When Steven Yang quit his software engineer gig at Google to start his own company six years ago, he had modest goals: make affordable smartphone batteries and accessories to be sold on Amazon. While portable battery packs and charging cables are not exactly sexy, eye-catching products, there's no denying their importance. And although Anker has found great success -- its chargers and cables are the best selling items in their category on Amazon -- Yang always had bigger dreams.
"I've always wanted to go into audio products, and not just normal audio products, but ones that are dedicated to the smart era," he says.
Anker began dabbling in audio products two years ago with a budget bluetooth speaker. Earlier this year, it released the the Soundbud Slim, a pair of US$25 wireless earbuds that have gotten strong reviews by over 1,000 customers on Amazon. While the budget earbuds do sound pretty good (I purchased one myself), they are ultimately entry-level audio products. Or, as Yang calls them, "warm up."
He continues: "My team of audio engineers came over from brands like Harman, Bang & Olufsen. I didn't hire them to just do entry-level products -- these are to get their feet wet, to prepare for Zolo."
Officially introduced to the public two weeks ago via a Kickstarter campaign, Zolo is Anker's new sister company, and its focus is on high quality, premium audio products that integrate the Internet of Things, or, in Yang's words, "audio products without compromise."
More on Forbes: These Truly Wireless Earbuds Won't Fall Out Of Your Ear
The first product -- the one that was launched on Kickstarter -- is the Liberty Plus (styled as "Liberty+"), a set of truly wireless earbuds. I've tested quite a few of these in the past year and while it's always amazing to hear audio coming from two untethered little nubs, the connection tends to be a bit hit and miss (so far, Apple's AirPods offer the most stable connection, but it achieved that by compromising on aesthetics with two elongated legs that stick out of the user's ear).
I tested a pre-production unit of the Liberty Plus today in a meeting with Anker, and I'm happy to report that they might have the best connection of any wireless earbuds I've tried so far. The Air by Crazybaby and AirPods, which I tried last week, had previously been the gold standard (I estimated the connection rate at 98 and 99% respectively), but the Liberty Plus achieved 100% during my hour of testing. I wore them indoors and outdoors. I walked a block with them with my phone in the back pocket. I even left my phone at the coffee shop with Yang and walked outside the store some 25 feet away, and the Liberty Plus stayed connected.
The connection is achieved because the Liberty Plus uses the newest Bluetooth 5.0 standard (which is so new the only other mainstream device out right now that uses it is the Samsung Galaxy S8), compared to the 4.2 on Crazybaby's Air and 4.0 on Bragi's Dash. It probably helps that the earbud is a bit bigger in size than other earbuds (affording more room for internal antennas and drivers).
Sound quality was good -- though the bass isn't as deep as on Crazybaby's Air -- and the fit was comfortable. The earbuds will work with Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa, according to Yang (that feature wasn't ready yet during my testing).
But the second best news (behind the superb connection) to consumers will be its battery life. The Liberty Plus offers -- according to Yang, since I didn't get to try it long enough -- three and half hours of battery life on a single charge, and the charging case can top up the earbuds a whopping 12 times (for a total battery life of close to 48 hours). That's significantly more than everyone else out there -- guess we shouldn't be surprised, considering Anker is the world's top third-party battery manufacturer.
The Liberty Plus also offers transparency mode, which allows me to hear my surroundings clearly with the earbuds on. This is a feature that I really like as it allows me to wear the earbuds while walking around the ridiculously-packed streets of Hong Kong without fear of getting hit by a car or a suitcase-lugging tourist.
The Liberty Plus has already far outstripped its goal on Kickstarter (it's raised $1.6 million so far from a goal of $50,000), and Yang says it'll be ready to ship by October. Right now, backers can get the earbuds for $99. After the campaign, they will retail for $149 and be available in stores worldwide.
Yang says Anker -- which currently has a staff of over 500 in Shenzhen -- will continue to produce its popular chargers and power banks, but the company will increasingly release premium, higher-end gadgets.
"I want to make a smart home product for every room," he says. Given the success of the Liberty Plus so far, that's not as ambitious a goal as it sounds.