Thursday 3 August 2023

Space Q45 SoundCore by Anker Headphones

I have fancied a pair of these since they were released about a year or so ago but always shied away as I already have a Sony XM4 unit and didn't really see the need for both. I'm very pleased, therefore, to now get a loan pair so that I can share my thoughts.

Just to be clear, I'm no audiophile or sound engineer so my observations here are based on my (pretty much) layman's experience - though I have been using headphones of all sorts, shapes and forms for most of my (teen/adult) life - so over 50 years!

The value proposition can't be ignored here and as usual China's Anker's daughter firm SoundCore have knocked it out of the park with regards to features and value. The Sony XM4 unit on release were nearly £400 and these, £150. As we will discover, the Q45s are not as 'smart' as the XM4s but they still have loads of features which generally defy the price-point.

In the box we have a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable for listening the old-fashioned way, a USB-C to USB-A cable for charging, instructions booklet (for which one might need a magnifying glass) and the headphones themselves. I think there is a carry-case in the original retail unit, but it's not available here. The earcups fold on aluminium hinges 'both ways' so 'back/flat' for turning and placing on shoulder-blades for a break and 'up/in' on themselves for 'as small as possible' storage/transport - much like the Sony ones. There's a subtly-coloured SoundCore logo on the outside of each cup.

The headband is mostly hard plastic with a 'soft' area to line up with the top of the head, between the two side-sliding sizing controls. They seem comfortable in use, even for long-term, much like the XM4s. The actual cushions are very similar in terms of comfort, though the Sony's ear 'shape' is more elongated. The Q45's cushions/cups are more 'round' but certainly not circular - those with very big ears might be better with Sony but I have reasonably big ears and they seem comfortable in both. The two headsets feel about the same weight in the hand (and on the head) and are equally well built/made.

They have a distinctive look, which are not as 'sleek' looking as the XM4s but it's a style symbolic of the brand now with futuristic, yes, spacey, look/feel. There's a secondary circular 'island' on the outside of each earcup with access to buttons and ports. I rather like the styling. On the left 'ring' there's the power/bluetooth/multipoint button, USB-C port and ANC selector. On the right, there's a volume/next/previous track rocker, 3.5mm audio-out port and play/pause button. They all feel firm, solid and like they will last the lifetime of the headphones/battery. These are in black, but you can get them in blue and white too.

The basic controls are fairly obvious, pairing up in the usual kind of way, so next job is to install the SoundCore App on your phone (Android, iOS) and tinker with all the fine controls. The ANC can be engaged and customised on a slider-of-effect from 1-5, ambient sound can also be switched to 'transparency mode' (so off, I guess!) or there's a middle ground dubbed 'normal'. On day of testing it's quite windy outside. Transparency mode lets me hear everything around me quite clearly (depending on the volume level of course), set to 'Normal' most of that 'specific' noise around me (like trains and seagulls making a right old racket!) are hugely reduced but I can still hear the low hum of the wind and set to Noise Cancellation (on slider 5) all that wind goes away and it's pretty silent.

Silent shouldn't be a variable term really, but the XM4s do make it even 'more silent'. That's a market-leading high bar, however, and that very small difference is why they are so well thought of, reviewed and cost so much more. But don't get me wrong, the Q45s are still very, very impressive in terms of NC. Just, as one might expect, not quite the same class as the (arguably) world-leaders. Is that slight difference worth £200 more (RRP)? That's for the user to decide. I'd say categorically no! You can also switch between the ANC/Normal/Transparency modes by using the button on the left cup which rotates between them with each press. There's a (whacking great big) Widget (for Android) if people want to take up half a home screen with it!

More controls in the app relate to equalisation, all sorts of pre-sets which (for a change with this kind of software) actually are very effective and make for a great range of options and changes to listening. There's a HearID Sound function which, like Samsung's tool, leads you through a quite detailed 'hearing test' then offers you a listening experience based on that, should you wish to use it instead of any other equalisation options. Bluetooth v5.3 is included here (multipoint works between two devices, switched by a double-press on the power button or automatically when detected) and LDAC, SBC and AAC for use with supporting devices.

Based on the above, the sound output is of good quality indeed. Setting the most bass available via the controls is not as bass-heavy as the XM4s but for me, I don't have the Sony unit set to anything like the most bass, anyway! Those days are gone and the Q45 sound suits me more as an overall profile and set of options. Others, who blast their ears with brain-crunching bass (watch out for that later in life), might well prefer the Sony sound. The stereo reproduction is nothing short of excellent (testing here with YouTube Music and Motorola Razr 40 Ultra), soundstage wide, separation delightful and no distortion even at top volume and BassUp selected in the app. As always with these tests involving multiple devices you never know quite which is to get the most credit, but the resulting sound in my ears is quite excellent.

The 3.5mm audio seems to work very nicely too, hooked up and tested here with various devices including my Windows PC and Sony Xperia 5 Mk.IV. Using the headset with a cable completely disconnects the bluetooth-paired device, seemingly switching off the headset too - when going back to bluetooth the headset seems to need powering on again.

Officially, the battery life can stretch to 65 hours of use - but that's with ANC off. For most people using ANC, that's 50 hours (45 with LDAC in use and 37 with ANC and LDAC) which compared with many out there (including the XM4s) is a great performance in longevity. The 3.5mm cable route can be used even if the battery is depleted, as indicated above. Quick Charging ensures that if you're stuck, the firm claims you can get 4 hours of (presumably medium volume) use with a five-minute power-up! Normal charging time for the depleted batter would seem to be about an hour and a half or so.

The Google Assistant feels a bit absent with the Q45s, but she's there! It's just not very obvious. The play/pause button on the right needs to be double-pressed to invoke her, but unlike with the Sony offering, she then doesn't say anything! So you just go ahead in the silence and say what you need to say, hoping it's the right time and she's listening! If you're listening to music it stops of course, so that's the time to talk, but if using the headphones just for ANC it's not that clear. Anyway, once engaged it's as expected and works fine.

Taking and ending calls is a breeze as that play/pause button doubles (trebles) up as an answer/end button. Tested here on a phone call and the range away from the phone seems very good (60 feet plus), call quality fine - hearing the other person and them hearing me. The cherry on the cake would have been Sony's automatic pausing of audio when taking the headphones off, but, again, something has to give with cost.

Depending on whether or not you want to use swipes and gestures or hardware buttons will dictate which of these systems you'll prefer (and how much cash you have). The Sony is all swipes (across the outside of the face of the earcup) to control volume, tracks, stop/start and as previously mentioned, the Q45 is physical buttons. Both systems work well enough but there is no denying that the Sony feels more advanced and modern, especially with the Assistant integration - but, again, I point to price. The Q45s may not be quite as polished in some of these ways, but for those on a budget, they're incredibly capable and sound fabulous.

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