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Monday, December 28, 2015

Striking the Right Cords: 4 Great Wireless Headphones of 2015

Posted By on Mon, Dec 28, 2015 at 9:00 AM


This year, it felt like I didn’t even have time to blink before retail went from pumpkins to peppermints and flurries of Beats By Dre discounts started showering across the Internet like so much white noise. There is no perfect answer to “what to get the music lover in your life?” but what snags my personal endorsement in 2015 are wireless headphones that dump the cords without dropping any notes. So, whether you’re looking to give a belated gift or just invest in some new gear, here are some standout options that marry convenience and conviction.

Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless, $499
Luscious sound matching plush looks; rich but not oversaturated low end; improved comfort and portability. 
CONS: The initial production run experienced some Bluetooth irregularities.

My year of exploring Bluetooth headphones began with the over-ear closed-back Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless, an update to an already impressive line of headphones, but one that introduced some issues alongside its 
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Building on a streamlined stainless steel framework that supports high-resolution listening, the Momentum 2.0 plugged in conventional cabled mode (a cord, sans voice features, is included) demonstrated dynamic upper bass response, bolstered by subbass reserves when called for that embodied a fun listen without cluttering up a midrange as plush as the premium leather-clad earcups (which were expanded in 2.0 to increase all-day comfort, but still fold down for easy portability). And, compared to the original iteration of the headphone, the treble sparkled more, assuring great instrument separation.

Pitted against a details-oriented headphone like the OPPO PM-3 or NAD VISO HP50, the Momentum 2.0 Wireless could feel at times a little loose and softly textured, though never muddy, and turning on the active noise cancellation/Bluetooth function (which toggle together) tightened things up a bit. Regardless of mode, the Momentum 2.0 delivers rich depths of sound, focusing on warmth with refinement.

The 2.0 tweaks helped give the Momentum an even more executive-grade look and listen, but the caveat came with the wireless performance. In the initial production run, some units were found to suffer from stutters and dropouts in areas of heavy congestion. In a controlled environment, I didn’t have any issues and found the Momentum to be a refuge in a crowded office, but the problem was enough to motivate Sennheiser to temporarily suspend production. A version without any wireless functions stayed on the market as Sennheiser worked on rolling out 2.0 Wireless Revision 2 this past fall. Just avoid buying a pair without confirming that it's a Revision 2 version so you sidestep any potentially faulty circuits.

Plantronics BackBeat SENSE ($199) and BackBeat PRO+ ($299)
Smart features conserve already lengthy battery life; call quality is top-notch; audio response is lively and easy to slip on and off.
CONS: PRO+ is on the bulky side; SENSE sacrifices some pump for portability; using the highest fidelity Bluetooth performance can take up a USB port.

When it comes to properly implemented Bluetooth, Plantronics is no stranger to the market. Well-known for office and mobile headsets, the company has aggressively expanded into the premium headphone segment and released the BackBeat SENSE and BackBeat Pro+ this year. 

The BackBeat SENSE is a lightweight 140g on-ear headphone with an
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 unobtrusive look that fits as easily in a cafe as a cubicle. It also has the ability to lay flat for transportation. Its easily adjusting band and leatherette-lined memory foam earpads make it comfortable for any head size. The company promises and almost delivers an 18-hour battery life (charged for 2.5 hours via microUSB), and the headphones contains proximity sensors that pause playback when it detects the set has been removed from your head. There are controls on the exterior of the cups for skip/pause/play, volume, call answering/hangup, as well as activating an OpenMic feature that allows you to hear (at a slightly augmented level even) what’s around you without taking off the headphones.

Tested for Bluetooth 4.0 connection stability and clarity, the SENSE maintained a strong signal and great call quality with iPhone 6S+, as well as with a MacBook Air. And as for music, the response from the 32mm drivers is bright and punchy without being harsh. It doesn’t have the most power, but it maintains good poise. It also offers the option to connect via AptX, a codec that delivers higher fidelity from devices that support it.

The SENSE is definitely geared toward an on-the-move groove, while its big brother the 340g PRO+ offers more of everything in a package more suited for a rooted workstation. A much larger, over-ear set of headphones, the PRO+ has all the smart and calling features of the SENSE, while taking advantage of a larger footprint to pack in more battery life (24 hours, still charged by microUSB), more range, NFC pairing, expanded physical controls (a volume dial rounding the right earcup, for example), a selectable active noise canceling feature, as well as substantially more bass.

The PRO+ is so named because it builds on a previous model and adds a dedicated Bluetooth USB dongle to the 
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package. Already paired with the headphone out of the box, the USB nub can be plugged into any computer, assuring a more robust connection with negligible latency. This Class 1 connection extends to the headphone’s signal up to 330 feet and adds AptX functionality to any laptop, desktop, etc., allowing more audio bandwidth and therefore better, near-CD fidelity for those listening to downloads or discs. The dongle isn’t restricted to the PRO+ (it will work with the SENSE), and the PRO+ still connects to any phone, tablet, etc., without the need for the additional hardware.

Audio performance is crisp and lively, though somewhat boomy at times. There is drive without excessive force, meaning the earcups themselves offer a fair amount of passive noise reduction. Turning on the active noise cancellation narrows and tames the moments when low-end threatens any imbalance. There is a hint of “telephone” effect on the sound, as it’s obviously being compressed through a circuit, but it doesn’t introduce any distracting artifacts. And, hey, it’s optional. If you’re fighting a noisy office, flight, etc., the PRO+ cuts through the crosstalk.

As a just-in-case measure, both the SENSE and PRO+ can be used with a cord. However, unlike the Sennheiser Momentum, Plantronics headphones obviously took consideration of wireless first, and they sound better powered and paired than when they are plugged in.

V-Moda Crossfade Wireless ($299)
Makes the performance gap between wired and wireless negligible when listening to Apple device-optimized audio; made to withstand the rigors of travel and backed by a solid warranty. 
CONS: Highly stylized in a way not to everyone's liking; more fun than analytical; maximum comfort involves purchasing XL cushions. 

Plantronics may rule function, but V-Moda owns form. Whereas most wireless headphones I have experienced exhibit subtle, and not so subtle, differences between wired 
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and wireless modes, the V-Moda Crossfade Wireless stands out for its ability to marginalize the variance. For years the V-Moda M-100 has been a highly successful headphone for those seeking a prominent bottom end, spacious treble and customizable styling (you can have the company produce personalized panels for the earcups).  DJs, fans of EDM, aggro metalheads and well-mannered bassheads alike loved the bass control, percussive attack and cleanly etched pacing, as well as the military-grade build quality.

Now, with the Crossfade Wireless iteration, V-Moda has taken this springboard of dominant but unbloated bass and more finely chiseled the mids, while tempering stray treble. The bass reaches deep but the control shown by the retuned 50mm dual-diaphragm drivers lets the midrange bristle or purr as needed. 

The 292g Crossfade Wireless is rugged, but not raw. They’re comfortable, though even more so with the optional XL cushions. And, most importantly, the wireless performance (which favors the native iDevice 320kpbs AAC+ over AptX codec) maintains a natural, wide quality. Call quality isn’t as stellar as the Plantronics sets, and there is no active noise cancellation and no controls beyond the more basic volume/skip/call accept and decline options. Signal distance is rated for the standard 33 feet, and battery life is shorter at 12 hours (though the included microUSB and 3.5mm cords make sure the music doesn’t stop for long).

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Tony Ware


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