Focal Clear headphones measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Headphones are like loudspeakers in two important ways. First, both make sound. Second, in both categories, what was recently considered a super-high-end product is now touted as “midpriced” or “accessible.” Take, for example, Focal’s Clear open-back headphones. They’re priced at $1500 USD, which slots them between Focal’s first two high-end models, the Utopias ($4000) and the Elears ($1000). Sure, the Utopias are among the costliest headphones available today, but for most people, spending even $500 on headphones is unthinkable.
In late 2015, Amazon launched its first Echo smart speaker, ushering in a new category of technology products. A year later, Google introduced the Echo’s first competitor, the Google Home, and in spring 2017, Microsoft announced a partnership with Harman/Kardon to bring Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana -- present on any PC running Windows 10 -- to a standalone wireless loudspeaker, the Invoke ($199.95 USD).
Acoustic Research AR-H1 headphones measurements can be found by clicking this link.
The AR-H1 headphones are the last thing I expected from Acoustic Research. Audiophiles know AR as the pioneer of the acoustic-suspension loudspeaker, in 1952, and as the builder of widely varying yet generally quite good speakers created in the 1990s by teams that included such audio luminaries as NHT cofounders Chris Byrne and Ken Kantor, Infinity cofounder and current Artison CEO Cary Christie, and current James Loudspeaker CTO Mike Park. But for the last 15 years or so the AR brand has been applied mostly to accessories, such as inexpensive cables and Bluetooth speakers -- in fact, AR is currently owned by Voxx Accessories Corp. While it’s puzzling to see this once-revered, now-trashed brand name suddenly applied to high-end, planar-magnetic headphones, I have to admit that it gives me a bit of a warm feeling inside.
Monoprice Sony WH-1000XM2 earphones measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Based on what I’ve observed, the greatest challenge in headphone design isn’t building the world’s greatest audiophile headphones. It’s building really good noise-canceling headphones. Consider the challenges Sony faced in creating the WH-1000XM2 noise-canceling (NC) headphones ($349.99 USD). The engineer must deal not only with the incoming music signal, but also with the signals coming from one or two microphones in each earpiece, each mike separately filtered to compensate for its distance from the driver, and for the acoustical properties of the driver and enclosure. The response of the drivers must be tuned to compensate for the effects of NC on the headphones’ sound -- and they still have to sound reasonably good in passive mode, when the battery runs down. Then there’s the noise of the internal amps and microphones to worry about. Perhaps worst of all, I’m told that many of the key patents of this technology are still held and vigorously defended by Bose.
Monoprice Monolith M300 earphones measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Products like the Monolith M300 in-ear earphones show how different Monoprice is from other audio brands. Other than their name and logo, Monoprice makes no pretense of brand identity in their products. Their focus is working with various overseas manufacturers to deliver products of (usually) reasonably good quality in all sorts of categories, at prices so low that few other companies can match them. However, the Monolith M300 earphones reflect what seems to be a minor sideline for Monoprice: products that look like knockoffs of well-regarded models made by other companies.
Wireless loudspeakers are propagating at a remarkable rate. The first appeared in the 1990s, and received music signals from the source components via RF. But they sounded pretty awful, and didn’t catch on. The next wireless speakers used Bluetooth, which have gradually become better as Bluetooth’s codecs have improved, from SBC to aptX to the new aptX HD. Lately we’ve seen a proliferation of wireless speakers that work via Wi-Fi; these are easy to implement, as most people’s homes now have a wireless network. Apple, Google, and Amazon are the latest and biggest players in this market, with voice-activated products that also play music.
I’ve been asked to review several home-theater soundbars over the years, and I usually decline. In my experience, the vast majority of them don’t sound any good. They’re so compromised in size and abilities that they wouldn’t be on the radar of most home-theater enthusiasts. Nor have I had an easy way to accommodate a soundbar, either in my home-theater room or my living room. The speakers in my living room are on-wall models, and running wires from my receiver to a traditional soundbar would be messy.
The Missus and I relocated to the Carolina coast earlier this year, and are now happily perched next to a tidal creek and its wondrous array of wetlands avifauna. When we moved, two desires (read: edicts) were that the living area of our new house have excellent music and movie sound but not be awash in speakers. This is something I clearly understand. Few artifacts of modern living disrupt domestic feng shui more than arrays of surround-sound speakers, and man, there can be a host of them -- 11.2 channels, anyone?
Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC headphones measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Some of the fabled audio brands of my teen years, in the 1970s, seem to be aging even less gracefully than I am as they face brutal competition from online merchants and low-cost Chinese brands. Sure, established names like Sennheiser can still command a premium over such brands as Fleeken, Hiearcool, and Paww. But when consumers can choose between OK headphones for $70 and name-brand cans for $350, most will likely cheap out. I’m guessing this is why Sennheiser has introduced the HD 4.50 BTNC noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones for $199.95 USD -- half the price of their next-least-expensive current models of this type, the PXC 550 Wireless and HD1 On-Ear Wireless, both at $399.95.
JBL E55BT Quincy Edition headphones measurements can be found by clicking this link.
The E55BT Quincy Edition headphones take me back to the early days of the headphone boom, when it seemed that the primary goal of headphone brands was to get a celebrity to endorse their products. While endorsements were once common to the point of absurdity -- Soul Electronics sold a model endorsed by Tim Tebow -- these days they’re rare. I think the E55BT Quincy Edition ($199.95 USD) is the first set of celeb-endorsed headphones I’ve reviewed in about four years.