Sony WH-1000XM3, still do a slightly better job.
There’s an ambient mode too that lets you tune into your surroundings better. It works as advertised, but it sounds digitised and unnatural. There are sensors that automatically stop playback when you take the earbuds out of your ears and resume when you put them back in.
To control the earbuds’ active noise-cancellation capability, there are touch controls on each earbud. The default controls are logical and quick to pick up. But some practice is required to get the best out of them. In the beginning, you’d probably be jabbing the earbuds deeper into your ears. After some practice, you’ll learn the right amount of force required to do it comfortably. Also, if you have specific preferences, you can customise the touch controls in the Tone Free app.
Every flagship true wireless earbud has an accompanying app and the Tone Free HBS-FN7 is no different. Happily, the Tone Free app is one of the better ones. The interface is sensible, most intuitive, and it offers ample customisation and tweaking options. Apart from being able to customise the touch controls, there’s also an equaliser feature that lets owners tweak the sound of the earbuds. For the forgetful, there’s also a handy “Find my earbuds” function. When activated, and if you are within Bluetooth range, it causes the earbuds to chirp to help you find them.
I saved the Tone Free HBS-FN7’s most unique feature for last and that’s its built-in UV steriliser. Inside the charging case are UV LED lamps that LG claims will kill 99.9% of E.Coli and S. aureus bacteria. Without a laboratory to send samples to, we can’t tell if it really works. Nonetheless, it’s a nifty feature to have. However, one thing to note is that the steriliser requires the charging case to be plugged into a USB charger to work (wireless charging doesn’t work). So yes, this somewhat limits its usefulness, but given that you do need to charge the case from time to time, I don’t think it’s too big of an issue.
Inside the LG Tone Free HBS-FN7 earbuds are 6mm dynamic drivers. The sound is tuned in collaboration with Meridian Audio, a high-end British audio company that makes all sorts of über expensive audio equipment (including six-figure speakers) and is also the company behind the MQA codec. Speaking of codecs, the Tone Free HBS-FN7 supports AAC and SBC – Android users looking to rely on aptX should take note that it doesn't.
The work that Meridian has put in is evident. While most true wireless earbuds usually have a consumer-friendly tune that has a more V-shaped sound signature with elevated bass and treble, the Tone Free FN7 has a darker and more laid-back sound with full bass and a more relaxed treble response. It's easy to listen to for long periods and the stereo separation was remarkable.
However, you can pick holes. The mid-range sounds uneven with a noticeable suck out that causes vocals (particularly male vocals) to sound overly nasal and lacking in body. Likewise, some instruments, like pianos, sound like they are missing their fundamental frequencies. Also, the treble is perhaps far too relaxed and polite, which, when coupled with the slightly emphatic bass, causes the Tone Free HBS-FN7 to appear a little muffled.
But at this price, it’s hard to hold these shortcomings against the Tone Free HBS-FN7. Crucially, it’s fun and pleasant to listen to and works well for most genres of music. I think most of its prospective owners will be pleased. Furthermore, for fussy listeners, there’s the option to tune the earbuds’ sound through the app.
Truly, the LG Tone Free HBS-FN7 is one of the most effective and feature-packed true wireless earbuds you can buy today. Simply put, it ticks a lot of boxes for a lot of people.
Let’s start with portability. The charging case is so compact that it’ll easily slip into pockets. Furthermore, despite its petite size, battery life is very adequate. Secondly, its active noise-cancellation capability is pretty effective. It’s not the best we’ve experienced but it’s right up there with them. The way it sounds is very agreeable too. Its pleasant sound signature should satisfy most listeners. And finally, it has a nifty built-in steriliser. Since it’s hard to prove its efficacy, some might say it’s a gimmick, but I think it’s a nice feature to have – especially if you are fussy about cleanliness and hygiene like me.
And then there’s the price. With an MSRP of S$298 (street prices are often lower), the LG Tone Free HBS-FN7 is comfortably one of the most affordable flagship-class true wireless earbuds. And when you take into account all of its features and performance, it’s not hard to see why this is one of the most value for money true wireless earbuds you can buy now.