Release after release, the Libratone name is becoming more familiar to me. While I raised my eyebrow the first time I heard Jeff mention it, I was quickly won over by its colorful and beautifully minimalist speakers. Over the past year, Libratone made more headway with us, Android fans, by releasing two products along with the Pixel 2: the Q Adapt USB-C in ear earphones (which Richard reviewed) and the Q Adapt Wireless on ear headphones. Then at CES 2018, Libratone followed up by announcing the TRACK+, a set of wireless in-ear noise cancelling earbuds. For $199, they had to stand up to the challenge of not only being good, but being near awesome to justify the price. And my past two weeks with them have left me very happy yet just a little bit frustrated because of a few small details that would have made them perfect.
Design and build quality
Despite the different name, the Track+ is very similar to Libratone’s Q Adapt in-ear headset, save for the fact that the former is completely wireless whereas the latter is wired and comes in USB-C and Lightning options. The design is the same, especially when looking at the earbud part or the controls. In this case, however, the two earbud cables connect behind your neck with a thick and bendy neckband.
Libratone continues to use premium materials and understated design in its headsets: the Track+ is well built with two large metallic modules that weigh a little on both sides of your neck, soft and flexible rubber for all the cables, and a two-piece earbud that mixes metal and plastic.
I have to admit to completely falling in love with Libratone’s earbud. The angle of the matte metallic piece, the glossy plastic on the exterior, and matte plastic inside, they all feel nice. Really nice. To a point where I find myself sometimes just reaching out to touch the earbud when wearing the Track+, not because it needs readjustment, but just because I like touching it. It’s hard to explain why, I just find it very appealing.
On the right side of the neck band lies the controls module. It has a near-invisible LED light, volume up and down buttons as well as the play/pause button, which serves triple duty as FF (double click) and Google Assistant (click and hold, it triggers Siri on iOS). This isn’t the full-on Assistant integration that we saw in the Bose QC35 II headphones, but it does the job if you want to send a quick message, ask a question, or play a certain song. The buttons are well raised and satisfyingly clicky, unlike the mushy excuse for buttons I use on my Bose SoundSport Wireless.
The right module also houses the MicroUSB charging port, which is where my first disappointment started with the hardware. Libratone already has a USB-C wired headset, I would have expected the Track+ to follow suit and use USB-C too. I still have MicroUSB cables all around home and work, for all the devices that haven’t moved to USB-C, but I know lots of users are trying to move all their new gadgets to a single charging cable. For a headset that will likely last at least two years, the Track+ is already outdated and will be more so in the future.
The left module only has one button which serves triple duty: click and hold for power, a simple click cycles through the 4 levels of noise cancellation, and a double click switches on ambient mode on/off stopping your music and letting you hear your surroundings.
Branding and inscriptions are minimal. You might have noticed the small Libratone logo on the metallic part of the earbud, there’s also a small L and R on the inside of each neck module, and a “Libratone” inscription on the left module.
The Track+ comes with 4 different ear tip sizes (the 2nd one is preinstalled and is the one I use) and a wing add-on that stabilizes it in your ear. My past experience with Bluetooth headsets told me I needed wings to keep earbuds from slipping out of my small ears, but I was surprised to see that the Track+ holds just fine (and comfortably) without wings. So I haven’t used them, but they’re there if anyone wants them. They’re very flexible (unlike Jaybird’s, which I can’t stand), but they collect dust and lint like any silicone material.
Having used several Plantronics BackBeat Go models and the Bose SoundSport Wireless, it’s second nature for me to wear the Track+ around my neck and let the earbuds dangle when not in use, then pop one or both in when I want to listen to music or a podcast. The weight added by the modules keeps them in place and makes sure the headset doesn’t slip from one side of my neck to the other.
However I found one issue with the Track+ when I decided to test them at the gym: them handled the treadmill and elliptical just fine, and would be perfect if your exercise only involves walking or running, but when I tried to lift some weights and had to move to a lying position, they kept falling behind my back and dangling when I got back up, sometimes dragging the buds out of my ears in the process. Maybe a clothes clip would have helped stabilize the Track+ and keep them attached to my t-shirt, but I can’t say for sure. Needless to say, that experiment was never repeated again and I went back to my trusty Plantronics BackBeat Fit, which have stayed still in my ears over many years of regular and varied exercising (sadly no ANC though).
Sound and noise cancellation
The Track+’s sound is balanced and immersive, and the app lets you switch over to an “extra bass” or “enhanced treble” sound signature, but I preferred to stay on neutral since more than half of my music listening veers toward vocals, with fewer electronic or bass-heavy tunes. The mids are rich and I found myself really enjoying vocal-heavy songs like the gospel-feeling Nobody But You by Cesar Sampson and the dreamy goosebump-inducing harmonies on Equinox’s Bones, but that didn’t stop the low beats and high claps in the former and the mystic beats in the latter from being well defined. That balance does shine through in ZiBBZ’s Stones, where the singer’s vocals, the background hums, and the drums mix beautifully without any element overpowering the other. (If you haven’t guessed right, I’m in my Eurovision-binge phase now.)
I put the Track+ through the smorgasbord of music I listen to, from Three Days Grace, Disturbed, and The Rasmus to Sam Hunt, CNCO, Sunrise Avenue, 3 Doors Down, Il Volo, Kendji Girac, Calogero, Rob Thomas, and more, and liked the sound signature through all of them. I did notice just a little bit of distortion at higher volumes, but I rarely felt the need to go over 70%, so in day-to-day use that wasn’t an issue.
It’s worth keeping in mind that I was using Spotify on “normal quality” through most of my testing (limited bandwidth in Lebanon), but the Track+ does support aptX audio in case you want to stream high quality tunes to them.
Moving on to the star of the show: active noise cancellation. The ultimate test for any ANC headset is my pharmacy’s buzzing UPS sound. I put on the Track+ and switched between the 4 levels of ANC without any music playing. LV1 (+6dB, passthrough) actually enhanced the buzz and let me hear it a bit more. LV2 (0dB, low NC) brought it back to normal levels. LV3 (-12dB, medium NC) blocked a bit of the noise. And finally, LV4 (-20dB, maximum NC) blocked most of the buzz, but it was still hearable. I’d say it removed about 60% of it. Playing just a little bit of music took care of the remaining 40% and I couldn’t hear a thing even with the volume at 50-55%. In noisier environments, like the gym where sometimes annoying music is blasting super loud, the Track+ did its job and cancelled most of it.
You can switch between the 4 levels of ANC on the headset itself, but Libratone also offers a “Smart” mode that adapts to your surroundings and activity, for example letting you hear a little bit of background noise if it detects you’re running outdoors. Unfortunately, it’s only available in the Libratone app, you can’t trigger it from the headset. And to be honest, I found it a little gimmicky. I often preferred to control the ANC level myself, not trusting the algorithm to understand that I’m at the gym and hate the ambient music playing or that I’m at work and prefer to hear just a bit of ambient sound to not be startled by customers coming in.
There’s also one more listening mode included: ambient monitoring. This can be triggered from the app or from the headset with a double click on the power button. It pauses the music and enhances the outside sound so you can hear someone talking to you or the public transport / flight attendant announcements for example without taking your earbuds off.
Upon first launch, the Libratone app did two things that made me uncomfortable. First was asking me to log in to even begin using it (I went with a Google login) and second was popping a permission request for my device’s location. (If you’re not aware of it, the location permission includes the Bluetooth one on Android, and that’s why many apps need it, but Libratone didn’t clarify that so many users would think it’s asking for the location just because.) Still, I denied the permission (you never know) and the app worked wonderfully, seeing my connected headset and letting me control it. My theory is the permission might be used to provide you with localized internet radio suggestions or to connect new Libratone products, thus nothing crucial, and it can be denied without any issues.
If the Track+ is connected to your device, it shows as an available “soundspace” and you’ll be able to see the battery life, control the ANC level, turn on Smart CityMix or ambient listening, and quickly switch to one of your 5 favorite internet radio stations. You can also add another Libratone product and create another soundspace that plays the same audio.
There are several settings for the Track+, like changing the app’s color based on your headset, giving it a different name, updating its firmware, and setting the default timeout duration after which the headset powers off if there’s nothing playing.
This is also where you can control the simple equalizer setting and switch from neutral to extra bass or enhanced treble.
The rest of the Libratone app is pretty straightforward and acts as an internet radio streaming app. It’s pretty bare-bones, but you can search or browse by country or genre or popularity, pick any station you want, start playing it on your connected headset (or speaker) and add it to your personal collection. There’s also a neat preview feature that lets you play just a little bit of a station you’re browsing without switching to it.
Overall, the app is handy if you want to listen to internet radio or if you want to tinker with some of the settings of the Track+, but it’s in no way essential to the experience. And that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t want my Bluetooth headset to require an app just to be able to work with a device.
In Libratone’s line-up, the Track+ does offer a very compelling featureset despite its expensive $199 price tag. It’s only $50 more than the Q Adapt in-ear USB-C but it’s wireless and more practical, and it’s also $50 more than the regular Track which lacks ANC. If I was already paying $149 for either of those, I would easily splurge the $50 more to get the Track+.
But outside of the Libratone bubble, the Track+ does have a very stiff competition from different brands and form factors. There are the completely wireless earbuds popping up everywhere that free you from the cable, easily charge on-the-go, and get stowed neatly in a small box, but don’t have ANC. There are the larger over-ear headphones that can cancel out more noise, immerse you better in the music, and last longer on a charge, but they’re bulky and heavy and not so practical to take on a plane or public transport. And finally there are the headsets that use the same design with in-ear earbuds connected by a small cable, that often don’t have ANC but are cheaper.
Compared to all of those, the question isn’t whether or not the Track+ is worth it, but whether it’s what you’re looking for. Having tried both the Bose QC35 and the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2, I love the convenience of ANC but I never have it in me to carry either of them on a flight or to an outdoor walk, and I have to plan ahead if I want to move them from work back home or vice versa since they don’t fit in my purse. For that use case, i.e. the person who really needs ANC and wants a pair of earbuds that’s light and easy to carry around, the Track+ are perfect. They’re expensive, but you get what you pay for in terms of materials and quality.
The Libratone Track+ has quickly moved to the pole position in my Bluetooth earbuds preference list. I currently prefer it over my Bose SoundSport Wireless and Plantronics BackBeat Go 2 and often carry it around my neck. I use it everywhere except the gym, whether work, home, or outdoors, when I want to listen to something and drown out outside noise. It’s well built, feels nice, is comfortable to wear for hours at a time, doesn’t budge from my ears if I move my head, and has a nice well-balanced sound.
Basically, it gets the most difficult things right and would have been perfect if it weren’t for very small annoyances here and there: the lack of a carry pouch or clothes clip, the MicroUSB charging, the fact that it only connects to one device at a time, and some aspects of the app. These aren’t deal breakers by any stretch, but gosh how annoying is it to know this could have been extraordinary but missed it by a few points. That’s what bugs me about the Track+, oh and the price. For $149, it would have been a no-brainer recommendation. For $199, I caution you to think about what you’d use it for and splurge if it fits your needs.
Buy: Libratone ($199)