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Do sleeping earbuds actually work? I tested the latest pair on the market

Review: Soundcore's nickel-sized Sleep A10 earbuds play brain-relaxing audio, block out nighttime distractions, and will track your sleep patterns.
Written by Christina Darby, Associate Editor on
Reviewed by June Wan
Pros
  • Comprehensive sleep-tracking capabilities
  • Can be used as regular Bluetooth headphones
  • Smart switch function adjusts audio once you fall asleep
  • Built-in alarm clock is effectively intimate
Cons
  • Considerable in-ear compression for side sleepers despite small size
  • No active noise cancellation (ANC)
  • No GPS tracking for such small earbuds
  • Phone must be connected to the earbuds to access sleep data via the app

The wireless earbud market has become one of the most concentrated in the tech world, but not many brands have tried their hand at the niche segment that is sleep wearables

Recently, Soundcore, Anker's audio consort, brought forward its campaign with the Sleep A10 earbuds. Hoping to stand out from the likes of Bose's Sleep Buds II and QuietOn's 3 buds, Soundcore engineered what may possibly be the smallest earbuds on the market, with the goal of an unobtrusive fit -- even for side sleepers. 

While the buds don't have active noise cancellation (ANC), opting for noise masking instead, they have features that will help you get a good night's rest, and collect the data you need to make gradual improvements. I put the earbuds to the test, seeing if I could catch some Z's in the city that never sleeps. 

Specifications

Type 

In-ear, true-wireless

Dimensions

1.69 x 1.04 inches; 2.08 ounces

Connectivity 

Bluetooth 5.2 

Noise masking level 

4-point noise masking blocks up to 35 dB of sound 

Microphones

None

Battery 

Playtime in sleep mode is 10 hours 

Drivers

Single dynamic drivers

Durability 

IPX4

Charger 

USB-C charging case 

Price 

$179 


Design and fit

Sleeping with something in your ear can be uncomfortable, especially if it's bulky and intrusive. 

Soundcore took that into consideration when designing the Sleep A10 earbuds and engineered what are easily the tiniest earbuds I've ever come across -- measuring just a few centimeters longer than a US nickel (see image below). 

Being made of lightweight plastic, the pebble-shaped buds also weigh virtually nothing in the hand, which is ideal if they're meant to hang on your ears for hours at night. 

Unfortunately, the small scale doesn't translate once the earbuds are in your ears. When I first put the Sleep A10 buds in my ears, they felt promising. The silicon ear tips -- which come in small, medium, and large sizes -- twisted comfortably into the ear canal and served as physical sound barriers. When I lay on my back, the pressure and fit were similar to foam earplugs. When I flipped to my side, however, the small size actually worked against the buds.

A Sleep A10 earbud next to a nickel, about the same width.

The Soundcore Sleep A10 buds are about the same size as a US nickel, and lightweight.

Christina Darby/ZDNET

When my ear applied pressure against the pillow, the tiny eartip was in the perfect position to wedge right into my ear canal. No matter how much I moved my resting head position, the bud tenaciously suctioned deep in my ear. When I rolled out and onto my back again, there was a compressed feeling in my ear that required a wiggle to get the earbud back into place. That was more frustrating than relaxing. 

You can always remove the pillow-facing bud -- or, don't sleep on your side -- to continue with the sleep tracking, but it's obviously not the most optimal sleep wearable experience. And of course, while taking out the earbud on the side I was lying on was more comfortable, the audio playback, whether white noise or the usual playlist, wasn't as strong. 

More: Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 Pro: 8 tips and tricks to get the most out of your wireless earbuds

Earbud hide and seek

There were a few nights when I went to bed listening to the soothing sounds of rainwater and woke up with no sound and no earbuds in my ears the next morning. Whether I subconsciously took the remaining earbud out or it fell out during my sleep, I'd spend a good 10 minutes the following morning looking under my sheets and pillows for the tiny bud or buds. It certainly didn't help that they camouflaged with my all-white bedding.

If you're a sleeper who tosses and turns, be warned that your day may start with a treasure hunt for your Sleep A10 buds. But for these reasons, I'd love to see a GPS tracker or ping feature with the earbuds. The app does not have those capabilities

White Sleep A10 earbuds on a white bedcover

Since the earbuds are so tiny and match my white bedding, I often have to spend a good part of my wake-up routine searching for at least one earbud that got lost in my covers at some time in the night.

Christina Darby/ZDNET

A big case for tiny buds

For such tiny earbuds, the charging case runs big -- perhaps to support its promise of charging the earbuds seven times over. It's possible to fit the hockey puck-shaped case in the front of your overnight bag, but it also takes up more room on my nightstand than I would like.

As with the Liberty 4's charging case that I recently checked out, the case cover slides outward rather than flicking up like a pack of mints. The elastic pushback from the cover makes it so that your earbuds don't go flying out if you drop them in the case. It worked with the Liberty 4 and it works here, too. 

Also: New 'smart sock,' camera, and app let you track your baby's sleep and heart rate in real time

Sound quality 

For the past few months, I've had the opportunity to test a variety of noise-canceling earbuds. Instead of ANC, the Sleep A10 buds use noise masking, broadcasting a low-volume layer of audio to cover up ambient sounds. It took me a few nights to adjust from ANC to noise-masking buds, but even after several listens, I still found myself still needing to turn the volume almost all the way up to dilute the sounds of NYC's nightlife. As a result, the once-relaxing rain audio sounded more like a hailstorm.

Despite their noise-masking shortcomings, the overall sound of these earbuds was pretty impressive considering the extremely compact size. While the bass was heavy, the treble did lack fullness and sounded tinny during playback. Although the app offers a custom equalizer option, I didn't find it significantly stabilized the treble, though it did help even out the mids. 

Sleep A10 earbuds out of their case on a pile of thin white braided ropes

The cushioned ear tips' passive noise cancellation is more useful than Soundcore's HearID ANC.

Christina Darby/ZDNET

An expansive sound library

Unlike competing sleep buds -- such as the Bose Sleepbuds II -- the Sleep A10 earbuds allow you to listen to your personal music or relaxation sounds by toggling between Music mode and Sleep mode. The former allows you to play your own audio as you sleep. 

Sleep mode limits you to the Soundcore app's Sleep Music Library. To be fair, the library has 31 different preset sounds to choose from, including audio that mimics your brain wave frequencies during periods of resting. 

I do want to call out how audio from Soundcore's Sleep Music Library requires a higher volume to get the same immersive effect as other relaxation apps like Calm

Sleep A10 earbuds against bed

With some tweaks, the Sleep A10 earbuds have the potential to become a bedtime essential. 

Christina Darby/ZDNET

Sleep monitoring and tracking

Sleep tracking seems to be one of wearable tech's biggest fads right now -- and Soundcore took that trend to a new level by incorporating in-ear tracking rather than solely relying on heart rate monitoring. Considering the $179.99 price tag, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Sleep A10's analytics comparable to those of my $399 Apple Watch Series 8

Like the Apple Watch Series 8's, the Soundcore app tracks your quality of sleep and shows when you were in deep or light sleep and the times that you were awake. Other than one or two false positives showing I was in "light sleep" for a few minutes longer than what my Apple Watch tracked, I'd say the earbuds' tracking stacked up well.  

Just make sure to enable "Smart switch" on the app so the buds soak up every ounce of sleep -- even if you fall asleep while you're not in the dedicated Sleep mode. With Smart switch turned on, the earbuds will automatically switch from Music mode to Sleep mode as soon as it detects you entering a deep sleep phase. The sleep monitoring feature will also automatically adjust the audio volume once you've fallen asleep, though I often found the output too low whenever I woke up in the middle of the night. 

Review: Apple Watch 8 is a sleeper hit, even if it doesn't match Samsung's sensors

Sleep tracking for trends or tactics? 

From my overall experience, Soundcore missed an opportunity with its sleep-tracking data. Right now, it feels like Soundcore added the feature for the sake of keeping up with other health-tracking wearables, rather than establishing itself as making the earbud sleep-trackers to beat. Sticking to just tangible data, it would've been much more helpful had Soundcore coupled its catalog of relaxing sounds with some tips and direction.

The "Unsung hero" feature goes to...

Like competing sleep earbuds, the Sleep A10 buds have an in-ear alarm feature. If you have a roommate or bedmate and don't want your early morning alarm to disturb their sleep, the buds, when worn, can ring a chime at your set time. Even though I have a room to myself, something about the alarm going off directly in my ears made for a more effective morning alarm. 

Sleep A10 buds next to a digital alarm clock

When my earbuds stay in, I wake up to the alarm clock in my ears instead of the one on my nightstand. 

Christina Darby/ZDNET

Bottom line

Soundcore's Sleep A10 earbuds may have some kinks, but they're a refreshing addition to a rather scarce market. With their small size, there's always a chance that the earbuds may slip a tad too deep into your ears, but take my single sample size with a grain of salt. The sleep-tracking data gives insights into how long and effective your rest was but missed out on providing sleep solutions and next steps. 

As of right now, I'd say Soundcore's Sleep A10 earbuds give more quantity than quality. But given this is a first-gen product, I have my fingers crossed for something greater in the near future.

Alternatives to consider

Besides the Soundcore Sleep A10 earbuds, here are three other audio wearables with sleep-related functions that you should consider: 

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