When I first got word that Bang & Olufsen would be releasing a new full-size headphone, I could barely contain my excitement. As a long-time B&O customer, I appreciate the unique blend of no-compromise performance, quality and design for which B&O is legendary. My B&O home system, a pair of bookshelf speakers with a sub, has given me countless hours of enjoyment. Let me tell you: My system has knocked the socks off more than one old-school audiophile who, before hearing it, thought B&O was just about good looks.
Yes, B&O's kit looks spectacular. But the company doesn't make vacuous supermodels with empty space between the ears. B&O has been around for almost 90 years and has serious engineering chops. The Danish equipment maker does make supermodels, to be sure. But these are supermodels who can build you a rocket, splice DNA and smash protons. Beauty and brawn. Eye candy and IQ.
Case in point: My B&O 4000 bookshelf speaker cabinets are entirely aluminum. Because the speakers are powered, each of the four transducers has its own dedicated, perfectly-matched amp. My sub is also aluminum and is powered by a custom 850-watt Class-D amplifier. How good is the amp? Good enough that Bowers & Wilkins uses amps made by B&O in their subwoofers. They are arguably the best Class-D amps in the world. Aluminum speaker cabinets are commonplace today because aluminum is an ideally strong, rigid and malleable cabinet material. It can be easily shaped to reduce unwanted vibrations and eliminate standing waves. And polished aluminum is beautiful. B&O began using aluminum way back in the 1980's, when self-described audiophiles derided the use of aluminum in speaker cabinet design. Wood was the stuff of which real speaker cabinets were made, they argued. Powered speakers are for neophytes, they argued. Now that some of the greatest speaker manufacturers in the world have jumped on the bandwagon (Linn, B&W et al), making powered speakers and aluminum cabinets, those critics are conspicuously silent.
So two years ago, in a bid to stay relevant in an age of iPhones and iPods, B&O introduced its BeoPlay product line. The latest products in the line are the BeoPlay H3 and H6 headphones, an in-ear monitor and a full-size can, respectively. I didn't care about the H3 IEM. The H6, with its sexy curves and leather upholstery put the twinkle in my eye. The wait between the announcement and the time the product shipped was painfully long, but finally the day arrived and I sauntered down to my local B&O boutique to have a listen. And boy, was I disappointed.
I plugged the H6 into my iPhone and spun up a playlist of lossless tracks compiled specifically to test the mettle of headphones. Mids? Check. High-end? Check. Soundstage? Imaging? Check. Check. But wait... Where's the bass? This can't be right. This thing sounds thinner than a stale Triscuit trapped under a steamroller. I skipped ahead to track after track after track, but the result was the same: woefully weak bass response. I couldn't believe it. This, from the company who made the Beolab 2 sub that has rattled my windows (as well as my neighbors' nerves) for the last ten years?
I promptly returned home, logged into Head-Fi, and declared that I would not be purchasing the BeoPlay H6. I went further to predict that the H6 headphone, priced at $400 US, would enjoy meager sales at best. My search for a daily driver would begin anew.
Then comments and reviews on the H6 began to trickle in. And they were mixed. Very mixed. Some reviewers experienced the same anemic low-end I heard. But others described an ample amount of detailed, textured bass that faithfully and pleasingly rendered any source material. How could this be? What could explain the discrepancies between the reports provided by these listeners? As I've come to find, the explanation is simple. The x-factor, in the case of the H6, is amplification.
The H6 simply does not show its true colors when amplified by a smartphone or tablet. Unlike say, the Sennheiser Momentum, which delivers a warm (if slightly boomy) sound, even when jacked directly into a smartphone, the H6 is a more finicky lover who refuses to open the kimono without proper motivation.
I would get the H6 after all, I decided, and I would motivate them properly...with a brand-spanking-new Schiit Asgard 2.
I bought the H6 a few days before I ordered the Asgard 2. I listened to it with my iPhone and iPad. I enjoyed the crystal-clear highs, the rich mids and the fantastic soundstage and image. And I longed for deeper, more fully-realized bass. Then the Asgard 2 arrived.
I'll skip the unboxing story and cut to the chase. Wow. Hello, bass! Clean bass. Textured bass. Nimble, sprightly bass. Accurate bass. This is the headphone I expected from B&O, the one I knew they could produce. I was pleased and all was right with the world.
Now for the review. I'll start with sound quality, then move on to niceties like build quality, design and packaging. Grades are relative to other headphones in the $300-$500 range, when amplified with a capable headphone amp.
I'd describe B&O's "house sound" as natural and neutral, with a brilliant, feathery-light high-end that resolves a lot of detail. This describes the H6's sound perfectly. It delivers a staggering amount of detail in its price-class. In fact, the H6 delivers an impressive amount of detail when compared to headphones well above its price-class! Cymbals, triangles, snares, and hi-hats all sound crisp and light, with nary a hint of sibilance or stridence. I'm guessing this deftly executed high-end lends much to the headphone's spectacular imaging, which I'll describe later.
Mids on the BeoPlay H6 are pleasingly neutral. I'm an absolute nut for female vocals, and the H6 articulates vocals exquisitely, as well as any headphone I've heard under $1000 US. Strings, winds, acoustic guitars and brass all render with substantial fidelity and ease. In fact, the mids painted by the H6 are so neutral and musical that there really isn't much to write about them. This is simply the way music should sound.
The low-end of the BeoPlay H6 has been a subject of much discussion. As I indicated above, the H6's bass doesn't come alive until proper amplification is supplied. Kind of makes me sad to know most owners of the H6 will never know just how good these cans can sound. Paired with the Asgard 2, the H6 delivers plenty of smooth, clean, textured bass. Never punchy or flabby— just accurate and lively. The H6 is definitely not a headphone for bass-heads, but aficionados of jazz, classical and folk will appreciate the H6's tender touch. It's a mature sound for a mature listening audience.
Sound Stage: 8.5/10
The H6 renders an unusually wide soundstage for a closed-back can, but there is a little added surprise. I find that while the soundstage is not particularly deep on the Z-axis (like the HD800), it creates an impressively tall Y-axis. I don't know how, but I get the illusion of substantial vertical height on certain tracks, one that has caused me to re-think my impressions of tracks I've listened to hundreds of times.
Most reviews of the H6 praise the headphone's pinpoint-accurate imaging, and I concur. The H6 images incredibly well for a closed-back headphone in the $400 price range. In fact, I've read one reviewer who opines that the imaging capabilities of the H6 are comparable to those of the Audeze LCD-2! I'm really enjoying the process of listening to my favorite albums again, this time with a much clear impression of where everything sits.
I've selected five tracks for review that I suspect most people reading this already own. I could have selected obscure tracks to suggest the depth of my catalog and my fantastic taste in music, but that wouldn't help anybody. So here we go:
"Bolero" (Pink Martini, Sympathique)
The opening bass bars are cleanly rendered and textural. The percussion that follows is spacious and precisely imaged. I can point to the location of each drum tap. The cello's timbre is true-to-life. The H6 places the track in a very well-defined space, making it feel like a live performance.
"True To Life" (Roxy Music, Avalon)
This track, like the others on the album, is full of minute sonic flourishes. The kick drum has a satisfying thump. The synthesizer floats in space and is pierced occasionally by the lead electric guitar. Toms pitter pat on the outer edges of the soundstage. The H6 captures the gray, Autumnal mood of the piece perfectly.
"Stand Behind Me" (Christy Baron, Retrospective)
A warm, lazy electric guitar chirps on the left while a clarinet whispers on the right. A snare and hi-hat gently shuffle in the background. The timbre of the clarinet is startlingly real. Lots of air around each instrument. Baron's vocals are centered, smooth and full of emotion. You hear breaths inhaled. You hear lips part. It's like a sonic deep-tissue massage.
"Tears In Heaven" (Eric Clapton, Unplugged)
The opening guitar plucks have a substantial attack. The triangle has a tactile, needle-prick resonance. The image is remarkably precise. You can distinctly hear the voices of each backup singer. The percussion has a pleasing pop.
"Kiss" (Prince, Parade / Under The Cherry Moon)
This pulsating whoosh sound has visceral heft. The electronic snare snap is like the cracking of a block of ice. The chimes are surprisingly three dimensional. One gains a new appreciation for the subtleties of Prince's falsetto. It's now clear to me that this track—a track I always believed to be poorly mastered—was actually superbly engineered. Who knew?
Build Quality, Design and Packaging
Build Quality and Comfort: 8.5/10
Aluminum and leather, just like a sports car. The H6 is one beautifully built piece of kit. Like all B&O products, the build quality on the H6 is top-notch. The clamping pressure is just a smidgen north of perfect to me, but your results may vary. Still, because it weighs only 230g I can wear the H6 for hours with no discomfort. The lambskin and foam used for the earpads is incredibly soft and there is no visible stitching on the earpad leather, a testament to B&O's attention to detail. There are no visible screws or unpolished seams to be found anywhere on the product. The level of fit and finish is fantastic, but this is typical for Bang & Olufsen. I find that the back-sides of B&O's products often look better than the front-sides of products from other manufacturers. One gripe: I wish B&O had included an additional cable without the iPod controls.
Design (Aesthetics): 10/10
What can I write? If you've seen it, you know that the H6 is drop-dead gorgeous. A timeless, carefully considered design. There isn't much else to say here, as B&O has always delivered best-in-class design. They are the Apple, the Audi, the Bell & Ross of stereo gear. They were doing bleeding-edge industrial design eons before anyone else in the audio world, and it shows.
Packaging: 7/10 (not included in final score)
A neat little box with a pleasant, gratifying unboxing experience. The headphone is presented front-and-center on a fitted block of foam. Below the foam rests the cable, the cloth transport bag, the airline adapter and the papers. Nothing to write home about, but a very competent packaging job.
Overall Score: 8.9/10
This is a $400 headphone, and as such I consider it a bargain in its class. Fantastically detailed sound, world-class design and easy wearability for a very reasonable price. Now, the BeoPlay H6 is not an Audeze LCD-3 killer. It won't tango with the likes of an HD800 or SR-009, but it delivers a remarkably pleasing listening experience that is very portable. And it can be driven by a iPhone, though it requires a dedicated amp to do its best work.
Bottom line? I love my BeoPlay H6 and can confidently recommend it highly.