Categories
Review

Best Headphones Spring 2015 Edition

Since my last headphone post I’ve been trying out lots of different models, and have settled on two new ones as my daily drivers: the PowerBeats 2 and the Sennheiser Momentum 2 Wireless.

beats_by_dre_pr_sentiert_lebron_james_in_re_established_powerbeats2_wireless_01I’ll talk about the Beats first because it’s easy: before I used a Plantronics set for exercise, but the battery life wasn’t great and they would often fall out when running. The Powerbeats 2 are light, have great battery life (they claim 6 hours, that feels about right), stay in place even when running in the Houston heat, charge fast, and as a bonus they look cool. (Beats has always been great about that.) The sound? They’re bad, but good at it. There’s basically no isolation so you can hear traffic and things around you at lower volumes, which is actually a bonus, and if you turn up the volume they get loud enough to drown other stuff out. Buy these for the function, not the sound quality, and you can pick them up from any Best Buy kiosk in the airport or Apple Store if you lose or forget them, so they’re pretty ubiquitous.

71mNNnOhCKL._SL1500_-2I heard about the Sennheisers from Carl Hancock who tried them and gave them a high recommendation. I had trouble finding them but there was a pair local to me at B&H in New York so I got them delivered and I was immediately impressed with them. They’re better than my previous wireless over-ear recommendation the Samsung Level Over in every way: sound, size, compatibility, aesthetics, usability, noise canceling.

The sound is the best I’ve heard from wireless headphones so far. Just the right balance. The noise canceling apparently uses 4 different mics and I’ve found it more than sufficient on dozens of plane rides, including passing the noisy baby test. My only complaint is they don’t “grip” my ears as much, so some sound leaks in that way. They fold up to be pretty small, and I just toss them in my backpack. 81FYeTRjv4L._SL1500_-2The battery goes forever, or as they claim 22 hours. You really forget to charge these things for a while and they still have plenty of juice. The volume and other controls actually work with the iPhone, and bluetooth calls have sounded great and people can actually hear me. Only downside is they have basically a proprietary connection for their 1/8th inch cable, so you have ta carry that around, but they charge with standard micro-USB. The only possible challenger I can think to these are the BeoPlay H8s, which I haven’t tried yet.

tl; dr: If you want to exercise and get sweaty, get the Powerbeats 2 in your favorite color. For traveling, listening to music, talking, and generally enjoying amazing sound without worrying about wires, try out the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless.

I think it’s interesting that both of these recommendations are version 2.0 of a product, it’s good to see companies iterating and improving on products even if they’ve already been successful in the marketplace.

Categories
Review

Beats Studio Wireless vs Samsung Level Over

I listen to music pretty much constantly, and it’s not unusual to see me on the road with just a carry-on and still have 3 or 4 headphones on me that I’m testing.

First off, Bluetooth changes everything. It’s so nice to not ever worry about cables, or even proximity for the most part, like having your phone charging by the laptop and still able to walk around the room. Audio quality is great now, only downside is having to charge something, but they’re all pretty good about battery now.

I’ve been enjoying a category I’ll call: Bluetooth, over ear headphones that let people know not to bother you, that you feel kind of cool wearing, that are great for planes, and cost around $300-400. The pioneer in this category is Beats, and I bought a pair of their Studio Wireless (in matte titanium, natch) after Apple bought them because I wanted to see what the fuss is about. More recently I got some horribly named but well-reviewed Samsung Level Overs, so this is a comparison of those two. (Another contender in this category would be the Parrot Zik ones, but just skip those. Great idea, annoying in practice.)

Beats Studio WirelessLet me start with how the Beats are better: they fold up, look cool, sound pretty decent on calls, and everything works nicely with the iPhone. For me they have two fatal flaws: comfort and noise. The earcups are kind of small, or my ears are kind of huge; whichever it is, sometimes after wearing them for a few hours my left ear starts to become quite sore. Second is they have active noise cancellation (ANC) that causes what can only be described as a constant hiss you can hear both while music is playing and while it’s off, it’s like like noise addition rather than noise cancellation. The fit and finish of the Beats are nice, as well as the accessories like cables, how it indicates how much power is left, et cetera.

Samsung LEVEL overThe LEVEL overs (wow that’s awkward to write) are big, and they don’t fold, but they float around in my backpack pretty much the same as the Beats, especially if you don’t use the included case. The battery seems to go forever. The ANC can be turned on and off (battery goes longer with it off), and when it’s on it’s good, like miss-the-announcement-for-your-flight good. For me this is the deal-maker — I didn’t realize what I was missing with mediocre ANC before on the Beats, I’m now able to concentrate and relax much better on planes. I’ve flown every third day in the past month, so this is a big deal to me. They also feel like they’re better made — less plastic feeling than the Beats. The have a touch gesture control on the right cup like on the Zik, but it actually works well. The cups fit completely over my ears and in general it feels more comfortable on my head, I can wear it for hours at a time and it’s totally comfortable. I don’t think they look as cool, but that’s probably because I haven’t been conditioned with pictures of my favorite musicians and athletes wearing them. (Though not in football anymore.)

Main downsides: the cable it comes with doesn’t “work” with an iPhone or Mac as a mic or control device, and is also clunky. (Bluetooth control works fine.) This is apparently because the remote control resistor on Apple-targeted cables work differently from everyone else’s, which I think we can all agree in 2014 is ridiculous for both sides. My fix for this was to use the cable from the Beats, which you can also buy online, which looks cooler, is smaller, and works great with my Mac for G+ Hangouts and Skype calls. Perhaps related to this is when the Beats or many other Bluetooth headsets I’ve used are connected to the iPhone there’s a battery indicator and the Samsung doesn’t support this, but since the battery life is so good I don’t worry about this too much.

Matt with SamsungsToo long; skipped to the end: The Samsung sounds better, is more comfortable, and is better made. Try it out if you’re considering buying headphones in this category. I don’t expect this to be a long-term advantage because I’m fairly certain Apple will do amazing things with Beats in the future, even if that just means a lightning connector, but I’m guessing that’s a 2015 thing.

Extra credit: What headphones do I use in other categories? (An update to my 2009 post.) For in-ear wired I use Ultimate Ears 18 Pro Custom molded to my ears, but I also recommend Sennheiser IE 8i for friends who don’t want to go to audiologist, for running/exercise or when being discreet like on a subway I use the Plantronics BackBeat GO 2 with charging case, at home I like the Auduze LCD3 usually with a Red Wine Audio amp. I agree with many of the assessments in Marco Arment’s mega-review, and I got turned on to the Samsung’s by Wirecutter’s noise cancelling review.