Build Quality and Wearing
To be fair, I had a quite low expectation for the AirDots, since at 199CNY it is priced way lower than the other major competitors, only slightly higher than the 99CNY offbrand "QCY T1". But the AirDots come way better than I expected, at least on the outside. The exterior is clean and round, everything feels smooth and natural, the build quality truely lives up to the brand.
I put the buds into the charging case as soon as I took apart the packaging (they came separated in the package), the red lights indicated that they were charging without a problem. (pic) There is also a charging indicator on the front side of the case, but it only lights up when the case is charging from an outside power source through the micro usb port on the back.
The buds do look a little weird when worn in the ears, especially from the view of a second person by your side. Maybe it was my unusual ear structure that makes them stick out more, as I had similiar problems with the AirPods, but they sure look nothing like in Xiaomi's posters, although they did stay comfortablely in my ears. I took them out for a 2km walk, then a 1 hour work out at the gym, they stay firmly within my ears and I had zero worries that they would come out.
The package come with two pairs of spare silicone buds, one for smaller ears and one for bigger, though the default medium sized buds fit my ears just fine. As a matter of fact, I fear they fit TOO perfectly, because they are blocking all the noise on the street when I was walking with them. The noise blocking might be a delightful feature for people enjoying music indoors or on a long flight, but could potentially be dangerous if you are walking or traveling on a public transport. If noise penetration is a concern I suggest switching to the smaller silicone buds to see if they helps.
Controls, Connectivity and Battery Life
The buds automatically turn themselves off when put in the charging case and turn on when taken out of the case. They also go into pairing mode every time they turn on, but leave pairing mode as soon as they connected to the last device they remembered. There is no "manual" pairing mode and it is virtually impossible to get them to pair with a second device quick enough before they leave automatic pairing mode, the only correct way to pair them is to disconnect them on the first device, then pair with another. I could foresee this be a turn off for multi device users.
Unlike the AirPods, the AirDots can only be controlled through the pressure sensitive backs on both buds, single tap is pause/resume, long press is power off. With an iPad had no problem activating Siri with a double tap, asked her for weather and she replied back to my ears, so I'm taking a wild guess that Android / Chinese MIUI users wouldn't have a problem with Google Now / Xiao Ai either. I didn't try answering a phone call with the built in microphone, mainly because I was still having problems with the pressure sensitivity of the backs, as I accidently pause and resume music all the time when I took them out of the case, when I took them off my ears, or even when I tried to adjust the angle they stays in the ears. But whenever I was going to manually power off the buds with long pressing, the gesture only register properly after I tried it multiple times. Until I can get used to the controls, I will use them for music playback only.
There was also one thing I HATED that deserves a separate paragraph. What kind of genius thought it was a good idea to make all the feedback sounds IN CHINESE VOICEOVER ONLY? Almost every other product on the market uses simple beeping patterns to mark events such as power-on, connected/disconnected, and low battery. Only on AirDots are these sounds voiceovers, "Kai Ji" = power on, "Guan Ji" = power off, "Pei Dui Mo Shi" = pairing mode (aka disconnected). This is disgusting even from the perspective of a Chinese user, and definitely a major turn off for people who don't speak the language.
Oh and by the way, there is actually one beeping feedback for low-battery warning. The beeping sound played three times with a 2 minute gap between, then the buds went off as they ran out of enough battery to sync with each other.
Communication range wise, when paired with my laptop, the AirDots managed to stay connected at a bit longer range than the AirPods, with continuous music playback the buds stayed connected as I briefly left the room for other stuff while staying in the 10 meter range, though a few skipping were observed when there were walls between me and the laptop. With a smartphone or an iPad however, the music start skipping as soon as I move behind a wall, move to the edge of the 10m range, or cover any or my ears fully with my hands, so you better be carrying the device that is streaming music to the earphones with you.
After that I put the AirDots for a latency test with my Max 2 and an iPad. As expected, there were approximately 1 second delay in all sounds when playing a game on any of the two devices, making any rhythm based game or first person shooter unplayable. As for video playback I tested with the Infuse player on the iPad and with MXPlayer on Android, both sync video and audio perfectly with no delay between the two. However, further tests showed other video streaming apps suffer the same sound delay as the games, meaning the result will vary from app to app, and it would be entirely up to the app developers to eliminate the delay for wireless headphones.
The Xiaomi website advertised the battery life of AirDots to be four hours with a full 90 minute charge, I did the full charge as Xiaomi stated and tried continuously streaming music and videos with an iPad, it lasted exact four hours before running out of battery, just like Xiaomi claimed. I didn't have enough time to test how much juice the charging case can provide, as the test would require multiple charges that last hours.
Now for the most important part (for me at least), the sound quality. As a disclaimer, you should already know that all bluetooth headphones sound bad comparing to their wired counterparts, as listening to one inevitably involves double compressing the original music. If you don't know this, there are many articles around the Internet that explains this. Compact bluetooth earphones like AirDots and AirPods are the worst kind on the spectrum of bluetooth headphones, so expectations should stay low.
With that said, I was surprised to find the AirDots overall sound crisp, clear and balanced, although slightly lackluster on the bass side. Maybe it was that I got too familiar with the bass-heavy and unbalanced AirPods. Volume also seemed to be louder than most wireless earphones I had used, about 20 percent higher than the already loud enough AirPods.
I compare the sound quality through three different setups. First with the Apple Music Android app on my Mi Max 2 (unofficial Lineage OS 14.1, Android N 7.1), then Apple Music on an iPhone X (iOS 12), lastly some lossless music on my laptop (Kubuntu 18.10, foobar2000 through wine staging 3.20). The music I listened to were mostly pop or pop dance, with a few tracks being pure EDM without vocal.
On Android the sound quality was good enough for a casual listening experience, though I soon realized that some songs felt a bit coarse on the treble and vocal part, while some bass-heavy tracks sound muddy in the drum beats. Comparing to the other two platforms I came to the conclusion that this wasn't because the AirDots are bad, but the result of the inferior SBC codec used in the early versions of Android combined with compressed audio source (the AAC format that Apple Music uses). Unfortunately I don't have enough time to flash Android Oreo on the device, which enables codec switching through the development options, maybe someone else could test Android O + AAC bluetooth codec to see if sound quality is improved this way.
On the iPhone my setup utilizes the AAC format both in the audio source, and in the bluetooth codec that the operating system streams to the earphones with. The AirDots sounded perfect and balanced in this setup, definitely on par with, if not better than, the AirPods. Had I not break my AirPods earlier I would put them for a more thorough head to head test, but for now I am happy that the AirDots replace the AirPods for me, with equal or better sound quality.
With the laptop, thanks to the versatile linux operation system and some help from an askubuntu post, I managed to sniff the bluetooth connection through hcidump, confirming this setup utilizes the SBC bluetooth codec. (pic) Fortunately the audio source can be improved, this time I brought out some lossless albums I ripped from CDs years ago and played them through foobar2000. To my surprise this setup sounded way better than the two previous configurations, with crisp treble and well enough bass. I guess those details got lost through compression to a lossy format, but with the lossless format they can still be heard through the inferior SBC bluetooth codec.
Overall the AirDots are nice true wireless earphones for a very cheap price, the build quality is great as other Mi products, it offers competitive audio quality to be used when jogging, at gym workouts or with trips on public transports, and battery life is good as Xiaomi claims. I am so happy that I ordered a pair and they fit my daily usage scenarios perfectly.
great audio quality with the right sources
build quality is great and looks fine in person
communication range is good (ironiclly could be the only perk bt5 brings to the AirDots)
four hours battery life without recharging
great value for the price point