Whether you’re on a campus or stuck at home doing remote learning this fall, you need a pair of earbuds that won’t murder your bank account or immediately become worthless if you misplace one. Thankfully, Skullcandy has something for those of us who like to drown out the world but also have butterfingers.
Skullcandy’s Push Ultra earbuds came out in late May and their usefulness to students is abundantly clear on paper: For just $99, you get sweat- and water-proof earbuds with beefy battery life, adjustable ear hooks for custom comfort, and Tile tracking built-in. In other words, if you lose one or both of your earbuds, you can use your phone to track down their locations.
That all sounds great on paper, but do the Push Ultra’s positives outweigh the compromises made to keep its price down? Keep reading to find out.
The Good: Surprisingly crisp sound, easy Tile tracking, big charging case battery
Wireless earbuds that cost $150 or less can be a little bit of a gamble when it comes to sound quality and performance. LG’s new Tone Free buds, for instance, are right at the top of that price range, but have disappointingly weak bass output. Meanwhile, these iLive buds I recently reviewed come in at just $70, but couldn’t withstand even the tiniest amount of Bluetooth interference outdoors.
I’m happy to report the Push Ultra buds stand up to scrutiny in both regards. Yes, Bluetooth interference happens here and there when walking past busy intersections, but it’s not debilitating to daily use. More importantly, the Push Ultra buds sound much better than I would normally expect from earbuds this inexpensive. They’re certainly not on the level of Master & Dynamic’s MW07s or Apple’s AirPods Pro, but the audio is crisp and the bass hits you just hard enough to make an impact.
I’ll put it this way: Rina Sawayama’s excellent self-titled album (released this past April) sounded powerless and tinny on LG’s Tone Free earbuds, which cost $50 more than the Push Ultras. Skullcandy’s earbuds, on the other hand, gave me the sound I was looking for. Everything came through with the richness I desired, and again, the bass was actually noticeable, even if you won’t confuse it with an expensive subwoofer or anything like that.
In case you were wondering, no, there’s no active noise cancellation or reduction of any kind. You still have to pay quite a bit more than $99 to get that out of earbuds. I’m writing this review while sitting next to an air conditioner and that sound is coming right through the earbuds. This could certainly make things annoying at a school setting where people congregate and make lots of noise, but Skullcandy’s earbuds aren’t any worse than regular AirPods in this regard.
Built-in Tile tracking is the one really standout feature Skullcandy offers with some of its wireless earbuds, including these Push Ultra buds. Normally, you’d have to buy a little device from Tile and stick it onto your laptop or whatnot to track it using Tile’s mobile app. But Skullcandy built it right into the Push Ultras so you don’t really have to do any work at all.
Pairing the Push Ultra buds with the Tile app is devilishly simple: Open the Tile app, follow the instructions until it starts the pairing process, pull the left earbud out of its case, and wait until it tells you to push the button on the side of the earbud. You then repeat the same process with the right earbud.
It takes 15-30 seconds total to set up Tile tracking and, once that’s done, it opens up a world of possibilities. After the buds have been paired, you can press the “Find” button within the Tile app to start playing a loud, digital bird-chirping noise from either one or both earbuds. If that alert doesn’t help you to find your lost earbud (it gets very loud, so it should), an onscreen circle will grow in size as you get closer to your target. If you’re really far away, you can also check a GPS map for the last location the Tile app registered your earbuds.
Tile tracking is a smart inclusion for Skullcandy’s buds and it makes you wonder why the feature’s not yet standard for smaller electronics. It’s especially great as a back-to-school inclusion because, again, it’s easy to leave things where they aren’t supposed to be, whether it’s a disgusting dorm room, a sterile campus library, or the one room at home you decided to study in because you got tired of your bedroom and wanted a little thrill. Believe me, I’ve done it. With Tile tracking, Skullcandy’s earbuds are significantly more difficult to misplace among the chaos of a school day.
The last big point in the Push Ultra’s favor is that its charging case is rated for up to 34 hours of extra battery life on top of the roughly six hours you can wring out of the earbuds. So whether you’re moving around a lot because of school or using these to work out (or both), you shouldn’t have to plug in the charging case too often. Oh, and as a nice bonus, they’re IP67 sweat- and water-proof. I got them wet and they still worked fine after the fact. You just can’t beat that.
The Bad: Comfort issues, cumbersome charging case, mediocre on-device controls
Unfortunately, the Push Ultra buds drop the ball a tad when it comes to the basic physical aspects of wireless earbuds. Like a lot of fitness-oriented earbuds, these have flexible ear hooks to keep them securely in place while you’re on the go. Moving them around isn’t that bad on its own, but it always took me a little longer than I would have preferred just to put the earbuds in my ears and position them correctly.
The great thing about AirPods or other similar earbuds is that you take them out of the case, put them in, and go. The whole process takes about three seconds. For the Push Ultras, on the other hand, this turns into a 10- to 15- second ordeal that involves bending a hook around your ear until it’s comfortable. If you’re racing across the quad in a hurry to get to your next class, that’s gonna be a little irritating.
“Comfortable” is a relative term here, as I didn’t enjoy wearing the Push Ultras for more than an hour or two at a time. They aren’t painful to wear by any means, but there isn’t a significant silicone layer like you might find on AirPods Pro or LG’s Tone Free buds to provide a cushion inside your ear. What starts as “noticeable” becomes “mildly unpleasant” over a long enough period of time.
Skullcandy’s buds do have on-device controls for volume and playback commands, but with real physical buttons instead of touch panels. There is one large multi-purpose button on the outside and two volume buttons on the back of the perimeter of each earbud. I like this design decision, in theory, because touch panels can be finicky and easy to accidentally trigger. But the Push Ultra’s multi-purpose side button is squishy and unsatisfying to use, and some of the commands (hold volume up for two seconds to skip ahead) aren’t very intuitive. It’s all usable, but it doesn’t feel especially good.
The last major issue I had with the Push Ultra earbuds has to do with the charging case. It’s large and bulky — likely due to that massive battery. So you may have to keep the case in your backpack instead of in your pants’ pocket. More concerning is that the charging contacts in the case are a little unforgiving. You need to finagle the ear hooks some to make the earbuds sit properly in the case. If you don’t, the red charging LED won’t turn on and, more importantly, they won’t de-pair from your phone. Just like taking them out of the case to put them on, putting the Push Ultras properly back into their case just takes too long.
That’s a big part of why you might consider checking out some similarly priced earbuds that don’t have the same problem.
The Skullcandy Push Ultra wireless earbuds have plenty to offer students, but some of those features might seem superfluous to some. Thankfully, there are other options at similar price points.
You don’t even need to look outside of the Skullcandy ecosystem to find an alternative for those who don’t want to bend hooks around their ears. The Skullcandy Indy Evo earbuds have a more conventional AirPods-esque shape and, at $79.99, they’re $20 cheaper. Oh, and yeah, they have Tile tracking, too. There are some drawbacks, however, as they’re rated for 10 fewer hours of battery life and they’re merely water-resistant instead of water-proof.
You could also consider the brand new OnePlus Buds. They’re the same price as the Indy Evo earbuds, but they offer pretty excellent sound quality and comfort, all things considered. Be warned, though, that certain features like Dolby Atmos support and customizable on-device controls are locked to OnePlus phones. They still work just fine on an iPhone, but you won’t get the full suite of options.
At $99, the Skullcandy Push Ultra wireless earbuds are a solid value for students or anyone who finds themselves needing some music or podcasts during their more active moments. You won’t break them with sweat or water, and you’re far less likely to lose them among the tumult of school life thanks to built-in Tile support. On top of that, you get plenty of juice from the battery and nice sound quality for the price.
Sadly, you’ll have to deal with some irritating inconveniences along the way. Bluetooth auto-pairing can trigger when you don’t want it to and I didn’t find the buds as comfortable as I would have liked. These problems hold the Skullcandy Push Ultras back from greatness, but not from respectability. Young people who do a great deal of moving around can find plenty to like here without going bankrupt.