Augmented reality was seen as potentially the way of the future when introduced in 2013. So far, augmented reality through sight has never delivered and people wearing augmented reality glasses are not a common sight. In contrast, people wearing headphones and earphones are everywhere. Augmented sound reality is here (or hear?) and if anything is growing in significance. This page looks at the topic overall but also includes some specific reviews.
- Wait for Bluetooth 5.2?
- Buds – Phones – Both?
- Specific Headphone Comparisons
I started this page to provide a place to organise my thoughts and findings on the comparison of some specific headphones, because someone asked for a comparison of specific models that I had tried. That content is still here, so just jump to comparisons if interested. However the post got me thinking, and I thought it worthwhile giving some thought to just what is happening with rise of the use of headphone and earphones, and how they are becoming an increasing part of life, providing augmented sound reality.
Sound: Speakers, Headphones & Earphones
All three are about reproducing sound. The main sounds we need to reproduce are music, movies and speech. Generally the ultimate in sound reproduction is from speakers, which can best imitate the characteristics of the original environment.
Speakers can transform a listening space into a music venue, or into movie ‘soundstage‘ recreating an amazing range of experiences. Headphones and earphones cannot transform a space, but perhaps the potential is there to transport an individual virtually into another space? The most expensive speakers can cost over 1 million dollars, and there are even speakers as expensive as $5 million dollars on the list, although moving beyond $1 million is moving into frivolity and beyond sound quality.
A similar list of most expensive headphones has several pairs that cost around $5,000 dollars, and then a few pairs that add diamonds and gold which can cost over $120,000 dollars, although most of those dollars are for the jewels, not the headphones.
Earphones typically costs even less than headphones, but equation is complex. Another comparison is between products of the same brand, although brands that particpate in a similar way with all three products are rare:
The Yamaha range is probably the most indicative of the industry overall. Apple and B&O prices have reasons for price differences other beyond the product categories, but the rules still follow. Further, I can go to my local lost cost homeware store and buy 3.5mm wired earphones/buds for around $3 US (in fact currently on special at around US $2), headphones from around US $6 although these say they are “kids headphones”, and home stereo speakers from around $30, although again they targeted at the very young and “light up”, which is a feature not found in any $1 million dollar speakers! Interestingly, low price earphones are
Generally, the potential sound quality from highest to lowest is 1) speakers, 2) headphones, 3) earbuds, but that is also reflected in the price.
Speakers vs Headphones/Earphones/Earbuds.
With speakers, your are wearing nothing, but also have no controls at your fingertips. Recreating sound in a fixed environment and potentially sharing that experience with others is such a different concept to the ‘augmented reality’ experience of using headphones or earbuds. The entire use case and the goals are very different.
This page is focuses on ‘augmented audio’, or the concept of providing sound that is not present in the environment. This is such a different concept that direct comparisons of the devices is less significant than are the concepts themselves.
There are people with a choice of listening to music in a situation where no one else is impacted by the choice of speakers vs headphones it is just down to what is preferred, but this is an extremely specific use case, and one where wired headphones are the true alternative to speakers.
The focus of this page is the wider use cases enabled by todays technology. Once the the potential of Bluetooth wireless devices is taken into account, then the uses of the technology are so different that speakers are not an alternative.
It sill makes sense to consider the difference in listening experience and sound quality, but in this context, that is just one factor. The entire goal is ‘augmented audio’, and speakers for all their sound quality, only deliver at all if you bring a ghetto-blaster, and those are rather impractical in most settings.
Bluetooth Headphones or Bluetooth Earphones?
The question for this page is headphones or earphones. Specifically, the Bluetooth variety. My experience is:
Earbuds are discrete. People need not notice you are wearing them. However their small size makes the control fiddly, so people may notice more when you try to interact. Getting the right balance between the outside world and your music or podcast is more problematic than with headphones, but there are many environments where they are adequate. Listening to music or a podcast, or taking phone calls while on a leisure walk using earbuds works adequately.
Earbuds are naturally more weather resistant. Earbuds can not only survive a thunderstorm, they also can be much more suitable to being worn while sprinting or during vigorous exercise.
The battery life of around 7-10 hours is possible with earbuds, and this can be extended through the charging case. As I do not wear earbuds all day, finding time to charge them is not problematic. For most uses, battery life is not a problem.
It depends on the headphone. I found the B&O H9s much closer to the experience with earbuds, as the controls are still inconvenient and the sound quality and noise cancellation between the H95s and earbuds.
The H95s are still headphones, which means it is obvious to all you are wearing them. However, the convenience of the dials to control volume and the balance of transparency vs your own sounds means I can interact with others less impacted than with earbuds, other than removing the earbuds. Yes earbuds can have transparency that is close to as effective, but using earbuds controls to obtain the ideal balance quickly is problematic.
In a noisy shopping mall or beside a major road I can need to pause listening or a phone call as noise levels change. With H95 headphones, the problem is eliminated. In situations where earbuds are adequate, headphones like the H95 just make the experience more enjoyable.
Battery life is also better with headphones, although I feel with the latest earbuds it is rarely a big problem. H9s provide 38 to 50 hours on a charge, and 10 minutes charging gives 5 hours of battery life, almost matching full charge on some earbuds.
Overall, the trade off is the far more obvious ‘I am wearing headphones’ declaration, vs the far better experience. However when need to interact with someone, it is actually easier while wearing the headphones.
I know someone who wears earbuds at home because they desire to listing without others hearing their music, and wear earbuds during a specific commute where background noise is not really a problem. For this person, earbuds work fine. In fact, they also like to listen in the bath, where earbuds are the only viable option. Perhaps if audio quality was a higher priority, they would also have a use case for headphones?
I started with the H95s for a specific use, but now they have replaced almost all (rain aside) use of earbuds. Which works comes down to use case, and how silly you feel walking around wearing headphones.
The History of Headphones and Earbuds.
Headphones and earphones have provided private or personal listening for some time now, despite many articles quoting marketing material suggesting many products represented revolutions to technology that had been stalled for many decades, the reality is the products have continued to evolve at ever increasing speeds.
Electronic earphones have been around since in 1881 (as used by telephone operators), and earbuds in some form for at least just as long, although a patent for electronic earbuds from 1926 suggest that all earbuds prior to 1926 were more like a stethoscope, or those tube based earbuds airlines gave out in the 70s and and 80s.
Historically, earbuds have been popular due to their low cost, and low power requirements. A key early driver for popularity of both earbuds and earphones was crystal set radios. During the war, soldiers used crystal radios with earphones to have music using equipment enemies could not detect.
Earpieces were sufficiently inexpensive that their uses ranged from kids toys through to headsets provided to travellers and flights.
Airlines first provided ‘air tube’ headsets, but progressively moved to lost cost given electronic earphones. Headphones and earphones sometimes come equipped with an adaptor for the dual 3.5mm earphone/headphone adaptor used on many airlines. for use on flights
headphones. were popular
Bluetooth 5.2: A revolution?
I have previously explored how Bluetooth is actually two systems. Bluetooth 5.2 moves audio from the first system, to the second. As an implementation of audio in that second system can start with a ‘clean slate’, this allows Bluetooth audio to be reinvented, using 2020 ideas in place of 2000 (or just before) ideas. The world has changed a lot. Many limitations of the past are gone, with new possibilities like ‘broadcast mode’ where an auditorium full of people could all chose to listen their own audio in their chosen language. This opens the use of ‘bring your own headset’ to a whole new world of possibilities. There are many resources covering all the details, and here is a link to one.
Wait for Bluetooth 5.2?
With Bluetooth 5.2 headsets due to appear sometime in 2021, it may seems that now is a bad time to buy. Maybe…but maybe not. 2021 will also be the first year of phones with Bluetooth 5.2 and it will take time for a large number of phones to have the technology. Phones all implement the original Bluetooth, as well as the newer ‘LE’ Bluetooth, as phones need to be able to connect to many devices. However, peripherals can choose to implement only one system (the original) of the other (Bluetooth ‘LE’). Choosing to implement ‘LE’ only means that as ‘LE’ was mandatory for the ‘computer/phone’ type end of the link from Bluetooth 4.0, there is compatibility now regardless of what is chosen. However, if a new headset/headphone/earbud opts to only work using the new Audio, and it doesn’t really make sense for such a device to work both ways, then that new audio will only work with phones/computers which have 5.2 or better. So….. maybe wait until everything you want to connect to has 5.2 before having 5.2 based earphones/headphones.
How long battery life is required? Unlike a watch or something that is worn all the time, most people do not wear there headphones/earphones all the time so there is usually opportunities to charge them. Back when ‘flying’ was a thing, you could need as long as 24 hours operation to handle a flight half way round the world, but that is less common right now. However, many headphones now offer well over 20 hours and earphones recharge from their case to give a similar time. For flexibility and not needing to be vigilant about changing, 30 hours should cover all bases.
Buds – Phones – Both?
They don’t do the same thing. Headphones give better noise isolation, all else being equal. The controls are bigger which means they can be more ergonomic. They also telegraph you are wearing them. Buds are more discrete, and easier to make suitable for exercising. Some you could even wear swimming, which just seems wrong for headphones even if they are waterproof. Nothing does all, so, choose, or get a set of each.
B&O H95, H9i, H9
I moved from the original H9, to the H9i, and now to the H95. Here is why, and what I learnt.
Why from H9 to H9i?
Construction. From the original H9s through to the H95, the ear cups have been removable. With the original H9s there was no mention of the ear cups being removable, and one fell off the first time, I thought it was broken. Although it could be twisted back in place, they kept falling off when being taken in and out of a sling bag. Eventually, I lost one of them, I was about to buy a new pair as a replacement, but saw such a deal on the new model that I just bought those, instead of buying replacement the ear cups.
Moving to the H9i, there was now USB-C for charging, the battery was now much harder to replace, but now the ear cups could be removed and replaced reliably. Other improvements were too minor to notice.
So now, comparing H9i to H95.
The head band is now slightly shorter, has not visible stitching, has much softer padding, and now provides a folding function which works very well. Ignoring the case, the headphones themselves fold into around half the height, but are marginally thicker (around 5mm thicker).
Speaker housings on the H9i were plastic with then metallic ‘cap’ covers, with the cover over the battery able to be removed. On the H95, they appear to be solid metal. If the battery can be replaced, it is not user replaceable. With over twice the battery life, it is no longer an issue for extending the battery life, but it could be an issue in a few years time when the battery gets old. Still, most alternatives have the same issue.
Controls and Operation.
The overall technical design of the H95 is different from that of the H9. The H95, like Beolab 90s or other beolab speakers, is a digital device. While, conventional speakers simply turn analogue signal from a power amplifier into sound, Beolab speakers turn digital signals into sound, and there is no direct analogue path from input to speaker. Same with the H9s. There may be analogue stages internally, but there is no direct analogue path from input to headphone speaker. This means the H9s can operate as conventional headphones, with an analogue input and no need for battery power, while no operation of the H95s without power is possible.
The new controls are huge step forward. I found changing volume on H9/H9i most inconvenient, and would use a phone/computer/remote volume control instead. Still playing with the transparency adjustment, but it is a great idea so once I have more experience in practice I will update this page.
The H9 headphones can be connected via a single 3.5mm cable and operate without battery power. This means you can leave them connected to a laptop or desktop computer all day and not worry about charging. The H95 headphones provide no sound unless switched on, so if they are used in this way, they will go flat. Initially, I felt this was a negative for the H95. Ok, they can be charged really quickly, but that is a nuisance. However, unlike the H9, the H95s can be connected via a single USB cable to provide both sound and power. This provides even better sound, is still one cable, and is a connection still supported as 3.5mm becomes harder to find. Overall, I have found the H95 solution at least an equal.
Next, noise cancelling.
In my artificial testing, the noise cancellation difference was not that great between the H9i and H95. I expected to hear a greater difference, but in my artificial tests, yes the H95 was better, but it may have been only the better seal of the new style ear cups. I would need comparisons with real noise and I will try over the next few days. However, a comparison test by a headphone tester suggests the H95s may actually better than previous class leaders, Bose NC700 and Sony 1000XM4.
In fact the more I have tested, the better I have found the noise cancellation to be. Walking on a busy road adjacent to busses, you can still hear a podcast with the volume low. In a shopping mall, you can go from transparency and talking with people to quiet bliss.
two one caveats.
When outdoors on a windy day, there is nothing you can do block out wind noise from the microphones. No matter where you set the transparency setting, you can still hear wind the seems to be picked up from microphones. There should be some setting that kills the microphones as without bringing in outside sounds, or using outside for cancellation, there should be a way to kill it. Before having the H95s, I tended to use earbuds more often outdoors as the sound was close enough, and as the H9s are being used outdoors at times I did not use the H9i, I cannot directly compare. But it is a limitation. A software update completely fixed the wind noise problem.
Phone calls: Noise cancellation switches off during phone calls. You can be in quiet bliss in a noisy environment like a shopping mall, but a phone call brings you back to reality. I have seen reviews that say even quote figures for noise cancellation during calls, but what they are measuring is passive noise cancellation, as the app will reveal that the noise cancel/transparency mode is set to ‘neutral’ during the call.
While it was hard to pick a difference in noise cancellation, the contrast in sound is enormous. Do not try listening to the H95 if you ever want to go back the H9i/H9. Normally the yield in sound quality from even double the price is incremental. This time it is not. The entire sound stage is at another level.
Apple AirPods Max vs B&O H95.
This is a feature comparison, without sufficient listening time to even attempt to compare audio quality. I will instead link to other comparisons of audio quality as I discover them.
Observations generally find Airpods Max to be a step up from Bose or Sony, but only match H95s when doing non-like for like tests, such as digital source for apple and analog source for B&O. Digital vs digital, cabled or Bluetooth, I find H95s another step up, but the difference when Bluetooth connected to an iPhone, with no Aptx codecs available, the difference is minimised.
References for Audio quality:
- Reddit: Battle of the Gods (B&O H95 VS Airpods Max)
- Brian Tong:
- AirPods Max In-Depth Review! Hear the difference vs Sony XM4, Bose 700, & Beoplay H9/H95 Headphones!
- Tests AirPods max using digital (lightning) connect, vs H95s using analog (3.5) connection and finds similar sound.
- Note that this is AirPods at the best, vs H95s not at their best- digital vs digital, or bluetooth vs bluetooth, I find H95s better, and he might also.
With both, the supplied cases attract attention and can be controversial or polarising. Apple is a brand that drives an accessory industry, B&O is not. This means that over time Apple can assume people will be able to buy their own aftermarket cases, B&O cannot.
Neither Apple or B&O supply an ‘everyday’ useful headphones case.
- Apple supplies a token case the seems to serve more as a design guide on what is needed to put the headphones to sleep when designing an aftermarket case, than a real world case. While looking to buy a case, you have something that puts the headphones to sleep, and perhaps annoyingly, you need to use that case to put the headphones to sleep.
- B&O supplies a travel case. It is a great travel case, but a terrible everyday case as it is too bulky.
Reviewers tend to treat headphone cases is if people will carry headphones without putting them some other form of luggage. I suggest this is not real life, and if it was, the ‘carry handle’ of the Apple product would be a benefit. For everyday use, headphones are going to go in a sling/purse/backpack/tote/messenger/briefcase. No one walks around carrying a headphone case alone.
The B&O case is suitable only for travel. It holds all your accessories as well as the headphones, and again you do not need those accessories every day. Together with the case being large, but protective, means it is most suitable to go in luggage. The Apple case however, will always be a pain, until you can find a sling/purse/messenger etc with the shutdown magnets built in. The problem with the Apple case in the meantime is you may need to bring it as it is the only way to be sure to turn the dam things off!
Summary: B&O gives you a travel case, Apple does not. Neither company gives you anything useful for everyday carrying.
Controls & Connections.
The best controls are probably those on the surface headphones. B&O H95 comes close, Apple possibly 3rd best of all headphones with their ‘crown’. The crown is more fiddly than the dials on the Surface or H95 products, being hard to reach and requiring more precision, and gives you one dial not two. You could use the Surface or H95 controls wearing gloves, which reflects that you can also use them while paying less attention to the task, and more to your environment. The H95 is not as good as the Surface, as the dials are the little bit harder to reach.
Both provide for a single cable connection that can provide both digital sound source and power: lightning (Apple), and USB-C (B&O). I think USB-C is a better solution as even to connect to an Apple laptop you can need a converter to use lightning, which although it earns money for Apple as a proprietary interface, is less flexible, less powerful, and not on all their devices are there somethings USB-C can do that lightning just can’t.
B&O also provided for 3.5 mm socket, while Apple requires a ‘dongle’ to achieve this.
Weight and Comfort.
They are both heavy, at 384.8grams (Apple), 323 grams (H95) compared 285 grams for my older H9i. That means a step up of around 20% in weight moving from the H95 to the AirPod Max. Perhaps that is what makes it ‘max’? In reality, it can be deceiving. I have tried, but cannot really feel the 13% step up in weight from the H9i to the H95 even over long periods of time, and while my try on was brief, I did not find the weight of the apple a problem. The two band design over you head of Apple may absorb the weight, or it may just be I have a thick neck or a heavy head. The materials of the B&O feel nicer, but once the headsets are on, I am not sure I notice.
H95: Bluetooth 5.1, 323 grams, 3.5mm + USB-C, codecs: SBC, AAC AptX adaptive, 38/50 hours, 10 min charge for 5 hrs
AirPods Max: Bluetooth 5.0, 384.8 grams, lightning, codecs: SBC, AAC, 20 Hours, 5 min charge for 1.5 hrs
Conclusion: Apple AirPod Max vs B&O H95.
The B&O does sound better, particularly when used over a digital cable, or used with AptX codec over Bluetooth, which is not available on iPhone. Used only over Bluetooth from an iPhone, the difference is small and for the difference in price, is harder to justify. Further, if you have an iPhone, you possible feel better buying Apple products, and if you don’t you are less likely to buy Apple products and more likely appreciate something different. Overall, the B&O is better, but only in proportion to the price, which makes neither of these two a bargain. The Sony & Bose offerings are probably the best value, and not that far behind these two in sound quality.
Sony 1000xM4 vs Bose NC 700 vs H95
coming soon: Eta April 14.