Ikko ActiveBuds – Review

Ikko ActiveBuds in their box

When we think about advancements in HiFi, we usually think of new codecs, better performing DACs and amplifiers, more accurate drivers, and the list goes on. But what about a vision for the future that makes headphones more than just a lifestyle device? This is what Ikko asks with their new ActiveBuds. The ActiveBuds are a TWS earbud, a smart device, a translator, and an AI supported chatbot all in one. 

Look and Feel

When you open up the box to the Ikko ActiveBuds, you’ll see something you don’t usually find in a TWS headset: a 1.8 inch AMOLED touchscreen. Immediately, this tells you that you’re looking at something fresh and new. Of course, JBL’s Tour 2 TWS earbuds also come with a touchscreen on the case, but it is smaller and more an accessory to the TWS than a fully fledged independent device. But we’ll get back to that later. 

Taking the full device out of the box, it feels very lightweight and unassuming. There’s a power/lock button on the side and a USB-C port on the top. When you slide up the screen, it reveals the charging case portion of the device, and of course, here you get your earbuds. 

The earbuds feature a stem-design, with the long piece that houses play/pause and other touch controls permeating from the driver enclosure. They stay in your ears very well and are light and comfortable. 

Overall, the whole device is light and compact, which can go one of two ways. You may either feel excited by the feature-set packed into a tiny and low-weight device, or you may feel that it lacks a premium build quality. I feel totally comfortable sticking this in my pocket without adding too much heft on top of my phone, wallet, and keys.  

Ikko ActiveBuds in their packaging

Design and Functionality

Okay, take a deep breath because this is where we take a step into the future. The calling card of the Ikko ActiveBuds is not just the smart device doubling as an TWS earbud case, nor is it the earbuds themselves with their solid noise canceling. The most exciting feature of this device is its AI-powered capabilities. 

Using apps on the case screen, the ActiveBuds give you direct access to ChatPal by OpenAI. Yes, this little device puts the large language model’s power right in your pocket. You can use either the 6 microphone array built into the earbuds or the single mic and speaker built into the case to interact with ChatPal. I was able to ask it for directions and for help making plans and ChatPal did it with ease. The one thing of note here is that the text responses are a bit more accurate than the ones read back aloud. I noticed at times that numbers were read in Mandarin while the rest of the text was read in English. But while the performance isn’t perfect, it’s certainly advanced for a HiFi device. 

But that’s not all: the ActiveBuds also have a translation feature. You can use translations in a couple different ways. There’s dual bud mode where each participant gets an ear bud and can hear the translation in ear and see it on the case as well. Then there’s single-bud mode, where one user has an earbud and can hear and see the translation while the other can only see the translation on the screen. The translation can be done in real time so you’re able to have bi-lingual conversations just by hitting start. We found this feature to actually work quite well in our testing, though the audio read aloud in your ear may be prone to cutting off words or mixing up languages like with the ChatPal. But again, while not always perfect, it works pretty well for a product that’s the first of its kind. 

Think of it this way: imagine traveling in a different country, going to a restaurant, and having trouble communicating with a waiter. Or maybe you need to ask a stranger for directions. Rather than using your phone’s translation app of choice, you could simply have a real-time translator right in your ear, potentially allowing true hands-free communication. 

Or maybe you’re wandering around an unfamiliar place and need ideas for things to do, or you’re at the library doing homework and need assistance from ChatPal. Again, imagine doing these things totally hands free. 

Now, Ikko hasn’t perfected that use case, but this is the future they’re building towards. This is a use of audio technology that doesn’t just live in the realm of sound advancement, but asks what a TWS audio device can really be capable of. So, while I don’t think you should leave your smartphone behind and only walk around with the ActiveBuds on your person quite yet, I do think this is where the future of audio can go, and I’m excited about that. 

Then there’s the tech that essentially turns the ActiveBuds into a DAP. The device can connect to the earbuds via Bluetooth 5.3. Then, taking advantage of its WiFi and 4G sim card compatibility, you can download any of your streaming favorites like Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music. Plus, you can even connect your personal library from a hard drive device using a USB-C cable.

Of course, there’s also the tech that’s become standard in the TWS earbud space. The battery lasts for 7.5 hours in continuous use with ANC activated, and can last up to 30 hours when used with the case. It has a 6-mic array for noise cancellation as well as ENC for calls. The earbuds use a 10mm silicon crystal ceramic material driver to produce its sound. 

Now, all of this sounds great. But there are two detractors on top of everything that make things a little more challenging. The first is that the touch screen isn’t always responsive. There were many times that I had to tap longer or harder to get the device to do what I wanted. And then there’s the software limitations. Things run a little slowly at times and the navigational swipes you need to use aren’t always intuitive. That said, there is an inclusion of an up and down scroll bar to help with easier navigation.

Finally, my one other nitpick is I wish there was a hardware volume control button on the case. To get to volume control, you must click the button on the side to get to the power off menu, then use the volume controls on the top of the screen. 

The Ikko ActiveBuds housed in their case

Sound Impressions:

Okay, now that we got through all of the device’s features, let’s get to how the Ikko ActiveBuds sound. The long story short of it all is that the sound isn’t perfect, but I was impressed with how good they are capable of sounding considering the amount of attention put into the sound-adjacent features of the device. 

The bass region of the earbuds are where things are at their most bombastic. This is a bass cannon of an earbud. I started with Atoms for Peace’s “Before Your Very Eyes” and hoo boy, did it produce some booming bass. I could feel my ear drums rattling. The low end isn’t super detailed, nor is the entire earbud for that matter, but boy they are fun. If you want to feel the bass and not just hear it, then these might be for you. 

This is a warmer sounding earbud, so you won’t be surprised that the mid range is also very forward. Vocals are clear and present, though the mids as a whole are not the most resolving and detailed. While vocals remained precise, other information like drum hits and guitar licks get a little less attention in the mix. However, I did find the earbud great for speech intelligibility, which is useful for podcast listening, movie or TV streaming, or using the smart features mentioned above. 

Now, the treble is interesting. I did find them to be a bit recessed, but when listening closely, I actually heard a good bit of refinement and clarity from these. While a bit veiled, the treble may be my favorite region of this earbud’s sound signature. Nilüfer Yanya’s “midnight sun” is a great example of how the sound signature comes across. There’s some slamming bass, clear vocals, and surprisingly resolving highs. 

But the biggest surprise of all for me was the soundstage. I found there to be a ton of space. In Joni Mitchell’s “California,” I heard a pretty wide soundstage with solid imaging. There was an openness that I’m not always used to hearing on TWS earbuds. 

Overall, I found the sound to be fun and enjoyable, if not the most detailed. 

A close up photo of the Ikko ActiveBuds


So, what does all of this mean for you? We covered a lot in this review and it may seem hard to tell exactly who this device is for. I think if you’re someone who needs reliability and perfect performance all the time, this may not be for you. Likewise, if you really only want TWS earbuds and aren’t interested in the forward-thinking features, then there may be some more affordable earbuds to take a look at on the market. 

That said, if you’re somebody who loves cutting edge technology and wants to be on the precipice of what may be to come in the audio space, these are definitely for you. If you like a fun and engaging sound with an impressive soundstage, even better. The Ikko ActiveBuds are a unique, ambitious, and exciting product and can only improve from here. I look forward to seeing what Ikko comes up with next. 

The Ikko ActiveBuds are available now at Audio46.com.

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