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The Verge 2017 tech report card: Headphones

The Verge 2017 tech report card: Headphones

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Sony 1000XM2
Sony 1000XM2
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

My best way to look back on 2017 in the world of headphones is to consider the things I wasn’t able to say a year ago.

The best portable headphones today are wireless. That wasn’t true last year — at least not in my Beoplay H6-loving judgment — however Bowers & Wilkins’ PX have shot to the top of the charts with an exquisitely tuned sound, handsome looks, and solid battery life. The noise-cancelling PX are a transformational pair of headphones because they take NC cans out of their traditional role of being merely functional and into the competition for best sound quality. Gone are the days of Bose singularly dominating the NC field with awesome ergonomics but mediocre sound: today we have all the big names like Beats, Sony, and Sennheiser offering noise-cancelling headphones with sound that’s constantly getting better. AKG also did an outstanding job with its wireless N60 NC model this year. The only downside to this laudable evolution? Prices remain high, with the PX costing $400 and the on-ear N60 NC requiring $250.

In 2016, I was celebrating the demise of the neckbud category, but this year it came back with a subtle vengeance in the shape of the $99 Beyerdynamic Byron BT. These earphones have a lush, bassy sound that is perfect for city commutes, they are light and comfortable to wear, and their price is more than reasonable.

earphones are becoming more affordable faster than their over-ear counterparts

At the same $99 price point, the 1More Triple Drivers were already an excellent value pick, but in 2017 they were joined by the $199 Quad Drivers. Together, these two pairs of wired earphones present an excellent combination of audio quality and price, and the only question is really which of the two you’re able to afford. If your answer is “neither,” Japan’s Final Audio also came out with the E2000 this year, a $45 pair of buds that threatens to dethrone the Zero Audio Carbo Tenore as my top minimal-budget pick. It might be said that earphones are becoming more affordable faster than their over-ear counterparts, but there’s enough competition in all parts of the headphones industry to see the price-to-quality ratio improving universally.

Truly wireless earbuds like Apple’s AirPods were the hot new thing to build in 2017, though none of them made a particularly good impression. If anything, the inherent compromises of the AirPods design were better justified once we were able to see how everyone else tried to solve the intractable conflict between needing a tiny size and a bunch of wireless electronics plus a battery and speaker. Jaybird’s Run, Doppler Labs’ Here One, and the Bragi’s Dash Pro all had Bluetooth issues, while smart “computers for your ears” features like the Pixel Buds’ built-in translation were still at their nascent stage. The benefits of truly wireless earphones still seem vastly overshadowed by the downsides of that extreme design, and so 2017 can be marked down as a work-in-progress year — with plenty more work required in 2018 and beyond.

Pixel buds
Pixel buds
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Also of note: boutique hi-fi headphones maker Audeze introduced two models designed to make audiophile gear more accessible. One is the LCD2 Classic, which I have been listening to over the past few weeks and find an absolute delight: It’s a simplified variant of the once-flagship Audeze LCD-2, just using cheaper materials and thus achieving the friendlier price of $799. The $2,995 Audeze MX4 might not seem like anyone’s idea of a budget pick, but what they do is shrink down the price and power requirements of the current flagship LCD-4 cans. Being able to drive Audeze’s best-sounding headphones without requiring a headphone amplifier the size of a VHS player is in itself an achievement.

Headphone makers have dragged their feet in embracing USB-C

Other than the uneven progress made by wireless buds over the year, perhaps the biggest letdown from headphone makers has been the way they’ve dragged their feet in embracing USB-C as the new charging standard. Bowers & Wilkins did it with its PX, and I congratulated the company on that choice: it gave me both a sturdier port than the outdated MicroUSB and the ability to charge my wireless headphones with the same charger as my phone and laptop. Sony and Beats are the two dominant brands in terms of headphone shipments every year, and it’s disappointing to see both of them sticking with the old, soon-to-be-deprecated connection instead of making the change to USB-C.

Final grade: B+

B+ 2017 Grade

The Verge 2017 report card: Headphones

Gold Stars

  • Noise-cancelling headphones grew in quality and variety
  • Beyerdynamic’s Byron BT is very affordable and listenable pair of neckbuds
  • Audeze made its audiophile headphones more attainable
  • Audio quality keeps going up as prices keep coming down

Needs Improvement

  • Wireless headphones remain unaffordable for many people
  • Truly wireless buds are still in their awkward developmental phase
  • Embrace USB-C, please