When I was a little younger, one of my favourite television programmes was Top Gear. I didn’t much care for the humour, but I always appreciated the imagery of the show: the stunning cinematics, the drool-inducing mechanics on display and the jaw dropping settings they were on display in. One episode, they took a Bugatti Veyron and a small Cessna aeroplane, and pitted them against each for a race.
The Bugatti was everything the Cessna wasn’t: exquisitely detailed, hand made, neither particularly practical nor especially affordable. And then, right after the miracle of television (the Bugatti somehow beat a plane), Jeremy Clarkson concludes that it was a ‘hollow victory’. He reasoned that the victory marked the end of his time with the car. “I’ve now got to go for the rest of my life knowing that I’ll never own that car, ”he tells an exhausted James and Richard. Ridiculous as comparing a £400 set of headphones with a £1,000,000 car might be, I feel very much the same way. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to keep a review unit quite so much.
These headphones are as much an art piece as they are functional, which I can’t pretend to be surprised about: Bang & Olufson is as much a design house as it is a manufacturer of high end audio goods. Be in no doubt: something deeply special has been achieved here. The technologies on board are right at the cutting edge of what is currently possible with headphones, and I suspect strongly that the sound will still be strong in relation to competitors in a few years’ time.
But I hasten to almost refer to the design of these cans: to call them cans is to denigrate them. They’re made of soft fabric, real leather, lambskin clad memory foam cups (I reserve a special place in my heart for memory foam, and lambskin covering memory foam feels deeply otherworldly) and anodised aluminium. The technology will be good for a few years, but the design will be timeless: I have every expectation that the leather will age and look even better with time, and that the aluminium will remain dependable and rigid for as long as you’d wish to own these.
A little more about the design: in a softly padded medium sized box, you’ll find the headphones. Underneath, a soft fabric carry case, an audio jack cable (in case you want to use them without the Bluetooth or noise cancelling, or the battery runs out, or your device doesn’t support Bluetooth), an aeroplane adaptor and some manuals. The packaging is good packaging, but I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s remarkable, certainly, not as remarkable as the headphones themselves.
The headphones are quietly designed, almost inconspicuous – in the edition I got, with chocolate brown leather and lambskin complemented by grey matte aluminium, they drew very little attention. These aren’t Beats – it’s going to take a design connoisseur or an audiophile enthusiast to actually pick these out in a crowd. To my mind, that’s a good thing. These are on On-Ear headphones, meaning they sit perfectly comfortable atop your ears, rather than fully encompassing them. For many, this might represent a trade off, but it allows the total footprint of this device to be fairly modest.
The cups fold flat, which is useful if you’re travelling with them (particularly in a briefcase, or, like me, a messenger bag). They also extend out from the frame using an incredible svelte mechanism. There are no graduations here, the aluminium simply slides out and holds wherever you leave it. I can’t articulate quite how simplistic yet wonderful this little piece of engineering is. At the inner top of the band, there is ample padding, so these sit comfortable on your head for an extended listening session.
On one cup, you’ll find a little switch like button that lets you pop out the rechargeable battery. My review unit didn’t come with a spare battery but I suppose you could purchase one if you were so inclined. On the other cup, the right hand side one, you’ll find an On-Off-Bluetooth switch. What you won’t notice though is that beneath the metal plating on the exterior of the cup, there is a touch sensor that allows you to control everything. I imagine there’s a possibility that onlookers may be a little bemused by the occasional tapping at what is visually just a piece of metal. But it’s actually a convenient method of using headphones (and it works with gloves too) – it allows for almost effortless play/pause/volume/skip/call control, although I do concede it takes a modicum of getting used to.
I have almost no critique to offer of the design of these headphones: they don’t have a mechanism of folding the band, but then it doesn’t matter because no one in there right mind would stuff these into a jacket. If these headphones ever leave your home, it’ll be in a bag for your commute or flight. I do, however, take slight issue with the accessories provided: I wish a slightly better carry bag had been included, perhaps a hard backed one, or one made of the same leather as the device band. I also recognise that whilst its’ use will almost certainly be limited, a better audiojack cable wouldn’t have gone amiss: is it too great an ask that it should be flat and anti-tangle? Don’t allow these small gripes to deter you though: the amount of thought that has gone into these combined with the materials chosen represents an industry leading standard. It is second to none.
Headphones at any price level, but particularly at this price level, ought to sound great. These deliver on sound quality, and I’ll devote a chunk of text to that in a little bit, but I first want to talk about everything except sound quality. These headphones are Bluetooth wireless, and therefore battery powered. Typically, the limits of battery technology means the headphone drivers are weedy and therefore don’t sound great. Not so here: the battery is plainly some sort of mystical wizardry, and so has the capacity to push great sound, over wireless, with noise cancellation. For bloody ages.
I think B&O Play offer an estimate of 14 hours of usage over wireless with the ANC (active noise cancelling) enabled and I have been offered no reason whatsoever to doubt it. I can only see one scenario where you’d use them for that period of time without interlude: a flight, where you used the audio intermittently, and the noise cancelling to rest. Conveniently, 14 hours is also around the same period of time that the longest long haul flights last without a stop (where you could presumably charge them fairly quickly).
If you’re the sort of unintelligible maniac who listens to 36 hours of straight music, then firstly, seek medical attention. But if you really do insist, I recommend either charging whilst listening, swapping out the battery, or plugging into the audio cable for parts of that time. The Bluetooth works exactly as it should: it is reliable, seems to have a range that should cover all reasonable eventualities, and the sound quality over it is on a par if not slightly better than using the cable. The noise cancelling was never going to be as good as larger devices where the cups fully insulated your ears, but it’s easily as good as Bose models, which are generally considered the ‘to-beat’ models.
OK, now for the important bit: the sound quality. These headphones are the best sounding audio device I’ve ever encountered. I felt deeply distressed using them in the knowledge I’d have to return them to the PR office. The sound EQ isn’t quite flat, these aren’t Monitor devices. It’s gently geared towards the bassy lows, but not to the point that it detracts from the mids or uppers. In fact, though bass-heavy tracks pumped through these, I enjoyed the headphones most whilst listening to classical music.
I was lucky enough a while back to find myself listening to the Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi at the iTunes festival in the Camden Roundhouse. He’d had a great set, and, just as the audience expected the show to wrap up, he played ‘Run’, a piece from In A Time Lapse. I was transfixed. I’m unconvinced that I’ve ever heard a live performance that quite so touched me. In every pair of earphones, headphones and speakers I come across, I play the piece, desperately trying to recreate that moment. And though it unfailingly sounds good through just about anything, it was only using these the beauty I’d experience in the Roundhouse returned. I left my phone playing the track on my desk and just lay down on the floor. I was overcome with the sound. When I closed my eyes, I was back in the Roundhouse. This may well be as good as it gets. The noise cancelling shut out the outside world, the wireless enabled me to move unconstrained by cables, but it was the sound quality that made the experience. This device is eye wateringly expensive but its’ pricing isn’t inexplicable, it’s reasonable: the sound here isn’t truly like anything else I’ve ever encountered.
This small, understated, almost unnoticeable device is anything but. Bang & Olufson have created a new standard, a towering monument to audio, to technology and to music. To listen to something through these that you’d only previously heard through computer speakers or the standard earphones that smartphones come prepackaged with is to hear a new sound entirely. The sound is graceful, elegant and powerful. It is as uplifting as the design is stunning. That the headphones are also noise cancelling and Bluetooth enabled is frankly a bonus.
This isn’t a device without fault, like the minor design qualms I mentioned. Most troubling is the sum of money you’ll have to put up in order to own these. I can’t earnestly say the money is worth it, because I don’t own this device, and I’ve never found myself in the position to buy headphones this expensive. Yet, if you are in a position to buy these, you unquestionably should. And if you aren’t, see if you can get yourself to a shop floor to try these out – I promise you, this changes everything.