No one likes a monopoly, but when shopping for wireless earbuds, it seems like there are almost too many options available now. Earbud makers need to do whatever they can to differentiate their products from the competition (particularly when they’re asking $200 for them) and the Grell Audio TWS/1 earbuds have a few things going for them, including a unique pedigree, impressive sound, and a clever approach to customization. But they also break an unspoken rule when it comes to wireless earbud design.
Dr. Dre is probably the most recognizable example of selling headphones by slapping a celebrity’s name on them, and while Grell is nowhere near as recognizable, amongst audiophiles it’s a name that’s highly revered. For 27 years, Axel Grell designed headphones for Sennheiser and oversaw the company’s product lines. He’s also the man behind the $55,000 Orpheus headphone system we tested seven years ago.
But in 2019, Grell left Sennheiser to start his own company, Grell Audio. The TWS/1 earbuds are the company’s first product. It probably comes as no surprise that the TWS/1 sound great, but unfortunately you need more than great sound to convince consumers to spend $200 on wireless earbuds today.
The more features you pack into a pair of wireless earbuds, the bigger they’re going to get, and when I first pulled the TWS/1 out of their charging case I was surprised at their size and worried about them falling out of my ears, as larger buds often tend to do.
However, the TWS/1 are actually very well-balanced. The design of the earbuds puts the driver and other audio components in a section that sits closer to the ear, which is connected to a larger round touchpad with a short AirPods-like stem protruding from it.
The earbuds also include three different sized silicone tips and two sizes of foam tips. Some larger earbuds can feel like they’re always on the brink of succumbing to the pull of gravity while worn, but when paired with the proper sized ear tip, the TWS/1 feel quite secure and comfortable when worn.
They are by no means the smallest nor the most subtle pair of wireless earbuds you can find today, and having the Grell branding prominently displayed on the outside is probably only going to appeal to audiophiles, but the design gives you a large touchpad that enables swipe gestures that give you full access to almost every last feature and function.
Given the number of wireless earbud models I test and review in a given year, I’ve given up on trying to memorize the specific on-bud shortcuts for every model, or even my go-to pairs, which most often involve a specific number of taps or button presses to activate common functions like skipping tracks or activating smart assistants.
The touchpad on the TWS/1 makes some of its shortcuts easier to memorize because it can recognize both swipe gestures and taps. For adjusting volume you either swipe up or down on the right earbud’s pad, while skipping tracks requires a forward or backwards swipe on the left earbud’s pad. It’s simple and easy to remember, but other shortcuts get a little more complicated.
Switching between the TWS/1's three different sound modes requires the use of taps and either 3-second or 5-second-long holds on the left bud. Audible cues make it easier to know when you’ve pressed long enough, but properly tapping and turning features like ANC on and off can occasionally frustrating, and there’s no accompanying app providing an alternate (and easier) way to turn these features on or off. A recent firmware update has improved the sensitivity of the touchpads and I can only assume future updates will improve it further, but the TWS/1 software can still be a little buggy, which means you have to pair and unpair them from your device to resolve the problem.
How can a wireless earbud charging case be both good and bad at the same time? It seems impossible, but the TWS/1 charging case is exactly that.
First, the good. The case charges with either a USB-C cable or by simply plopping its flat bottom down on a Qi-compatible wireless charging pad.
It’s not the smallest charging case I’ve ever tried to pocket, but it’s also far from being the largest. Big buds need a big case, I guess.
Grell Audio promises up to six hours of listening time with the TWS/1 buds by themselves (with ANC on) plus an additional four full charges through the charging case which uses four color-changing LEDs on the front to provide a slightly more accurate indication of the case’s charge level. Battery life isn’t breaking any records, but it’s certainly better than the 4.5 hours Apple promises for the AirPods Pro, which can be boosted to up to 24 hours with its own charging case.
So what’s the bad? At this point it’s an unspoken rule that the right earbud charges on the right side of an opened charging case and the left bud on the left side. When you can’t see the tiny ‘R’ or ‘L’ label on your earbuds it’s an easy way to ensure you’re putting the correct bud in each ear. However, the left and right charging slots are reversed on the TWS/1's charging case, and more than one time my muscle memory has had me trying to insert them in the wrong ears after pulling them out of the case.
As a reviewer, I can easily burn through a couple hundred words extolling the virtues of how good a pair of headphones sound, or how much I despise them. But the truth of the matter is that everyone’s ears are different, and everyone has different preferences when it comes to how they want a pair of headphones to sound. This is where the Grell Audio TWS/1 really differentiate themselves from the competition: They’re incredibly easy for any user to customize them to their sound preferences.
With large 10.1-millimeter drivers, the Grell Audio TWS/1 sound very good out of the box, but the default tuning is fairly neutral and balanced from the low to high frequencies. You’ll still get a satisfying snap from higher frequencies and bass performance is noticeably weighty, but I find I prefer the sound I get from competing earbuds in the $200+ field, like the Master & Dynamic MW08s.
Grell Audio doesn’t offer an official companion app for the TWS/1 earbuds, but they are compatible with Sonarworks’ SoundID app, which offers a unique approach to creating a customized sound profile for every user. (The app is also where you can download and install firmware updates for the TWS/1, which I highly recommend.) Instead of offering a collection of presets like rock, pop, or classical, the app has you select from a small sampling of looped audio tracks based on what they listen to most.
The app then takes you through a series of A/B tests where the audio track is presented in two subtly different ways and you simply have to specify which you prefer. Halfway through, you’re asked to switch to a different audio track as the tests continue, but at the end the app creates a personalized SoundID profile based on your choices, which is uploaded to the TWS/1. You can only turn the custom profile on and off through the SoundID app, but at this point I have no reason to ever switch back to the TWS/1's default profile because the earbuds just sound so much better now to me, with greater emphasis on the lower and higher end (make it smile, as they used to say when adjusting an EQ). But that’s according to my ears—the SoundID process delivers different results for every user, and because it’s based on their specific preferences and feedback, whatever profile is cooked up for their ears will undoubtedly sound great to them too.
A $200 pair of wireless earbuds without active noise cancellation would be a non-starter given it’s a feature we’re now seeing on options below $100, and the TWS/1 perform on-par with what I’ve experienced from other wireless earbuds in this price range. They’re not quite as aggressive as the $280 Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds at gutting lower frequencies, but the TWS/1 are far more comfortable to wear while still doing a very good job.
But the TWS/1 include a new mode for ANC developed specifically by Grell Audio. When you’re on a flight, for example, and your headphones are canceling out the low rumble of the engines, your ears will naturally adjust and tune into the higher frequencies that still get through, making sounds like the high-pitched wail of an upset infant harder to ignore.
That’s where the TWS/1 NAR (Noise Annoyance Reduction) mode comes into play. When activated alongside ANC it supposedly detects those more prevalent higher frequencies and attempts to downplay them in real time without affecting the overall mix of what you’re listening to. It’s an interesting idea, and I welcome any improvements and advancements in ANC given I rarely find the feature that impressive on earbuds, but in practice I’ll admit I had a hard time hearing any difference when switching NAR on and off. I’m excited to try it out the next time I’m on a flight or a crowded subway, but until that time I don’t really think it’s the TWS/1's killer feature.
There was a time when spending over $200 on wireless earbuds was the easiest way to guarantee you’d be getting great sound, functionality, and solid noise cancellation, but I think that time has passed. I’d still recommend Apple’s $249 AirPods Pro given how flawlessly the earbuds work with various Apple devices, but when companies like Nothing are putting out excellent earbud options like the $99 Ear (1), it makes it hard to recommend more expensive alternatives.
Are the Grell Audio TWS/1 twice as good as the Ear (1)? As an overall package, no, but straight out of the box you can definitely hear that the TWS/1 were created by someone with a true expertise in headphones and audio. They definitely sound better, but it’s when the TWS/1 are paired with the SoundID app that they make a very compelling case for choosing them as your go-to ‘buds. Tuning the earbuds to your own sound preferences is effortless, and the improvements are immediately apparent and a genuine improvement. If enjoying your music is what you care about most, the customizability of the Grell Audio TWS/1 make them a compelling option to consider.