Looking is out. Listening is in. The only media that matters these days — and we say this as the producer of a wonderfully archaic print magazine, so we really ought to know — is audio. And, although we’ve crept our way towards a new (albeit ping-filled) normality, the need for headphones is just as great as it was in the midst of lockdown. How else, for example, are you supposed to drown out the noise on your commute into work than with a pair of noise-cancelling headphones? What better way to mask the intrusive noise of your neighbour’s raucous house party than to plug in the wireless earphones and press play on your favourite podcast? Now, more than ever, it’s worth investing in a decent set. Here are a few we think you’ll enjoy.
For brilliant design: KEF’s Mu3 wireless earphones
Designed by frequent KEF collaborator Ross Lovegrove, these striking little buds take their visual cues from the natural world — picture molten mercury, or drops of jupiter in your ear. (Was that the lyric?).
More ingeniously, they are ‘smart weighed’: meaning they’ll never drop out of your ears like other wireless pods. And the sound, as you’d expect from the glorious obsessives at the titanic KEF, is exquisite. They’re comfortable, smart; and if you’re still working from home, they’ll stay put even during your most animated Zoom arguments.
For glorious silence: Sony WH-1000XM4
Often cited as the greatest noise cancellers on the market, the catchily-named Sony WH-1000XM4s are packed with engineering genius. We were big fans of the previous iteration; and Sony has further improved its QN1 noise cancelling processor to bring you some brand new touches across the board.
Next gen Adaptive Sound Control allows the audio to be optimised according to your surroundings; and you’ll be witness to (noise cancelled) pure sound, just as the artist intended, thanks to a combination of High Resolution Audio, Bluetooth with LDAC and DSEE Extreme upscaling tech. So when you’re 30,000 feet in the air, finally flying towards your holiday destination of choice, these headphones will bring you more comfort than any reclining seat ever could.
For durability and reliability: Audio-Technica ATH-ANC900BT
In a world that’s rapidly re-opening, it’s a comfort that some headphones come tooled-up and kitted-out with an ‘Airplane Mode’. Even more heartening is that certain pairs of those — for instance this pair of Audio-Technica on-ear headphones — also have battery lives as healthy as 35 hours.
Pair that with a good dose of powerful digital hybrid noise cancelling technology, reliable Bluetooth 5 technology and handy touch and swipe controls built into each ear cup, and you’ve got a perfect travelling companion. And the best part? The similarly airport-friendly ‘Switchable Quick Hear-Through Function’, that allows ambient sounds (such as announcements) to be heard through even the loudest tunes.
For incredible build quality: Apple AirPods Max
It’s easy to poke fun Apple products. (And fun, too.) The mortgage-worthy price tag. The gushing fanboy hype. The almost childish blobbiness of the design. But the company’s first proper over-ear headphones are quite remarkable. Yes, the build quality is head and shoulders above everything else on the market (even if that case feels near superfluous.)
But it’s the audio quality that really — well — sings. Spacious, achingly crisp and with an enveloping boominess, they make every song sound better than you ever anticipated. Plus, their cinematic spatial audio makes film watching an even greater treat, too.
Apple Airpods Max
For the best all-round audio experience: Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H95
In the murky battleground that is audio, companies either go full in on sound, comfort, or design. Of all the pieces of tech we’ve tested over the year, Bang & Olufsen’s Beoplay H95 headphones may well be the most accomplished, its high price point justified by a discreet ability to cover all listening needs. It arrives in an aluminium carrying case, which has a nifty built-in storage slot for relevant wires, and the aesthetic of the main product is typical of the Danish brand, made in a high-design, considered style, but with a robust silhouette; there are pudgy, cushion-soft, magnetic lambskin-leather ear cushions that have been filled out with memory foam, and the folding design helps eschew clunkiness. (We’re also big fans of the dark yet rich hue of the navy option.)
From a technical point of view, there are bespoke titanium drivers that allow for a fairly deep bass, vibrant mids and detailed highs. But, what we’re drawn to most is the ergonomics and practicality of it all: five levels of noise cancellation (which can last for up to 38 hours of continuous listening) are controlled by spinning the left-earcup wheel; volume is controlled by the right-earcup wheel; and Bluetooth 5.1 connects to your preferred tech almost instantly. It’s a fuss-free bit of kit that does what the best products do: blend seamlessly into your everyday.
Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H95
For the workout of a lifetime: Bose Sport Earbuds
Nowadays, a man’s daily workout is as much a part of his working day as his morning email purge; lockdown saw to that, when it left us with little to do but beat our personal best and perfect our abs. As such, it’s vital to have a set of headphones that are just as comfortable training for a marathon as they are holding a plank, or pounding out crunch after crunch. Happily, Bose — lovely reliable bose — have made just the thing.
The Sport Earbuds boast truly lifelike sound quality and an eerily comfortably fit that is pleasingly difficult to dislodge, while music sounds clear, balanced and crisp — even at the most motivating volumes. Forget clock watching as you try to squeeze out those last reserves of energy at your next cardio session: these headphones will ensure you barely feel a thing.
Bose Sport Earbuds
Is piano music more your thing? Step inside Steinway’s opulent Hamburg piano factory…
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