Headphone Review: Jabra Revo Wireless Bluetooth On-Ear Heaphones

Jabra revoA few months ago, I started searching for a new set of Bluetooth headphones. I like to listen to music when I walk – both outdoors, and on a treadmill at home – and wires get in the way. I had an older pair of Philips headphones that was good, but the sound wasn’t great; I wanted something better. I tried the Beats Solo 2 wired headphones, and was very disappointed by them, so didn’t bother to try their wireless version. The same was the case with the Sennheiser Momentum; I tried the wired headphones and found them to have a muddy sound, so I didn’t explore their wireless model.

I’ve been using the Jabra Revo wireless Bluetooth on-ear headphones (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) for about two months, and I’ve found that they fit my needs. But will they be right for you?

The Jabra Revo is a compact, foldable headphone, which looks a bit like the Beats. They are on-ear headphones, which means they block out a lot of noise around you, but also heat up your ears. At a current retail price of $200 or £200 (discounted, on Amazon, at the time of this writing, to $156 and £115), they are affordable headphones for those who want good sound and Bluetooth.

Like any headphones, there are pros and cons. With the Jabra Revo, the cons are apparent, but the pros outweigh them, at least for me. One of my main criticisms of the Beats headphones was their excessive bass. As I said about those headphones, “I would need to switch the EQ on and off to use these headphones. And if they need EQ, then they’ve failed.”

I’ve contradicted myself with the Jabra Revo. They are a bit bassy; not as much as the Beats, but more than I want. I found that, when listening to music on my iOS devices, if I turn on the EQ to bass reducer, they sound fine. But not just fine, they sound great. The clarity of the sound approaches that of very good wired headphones. When I first tried them out, I felt that needing to use the EQ would be a deal-breaker, but after using them for a few weeks – so I would still be in Amazon’s return window – I realized that they sounded so good that I’d be willing to compromise.

The other issue I have with the Jabra Revo is that the controls aren’t easy to use. It’s very hard to see where the controls are. Look at this photo of the right earpiece.

Jabra controls

If you look closely, you can see the on/off slider just below the USB port that you use to charge the headphones. It’s not well marked, and I have to look very carefully to find it whenever I turn on the headphones. It could be colored a bit differently from the black background to make it more visible.

To pause or play music, skip tracks, and change the volume, you use controls on the side of that earpiece. Do you see them? It’s just the center button, and the sort of wheel around it. To play or pause, you press the center button. To change the volume, you slide your finger around the ring. Which means that, most times, when I want to pause music, I reach up to press that button and end up changing the volume. Because hitting that button precisely when you can’t see it is well nigh impossible. And to skip tracks, you have to press the ring, around the level of the center button; unavoidabley, I end up changing the volume when I do this.

It’s surprising how poorly designed these headphones are as far as the controls are concerned. So much so, that I use my iPhone to change tracks or volume. (In the future, I hope to use my Apple Watch for this, so it should be easier.)

Note that these headphones also come with two cables, if you wish to use them as standard wired headphones (or have a wire for when the charge runs out). One is a standard cable, and the other has a microphone and remote control. There is also a carrying case.

Jabra accessories

Jabra offers an iOS app, which I found to be useless. It’s free with a code that you get with your headphones, or $5 otherwise. It gives all sorts of EQ settings, but isn’t optimal to use for actually playing music. So I don’t use it at all.

As much as I may criticize the design and usability of these headphones, the quality of the sound won me over. I know there are no perfect headphones, and sound quality is a lot more important to me than buttons. I’m quite happy with them, considering the many negatives that I’ve highlighted. Great sound, if you use EQ; poor usability, but you can avoid many of the problems with the illogical controls buy using your iPhone or Apple Watch. Try them out; you might find them easier to use than me, but I think you’ll find the sound to be excellent, with the right EQ setting.

Noise-Canceling Headphones and Music Quality

Noise-canceling headphones are a great invention. Instead of walking down the street of a hectic city, being overwhelmed by the sounds of the million-footed beast, you can shut out much of din of traffic and conversation while listening to your favorite tunes. Another common use of noise-canceling headphones is plane trips; the constant sounds of an airplane can be fatiguing, and noise-canceling headphones – even with no music playing – can make for more restful traveling.

It may seem like these headphones use voodoo to silence background noise, but the technique is actually a pretty simple application of physics. They combine both passive and active noise cancellation.

To start with, each of the ear cups is well insulated, blocking out much of the noise around you. This passive noise cancellation blocks out many of the higher frequencies. In fact, you may find that good noise-canceling headphones block enough sound even before you turn on the active noise cancellation.

For this latter feature, each of the ear cups contains a tiny microphone that picks up the external sounds. The headphones process these sounds by flipping the sound waves upside down. When you play two sound waves at the same time – one inverted – they cancel each other out.

2000px Active Noise Reduction svg

A great example of effective noise cancellation is the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound. Back in 1974, sound man and chemist extraordinaire Owsley Stanley came up with a setup for the band that was distortion-free, and also served as monitors, so the band could hear themselves play without having blowback monitors on the stage in front of them.

Wall of sound

The Wall of Sound was the largest sound system ever built, and packed a lot of power: it weighed 75 tons, contained some 600 speakers, and put out more than 26,000 watts of sound. But there was a problem: since the microphones were facing backwards, toward all those speakers, wouldn’t they create a feedback loop?

Stanley set up microphones in pairs, out of phase, which worked exactly as active noise cancellation does. The singer sang into the top microphone, and the bottom microphone picked up the background sounds. This second microphone’s waves were flipped, canceling out the background.

Jerry microphone

As you can see in the first image above (from Wikipedia), there is still a remnant of the noise after the cancellation; this is unavoidable. As such, Grateful Dead recordings of the time – notably those officially released of the Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack – have a bit of a hiss in the vocals.

The same is true with noise-canceling headphones today. If you stop playing music, you’ll hear a slight hiss in the background. Noise-canceling headphones may offer great sound, but they do have this limitation: anything you listen to, with active noise cancellation turned on, will be affected by this hiss. Because of this, no noise-canceling headphone will sound as good as regular headphones of the same audio quality.

So noise-canceling headphones are a trade-off. The sound quality of these headphones isn’t as good as standard headphones at the same price. But they’re great in noisy environments – planes, trains, busy city streets – where you really want to get rid of the background noise. If you use them in quiet areas, make sure to turn off the active noise cancellation; your music will sound better. (Some noise-canceling headphones only work with power; others will work without power, just like regular headphones.)

(If you’re curious, I have a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7B noise-cancelling headphones. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) They’re a lot cheaper than Bose headphones, and are well rated. I don’t use them often, but when I do use them, they work very well, and have very good sound.)

Review: Beats Solo 2 On-Ear Headphones

Overear solo2 black standard cord OMy experience with Beats headphones was, in the past, limited to trying them out in stores where a dozen headphones were available to plug into your portable device. They were overly bassy, far from neutral, and the sound was such I didn’t spend much time with them.

Following Apple’s acquisition of the company, Beats released the Solo 2, which has gotten good reviews from both audio publications and headphone geeks. So I decided to try them out.

The $200/£170 Solo 2 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is similar to the Solo: it’s a wired, on-ear headphone. The fit is tight, allowing the earpads to block out a lot of ambient sounds, and also preventing too much leakage from what you listen to. These headphones fold, and come with a rudimentary pouch that zips shut. The cord, which is plugged into the headphones, allowing for easy replacement, has an iOS device-compatible microphone and remote. You can control volume, skip tracks, fast forward, rewind, and take calls.

I found the Beats Solo 2 to be fairly comfortable, for this kind of headphone. Some people may find them too tight; they may also be too warm in seasons with higher temperatures. But I found that I could wear them without noticing them.

As for the sound, well… It’s not that much better than the other Beats I’ve heard. While some music sounds excellent – Bob Dylan with an acoustic guitar, for example – most music doesn’t. The bass booms, overwhelming much of the music, in what sounds like an artificially equalized sound. It’s as though I pushed the Loudness button on my amp, then turned down the treble. Sometimes these headphones make it sound like you’re in the bathroom of a club, listening to music through the walls. The bass can be so overwhelming that it drowns out much of the rest of the music.

Some examples, which came up while listening to my iPhone in shuffle mode. Public Image Ltd.’s Careering, from Second Edition, with Jah Wobble’s powerful bass becomes muddled. Even Brad Mehldau’s piano trio, in a song like Anything Goes, from the album of the same name, sounds wrong. The bass is so loud – and this is an acoustic bass – that it kills off the drums, and masks the piano. Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill sounds pretty good in the early part of the song; these headphones do have very clear midrange and treble response. But once the bass comes in, the song lacks character and sounds like it’s being played on a boombox. And some live Grateful Dead recordings from the Europe ’72 tour sound good until Phil Lesh plays some of his heavier bass runs; then they get muddy. And pretty much anything by The Cure, from their album Faith, is hard to listen to.

Some music sounds good. When the bass is mixed low, these headphones feel fairly neutral. For example, The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street has very discreet bass; the songs on this album sound fine. Solo piano sounds acceptable, and Dylan’s Girl from the North Country, with Johnny Cash, sounds good, though there is an odd feeling of resonance that sounds artificial.

But too much music doesn’t sound good; I would need to switch the EQ on and off to use these headphones. And if they need EQ, then they’ve failed.

If you look on Amazon, you’ll see that these headphones have overwhelmingly good reviews. I suspect that the people reviewing these headphones positively are those who seek out a bassy sound, rather than a more neutral headphone.

For what these cost, you can do a lot better. Unless you want this particular style – if you want to be seen wearing Beats – you’re better off getting other headphones that sound better.

I Bought a Pair of Beats Headphones, and They Don’t Suck

61 y2xoA UL SL1266I bought a pair of Beats Solo2 headphones, in black. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) The don’t suck as much as I expected. In fact, so far, I kind of like them.

The only problem is that the bass is exaggerated, but only on tracks where the bass is already strong. The mid-range and high-end sounds are fine, but if you have some music where the bass is pronounced, it’s a bit jarring.

I have to say, their PR is especially annoying. It sounds a bit like what audiophiles say about expensive cables:

“The Solo2 headphones have a more dynamic and wider range of sound, with a clarity that can bring you closer to what the artist intended you to hear. You’ll feel the higher fidelity audio no matter what type of music you play.”

I’m not sure if I’m going to keep them; I bought them from the Apple online store, and have a 30-day return window. But, so far, I do like them. They’re comfortable, they fold up quite compactly, and they have block out a lot of sounds.

If I do keep them, I’d probably want to set the EQ on my iPhone or with iTunes to Bass Reducer. I don’t like using EQ, but in some cases it’s useful.

Itunes eq

As an aside, I tried the Sennheiser Momentum on-ear headphones, which are similar (and about the same price here). They sound flat and drab.

In any case, I’ll post a review of the Beats Solo2 headphones soon.

Philips Releases First Headphones that Only Work with iOS Devices

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 2.04.23 PM.pngWhen Apple added the ability for headphones to connect to an iOS device’s lightning connector, they opened the door to stupidity. Now, Philips is the first company to embrace that stupidity with their Fidelio M2L headphones. According to the company, they:

“deliver Fidelio’s signature sound in high resolution directly to your iOS device, without distortion or crosstalk, thanks to a Lightning connector and built-in DAC.”

The problem is this: you can only use these headphones with an iOS device, and only a recent one that has a lightning connector. (It’s not clear if they work with older 30-pin devices through an adaptor, but it’s possible that they do.) So, if you’re listening to music on your iPhone, and want to switch to, say, your laptop or iMac, you can’t. You can only use them with devices that have Apple’s lightning connector. You can’t lend them to a friend with an Android phone, or a laptop, and you can’t use them with your computer, whether it’s a Mac or PC.

I understand the logic: because of the built-in DAC, and the capabilities that Apple offers, this is interesting. But it’s a huge failure if the headphones only work with a limited number of devices. Also, what happens when Apple switches from the Lightning connector to something else? Will they work with an adapter?

I think it would be foolish to buy these.

Headphone Review: Sennheiser PX 100 II-i


Buy from Amazon.com

For the past few years, my headphone of choice for listening to music on my iPods was the Sennheiser PX 100, a lightweight, inexpensive headphone with surprisingly good sound for the money. A month ago, however, the cable just before the jack broke, and it was time to replace them. The PX 100 has had excellent reviews for years, and was well appreciated by users and journalists alike, but is no longer made. I turned to the PX 100 II-i, a third iteration of the model, which is the most recent version of the headphones, released last year.

Like the original PX 100, the PX 100 II-i is a folding headphone, with a small on-ear earcup. It’s light, there’s no pressure on the ears, and they are fully open: you can hear everything around you. This headphone is excellent for listening when you’re outdoors, where it is important to hear sounds, especially if you’re walking in the city. They do not, of course, limit any sounds, so if you want headphones that do this, you will need to look elsewhere. (I’ll be posting a review of a recently purchased noise-canceling headphone soon.)

The sound quality of this headphone is, as I’ve mentioned, excellent for its size and price. New with this model is an inline remote control that works with iPods and other iOS devices (as well as Macs, and, perhaps, other computers). You can change the volume, and pause what you’re listening to, and, with a double-press, skip to the next track. This remote is also a mic, if you have an iPhone (which I don’t).

However, a valid question is whether it is worth some $25 more just for this remote. (The Sennheiser PX 100-II is currently selling for $65 at Amazon; it is the same as the PX 100 II-i, but without the remote. The PX 100 II-i sells for $90.) I find the remote useful when I’m listening to music both outdoors and even when I listen to my iPod in bed. My iPod touch has an external volume control, but my iPod classic does not. In addition, the controls are positioned about 8 inches from the headphones, so they are easily accessible. Nevertheless, it’s a bit of a premium to pay just for a couple of buttons. (Though it’s certainly more useful if you have an iPhone.)

My only gripe is that the cord itself is rather flimsy, and I’ve already gotten it snagged on doorknobs a few times. It comes out of just the left side of the headphones, unlike the PX 100, which had a double cord that met in the center. That is a bit odd, as all my other headphones have a central cord; that may explain, in part, why I’ve been clumsy with it.

Overall, I’m very satisfied with the PX 100 II-i. I use it often – either when listening to my iPod outdoors, on my daily walk, or, at times, when watching a DVD on my laptop. The sound is clean and crisp, though the bass is weak, which is to be expected from such a small headphone. (I don’t listen to a lot of bass-heavy music.) If you want good sound in a light, folding headphone, the Sennheiser’s PX series is great choice. Either the PX 100 II-i with the inline remote, or the PX 100-II without it, will provide you with great sound and comfort.

Note: no review unit was provided; I paid for these out of pocket. For the record, I have another Sennheiser headphone – HD 580 – and I’ve only once been disappointed by Sennheiser’s products.