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Head-Fi.org › 2016 Holiday Buying Guide › Head Fi Buying Guide Wireless Headphones

Head-Fi Buying Guide (Wireless Headphones)

Wireless Headphones Also featuring...

 

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.

 

Type:   Universal-fit, Bluetooth in-ear monitor

 

Price:   $59.99 USD

 

URL:   http://usa.1more.com

Written by Brian Murphy (AxelCloris)

 

After Apple’s announcement that they’d be removing the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, there was a noticeable uptick in the wireless headphone market. In addition to new offerings from brands like Sennheiser, Sony and Westone, there’s been a flood of low-cost wireless headphones washing onto store shelves.

Unfortunately, many of these come from companies looking to make a quick buck rather than take the time to develop a solid, value-focused product. Thankfully, there are companies that do, and 1MORE has stepped up to weigh in with their iBFree wireless IEM.

If you’re looking for the single greatest wireless IEM with world-class sound, then it’s probably best to move along now. The iBFree can’t go toe-to-toe with a heavyweight flagship IEM, but at this price it’s to be expected. When weighed against the other flyweights, it’s revealed that we have a strong contender for a title match. It was clear we were destined to face off in the ring.

The opening bell chimed and the iBFree rushed from the corner, ready to swing. It charged forward and let loose a continuous barrage against my ears. Every blow that connected delivered a surprising level of detail and clarity. Each impact was tight and reasonably controlled. It’s not enough to spin the head of a die-hard basshead, but for anyone who prefers a more modest low end the iBFree hits the mark.

The mids complete the second part of a strong one-two chain. Immediately after the shock from the first blow, the iBFree hooked in its engaging vocals. Controlled bass and solid vocals? I was beginning to play directly into 1MORE’s hands, but they couldn’t quite land a decisive blow. There’s an energy in the upper registers that occasionally crosses the line into fatiguing territory and that alone prevented me from being knocked to the mat.

It was also a bit of an infighter. It didn’t try to dance around and portray a wide, expansive sound, but rather displayed a more intimate presence. It may not be as entertaining as more agile and flexible athletes, but the iBFree can hold its ground. It’s clear that 1MORE’s coaching focused on their fighter’s strengths. It’s not a prodigy in the ring, but rather one that’s been heavily disciplined to get where it is.

It wasn’t until the final seconds of the round that I was forced against the ropes, completely blindsided by a $60 pricetag haymaker. I retreated to my corner to try and recover, to discover the iBFree’s weaknesses.

In this price range it’s fairly easy to gloss over the iBFree’s compromises, but with each new round their presence became more noticeable. The Bluetooth range is decidedly average, resulting in a 25’ wireless leash. The cable is a bit stiff and prone to cable noise. The housing is bulky and can draw as much attention as a Vegas ring girl.

But for me the biggest compromise laid hidden in the playback controls.

I’ve owned dozens of devices that adhere to Apple’s control scheme for their in-line remotes. One press pauses or plays the music, another skips forward and a third takes you back. Some remotes add two additional buttons for volume. The iBFree is a 3-button style remote and pressing the center button once does what you’d expect, but that’s where the similarities end. Unlike the Apple standard, two button presses calls the last person in your phone’s history. The volume buttons serve double duty to track forward and backward when held.

If you’re like me, you’ll attempt to skip a track and unexpectedly find yourself talking with your spouse moments later. Not a deal breaker as the new controls can be conditioned fairly easily, but it may accidentally lead to some interesting conversations while you’re learning.

In order to reach such an enticing price, some concessions had to be made in the accessory department. In the box you’ll find 3 pairs of silicone tips, 3 sizes of sports ear hooks and a USB charging cable. That’s it. There’s no protective case nor are there any multi-flange or foam tips. Perhaps the high end could be better tamed with the inclusion of some foamies, but that solution isn’t available out of the box.

The iBFree isn’t flawless, but anyone demanding perfection from a $60 device is - in my opinion - expecting far too much. It won’t trade blows with the champions in higher weight classes, but it’s fully prepared to defend the belt from the budget-priced competition.

 

Type:   Closed, wireless on-ear headphone

 

Price:   $349 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)

 

It's always a pleasure to meet Nao Tsunoda of Sony at the Tokyo festivals as there is plenty of interesting technology being developed and on display. At first when I saw a row of colourful "h.ear on Wireless" MDR-100ABN headphones it didn't bring up my interest (a range of colours is usually strike 1 for good sound quality) being told that they were Bluetooth (strike 2), and noise cancelling (strike 3!) didn't encourage me any more. However Nao did want me to try the new high-res LDAC Bluetooth transmission, which can send 96k-quality audio from one of their Sony NW-A25 Walkmans. So I got out a micro SD card and plugged it in, put them on to have that weird shell-cupping effect from the noise cancelling shut out most of the ambient sound. Starting up a well-listened Alexis Cole from Chesky Records I was then blown away with the sound quality. 

Design-wise, aside from the range of unusual colours, they are of a fairly straight-forward common design, plastic surrounding metal components at key points, such as in the headband and hinges. The cups rotate enough for fit and size adjustment is the usual click-y sliding arrangement on either side. The Sony logo is suitably discrete on the headband. What is more, the headphones are readily portable, folding neatly inwards whereupon they can be put into an included zip-up shell case, and the battery life is listed as 20 hours of playback over Bluetooth with noise cancelling switched on. 

Of the three ways to play back music -- over Bluetooth, via the 3.5mm socket in active mode, and via the socket in passive mode (power off), surprisingly using the high-res LDAC transmission or APT-X (almost CD-quality transmission) sound best. In passive mode, the impedance goes down to 16 Ohms (from 32) and the sensitivity down to 98 dB (from 103) and the sound becomes much poorer, with the highs rolled off and the bass a mess. The MDR-100ABN were clearly intended to be used in active mode. 

Their sound signature in wireless mode was quite a surprise. I was expecting a warm "consumer" tuning, with more bass and less treble than neutral. However what I got was closer in balance to a pair of MrSpeakers Ether C, as they have a fairly neutral sound signature with very present treble and sufficient, but not overly strong bass. Combined with the angled earpads, I felt I was receiving a good degree of detail and instrument separation in the sound, giving an overall feeling of spaciousness. Poor recordings couldn't be glossed over, which meant that my favourite Julie Driscoll tracks from the '70s, with their less than stellar and quite bass-light mastering didn't fare so well. 

On the other hand, I found great results with acoustic music. I know Sony likes their headphones to have good deep bass delivery, so I was surprised that the didgeridoo in Dead Can Dance - Song of the Stars didn't quite have the reach-down-and-touch-you deep rumble I was used to with, say the MDR-Z7s. There was a good amount of spaciousness to the delivery and an impressive degree of instrument delineation with no hint of degradation from the noise cancelling system. 

Some of David Chesky's latest binaural albums have been my go-to lately, their depth of soundstage and strong drum lines being instantly addictive. While I wasn't quite hearing the shifting of clothes or the lips of performers parting with the MDR-100ABN, as I could with high-end headphones, they rendered the feeling of the music incredibly well. I reckon that if you put them on someone's head blindfolded, they wouldn't at all realise that they weren't listening with much more expensive wired headphones.

I decided that I should give the noise cancelling system a proper run, so I took them with me on the train to and from the city. I've used Sony's noise cancelling on airplanes before and the experience was much the same with the MDR-100ABN. While mostly low frequency sounds are eliminated, voices and higher pitched sounds, such as the fans of the air conditioning units on top of the trains, were still audible, even when listening to music. It wasn't a major issue, as there was still sufficient noise cancellation that I could enjoy listening regardless. On the train itself, with binaural tracks making instruments seem to jump out of space, I had to remember that nobody else was hearing what I was on the train and just relax. 

In my video, I put the noise cancelling to the test with a microphone, and it was still possible to hear my voice outside the cups with the noise cancelling on, but background music with a low bass rumble was readily cancelled out.

Before now, I had the idea that noise-cancelling headphones were only really useful for flights, and mainly to help relax and sleep, as I find IEMs too uncomfortable to use for long periods. With Sony's MDR-100ABN headphones, they have created a device that could very satisfactorily used as a main pair of headphones, such is the quality of sound. When everyone is talking about direct digital connections with headphones, Sony has achieved the same thing with wireless. The only downside is that, as far as I know, the high-res LDAC transmission method is exclusive to Sony, so you'll need a compatible Walkman or Experia phone, though I found APT-X to be of sufficient quality with most music.

 

Type:   Closed, around-the-ear wireless Bluetooth headphone

 

Price:   $300 USD

 

URL:   http://www.v-moda.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The V-MODA M-100 is a special headphone to this community, because the people here helped design and give voice to it. The M-100 genuinely was a crowd-sourced product development effort, and it has also been V-MODA's flagship for a few years now. On top of that, the M-100 has been V-MODA's best selling headphone since its launch.

Something people have been asking for from V-MODA for years is a Bluetooth wireless headphone. I'm one of those people--like others, I've been nagging V-MODA founder and CEO Val Kolton for a wireless headphone since before the M-100's launch. Well, it's finally here.

Given the success of the M-100, it should't come as any surprise that V-MODA chose the M-100 platform as the starting point for its wireless headphone. The M-100's sound signature has appealed to both general consumers and audio enthusiasts alike. The M-100's brand of bass emphasis starts low, and and then tails off in a manner that smartly leaves the mids relatively unruffled. As I've said about the M-100 elsewhere in the Guide: "The M-100's mids are detailed, if not just somewhat subdued with its framing between the prominent bass on the one side, and the soaring treble on the other. Imaging is surprisingly spacious for a closed headphone whose drivers don't appear to me to be at all canted at an angle, like we see on so many headphones today."

Now imagine that with time under their belt--and knowing they'd have to charge more for a wireless version of it--that V-MODA might actually try to refine the headphone's sound while they were in there, further strengthening the new headphone's place as V-MODA's flagship. That's just what they did, to my ears toning down the treble side of the more U-shaped M-100 curve. Probably due in part to that and other tuning, the Crossfade Wireless' mids sound more present than the M-100's. Will every M-100 fan like the changes? Not necessarily. For me, on balance, the change is positive. If you think the M-100's treble perfect, as is, for your tastes, then perhaps you'll find the Crossfade Wireless a bit subdued up top.

As for its capabilities as a wireless headphone, the Crossfade Wireless can simultaneously pair with two sources, so you could, for example, pair it with your laptop and your smartwatch. Also, as an avid smartwatch user, Val insisted that the Crossfade Wireless' antenna work well with them, as they typically have much shorter signal ranges.

The Crossfade Wireless' battery life while wireless is rated at 12 hours of music listening. A 30-minute quick charge will buy 3+ hours of wireless life, which is nice for road warriors who might run it down fully on occasion. And what if you do run it down? Val was adamant that the headphones perform strongly--and as identically as possible--whether in wireless mode, or in passive mode, and I think they've met that mark. So even if you run that battery down completely, you've got the wired option that requires no battery.

The wired option is also great if you want to need zero latency (like when watching a movie, gaming, etc.), or if you want to plug the headphone into a high-end DAC/amp.

The Crossfade Wireless comes packaged with a 1-button SpeakEasy Mic Cable, a micro USB cable, and a carrying case. Unfortunately, the Crossfade wireless does not fold like an M-100, so the Crossfade Wireless' carrying case is larger than the M-100's.

The V-MODA Crossfade Wireless is available in four colors, and can be customized with V-MODA's laser-etched 2-D shields, or their new 3-D-printed shields (which is what I went with).

It's been a long time coming, but, in my opinion, the V-MODA Crossfade Wireless was worth the wait.

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Details on the Sennheiser MOMENTUM Wireless can be found in the Travel Headphones section of the Guide.

 

Click here to check it out.

Type: Ultra-portable Bluetooth DAC/amp (with microphone for headset compatibility)

 

Price:   $189.00 USD

 

URL:   http://www.astellnkern.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Astell&Kern's new AK XB10 Bluetooth-enables headphones, much like Noble's BTS does. However, the AK XB10 is a more sophisticated (and commensurately more expensive) solution, and one I think a lot of Head-Fi'ers would absolutely love, with rather advanced, newer wireless technologies, not to mention a robust output--there's enough drive to power many lower-sensitivity and higher-impedance headphones.

Whereas I'd describe the Noble BTS as an elegant Bluetooth-enabling dongle, I'd call the Astell&Kern AK XB10 more of a wireless Bluetooth DAC/amp that is also an elegant Bluetooth-enabling dongle. The AK XB10 even includes balanced output via an Astell&Kern 2.5 mm jack, in addition to an unbalanced 3.5mm output. The AK XB10 supports SBC, aptX, and aptX HD codecs for Android devices and AAC for iOS. With aptX HD, the AK XB10 is capable of transmitting up to 24-bit/48kHz audio, and I've confirmed aptX HD operation with Astell&Kern's flagship AK380, and also the AK320, AK300, and AK70.

Whereas I typically limit use of the Noble BTS for more sensitive headphones and in-ear monitors, with the AK XB10 I feel perfectly comfortable Bluetooth-enabling virtually any headphone. For example, I've been enjoying the new AKG K872 with some of my best desktop systems, but I never imagined its use in a mobile wireless setup. I've been doing the same with the MrSpeaker ETHER Flow and ETHER C Flow, Sennheiser HD 800S, Focal Utopia, and many others. The AK XB10 makes using these headphones wirelessly not only possible, but perfectly reasonable, and with impressive results considering we're using the less-than-ideal ether tether of Bluetooth. Be sure, then, to manage your expectations--this is still wireless, it's still Bluetooth, so don't expect the same performance you're going to get plugging these headphones directly into your Astell&Kern players, or your fancy wired desktop rigs.

Of course, the use of the AK XB10 with my best and most sensitive in-ear monitors constitutes at least half of my use of the device. Using my FitEar MH334 custom, which is very very sensitive, there is some self-noise from the AK XB10, so it's not dead silent like the Astell&Kern players are. Still, though, in absolute terms, the self-noise is quite low, and for most headphones shouldn't be noticeable.

The AK XB10 also has a built-in microphone that has very strong performance in terms of outgoing voice quality. Everyone I've talked to using the AK XB10 as a Bluetooth headset has told me that the vocal quality and clarity is at least the equal of my Bluetooth headset benchmark, the Sennheiser Presence. However, whereas the Sennheiser Presence has tremendous noise-canceling ability, the AK XB10's microphone picks up just about every noise around you, so using it to talk to others is best done while you're in a quiet room.

Another use case for the AK XB10 is Bluetooth-enabling the audio systems of cars old enough to not have built-in Bluetooth capabilities. For example, I use the AK XB10 to Bluetooth-enable my 2010 Honda Fit's audio system via its auxiliary input. I found this to be a very nice option because the USB port in my Honda Fit has relatively low current output, so it doesn't charge my phone very quickly. The AK XB10 allows me to use a separate high current charger for my phone while streaming audio to the car via the AK XB10.

I've really been enjoying the Astell&Kern AK XB10, and my criticisms about it are limited to just a couple of things. First of all, I find the button layout to be less than ideal, far from intuitive. Even though I've been using it for a while, I still feel the need to look at it to know which buttons I'm pressing. Also, the battery life on the AK XB10 is rated at five hours, which is good, but certainly not great--perhaps that's the sacrifice for more robust drive and feature set.

If the AK XB10's functionality is what you been looking for, I haven't used a better such product yet, so it's very easy to enthusiastically recommend it, and well worth the price.

 

Type:   Ultra-portable Bluetooth receiver (with microphone for headset compatibility) 

 

Price:   $99 USD

 

URL:   http://www.nobleaudio.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Given the growing consumer demand for wireless headphone, a lot of headphone makers are going wireless, and wireless headphones are getting better and better. Still, I was surprised when Noble Audio--maker of some of the finest universal-fit and custom-fit in-ear monitors--decided to get their hands in wireless. Instead of creating a single wireless IEM with built-in wireless, Noble decided on a modular solution to Bluetooth-enable their entire line of IEMs. You just pair their Noble Bluetooth Solution (BTS) with your phone (or other Bluetooth-enabled audio device), plug your in-ear monitors into the BTS, and, voila, wireless Noble IEMs!
 
The BTS can Bluetooth-enable any headphone you plug into it, not just Noble's models. But, to help encourage its use with Noble IEMs, the Noble BTS comes with a short (15.5") standard two-pin detachable cable, allowing you to hang the BTS off the cable like a pendant. Helping to make this a comfortable option is the fact that the Noble BTS weighs only 0.36 ounce (10 grams).
 
The BTS's USB-rechargeable battery provides at least seven hours of continuous music playback or talk time, which represents at least an entire day's worth of typical use. Standby time is rated at 192 hours, and the battery charges in about two hours. The BTS employs Bluetooth 4.0 and aptX, and has multipoint support for up to two devices at once. Its wireless range is rated for up to 10 meters (33 feet). The BTS's diminutive chassis has easy-to-use, intuitive push-button call/music controls.
 
The BTS also provides Bluetooth headset functionality, using an omnidirectional microphone atop the BTS. While I totally dig that it can turn a $2800 custom IEM into something I can use for phone calls, I found the BTS's outgoing voice quality to be merely so-so. I do take and make calls using the BTS, but I wouldn't recommend its use for important, life-altering phone calls, as it can make your voice sound a bit distant to the person on the other end.
 
Because the BTS was designed by a company that makes multi-armature in-ears, you might be wondering what the BTS's output impedance is. The answer is less than one ohm, according to Noble, so there's absolutely nothing to worry about there.
 
In terms of sound quality for music listening, the BTS is very good. Hooking up the Noble Prestige to the BTS yields a wireless headphone that conveys the beautiful voicing and character of what has become one of my favorite IEMs. Does it sound exactly like the Prestige does when it's wired into a high-res player? No, of course not. Not surprisingly, given up in the move to wireless is some of the gossamer detail this IEM has become known for, and it also gives up some of the low-end impact it's also known for. That said, I'm still impressed when I'm listening to the Prestige doing its beautiful thing, and then I look down to see it hooked into nothing but the tiny BTS.
 
As much as I love Bluetooth-enabling something as high-end (in terms of performance and price) as the Noble Prestige, I'm actually almost as thrilled about using the BTS to Bluetooth-enable my Sennheiser fitness headphones. A few of my favorite exercise headphones of all time are by Sennheiser--for their fit, durability, and, of course, their sound quality--but Sennheiser doesn't make any of them available in wireless versions. With the BTS, they're all wireless now!
 
As you can imagine, given its tiny size, the BTS doesn't have the amp inside to rassle a HiFiMAN HE-6 to its knees, but anything with reasonable sensitivity--the type of headphone you're most likely to want to use wirelessly and on-the-go--is probably going to be driven fine by the BTS to decent volume levels.
 
There's so much to love about the Noble BTS, but here's one more thing: It's only $99! For all it does, and for that price, we highly recommend Noble's BTS.

Type:   Closed, around-the-ear, Bluetooth headphone 

 

Price:   $199.99 USD

 

URL:   http://www.koss.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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

Type:   Closed, on-ear wireless headphone

 

Price:   $139.99 USD

 

URL:   http://www.noontec.com

Written by Amos Barnett (Currawong)

 

it all started some time ago with a message asking me if I’d like a free review sample of some headphones from a creatively off-beat name. I’d seen the name around Head-Fi and only guessed that they were inexpensive and may actually be half-decent, so I accepted. Later it turned out that they appeared to have given away quite a few pairs to people to review and that they were cheaper than expected. With the wired version now under $60, they were on the end of the scale that I usually ignored except when a handful of cheap-headphone-spotters would start arguing about over them in the forums.
 
The fit and finish is quite good, down to the cup swivels, which don’t just flop around. The hinges are steel reinforced, which is a positive given that the headphones are understandably plastic. The outer plastic is coated in what is described as “piano crafting varnish”. In blue it looks more like the pearl car paint and is very nice and fingerprint-magnet smooth. 
 
The earpads are quite plush and soft -- important since they will sit on, rather than around your ears. The headphones don’t rattle when shaken and even when folded the snap-in-place hinges (tested to 5000+ uses) only have a tiny amount of play, only about as much as one gets in a high-end zoom lens. Even the single-button-with-mike phone-compatible cable is decent enough — a long strip of thin rubber terminated with branded plugs.
 
My first impressions of the wired version were a shock and not at all what I expected from a pair of cheap headphones. At a moderate listening level the music was quite detailed and crisp. My usual experience with cheap headphones is that they tend to be boomy with a poor mid-range and very rolled-off treble, which might be OK with modern brightly-mastered pop but is rubbish for just about anything else. 
 
I had a listen to the wireless version from my iMac, which is capable of APTx transmission, as well as plugging them into everything from my iPhone up to my main headphone rig, and the results were pretty good. Like the wired version they have a fairly even sound which is slightly warm, with the bass boosted a little bit and the treble slightly rolled off which made them good with a wide variety of music. 
 
With modern music that ideally needs good bass punch was satisfying down to the low bass; and acoustic music that requires a decent mid-range and treble was equally pleasing to listen to. They aren’t, of course, as dynamic or detailed as more expensive headphones, and at louder volumes some distortion will enter, but at my usual moderate listening levels there wasn't anything serious to complain about, except a lack of isolation that doesn't suit use on flights at the very least.
 
Where they shine most is for casual listing in front of a computer, at home or say, in an office, at school or in any place where noise isolation doesn't become such an issue. It's in those situations where it is possible to listen comfortably for some time because the Zoro IIs are lightweight. Also, because they are easily foldable you can just chuck them in a bag and take them with you without them adding significantly to what you have to carry.
 
I reckon if I was in the market for a sub $150 pair of wireless headphones for relaxing listening while I was at work or a similar, relatively quiet location,  these would be definitely on my list, as they are attractive, well-made, and good value for money.  

Type:   Open, around-the-ear, full-size wireless headphone system 

 

 

Price:   $399.95 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

When it comes to wireless headphones at home, Sennheiser, a few years back, introduced the Sennheiser RS 220, which was, by a wide margin at the time, the best sounding wireless headphone of any type that I'd ever heard. Its sound reminds me of the venerable Sennheiser HD6XX family, only with the freedom of wireless. Unfortunately, some RS 220 customers were experiencing signal drop-outs. Of course, RF traffic is going to vary from place to place, and I've not suffered such problems with my RS 220 either at home or at work (and still use it at home a lot), but Sennheiser still saw fit to substantially improve the RF performance of its latest generation of home wireless headphones, introduced at this year's CES.

 

Sennheiser introduced four new Sennheiser home wireless headphone models: RS 165, RS 175, RS 185, and RS 195. All of the new models incorporate a new Sennheiser proprietary wireless link technology that has low latency and improved range (with a claimed maximum range of 100 meters, or 328 feet). Sennheiser Product Manager Oliver Berg assured me that these latest wireless headphones should have much improved resistance to signal drop-outs, even in high RF traffic areas.

 

The new home wireless model most Head-Fi'ers would be most interested in is the Sennheiser RS 185 ($349.95). While not necessarily intended as a direct replacement for the now-discontinued RS 220, in my estimation that's essentially what it is. And, like the RS 220, the RS 185 is an open, circumaural design, and, like the RS220 was, the RS185 was designed specifically for enthusiasts of premium audio.

 

Like its forebear, the Sennheiser RS185 system is capable of detail retrieval that approaches very good wired headphones. Of course, it can't match up to the best wired headphone systems I've heard (and neither could the RS220), but there's no doubt I prefer it to many of my good wired headphones.

 

The RS185, in terms of background noise, is essentially dead quiet, which sets up a nice dark backdrop from which to show off its impressive ability to resolve fine, gossamer details. Though it has an analog input from which one can choose automatic level control or manual level control, I use (as I do with the RS220) the optical digital input, feeding it from the optical output of a Fostex HP-A4 or Fostex HP-A8C. (From its optical input, the level is fixed, with volume only controlled by the headphone controls.)

 

In terms of wireless range, the RS 185 does outdo the RS220, with both being easily able to cover my home's modest square footage, but the RS185 ultimately giving me more range in a simple keep-walking-until-the-signal-drops test. As I still do with the RS220, I marvel at my ability to enjoy wired-type fidelity with the RS185--fifty feet from my rig.

 

In terms of overall performance, the RS185 comes awful close to the esteemed RS 220, to my ears, and that's saying a lot, given the RS220's outlandish performance for a wireless headphone, and the fact that it was sold for $200 more than RS 185's asking price ($599.95 versus $399.95). In doing direct comparisons between the RS220 and the RS185, the RS 185 could be described as having a more exciting sound, a touch more thump down low, and a little more shimmer, a little more presence in the lower treble--and there are times I prefer it. Overall, though, for my tastes, the smoother, more even hand of the RS 220 probably has the edge. For me, the wily veteran also just edges out the RS 185 in terms of imaging, in terms both a sense of space, and a sense of precision.

 

Still, I haven't heard a wireless headphone of any type that's not named "RS 220" that competes with the RS185. Given that the RS220 has been put out to pasture, there's no current wireless headphone in production that I've heard that can compete with the RS 185. In my experience, in the premium wireless home headphone space, it's Sennheiser versus Sennheiser.

 

When it comes to wireless audio today, nobody is pushing the boundaries like Sennheiser.

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Details about the Beats Powerbeats3 Wireless can be found in the Exercise Headphones section of the Head-Fi Buying Guide.

 

Click here to read all about the Beats Powerbeats3 Wireless.

Type:   Closed, on-ear wireless headphone

 

Price:   $299.95 USD

 

URL:   http://www.beatsbydre.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

One of the common questions I'm asked is "My kid asked for Beats headphones. Is there something I can get for the same price that sounds better?" Now of course the simple answer to that is "yes." But if the kid wants Beats headphones, the kid probably wants Beats headphones. Now if your kid has his heart set on Beats headphones then my first recommendation would be the new Beats Solo3 Wireless. As far as wireless supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphones go, it's an easy recommendation, especially for someone who has an affinity for the Beats brand, or even those who don't--it's a good wireless on-ear, period. And if your intended Beats recipient is an Apple ecosystem user (he has an iPhone, a Mac, maybe an iPad, too), then the recommendation is even stronger (which I'll explain in a minute).

First of all, to my ears, the Beats Solo3 Wireless sounds so-so, bordering on good. I can't imagine many diehard Head-Fi'ers being impressed by its fidelity, but its rich, bass-emphasized (but not muddy) tonal balance is the stuff of easy mainstream consumer appeal. Its resolution doesn't do much to delve deeply into all on offer on great recordings, but it's an easy, comfortable listen, in terms of its sound.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for its wearing comfort. Being a rather tight-clamping on-the-ear headphone means not being a comfortable long-term wearer, at least on my head. Both of my ears start to feel the crush upon them well before my listening time hits an hour. I'm not sure if this will loosen with time and a lot of use, but I don't imagine I'll be giving this headphone enough time or use to find that out (more due to its lack of comfort than because of the sound).

That all said, this headphone is very impressive as a wireless headphone. If it's comfortable on your head, on your ears, and you like the sound--and if you don't need an active noise-canceler--then I can't think of too many wireless headphones that will suit your purposes better the Beats Solo3 Wireless. Battery life is rated at up to 40 hours per charge. 40 hours. That's remarkable, and may have something to do with the efficiency of the new W1 wireless chip from Apple. What's also amazing is its wireless range. Again, this is probably also owing to the W1 wireless chip, with the Beats Solo3 Wireless able to maintain its connection to my phone cleanly no matter how far in my house I stray from it. In fact, walking out of my house and down the street, I can get a few doors down and still maintain a connection! Its range is simply incredible! If wireless is about freedom, I can't think of another Bluetooth headphone that is as freeing as the Beats Solo3 Wireless.

If you're an Apple ecosystem user (I very much am), the Beats Solo3 Wireless' use of the new Apple W1 wireless chip is a nice value-add. W1 allows for quick connection to one's iPhone--just hold the Beats Solo3 Wireless near your iPhone, and a connection dialog pops up; confirm it with a click, and you're paired. Very cool. If you're an iCloud / Mac user, it gets even better. The Beats Solo3 Wireless, once paired to your iPhone, sends that connection profile to iCloud, making the Solo3 available as an audio device to all of your other Apple devices connected to that iCloud account. Today, I was listening to music on my iPhone, but then wanted to watch a YouTube video on my MacBook. Going to my list of audio devices on my MacBook, I saw the Beats Solo3 Wireless an available device, selected it, and I was good to go on the Mac--all without ever having gone through a pairing dialog with the Mac. This makes device switching (between my Apple devices) very quick, very easy.

If you or your kid really wants a Beats over-ear headphone, the Solo3 Wireless would be my current pick. However, with an MSRP of $299.95, it is on the pricier side for the category, but at least offers very trick wireless capability for the price.

NOTE: I've recently seen the Solo3 Wireless for between $50 to $80 off MSRP at Amazon.com, so shop around. Given how new this model is, I'm guessing those are sale prices.

Type:   Closed, around-the-ear, wireless Bluetooth headphones

 

Price:   $199 USD

 

URL:   http://www.pendulumic.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

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 entry's writing, Pendulumic was 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.

 


 

 

"[T]his is a great HiFi full size headphone to begin with that can go head-to-head in sound comparison with some of the more expensive pro-audio headphones, and yet it can deliver this wireless without reduction in audio quality!

- twister6

Type: Wireless, closed, full-size, active-noise canceling, around-the-ear headphones

 

Price:   $399.99 USD

 

URL:   http://www.parrot.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

When Parrot released its first version of the Zik, it was a remarkable achievement--their very first headphone was, at the time, one of the most technology-packed headphones on the market. It was the first headphone I can remember using with gesture-based capacitive touch panel controls. It had an impressive companion mobile phone app that allowed a lot of latitude in terms of DSP effects and equalization--settings that stayed in the headphone (which I wish was true for all such headphone/app combos), it was stylish as heck (designed by renowned French designer Philippe Starck), and it sounded surprisingly good while doing a commendable job actively canceling noise. Again, it was a fantastic, sophisticated effort from a company that hadn't previously made a headphone.

With this latest version of the Zik (Parrot Zik 3), Parrot made some tweaks to the styling, refinements in the newer version of the app, and, of course, further refinements to the sound. Parrot has also added wireless charging via an included Qi wireless charger. (The early production sample Zik 3 Parrot sent us did not include the wireless charger, so we haven't used it.) All of the things I enjoyed about the first Zik remain and have been improved. Unfortunately, a couple of things I didn't like also persist, which I'll get to in a minute.

When it comes to styling, the Zik 3 is still very much a Zik, very much a Starck design, with its distinctive flowing, liquid-like metal yolks. Since the first generation Zik, additional color options and ear cup styling options have since been offered, including embossed reptile and quilted motifs.

The latest version of the Zik companion app offers many more features and sound customization options, including pre-configured sound profiles designed by notable people in music and production. The app also provides the ability to play with the Zika 3's many DSP configurations, and it even allows you to adjust the level of active noise canceling. I actually enjoy using some of the Zik 3's DSP venue simulations, with the reverb occasionally fun to use with some music for a simulated live feel.

In terms of sound quality, the Zik has only improved, with greater overall resolution, making it one of the best sounding Bluetooth headphones I've heard. In its default equalization mode, its tonal balance is quite even-handed, and likely to find favor with many Head-Fi'ers. For example, if you've found the Sennheiser MOMENTUM Wireless just a bit too bass heavy for you, consider at the Zik 3. Also, the Zik 3's active noise canceling has improved since the first-generation Zik--though not as effective as Sony's latest or Bose's, it's still impressive. Also, while the passive mode on the first-generation Zik was so bad I generally chose silence over it when the battery died, it has improved (and is now listenable) with the Zik 3.

The Zik 3 can also be used as a digital USB streaming headphone, with built-in USB DAC functionality. (My Mac shows the Zik 3 as 24-bit/48kHz-capable USB DAC.) What's nice is that in USB streaming mode, the Zik 3's capacitive touch panel can be used to control my Mac's volume level, and to play/pause the music.

A couple of unfortunate holdovers from the first-generation Zik include a headband that is among the least comfortable in this class--after an hour or two, a rather uncomfortable pressure point forms at the top of my head. On the positive side, the headband can extend to fit larger heads (which was a sorely needed change)--on the downside of that is the squarish shape of the headband when fully extended. Also, while battery life has improved, it's still only six hours in fully wireless mode (with DSP effects enabled). However, in its Airplane Mode--using the audio cable instead of wireless with ANC enabled, but all spatialization features off--the Zik 3 is rated to provide up to 18 hours of use.

The Parrot Zik 3 is a compelling, tech-heavy, stylish wireless headphone, and assures Parrot as still a maker of one of the best sounding Bluetooth headphones currently available. Like the Sennheiser PXC550, though, this is also a complex headphone to fully explore, so I only recommend it for those who are more gadget-freak types.

Type:   Closed, in-ear, active noise canceling, wireless Bluetooth headphones 

 

Price:   Around $160 and $100, respectively 

 

URL:   http://www.phiaton.com

Sorry, this product is no longer available.

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Phiaton had all but fallen off my radar when they'd contacted me to ask if I'd like to try some of their current wireless models, and I've a soft spot for well-executed wireless headphones, so I said yes, please.

 

Both the BT 220 NC and BT 100 NC are modestly priced, feature-packed, wireless in-ears with Bluetooth 4.0, aptX, NFC pairing, multi-point connection (for pairing with up to two devices at the same time), and active noise canceling.

 

The first to arrive was the BT 220 NC, which has a form factor that took me a little getting used to, but that I came to understand and like after some time with it. It consists of a small control unit (about half the size of a pack of chewing gum) that houses the microphone (for calls), music/call controls, and the wireless and noise canceling circuitry--the earphones are permanently affixed to this unit via short cables. The BT 220 NC's control unit has a shirt clip built into its body, and also comes with a neck lanyard, for when you're wearing a shirt without a placket to clip to. (No, you won't be clipping it to your belt, as the cables to the earpieces are too short for that.)

 

The BT 220 NC's rechargeable battery is rated by Phiaton for approximately 16 hours of calling time, 17 hours of music-listening time, and up to 300 hours of standby. (Battery life for either calls or music is shortened to around 10 hours with noise canceling turned on.) While I've not run its battery to total depletion, my experience with it for extended use suggests these Phiaton numbers probably represent reasonable expectations. When the battery runs out--or for any other reason you need to plug it into a standard headphone jack--the BT 220 NC includes an audio cable.

 

I've used the BT 220 NC with both an iPhone 6 Plus and a Samsung Galaxy S4, and the performance with either is excellent for a Bluetooth in-ear, with a relatively flat overall tonal balance, but with some punch in the bass, and crisp highs. Frankly, the BT 220 NC's sound quality is more than I'd expect from a wireless in-ear priced so reasonably (at around $160), especially with such a full feature set.

 

The BT 220 NC also has active noise canceling, and I found it quite effective, taking the edge off the droning sounds of airplane travel, but there's no doubt the Bose QuietComfort headphones cancel still more noise. I also like that the self-noise from the circuit is very low, and I'm not getting any sense of pressure in my ears from it. The BT 220 NC also features a monitor feature that mutes your music and turns off noise canceling, for when you need to hear the world around you and don't feel like taking the earpieces out of your ears.

 

Other than the need to get used to wearing its control unit (which I am now used to), my main gripe with the BT 220 NC is the outgoing voice quality. While I can (and occasionally do) use it for talking on the phone, outgoing voice quality can sound distant and somewhat muffled. While it's not bad enough to keep me from using the BT 220 NC as a Bluetooth headset, I definitely wish for better clarity there.

 

Overall, though, if you're in the market for a reasonably-priced compact, wireless, noise canceling travel headphone, the Phiaton BT 220 NC is a solid, full-featured candidate that you should definitely put on your list of candidates.

 

As it turns out, I'm even more taken with the newer Phiaton BT 100 NC, as it's about as feature-packed as the BT 220 NC, trades the control unit for an around-the-neck form factor, is IXP4 sweat and water resistant, and is priced at only $99.00.

 

Like the BT 220 NC, the BT 100 NC has a control unit, from which the earpieces of the earphones are connected via short cables. The BT 100 NC's control unit is an around-the-neck style, and I find this a better arrangement than the BT 220 NC's control unit. Since it rests on your neck and shoulders like a collar, it doesn't swing around, or dangle in your way, and so I find it more comfortable, and much better at keeping the controls in the same place for more intuitive operation.

 

The BT 100 NC's rechargeable battery is rated by Phiaton for approximately 11 hours of calling time, 12 hours of music-listening time, and up to 220 hours of standby. (Battery life for either calls or music is shortened to around 7 to 7.5 hours with noise canceling turned on.)

 

To my ears, in terms of sound, the BT 100 NC is comparable to its sibling, with some mid-bass lift over a generally flat overall presentation. I'd have to give the edge to the BT 220 NC, though, in terms of the amount of detail conveyed. While the BT 100 NC's treble might sound smoother in direct comparison, it's at the expense of some sparkle and air. Still, for all it offers for a $99 water/sweat-resistant Bluetooth piece, the BT 100 NC's sound is quite good. (With both the BT 100 NC and BT 220 NC--and with many in-ears in general--it's important you get a good seal, otherwise they can sound lean.)

 

I like how Phiaton recognized an opportunity with the BT 100 NC's collar-type form factor to add vibration for notifications. When I'm wearing it, the vibration over my neck and shoulders is plenty strong enough that it'd be nearly impossible to miss a call, even while exercising, which is also helpful--along with its sweat/water-resistant design--in making it a fantastic wireless fitness headphone choice. (I'm not a fan of wearing headphones--especially closed headphones--while riding, walking or running outdoors, as I want to be able to hear oncoming cars, trains, bikes, etc.)

 

Another thing about the BT 100 NC that I've come to appreciate quite a lot is its outgoing voice quality, which, in my opinion, is very good, and better than most Bluetooth headphones I've encountered. No, it's not as impressive in this regard fas the Sennheiser Presence (still my standard-setter), but the BT 100 NC, especially for a headset of this type, has effective suppression of background noise and distractions on the user's end for clearer outgoing voice transmission. I love having a Bluetooth headphone that works this well for phone calls that I can sweat in, and walk in inclement weather with.

 

While neither of these Phiaton wireless in-ears is going to tear me away from my best wired IEMs for dedicated listening, they've both seen a lot of use from me when I want a break from cables, or desire some active noise canceling. Phiaton has two strong wireless, noise canceling in-ear winners with their BT 220 NC and BT 100 NC.

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