Apple’s AirPods wireless headphones have another competitor on its hands. The Rowkin Ascent Micro offers big sound, comparable features and a lower price, all while retaining the killer zero-cord convenience that made the AirPods such a hit. Inverse went hands-on for seven days to find out more, and came away impressed.

How do they compare on specs? Size-wise, the AirPods win. The charging case is 46 percent smaller by volume, measuring 1.74 by 0.84 by 2.11 inches. The Ascent case, on the other hand, is 1.05 by 1.98 by 2.74 inches. The AirPods are also 42 percent lighter, at 1.34 ounces versus the Rowkin’s 2.33 ounces.

In terms of tech specs, the AirPods also win on paper. Apple touts a fancy Bluetooth setup that uses a custom W1 chip to connect with an Apple device when the lid flips open, with less impressive support for Android. It also has motion and speech detection sensors for telling when they’re in the user’s ear. The Ascent Micro connects via Bluetooth 5, offering an omnidirectional microphone and touch controls on the side. It’s fine, but there’s no custom chip trickery at play.

Those complaints however will go by the wayside for many once they realize the price. The Ascent Micro costs just $99.99, while Apple’s AirPods are nearly double the price at $159.

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The Ascent Micro is clearly billed as an alternative for the price-conscious consumer, but how does the product itself stack up?

The Rowkins come in a sleek package.
The Rowkins come in a sleek package.

Day One: First Impressions

First impressions: these are smaller than I would have thought based on the specs. The Micro sounds like a hefty beast on paper, but sometimes specs can obscure the story. It feels nice and sturdy in the hand, with a metal lid giving it a premium feel. Four lights on the bottom light up to show the case’s current charging level, with a USB-C port offering a convenient standard way to add more charge.

Audio quality is nice and clear. It doesn’t compare to the deep bass from my over-the-head Plantronics Backbeat Pros, which are still my favorite way to listen to loud music at home, but the Ascent Micro makes the cut for on-the-go listening.

Pairing is pleasantly fast and simple, done via Bluetooth. Users can connect both headphones with ease, or just one should they need to. There’s a also a super helpful app for locating lost headphones, tweaking the sound and checking the battery levels of each earpiece, but it’s not necessary to download by any means.

Switching on is a matter of pulling the pieces out from the case. I occasionally had some problems with this, but a simple drop back in the case — with a satisfying “clunk” — solves it.

Trying them on.
Trying them on.

Day Two: The Aesthetics Are Not Always a Hit

My flatmate arrived back from work this evening.

Me: “Notice anything different about me?”

Him: “…no?”

Me: “I’m wearing those headphones.”

Him: “Oh! Yeah, those, I noticed when I walked in.”

Me: “What do you reckon?”

Him: “About how they look?”

Me: “Yeah.”

Him: “I think they’re ugly. I think they look like earplugs you wear when you go to sleep. They don’t look comfortable at all, at least from where I’m standing.”

Me: “Cool. Cheers. That’s all going in the story by the way.”

Him: “Does that mean I get commission?”

Day Three: Taking Them on the Go

In the morning I do a shopping run. It’s around a 10-minute cycle to the nearby Co-Op, but the segregated cycle path runs alongside three lanes of traffic. While the road has a 30 mph speed limit, the cars kick up an incredible din.

I stick in the earphones and trundle away. The earpieces block out sound about as well as my regular Apple headphones, which means I can still hear traffic around me and can react accordingly. Switching to the large-size fittings blocks out a lot more noise and provides a more snug fit in my ears. Neither option is going to be as safe as true open-ear headphones like the bone-conducting Aftershokz Trekz Titanium that allow you to maintain full awareness of traffic sounds, but there’s always a risk with headphones like the Ascent Micros that they fall out onto the road. I must stress that this never happened to me, but ensuring a snug fit does mean blocking more noise. The sound is fantastic in noisy environments thanks to its design reducing external sounds, but in the interests of safety I’m not sure I could recommend using these for cycling.

Walking around the shop, I almost forget I’m wearing the Ascent Micros. They’re so comfortable! I catch up on the state of Brexit negotiations as I browse for vegetables, and it’s like Stephen Bush is stood right next to me relaying the state of play.

On the move.
On the move.

Day Four: Learning to Love the Carrying Case

I’m meeting a friend for dinner by London Bridge. I love how compact the case feels. I can easily slip it into my left jean pocket alongside my wallet and forget all about it. It’s easy to flip open the case and place the earphones back when my friend arrives, unlike wired headphones where I might have to wiggle about with the cable for a bit.

Day Five: Testing Their Limits

Switching to the larger fittings has made a world of difference. It takes them from bog-standard earphone quality to a set that successfully pushes the outside world away, making them fantastic for tube trips.

The spec sheet says they last for three-and-a-half hours, with an extra 14 hours available from the charging case’s battery. I have no reason to doubt that. It’s not quite as good as the five hours the AirPods offer, with an extra 19 hours from the charging case, but it’s hard to see this as a big downside. I slip the earphones into the case on such a regular basis that they’re unlikely to be out longer than three hours, and I’m probably not going to need to listen to music for more than 18 hours before finding a plug socket again.

Day Six: Testing for Phone Calls

Tonight is my friend’s leaving drinks in Finsbury Park. I take a phone call on the way, and I notice I have to raise my voice quite loud for the other person to hear me. It’s quite windy, but this wouldn’t be a problem with my cheap wired Apple set because I could enclose the microphone with my hand. I pop them away after I finish — again, with that nice “clunk.”

The headphones on the go.
The headphones on the go.

Day Seven: Conclusion

I love the Ascent Micro. It changed the way I listened to things, as I could slip the gadget into my pocket as I left the house without giving it a second thought. I could quickly whip the case open on the train, get connected and listen.

One caveat after a week of testing? I did note that the top cover that flips open is looking rather worse for wear already. It has two large scratches, presumably because I kept them in the same pocket as my keys and metal wallet. I could have avoided this with a little more care.

Amazon reviewers have also noted some issues with charging after longer periods of testing I never experienced any issues with charging during my use of the headphones.

Rowkin has a few alternatives for people that find the Micro’s specs lacking. It also offers the previous-generation Micro Touch at $119.99, which for a higher price offers almost the same size and weight as the AirPods at 0.86 by 2.11 by 1.77 inches and 1.07 ounces, but without the higher audio and build quality of the Micro. At the other end of the spectrum, the $129.99 Charge offers a staggering 50 extra hours of charging with its larger 1.28 by 1.71 by 4.45 inches case that weighs 4.39 ounces and supports Qi wireless charging. Based on my experiences with the Ascent Micro, I have no reason to doubt that these would also act as fine alternatives to the Apple AirPods.

Get the Ascent Micro here!

Photos via Mike Brown/Inverse