If you've been a reader of What Hi-Fi? for a while now (thank you, by the way), you'll have noticed that the world of hi-fi and audio tends to go in phases. Generally, in a given period, the same products will reappear time and again as the leaders of the pack, with certain brands taking pre-eminence in a particular field. JBL is very dominant in the world of Bluetooth speakers right now, whereas Sony is killing it in the wireless headphones market. Cambridge Audio is currently enjoying a string of successes with its amps and streamers.
The point is, the market is usually defined by well-established, big-name brands, and while periods of dominance do arise, it's usually the same reputable companies that tend to do well in our testing rooms and which we have little hesitation in recommending to the general public. Things fluctuate, but broadly the same names appear time and time again when it comes to earbuds and headphones: Bose, JBL, Apple, Sennheiser, Sony, maybe a cameo from EarFun or Jabra – and that's not because we don't test any other brands (far from it!)
There are, however, absolutely hundreds of brands sculling around on Amazon which purport to do the same jobs with similar brio for much smaller price tags. Forget your Sennheisers and your Sonys, what you really need (you don't) are some Vamouts, Blackviews or the insanely popular TOZO T10 earbuds, brands familiar to anyone who's trawled the web looking for a great deal on tech of indiscernible origin.
One of these Amazon legends comes courtesy of a Chinese brand called Oit RoTib (is that an anagram or a cryptic clue?), which for just £13.89 offers a pair of wireless earbuds with Bluetooth 5.3, an IPX7 waterproof rating, touch controls, fast charging, multi-model compatibility, the list goes on. At the time of browsing (early July), they were Amazon's top-rated 'fake AirPods' by customer reviews. Surely, as our experiments with the top-rated budget DAC on Amazon proved, this was a case of too good to be true?
There's not much pomp and ceremony when the faux-pods arrive on my doorstep less than 24 hours after I've ordered them. The budget buds don't exactly come borne on a feather cushion; instead I'm treated to a small plastic bag with the words "ORIGINAL ACCESSORIES: There is no best but better" emblazoned on the front. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what that means. Maybe it's an ancient Chinese proverb, although how it relates to knock-off audio tech, I've no idea. "These earbuds aren't the best, but they're better than nothing"?
Packaging aside, everything is made up to look like an Apple-made product, including the white charging case, the buds themselves and the fact that my phone instinctively recognises them as AirPods when it tries to connect via Bluetooth before questioning their authenticity and asking whether I'd like to risk pairing anyway. (Clever.)
The effect, from a distance, is probably convincing, although the idea of trying to dupe people into believing you're wearing actual AirPods is odd. I assume that much of the desire to sport a pair of small, all-white earbuds comes from a similar place as those somewhat misguided folks who buy fake Rolexes and then flaunt their new timepiece in the hopes either that they'll be commended on the faux-watch's verisimilitude or that others will be duped into thinking that this is the sort of fellow who can actually afford a multi-thousand pound watch, despite being a) unemployed and b) a twelve-year-old boy.
Any feature comforts?
The Oit RoTib offer a rather full stable of features for such a modest outlay. Bluetooth 5.3, industry-leading waterproofing, touch controls, 24-hour playtime with a fast charging case – these were some impressive claims.
One of the proud boasts of my shiny new pods was an impressive IPX7 waterproof rating, but dunking a pair of £15 speakers in the sink as I put genuine faith in the marketing of a company with a leaflet that misspelt the word "earbuds" seemed like a fool's errand. I'm not made of money, so while I'll happily take the manufacturer's word for it, it seems prudent to only wear my knockoffs on dry, sunny days.
There are also on-ear touch controls to enjoy, although if you can figure out how they work, you're a better man than I. Tentative prods (which turned to somewhat more aggressive squeezes) of the various touch-sensitive areas of the earbuds provided mixed results. Sometimes the music would pause, sometimes it wouldn't, sometimes the track would skip and sometimes the same press would simply turn the buds off altogether. I gave up after a few chastening efforts.
Battery life, however, did prove to be pretty decent, and while I'm not sure if I ever stretched things to 24 hours of playtime (24 minutes was quite enough), the Oit RoTib could probably have come at least somewhat close to that figure.
Sounds too good to be true...
Ok, let's get to the really fun part. Once the faux-pods are paired (these take quite a lot of wrangling on my phone's behalf, like convincing a small child to eat a piece of broccoli), we're up and away and testing through a variety of streaming sources. Streaming hi-res tracks via Tidal seems utterly redundant, but I'm happy to at least entertain the possibility that these buds could be up to the task.
De La Soul's Eye Know is a laid-back hip-hop classic, but it isn't particularly served well here. Initial impressions as the basic guitar chord intro starts things off are positive, but as the drum beat kicks in, it sounds like somebody thwacking a bin from the bottom of a well, leaving that lovely, twangy guitar sound to get lost in a sea of mess. Those usually soothing whistles, incidentally, pierce your ears with such harshness that they render the track almost unlistenable.
Now, it would be unfair to expect much detail or organisation from a product of this modest price, but in my book a listenable balance is a must at any price. The EarFun Air (which can often be purchased for around £30-35 on Amazon) have shown that decent, perfectly listenable sound can be attained for a low price.
Pearl Jam's Alive serves as a decent test of rock credentials, and while it's far from a definitive rendition of the Tidal Master of course, it's not a disgraceful showing for dirt-cheap headphones. At least there's some clarity and authenticity to Eddie Vedder's scratchy vocal delivery, while the track's epic 2-minute solo climax has got a little life about it. It's still foggy, echoey and strangely dampened, mind.
Ava Max's empowered anthem Salt comes next, and again, it's a case of average mixed with occasional glimpses of genuinely rubbish. The vocal line comes through strongly (a little too strongly) and there are definitely massive tonal imbalances across the track's varying instrumental strands, but it just about manages to hold itself together by the skin of its teeth. Again, just about listenable if you're out of all other options and, to paraphrase Flight Of The Conchords, you "squint your ears".
To buy, or not to buy?
Ok, so if you're after cheap wireless earbuds, should you actually go out and buy some Oit RoTib wireless earbuds?
The fact is, buying these sorts of cheap products can be something of a false economy. Even if you just need a pair of earbuds for a few weeks that you can simply sling in the bin or a drawer while you wait for Christmas to roll around, the music you play through them during that short time probably won't be enjoyable to listen to. And if you want a pair to subject your musical catalogue to for an extended period, we would definitely look elsewhere. No, the aforementioned Earfun Air don't look like AirPods (though they do come in white!). Neither do the highly recommendable (albeit next-price-level-up) Sony WF-C500. But spend a bit more for much more quality and your ears will thank you.
It's not just a case of sound quality, either. I've only spent a matter of weeks with the faux-Pods, but having bought cheap, mass-produced electronics online before, my fingers are somewhat calloused from their numerous welts and burns. These sorts of products tend to break easily, and while I might be completely off-beam here (check back in three years' time for an update), build quality probably isn't going to be of the highest standard when you're producing something that costs less than a meal at Pizza Express.
So there you have it. The Oit RoTib faux-Pods are a fun little experiment that will give you a hit of sound that's as basic in quality as I've heard, for a fraction of the cost of some more reputable hardware. But if you value proper audio and build quality, skip a few visits to Pizza Express and then look elsewhere.
Want the real thing? Read our Apple AirPods Pro 2 review
And our Apple AirPods Pro review
Or even our AirPods Max review
And, of course, our Best wireless earbuds 2023: budget and premium