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The most promising headphones from CES

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Audio-Technica, Klipsch, and Blue are freshening up the plethora of audiophile choice

Audio-Technica DSR9BT
Audio-Technica DSR9BT
Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Headphones at the Consumer Electronics Show this year were a subdued affair. No huge and dramatic launches; no nervous energy about the impact of a future iPhone without a headphone jack, as there was in 2016. It seems like everyone is still busy working on new wireless models that aren’t quite ready for launch this early in the year. But that’s left a lot of room at CES for headphones to distinguish themselves along the classic lines of awesome sound and excellent comfort. Here are my top three picks from among the many headphones I listened to during the big show in Las Vegas.

Klipsch Heritage HP-3

Klipsch Heritage HP-3
Klipsch Heritage HP-3
Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

These large, semi-open back cans made their debut at CES in prototype form. As far as I’m concerned, Klipsch needs to change absolutely nothing about the prototype and just put the HP-3s out on the market. The lightness of these headphones belies their size, and I found them effortless to wear. Made out of real oak, machined metal, and featuring pillowy-soft memory foam pads, the HP-3s are a tactile delight, and my brief listening session suggested they sound as high-end as they look.

The Heritage HP-3s will be Klipsch’s flagship model for the foreseeable future, and at $999, they extend significantly beyond the company’s usual line of consumer-class in-ear and on-ear cans. The Heritage branding is applied to some of Klipsch’s best speakers, and the American company hopes to expand that lineage into personal audio as well. Full disclosure: though I’ve never met him, Klipsch’s headphone designer is also called Vlad, which may be positively prejudicing my judgment of these headphones.

Blue Ella

Blue Ella
Blue Ella
Blue Microphones

Ask any podcaster about Blue microphones and you’ll be regaled with happy tales about the quality of the company’s recording gear. But Blue has been growing increasingly serious about making inroads in the headphone business as well, and at CES it introduced three new models to its range. The $700 Ella is the obvious flagship among them, offering the unique combination of planar magnetic technology and a built-in amplifier.

I listened to a pair of Ellas at Blue’s CES booth and I loved the dynamism and impact of their sound. I was also super impressed by the redesigned self-adjusting headband. Having previously tested the Blue Mo-Fi, the original headphone from this company, I found the earlier iteration of this headband to be over-engineered and ultimately not a great solution for distributing the headphones’ weight. But this new one feels like it’s solved all the problems and delivers a secure and comfortable fit. Preorders for the Ella open this month, and I’ll be sure to review them as soon as possible to verify my positive first impressions of their improved sound and comfort.

Audio-Technica DSR9BT

Audio-Technica DSR9BT
Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

You had to know that a Japanese company would win the prize for the most boring — and yet difficult to remember — product title at CES. Audio-Technica’s new flagship wireless headphones, the DSR9BT, are actually very interesting, owing to their Pure Digital Drive system that removes the need for a traditional digital-to-analog converter inside the headphones themselves. What that means in practical terms is a simpler, lighter construction and a more efficient use of battery power.

My time with the DSR9BT was the briefest from among the trio of headphones on this list, but it was sufficient for me to obtain a positive impression of their sound. I’d grown intimately familiar with Björk’s discography on my flight over from London, and when I played the opening track of Homogenic with these headphones, I instantly recognized their wide soundstage and crisp, detailed presentation. It was an experience I wanted more of. While the DSR9BTs are indeed very light, I was less thrilled about the quality of their materials, which felt less refined than, for example, the construction of Blue’s headphones.

At $549, Audio-Technica’s new wireless headphones are very much at the top end of their market, but they might just be able to justify that with the quality of their sound. They’ll be going up against the wireless Bowers & Wilkins P7 and the newly introduced Beoplay H9, both of which are better built and more stylish, but also have a distinctly warm, bass-rich sound. For those yearning for more high-fidelity precision from their Bluetooth cans, Audio-Technica’s DSR9BTs present an intriguing proposition.

I’m conscious that each of these pairs of headphones costs plenty of money to acquire. But I also think that headphones, like mechanical watches, shouldn’t be judged on the same value matrix as other personal electronics. If you find a pair perfectly suited to your tastes and needs, it could easily last you a decade or longer, and so I feel it’s fair to invest a little more in them.