Powerful lows and sculpted highs will appeal to bass lovers. Sweat-resistant. Relatively easy pairing process.
Inconvenient button layout. Paltry battery life. Mediocre mic quality. Left and right channels switched. Sound signature not for purists.
- Bottom Line
The Winnergear Hero is another flawed entry in the nascent cable-free wireless earphone category, but might appeal to bass-loving gym bunnies.
It's been about a year since cable-free Bluetooth earphones started appearing on the market. In that time we've seen some solid efforts, but no true standouts. This holds true for the $149.99 Winnergear Hero earphones. They feature a sweatproof design and in-ear stability hooks for a secure fit during exercise. And powerful low frequency response will appeal to those motivated by deep lows while working out. But those looking for an accurate sound signature should steer clear, as should anyone hoping for decent battery life.
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Available in black, the Hero consists of two separate earpieces that fit in a portable charging case. As mentioned, the earpieces are sweatproof and intended for use during exercise—swappable ear hooks help to stabilize the in-ear fit, which is quite secure and comfortable. The case itself, which carries four full charges, is cylindrical, with a flip-top lid. The included micro USB charging cable connects to the case. Two pairs of ear hooks (in two sizes) and three pairs of eartips (S, M, and L) are included, but other than the charging case and the cable, that's it in terms of accessories.
Pairing is always an involved experience with cable-free earphones, primarily because each earpiece usually needs to be paired individually. Some manufacturers have found a way around this. Winnergear puts a power button on the outside of each earpiece—once powered up, they connect to each other automatically. All you need to do is connect the left earpiece via your phone's Bluetooth menu. Powering down by holding the button in for six seconds turns off both earpieces.
The issue with the power controls, however, is that they are multifunction buttons. They also handle pairing, playback, and phone calls. In fact, simply pressing the outside of the earpieces to make sure they're in securely will likely perform some function—most likely pausing or playing your music. Furthermore, there are no controls for track-skipping or volume control—that must be taken care of on your mobile device itself.
And one odd issue: The earphones switched stereo channels in our left-right ear test. Audio that always plays over the left channel only played over the right, and vice versa. This may not be a huge deal to most listeners, especially since the stereo image is still basically preserved (it's just flipped), but some audiophiles will find this annoying. On repeat pairings, the issue did not resolve itself, so it might be a case of incorrectly labeled earpieces.
Hero says that the earphones feature "Noise Cancellation CVC 6.0," but this shouldn't be mistaken for actual active noise cancellation like you find in the Bose QuietControl 30. CVC is a technology meant to improve clarity during voice calls—not to be confused with active noise cancellation that eliminates ambient room noise. And regardless of this feature, the built-in mic offers so-so intelligibility. Using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 6s, we could understand every word we recorded, but there were plenty of audio artifacts to contend with. And thanks to exceptionally low transmission volume, our guess is whoever you're calling will be asking you to repeat yourself if you've got a spotty signal. Only the left earpiece has an actual mic, which is not necessarily typical with cable-free earphones.
Winnergear estimates battery life to be three hours—a paltry number, but par for the course thus far with cable-free earphones. Thus, the charging case, which carries four total charges, becomes a necessity—you can get roughly 12 extra total hours of battery life while on the go from the case. Your results will vary based on your volume levels, however.
On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife's "Silent Shout," the earphones deliver powerful low frequency response—the type of thumping bass we often associate with exercise-focused earphones. At top, unwise volume levels, the drivers don't distort. You get a solid sense of bass depth at moderate levels, but the earphones also deliver a powerful high-mid and high frequency response. Anyone seeking an accurate response will not be thrilled, but bass lovers will be happy.
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Bill Callahan's "Drover," a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the general sound signature. The drums on this track can sound overly thunderous on bass-forward earphones, but through the Hero, there's a solid bass presence without sounding over-the-top. Callahan's baritone vocals get a strong low-mid richness, while everything seems to get an extra coat of high-mid crackle, from the vocals to the guitars and percussive hits.
The kick drum loop on Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild" receives plenty of high-mid presence, allowing its sharp attack to slice through the dense layers of the mix. The sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are delivered with gusto, but they never approach subwoofer-in-your-skull levels of bass presence. The vocals are delivered clearly throughout the track and manage to avoid sounding overly sibilant, despite getting some added presence in the high-mids and highs.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene in John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, get some added bass depth, but the higher register brass, strings, and vocals are in clear command of the spotlight. It's worth noting that the bass response will sound weaker if you don't get a secure in-canal fit. This is true of virtually all in-canal earphones, but I point it out here because I had to fiddle with eartip choices more than usual in order to finally get a consistent fit and sound signature.
Something about the Winngergear Hero earphones feels unpolished. The manual has typos all over the place, but that's not what the problem is. The design feels like the main issue here. Having a single button for everything—and placing it in the exact spot you're likely to touch when trying to place or secure the fit of the earpieces—just doesn't work that well. And the swapping of the left and right channels may not matter to some listeners, but it's a clue that there wasn't necessarily serious attention to detail paid when testing out the audio.
Yet there's no one particularly glaring issue here. Instead, the earphones seem suffer from what much of plagues the competition—the aches and pains of first-generation devices. This category lacks an Editors' Choice at the moment. From the Apple AirPods and the Samsung Gear IconX, to the Bragi Dash and the Sol Republic Amps Air, all have strengths and weaknesses that sometimes make you feel like a beta tester of what will one day be a solid product category.
By Tim Gideon Contributing Editor, Audio
Contributing Editor Tim Gideon has been writing for PCMag since 2006. He specializes in reviewing audio products, and is obsessed with headphones, speakers, and recording gear. More »
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