Head-Fi.org › 2014 Winter Gift Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Wireless Headphones

Head-Fi Buying Guide (Wireless Headphones)

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Head-Fi Buying 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.

Pendulumic STANCE S1+  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Closed, around-the-ear, wireless Bluetooth headphones
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PRICE: $199.00 
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URL: pendulumic.com

Chunbeng Quek, through the design firm he co-founded, has worked with the likes of Samsung and Nokia. In 2006, he started designing audio products, working with a team from Sennheiser. Several years later, his firm's design portfolio consisted of over 50 headphones and earphones for Sennheiser, including some involving wireless technology, where he first starting working with AptX technology. With that experience, he was part of a small team that formed to craft high-performance wireless headphones, and thus was born the company Pendulumic.

 

At the time of this writing, Pendulumic is making and selling one model--the Pendulumic STANCE S1+--and with it, straight away, on sound quality alone, Pendulumic is competing with the best Bluetooth headphones I've yet heard, including the best from Philips, Sony, Sennheiser and Parrot. With feedback from audio enthusiasts about its very first model (called the S1, without the "+"), Pendulumic has tuned the S1+ with a sound signature that has wide appeal. It's detailed and even-handed enough (especially considering its Bluetooth wireless) to please most audiophile types, but with mild emphasis down low, and a little up top, to give it impactful enough sound to appeal to mass consumers, too.

 

The STANCE S1+ is equipped with Bluetooth 4.0, aptX, a built-in lithium-ion rechargeable battery that provides up to 18 hours of listening time, and the cool option of inserting backup AAA alkaline batteries for another 12 hours of listening time for particularly long trips between charges. And while it may not be as tech-trick as the Parrot Zik 2.0's capacitive touch interface, Pendulumic's multi-function volume knob provides an extremely intuitive way to play/pause, track-forward, and answer/end calls. It's also very unusual to see such a proper volume knob on a headphone, but it's a joy to use.

With the STANCE S1+, Pendulumic has created a headphone that's comfortable for long listening sessions. I like the comfort strap design--it's nice, for an on-the-go headphone, to be able to just put it on without having to resize the headband every time you take it out of its case. In terms of style, it's a nice headphone, with a mildly retro look. The STANCE S1+'s build quality is good, but its chassis' level of polish isn't quite up to the standards you'll see and feel in its more expensive competitors from the likes of Sony, Sennheiser, Philips and Parrot.

 

Still, for only $199, the Pendulumic STANCE S1+ is a beast of a performer for a Bluetooth headphone, its fidelity among the best I've yet heard from any Bluetooth over-ear, regardless of price. A lot of experience was brought to bear in its creation, and you can hear it.

 

"Given its exemplary sonic presentation - and its highly functional form factor and feature set - I have a sneaking suspicion that the Stance S1+ was designed, optimized and refined with Head-Fiers in mind... and not rank-and-file consumers.  I am looking forward to Pendulumic's future offerings, nearly as much as I am currently enjoying the Stance S1+."

-Warren Chi (warrenpchi)
Head-Fi Moderator/Member/Reviewer

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) 
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URL: www.fidelio.philips.com
Sony MDR-1RBT
TYPE: Closed, around-the-ear, portable, wireless Bluetooth headphone
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MSRP: $399 
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URL: www.sony.com

 

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.

Koss BT540i  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png

Headphones are getting increasingly modern in their styling, and while I find that's definitely been for the better overall, not everyone is ready to abandon more conservative styling. While not retro, per se, Koss' brand new BT540i has a more classic, utilitarian look than a lot of its competition in the Bluetooth over-ear headphone segment, and I know for some it'll be a welcome reprieve from the ultra-chic or ripped-from-a-cyborg aesthetics some of the newer models have.

 

 

Despite the BT540i’s more conservative styling, it is very high-tech-equipped with aptX and NFC. The BT540i’s internal lithium-ion battery is charged with a micro-USB cable, and provides more than eight hours of listening from a single charge. If the battery does run down on you, the BT540i can also be used passively with the included audio cable. 

 

 

 The BT540i uses all-new Koss drivers, and its sound quality puts it in the company of some my other favorite Bluetooth over-ears. The BT540i's low-end has some mild mid-bass emphasis, and sounds a touch light in the area of low bass. Nevertheless, its bass is impactful enough to lay a nice foundation, even when on the go, and is reasonably detailed for this type of headphone. The BT540i's mids are generally neutral, but occasionally vocals through it can sound just a bit set back. Treble on the BT540i is good, a bit more present than the smoother sounding MDR-1RBT by Sony, but also less refined up top. Still, overall, for $200, the sound quality of the Koss BT540i, overall, makes for a very nice sounding Bluetooth headphone.

 

 

On most days, I'm on the phone a lot, so outgoing sound quality--how I sound to the people I'm talking to--is of immense importance to me. The Koss BT540i has a dual-microphone setup that reduces background noise to the person you’re talking to, and those I’ve talked to with it said my voice sounded nice and clear through the BT540i. Even though the Sony MDR-1RBT is still the leader in terms of overall outgoing sound quality (of the Bluetooth headphones I've used), the Koss is still among the clearer in the pack, and seems to reduce background noise more effectively than Sony's offering.

 

 
The BT540i's controls are also very intuitive, with a dedicated button or switch for just about every function and feature, which I really like. I also like that the buttons jut out proudly, easy to find, and laid out to be easy to use blindly.
 

 

The Koss BT540i also folds flat and comes with a nice, relatively compact carrying case.
 

 

If I have a criticism of the new Koss wireless headphone, it's the stated battery life of "more than eight hours," which is quite a bit lower than a few of its competitors, some of which tout upwards of 30 hours of runtime per charge. Fortunately, the Koss can be used passively with its included headphone cable when the battery gives out.

 

 

Overall, the Koss BT540i is an excellent new entry to the Bluetooth headphone category, and makes an excellent music and working headphone for heavy telephone-talking Head-Fi'ers like me.

TYPE: Over-ear Bluetooth headphone 
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PRICE: $199.99
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URL: www.koss.com
Sennheiser RS 220
TYPE: Closed, around-the-ear, wireless headphone
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MSRP: $599
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URL: www.sennheiser.com

 

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.

Parrot ZIK 2.0  c57420db_blast_new_green_2.png
TYPE: Closed, around-the-ear, wireless Bluetooth headphone
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PRICE: $399.99
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URL: www.parrot.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

(NOTE: I've only been able to use the Parrot Zik 2.0 for a few days before this Guide update, so I will likely be updating this Parrot Zik 2.0 entry with expanded information/impressions in the future.)

 

The first-generation Parrot Zik was a remarkable first headphone from Parrot. Designed by Philippe Starck, it was beautiful to look at. Even to this day--more than two years after its release--the first-generation Parrot Zik is among the most tech-filled headphones on the market, with sensors galore, multiple microphones, capacitive touch interface, active noise canceling, Bluetooth connectivity, NFC, DSP, app connectivity and more. Recently, Parrot announced the Parrot Zik 2.0, and I had a chance to take a quick look and listen to it, and my early impression is that Parrot worked hard to make the Zik 2.0 a worthy successor, with solid improvements all around.

 

Though I'd only used it for a few days, it didn't take long to begin appreciating the upgrades that were made. In terms of style, the Zik 2.0 has more refined lines--the signature Starck flowing-liquid-look brushed metal yokes remain (thankfully), but now pour into more rounded, organic earcups (versus the original Zik's more sharp-cornered, more cylindrical earcups). The Zik 2.0 is also noticeably lighter than the first Zik, and feels more comfortable on the head. Those with extra large heads may find the Zik 2.0 too small--my head is larger than average, and the Zik 2.0 has to be fully extend to fit. (Actually, I could probably use just a wee bit more headband extension for an even better fit.)

 

The technology has also been updated and upgraded, the Zik 2.0's microphone count is up to eight total (from four in the first model), six of which are used for adaptive noise canceling--and noise canceling has indeed been improved. The Parrot mobile app for the Zik 2.0 is much cooler, with a five-band parametric equalizer, and even more extensive control of the sound with improved Parrot Concert Hall effects, and another equalizer (Parrot Equalizer) that lets you finger-drag-adjust the sound based on parameters named Pop, Vocal, Cristal, Club, Punchy, and Deep. The adaptive noise control is also adjustable via the app.

 

My first impression is that the sound quality with the Zik 2.0 is improved versus the first Zik. Resolution has been stepped up, and I think they may have one of the most musical Bluetooth headphone/headsets on the market now (and it certainly provides tremendous flexibility in the app to tune it to preference). In terms of its performance a Bluetooth headset (which is very important to me, as I'm on the phone a lot) it has also improved substantially, with people on the other side of the line saying I sound clearer than when I'm on the first Zik.

 

One of my favorite things about all the customizability (on the Zik and Zik 2.0) is that the custom settings live in the headphone's circuitry, not in the app, so your settings remain even when using different devices with the headphone. 

 

Again, after more time with the Zik 2.0, I'll update this Guide entry for it with more information and more detail.

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 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 
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URL: www.sony.com
Sennheiser MM 450-X Travel
TYPE: Closed, on-the-ear, portable, wireless Bluetooth headphone
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MSRP: $450
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URL: www.sennheiser.com

 

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.)

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."

-Shigzeo
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

 

 

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