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Blue Ella review: freaky design meets superior sound

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Blue Ella headphones

Even if you’ve never heard of Blue as a company, you’ll have no doubt heard its microphones at some point in your explorations of the web. The Blue Yeti has established itself as the favorite mic of podcasters around the world, and in recent times it’s been making inroads among game streamers and aspiring musicians. Like fellow American brand Shure, Blue is a company with a rich tradition of making great microphones that is now trying to assert itself as a respectable headphone maker, too. This year, Blue is stepping up that effort with a new flagship headphone pair that extends its ambitions to a higher stratum: the Blue Ella cost $699.99 and are built around planar magnetic technology.

Planar magnetic headphones are like OLED displays: you pay more for more sophisticated tech that leads to better results. What they promise the listener is greater fidelity, tighter bass, and reduced distortion — all undoubtedly good and desirable things. But, just as with OLED, there are only a select few suppliers of good planar magnetic headphones: the US-based boutiques of Audeze and MrSpeakers are my two favorites, followed closely by Chinese rivals Oppo and Hifiman. And now in comes Blue with its Ella.

These peculiar-looking cans have a unique hinge that has become Blue’s signature look. At first glance, it really doesn’t convey any sense of human-friendly comfort. The main pivot point extends way out behind the listener’s ear — rather like the leg structure of a velociraptor — and controls the height extension of the headband. Then there’s a separate mechanism designed to expand the headphones laterally, and the two work in tandem when you’re putting the headphones on to give you what’s essentially an automatic fit. You just open up the headphones like an accordion, fit them around your head, and they naturally clamp down around your ears and skull.

Standing out with these headphones isn’t exactly difficult

I tried the first iteration of this design on the Blue Mo-Fi a couple of years ago, which was the first headphone pair from the company, and it was frankly as awful to wear as it was alien to look at. The clamping force was too strong, the weight was too heavy, and the whole thing was just an eyesore planted on your head. Not so with the Ella, which sweeps away almost all of the downsides of its predecessor. The Ella is beautifully built, with curves and swoops all along its metal construction, and soft leather cushions that hug the ear gently. This is refined, high-end construction of the highest order and Blue’s progress between generations is commendable.

Blue Ella headphones

One of the common downsides of planar magnetic headphones is their weight, and this is an area where the Blue Ella don’t really push things forward. At 481g (just under 17oz), these are heavy for portable use and sit alongside big, beefy audiophile cans like those from Focal or Technics. After an hour on my head, I start to feel the Ella’s weight in the form of slight discomfort under their heavily padded headband. It’s slight, but it’s present, and if you’re the sort of person that gets lost in marathon gaming sessions or travels long distances often, these are just not going to be the ideal headphones for you. (My current top picks for those particular situations are the Turtle Beach Elite Pro for gaming and Sony’s MDR-1000X for travel.)

The Ella are closed-back headphones, which means they insulate you from some exterior noise and don’t leak out too much of your music to people nearby. But I’m of two minds about whether they’d be suitable for office use. First of all, you’ll have to decide if you’re okay with their zany appearance — these headphones are not a subtle look. And then you’ll have to judge exactly how much space you have from your nearest neighbor and how loud you like to listen. The noise isolation provided by the Ella is only moderate.

There’s a built-in amplifier to ensure that even the feeblest of phones can power the Ella

One delightful design touch that I have to commend about these headphones is the integrated LED light on the outside of each earcup: it pulsates with a white glow when the cans are charging up and is honestly the only deployment of LED lighting on a pair of headphones that I’ve liked.

But wait, I hear you wondering, if these are wired headphones, why do they need to charge? Well, this is where that Blue engineering pedigree comes in: the Ella have a powered amplifier built right inside them. Planar magnetic cans are famously power-hungry and tend not to play nicely with the feeble amps integrated into most mobile devices, so Blue’s done the engineering legwork to make sure the Ella sound loud and in charge irrespective of the source you plug them into. The company claims 12 hours of playtime with the amp activated and I’ve only had to recharge the Ella a couple of times in two months of use, though that’s also owing to my preference to review them in their passive, un-amped mode. Bonus points for the extra amp mode that fattens out the Ella’s bass for a warmer sound.

Blue Ella headphones
Blue Ella headphones

Using a Schiit Jotunheim and an AudioQuest DragonFly Red as my primary sources during testing, I found the Ella to be a terrific listen. The famous precision of planars is evident in abundance here, with the headphones drawing out subtle details in everything I listen to. I believe that a good and detailed pair of headphones shouldn’t depend on fancy uncompressed audio files to show off its advantages, and the Ella are a good example of this. Even just listening to electronic music on SoundCloud, or watching Bob Ross paint some magical sunset on YouTube, I get a ton of realism and authenticity to the sound. That’s great if you care to know the texture and material of a drum in a given recording, but maybe less so if you’d rather not listen to an old man’s gentle wheezing as he manipulates paint across a canvas.

On the box of any pair of Beats headphones, you’ll see a quote from Dr. Dre himself, saying, “People aren’t hearing all the music.” Well, it’s debatable exactly how much of it they’re hearing with a pair of Beats cans, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’ll hear everything with the Blue Ella. Acoustically, these are thoroughly accomplished headphones with no shortage of bass and treble extension and absolutely no harshness to speak of.

Pick your genre, the Ella makes them all sound good

I find there’s a tangible mid-bass bump to the Ella’s sound balance, which is exactly where I like it to be. It lends the music an extra layer of gravity, authority, and warmth. I’ve heard too many audiophile headphones that sound precise but utterly unexciting, and the Ella thread the needle by being faithful to the detail and substance of a song while still getting your foot tapping in approval. During their debut at CES 2017, the Ella were being shown off with a DJ playing reggae tunes at the Blue booth, and he told me that the intent with them was to convey the sense you get of being in a club or a live performance: a bit more punch and impact than is strictly called for, just to amp up the enjoyment of the music. I think Blue accomplished that goal, and I occasionally even indulge in the bass-boosted On+ amp setting, too. And I also reckon these headphones have a ton of musical versatility: from the reggae I heard in January, through my collection of electronic producers like deadmau5, Tycho, and Aphex Twin, hip-hop loudmouths like Run the Jewels, and all the way to acoustic and orchestral performances from the likes of Steve Reich.

Blue Ella headphones

Reviewing the various aspects of the Ella as separate parts, my analysis winds up being full of praise. Hell, I even love the braided cables and the luxuriously thick pouch provided with these headphones. But there’s something missing from this collection of good things and that, to me, is a clear purpose and use case. Are these the ideal mobile headphones? At nearly half a kilogram, I’d say definitely not. Are the Ella an audiophile’s dream desktop solution? Again, I’d have to say no, owing to how much better open-back headphones like the Sennheiser HD650 are for that purpose. The Ella are closed-back so they can go on the move easily, but then they don’t collapse down to anything resembling a portable shape, so they’re essentially a highly transportable pair of headphones that sound really good and grant you an extra degree of privacy over open-back competitors.

With the Ella, Blue has asserted its credentials as a headphone maker in fine style. The materials are of a high quality, the construction is ingenious, and the sound is difficult to fault. But as good as those things are, are they enough to justify spending $700? My answer is no. At that price, I’d opt for Audeze’s EL-8 first, which come in both closed and open flavors. But if you’re not insistent on planar magnetic awesomeness, you can find great sound from vastly cheaper headphones these days. That’s just the highly competitive, vibrant landscape that Blue is entering right now, and as good as its headphones are, they aren’t quite great enough to justify their high price.

Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge