Solid low-end noise canceling
Case doubles as Bluetooth transmitter
Touch controls finicky
Too much sound processing
Atmos head tracking a novelty
LG is no stranger to adding flashy features to its audio products. The previous Tone Free generation added LG’s UVnano technology which blasts UV-C light at the earbuds during charging to disinfect them. UVnano+ is the updated version that kills up to 99.9% of bacteria on the eargels of the earbuds, according to independent testing. It’s another interesting feature, but not something that moves the T90Q into “must buy” territory.
But the ability to connect the case to a source, such as an airplane’s entertainment system, and have it act as a Bluetooth connection point for the earbuds is a useful and interesting feature that offers a compact solution for travelers.
Updated September 1, 2022: The LG Tone Free T90Q are now available and a purchase link has been added.
About the LG Tone Free T90Q
- Price: $229.99
- Battery life: 9 hours (without ANC), up to 27 hours with the case
- Fast charging: 5 min charge for 60 minutes playing time
- Colors: white, black
- Ambient sound modes: Adaptive Active Noise Canceling (ANC), Transparency mode
- Speakers: 11mm drivers
- Microphones: 2 for calling, 2 for ANC per bud
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2, USB-C and 3.5mm for case
- Audio codecs: SBC, AAC, aptX Adaptive (with case)
- Dust/water resistance: IPX4 (case is not rated)
- Weight: 5.1 grams per earbud, 39.7 grams for case
- Extras: Google Fast Pair, Microsoft Swift Pair, multipoint
- Warranty: 1 year, parts and labor
The Tone Free T90Q come in a biodegradable package. Their round clamshell case is small and low profile enough to easily fit in a pocket or small pouch. Included are three sizes of tips and two cables—a USB-A to USB-C for charging and a USB-C to 3.5mm for connecting the case to a source and using it as a Bluetooth transmitter. In addition to USB-C charging, the case supports wireless Qi charging.
What we like
Respectable low-end noise canceling
Active noise canceling has gone from a premium feature to one that’s now found at all price points, although performance can vary dramatically. The LG T90Q are able to eliminate low-frequency sounds like an air conditioner or the engine drone of a plane very well. That extends a bit into the midrange—about on par with the Apple AirPods Pro.
The T90Q have little effect on higher frequencies and conversation, though, beyond the passive fact that something in your ears is blocking the sound. For better or worse, my son’s squeals of excitement at Bluey while I was working were only subtly attenuated.
Transparency mode has two options, called Listening mode and Conversation mode. Listening mode lets through some of the lowest frequencies and mids for situational awareness to stay safe while out navigating the world. I found Conversation mode especially helpful when I walked into Starbucks to order a coffee. The barista’s voice was audibly accentuated even through my playlist at mid-level volume, making conversation flowing and easy.
As with any earbuds, using ANC takes more battery power. In my testing, the 9 hour battery life LG states (with ANC off) was cut by almost 50%, down to a little over four and a half hours.
They can connect to wired sources
On the left side of the case is a toggle that turns it into a Bluetooth transmitter for the earbuds, allowing the T90Q to be used with hard-wired sources. (The source connects to the case with the included USB-C to 3.5mm or USB-C to USB-A cables and the earbuds connect to the case via Bluetooth.)
Setup is fast and easy. When the toggle is flipped on the case, it searches and connects to the earbuds automatically. While watching video, there’s a small amount of lag, so dialogue is a frame or two out of sync, but it isn’t overly distracting. It’s an excellent solution for listening to on-flight entertainment without the need for more bulky, over-ear wired headphones.
One of the reasons we reach for earbuds instead of headphones is their portability. So when I come across a case the size of my wallet I wonder how I’m going to tote it around. Luckily, the T90Q’s case is compact and easily portable.
The round case is about the size of two Oreos stacked together (though less tasty), and it’s solid enough to ensure the earbuds will be safe even if the case jostles around in a bag. The side button that activates Bluetooth transmitter mode is firm enough that putting it in and taking it out of a pocket or bag doesn’t inadvertently turn it on.
Lots of (mostly useful) features
In addition to ANC and Bluetooth transmitter capabilities, the earbuds are IPX4 rated, the case has wireless Qi charging with a charging pad, and—when connected with USB-C—supports the aptX Adaptive audio codec. Windows 10 (and higher) users get Microsoft Swift Pair, and Google users also get Google Fast Pair for quick pairing and "Hey Google" functionality.
Within the Tone Free app, the "Test My Best Fit" feature makes sure the earbuds are positioned for optimal sound and ANC performance. A multipoint menu keeps track of the five most recently connected devices, allowing you to quickly and easily select which device (in addition to your smartphone) is actively connected. So it’s easy to, say, switch from watching the in-flight entertainment through the case’s transmitter to a YouTube video on your iPad.
What we don’t like
Touch controls are finicky
Each earbud has a touch control sensor that’s marked by a small bump at the top of the earbud stem. By default, both earbuds have the same controls (apart from volume up and down), which is handy if I was carrying something in one hand, as I still had the ability to play/pause from either earbud.
Controls can be customized in the app for up to seven different settings, allowing for a lot of versatility. Each button touch is accompanied by a satisfying click noise so you know it’s worked.
The sensors aren’t consistently responsive, though. And the pressure necessary to activate them can be uncomfortable. There were numerous times I went to go to the next track (three touches), but one wouldn’t register so I changed the volume instead. Other times I tried to change the volume and didn’t touch fast enough so the track paused.
As I got used to the sensor positioning on the earbud stem, my finger accuracy improved over my time with the T90Q. But there were still far too many times the controls didn’t react as I wanted, causing moments of frustration.
Call quality is lacking
Call microphone quality while inside is middle-of-the-road. My voice was intelligible to an audio colleague I called, but I sounded slightly distant with some echo and he could hear the extra processing. Moving outside, on the other hand, caused some issues.
When there’s extra noise around—such as passing traffic or moderate wind—the microphone’s sound processing has trouble immediately identifying the voice, clipping the beginnings of words. The extra processing that was slightly audible in the relatively quiet confines of my apartment became particularly distracting whenever the wind picked up, adding some digital distortion to my voice.
If you’re just using them for meetings while working from home, the T90Q are more than capable. But for the sake of your conversation partner, I’d avoid making calls while commuting or walking outside.
Most sound profiles aren’t useful
The Tone Free T90Q have a decent selection of sound profiles to choose from, with five from Meridian, the British audio brand LG partnered with in 2018, one from Dolby (which is linked to head tracking), and two Custom options. Unfortunately most of them have issues that limit their usability.
Out of the five Meridian tuning options, I only found one—Natural—good for listening. And even then, it was far from a natural EQ curve. Highs were on the verge of being piercing and fatiguing and there was a distinct processed sound to vocals. The bass wasn’t overly boomy, though, as it was in Immersive and (not surprisingly) Bass Boost, and allowed the mids to come through.
Switching to Custom offered the closest the T90Q came to a flat response, but it also significantly dropped the volume and robbed the sound of life, sounding a bit dull, especially in the midrange. An 8-band equalizer in the app (which is subtly and nicely split into low, mid, and high ranges visually) restored some of that vibrancy with tweaking. After that personal tuning, it became my favorite listening mode.
Dolby head tracking is merely a novelty
The biggest addition to the T90Q over the FP9 is Dolby Atmos head tracking. These are the world’s first wireless earbuds to support Atmos’ version of the technology. There is spatial audio head tracking support on some earbuds, though—such as the AirPods Pro and Galaxy Buds Pro—that will work with tracks mixed in Atmos.
Head tracking is a fascinating technology that expands the soundfield and fixes it in space so as you move your head, the sound spins around you. Listening to a live recording puts you in the audience with the band on stage in front of you, which is a pretty cool experience—if you’re not moving.
But staying in one place facing the same direction isn’t always how we listen to earbuds. We walk around while cleaning up or dance in the living room like nobody’s watching. When the sound’s location is fixed in space as we move, it’s disorienting, especially when there’s no visual reference to ground the experience.
It makes even less sense when out for a neighborhood walk. Take a left turn and now everything you’re listening to is off to your right. After five seconds or so, the focal point moves to be in front again. The thing is, the overall purpose of technology such as this is to provide a more immersive sonic experience and, in most cases, it pulls me out of the music more than it sucks me in. The one instance where head tracking shines is VR, but that use case is so niche (at least right now) that it doesn’t offer broad appeal.
As for the Dolby Atmos mode itself, while it’s not as effective as a multi-piece sound system or even a Dolby Atmos soundbar with true height speakers, the T90Q successfully expand the soundstage. Music sounds wider without instruments being excessively panned to one side or the other and lead vocals are still front and center with a strong presence.
There’s extra punch to snare hits and a bit of sizzle to higher frequencies. But it’s still primarily along one plane and not extending up. Tracks mixed in Dolby Atmos are more convincing, but those tracks are only available from Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Tidal with the appropriate subscription plan.
I generally enjoyed the T90Q’s Dolby mode. The main issue is there’s no way to use just the Dolby tuning without head tracking. It’s a single selection in the Tone Free app, and the extra soundfield expansion you get from Dolby’s Atmos tuning isn’t worth it with head tracking enabled.
Should you buy the LG Tone Free T90Q?
No, unless you need a compact travel solution
We’ve all gotten used to the wireless lifestyle and if you do a lot of flying, it can be annoying to be tethered to the seat. Using the T90Q case as a Bluetooth transmitter without the need for a separate device is an excellent option to keep down on the technological clutter while traveling. The T90Q have good enough noise canceling for flying, too, and offer useful features like multipoint pairing and wireless charging.
While their sound quality has improved over previous versions, the T90Q struggle to compete with the Beats Fit Pro, Sony Linkbuds S, or Samsung Galaxy Buds 2—all of which can be found for less than their $230 price point. Dolby Atmos head tracking is an interesting feature, but it doesn’t have enough usability to be a defining reason to buy them.
The Tone Free T90Q are a step forward for LG in terms of overall earbuds performance, but there’s still some bloat that adds to the price but not the value.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.
Meet the tester
Editor, Electronics & Audio/Video@johntmhiggins
John is the A/V Editor for Reviewed. He is an ISF Level III-certified calibrator with bylines at ProjectorCentral, Wirecutter, IGN, Home Theater Review, T3, Sound & Vision, and Home Theater Magazine. When away from the Reviewed office, he is a sound editor for film and musician, and loves to play games with his son.
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