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Skullcandy Push Active review: "Hey Skullcandy, find me voice-controlled earbuds for exercise"

Andy White
25 Oct 2021
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
70
inc VAT

Skullcandy’s Skull-iQ smart tech has potential and the Push Active are a decent vehicle for it, particularly if you're an outdoors type

Pros 
Effective hands-free voice control
Good battery life
Earhooks provide stable fit
Cons 
Mediocre sound isolation
Stay-Aware mode reacts badly in windy conditions
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The Skullcandy Push Active represent a significant milestone in the American audio manufacturer’s 18-year history. They’re the company’s first headphones released in the UK to incorporate its new smart platform, Skull-iQ, which facilitates hands-free voice control and a handful of other features.

As true wireless earbuds go, the Push Active deliver reasonable audio quality in an affordable package designed for active, adventurous types. They serve that audience well but it’s Skull-iQ that’s the big draw here.

The platform gets more right than it does wrong and Skullcandy has hinted it will add new features in future via over-the-air updates, which is encouraging. “Hey Skullcandy” isn’t going to replace Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa or even Bixby but if the Push Active are anything to go by, it will win Skullcandy some new admirers.

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Skullcandy Push Active review: What do you get for the money?

The Push Active cost £70 and are available in three colourways: black/orange, dark blue/green and light grey/blue. All three variants use their secondary colours sparingly to add a touch of vibrancy to the inside of the charging case and highlight the physical control buttons on each earbud.

Skullcandy’s target market is adrenaline junkies with a passion for the outdoors and the Push Active are designed with that audience firmly in mind. My testing conditions didn’t extend to snowboarding or skateboarding, but the Push Active’s flexible ear hooks successfully kept them in my ears while running and I’m confident they’ll remain secure during more extreme activities.

“Stay-Aware” mode seeks to increase your awareness of your environment when flying down the slopes or grinding a rail, while an IP55 rating for sweat and water resistance protects them against exposure to the elements.

The earbuds operate wirelessly over Bluetooth 5.2, with codec support limited to AAC and SBC. The earbuds’ battery life clocks in at up to ten hours, while the USB-C charging case offers up to 34 hours of additional juice.

Popping the buds in the case for ten minutes provides around two hours of audio playback, so you’re unlikely to ever find yourself without access to your favourite tunes for too long. In addition to the buds and charging case, Skullcandy supplies a short USB-A to USB-C cable and a choice of three pairs of silicone eartips.

As is the case with many of Skullcandy’s recent headphones, the Push Active feature built-in Tile tracking. You’ll need to download the Tile app and register to make use of it, but once you have the service, it can help you locate your earbuds if they’ve been misplaced. It’s a useful feature to have, particularly if you’re prone to losing things.

The big thing that sets the Push Active apart from other Skullcandy earbuds, however, is their incorporation of Skull-iQ.

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Skullcandy Push Active review: What is Skull-iQ and how well does it work?

Skullcandy describes Skull-iQ as “smart feature technology”, which is its catch-all term for a system-agnostic platform offering a variety of smart features.

Chief among these features is hands-free voice control. Voice-controlled earbuds are nothing new but they’ve typically been the preserve of tech giants with well-established voice assistants.

Apple’s second-generation AirPods and AirPods Pro allow you to hail Siri, as do the Beats Studio Buds. Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Pro support hands-free Bixby, the Amazon Echo Buds can be controlled via hands-free Alexa, while the Google Pixel Buds and Pixel Buds A-Series provide voice access to Google Assistant.

Skull-iQ’s implementation of voice controls is not as comprehensive as those smart platforms, with just 11 commands available when you say “Hey Skullcandy”. These cover all the key audio commands – play, pause, track skipping and volume – and also allow you to accept and reject phone calls, launch Spotify, toggle the Stay-Aware mode on and off and hail the native voice assistant on your device. The last option clearly marks out Skull-iQ as a complement to other assistants rather than a replacement for them, which is a smart move on Skullcandy’s part.

Voice controls worked very well during testing and learning the required commands is a painless process. As long as I used the correct phrases, I found that the Push Active heard and executed my commands consistently, with the one exception coming when I was out jogging on a particularly blustery day.

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That may prove an issue in more intense conditions but, then again, no one is likely to care if they hear you screaming “Hey Skullcandy” at the top of your lungs while bombing down a mountain. Should you wish to turn voice controls entirely, there’s an option to do so within the Skullcandy app.

In addition to voice controls, Skull-iQ also covers physical control button customisation, the ability to share audio with others on the platform and immediate Spotify access via “Spotify Tap”. There’s also an option that lets you turn one of your earbuds into a remote control for your phone’s camera.

I wasn’t able to test out audio sharing but all of the other features worked as advertised. Physical controls are executed using rubber buttons on the outside of the earbuds and I was able to create a control layout covering all the key actions via the Skullcandy app.

Launching Spotify by pressing the left earbud’s button for one second worked flawlessly, as did using the right bud as a remote for taking pictures. The latter is a bit niche but it is a rather neat inclusion.

Skullcandy Push Active review: What could be better?

While my experience with the Skull-iQ platform was very positive, I wasn’t quite as taken by the audio quality delivered by the Push Active. They sound fine given their £70 price tag and the number of features they cram in but don’t expect a scintillating sonic experience.

This wasn’t necessarily down to inherent issues with the sound produced by the 6mm drivers, however. My main problem was that I found it impossible to achieve an airtight seal, even using the Active’s largest eartips, without pushing them deep into my ears at an uncomfortable angle. That just wasn’t sustainable for longer listening sessions.

That meant I had to make do with a fit that lacked effective sound isolation and bass frequencies suffered as a result. Mids and treble were handled well enough but the weighty low-end response that typically characterises Skullcandy headphones was neutered. Cranking up the low frequencies on the five-band graphic equaliser in the Skullcandy app helped a bit but, even then, I found the Push Active’s bass a little lacklustre.

In addition to a custom EQ option, which is always good to have, there are three presets on offer: music, podcast and movie. I got decent use out of the podcast mode but found my own custom preset preferable for music and video content.

The other key area I’d highlight for improvement is the Stay-Aware mode. It’s a handy feature to have at your fingertips but windy conditions forced me to turn it off not long into a leisurely stroll to the shops. When I used it indoors and on public transport I had no such issues but I hate to think what kind of response the microphones would produce if I had the mode engaged while hurtling down a mountain on a pair of skis.

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And, while the feature set is generally comprehensive, there are a few other things I’d like to see added. For one, In-ear detection would be welcome, although the design doesn’t lend itself to frequent removals and reinsertions.

Finally, it’s a shame the Push Active’s dust- and water-resistance rating (IP55) doesn’t match that of the Push Ultra (IP67) but that’s to be expected given the £50 price difference.

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Skullcandy Push Active review: Should you buy them?

The Skullcandy Push Active have a lot going for them but have a pretty niche audience, namely those that favour earbuds with earhooks that also require voice-controls.

If you fall into that category, the Push Active are a solid purchase, proving a capable conduit for Skull-iQ. The spec list is superior to that found on many earbuds around £70, battery life is ample and the earhooks ensure a stable fit, even if it is one found lacking in the passive noise cancellation department.

On the product page for the Push Active, Skullcandy says “the days of buying new earbuds to get the latest features are over”. While I don’t buy that for one minute, the Push Active are a decent debut for the Skull-iQ platform and the prospect of new features being added via firmware updates is an enticing one.

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