STEREO GUIDE Verdict
+ very airy, filigree sound with a very good sense of space
+ deep, crisp bass reproduction
+ very long battery life
+ protected against dust and splash water according to IP54
+ quite insensitive to wind noise
+ comfortable, secure fit
- bass reaches its limit with some tracks even at moderate levels
- Earpiece and case discharge themselves within a good week
- no ANC
Sound: Tonal balance / Transparency9.4
Sound: Bass / Dynamics8.1
Ease-of-use / Connectivity9
Shokz stands for headphones. While competitors like JBL, Bose or Sony also just made a name for themselves with Bluetooth boxes in the mobile audio sector, the company from Shenzhen in southern China relies on its enormous technical creativity in finding unconventional earphone designs that focus on active sports enthusiasts. For example, the Shokz OpenFit from this review is a so-called open-ear concept that sits on the ear, but unlike on-ears or over-ears, leaves most of it exposed.
The specialty of the sporty niche supplier are solutions that neither have a headband nor have to be inserted into the ear canal like in-ears. Shokz also makes use of exotic bone-sound transmission in models like the OpenRun Pro. This involves an exiter acting on the skull bone in front of the ear to transmit the audio signal past the eardrum directly to the inner ear. Sounds wacky for a headphone, but was developed against the serious background for hearing aids to let people with hearing impairments perceive their surroundings acoustically. Compared to conventional sound generation, however, certain limits are set.
I was also able to try out the OpenRun Pro at the IFA in Berlin and was positively surprised by the sound. However, the vibrating in front of the ear tickled me so much that it thoroughly nullified the theoretical wearing comfort advantage with the free ear to my taste. The Shokz OpenFit combines the best of both worlds in my eyes or ears and recommended itself after a brief listening check at the brand’s booth for a detailed review on STEREO GUIDE.
Relatively compact, but larger than in-ears
The OpenFit provided to us for reviewing was quite heavy in the hand with its relatively large charging case and a total weight of around 74 grams. The size comes from the cantilevered silicone-wrapped titanium earpieces that want to be guided along behind the ears when you put on the open-ears, which are available in beige or black. The earpieces themselves weigh only 8.3 grams each thanks to lightweight construction and sit very comfortably.
A respected colleague who reviewed the OpenFit for another magazine recently raved about them: The most comfortable earpieces he knows. That’s why he uses it every day when he’s on foot. However, I also find the wearing comfort of the new JBL Soundgear Sense very good, although the first open-ears of the Americans turn out to be a lot more bulky. For this, they have an adjustment around two axes, which makes positioning much easier compared to the rigid Shokz.
The positioning basically plays a bigger role with open-ears than the tight fit with in-ears. If the ear canal earpieces do not seal the ear canal properly, sound pressure in the bass and fundamental fullness is lost. When the Shoks are ill-fitting, they lack more than just punch in the bass. They then also seem somewhat diffuse and harsh in the midrange, which spoils the performance of voices in particular. However, we are talking about a few millimeters here, because the rigid bracket leaves little room for maneuver when it comes to positioning.
The former can be counteracted within certain limits with the equalizer in the Shokz app for iOS and Android, the latter rather not. So you should already have music playing when putting on the OpenFit to help it fit perfectly according to acoustic criteria. Simply boosting the bass via the equalizer is not such a good idea. Despite its 18 x 11 cm diaphragm, the oval driver occasionally reached its limits in the listening test. More about this below in the detailed listening test.
First of all, a few impressions about operation and practice. Up to 28 hours of playtime can ideally be achieved with recharging in the case. Then, a full charge takes just under two hours via a power source with the included USB-C charging cable. If you only want to continue listening to music for a short while, you can infuse the empty headphone batteries with juice for another hour of Bluetooth music playback in just about five minutes.
The outsides of the Shokz OpenFit are designed to be touch-sensitive, and tap gestures or prolonged holding usefully control functions such as volume control, start/stop, or calling up the voice assistant on the smartphone. So, with its microphone array, you can call Apple Siri or Google Assistant depending on the operating system. The touch functions can be customized via the Shokz app. There’s even an equalizer preset for phone calls, as the Shokz is a full-featured headset with two noise-canceling microphones per earpiece to block out ambient noise while talking.
Sonic quality: What a surprise
Phone calls worked with the Shoks with good voice quality. However, the first music tracks we listened to over the Shokz OpenFit really caught our attention. They sounded with a spatiality rarely experienced in connection with headphones. I was spontaneously reminded of the legendary AKG K-1000 head loudspeaker, which I was able review in 1989 for the German HIFI VISION magazine in the world’s first review.
This massive construction, which was also used for experiments on the MIR space station, was mainly made of steel and was a constant reminder that you were carrying a foreign object on your head. In addition, the K-1000 was extremely expensive at 1,400 marks and very demanding in terms of control. It only really got going when I connected it to the sinfully expensive reference mono amplifiers Accuphase M-1000 (pair price 38,000 D-Mark). In these two criticisms, there are light years between the Viennese classic and Shokz’s tiny open-ear, offered more than four decades later for a fraction of the price.
However, similarities between the dissimilar twins with different fathers can certainly be discovered. Neither of them succeeds in overcoming the localization of solo voices or instruments in the center of the sound panorama, which is the biggest disadvantage of headphones in principle. This has a simple, but unfortunately hardly solvable physical reason.
Evolution is to blame
To make it as short as possible: Our hearing uses evolutionary three essential parameters for the localization of sound events (so of escape from saber-toothed tigers): The difference in loudness, time of flight and frequency response between the two ears. The first two weigh the most heavily, because they provide an acoustic bearing. The differences in frequency response are due to the so-called outer ear transfer function. Meaning: The shape of the outer ear, like a natural equalizer, provides different sound accentuation or attenuation, depending on the direction from which the sound comes.
If you now put one and one together, you will find out where the problem lies: For sound events in the center of the imaginary sound stage, where the vocals are usually placed in the mastering studio, all three parameters are unfortunately absolutely identical. Likewise for 180 degrees, i.e. in the center behind the head as well, level and runtime then do not even allow between center front and center back.
Without the wall reflections we know from concerts or loudspeakers and slightly angling the head with respect to the sound direction, the brain can hardly distinguish between 0 and 180 degrees. It follows that even the smart Shokz can’t avoid listening to an inner voice, so to speak, while listening to music. But what they succeed in doing excellently is to create on both sides the feeling of a wide, believably comprehensible space in front of the mind’s eye. Chapeau, that is a remarkable performance in the range at the price with the small dimensions.
Total work of art for the ears
In combination with the already mentioned pressure-free wearing comfort, this results in a total work of art that solves not all, but many essential problems of headphones. With the Shokz OpenFit, you always stay a bit connected to your environment and enjoy a sound that is remotely reminiscent of speakers in a room. Thus, the Bluetooth open-ear makes head-fi culture quite a bit more attractive for anyone with chronic headphone phobia.
But the OpenFit is not a panacea. Its radical open-ear design, which may also have inspired JBL’s Soundgear Sense, also requires certain compromises. These mainly affect the bass range, but also the midrange and treble reproduction. Although the oval diaphragm provides a surface area that exceeds that of conventional in-ears many times over, the pressure loss cannot be completely compensated for by the open design. After all, the main motivator was obviously to create a pair of sports headphones that were as compact and comfortable to wear as possible, without completely isolating you from your surroundings. The airy sound reproduction seems to be more of a collateral benefit here.
The Shokz OpenFit require a little consideration
To make a long story short: In rock, pop and electro anyway, there are enough drums and beats to push the OpenFit to the limit. It then compresses and sometimes distorts the bass reproduction even when using 80 percent of the volume control. This further restricts the maximum level, which is already limited compared to sporty in-ears like the Miiego Miibuds Play. The Danes also distinguished themselves in direct comparison as downright bass monsters.
However, even the Shokz’s slim bass response has a special appeal: it’s very crisp, with a dry kick, and thus of a completely different nature than most in-ears, which usually emphasize the upper bass much more than the Miiegos, which are exemplary in this regard. At this point, a word about the equalizer: It has a 5-band control with presets for bass and treble boost. However, I would strongly advise against the bass boost here.
Be careful with the equalizer
It reads well to say, “You can boost the bass in the app if it seems too thin.” However, the use of the equalizer only worsens the problem in the low-frequency range and reduces the achievable maximum volume even further. Personally, I would also refrain from boosting the treble. The somewhat soft, but nicely airy overtone reproduction of the Shokz OpenFits fits well into the harmonic sound tuning. The bottom line is that the small open-ears exude a bit of the charm of extremely expensive electro- and magnetostats like the legendary Stax Lambda Professional, which I reviewed for HIFI VISION over 30 years ago.
The open-ear gives a touch of Stax appeal
As a young editor, I knew such things only from such HiFi magazines and was totally surprised: The abundantly large, rectangular over-ears distorted with my rock and pop tracks in the bass quite violently, as soon as you indulged in the pleasure of the specially built for the Stax electrostat preamplifier with power supply and the then revolutionary diffuse field equalization of Dr. Günther Theile of IRT (Institute for Radio Technology) times a little further. As far as I know, no one else was bothered by this at the time – possibly also because most people listened to their handful of favorite audiophile tracks with finely breathed female voices, harp and triangle, or small string concertos with small instrumentation.
Yes, history repeats itself here in our review: recordings with natural instruments, especially stringed instruments, sounded downright magical over the open-ears, with fabulous fine dynamics and a very generous, authentic sense of space. As for the voice reproduction, sometimes a tiny shift decides a slightly throaty discoloration, which mainly affects female voices, but also some male vocalists.
JBL took a different approach with the aforementioned Soundgear Sense open-ears. Their open-ears are significantly larger, also cover the ear more and you can’t forget them quite as easily when wearing them. Thus, the Americans sacrifice both the striking airiness in sound and feel, but voices and especially basses sound fuller and remain clean even at higher listening levels.
Conclusion and alternatives to the Shokz OpenFit
Like the JBL Soundgear Sense reviewed in parallel, there is something magical about the Shokz OpenFit. The test revealed: They sound very fine and lively with a slim fundamental range, silky high-frequency reproduction and a crisp bass that reaches down really deep and kicks, as long as you hold back in the level for certain pieces of music. If you like the open-ear concept, but want to let it really crack in the bass, the comparatively bulky JBL Soundgear Sense, which can be better adjusted by joints, is an alternative worth considering. These sports headphones can also be combined with glasses – but not as conveniently as the Shokz.
If you like more dynamics and richness of sound and value isolation from the environment, the Miiego Miibuds Play for 130 Euros is a somewhat cheaper alternative that leaves nothing to be desired in terms of bass. However, everyday use of the Bluetooth in-ears, which are often used for listening comparisons in the mid-range, shows that they push themselves out of the ear canal over time. And in strong winds or driving wind on the bike, the ANC makes noise that can only be countered by deactivating the noise cancellation. This eliminates the theoretical advantage of ANC in-ears for many outdoor activities. The Shokz OpenFit do not cause any particular wind problems despite their open design. So while it is a matter of taste whether you want these nonconformist listeners. However, these open-ears do certain things better than the bulk of headphones currently available.