realme Buds Air Pro review: Active Noise Cancelling without the huge price tag
Quick verdict: With active noise cancelling on board for under $200, the realme Buds Air Pro offer good value for those looking for a true wireless bargain.
- Active Noise Cancelling for under $200
- Good battery life
- Slightly flat audio
- Fiddly touch controls
- App requires registration
realme's latest set of true wireless headphones most certainly look like they're just another pair of slightly-cheaper AirPod knockoffs from a design perspective, but they bring a feature that's fairly rare in the sub-$200 space to play.
That's active noise cancellation, a feature usually only found in true wireless buds that cost quite a lot more than the asking price of the realme Buds Air Pro. It's a big promise for the cheaper realme buds to make, and while it can't quite match it with the best true wireless buds, there's still a lot to like here for the price.
- Derivative stalk design
- Glossy case loves picking up fingerprints
There are essentially two trends right now in true wireless earbuds. Some makers opt for incredibly discrete – and potentially easy to lose – simple earbuds. Others opt for designs that can comfortably be called "AirPods knockoffs", with microphone stalks jutting out of those buds. It's the latter that realme has opted for with the realme Buds Air Pro, which sell in Australia in either "Rock Black" or "Soul White" finishes. Or, as normal people might call them, glossy black or glossy white.
Like so many glossy plastic devices, they're highly prone to picking up fingerprint smudges, although you'll notice that a lot more on the black model's case than the earbuds themselves. Like the buds, the design here is entirely generic for the category. It's an oval case with a flip-top lid, although pleasingly, realme does include a pairing/reset button on the case rather than relying on the user to hold the buds' touch sensors down if you do need to pair to a new device.
- Pairing via the realme Link app is an adventure
- Touch controls can be tricky to use
- Sound is average for most music types
- Active Noise Cancelling is pretty good for home office use
Like just about any pair of Bluetooth headphones, you can just pair up the realme Buds Air Pro via your device's standard Bluetooth connection, but if you're doing so, you're limiting the range of what it can do and how you can configure them. To do that, you've got to use realme's app for all of its wearable devices, realme Link.
While I had set up realme Link when testing the realme Watch S, I wanted to test the realme Buds Air Pro as though I was a totally new user. As such – and to give it a little more challenge – I downloaded the realme app to an iPhone 12 Pro Max, and set about trying to pair the realme Buds Air Pro to it.
It didn't go well. For a start, realme insists that you register either an email address or a direct phone number simply to start pairing any device. There's a countdown for email 2-factor authentication, and without fail, every single time I tried, the verification code would arrive well after the countdown timer had already expired. Phone verification via SMS did work, at which point the realme Link app would pair with the Watch S, but informed me that if I couldn't see other devices after a scan, they weren't supported by the app.
This isn't a good experience, realme. The Android version of the realme Link app did see the realme Buds Air Pro and would link to them, to be fair, but I'm still not super-happy at needing that level of registration simply to access a few additional app features for headphones. It feels like total overkill because it is.
The realme Link app allows you to set the touch controls for the realme Buds Air Pro, which follow the typical double and triple-tap set-ups used by most wireless buds these days. Just like most other buds, it's a very hit-and-miss affair, mostly miss if you want to skip tracks or invoke your phone's assistant features. No matter what you set for those taps, a long hold on either bud will switch between the headphone's normal, active noise cancelling and transparency modes, although by default they'll only flip transparent or ANC unless you tell them specifically you also want the normal mode option.
Transparent mode works much as any other set of true wireless headphones, flipping the microphones to pick up and send through more ambient noise for those periods where you want to or need to be more aware of your surroundings. Normal mode relies entirely on isolation of your ear canals for any noise cancellation and only works moderately unless you're really pumping up the volume.
The claim for the realme Buds Air Pro is that they'll handle up to 35dB of noise cancellation. I've essentially only been able to test them in a home office and while out jogging with traffic, and there they offered decent, but certainly not great noise cancellation features. As always, you're not blocking yourself off from the world, merely reducing the external noise factors that can be distracting or annoying.
For details like the noise of my office fan or the sound of my fingers attacking a mechanical keyboard, the realme Buds Air Pro did a fair job relative to their price point, although quite clearly less so than some more expensive ANC headphones I've tested in the past. The same was widely true for vehicle noise while out jogging; I could still very clearly hear approaching vehicles, but toggling between normal and ANC modes did reveal a decent, if not revelatory level of noise-cancelling happening.
Then there's the question of wider audio accuracy. Here the realme Buds Air Pro performed far more as I'd expect a set of sub-$200 true wireless buds to work. Bass tones were relatively light unless I enabled the Bass Boost+ feature within the realme Link app, at which point they tended to muddy out pretty badly on anything that wasn't already designed to sound that way. Again, that's not out of the ordinary for true wireless headphones in this kind of price bracket.
- Up to 6 hours playback out of case, 3-4 is more likely
- USB C recharging, but no supplied charger
Battery life for smaller true wireless buds is always a challenge, and even more so if you've got to manage the microphones used for active noise cancellation. The claims that realme makes around the realme Buds Air Pro reflect this rather starkly.
On the face of it, the claim of up to 6 hours of playback time out of the case would seem pretty remarkable at the asking price, but that's a claim made with active noise cancelling disabled for the entire playback time. If you had to, you might use the realme Buds Air Pro that way as a last resort, but I can't see too many folks tracking down a set of ANC buds and then not using the precise feature they're buying them for!
Here, realme drops the figure to around 5 hours, and even there I'd say it's a little optimistic. My own usage tended more towards 3-4 hours on moderate volume, but as always your volume levels and codec choices can affect battery life more or less than in my own test scenarios.
The charging case is good for at least 4 recharges – or 20 hours or so with ANC, 25 without according to realme's claims – with nicely quick recharging if you do need to just give the realme Buds Air Pro a quick power boost for a specific reason. Recharging is via USB C only – it'd be surprising to also see wireless charging included – but with no supplied charger in the case, your recharge rates may vary depending on where you plug the case in.
Should you buy the realme Buds Air Pro?
- Buy it if you want a decent set of ANC true wireless headphones at a low price.
- Don't buy it if you want an easy app experience or best in class audio.
The realme proposition has shifted in Australia from pure phones to wearables, but that same focus on affordability remains, and that's absolutely true for the realme Buds Air Pro. At $199 outright, they're on the lower cost side for on-brand true wireless headphones, and their active noise cancelling is fair for that asking price.
You certainly shouldn't think that you're getting best-in-class noise cancelling, as it's still on the slighter side there, but it's pleasing to see it as an option at this price point. There are other annoying factors – it's too hard to register just to pair a new set of headphones, which is beyond silly – but the realme Buds Air Pro are otherwise great value headphones for users with modest audio needs.
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Images: Alex Kidman