InnerFidelity's "Wall of Fame" Wireless

Wireless
I'll be breaking down wireless cans into two categories: bluetooth headsets for use with phones and portable players, and wireless headphones for use at home---typically for TV and movie watching but can be used for music.

For a number of reasons, I'm not a big fan of wireless headphones. Usually, sound quality suffers from the wireless transmission link. Only recent lossless digital methods of audio transmission get really good sound to the headphones. Sound quality can also be limited by size and weight limitations on the battery and electronics; only so much can be put into the headphones and still remain light and sleek enough to wear comfortably. The electrical signal used to drive wireless headphones from these low-power miniaturized circuits can be significantly poorer than when a wire and external electronics are used. As a result, you'll always get better sound quality for the money with wired headphones.

None the less, being without the tether can be quite valuable, and there are a few pretty good sounding wireless cans available.

Wireless Headphones for Home
Many transmission methods are used for this type of headphone including: infra-red; FM radio; analog and digital spread spectrum; and proprietary digital transmission methods like KLEER. Infra-red methods are light based and only work if you're in the same room as the transmitter, and may be interfered with by other light sources in the room. FM radio methods may work over longer distances, but are often plagued by noise. Analog spread spectrum works better, but noise can still be an issue. Spread spectrum digital methods are noise-free with good reception, but some don't handle loss of signal well and can blurt out bursts of horrible noise when they loose data lock. Well designed proprietary digital methods like KLEER often handle low signal levels and drop out better and are more satisfactory than older and cruder schemes.

Sennheiser RS 220 ($599)
WoF_photo_Senn_RS220At the top of the heap, Sennheiser's latest addition to their wireless headphone line is the RS 220. With acoustics based on their HD 600 line of headphones, these simply sound excellent. Using a DSSS (direct-sequence spread spectrum) modulation technique, low-latency, uncompressed, CD quality digital audio is transmitted to the headphone from the base station. Transmission range is claimed to be up to 300 feet line-of-site, and about 100 feet with normal use in the home.

This is an open headphone with little isolation, so a bed-mate will hear the headphones, and they will not isolate well from outside noise. But their open design also allows for the best possible sound quality. (See the RS 170 below for a sealed wireless headphone.)

Both analog and Toslink digital inputs and loop outs are provided on the base station. The headphones charge while hung on the cradle.

Sennheiser RS 180 ($329)
WoF_photo_Senn_RS180These very good sounding headphones use the KLEER wireless audio transmission chip-set, and deliver uncompressed, CD quality audio to the headphones. KLEER is capable of pairing with multiple devices, so up to four people can listen simultaneously with extra headsets. Inputs to the base station are analog only.

I particularly like the Automatic Level Control built into this headphone which allows you to engage dynamic compression of the audio. This will make soft sound louder, and loud sounds quieter, which will improve speech intelligibility, and will reduce the level of loud commercials when TV watching.

This is an open headphone with little isolation, so a bed-mate will hear the headphones, and they will not isolate well from outside noise. But their open design also allows for the best possible sound quality. (See the RS 170 below for a sealed wireless headphone.)

Sennheiser RS 170 ($279)
WoF_photo_Senn_RS170Similar to the RS180 above, but in a closed design, these very good sounding wireless headphones will provide some isolation from outside noise, and will significantly reduce the amount of sound heard by a bed-mate. The RS 170 uses the KLEER wireless audio transmission chip-set, and delivers uncompressed, CD quality audio to the headphones. KLEER is capable of pairing with multiple devices, so up to four people can listen simultaneously with extra headsets.

The base station includes buttons for Bass Boost and Surround, neither of which I found particularly useful, but the headphones sound so good it matters not. Headphones charge when hung on base station.

Sennheiser RS 120 ($79)
WoF_photo_Senn_RS120Providing very good sound for a wireless headphone at this price, the RS 120 is an open design, on-ear headphones, and provides little isolation from outside noise. It uses an FM stereo transmission scheme, so some noise may be heard, but the transmitter is quite powerful, so nearby reception is clear and transmission distance is very good. The transmitter can be set to three different frequencies to avoid interference from other local RF sources; earpiece receiver is continuously tunable for best reception. Headphone charges on base station.

I've had one of these in my home for the last ten years, and it's seen myriad duties for the family from late night TV and gaming, to headphones for housekeeping. It's taken a beating and continues to work good first time, every time.

Bluetooth Wireless Headphones for use with Portable Devices
In general, Bluetooth is a pretty poor sounding wireless protocol. Most Bluetooth devices currently use the A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile) protocol, which limits the maximum bit rate to 320kb/s for mono, and 512kb/s for two-channel modes. Other higher resolution protocols and codecs are beginning to appear in consumer products. APT-X, for example, promises improved sound quality and lower latency for better audio synchronization with video.

Phiaton Chord MS530 ($299)
The Phiaton Chord MS530 tops my list of Bluetooth headsets with its very good sound quality in all modes of operation. Able to run off a wire or Bluetooth with noise canceling, this large ear-pad headphones works wonderfully as a general purpose can. Comfortable, stylish, relatively low-cost, and good sound in all modes...what's not to like?

See full InnerFidelity review here.

Parrot Zik 2.0 ($399)
WoF_photo_Parrot_ZikThe Parrot Zik is a stunningly beautiful headphone, and a remarkably ambitious engineering project. Sounding quite a bit more natural than the preceding version, the Zik 2.0 also improves on weight, comfort, and the performance and usability of the companion app for smartphones.

This is a slightly warm sounding can with very deep, extended bass response and an even midrange. Treble remains a bit unnatural sounding, but the parametric EQ and virtual speaker software in the app do a great job of allowing you to tailor sonic response to your tastes.

Downsides of the headphone are non-replaceable ear pads—which reduces the lifetime of the product—and a very flimsy fabric carry pouch.

Read InnerFidelity capsule review here.

Scosche RH1060 ($199)
It's big, glossy black, and a bit gaudy looking, but, this is a damned good basshead Bluetooth headphone. With a very strong bass and clear treble, this headphone is somewhat "V" shaped with a strongly emphasized bass and mildly emphatic treble that will likely satisfy bass lovers.

Battery life is 8 hours for continuous wireless use, and they will run passively on a wire. BT does not have aptX, but does use AAC and BT2.1 with A2DP, AVRCP, and HFP profiles. A hard-sided, zipper closure, clam-shell case is also included.

Read InnerFidelity capsule review here.

MEElectronic Air-Fi Matrix2 AF62 (~$80 street price)
Wow! This Bluetooth headset sounds way better than its price would indicate. These are a neutral sounding headphone. Bass extension and quality is a bit poor, but because it's not over emphasized it tends not to be bothersome. Bassheads beware, you might much prefer the Scosche even though double the price. From the upper-bass to the upper-mids, the AF62 is dead flat, and a real treat for the ears. These cans have a wonderfully un-colored response through the body and soul of the music. Treble is a bit laid back making for a slightly veiled sound, and the treble response overall is a little hazy and indistinct.

The AF62 is very light and comfortable on the head. Ear cushions, while not providing the luxurious feel of better materials, are ample in size and depth, and caliper pressure against the head is just about right.

The Matrix2 AF62 comes well equiped with Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and supports both aptX and AAC codecs. Battery life is a whopping 22 hours! I can be played passively with the included cable.

Read InnerFidelity capsule review here.

Wall of Fame Retirees

JayBird Sportsband ($99)
WoF_photo_JayBird_SportsBandThis headphone was retired from the WoF and replaced by the similarly low cost but much superior sounding Meelectronics Air-Fi Matrix2 AF62.

This dandy little Bluetooth wireless headset is an open, on-ear design that sounds superb at this price. It's light and comfortable enough to be used when active around the house, and its open design will help you remain aware of traffic noise while walking around town.

The Sportsband includes: a built-in microphone; volume and track controls on the earpiece; and is available in a wide variety of colors

Parrot Zik ($399)
WoF_photo_Parrot_ZikThis headphone was retired from the WoF as it's been replaced by the Parrot Zik2.0, which replaces it on the WoF.

The Parrot Zik is a stunningly beautiful headphone, and a remarkably ambitious engineering project. When I first heard of them, I expected a clusterfail of epic proportion. I'm pleased to report that I found them the best Bluetooth wireless headphone I've experience to date--a brilliant harmony of style and substance.

Yes, they're a bit rough around the edges with a few software bugs and a somewhat artificial sound that leaves them short of refined audiophile standards. But I have hope that the bugs will be fixed in future software updates, and I've heard exactly zero other Bluetooth headphones that meet audiophile standards. They're a bit pricey, but if you compare what you're getting with other Bluetooth headphones of this caliber, I think you'll find them to be a pretty darn good deal.

Read full InnerFidelity review here.

Sony MDR-1RBT ($399)
WoF_photo_Logitech_UE9000This headphone was retired from the WoF as it's been discontinued and doesn't have quite the sound quality of others recently tested.

Having spent quite a bit of time using this Bluetooth headset, I'd have a very hard time switching to anything else available at the moment. The MDR-1RBT looks terrific, is wonderfully comfortable, and the control ergonomics are very good. It's only downfall is less than stellar sound, with warm bass and strong presence region overwhelming the bit in between. On the other hand, I've simply not heard anything really better from a Bluetooth headset.

See full InnerFidelity review here.

Logitech UE9000 ($399)
WoF_photo_Logitech_UE9000This headphone was retired with the arrival of the Sony MDR-1RBT, which is less expensive, more comfortable, better looking, with roughly equivalent sound.

This handsome, versatile, and well-built headphones has a lot going for it. It's most attractive feature is it's very good, balanced sound in passive wired mode. It's also a noise canceling headphone, that works fairly well, but sounds somewhat too bassy and bloated for audiophile listening, but is a good compromise for smartphone and iPad uses in noisy environments. (Hard core travelers should look at the Bose Quiet Comfort 15.)

It's Bluetooth capabilities are very good, delivering very good sound without the wire, and includes a "talk through" feature in that mode. It has three-button Apple-compatible remote capabilities both wired (control on cable) and in wireless mode (control on right earpiece).

See full InnerFidelity review here.

Sennheiser MM 450 X ($449)
WoF_photo_Senn_MM450XThe excellent sound, small size, and freedom from tether make this noise canceling and bluetooth wireless Sennheiser MM 450 X a great traveler's headphone.

The MM 450 X bristles with features like: a TalkThrough button you can push to hold quick conversation with those around you without taking off the cans; A2DP high resolution stereo Bluetooth with compatible devices (regular Bluetooth for other devices); a cable for times when Bluetooth is unavailable; charges from USB or included wall-wart; and the headphone folds and stores in included carry case for compact storage.

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