Grell TWS/1 customizable in-ear headphones

A new entrant to the true wireless headphone space you say? Sure, that might be a fairly common occurrence these days, but this one – Grell Audio – comes with some pretty strong heritage. Its founder, Axel Grell, is well known in the headphone industry for his extensive work at Sennheiser on some of the company’s most prestigious products. The TWS/1 is his first solo product under the Grell brand. Accordingly, we’re interested to see what the $200 wireless buds can do.

The TWS/1 has a modern look. The mostly circular design is only interrupted by a small, AirPod-like protuberance on each bud. Originally the plan was to have the outer casing entirely metal but physics and radio waves meant that some concessions (plastic parts) were needed. Overall, they maintain a premium feel that stands above that often found at this price point. They visually remind me slightly of the Jabra Elite 75t, but a little lower profile.

In terms of fit, that slightly more streamlined design means you don’t feel like something is balancing in your ear which can sometimes happen with more rotund models. As per usual they come with a charging case that promises four full charges of the TWS/1. The buds themselves offer around 6 hours per charge which holds true in my experience with ANC activated. Curiously, the buds are placed in the case with the right one to the left and vice versa. I’m not sure why this would be, but it does take some remembering (you’ll soon be reminded as the buds don’t fit the other way around).

In a world of me-too products, it’s hard to stand out. The easiest differentiator is price, then sound quality and or additional/premium features. It seems Grell Audio has tried to tackle all three of these, and with general success, I would say.

The price point puts the TWS/1 in an unusual category. Many premium brands are landing in the $250+ zone while more affordable options, like Google’s second-gen Pixel Buds or the aforementioned Jabra’s live in the $150 area. Budget options, south of $100, are also increasingly more common. This, then, pitches the TWS/1 at the overlap between high-mid and low-premium. I would wager this is entirely intentional as feature set and build quality skew higher end, but the barebones packaging and more accessible price indicate a more mainstream audience.

James Trew / Engadget

As for sound quality, this is where things are a little more clear. In my testing, I was generally pleased with the default sound. It was perhaps a little on the thinner side for my personal preference with a slight weight on the lower end for a typically commercial sound. But Grell has partnered with SoundID – a third-party app that tunes select brands of headphones to your personal preference/hearing.

We’ve seen things like this before, most notably with Nura which takes this to a whole new level. SoundID is a little more understated in its approach. It still uses some form of hearing test, but rather than asking if you can hear certain tones, it simply plays you some music and asks “which do you prefer, A or B.” Once I completed this short test, the difference was night and day. With my own personal profile activated (it uploads to the headphones so it applies no matter what you are listening on), my usual mix of mid ‘10s indie and rave nonsense came alive.

I have a slight preference for dynamic range and beefier low and mid-high frequencies. At least, I presume I do because that was the biggest change in sound after completing the test and I instantly found them much more enjoyable. In the SoundID app, you can toggle between the default sound and your own profile and it really does make a huge difference. You don’t need the app to get good sound, but I’m going to guess that you’ll be happier with what it gives you.

Coincidentally, SoundID is also where you’ll get software updates for the TWS/1. I had one during my testing and it improved a few things including the slightly unresponsive touch controls. They’re still not reading my taps 1:1 but its about on par with most other touch-control buds I have used. Before the update, it was much more frustrating (or, maybe I just learned the technique?).

Those controls aren’t user-configurable, so you’re stuck with what Grell gives you. But, fortunately, that’s pretty much everything you’d want and without too many complicated tap or gesture combinations. Swiping forward or back on the left ear skips tracks, up or down on the right for volume, and so on. It was the single taps that I was having issues with which control play/pause on the right and transparency mode on the left – both of which are more annoying if not activated immediately.

This brings us on to smart(er) features. As mentioned, the TWS/1 has Active Noise Cancellation and Transparency mode – both of which are becoming increasingly standard. But there’s also a Noise Annoyance Reduction (NAR) mode. Grell explained to me during their initial announcement briefing that ANC is great for lower-frequency sustained noises, but doesn’t work as well for higher-frequency annoyances (think, crying baby on a plane). NAR is Grell’s own attempt at offering some reduction of these types of sound.

Grell Audio TWS/1.

James Trew / Engadget

In practice, I found it hard to pinpoint the difference that NAR makes. With ANC, it’s easy to hear the low rumble of the road outside my apartment decrease in volume. It’s maybe not the most powerful ANC I have heard but it does the job. With NAR, whatever the ear equivalent of squinting is, proved to be a little more indeterminate. It does seem to slightly improve the listening experience in combination with ANC, but it’s also hard to tell how much of that was me willing it to do so. It’s an interesting concept though and one that I hope Grell can continue to improve over time.

Other small perks include a “mono” mode (listening with just one bud). This isn’t as common as it should be in my opinion and it adds more flexibility for those that want to maintain some spatial awareness without having to wear both buds. It’s also, obviously, how some people prefer to handle their calls, too (reliving the Bluetooth headset days).

Another small added bonus is wireless charging “compatibility.” It’s not something I was able to test, but the more things that support it the better? Or, at the very least, it’s a nice perk for those already invested in the wireless charging world.

All in, Grell has given price, features and sound quality enough consideration that the result is a promising first product from an emerging brand. The price point, in particular, strikes a good balance between signaling premium ambitions without putting it too far out of reach for mainstream casuals. I’d love to see some further advances on the NAR technology and the controls could still be more responsive, but if you’re looking for a fresh set of true wireless headphones that are customizable to your taste, these are a great place to start.

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