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2013 Head-Fi Winter Gift Guide (Wireless Headphones)

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Head-Fi 2013 Winter Gift Guide
Wireless Headphones

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.

Sony MDR-10RBT

Written by Jude Mansilla


Since its release, the Sony MDR-1RBT (this headphone's higher-end predecessor) has been--by a margin--my go-to over-ear Bluetooth headphone. When I found out Sony was releasing a smaller, lighter, more affordable sibling this year, my ears definitely perked up. Would it sound as good? Would it have the standard-setting microphone of its sibling? Would it be as comfortable? I've now been using it for a while, and here are the answers.


The new Sony MDR-10RBT has a sound signature that approaches its larger sibling, but doesn't quite reach it. Like the MDR-1RBT, the MDR-10RBT has some bass emphasis, but its bass isn't quite as taut as the more veteran sibling's. Overall, the MDR-10RBT's tonal balance is thicker than the MDR-1RBT, and its ability to resolve details is not quite as good. Still, though, the MDR-1RBT set a high bar for any Bluetooth headphone, in my opinion, so this isn't faint praise for the MDR-10RBT. And this newer Sony wireless headphone is still among the better sounding Bluetooth over-ears in a segment that's getting more and more crowded.


As for the MDR-10RBT's microphone: it's good. It's clear. I haven't had any complaints from people I talk to on it. As with its headphone sound signature, the MDR-10RBT's microphone is not at the level of its big sibling; but, in terms of the clarity of the user's voice for phone calls, it's in very good standing versus all of the other Bluetooth over-ears I've used (except the Sony MDR-1RBT, whose microphone is the best I've so far used).


Compared to the MDR-1RBT, the MDR-10RBT holds up well, in terms of comfort. No, it is not the wireless cloud of comfort that the MDR-1RBT is (no doubt helped along by the MDR-1RBT's wider headband and larger earpieces); but the MDR-10RBT comes far closer than I'd have expected from a headphone this small. It is one of the most comfortable Bluetooth over-ear headphones I've used, and easily the most comfortable I've used in its size range.


With a rated 17 hours of use per charge, the MDR-10RBT's battery life is very good. I also found its range good--long enough that I don't worry about wandering away from my phone while wearing it.

My only big criticism of the MDR-10RBT is the lack of a dedicated call button. As an iPhone user, I use the MDR-1RBT's dedicated call button to initiate Siri for all of the cool things that Siri can do (including voice dialing and message dictation). With the MDR-10RBT, I'm left to initiate all of those things from the handset, because it's hybrid call/play button will not initiate Siri or hands-free calling with my iPhone 5S.


With the Sony MDR-10RBT, Sony has a lighter, more compact wireless headphone that's very easy to recommend.

TYPE: Closed, around-the-ear, portable wireless Bluetooth headphone
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MSRP: $249 

Sennheiser MM 450-X Travel
TYPE: Closed, on-the-ear, portable, wireless Bluetooth headphone
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MSRP: $450


Written by Jude Mansilla


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.)

Nokia Purity Pro by Monster

Written by Jude Mansilla


The Nokia Purity Pro by Monster is a headphone that was developed by Monster for Nokia to showcase its Windows phones. Whatever the case, their collaboration has resulted in one of the best over-ear travel headphones I've used.


The one Monster sent me is bright yellow--perhaps the brightest yellow I've ever seen. It's all plastic, but it feels like a high quality plastic with a glossy finish, and the headphone feels well built. I charged it up, put it on my head. I didn't think it possible, but that yellow actually looks even brighter against my black hair and sun-darkened skin. Still, looking past this color--which I can't imagine any stylist would say is my color--I could see that the Nokia Purity Pro by Monster is actually an attractive headphone, with simple, elegant lines, and looks great on the head. And it's also quite comfortable.


And, given that the Nokia Purity Pro by Monster turns itself on when you unfold it and put it on your head, I immediately noticed something else. This thing actively cancels quite a lot of noise. It's not quite at Bose QC15 levels of noise cancellation, but it's one of the better non-Bose headphones in the noise cancellation department.


I noticed the letters "nfc" (Near Field Communication) on the left earpiece, so I touched my NFC-enabled Samsung Galaxy S4 to it, and the S4 immediately popped up with a message asking me if I wanted to pair it, and I did. In mere seconds, I was playing music through the Nokia Purity Pro by Monster. Bluetooth pairing with my iPhone 4S (which doesn't have NFC) wasn't as nifty, but it was still very easy and fast.


Now about that music: There's low-mid bass emphasis that's too weighty for me for sitting-at-my-desk listening, but it works well for me when I'm out and about. The Purity Pro's Midrange is quite clear, and better than most Bluetooth headphones I've used. Its treble is nice, too, with nice shimmer up top. The Purity Pro's imaging is surprisingly wide and spacious--surprising because it's a closed wireless headphone. I suspect the imaging is helped along by some amount of DSP, but it works well. On the whole, I've been enjoying the sound of the Purity Pro as an on-the-go headphone, and, with as much noise as it cancels, it has become one of my favorite travel headphones. And if you've got an Apt-X-enabled device, the Purity Pro supports it, and you can expect even better sound that way.


The Purity Pro can also be used without noise-canceling, but it sounds nasally and strangely compressed to me without it. Switch it back on, and the good sound and imaging come right back. When the battery dies, the headphone will work passively--and even though it's far from its best without noise-canceling (and whatever other processing that obviously comes with the Purity Pro's noise-canceling), it's better than having a completely dead headphone.


The sound quality from its outgoing microphone (for Bluetooth headset functionality) is good, but not quite as clear as outgoing voice is on the Sony MDR-1RBT. (Then again, the MDR-1RBT doesn't have noise canceling and several of the other features the Purity Pro has.)


The Purity Pro's battery life is good--trans-Pacific-with-power-to-spare good. And the Purity Pro folds up into a compact little ball of a thing, further emphasizing its strength as a travel headphone.


If you're getting the impression that the Nokia Purity Pro by Monster is impressive as a wireless, noise-canceling travel headphone, you're absolutely right. Despite its intense yellowness, it has become one of my current travel over-ears of choice. And though it was designed to showcase Windows phones, it works a treat with my iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy S4.

TYPE: Closed, around-the-ear, noise-canceling, wireless Bluetooth headphone
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MSRP: $349


Sennheiser RS 220
TYPE: Closed, around-the-ear, wireless headphone
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MSRP: $599


Written by Jude Mansilla


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.

Philips Fidelio M1BT

Written by Jude Mansilla


Meeting with Philips' audio engineering team in Leuven, Belgium was fascinating. One of the products we gained a lot of insight about, with respect to its goals and its development, was the new Philips Fidelio M1BT, the Bluetooth version of their Fidelio M1 wired headphone.


Of course, we met with the audio engineers. But we also met with their lead engineers for the wireless side of the headphone, and that alone was fascinating--discussing circuit design, antenna design, codecs. We also discussed the different devices the headphone will be used with, and the countless concerns therein. The melding of disparate disciplines needed to bring a good Bluetooth hi-fi headphone to market is remarkable.


So how'd they do? Wonderful! The M1BT is built on the Fidelio M1's excellent chassis, appears to be similar in size, but somehow packed in pretty much every current Bluetooth standard and codec currently out there, with Bluetooth 4.0, HFP, HSP, A2DP, AVRCP, SBC, AAC, and aptX support. Talk time and play time are rated at 10 hours from a full charge, with up to 350 hours of standby time. Range is rated (fairly, in my experience) as 15 meters.


Like the Fidelio M1, the M1BT is a supra-aural (on-the-ear) design, and is extremely comfortable, feeling very light on the head.


And the sound of the M1BT, compared to the wired M1 I have here, is a minor improvement over its wired counterpart. I'd still describe its sound signature as warm and smooth, but the M1BT sounds more effortless, controlled and open to me than the older wired M1 I have here. Never when I'm listening to the M1BT are my ears thinking "wireless."


One thing I do wish for with the M1BT is more telephone functionality. With the M1BT and my iPhone 5S, I can pick up and drop calls, but I can't initiate hands-free calling, or conjure Siri. When on a call, the people I talk to say I sound loud and clear, so the M1BT's dual microphones are doing their job well.


Overall, the Philips M1BT is a stellar premium Bluetooth headphone, and gives Sony's MDR-1RBT something to look over its shoulders for.

TYPE: Closed, on-the-ear, portable wireless Bluetooth headphone
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PRICE: EUR 249.99 (U.S. pricing has not been posted at time of writing) 

TYPE: Closed, around-the-ear, portable, wireless Bluetooth headphone
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MSRP: $399 


Written by Jude Mansilla


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.

Parrot ZIK

Written by Jude Mansilla


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.

TYPE: Closed, around-the-ear, portable, wireless Bluetooth headphone
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MSRP: $399,95


Logitech UE 9000
TYPE: Closed, around-the-ear, portable, wireless Bluetooth headphone
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MSRP: Around $599



Written by Jude Mansilla


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.

Sleek Audio CT7 W-1 Wireless Custom

Written by Jude Mansilla


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

TYPE: Closed, Kleer wireless, custom in-ear monitors
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PRICE: Starting around $800
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URL: www.sleekaudio.com

SOL Republic Tracks AIR

TYPE: Closed, on-the-ear, portable, wireless Bluetooth headphone
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PRICE: $199.99 
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Written by Jude Mansilla


The SOL Republic Tracks AIR caught me by surprise. I've tried a couple of SOL Republic's headphones, and, in general, I've found them too bass-heavy for me. The thing is, their new Tracks AIR Bluetooth headphone is also bass-heavy, but, still, I like it. Being good at being wireless buys some slack with me, and the SOL Republic Tracks AIR is good at being wireless. For a bass-heavy wireless headphone, I think it also sounds good, and I have a feeling there's DSP going on up in there to help make that so.


Developed in a partnership between SOL Republic and Motorola, the Tracks AIR is pretty tech-packed, with Bluetooth v3.0, supporting AAC and aptX. It has multipoint, allowing you to pair two devices simultaneously, so with the Tracks AIR, I have no problem moving seamlessly between my paired iPhone 5s and iPad Air, which is very nice. SOL Republic and Motorola boast of wireless range up to 150 feet, which, in my experience, seems awfully optimistic. Still, though, I've never had an issue moving as far away from my phone or tablet with the Tracks AIR at any reasonable distance I'm likely to stray.


The Tracks AIR's earcups are closed, and passive isolation is quite good. Comfort with the Tracks AIR is better than I was expecting, given that they're supra-aural (on-ear) and given that the earpieces only articulate as far as the headband will flex to allow them to--no doubt, the soft earpads help here.


Getting back to its sound, it is, again, bass-heavy, but there's just enough clarity to get me by, and speech articulation is also good, so using it for watching movies on my iPad works well--and using it for phone calls has been a treat. The two microphones on the Tracks AIR also provide outgoing speech definition that is on par with most Bluetooth over-ear headphones I've used.


I found the SOL Republic Tracks AIR's controls to be very intuitive, and I was able to initiate Siri and hands-free calling from the headphone's call controls.


With a rated talk time of up to 15 hours, and standby time of up to 380 hours, the Tracks AIR's battery life is good, and certainly much longer (in terms of talk time) than any single-ear Bluetooth headset I've used. Also, nice verbal prompts at power-up tell you the estimated remaining battery life. Charging the Tracks AIR is done via USB. If you do happen to run the battery down completely, the Tracks AIR can also be used passively.


The SOL Republic Tracks AIR is an easy to recommend bass-heavy, technology-stuffed, Bluetooth wireless headphone, with the most seamless multipoint implementation I've used so far.



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