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Panasonic RZ-S500W & RZ-S300W True Wireless In-Ear Headphones Review

Posted in Articles on 23/6/2020
 

Since the debut of the original AirPods in 2016, True Wireless has been the new hotness in personal audio. The convenience is undeniable – without any wires at all, you can get high quality stereo sound on demand, in a compact package that’ll easily fit in your pocket or bag. Four years on, the True Wireless headphone market has exploded, and we’re spoiled for choice with premium and entry-level TWS buds to fit almost any budget. Some of those early attempts didn’t live up to the incredible benchmark Apple had set, but now there are great options available no matter your needs. One traditional audio brand, however, has held off until 2020 – and that’s Panasonic.

While Panasonic may not be the first brand that springs to mind when you think about headphones, the company’s audio chops are undeniable, especially here in NZ. A powerhouse of Japanese engineering, Panasonic is a company with fingers in many pies and cutting-edge innovations in many industries. In addition to owning Technics, the famous high-end turntable stalwart, Panasonic produce some of PB Tech’s – and New Zealand’s – most popular headphones. When you’re next in a museum with an interactive exhibit, or on a tour bus, take a look at the provided headphones, because chances are they’re Panasonic’s. Hundreds of schools around New Zealand trust Panasonic to deliver great performance and value, holding up to the rigorous demands of young learners without breaking the bank. So when Panasonic’s first True Wireless products debuted at CES 2020, we paid close attention.

Six months on, the new $199 RZ-S300W and higher-end $349 RZ-S500W with active noise cancellation are about to hit the shelves. We’ve spent a week with them to let you know if they’re worth your hard-earned cash, and whether they can cut through the noise with so many other options out there.

AT A GLANCE

Model

RZ-S500W

RZ-S300W

Drivers

8mm dynamic

6mm dynamic

Dual Hybrid Active Noise Cancellation

Yes

No

Ambient Sound Mode to hear external sounds

Yes

Yes

Sound Customisation

Bass Enhancer, Clear Voice, 5-band Equaliser

Bass Enhancer, Clear Voice, 5-band Equaliser

Battery life

6.5 hours of playback per charge (ANC ON), 19.5 hours combined with case

7.5 hours of playback per charge, 30 hours combined with case

Quick Charging

15 min charge = 70 min playback

15 min charge = 90 min playback

Bluetooth version

5.0

5.0

Supported Bluetooth codecs

AAC, SBC

AAC, SBC

IP Rating

IPX4 water/dust resistant

IPX4 water/dust resistant

App-enabled

Panasonic Audio Connect for Android and iOS

Panasonic Audio Connect for Android and iOS

Charging port

USB Type-C

USB Type-C

Colours

Black or White

Black, White, or Green

NZ Retail price including GST

$349

$199

At PB Tech, we’re proud to offer NZ’s biggest range of True Wireless headphones. With over 60 different models in stock from leading brands like Bose, Sony, Xiaomi, Skullcandy, Samsung, Huawei, and of course Apple, Panasonic has a lot to prove. The company has set out to do this in three key areas.

1. Market-leading hybrid active noise cancellation (RZ-S500W only)

After the initial wow factor of True Wireless, more and more must-have features have popped up. The tech’s improving so rapidly that it’s hard to know when to jump on board! Just as Active Noise Cancellation transformed the over-ear headphone market, it’s now becoming widely available in True Wireless buds as well. Yet again, Apple set a benchmark, this time with 2019’s AirPods Pro, as did Sony with the WF-1000XM3. But as ever, there’s room for improvement. Panasonic claims the Hybrid Noise Cancelling technology in the higher-end RZ-S500W model is industry-leading, the best you can buy. They’ve built and refined three systems to back this claim up – Feedback Noise Cancelling (FB-NC), Feed-forward Noise Cancelling (FF-NC), and analogue/digital processing, resulting in a level of noise cancelling performance that Panasonic claims has never been experienced before.

If you’re not super-familiar with it, active noise cancellation works via microphones on the headphones or earbuds themselves. These measure the sound around you and generate the opposite sound to effectively cancel out the ambient noise. This tech was famously pioneered by Bose, who for our money still offer the best ANC in the over-ear business via the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, but of course Bose have yet to release a noise-cancelling True Wireless product – so we’re gladly trying out Panasonic’s new gear.

The RZ-S500W have a triple microphone array to support those bold claims. Another popular feature that those microphones have enabled of late is Ambient Mode – instead of cancelling out the noise, those mics flick on to amplify the sound around you, so you can have a conversation or…avoid getting run over when you’re out for a jog. It’s great for the office too!

As a welcome bonus, the RZ-S300W also feature Ambient Mode.

2. Design, comfort, and convenience

True Wireless isn’t much fun if it’s not comfortable. The open-ear designs of the original-flavour and 2nd generation AirPods spearheaded the True Wireless revolution, but that’s not helpful if your ears are outliers and the buds won’t stay put. The silicone-tipped in-ear designs of the likes of AirPods Pro and Samsung’s popular Galaxy Buds offer an alternative with much better staying power, as long as you get the fit right. Unlike the fairly skimpy standard selection of bundled accessories and tips, these new Panasonic models come with no less than five different sets of eartips in the RZ-S500W and four in the RZ-S300W, helping you get the exact right fit for your ears. If it’s uncomfortable, use smaller tips. If they’re too loose, use bigger ones. Getting a good seal is critical for bass response in particular! Once in place, both the RZ-S500W and RZ-S300W are simply the most comfortable True Wireless we’ve yet experienced. Getting that right fit also gives great passive noise isolation. Combine this with the incredibly small lightweight designs, and these buds just melt away - to the point you can forget you’re wearing them entirely.

The latest iterations in Bluetooth chipsets bring features worth waiting for. Early models from surprisingly high-end brands had limitations like one-sided connectivity, mono voice calls, unreliable touch controls, and short battery life. Now, you can get independent use (think the oft-mocked yuppie Bluetooth headsets of yore – turns out they’re back by stealth, simply use one True Wireless bud at a time), high-quality stereo voice calls, reliable controls, and vastly improved battery life. The new RZ-S500W and RZ-S300W bring all of this to the table.

The touch controls deserve special mention. Playing, pausing, and activating a voice assistant for hands-free controls are the basics. Panasonic goes over and above here, including oft-neglected features like volume controls, toggling between Noise Cancellation (RZ-S500W only)/Ambient Mode, and powering on/off, all without reaching for your phone.

Finally, battery life has been a key consideration. The 6.5 hours of playback with ANC on for RZ-S500W is up there with the very best of the best, as is the 7.5 hours + 15min charge = 90min playback in its smaller sibling.

3. Sound quality

Audio quality can be a tough nut to crack. It’s the key element of almost any headphones, and True Wireless is particularly hard to test out before you commit to it (because hygiene). If you’re a hardcore audiophile, you’re familiar with chasing the rabbit to get that next 5% performance bump, no matter the ruinous results on your wallet. Similarly, if you’re a picky basshead, you have your test playlist sussed, you know exactly what to listen for, and if the kit you’ve got your hands on ain’t it, boy, it just ain’t it. Building on the massive engineering chops and the legacy of the Technics division, Panasonic really does know its stuff in this space – the massively underrated RP-HD610N over-ear headphones offer in our view the absolute best wireless sound available for the price. It’s tempting to head straight for a V-shaped crowd-pleasing default sound signature, but Panasonic have instead gone for a surprisingly nuanced, detailed, neutral sound – because they know exactly who they’re aiming for, and maybe that’s you.

Through Japanese interviews with the product designers and discussions with the local team, we’ve learned that the folks Panasonic have in mind for this kit are, broadly speaking, professional 30-somethings with broad tastes in music. They want something understated rather than flashy bling, they don’t (always) want bass in the face to the detriment of all other frequencies, they have their favourite musicians and genres sussed, and they’re looking for headphones that can keep up with their lifestyles. Funnily enough, that’s a fair few of us at PB.

THE APP

Panasonic Audio Connect is available on both Android and iPhone, and works with these new True Wireless buds as well as the RP-HD610N. It’s simple and no-nonsense, connects easily, and offers access to firmware upgrades as well as the following features:

  • Adjust between 50 levels of active noise cancellation (RZ-S500W only) AND 50 levels of ambient sound, allowing you to fine-tune to your surroundings
  • Customise your sound with pre-set Bass Enhancer and Clear Voice modes, or tune to your tastes with the 5-band equaliser
  • Switch codecs between AAC and SBC
  • Choose your Voice Assistant – either your phone’s default (e.g. Siri or Google Assistant) or the integrated support for Amazon Alexa
  • Set an auto-power-off timer – choose from 5/10/30/60 minutes or disable entirely
  • Choose your voice guidance language – English, German, French, French (Canada) , or Japanese
  • See your headphones’ battery level
  • Find your headphones if you’ve misplaced them – the last-known GPS coordinates are saved

THE CONNECTIVITY

With Bluetooth 5.0, support for AAC, and independent connectivity, we’ve had no complaints about the new entrants from Panasonic. In the early days of True Wireless, you’d struggle if you put your phone in your pocket, let alone entered an area positively teaming with radio congestion – remember Bluetooth operates in the same public 2.4GHz frequency range used by countless other devices and technologies, so a “busy” space can lead to stutters or cut-out.

There’s a particular area of PB Tech head office that’s notorious for this, affecting phone calls and anything else wireless you happen to be doing while passing through it – no such issues here, which was very welcome.

The one bugbear is the absence of multipoint connectivity, i.e. the ability to simultaneously pair with two devices at once, like a PC and smartphone. This feature has come to the fore in the new age of video conferencing, and is not present in these models – although we can’t complain too much as it’s not common in True Wireless at all just yet. We’d have liked to see support for other Bluetooth audio codecs too, like AptX Low Latency, but they’re not too sorely missed.

THE CONTROLS

Panasonic RZ-S500W + RZS300W Review - Touch Control

As noted above, the touch control set on RZ-S500W and RZ-S300W is robust and feature-complete, offering several key controls competitors are lacking. The learning curve is low, and you’ll soon find yourself instinctively reaching left for volume + voice assistant and right for ANC/ambient sound.

Unlike earlier entries from other brands and the kit you can find at the low-end of the market, the touch controls here are extremely responsive and reliable. No missed taps have occurred, these headphones do what you tell them to. And that’s all we ask.

THE SOUND

Our go-to test tracks:

  • Teardrop – Massive Attack
  • Karma Police – Radiohead
  • Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
  • Polaris – deadmau5
  • Letter - Yosi Horikawa
  • Strong – London Grammar
  • Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1 – Run The Jewels
  • Windowlicker – Aphex Twin
  • Killing In The Name – Rage Against The Machine
  • Touch – Daft Punk

Of course, the best tracks to test with are your favourites.

The 8mm drivers in the RZ-S500W will put out a bit more volume and bass than the RZ-S300W. Active Noise Cancellation can change sound significantly – in this case, we found a little more bass in the RZ-S300W was welcome via the Bass Enhancer in the Audio Connect app, while this wasn’t necessary for the RZ-S500W.

Wide soundstage with clear instrument separation, crisp and clear highs, punchy bass that doesn’t drown out or muddy-up the vocals. Female vocals shine without inducing fatigue. This a surprisingly neutral and nuanced tuning that doesn’t risk becoming too analytical – you’ll find yourself tapping your feet and getting lost in the music exactly as you should with good gear. If you’re looking for headphones that are suitable for all genres rather than only being best paired with eDM or hip-hop, Panasonic’s first True Wireless are an excellent choice.

THE CONSTRUCTION

Build quality is great here. The understated design is accented with a small turbine-style ring on the outside. This is matched by the matte finish charging case that won’t show fingerprints. The case is easy to open and a three-LED battery indicator lets you know when it’s time to top it up. The lid won’t open on its own, and they’re easily pocketable.

The RZ-S300W stands out from its bigger brother with an extremely small and lightweight design, offering superb comfort and making them ideal as a crossover for fitness thanks to the IPX4 sweat and water resistance.

Panasonic have done well here. These are high quality, will hold up to daily wear and tear, and it shows.

THE ACTIVE NOISE CANCELLATION (RZ-S500W only)

Panasonic made some bold claims around the ANC in the RZ-S500W. We’d normally put these up against a domestic flight, but the new normal in 2020 has made those fewer and further between. Instead, we tested against office noise, traffic noise, a busy shopping centre, and the wide variety of sounds that can intrude on home life.

After a week, we believe Panasonic are right to be proud of what has been achieved in the RZ-S500W. Office noise melts away, you won’t hear cars on the road when going for a run, your soundtrack won’t be intruded upon when shopping, and you’ll find yourself totally ignoring sounds like heat pumps/boiling kettles/your partner calling out to you from the other room (take care with that last one). While you’ll still need to look at over-ear options like the Sony WH-1000XM3 and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones for the very peak of what’s possible with active noise cancelling technology, the Panasonic RZ-S500W can indeed fight head to head against other True Wireless contenders like the WH-1000XM3 and AirPods Pro, all at a lower price.

There’s some background hiss when the ANC is cranked all the way up, which it is by default. As a bonus, the Audio Connect app allows fine-tuning the level of noise cancellation, which can reduce the feelings of pressure some experience while using this tech – and reduce that hiss to a level you’re comfortable with. Top marks.

THE AMBIENT MODE

Ambient sound modes allow you to hear what’s around you by flicking on the external mics. This tech is rapidly iterating with learnings from hearing aids and more - it may one day even give us superhuman hearing in mass-market consumer products. For now, it’s remarkably useful to toggle on with a long-press of the right earbud to have a conversation with a colleague, place a coffee order, or make sure you can hear that traffic.

Panasonic stands out from the competition here in two ways. Firstly, you can fine-tune the ambient sound on both models via the app to the same extent as the RZ-S500W’s noise cancelling, choosing exactly how much noise to let in. This focuses on voices as well. Secondly, a fairly uncommon feature is the ability to listen to music while ambient mode is turned on, allowing you to keep an ear out while playing a game or watching a video. Handy!

WHAT COULD BE IMPROVED

The list is surprisingly short. Here’s what we’d like to see that isn’t in this package:

  • Improved voice call quality – it’s not bad, but there’s better out there – possibly firmware updates will help here
  • Support for AptX and AptX Adaptive/Low Latency codecs
  • An option to disable the LED indicators on the earbuds, which can be intrusive in a dark room
  • More voice prompt options, like Cantonese, Mandarin, or Korean, and the option to turn them off entirely
  • Wireless charging

THE VERDICT

Panasonic may have taken its time releasing its first True Wireless models, but we reckon these were worth the extra time in the oven. The RZ-S500W delivers excellent noise cancellation, while the RZ-S300W is extremely small and lightweight. Both offer excellent sound quality regardless of your musical tastes, with options to tinker to your satisfaction. At a sharp price undercutting much of the premium competition, these new entrants to the True Wireless headphone market are well worth your consideration.

Buy the new Panasonic RZ-S500W Noise Cancelling True Wireless Headphones here.

Buy the new Panasonic RZ-S300W True Wireless Headphones here.

Pre-order the Panasonic RZ-S500W / RZ-S300W Shop all Panasonic products >

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