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2012 Head-Fi Holiday Gift Guide (Wireless)




I find the wireless category to be among the most exciting in headphones. Over the last several years, big advances have been made in this segment, and I expect much more to come. So if you were under the impression that there was no such thing as good wireless headphones--let alone outstanding ones--then connect yourself to your music only via the ether tether of the following headphones. You'll be amazed.








Sleek Audio CT7 W-1 Wireless Custom (starting around $800)
Closed, Kleer wireless, custom in-ear monitors

Until I heard the Sennheiser RS 220, the best-sounding wireless headphones I'd heard all used Kleer wireless technology. I've heard a prototype of Sleek Audio's universal-fit in-ear Kleer wireless system, and it was extremely impressive--and that was a few years ago.

A Sleek Audio Kleer wireless system is available with Sleek Audio's CT7 custom-fit in-ear monitor earpieces. The CT7 has been well reviewed on Head-Fi (in both wired and wireless setups), and Sleek has had a few years since last I heard their prototype to further refine their wireless rigs.

Battery life of the Sleek wireless module is rated for at least 10 hours.

I don't think I'll be able to resist a wireless custom-fit IEM.

NOTE: For the CT7, expect to pay about an additional $50.00 to get molds of your ears made at a local audiologist (that you will then send in to Sleek Audio).

“The CT7‘s midrange follows its bass. It is forward, edgy, and fun. It’s got detail. It’s got space. It’s got bite. It even has softness where needed. You can hear very clearly the small wet sounds of the mouth, stray breaths into the microphone, the gnarled strings of a guitar. It’s all there.”

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer Shigzeo








Sennheiser MM 450-X Travel (street price around $450.00)
Closed, on-the-ear, portable, wireless Bluetooth headphone

My experience with stereo Bluetooth headphones had not been at all encouraging until I came across the MM 450 Travel.  And, this year, Sennheiser further improved this headphone with the MM 450-X. This feature-packed closed-back headphone is one of the best sounding Bluetooth stereo headphone I've heard.  No, you won't mistake it for Sennheiser's flagship HD 800, but you also won't believe your music is being piped to you through Bluetooth.

The MM 450-X also has very good active noise cancellation (no, not as good as the Bose QC15's noise cancellation, but still very good), can be used passively (via an included cable) when the battery dies (or when you'd rather not drain its rechargeable battery), includes a very nifty TalkThrough feature that allows you to hear the world around you (using its built-in stereo microphones), can be used as a Bluetooth headset, and has control buttons with which to easily control your calls and music.

New with the MM 450-X is support for the hi-fi Apt-X audio codec, for improved sound quality with other Apt-X-supported devices). In case your computer doesn't support Apt-X, pick up the $60 Sennheiser BTD 500 USB dongle, which will give your Windows or Mac computer Apt-X, A2DP and HSP capabilities. Another improvement I've found with the MM 450-X (versus the MM 450) is a lower noise floor when used wirelessly, and/or with active noise cancellation enabled.

The MM 450-X is powered by a replaceable USB-rechargeable battery, and rated battery life in wireless mode is up to 20 hours of talk time (headset mode), up to 10 hours of listening without noise canceling, and up to eight hours with noise canceling.

I've logged thousands of miles of travel with the Sennheiser MM 450-X, and it has been fantastic for use on buses, planes and trains. Of all the active noise cancelers that Sennheiser currently offers, the MM 450-X offers the best balance of portability, utility and sound, in my opinion.

(We discussed the Sennheiser MM 450 Travel in Episode 007 of Head-Fi TV.)








Sennheiser RS 220 (around $599)
Closed, around-the-ear, wireless headphone

This headphone is a remarkable feat of engineering--a solid bridge between wireless freedom and wired fidelity.  If this was easy to do at a reasonable price, it would have been done before, many times over--and that hasn’t happened, because it most certainly is not easy to do.  Not surprisingly, Sennheiser did it first.

Prior to the RS 220, Sennheiser made valiant strides toward this end, especially with the RS 170 and RS 180, both impressive Kleer-equipped wireless headphones (and both still available).  Impressive as the RS 170 and RS 180 were, however, they were a different flavor of awesome, that flavor being outstanding-for-wireless headphones; whereas the RS 220 is an outstanding headphone, period, even by wired standards.

The RS 220's low-latency, bit-perfect wireless transmission means full preservation of dynamic range, and this probably helps explain one area (but certainly not the only area) the RS 220 simply outclasses all other wireless headphones I've heard--diaphanous, delicate detail. It's macrodynamic abilities are also outstanding, but keep in mind that the RS 220 maxes out at 106 decibels (which is plenty high enough for me, and I certainly hope for you, too).

The RS 220 has become my most-used full-sized over-ear headphone, as it gives me the freedom to move around my home office area, moving from my desk to my chaise to my sofa, with fidelity that evokes the sound of a nicely driven Sennheiser HD 600.

The Sennheiser RS 220 uses a NiMH AAA battery that recharges when you place the headphone on its stand/transmitter. Battery life is rated at six to eight hours.

After so many years of expecting this kind of sound only from wired headphones, I still find myself motioning with my hands to move the non-existent headphone cables out of the way as I adjust my seating position.  And I still regularly take the RS 220 headphone off my head when I get up from my office chair, forgetting it's wireless. Remarkable.








Logitech UE 9000 ($399.99)
Closed, around-the-ear, portable, wireless Bluetooth headphone

For years, the name "Ultimate Ears" has been synonymous with in-ear monitors, but this year began their foray into over-ear headphones, with the release of three new over-ear models. The UE 9000 is the flagship, and as a passive headphone it is an easy recommendation, with its impressively deep, powerful bass; detailed, relatively uncolored midrange; and smooth treble that's a bit rolled-off way up top. As a passive headphone, the UE 9000 is an outstanding portable, closed around-the-ear headphone. On my wish list for it, though? A bit more treble extension and energy.

Here's the thing, though: The UE 9000 is also an advanced Bluetooth wireless headphone with active noise canceling. Though the UE 9000's active noise canceling circuit's effectiveness falls behind the other premium active noise cancelers in this guide, it's still helps to blunt ambient noise a bit, which is nice to have on top of the UE 9000's excellent passive noise isolation. 

The UE 9000's sound signature does change substantially in active mode, though--most notably with a big bass boost. While I've heard other active noise cancelers boost the bass when in noise canceling mode, the UE 9000 does it to a greater degree than most. It's certainly not intolerable to my ears, but compared to its impressive passive performance, it's surprising. Still, even in this mode, the UE 9000 sounds to me like a good bass-heavy headphone.

The UE 9000 as a Bluetooth headphone is good, but keep in mind the aforementioned bass boost comes with this mode (as does active noise canceling, which is always on with Bluetooth). Its performance as a wireless headset for phone calls is good, too.

The UE 9000's build quality feels outstanding, with its ample use of metal, and beefed-up fold-flat hinges. It looks and feels like something built to last. It is also very comfortable, the plush earpads and well-designed headband distributing the UE 9000's weight very well. In my opinion, the UE 9000 is also one of the best looking portable over-ears on the market right now.

The Logitech UE 9000 has a built-in rechargeable battery, good for up to 20 hours of wired listening in active (noise canceling) mode, or up to 10 hours in wireless mode.








Parrot ZIK ($399.95)
Closed, around-the-ear, portable, wireless Bluetooth headphone

The entire flat surface of the ZIK's right earpiece is a capacitive touch panel. Swipe up, volume up. Swipe down, volume down. Swipe forward, track forward. Swipe back, track back. Tap on it, and it'll play/pause your music, or take/end/refuse a phone call. Swiping back or forward during a call switches between calls. As you can imagine, this touch panel alone is a conversation starter. Most important, though, is that this touch panel is a phenomenal user interface, infinitely more intuitive and easy to use than typical on-cable remotes.

In the Parrot Zik's left earpiece is a Near Field Communications (NFC) sensor. If you have a phone with NFC, simply touch it to the ZIK's left earpiece and you're paired.

And there's so much more: The ZIK has active noise canceling that, in my experience, is second only to the Bose QC15's, helped along by four total microphones placed inside and out. Embedded in the right leather-like earpad (which is very comfortable by the way) is a sensor that detects whether you're wearing the ZIK or not--if you take the ZIK off your head, the music pauses (and then resumes when you put the headphone back on); or, if you're on a call, the call is sent to the headset when you take the headphone off, and then automatically resumes headset functionality once it's back on your head. The ZIK is also a Bluetooth wireless headset, and quite good at that, with your outgoing voice sound quality helped along by a jawbone sensor (also in the right earpad). DSP options abound with the ZIK, including something called "Parrot Concert Hall" that allows you to simulate four different sized venues and several different simulated speaker angles, as well as providing a graphic equalizer.

And if you think the ZIK is gorgeous, we're in absolute agreement. The ZIK was designed by legendary product designer Philippe Starck. In Starck style, the ZIK's single-sided metal yokes flow fluidly from headband to earcups, looking like they were poured into place.

There are a few ZIK foibles: The soft-press power button desperately needs a hold-to-turn-on firmware update to prevent accidental power-ups. The ZIK is relatively heavy (considering all the tech packed in, not surprising). The headband may not extend enough for really large heads. Much of the control and customization of the ZIK has to be done through the companion iOS or Android mobile app. The earpads do not look to me to be easily replaceable (if replaceable at all). Its worst fault, though, is its sound quality in its wired, passive mode--simply put, it sounds awful when used passively, so make sure to keep your battery charged.

Fortunately, overall, the ZIK's densely-packed technology and good looks combine to make the ZIK a headphone that sounds exceptional for a wireless Bluetooth active noise canceling headphone. The sound is rich and detailed for this type of headphone, though mildly bass-prominent (which, as a travel headphone, shouldn't be surprising). In its active modes, the ZIK is among the best sounding in both the Bluetooth and active noise canceling categories.

The Parrot ZIK has a replaceable USB-rechargeable battery, and rated battery life is up to 24 hours in standby, up to 18 hours of wired noise canceling use, and up to six hours in wireless mode with all features activated.

Parrot's ZIK is a showcase of a bunch of well-integrated technologies, provides excellent sound for a Bluetooth wireless piece, and packaged in a gorgeous Starck-designed form. The ZIK is an absolutely fantastic first headphone from Parrot.

“[Regarding the accompanying app] I think this is the big wow to get the most value out of the Zik. It enables/disables Noise Cancellation, Surround Sound with various presets, and EQ with some presets again... this is what I like about the Parrot Zik. You can change the soundstage by changing the virtual speaker position, then the depth too.”

Head-Fi Member/Reviewer AnakChan








Sony MDR-1RBT ($399.00)
Closed, around-the-ear, portable, wireless Bluetooth headphone

Sony's new MDR-1RBT, as far as Bluetooth headphones go, is as near to perfect as I've so far used. Why? Built with the same design as the Sony MDR-1R--one of the most comfortable closed headphones I've ever worn--the MDR-1RBT is easy to wear all day, and the most comfortable Bluetooth over-ear I've used. Of all Bluetooth over-ear headphones I've tried, the new Sony has by far the best outgoing voice quality. Its Bluetooth wireless range is outstanding, so when I'm in the middle of a call, I don't worry about how far I'm straying from the phone. The music and call controls are very intuitive to use, second only to the Parrot ZIK's touch panel user interface. Like the Parrot ZIK, the MDR-1RBT also supports NFC pairing.

And its sound? To my ears, the MDR-1RBT is now the top of the Bluetooth heap. Mildly elevated bass, but still well-controlled down low. Midrange that has excellent fleshy presence and detail. And treble that is more extended and refined than any of its competitors. Background noise in wireless mode is also very low, perhaps the quietest background I've heard so far in a Bluetooth headphone. While I feel its passive-only sibling the MDR-1R is the best sounding of the new Sony family of headphones, the MDR-1RBT does a very good job approaching the MDR-1R's performance. In its Bluetooth wireless mode, the MDR-1RBT uses something it calls "S-Master" full digital amplification to drive the headphones, and "DSEE" to improve compressed audio. In the MDR-1RBT, those technologies are doing their job, as, even via Bluetooth, it retains the character of the MDR-1R, which earns it the top spot of all the Bluetooth headphones I've heard so far. 

Plug the included audio-only cable in, and the MDR-1RBT becomes a fantastic portable, closed around-the-ear headphone. With sound quality in the MDR-1RBT's passive mode even closer to its passive-only MDR-1R sibling, it's obvious Sony spent as much time and effort getting the MDR-1RBT acoustically tuned as they did perfecting its electronics.

The MDR-1RBT uses an internal rechargeable battery rated for up to 30 hours of listening time, which is astounding. Given its headset functionality, its sound performance in both its Bluetooth wireless and wired passive modes, and its remarkable battery life, the MDR-1RBT is quickly becoming my primary on-the-go headphone.

Its downsides? In passive mode, you give up all the remote control functionality. I wish Sony was able to enable the 1RBT's excellent right-side controls to work in passive mode, but they did not. And the only other downside is my biggest criticism of the 1RBT: It offers no active noise canceling. For a headphone with this much road warrior functionality, the option to enable active noise canceling would have made this headphone the most perfect overall travel headphone on the market. Also in the new Sony line is the Sony MDR-1RNC active noise canceling headphone (which is included in the "Over-Ear Headphones" section of this guide), but it offers no wireless functionality, and compromised passive performance. Oh, to have had the best of both of the MDR-1RBT and MDR-1NC!

Still, when I'm going to be out and about--but not flying or riding a train--the Sony MDR-1RBT is, again, quickly becoming my go-to over-ear.



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Head-Fi.org › Articles › 2012 Head-Fi Holiday Gift Guide (Wireless)