When a new company called Voxoa contacted me about reviewing their new Bluetooth headphones, I was this close to turning them down. I had no idea who Voxoa was but the very idea of a wireless headphone seemed rather unnecessary to me. When I listen to headphones, I'm usually sitting right next to my audio rack. Or maybe I'm using my iPad or an Android tablet - which is either in my hands or propped up a few feet in front of me. None of these situations involve me needing freedom from a cable. But it's been a while since I tried a wireless headphone so I figured I might see how things have evolved in recent years; I agreed to check out the Voxoa product.
The last few wireless headphones I tried were both from Sennheiser. I tried the RS120 which was a budget model, and it sounded terrible to my ears. Very compressed and dull. Later I spent some time with the RS180 which was actually pretty decent. I remember thinking to myself "these are nice enough, but I'd probably just get a wired headphone with extension cable and call it a day". I never got to try the RS220 which, if reports are to be believed, sounds as good as an HD600 (give or take). Since the RS220 sells for a rather high price, I don't think I'll ever try it unless once happens to fall into my lap somehow.
The Voxoa HD wireless headphones are a bit different than the Sennheisers I've tried. They don't use a base station. They don't accept Toslink or coaxial inputs like the RS220, nor do they handle analog RCA signals like the RS120. They use neither infrared nor RF technology. Instead, the Voxoa HD communicates via Bluetooth. Yes, Bluetooth. It's not just for weirdos who appear to be having an argument with themselves at the grocery store (Bluetooth earpiece or not, people should not be having these conversations in public!). Voxoa's technology is very up to date - they use Bluetooth 4.0 and apt-X technology for the best performance obtainable using an IEEE 802.15.1 signal, aka Bluetooth which is a lot more catchy.
The basics of the design: supraaural (on the ears) design with soft pleather earpads, rectangular cups, nicely adjustable plastic (but sturdy) frame, and a several buttons used for volume control and track skipping (which works well). There's a mic on board for hands-free calling. The looks of these things definitely reminds me of several other models I've seen from Monster, among other brands. But it's just a basic design and there's only so much one can do to differentiate themselves. By using the rectangular cup design Voxoa has automatically invoked similarities to any other model using rectangular cups. That said, the aesthetic is not bad at all. I got the black version which is clean and understated, but not boring. White is also available and it seems a little more flashy, if you're into that sort of thing.
Interesting options: the Voxoa HD comes with a rather short cable, with which it can be used like a "normal" headphone. The battery life for wireless mode is listed as 16 hours and my experience says that is roughly accurate. But if one ran out of juice, the cable is there as a backup. It's a good idea which doesn't really work out in practice, as I'll explain later.
Another interesting feature is the NFC capability. NFC stands for Near Field Communication and is becoming more common on newer cell phones. There's an area on the upper side of the Voxoa HD marked with "NFC" letters - simply touch your phone to that point and the two become paired. No digging through a Bluetooth settings menu required. This worked well for several phones I tried. I can't say it's a must-have feature, since the manual process is not all that difficult... and really, how often will you be pairing new devices with the headset? Still, it's a welcome feature that helps the Voxoa HD feel very current. I get the impression NFC will be a standard on lots of devices as things move forward so Voxoa is ahead of the game.
I found the headset to fit my head very well. It's not the most robust design out there, nor the most plush/comfortable, but it seems in line with other headphones in the sub-$200 price category. I love the free swiveling of the cups in all directions - I can't imagine someone not being able to find a good fit with these. My only potential complaint is one I've had with many other headphones in the past: the main contact point sits on the crown of the head, and that pressure can become tiresome for some people. I myself am not particularly bothered by this, but I know some people are. If Ultrasone headphones bother you in this way then you might want to steer clear of these.
As far as actually listening, I find the Voxoa HD surprisingly enjoyable. Let's not pretend - for $150 you aren't getting an absolute high-end experience. That's true of standard wired headphones, so how would a wireless model be any different? That said, I've heard traditional wired headphones costing up to $200 which don't match the Voxoa HD in sound quality, so I think it does well for the $150 asking price.
The sonic signature is definitely what I'd call "fun". That means big, bold bass, somewhat tipped up treble, and a midrange that takes something of a back seat to those frequency extremes. I don't think it's too recessed as a general rule, though some recordings may bring that out just a bit. Keeping in mind the sound one tends to get in this price class though, I'm not disappointed in the least. If these were regular wired headphones I'd say they were good, if not outstanding, and I'd recommend them for certain people. But that's not the case, is it? The Bluetooth aspect makes these something else entirely, and the value becomes something better than just average.
I enjoyed the sound with most types of music. As is usual with a somewhat V shaped signature, classical music is not a major strong point. The bass here is reasonably well controlled though so unlike some other bassy headphones, these don't sound like a mess when playing dynamic orchestral works. I did find myself taking advantage of that generous bass though - I'd gravitate towards classic hip hop like Eric B and Rakim, Wu Tang Clan, even some Brotha Lynch (which I enjoy in very small doses on occasion). Electro stuff was great as well - I played lots of it ranging from old Kraftwerk and Art of Noise to modern stuff such as Electronic Noise Controller, Marc Houle, Emancipator, Crystal Castles, and of course stalwarts like Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, and Daft Punk. A big beat with some sparkle up top is a classic recipe for enjoyment with this type of music and the Voxoa did not disappoint.
I'm surprised at how much I enjoyed jazz on these headphones. Hiromi's beautifully frenetic piano on Haze (from the album "Voice"), the smooth saxophone of Yuri Honing on his dynamic cover of Walking on the Moon (from "Star Tracks"), or Big John Patton's Roland B3 on, well, all of his albums (I recommend his Mosaic Select box set, if you can find it). Although it doesn't perform on the level of a Sennheiser HD598, which pretty much sets the standard for transparent midrange in this price class, the Voxoa is certainly not the worst I've heard. It isn't the best with vocal oriented music though, and I found myself staying away from that sort of thing more often than not. So if your tastes involve a lot of singer/songwriter type music you might not enjoy the Voxoa as much as someone else who prefers more instrumental fare, or just more pop oriented stuff.
One thing I noticed is that I prefer the Voxoa HD at lower volumes than normal. Maybe it's the punchy, exciting sound signature, which allows me to feel a good amount of impact without cranking it up too loud. I consider this a good thing. The flip side is that higher volumes don't sound as good. Bass distortion creeps in at higher volumes so I'm glad the sound is good when kept lower.
Now, there are some specific things I have to mention about getting the most from these things. First, the cable is a nice touch - in theory. In reality it seems like a flawed solution. Why? Because the incoming (digital) Bluetooth signal gets run through a DAC and DSP, tuning it for best performance before the speakers send it to your ears. The cable bypasses the DSP process - which makes sense, because the signal already resides in the analog domain. Still, this gives a distinct reduction in sound quality as opposed to using Bluetooth. It becomes a caricature, a gross exaggeration of an already colored sound. It goes too far and to my ears is no longer enjoyable. So, while the cable will do in a pinch, if your battery dies and you really must have sound.... it's not ideal. I also think, at least for me, there's some mental gymnastics involved. When I plug my headphones into a dedicated headphone amp, I expect a certain caliber of performance. Wireless headphones? I have very little expectations to speak of. I'm almost certain this bias is at play when I complain about wired performance - it may be different for other users.
One alternative (which I have not yet had a chance to try) involves connecting a USB cable from the headset directly to your computer, effectively using the Voxoa HD as a USB DAC. My contact at Voxoa tells me this will work, though it requires a separate USB cable. Apparently the bundled charging cable will not work for data purposes. If this method truly works, then it should sound better than using the analog cable, since it won't bypass the critical DSP function.
Another important aspect is the aptX
connection. I have a fairly modern MacBook Air which I figured was up to the task of supporting this format. Connected easily via Bluetooth and played some music, everything sounded fine. But when I check my Bluetooth connection, under Voxoa HD, it showed "Active Codec: SBC". SBC? That's not aptX! Some quick Googling uncovered THIS
thread showing this to be a common problem. The solution is to download something called Bluetooth Explorer (the link is further down in that thread). It's not a simple thing - I had to register as a developer (which I'm not) before I could get the file I needed. Once I did get it, I followed the steps which basically involve checking the box to "force use" of aptX. Initially it didn't work but after a series of resets (the MacBook and the Voxoa) it magically straightened itself out.
The difference between SBC and aptX is not night and day, though I do find it noticeable with the right music. AptX seems more nuanced and layered in terms of soundstage, and especially helps enhance high frequency response. It sounds more natural and I have less issues with artificial (ie not in the recording) sibilance and harshness. The improvement applies more to complex music than simplistic material, which makes sense as we are butting up against bitrate limitations for lossy transmission. So for modern pop it's not much of an issue, while lovers of classical, jazz, and other good recordings should be sure to get aptX set up first thing. You'll be glad you did. Think of it like switching to 320k mp3 from 128k mp3. It's still not the best sound you've ever heard but as improvements go, it's significant.
It can be tough with other devices to really know if aptX is being used. CSR, the company behind aptX, supposedly maintains a list of compatible devices. We can break it down by device type to see things like smartphones
. I'm not so sure they keep it up to date though.... or at least not completely. The newer Samsung Galaxy S 4 models are listed but I don't see the Meizu MX models nor do I see the Wren Sound V5BT system, both of which I know to have aptX on board. For what it's worth Voxoa does make the list
. A lot of phones won't specifically mention apX though - they claim Bluetooth 4.0 with A2DP but don't list aptX so in those cases I don't think we get it. But I could be wrong. This of course is not Voxoa's fault.
I found range to be very good. Like anything wireless, it can vary from one situation to the next, especially when other electronics are involved. I was able to roam freely around a large room without a single interruption. Wandering into other nearby rooms seems to be more of a challenge - it worked in many instances, but not all. As a test I left my phone in the living room, walked around the corner and down the hall all the way to my bedroom, where the sound finally started cutting out. By this time there was quite a distance between the phone and me, and several walls in there too. I never expected to have free reign of the whole house though, so I'm pleased with the performance here. It clearly improves on the old Sennheiser models which seemed to have very low range. I can imagine these doing very well for someone who had a big yard and wanted to wear them out there while keeping the source on a deck or in a windowsill. Without walls getting in the way I suspect the range would be even better.
In the end I think a product like this really requires some thought. When would you use it? What are you pairing it with? Is 15+ hours of battery life enough time? If the answers to these questions point you towards a wireless headphone, and you enjoy a warm/exciting signature, the Voxoa HD is a solid choice. I don't have a lot of experience with this category but I'd be shocked if the competition had anything significantly better for the price. Are these the best headphones I've ever heard? Of course not. Are they acceptably good considering the price and features? I'd say so. I look forward to seeing what else Voxoa comes up with - wireless in-ear monitors? Speakers? I see lots of possibilities.