Headphones have become more than just music listening devices: They’re oases of quiet, methods of communication, hearing assistive companions, phone controllers, and in a few cases windows into our health. This month we explore the latest alternatives to ubiquitous offerings from top dogs Apple, Bose and Sony that let you groove while you’re on the move.
Wireless is King
In this wireless age, wired headphones tend to appeal to the finicky audiophiles, with many high-end models requiring dedicated amplifiers and other hardware that can cost more than the cans themselves. Add to this the fact that most popular cell phones now lack a headphone jack and require an adapter for wired listening, and it’s clear that wireless is becoming dominant. Indeed, we saw two straight years of double-digit market growth for wireless headphones driven by pandemic life in 2020 and 2021. In 2022, wireless headphone sales dipped by about 2% according to NPD Group’s consumer tech industry analyst Benjamin Arnold, and growth shifted to items like party speakers as the world reconnected in person. Wired headphones, by comparison, continued their downward slide in 2022, falling another 9%. Wireless headphone average sales prices also resisted the massive inflation that many other products experienced, rising just under 1% in 2022.
The latest wave of over-ear headphones feature various flavors of noise cancellation and transparency modes, as well as optional wired listening via included cables, but our focus here is high-end sound and styling. Each model here comes with its own app and supports the latest aptX Adaptive Bluetooth codec, which means Android users get access to the best wireless sound available while iOS fans will have to settle for the (still very good-sounding) SBC codec.
Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless ($349.95)
These very attractive headphones have plenty of convenience features like automatic pause and on/off, as well as onboard touch controls. Adaptive ANC lets you set noise cancellation modes for specific locations, and the Sennheiser Smart Control app gives you access to EQ and other sound customization features. Unlike their predecessor, the current model folds flat instead of up into the headband. The battery life is very impressive at a whopping 60 hours, and you can get 6 hours of juice with a 10-minute quick charge.
B&W PX8 James Bond Edition ($799)
Featuring the 007 logo on top and the classic gun barrel view from the movie openings inside the earcups, these headphones celebrate 60 years of James Bond. To match Bond’s outfit in his first screen appearance (Dr. No), they’re midnight blue leather and aluminum with a carbon fiber cone driver in each earcup. B&W’s app supports direct listening via hi-fi streamers Qobuz, Tidal and Deezer. You get 30 hours of battery life, and 15 minutes on the charger gets you 7 more hours. Active noise cancellation, on-cup button controls, and adjustable on-ear detection round out a package worthy of the iconic spy. (The standard model is available for $100 less).
Focal Bathys ($799)
Focal’s first foray into wireless over-ear headphones has aluminum/magnesium drivers, aluminum construction with luxe leather trim, and a unique look with its “holey” earcups. You can listen for up to 30 hours per charge, and quick charge time is 15 minutes for 5 hours. Supplemented by the on-board buttons for playback and ANC/transparency mode, the somewhat sparse app gives you access to EQ and the ability to disable auto-standby.
In the true wireless stereo (TWS) earbud space, the overlap with the brand-new OTC hearing aid market creates a new middle ground segment incorporating features like speech enhancement and personal sound amplification. The most dramatic innovations are emerging in charging cases, which have been ground zero for new features like solar charging and call management. All of these new models are compatible with iOS and Android devices, but most don’t include high-resolution audio codecs like aptX Adaptive or aptX HD.
Urbanista Phoenix ($149)
On-bud touch controls, multipoint connection capability, hybrid ANC with transparency mode, and auto in-ear detection plus app-based control puts these in line with their competitors. They distinguish themselves with a charging case that uses Powerfoyle solar cells to capture both natural and artificial light and store up to 34 hours of battery life, augmenting the earbuds’ built-in 8-hour capacity.
JBL Tour Pro 2 ($249.95)
These earbuds offer app-customizable audio (including JBL’s own spatial sound) and adaptive noise cancellation with multiple preset modes for different environments. In transparency mode, they also double as a personal sound amplification device adjustable for each ear. But the show-stealing case’s tiny touchscreen lets you adjust audio settings and even manage calls and playback, almost like a smartwatch. Battery life is 8 hours plus 24 hours from the case, plus a 15-minute quick charge for 4 hours.
HP Hearing Pro ($699)
FDA-approved as a medical device, the HP Hearing Pro is powered by Nuheara’s hearing-assistance tech and app-based self fitting process for each ear (available for iOS and Android). They’re the first OTC hearing aid with hybrid ANC that also streams music and calls,using directional microphones to help you focus on conversations in noisy areas. They include the aptX HD audio codec and provide 5 hours of streaming or 8 hours of hearing aid functionality per charge.
Sennheiser Conversation Clear Plus ($849.95)
Sennheiser incorporated its new parent company Sonova’s hearing aid technology for speech enhancement in these earbuds, though they’re not technically an OTC hearing aid, occupying a middle ground alongside the JBL Tour Pro 2 mentioned above. An Automatic Scene Detection feature senses your environment and adjusts speech intelligently. The earbuds also provide ANC and a transparency mode and let you stream music and calls—albeit with somewhat older Bluetooth tech than other models here—for up to 9 hours (and 27 more via the charging case).