Neckbuds. The very name of the product sounds like some ghastly outgrowth that you'd want to have excised from your body. I have never been a fan of this class of wireless-but-not-really headphones, owing to the wide range of compromises that they embody and the limited improvement in convenience they offer over a regular wired pair of earphones. But even the naffest of categories can be redeemed by a well designed product and I've finally found it in the $99 Byron BT buds from Beyerdynamic, the first neckbuds that I can actually recommend.
There are many technical hurdles to creating a decent pair of Bluetooth earphones. They need to accommodate batteries and wireless radios — to replace the functionality of the omitted cable — into the same tiny space of an earphone that already constrains proper sound reproduction for audio engineers. Some, like the hideous Urbanears Stadion announced today, cheat by turning the headband into a massive chunky thing housing all the extra tech. Others try to cram everything into the earbud itself, forcing the speaker closer to the listener's ear and making the music sound awfully narrow.
Beyerdynamic balances all the competing requirements of a Bluetooth earphone with great judgment. The Byron BT's soundstage isn't huge, but by neckbud standards, it's hugely impressive. My music never feels constricted or compressed. The fit of these earphones is also superb, as they slide in with ease and then essentially disappear, other than for the sound they produce. There's an integrated remote control below the right earbud that may look like it'd be a bother, but it doesn't weigh much at all and also fades into nonexistence once I get the headphones into place.
Unlike Apple's Beats X, which have a comically long cord, Beyerdynamic's Byron BT have just the right length to sit comfortably either in the ear or at the top of my chest when not in use. Like the Beats X, the backs of the Byron BTs are magnetized and can be clicked together for a tidier look. I appreciate the somewhat industrial design that Beyerdynamic has given its headphones, but most of all, I like how effortless they are to use and wear.
The ease of the Byron BTs extends to their sound too, which is all kinds of warm and welcoming. No high-frequency harshness, no fatiguing sharpness or graininess, just pleasant easygoing tunes with a distinct bass emphasis. No, neckbuds will never give you the most resolution or insight into your music, but if you're trying to enjoy rather than analyze, these particular neckbuds won't let you down. I especially like the Byron BTs with aggressive music, such as Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, or some of Nero's more uptempo tracks. The extra bass warms up those recordings nicely and the withdrawn treble dulls down the most strident parts. Basically, they're the opposite of the Etymotic and Grado in-ears I wrote about not too long ago; what Beyerdynamic has served up here is some distinctly sweetened music. And I like it a lot.
At $99, the Byron BTs undercut much of the neckbud market, including Beyerdynamic's own $199 Byron BTAs, which I haven't yet had the chance to listen to. I don't see the need, to be frank, given how good the BT variant is. Beyerdynamic claims 7.5 hours of playback on a single charge and the headphones can be topped up with a MicroUSB port. You get three sizes of silicone tips in each pack, which should cover the vast majority of users. I found the default set pretty much perfect.
I've seen so many wireless headphones go astray and get tripped up by some issue or another. The Beoplay H5, for example, look as lovely as any other Bang & Olufsen product, but couldn't stay inside my ears for longer than a few seconds (and my colleague Thomas Ricker had the same sad experience with them). So the mere fact that Beyerdynamic has created a pair of very listenable earphones that don't cost or weigh too much, and which trim the cord without introducing new inconveniences is impressive to me. Not as impressive as the Beyerdynamic Xelento, which I'll be writing about in the near future, but those are $999 audiophile earphones, whereas the Byron BTs are $99 buds that you can take anywhere and abuse however you like.