New headphones to tune into
Spending more time at home can be the perfect opportunity to rediscover your music collection with a pair of high-quality headphones
You probably have more pressing decisions to make than whether to use in-ear or over-ear headphones, but even this question is getting trickier as more and more brands move into the space carved out by Apple’s Airpods. For some, the simplicity, elegance and high-fidelity of over-ear headphones wins every time. However, it’ll always be a matter of personal preference and the ever-improving sound quality and added features are fast turning earbuds into essential everyday items. We’ve rounded up the best new releases.
Technics is Panasonic’s high-end brand, best known for hi-fi, turntables and speakers. It’s taken them a while to get into the wireless game and the EAH-AZ70W is Technics’ first-ever earbud offering. With noise-cancelling technology and an added emphasis on bass delivery, these earbuds are pitched at the audiophile market. That means commitment to a stable Bluetooth connection, the usual suite of VA compatibility and variable levels of noise cancelling that allow the outside in when you so desire.
Closely related to the Technics-branded models above, Panasonic’s new devices come with the requisite neat charge case and touch sensor surfaces, allowing you to take calls, mute the volume and summon your voice assistant of choice (Siri and Google are baked in and Alexa is coming soon). The slightly more compact RZ-S300W offers a convention-busting green finish, but if you want the longer battery life of the RZ-S500W then you’re stuck with the requisite black or white finish. Panasonic is especially proud of the microphone tech, which promises to banish ambient noise when you’re on a call.
One thing that earbuds will never be able to emulate is the acoustic properties of natural materials like wood. Audio-Technica’s new Kokutan and Asada Zakura models are closed-back headphones that use hand-crafted natural wood finishes, both for their resonant qualities and for their sheer visual and tactile delight. The Kokutan model features striped ebony, while the Asada Zakura has wood from the Ostrya japonica tree. The company has nearly twenty years of experience and these headphones continue to be hand-finished in its factory in Naruse, Tokyo.
The NuraLoop is the latest advance from audio start-up Nuraphone, a company that brought another layer of tech to the humble headphone. The original device took over-ear listening in a new direction by combining the conventional looks and sound-insulating advantages of a traditional headphone with a new kind of in-ear speaker. The piece de resistance was a proprietary system that analysed sound reflections coming out of your own ear canal, using ultra-sensitive mics to detect exactly how the micro-vibrations of sound were being bounced off your cochlea to create a unique personal profile.
This complex insight into how sound is actually processed by the physiology of the body, was predicted way back in the 40s but not confirmed until microphone sensitivity evolved in the 70s. Nuraphone managed to cram a lab’s worth of kit into a walnut-sized device, and the result is a tailor-made sound profile that opens up the audio landscape like no other headphone. ‘Pretty quickly after releasing the original Nuraphone we got interest from a lot of musicians and bands,’ says company co-founder Dragan Petrovic from his home in California (temporarily stranded away from the company HQ in Australia). ‘It revealed lots of different audio profiles within bands, for example.’
The company explored creating smaller, in-ear devices that could be used as on-stage monitors. ‘It’s a small niche, but we thought it was pretty cool. And if we could meet the sound profile requirements of professional musicians, we knew it would be great for everyone,’ he explains, ‘plus jumping up and down on stage is like exercising.’ Enter the NuraLoop, a seamless evolution of the original technology. The NuraLoop fits snugly and securely. After pairing and undertaking the fine-tuning diagnostic using the bespoke app, it delivers sparkling sound quality with simple functionality. Inserting the earbuds triggers a welcome message and battery status update, while noise reduction can be switched on and off with a single tap to the device. To further its audiophile qualifications, you can use them in either wired or wireless mode. Now you have the perfect excuse not to ever lend your headphones out again.
Bang & Olufsen
These days there’s scarcely a big tech brand without a signature wireless earphone product. Now that Apple’s AirPods have brought the sector into the premium spotlight, several high-end audio makers are debuting their own products. Bang & Olufsen’s design chops need no introduction, but the company is also long acclaimed for its commitment to the highest of high fidelity. The new Beoplay E8 Sport earphones pair signature design elements with excellent sound, combining light use of B&O’s trademark aluminium with more contemporary materials like textured silicone and rubber. The little ridge on the earbuds themselves are mirrored by the textured surface of the charging case, giving it a deco-like feeling. Lightly waterproofed and aimed at active users, you can go for 7 hours between charges and operate key functions using your fingertips. Going wireless is an essential first step to getting back on the fitness track, and with the E8, Bang & Olufsen have opened up the options even further.
Headphone technology continues to evolve. We’ve seen in-ear devices transformed by aggressive noise-cancelling technology and proprietary systems that ‘read’ the biology of your inner ear. Now IRIS is joining the tech set with its new over-the-ear wireless headphones that are designed to soothe the brain as well as pump out impressive sound quality. IRIS’s selling point is an algorithm that can effectively ‘reconstruct’ the spatial data you usually glean from listening to music in a three-dimensional space, all based on research into the physiological effects of different sounds and frequencies. When this ‘lost’ audio information is recreated by the headset, IRIS’s research shows that the brain becomes more engaged, simultaneously getting you deeper into the music and ‘heightening states of relaxation.’ Users of the IRIS headphones can switch on this proprietary technology at will, although the company admits the system works best with ‘music associated with the wellness genre’ (fans of Drill, Trap or Black Metal, etc., etc. might not be craving the stress relief). With elegant industrial design by Neil Ferrier at Discommon, the IRIS offers up to 35 hours of battery life, fast USB-C charging, dual mics for high call quality and over-the-air firmware updates.