Sennheiser’s New $1,300 Earbuds Are the Best I’ve Ever Tried

undefined

Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

It seems like every month companies announce new wireless earbud options that offer improved battery life, better sound, and noise cancellation upgrades that help block out more of the world around you. In just a few short years, Bluetooth earbuds have gone from being bulky and not completely wireless to completely wire-free and small enough to almost disappear in your ears. But every pair of wireless earbuds has one shortcoming: Bluetooth, a wireless protocol that was never really designed for high-quality audio streaming.

Advertisement

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group has promised a new version of the wireless protocol that should fix a lot of its audio quality shortcomings, but it’s not available yet. Bluetooth itself isn’t necessarily bad, it’s a convenient way to wirelessly connect devices at relatively short distances, but it has limited bandwidth, which means that audio, already compressed when streamed across the internet on service like Spotify and Apple Music, has to be further compressed to be delivered to your headphones. Most people are happy to compromise on audio quality for the convenience and comfort that wireless earbuds offer. But for those who refuse to have their music muddled by Bluetooth’s compression algorithms, Sennheiser is not only still producing wired earbuds, it has also just announced its new IE 900 audiophile earbuds that, not surprisingly, sound out of this world. The question is: Are you willing to pay $1,300 for the upgrade?

undefined

Each IE 900 earbud is milled from a single block of aluminum, inside and out, with the concentric milling marks making for a unique finish.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

The most striking feature of the new Sennheiser IE 900 earbuds are what the company is calling its “triple-chamber absorber system,” and it starts with each earbud being milled from a solid block of aluminum. Instead of polishing each earbud to a mirror finish, Sennheiser has instead left the concentric milling marks visible, which creates a very striking finish that screams both “professional-grade” and “sticker shock.”

undefined

An exploded view of the dampening chambers inside the IE 900, as well as the components that make up the new driver Sennheiser developed for them.
Image: Sennheiser

The use of aluminum is strategic, however, as inside each bud are three separate chambers creating a “patented absorber system” that, along with an “acoustic vortex milled into the nozzle,” promises to counter an effect known as auditory masking where higher-frequency sounds at lower volumes are drowned out by louder, lower-frequency sounds. The insides of each IE 900 earbud are designed to absorb some of the energy of those lower frequencies so they’re not as dominant over subtler, higher frequencies, ensuring that the listener hears a proper balance between the two.

The earbud’s aluminum housings are paired with Sennheiser’s new 7mm X3R transducers that use a “newly developed membrane foil” to minimize distortion and create a balanced sound profile no matter how high a user cranks their volume. The IE 900s are also promised to reproduce audio frequencies from 5 Hz to 48,000 Hz, which is massive, and at the same time a bit of overkill given most human hearing falls in the 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz range.

Advertisement

Accessories included with the IE 900 are minimal but useful with a rigid carrying case that zips shut to protect them, two sets of earbuds in three different sizes in either silicone or squishy memory foam providing a more secure fit in the ear, and a hooked tool for precision cleaning of all that awful stuff that’s transferred to anything stuffed in your ear canal.

Advertisement

undefined

Sennheiser includes three cables with the IE 900s, one with a standard unbalanced 3.5mm connector, and two larger options that provide a balanced connection for eliminating unwanted audio hum.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

Sennheiser has also included three different audio cables for use with the IE 900 earbuds. There’s a cable with a standard unbalanced 3.5mm connector on the end for use with the vast majority of consumer audio devices, but also two cables with balanced 2.5mm and 4.4mm connectors that can be used with professional and audiophile gear to eliminate the unwanted noise that is sometimes introduced by nearby power supplies or unshielded electronics. Remember that quiet hum from the speakers when your grandparents first powered up their old stereo? It’s because they weren’t using balanced audio cables to connect everything. For shame, grandma, for shame.

Advertisement

undefined

The earbuds use flexible wires that run up and over the ears to provide a more secure fit, but I’m not sure I’d ever be comfortable going for a run while wearing them.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

At this point you’re probably wondering if there’s actually a notable difference in sound quality when using a pair of $1,300 wired earbuds, or if Sennheiser is just telling audiophiles what they want to hear. The answer, unfortunately, is yes, there is a difference. As a longtime holdout on wireless earbuds who still has a couple of $150 wired earbuds kicking around, Sennheiser’s new IE 900 runs circles around them. Higher frequencies are astoundingly crisp and present, and while I don’t have super-human hearing, it’s still immediately obvious that the IE 900s provide a much wider frequency response over every pair of earbuds I’ve ever used.

Advertisement

Bass performance is also fantastic, which surprised me given the drivers on the IE 900 are just 7mm. I’m a big fan of the bass performance on Sony’s affordable WF-XB700s wireless earbuds, but they use relatively large 12mm drivers by comparison. The Sennheiser IE 900s are actually much better, because they don’t sound like they’re maxing out their capabilities to deliver thumping bass. You can push the volume to the comfortable limits of human hearing and at no point does the bass start to distort and muddle the sound quality of what you’re hearing.

That being said, if you’re spending $1,300 on a pair of wired earbuds, to truly experience what they’re capable of, you’re not going to want to plug them directly in to your laptop or mobile device’s headphone jack (if there even is one). I paired the IE 900s with THX’s new $200 Onyx headphone amp and the Tidal streaming service’s HiFi option (which promises many tracks at a studio master level of sound quality) and was rewarded with the best earbud listening experience I’ve ever had. The sound quality was even better than what most of the wireless over-ear headphones I’ve tested are capable of, and even at maximum volume (which was in reality only about halfway turned up) the sound was never distorted or muffled. It sounded crystal clear, like I was standing on stage next to a band performing.

Advertisement

The Sennheiser IE 900s will be officially available starting next month, but should everyone run out and upgrade? Absolutely not. As wonderful as they sound, the conveniences and advanced features of wireless earbuds make them a more compelling choice—plus they can easily be found for $1,000 less. But if you’re looking for an audiophile experience on the go that can be easily slipped into a pocket, there’s really no reason to carry around a monstrous pair of headphones any more.

Leaked Photos Give Us a Peek at the Next Generation of Sony’s Excellent Noise-Cancelling Earbuds

Illustration for article titled Leaked Photos Give Us a Peek at the Next Generation of Sony's Excellent Noise-Cancelling Earbuds

Photo: Gizmodo

Sony’s WF-1000XM3 earbuds were one of the first pairs of wireless in-ears to include noise-canceling that was nearly as good as what you’ll find in full-size headphones. But they’re now two years old and in desperate need of an update, which, according to new leaked photos and details, could arrive as soon as next month.

Advertisement

The Sony WF-1000XM3s still sound fantastic but their noise-canceling capabilities are starting to lag when compared to the competitions’ more recent releases like Master & Dynamics’ MW08, and Jabra’s Elite 85t. The WF-1000XM3s are also much larger than most similarly capable ANC wireless earbuds released over the past year and are due for not only an update but a much-needed redesign.

In February, a blurry, grainy photo of what appeared to be a prototype of the new WF-1000XM4s was leaked, but over the weekend additional images were reportedly discovered and shared by The Walkman Blog which revealed the new wireless earbuds from every angle—both the left and right side versions—as well as their updated charging case.

The most obvious change is that the new WF-1000XM4 wireless earbuds are much smaller than the WF-1000XM3s, and presumably lighter as well as a result which should make it easier to actually keep them in your ears. The proximity sensor for detecting when they’re being worn is located on the underside, as are the charging contacts, while a single opening for a microphone can be found on top. The large circular pad will function as a touchpad for controlling music playback and other functions, which is a feature carried over from the WF-1000XM3s that hopefully means that the new WF-1000XM4 will include improved water resistance as well—something the originals were really lacking.

Photos of the WF-1000XM4’s charging case were also revealed, showing a much smaller footprint and faster charging over USB-C. It’s also been rumored, based on leaked illustrations detailing a Sony Xperia smartphone’s battery sharing feature, that the WF-1000XM4’s charging case will support wireless charging, a feature found on many other high-end wireless earbuds at this point.

Details about pricing and more specific technical specs including battery life and charge times aren’t known yet, but based on recent changes Sony has made to its FCC filing for the new earbuds, they could be announced and released as early as next month, in the first few weeks of June.

Advertisement

Pioneer’s Studio Speakers Won’t Fit On Your Desk, but They Sure Sound Amazing

Illustration for article titled Pioneer's Studio Speakers Won't Fit On Your Desk, but They Sure Sound Amazing

Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

When Pioneer initially described their new DJ monitors, the VM-80s, I was convinced they’d be a great addition to my desk audio setup. Pioneer makes great, solid speakers, and these new monitors—essentially $289 standalone speakers that can be installed in any configuration—looked like just the trick to get some solid audio out of my lossless music files.

Advertisement

I wasn’t wrong. But then again, how wrong I was.

When I cracked open the box, I quickly discovered that these aren’t desktop speakers as much as behemoths fit for a DJ booth. They are, in a word, glorious, and in another word, huge.

First, let’s address the question: “Who are these for?” Pioneer sells these as powered studio monitors, which means they have a built-in amplifier and some minor digital processing power built in. Studio monitors are essentially sturdy, no-nonsense speakers designed for music production, and, like the legendary Yamaha NS10M, they are supposed to offer completely flat and accurate sound reproduction. While this seems odd in an era of heavy bass and twiddly treble, a pair of simple speakers is often the best tool available to a DJ or producer when trying to understand and fine-tune a mix.

undefined

Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

These speakers are definitely studio monitors. They have an 8-inch woofer and standard tweeter ensconced inside an unusual oval cone that works to shape the sound. Bass response is excellent and the resulting stereo projection of having two of these in a close position to your mixing desk or computer is amazing.

Advertisement

Arguably, this is to be expected. Speakers like these move a lot of air and I felt my desk vibrating as these things really took off. I tested it using a number of song genres, from techno to jazz to my favorite test song, Fleetwood Mac’s, “Everywhere.” “Everywhere” is interesting because it has a number of intertwined highs and lows and it can be tough to get good separation of each layer, from the twinkling chimes to the galloping bass, not to mention synthetic horns and a steel drum sound that can be lost in the chorus on lesser speakers.

Playing these songs through the VM-80 was like running a DJ booth in my attic office. I had excellent reproduction through most volume levels, and even at max volume, the sound wasn’t muddy or confused. That said, these are definitely near-field speakers that can play double duty as smaller DJ speakers. The ideal position for the VM-80s is on a stand, away from walls and windows, at about head height, and if you don’t have the room for these guys don’t even bother. Unless your desk is as big as a barn door, placing these near your keyboard or anywhere closer than five feet is going to be quite a shock. I loved how they sounded up close and at mid-volume, but I knew my eardrums wouldn’t last long if I kept them there.

Advertisement

So the answer to that question of who these speakers are for is, quite simply, DJs and electronic musicians. These can do double duty as stage speakers, although the design and padding definitely won’t survive being dragged from gig to gig. Instead, you could easily place these up next to your mixing station and use them to master audio or, in a pinch, invite a few friends up to your loft for an impromptu rave.

Illustration for article titled Pioneer's Studio Speakers Won't Fit On Your Desk, but They Sure Sound Amazing

Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

Advertisement

Pioneer has added an interesting trick to these speakers that is also worth exploring. Because it has a digital sound processor built in, the speakers have four bass and four treble settings that let you change the sound profile considerably.

In the second position, the speakers are absolutely flat. The other three positions will expand the low and high frequencies quite a bit, and the fourth setting will max the bass and treble completely, creating speakers that sound better in a club than in your den. I tested all of the settings and preferred the flat treble and bass to either of the others.

Advertisement

There are a few things to consider before picking up these beasts. First, they don’t come in pairs, so you have to pay $289 each for left and right speakers. Add in the stands, about $160 per pair, and you’re already looking at an $800 investment. Further, the speakers support XLR, phono, or RCA inputs. This means you’ll need to invest in a set of cables to connect to your standalone amplifier or to connect them directly to a computer. Because the speakers have a built-in amp you won’t have to worry too much about adding anything into the sound chain, but I enjoyed them best when they were connected to my Schiit pre-amp. That said, if you’re looking at these then you probably already have a setup in mind.

You get a lot of speaker for your money when it comes to the VM-80s, and I was very impressed, if a bit overwhelmed. Pioneer also announced a number of smaller speakers in the VM line, including the VM-50, which we’ll review as well, so your DJ dreams don’t have to be dashed if you can’t fit these in your studio. The bottom line? Pioneer made some lovely, affordable speakers that sound as wonderful as real studio monitors and even better blasting out Radiohead at high decibels.

Advertisement

These Headphones Offer Solid Active Noise Cancellation for Those on a Budget

Illustration for article titled These Headphones Offer Solid Active Noise Cancellation for Those on a Budget

Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

Urbanista isn’t a household name. Founded in Sweden, the company makes low-cost, high-design headphones for folks who don’t want to spend a few hundred dollars on options from Apple, Bose, or Beats. Their latest product, the Miami, is a pair of active noise-canceling headphones with 50-hour battery life and a tempting price tag.

Advertisement

These are not premium headphones. They are nicely designed and the monochrome hues—on the review unit I tested, a glossy glowing green/blue that really pops—are quite fashionable. The audio quality is fine and they fit great even on bigger heads. I used them exercising for a few weeks and then on a six-hour flight and I was impressed in both cases. They stayed on my head while I was shadowboxing and running, and on the flight, they destroyed enough plane noise to make things very pleasant.

The headphones also have on-ear sensors so they’ll stop playing when you take them off. Couple that with a 50-hour battery and you’ve got an interesting set of noise-canceling cans.

You can connect the Urbanista Miami wirelessly via Bluetooth or to a regular audio jack with the included cable. The box also includes an international adaptor for plane seats with dual audio inputs. All of that works well, and you can turn off the ANC with a button on the side. You can even listen to the headphones when the battery is dead, although the sound quality is very muddy.

If you need audiophile quality, however, a pair of $149 headphones is decidedly not it. The attractive design notwithstanding, you definitely don’t get much range with these guys. They’re bass-heavy, a fairly common problem with cheaper, mass-market headphones like these. That’s great for kids and teens or maybe if you’re looking for something that you’ll wear for a few years at the gym or on the road, these will work fine. I can’t attest to the long-term build quality, but the entire set is made of plastic and I saw a bit of wear and tear even in the few weeks I’ve used them. As you can see, the rubber ear pads are already wrinkling with a bit of use and could easily crack and split with extreme use.

undefined

Photo: John Biggs/Gizmodo

Advertisement

But the active noise cancellation works, and that’s the real draw of the Miami’s real draw. Finding quality ANC in a $149 set of headphones is rare, and these definitely work. They’re an acceptable alternative to lower-cost powered headphones like Sony WH-CH510 or the slightly more expensive $179 AKG N60NC noise-cancelling headphones.

That said, if you’re looking for a pair of headphones for a picky teenager or a traveler on a budget, you could do worse than these—a pair of fashion-focused headphones with a little bit of high tech thrown in. Folks who have used headphones like the Bose Noise Canceling Headphone 700, Sony WH-1000XM3, or the AirPods Pro Max will definitely be disappointed with the Urbanista Miami, but if you’re looking for a quick and affordable fix for your noise-canceling needs, they’re priced right and work well.

Advertisement

THX’s First Consumer Gadget Is a Tiny Headphone Amp That Will Have You Embracing Wires Again

Illustration for article titled THX's First Consumer Gadget Is a Tiny Headphone Amp That Will Have You Embracing Wires Again

Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

THX is a brand synonymous with sound, best known for its eardrum-tickling deep note trailer played before movies in theaters. For years, THX has partnered with hardware makers, lending its expertise in sound to improve the audio capabilities of everything from smartphones to laptops, and now the company is finally releasing its own consumer product: a tiny amp that promises to make headphones sound better if you’re willing to give up the convenience of wireless.

Advertisement

Before we dive in, I’ll admit that I’m in no way an audiophile. I’m happy to listen to music through a pair of lightweight wireless earbuds with the audio compressed several times (while it’s being streamed, and then further compressed so it can squeeze into the limited wireless bandwidth of the Bluetooth protocol) before it reaches my ears. But I’ve also spent plenty of time behind a mixing board with professional studio headphones pumping live music into my ears, and can easily hear the difference between the two. Most of the time I’m happy to prioritize convenience over quality, and I have little interest in bankrolling and obsessing over a home stereo setup costing tens of thousands of dollars, but when working at home and listening to music I’ll always reach for a pair of over-ear headphones instead of buds.

THX’s first consumer product might seem like it’s targeted solely at audiophiles, but after trying the $200 Onyx for a few weeks, I think it’s definitely an upgrade that anyone looking to improve their headphone listening experience should consider. But to really take advantage of what it offers, you’re going to want to also consider a serious headphone upgrade—and I mean spending well north of even the $550 Apple AirPods Max.

The THX Onyx is a combination amplifier and DAC—digital to audio converter—that’s designed to make the audio coming out of a pair of headphones sound as good as it can possibly be. The headphone jack on your laptop or (older) smartphone already functions as both an amp and a DAC, converting digital audio files or streams into analog signals and then passing them along to the drivers in a pair of headphones, and for most consumer-grade audio gear, they do an adequate job.

But your average laptop and smartphone also use average performing amplification and DAC components to keep prices low, which can result in compromises in sound quality and audio fidelity when digital files are being converted, as well as unwanted noise being introduced. It can even result in a large pair of headphones just not being loud enough because the built-in amp on a device simply doesn’t send enough power through the headphone jack.

The Onyx might not be the first headphone amplifier available—audiophiles have been relying on these types of devices for years—but THX has created what might now be the sleekest and easiest to use amp/DAC available to consumers. Squeezed inside the slim dongle is a THX Achromatic Audio Amplifier (which promises increased sound levels with minimal noise and distortion) paired with an ESS ES9281PRO DAC that includes an “integrated hardware MQA renderer.” It all sounds very technical and most consumers don’t really need to know what any of that means, but MQA—which stands for Master Quality Authenticated—is a new standard that promises better than CD quality sound through digital files that are still small enough to stream or download, and it’s a standard that’s quickly being adopted across streaming services promising high-fidelity audio.

undefined

The THX Onyx is small and easy to pocket, and even features a magnetic closure so you can create a loop to help wrangle and organize headphone cables.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

Advertisement

In layman’s terms, the THX Onyx is an easy to use USB-C dongle (it includes an adapter for old-school USB ports) that provides an alternate place to plug your headphones in for better sound. It draws all the power it needs from a computer or mobile device and does everything needed to deliver better sound to a pair of headphones automatically. There are no buttons to press, no dials to turn, and nothing to configure. It just works.

undefined

You’ll also need Apple’s Lightning to USB Camera Adapter to connect the THX Onyx to an iPhone’s Lightning port.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

Advertisement

As easy as the Onyx is to use, it does come with one big compromise—you’ll have to embrace wires again. The improvements in sound quality it promises aren’t available through wireless headphones. It gets even worse if the smartphone you’re using is an iPhone with an antiquated Lightning port (there’s a reason Apple doesn’t use Lightning on its laptops) instead of USB-C. According to THX, you’ll need to pair the Onyx with Apple’s $29 Lightning to USB Camera Adapter for it to work with iPhones, adding one more dongle to the mix.

undefined

On one end of the THX Onyx is a USB-C connector, while the other features a standard 3.5mm headphone jack.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

Advertisement

Returning to a life of headphone cables and dongles isn’t easy, but if you regularly listen to music through a pair of on-ear or over-ear headphones, you’ll immediately notice a difference when using the Onyx. I tested the amp/DAC with a pair of Sony’s excellent WH-1000XM4 headphones (with an audio cable attached) and I immediately noticed how much louder and fuller the sound is. When plugged directly into my MacBook Pro’s headphone jack I can turn the volume all the way up on the Sonys for most songs without the sound levels being uncomfortable, although near the upper levels it does start to sound like the signal is being overdriven. Through the THX Onyx I can only turn the volume up a little past the halfway mark before the Sony headphones are too loud for my years, but even at those levels there are no compromises in how good the music sounds, and it doesn’t sound like the amplification is reaching its limits—only my ears are.

It’s not just about being louder, though. A stronger signal helps headphones produced a more nuanced and fuller sound, with a larger dynamic range that helps ensure what you’re hearing is closer to what the sound engineers behind a track wanted you to hear.

Advertisement

undefined

A set of three color-changing LEDs on the THX Onyx indicate the quality level of the music you’re listening to in four stages from CD quality to up to MQA studio quality.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

If you really want to experience the full benefits of the $200 THX Onyx you’re going to want to spend a little (or a lot of) money. Streaming services like Amazon Music HD and apps like Audirvana provide access to and playback of higher bit rate audio files, as do video services like Disney+, Hulu, and Netflix. Apple Music doesn’t currently offer a higher quality streaming option, and Spotify only recently announced a HiFi option, so while testing the THX Onyx I relied on Tidal HiFi ($20/month subscription with a free month-long preview) which offers many tracks at a ‘Master’ level that promises studio quality audio.

Advertisement

The Onyx itself will actually let you know the quality of the track you’re listening to with its set of three color-changing LEDs. Blue is CD quality or slightly above, yellow is high resolution, red is Direct Stream Digital (what Sony and Philips used for Super Audio CDs), and magenta is for max quality MQA certified tracks. I was skeptical that I’d hear much of a difference swapping the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones between my MacBook Pro’s headphone jack and the THX Onyx while listening to ‘Master’ quality tracks through Tidal, but my ears had no trouble discerning which was which. Music coming through the MBP’s headphone jack was noticeably flatter with less of a dynamic range than when connected to the Onyx. I’m not sure if the difference is big enough to warrant spending $20/month on Tidal HiFi if you’re using $350 headphones, but it might be if you upgrade.

undefined

Photo: Andrew Liszewski/Gizmodo

Advertisement

The other obvious way to take advantage of a device like the THX Onyx is with a better set of headphones, so in addition to the Sonys, I also tested the Onyx with a pair of $1,000 Beyerdynamic T5 High-end Tesla headphones. Now that my ears have had a taste of the better life, they’ll never be happy with wireless earbuds again. Imagine taking a high-performance sports car for a spin after filling its tank with Zippo lighter fluid, and then once again filled with jet fuel. The Beyerdynamics still provide a better listening experience than the $350 Sonys when plugged directly into my MacBook Pro, but when plugged into the THX Onyx, the T5s are given everything a $1,000 pair of headphones needs to make a hifi audio track sound unbelievable.

Audio compression often strips away frequencies our ears are less sensitive to to reduce file sizes, but with a hifi digital stream, the Onyx, and $1,000 headphones, you hear everything. Blasting the original Star Wars theme through Tidal made it feel like I was sitting on stage with the London Symphony Orchestra, and I now understand the stereotype of the rich old dude sitting in a plush leather chair with a giant pair of expensive headphones on. I didn’t want to take the Beyerdynamics off either.

Advertisement

Like many of you, I often roll my eyes at audiophiles who look down their noses at anyone who hasn’t shelled out tens of thousands of dollars for audio gear, but the reality is that even if you have a much smaller budget, you can still vastly improve your listening experience. The THX Onyx is a good first step in that direction. Just be mindful that it’s a $200 upgrade that could potentially put you on a slippery slope towards spending a lot more money. You’ve been warned.

Anker’s Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro ANC Headphones Drop to $100

Best Tech DealsBest Tech DealsThe best tech deals from around the web, updated daily.

Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro ANC Headphones | $100 | Amazon

Hello, hello. If you’re reading this it means that you may be somewhat interested in audio, or at the very least, are in the market for a new, affordable pair of headphones. Well, look no further than these Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro ANC Headphones, down to $100 from the original list price of $130. Available in four colors, The Souncore Liberty 2 Pros are the latest in a steady brand compatible with both Apple and Andriod. The headphones themselves have targeted ANC (active noise cancellation) and boasts HearID, a personalized EQ that looks inside your ears and analyzes the shape for a customized listening experience.

Advertisement

The Liberty Air 2 Pros also have up to 26 hours of playtime and seven hours of playback with just one charge, and if you use the charging case (you should!), you’ll get three re-charges. Of course, they come with noise-canceling microphones so you can take Zoom calls in peace, especially if you have too thin walls and too loud neighbors. And honestly, these are great competition to the original AirPods and the AirPods Pro which are about $150 and $250, respectfully.


Snag Microsoft’s Active Noise-Canceling Surface Headphones for Just $106 at Woot

Best Tech DealsBest Tech DealsThe best tech deals from around the web, updated daily.

Microsoft Surface Headphones | $106 | Woot

Did you know that Microsoft makes headphones? The Surface Headphones are surprisingly distinctive-looking too, with a unique flourish to the headband, plus they’re Bluetooth wireless cans with up to 15 hours of battery life, the built-in Cortana voice assistant, and active noise canceling smarts.

Advertisement

Woot is currently offering them for $106 new, which is more than half off the original list price, and $21 less than you’ll find them at Amazon right now. But since Amazon owns Woot, Amazon Prime members get free shipping on these. This deal is only good through today, unless they sell out sooner!


How to Get the Best Possible Audio Quality From Your Streaming Services

Illustration for article titled How to Get the Best Possible Audio Quality From Your Streaming Services

Image: Spotify

If you’re seriously passionate about your music’s audio fidelity, then maybe streaming services aren’t your go-to. But you can actually get pretty high-quality sound from a few of the services on the market—there’s quite a lot of variation to consider based on the platform you use and whether you’re paying or not.

Advertisement

While we’re not going to dive too much into the technicalities of the audio formats here, you’ll come across three main tiers of audio quality across the different streaming services: first are lossy, compressed formats like AAC and MP3 encoded at bit rates up to 320 kbps (the higher the better).

As you upgrade to better sound and lossless formats, the measurements differ: there’s CD-quality audio encoded at a bit depth of 16-bit up to a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz (the equivalent of 1,411 kbps), and studio-quality audio encoded at 24-bit up to 192 kHz (the equivalent of 9,216 kbps).

Stepping up through those audio tiers is the same as upgrading to a better camera to improve photo quality and take higher-resolution images—there’s a lot more detail and information stored as the quality of the tracks increases.

Qobuz

Qobuz prides itself on the quality of the music it streams. Its plans go all the way up to studio-quality—that’s FLAC format encoded at 24-bit and up to 192 kHz—and the plan will set you back $15 a month (less if you pay for a year at a time). There are desktop and mobile apps available, as well as a web player.

The recently announced partnership between Qobuz and Sonos gives audiophiles another option to pick from. Qobuz is the first service to offer a 24-bit lossless format over Sonos systems, so if those are the speakers that you’ve got set up at home (or that you’re thinking of buying) then Qobuz is a suitable high-resolution audio partner.

Tidal

Audio quality has been a selling point for Tidal from the very beginning, and if you pay for the premium $20/month plan you get 16-bit and 44.1 kHz quality music. A selection of albums are also available at master quality—that’s 24-bit and up to 192 kHz—but you get that included as part of the Tidal HiFi plan. The standard $10/month premium package gets you music up to 320 kbps in quality.

Advertisement

Tidal has also partnered with a range of speaker manufacturers to ensure high-quality playback away from your apps and mobile devices: Bluesound, Denon, Naim, Cambridge Audio, and Astell & Kern are some of the many companies that have signed up. However, the streaming to speakers (including Sonos) tops out at 16-bit rather than 24-bit.

Enjoy 24-bit audio with the Echo Studio and Amazon Music HD.

Enjoy 24-bit audio with the Echo Studio and Amazon Music HD.
Photo: Amazon

Advertisement

Amazon Music

Amazon offers a somewhat bewildering array of music streaming packages, from the free to the bundled-with-Prime to the high fidelity—and that last one is Amazon Music HD. It matches Tidal in offering its entire catalog at 16-bit / 44.1 kHz and a smaller sub-section of music at 24-bit / 192 kHz, and it’ll cost you $13 per month if you’re already subscribed to Prime and $15 per month if you’re not.

Advertisement

As well as playing this 24-bit music on your mobile and desktop devices, it’s also supported by a limited number of speakers and associated equipment—specifically, the Echo Studio, the Echo Link, and the Echo Amp. As long as you’re willing to go all-in on the Amazon ecosystem, you can get high-resolution music streaming all around the home.

Deezer

Among the many reasons to sign up for Deezer is the Deezer HiFi plan, which serves up your music in 16-bit, 44.1 kHz FLAC quality for $15 a month. Stick to the $10 a month plan and you get up to 320 kbps in terms of the streaming quality, and if you’re a non-paying user on the Deezer platform then you’re limited to 128 kbps.

Advertisement

If you do opt for the top-tier HiFi plan, then you can enjoy that sound fidelity across all of the platforms and devices where Deezer is supported (and the list is a long one, stretching from consoles to the web player). As yet there’s no 24-bit plan available, but 16-bit works just about everywhere.

Spotify

If you’re paying $10 a month and using the dedicated Spotify desktop or mobile apps rather than the web player, you can get up to 320 kbps. Head into the settings for the app on your platform of choice and look for the audio quality section to make sure you’re always getting the best possible quality. If you leave these settings at Automatic, Spotify adjusts the bit rate to match your internet connection. For free users, that rate tops out at 160 kbps.

Advertisement

Better audio fidelity is coming, though. Later this year, Spotify will launch Spotify HiFi for an as-yet-undisclosed additional fee, and that will guarantee you “CD-quality, lossless audio” whether you’re listening on a device or through a Spotify Connect speaker setup. As soon as it launches properly, we’ll bring you all the details.

Apps such as Spotify let you set streaming quality manually.

Apps such as Spotify let you set streaming quality manually.
Screenshot: Spotify

Advertisement

Apple Music

Apple doesn’t publicly disclose the bit rate that its songs stream at across the Apple Music platform, though the general consensus is that it’s AAC 256 kbps based on clues like the files you can buy from iTunes. For now, it’s a one size fits all option; there’s no free tier.

Advertisement

Apple has always made plenty of noise about being interested in audio fidelity, ever since it started offering digital downloads at the start of the millennium, and that makes us think that something equivalent to Spotify HiFi won’t be too far off. It has offered lossless downloads for purchase for years now, but so far not streams.

YouTube Music

YouTube Music matches Apple Music in its choice of 256 kbps AAC streaming quality—unless you’re not currently subscribing for the premium service, in which case you’ll get knocked down to 128 kbps AAC.

Advertisement

There are no desktop apps with YouTube Music, but you can specify a streaming quality inside the mobile and web apps—the options are similar to the ones you get with Spotify. Open up the settings screen on your device, and under the playback and audio quality menus you can set the quality for streaming over wifi, streaming over cellular networks, and for tracks downloaded to your device.

Sony’s New 360 Reality Audio Speaker Sounds So Damn Good, but It’ll Cost You

Illustration for article titled Sony's New 360 Reality Audio Speaker Sounds So Damn Good, but It'll Cost You

Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo

Sometimes, a Bluetooth-enabled speaker is really all you need. But the nice part about having a speaker with wifi capabilities, too, is being able to simply tell your smart assistant what to play without having to fiddle too much with the speaker itself. It helps when that speaker also delivers exquisite audio the way it’s meant to be heard.

Advertisement

Those are two of the main things I enjoyed most when testing Sony’s premium RA5000 360 Reality Audio speaker ($700), which launched Monday alongside the smaller RA3000 ($300). Both speakers have the ability to create room-filling sound using Sony’s spatial sound technology, but the RA5000 is the heavyweight in terms of its ability to truly fill a room. And fill a room it will, particularly at higher volumes. But it’s also outrageously expensive, so there’s that.

The RA5000 is Hi-Res Audio certified, whereas the smaller of the two is not. I haven’t had the chance to test the RA3000, but I will say that that speaker’s humidity resistance—which the RA5000 does not have—makes it a good choice for kitchen or bathroom applications where it might be exposed to steam. But given the size of the RA5000, I don’t think that’s the best use case for this speaker, anyhow. Counter space is precious real estate, after all, and the RA5000 is quite large and equally heavy.

The RA5000 manages to pull off its immersive audio tricks thanks both to Sony’s proprietary technology as well as its seven drivers, three of which are up-firing. The speaker can be used both as a Bluetooth device as well as with Google Assistant- and Alexa-enabled smart devices, which was the main reason that between the Ultimate Ears Hyperboom I’ve been testing in my home and the RA5000, I usually opted for Sony’s speaker. The Hyperboom costs roughly half of what the RA5000 does, and I will note that the Hyperboom actually had fuller bass in most applications—though bass is kind of UE’s whole thing. The RA5000 does have EQ controls through its companion app, though. And for hi-fi evangelists, the RA5000 is the clear winner.

The ability to use an Echo Dot to control what I was listening to made the premium audio experience a breeze. But you will have to procure that smart device separately if you plan to use the speaker in this way (though they come pretty cheap these days).

Illustration for article titled Sony's New 360 Reality Audio Speaker Sounds So Damn Good, but It'll Cost You

Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo

Advertisement

That’s not what you’re paying for with this speaker, though. The real selling point is its support of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format, which claims to create a fully immersive sound environment and is supported by several premium music streaming services, including Tidal, Deezer, Nugs.net, and beginning April 6, Amazon Music HD. The speaker is Spotify Connect-compatible and has Chromecast built in as well. Additionally, the speaker can recalibrate to a new position in the home just by moving it and turning it on.

360 Reality Audio is a digital proprietary audio format from Sony that breaks down the complex data of audio files and works with Sony environment-mapping technologies to deliver the best possible and most immersive sound. That means you’re most likely getting the closest experience to how music was meant to be heard. The RA3000 and RA5000 speakers are the first Sony speakers to put this proprietary tech to work. And while I was using Tidal’s hi-fi plan to test audio compared with the Hyperboom, the clarity and detail that came through on this speaker were unmatched by the UE.

Advertisement

As for its calibration capabilities, Sony says the RA5000 does this with an internal microphone and a proprietary Sony algorithm. To enable this feature, just hold the immersive Audio Enhancement key on the speaker and the RA5000 will begin its calibration process.

I would have liked to test the speaker’s ability to automatically adjust the volume for tracks that are especially quiet or come through far too loud a little more, but I did find that there was consistency in the audio I was listening to with this speaker and didn’t have to fiddle with the volume settings too much. I also would have liked to test the RA5000 with a compatible Bravia TV, which I did not have on hand. I think this speaker would make sense for a TV application given its ability to create an immersive soundstage. I just don’t think it could beat a fully surround entertainment system on its own. But it might make a good multi-purpose solution if you’re hoping to spend hundreds rather than thousands of dollars on a speaker system for your TV.

Advertisement

The last thing I’ll say is that while this speaker is marketed as a “wireless” speaker, it does need to be plugged in. What Sony means by wireless here is that there is no aux cable. But the fact that it requires an outlet doesn’t make it an especially good portable solution if you plan to be moving around your home or, for example, to your background.

Ultimately, this would make a good multi-purpose primary sound solution for a family room. But you’ll pay the Sony tax, and if 360 Reality Audio isn’t important to you, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere.

Advertisement

Save $72 on a Pair of Sony’s Excellent WH-1000XM4 Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Best Tech DealsBest Tech DealsThe best tech deals from around the web, updated daily.

Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones | $278 | Best Buy

For many, working from home this year has been a tricky adjustment. Among the many frustrations and inconveniences are the many noises your housemates will make as you try to focus on your work. Asking to keep the noise down might work, but it can also cause some tension, and it’s never any fun.

Advertisement

Spare yourself the trouble with the Sony WH-1000XM4 noise-canceling headphones. Typically they’d cost you $348, but they’re down to $278 today at Best Buy. I’ve been testing them for the past couple weeks, and the noise-cancellation is a joy when your neighbors have a symphony of dogs on standby.

In his review, Gizmodo’s Andrew Liszewski says they provide the best noise-canceling experience, and you can easily switch between two paired devices, so you can toggle from a laptop to a phone before getting started on a home workout or heading out for a walk.

This deal was originally published by Jordan McMahon on 12/09/2020 and updated with new information on 03/24/2021.