“Sleep when you’re dead” was the rallying cry of my youth. But now, in the soft haze of dull middle age, I feel like I’ll die without enough sleep. That’s why I took interest in the new Sleep A20 earbuds from Anker’s Soundcore brand, which promise “pressure-less comfort for side sleepers.” 

I, like many, fall asleep listening to podcasts. It’s either that or let a three-pound hunk of fat and neurons lodged in my skull harass me about the future. But my Apple AirPods Pro, like most true wireless earbuds, are too big for comfortable side sleeping, so I only wear one and swap them throughout the night as I toss and turn in fits related to some undiagnosed sleeping disorder.

And since they’re designed as sleep aids, the A20 buds offer lots of sleep-focused features like “unmatched noise blocking” and noise masking to “silence common disturbances such as snoring,” according to Anker.

But not really.

It’s important to understand that Anker doesn’t offer any active noise cancellation to silence snoring or chatty neighbors. The Sleep A20 buds block all external sounds passively by fitting snuggly inside the ear, just like regular ol’ earplugs. That’s partly why the company can charge just $89.99 at launch and still claim up to 14 hours of continuous white noise to mask sounds or 10 hours of audio listening before needing a recharge. 

The app lets you switch between two listening modes: Bluetooth audio and sleep sounds. The former is for listening to podcasts, music, or anything else you’d like to stream, while the latter gives you access to dozens of very lifelike sleep sounds grouped by water, nature, life (trains, airplanes, and such), and meditation — I particularly like Rain on Tent. You can also double-tap a bud to switch between listening modes and configure them to keep playing audio all night or until you fall asleep. This is done manually (via timer) or automatically, which I found to be too unreliable.

The A20 buds also include a variety of masking sounds. You can play with a multitude of sliders to mix white noise with seven other colors and two types of snore-masking tracks. It didn’t really work when I attempted to mask a variety of snoring sound effects playing on a nearby speaker. While it did diminish the snoring by layering on less annoying sounds, it certainly didn’t live up to the claim of silencing common disturbances. It also didn’t silence barking dogs or drunken frat boys passing below my bedroom window, I came to find out.

The Sleep A20 buds in and out of their case. They come with multiple ear tips and wings to dial in your correct size.

The Sleep A20 buds in and out of their case. They come with multiple ear tips and wings to dial in your correct size.

In my side-by-side testing, the AirPods Pro with noise cancelation enabled and playing music did a noticeably better job of neutralizing those disturbances than the Sleep A20 buds also playing music. But I can’t sleep on my side wearing Apple’s AirPods Pro buds (they also cost more than double the A20s during Anker’s discounted launch period).

For my needs these buds are a game changer.

Nevertheless, I have to say that for my needs these buds are a game-changer. Although I suffered a bit of mild discomfort the first week of wearing them, sleeping with the A20 buds on my side now feels normal — as does inserting them with a push and a twist and then digging them back out each morning (they’re snug!). I do have to micro-adjust the pillow-to-ear angle occasionally for optimal comfort, and the bud facing the pillow will often just mute itself due to the pressure, which means listening to audio from just one ear. But the end result is that I’m sleeping longer and waking up less frequently. And, anecdotally, I feel better rested.

According to sleep data measured by my Apple Watch Ultra, I’m now averaging 7 hours and 14 minutes of sleep time for the two weeks I’ve been testing the A20 buds, up from 6 hours and 50 minutes for the two weeks prior (wearing AirPods Pro) with slightly improved deep sleep. Other sleep tracking data is about the same.

Screengrabs from the Soundcore app showing (left) available noise masking sounds and (right) data collected by Anker’s sleep algorithm showing me rolling over 45 times... my poor wife.

Screengrabs from the Soundcore app showing (left) available noise masking sounds and (right) data collected by Anker’s sleep algorithm showing me rolling over 45 times… my poor wife.

Anker also offers sleep tracking data in the Soundcore app, including novelties like Position (left or right side) and Roll Over (times I’ve switched sides). Unfortunately, the data is only available to view when my iPhone is paired with the buds in my ears. It says I’m predominately a left-side sleeper away from my partner, which makes sense. But several nights measured between 40 and 50 rollovers, or up to six times an hour, which presumably means I need an exorcism.

I found the battery to be excellent when listening to a few hours of podcasts each night, waking up with between 50 and 75 percent charge remaining. (The built-in Soundcore alarms are startlingly loud and not recommended.) They did much better than my three-year-old AirPods Pro that can’t make it through a single night.

Dropping the buds into the charging case takes some practice initially due to the buds’ amorphous shape, but it can be mastered after a few uses. The case can keep the battery charged for up to 80 hours, according to Anker, if you only listen to its collection of soothing sounds in sleep mode downloaded to the buds themselves. That comes with a side benefit of no Bluetooth audio alerts to interrupt your slumber.

Otherwise, the buds feature a Find Device feature, which sounds like and is about as loud as the alarm on a vintage Timex watch (read: not very). You can also configure double and triple taps on each earbud independently to switch between sleep sounds or Bluetooth audio, volume up / down, next, previous, play / pause, or nothing at all. Anker’s app provides a lot of flexibility to dial in the A20 buds to your exact taste.

Listening to music is fine in a pinch with an adjustable EQ. But I wouldn’t buy these tiny, lightweight earbuds if music appreciation is your primary goal. 

Still, as a side sleeper who listens to podcasts every night when falling asleep, I’m completely sold on Anker’s $149.99 Soundcore Sleep A20 buds, especially for the early bird price of $89.99 when they go on sale today via Kickstarter.

All photography by Thomas Ricker / The Verge

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