(Pocket-lint) – Kef is far from one of the biggest names in the consumer audio market, but it’s been putting out interesting, well-designed devices for a good while now.
Its speakers are some of the most striking you’ll find in the looks department, while the pedigree is also very much there as far as sound quality goes, but its line-up of headphone options is comparably small.
Right now, in fact, the Mu3 earbuds are its only in-ear product, so there might be a decent amount riding on their success. We’ve been using these ‘buds for a few weeks to see what we make of them.
- 4 sets of tips included
- Charging case included
- IPX5 splash-proof design
- Control button on each earbud
Wireless earbuds range in design from AirPods clones to other more out-there options, but Kef’s earbuds are free of any complexity and available in just the one silvery finish. The most distinctive part of the package is the charging case, with its unusual concave lid.
The case is far from the biggest we’ve tested, but its design isn’t exactly the most convenient – it’s an unusual shape, is pretty tall, and the slippery plastic finish looks striking but is slightly unhelpful in a pocket or bag. It’s got a magnetised shutting mechanism that’s relatively satisfying, and charges by USB-C.
Sadly there’s no room for wireless charging here, which isn’t a massive loss but is inconvenient compared to many similarly-priced competitors. Charging cases are an underlooked part of an earbud’s success, really, and this one hasn’t wowed us.
Thankfully, the ‘buds themselves are better – they’re small and easy to slip into your ears, forming a seal with whichever tip suits you best. In fact, once they’re in we’ve found them among the more comfortable ear buds we’ve tested for longer listening sessions. Part of that is down to the fit being less than water-tight, but it’s also down to how lightweight each ‘bud is.
Each earbud has a button for quick control, with the left one largely in charge of active noise cancellation (ANC), and the right sticking to play/pause and answering calls. They’re easy to click without pushing too hard into your ear, and work reliably.
Both earbuds and case are entirely plastic in terms of build, and that smooth finish does make them pretty droppable, but the trade-off is that they’re super light – so it’s a ‘pick your poison’ scenario in some ways. With only IPX5 splash-proofing, though, they’re not up to prolonged water exposure and therefore aren’t a good pick if you’re looking for workout earbuds.
- 8.2mm speaker drivers, 20Hz – 20kHz frequency range
- Active Noise Cancellation (ANC)
- No equalisation (EQ) control
Kef makes an interesting play when it comes to the sound quality offered by the Mu3. On the one hand, the headline information is that we’ve really enjoyed our listening sessions – it’s been a balanced and crisp experience that hasn’t been overpowered by any frequencies and has suited every genre we’ve thrown at these ‘buds.
However, with no companion app or way to change the equalisation balance for yourself to suit your preferences, you’re stuck with what you get out of the box. For many people, we think that’ll work fine, but if you’re used to tuning things yourself to better reflect what you like to listen to, you might be disappointed.
Still, whether it’s acoustic softness or crashing rock we’ve found that the Mu3 has a canny knack of reproducing music without any sort of filter – it’s a stripped-back sound that’s really relaxing to listen to.
That’s enhanced by the arrival of active noise cancellation (ANC), which is decently implemented but nothing extraordinary. At its best, ANC can kind of put you in this ‘bubble’ with your music perfectly and make sure you can hear every note. This isn’t in that class, but it’s still useful for helping to drown out some background ambient noise, and the easy switching using the left earbud’s button works nicely.
- 9 hours playback, 15 hours more with case (24 hours total)
- Bluetooth 5.0
- Ambient mode
The lack of a companion app or EQ settings means that you don’t get a lot of control over the Mu3 earbuds, but that doesn’t mean they’re devoid of features. As we’ve mentioned, they’ve got solid enough ANC in place, and tapping the left earbud’s button cycles you between that ANC being on, off, or a third option called Ambient mode.
Ambient mode is basically pass-through, letting you hear the world around you more clearly, and it’s handy for navigation and making sure you’re not too ‘bubbled’. As with many of these systems, the world sounds a bit tinny and odd through it – as sound passes through microphones to some degree – but given you’re wearing earbuds it’s hardly too much to deal with.
Battery life clocks in at a middling 9 hours – which holds up to our testing, not just the manufacturer quote – and that rises to 15 hours with the case used for recharging. Charging the buds for 5 minutes will get you an hour’s use, too, which is handy when in pinch.
Pairing the earbuds is initiated by opening the case, which is slightly inferior to a simple button in our experience, but works well enough, and once paired the ‘buds will connect really quickly to the last registered device. Without multi-device support, moving between devices is a bit of a pain – but that’s again something that plenty of other earbuds also suffer.
The Kef Mu3 don’t have any in-ear detection, either, so removing an earbud doesn’t automatically pause your music. Some people like that sort of feature, but the easy tap-to-pause button on the right earbud makes up for it in our view.
We found the Bluetooth connection solid when moving around; decent enough for making calls. However, the quality of Kef’s microphones leaves a lot to be desired – you’ll sound tinny to people on the other end of a call, sadly.
The Kef Mu3 earbuds are really nice to use in some ways, but suffer slightly when you start comparing them directly to the best-in-class alternatives.
Sound quality is really great, the fit is comfortable and lightweight, so we’ve been using them with pleasure. However, the lack of certain touches hurt the overall package. At this price you’d hope to see wireless charging for the case, and the case itself feels like it hasn’t been designed with the most practical mindset.
A lack of more robust waterproofing also makes these ‘buds a little hard to recommend if you want in-ears that will stand the test of the elements – including sweat – and the microphone pickup left a lot to be desired.
So, in many ways, it comes down to priorities: the Kef Mu3 offer great-sounding music at the cost of some quality of life compromises.
Klipsch T5 II True Wireless
At this pricepoint the reality is there are loads of great earbuds, but we really enjoyed our time with Klipsch’s T5 II. If you’re not sure about the plastic build quality of the Mu3 buds, this is a great counterpoint, with a gunmetal case and much better waterproofing.
Writing by Max Freeman-Mills. Editing by Mike Lowe.