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 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.
I know what you're thinking. "Apple AirPods in the Head-Fi Buying Guide? Is @joe out of his mind?" And the answer: Nope.
Apple's AirPods seem to get a lot of grief from many people across the internet. But for me? These were a surprise. I've never used the EarPods that came with my iPhone 6 Plus aside from using it as a remote trigger for the camera. I've only kept the ones from my iPhone 4S for testing situations when I could have possibly blown something up, so I don't have those for any type of comparison. But what I can tell you is I love the Bluetooth freedom out of these AirPods. I find them incredibly comfortable, and I can use them for around four to five hours before I even consider charging them. If I end a listening session at the office and head off to lunch, I simply pop them back into the case and they charge quickly. I'm good to go after 20-30 minutes to keep going and listen to my heart's content.
Now, I don't do critical listening with these, as I find other headphones better suited to do that job. But for background music or a podcast while working here at Head-Fi HQ? These things are great. The AirPods are definitely light on bass, so be assured -- bassheads do not apply, and I would expect them to return these right away. The soundstage is small to my ears, and everything's pretty front and center. I don't get the sense I'm in a live recording at all, but for the way I use the AirPods, I don't need to.
What I do appreciate is that I do get enough sound that I feel perfectly fine clocking a few miles on a neighborhood walk and still feel I fill my ears with enough volume to be entertained... at least with a full music track being played. With their fit teamed up with a lighter track or podcast, I do get a considerable amount of outside noise. But on a walk around the neighborhood, I welcome it, as I do want to be aware of my surroundings.
Comfort-wise, I barely notice them in my ears, if at all. That's a high point for me, because I am not a fan of feeling the clamp of a headphone, and I love not being tied to a cord that can get caught on a chair or swinging arms. I can still get all my audio notifications from my Mac or iPhone (depending on where I'm connected), and still move quickly to talk about any given topic with @jude or Brian (@AxelCloris) at a moment's notice. Speaking of my office companions, neither one could get a satisfying fit with the AirPods, so if the design of the wired EarPod isn't to your liking, I don't think that these will comfortably fit the bill for you. As the only person at Head-Fi HQ who likes the fit, the AirPods are left solely in my possession. Do I mind? Not one bit. I love the small charging case, and they go into any laptop bag or backpack I carry, no matter where I go. My love affair with the Apple AirPods started just before CanJam SoCal, and they've been a hit with me ever since.
So, do I recommend them? I think they are worth a consideration, especially if you're looking for a simple, bare-bones setup for sound on the go.
Sennheiser RS 185
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.
Beats Solo3 Wireless
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.
PARROT ZIK 3
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.