Review: VR Ears
Audio is super important when it comes to virtual reality (VR), coming only second to the visuals themselves. Excellent spatial audio allows a player to hear where a bullet came from or really enjoy the latest music pack on their favourite rhythm action videogame. Yet the sounds produced by VR headsets can really be a mixed bag, from the excellent Valve Index speakers to the adequate, yet not exactly thrilling, Meta Quest 2 setup. While headphones are one option – especially if you’re a bit of an audiophile – Rebuff Realities’ new VR Ears make for a viable alternative option.
The VR Ears have been a while in the making. Crowdfunded back in May 2020 the product was originally due out the same year before delays pushed the launch back into late 2021. They’re not headphones but rather off-ear speakers – much like the Valve Index – which have their own benefits as well as limitations.
Setting up your VR Ears
Right out the box, the VR Ears look like a well-built accessory, with an all-plastic design that doesn’t feel too cheap. Rebuff Reality has ensured maximum compatibility for almost any VR headset, with supplied connections supporting Meta Quest 1 & 2, Oculus Rift S, Valve Index, HTC Vive Pro and PlayStation VR. For the purposes of this review, gmw3 tried the VR Ears on two of the most popular, Quest 2 and PlayStation VR.
The VR Ears work by clamping onto the headband frame of the headset, with four rubber widgets (two on each side, one upper and one lower) tailored to comfortably grip each arm. Because of their excellent versatility, the VR Ears can adapt to not only the headset but also the location of a person’s ear, thus making the initial setup very finicky and once completed I had no desire to go through the process again. Setting it up for other players becomes a faff I definitely wanted to avoid.
It’s because of the small hex key bolt holding the speakers onto the bracket, which is hidden behind the clamps frame. Meaning, that to make even the slightest rotational adjustment up or down requires taking the whole thing apart. Like I said, finicky. It is worth it though, especially if nobody else is using the headset as there’s no need to alter anything once finished. Getting each speaker directly over each ear is critically important, greatly affecting sound quality and loudness.
And so as I found, the VR Ears weren’t exactly designed for swapping between Quest 2 and PlayStation VR. If you’re fortunate to own a couple of VR headsets definitely stick with one and from this experience it would be PlayStation VR.
Almost snug as a bug
Why PlayStation VR? Well, it comes down to comfort mainly. Like any VR accessory weight is always an important factor and coming in at just over 200g, that’s certainly hefty addition to the Meta Quest 2’s 503g. Using the standard Quest 2 strap with the VR Ears wasn’t too bad, to begin with, but that extra weight soon became more and more noticeable and uncomfortable, especially in more active games like Beat Saber. Pairing the VR Ears with the Elite Battery pack faired far better thanks to the improved weight distribution but again – even when moving the clamps further back on the arms for a more central weight – that front pressure began to return.
Unlike the PlayStation VR with its Halo strap. This was wonderfully comfortable for longer VR sessions and I almost forgot the VR Ears were attached. The issue for PlayStation VR was the distance the speakers were from my ears, affecting both audio quality and sound leakage.
Having used normal headphones, in-ear headphones and off-ear speakers found on Quest 2 and Valve Index, I’m all for the latter. And that’s where the VR Ears really do benefit, as my ears don’t get hot and sweaty playing one of the many active titles available for VR nowadays. Having that air gap is cooling and comfortable in a way normal headphones can never be.
Now listen here!
But what do the VR Ears sound like you ask? To put it bluntly, good but not wow. Compare them to Quest 2 or PlayStation VR’s own audio solutions and you’re instantly getting an improvement. However, Valve Index owners aren’t going to want to swap over, the VR Ears just aren’t as good.
After testing across numerous games like the subtle noises from Quill in Moss: Book II, thumping Skrillex tunes in Beat Saber or the audio chatter in VRChat, the VR Ears produce rich mids and highs yet fail where the bass is concerned. The VR Ears need a good 20-30 hours of use (bedding in as some like to call it) before they really start to show their true colours, with a mid-range that’s full-bodied and mellow whilst the top end has detail and clarity the Quest 2’s audio could never match.
But for those that love rhythm-action games or just the low-end rumble of some meaty bass, the VR Ears provide a flat, uninspiring delivery. Playing a Skrillex song in Beat Saber should be epic, with some huge bass drops yet there were none, sadly, even when played loudly. That led to another issue which I’ll get to.
Even so, for a PlayStation VR owner who is still using the supplied in-ears, the VR Ears are a much better solution. I found that they were a bit too far away from my ears – which would’ve affected the bass – and they come with spacers which certainly weren’t needed. On Quest 2 the gap was reduced yet the audio quality between both remained almost identical.
Turn it off and on again
These might be quirks more than issues but in any case, they were annoying, hampering the user experience because it meant having to find the VR Ears’ perfect setting.
The VR Ears need a good two-hour charge via a USB-C cable – no cable or wall charger is provided I may add – to get what is claimed to be a 6 hour run time. I’d say around 5 hours is being more generous, good for most VR sessions.
However, that was never in one stint as the VR Ears would, like clockwork, turn off after 20 minutes of use. No rhyme or reason, they’d simply switch themselves off. I could instantly turn them back on again – I did that 3 times during a single hour on Moss – but that’s not the point. And it seems to boil down to volume. The VR Ears don’t like being near the upper limit of the volume range which is hampered by the headset’s own volume setting. On the Quest 2, for example, its volume needs to be at max so the VR Ears have ample range, otherwise, they’ll be off before you know it. And they always switched off during a narrated section so I’d miss story details.
A Sound Verdict
The VR Ears really were a mixed experience that it is hard to definitively give a solid recommendation to. I did like them as an audio upgrade to what the VR headsets tested currently offer although their bar is already quite low. It really comes down to whether you want an off-ear speaker rather than a normal pair of headphones.
I currently switch between my Bowers & Wilkins PX and some older Yamaha Pro 400’s and the difference is night and day with the VR Ears. The lack of any robust bass hampers some VR titles whilst the far more balanced top end saves the day, perfect for social multiplayer experiences where voice clarity is key.