The continued adventures of the traveling audiophile: going wireless

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As with everything, it’s very easy to go off the deep end with audio – even personal, in-ear audio – and land up in a position where you have an extremely expensive piece of hardware that has zero secondary value (anything custom, for instance) and feel compelled that you have to make that decision before trying all options. And even if you’re lucky enough to be able to try all feasible options, 10-15 minutes of listening and A-B comparisons in an often less that representative (let alone ideal) location simply aren’t enough to make an informed decision. It also doesn’t help that you (I, at least) hit fatigue after perhaps half a dozen samples and can’t really hear the difference anymore – even if I might have fairly acute hearing on a normal day. But, I digress before I’ve even started. Last year’s move to the iPhone 7 and its forced choices of a) no charging with music if you use the Lighting to 3.5 adaptor, b) charging if you use the bulky as hell USB multiport thing and a small amp such as an AudioQuest Dragonfly Red, or c) wireless – has left me with a messy solution when travelling, which with involvement in three businesses in four countries and international clients, I seem to be doing even more of these days.

Initially, I used a), but found that the results were less than satisfactory, thanks to Apple’s audio tuning preferences and the inability of the miniature DAC-amp contained within the adaptor to adequately power multi-driver setups. Bass was muddy, and sound overall was constructed and tight. (At this point, I was using Ultimate Ears UE18Pro custom IEMs on Line BaX cables.) I migrated to solution b): sound instantly took a great leap; in fact, probably amongst the best portable setups I’ve heard. But with the iPhone 7, a full battery might last perhaps 2-3 hours of listening at most; that amp was thirsty! By the time you add the charging wire, the headphone cable itself, and the whole agglomeration of stuff hanging off the lightning port…it’s a nightmare of a thing to get lost in an airplane seat and have to call a stewardess to help you extricate. After this happened once, me nearly strangling myself to sleep, and arriving on the other end with a dead battery after the charging cable got pulled out…it was time to find another solution. Time to investigate wireless.

My first wireless headphones were actually the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless, which I still have and rank amongst my personal favourite headphones, period – I won’t say best or worst since this is a highly subjective thing. They have the articulation and punch you’d expect from full-size over ears; isolation is good but not great, and wireless signal strength is fantastic – I can walk all over my apartment (which contains plenty of rebar and interfering electronics) without a signal drop. Pairing is nearly instant and the battery will comfortably last a whole Asia-Europe flight with some to spare; my guess is of the order of 18 hours or more. It folds to pack, materials and tactile quality are top notch, and it will work without power as a wired headphone – just plug the normal 3/8″ jack in. It sounds great both wired and wireless thanks to a matched and adequately powerful DAC/amp built in; probably driving the headphones much better than anything short of a desktop setup. For those of you who tried the original wired P7s and disliked them for their darkness and muddiness – the P7Ws are a world apart. There’s still weight and punch to the bass, but it’s no longer closed or tight. The top end is less sibilant, and even the ear cups are more comfortable thanks to a different construction. They are heavy, though, and will slide to the back of your head if you try to sleep with them. And they’re a pain to pack thanks to the case’s half-wheel-of-cheese dimensions and shape.

Next stop: B&W PX, successor to the P7W. I found these to be a mixed bag: though some things improved greatly, like the addition of noise cancellation, an even longer (realistically, 24-30 hours) battery life, even greater wireless range, much lighter weight – everything had to be just right for things to sound, well, right. When the stars aligned, the cups sealed (more difficult thanks to thinner walls, and a strange driver angle meaning they had to sit further back on the head) – sound was definitely better on the PXs; there was a delicacy and articulation in the upper mids missing from the P7W. Bass was a little tighter but still present. However…I honestly found they didn’t work for me most of the time, and landed up letting them go. (I have an odd head shape which probably didn’t help). Back to the P7Ws – and the enormous packing volume (seriously, about the same as a D850 and small lens).

On a trip to Tokyo I came across two things: the much-lauded Sony WF1000X wireless in-ears (in the image above), and the Lear BTC01 bluetooth cables – with built in DAC, receiver, battery, and some buttons; in your choice of cable fit. I picked up both, and the show went on. On the way out of Tokyo I appreciated the convenience of the WF1000Xs; no more cables to get tangled in, a handy case to charge and store, and pretty decent sound considering each relatively small bud had radio receivers, batteries, and a single 6mm driver. Throw in noise cancellation and an app to control the sound signature and other parameters for good measure, and you have a typical Sony spec-sheet-driven product. Alas, my honeymoon period came to an end very quickly: whilst on paper, these should be the ones – in practice, they didn’t cut it, either. Sound quality wasn’t the problem. Sony is not known for bass discipline (any product branded MEGA BASS or XTRA BASS is probably a giveaway) – however the WF1000Xs left me pleasantly surprised. The top end had decent extension with just a hint of sibilance – easily avoided with slightly lower volume – and moderately wide soundstage. Noise cancellation didn’t make that much of a difference, but if you have a good seal with closed IEMs there’s not much leakage anyway – they’re effectively earplugs. The big problems were threefold: firstly, for some odd reason, maximum volume was pretty low – even with source (iPhone) and headphones maxed out. I would be at one notch from maximum to get a comfortable listening volume, for which comparably I’d be at maybe 50% on the wired UE18 setup, or the P7Ws. Secondly, there’s no physical connection between each earbud: it’s master to phone, and slave to master. The connection between left and right drop with maddening frequency – up to several times in ten minutes. It would usually come back again, but the disruption and sudden sound imbalance killed any enjoyment of the music. Lastly – real world battery life proved to be a shade over two hours. Another 30 minute recharge, another two hours. The case – good for about three or four chargers before itself needing charging. In reality, you’d still need another pair of headphones to get you through a long flight. And let’s not even talk about the speech lag when trying to watch a movie.

Round four: the bluetooth cables. These actually proved to be the best overall solution for audio quality, though with a couple of caveats. My main objection to the LEAR setup is one of comfort – the cable is both thick/heavy and simply not very flexible, and there’s no way to adjust the length to pull it tight to your head. I tuck it behind the arms of my glasses, but I can understand this being a source of annoyance for some – even the included rubber ear hooks/cable guides don’t really help as their shape is quite specific. Secondly, the sound quality of the driven headphones is going to alter signficantly: bass becomes heavier, darker, and a bit more authoritative, though it isn’t boomy. The best word to describe it is perhaps ‘richer’; in same way a tube amp imparts a sort of velvety weight to music. The BTC01 paired well with both the UE18Pros, and my other pair of AK T8iEIIs (also known as Beyerdynamic Xelentos). The top end remains sparkly and articulate, but overall soundstage is somewhat reduced if compared to using the headphones wired. The most annoying thing is the low level hiss that gets introduced; it seems the impedance of the headphones makes no difference. This hiss isn’t present in either wired or the P7Ws, and barely noticeable with the WF1000X. Fortunately, you don’t notice it when music is playing, but it’s present between tracks and on calls (the microphone is useless for this, by the way). I have a feeling that this noise floor significantly contributes to the perceived reduction in soundstage and some clarity – the noise is simply filling in the empty spaces, and not in a good way. I’ll end this passage on a high note, however: battery life is decent at about 4-4.5 hours, it reaches sufficient volume, and you can charge and listen at the same time using a micro USB cable. Being wired between the two sides, there are obviously no dropouts, either.

I’m now at the final stop in the current journey – the consumer-centric Apple AirPods. I’m not an audio snob, but I can tell the difference between good and what I like and what I don’t; I’ll take something that’s inoffensive to listen to over something clinical, precise and fatiguing. I’m willing to sacrifice quality for convenience, if the tradeoff is right. And I certainly want to carry as little stuff as possible – which is one of the reasons I no longer use a separate audio player (even though that would solve battery, jack, quality problems, it’s a pain to sync, requires separate charging, and is another considerable brick to carry – if you want something good). I have to say that Apple probably has nailed this market completely with the AirPods: sound quality is better than you’d expect, but don’t expect clarity and tightness of bass or extension and sparkle in the upper ranges. Soundstage is good but not excellent, and overall detail is just slightly lacking. Think 24 MP vs 36, or 50, anti-aliasing filter vs none. A little padding. The gains are incremental but noticeable, but that doesn’t make a good 24MP file any less pleasant to look at. The design is open and provides no isolation whatsoever, so it’s not useful for the kind of extended zone-out listening that’s good for long plane rides, but it will fill in the time when your other headphones are charging. Basically, from an audiophile point of view: good enough, but nothing special. Where the AirPods score big is on a) convenience, b) connection stability, c) battery life, and c) comfort. You put them in and take them out and they’re connected/ disconnected/ powered on/ off instantly. You put them in and the music starts. Each side has double tap function that can be configured to one function. The connection between L and R doesn’t drop, and it seems both are connected to the phone simultaneously; you can take calls with either interchangeably. Range is better than the WF1000Xs, but not as good as the full size B&Ws – and you wouldn’t expect it to be, given the size of the antenna and power source on the latter. Raw battery life may be about five hours – I agree with this – but the fact they are almost fully charged in 15min in the case, and the case itself contains four or five charges and is tiny, makes a huge difference. They’re light and surprisingly, stay in; you don’t notice you’re wearing them until somebody comments you look like an idiot. I do wish they were an isolating, in-ear design, but Apple probably figured the $0.50 they’d save on not providing you with a range of tips was worth it to the bottom line – on a $170 product. In short: unlike a lot of my experiences with recent Apple stuff (MacBook pro touch bar catching fire, for instance; iPhone 7 random overheats etc) – they actually do what you expect them to do, and perhaps even a little better. MT


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  1. Dirk Menker says:

    Hi, I’m using the B&O E8 wireless in-ear buds at the moment. After trying many options, I finally found the one for me. Handling, fitting and convinience are great. The sound signature is war and neutral in my opinion. And the sound isolation with foam tips is sufficient.
    Maybe you should give them a try?

  2. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    As a recovering audiophile (Cary 300B SE Signature amps, Audio Research front end, through Vandersteen Speakers), I bought the Apple AirPods from the first day they were available. I was hugely impressed with the sound quality and even more so by the wireless reliability as well as incredibly easy transport. I always have these in my pockets where ever I go. They are amazing. I’ll never go back to anything wired. The only issue with the AirPods is noise isolation. There isn’t any. I live on jet liners and listening there is not as good as I’d like it. Nor a noisy Starbucks. I keep thinking I’m going to buy a set of Beats X from Apple, as they are very similar in operation to the AirPods. One day soon.

    • Agreed on the isolation problem – there are rumours of noise cancelling versions imminent, but I’ve yet to use a pair that didn’t severely impact sound quality or induce nausea…

      • L. Ron Hubbard says:

        Long ago I used to use a pair of Sennheiser noise cancelling headphones. They worked very well but I dont ever recall feeling ill after using them. In fact, I’ve never heard of that phenomenon until this post of yours and some of the followup comments. Whatever it is that causes this to happen to some clearly does not affect me.

        • It doesn’t happen on all headphones – some reduce but not eliminate noise, and these are fine. Those which eliminate completely are the ones with issues as a) they have to emit an opposite wave to counter the ambient noise, which can mean high sound pressure levels (ie fatiguing) and b) your inner ear is telling you there’s no motion when you move, causing the nausea.

  3. Robert E Good says:

    I enjoyed this post having been into hifi for a very long time. I prefer listening to speakers when possible. I’ve just had the Apple Airbuds for a couple of days and find the convenience great and the sound acceptable. The fit is pretty good, but for my tastes they sound a bit bright (which I prefer to boomy bass). Perhaps they were tuned for mp3 files to give them more apparent clarity. They provide very little isolation from outside noise. For a wired earbud, I like the sound of the Focal Sphere which also provides a medium amount of isolation without having any noise cancellation. They come with three sizes of very soft pliable silicone covers which provides a pretty good shot at getting a comfortable fit.

    • It might be a fit issue – I find that they do loosen after a bit of moving around, and this results in loss of bass. If properly seated there’s almost too much bass boom sometimes. Focal is not a brand I’ve had the chance to try yet…

  4. Ertan Ozturk says:

    I had been using Bose QC25 and QC35 even on the bus and train. Last 2 years I have been trying to find smaller devices with good NC and sound quality. I think I have bought and sold about 9-10 of these. Now I am using Sony WI-1000x. I found them to be the best compromise between size and sound quality. The sound is definitely and absolutely worlds ahead of the other tiny BT devices, noise cancellation is a lot better than B&O H3 ANC (wired, bur still Sony beats these in terms of even sound quality).
    The neck piece isn’t very flexible, still they are smaller than folded Qc35. And the earpieces are comfortable (comes with 7-8 different cups anyway). I think Bose or any other over-ear cups will beat it on the plane but in the bus I don’t hear ANY external sound. Another good thing about these is you can change NC mode by pushing a button.

  5. Samuel Jessop says:

    After a lifetime of using earbuds, I made the jump last autumn to a pair of Sony MDR-1000X over ears. Decent enough sound quality for music and voice, and loud enough to listen to podcasts whilst commuting on the Jubilee and Piccadilly lines which was impossible even with low impedance earbuds and phone amplification. I am very thankful that they do not have the pushing feeling against your eardrums that the Bose over ears suffer from. My only complaint is that their microphone is awful for making calls, which seems like a really cheap and nasty oversight.

    I am disappointing to see you have had another issue with a MBP. Will there be a laptop update blog to come?

    • The second (replacement, after the first 13″ touch bar caught fire) MBP now has sticky keys and the case hinge clicking issue. If I used a laptop more often I’d probably be livid; as it is, I’m just fed up now.

  6. The Airpods were never going to work for my ears, but I did like the idea of something compatible with the Apple wireless chip, so I got the the Beats X…. probably not the best sound quality, but a range of tips and fittings must surely work for almost any ear, the connectivity is as good as the Airpods because of the aforementioned chip, battery life is good and they do a 5 minutes fast recharge to about 80%. Lightning port to recharge too so just one cable required when travelling to support both iPhone 7 Plus and the Beats X. Plus a bit cheaper than the Airpods. For those who find the Airpods aren’t a good fit, I’d definitely advise looking at the Beats X.

  7. Hi Ming,
    thanks a lot for this article. I tried the original P7 an yes, i found them dark, muddy and no joy to listen to. So i did not look any further to B&W Headphones.
    Maybe the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless are worth a look in the near future?

    • The wireless version is a very different beast somehow. I too had both and found the wired ones a touch dark, by the wireless are perfect. Could be because the wireless version has a matched DAC/amp built in…

  8. I tried a lot of the things you write about. For travel, nothing bests the wired Bose in ears with noise cancelling. Two of them take you through the longest trips.

    • Not personally a fan of Bose…the sound signature isn’t quite to my liking and the noise cancellation is effective, but too aggressive (to the point of being nauseating).

  9. SAID AZIZI says:

    In short, convenience is addictive and Apple is just good at delivering it. I ditched my Flac music folder for Spotify, my Sony MDR’s for the inbox earpods and my android for an iPhone. The whole package is “good enough” and the trade-off is correct : Only classical music is taking a huge hit and I listen to anything anywhere. Rumors has it that Apple is launching a new Airpods this fall and I hope they’ll be in-ear, perhaps then the move to Deezer hifi will be worth it ?

  10. I actually ditched my iPhone for Android. HTC and LG both have phones that have very good built in DACs. Samsung isn’t bad either. Storage is expandable with a microSD card. They have built in headphone jacks and good-for-phone cameras. The also play FLAC, which is how most of my music library is stored. It’s nice to keep the IEMs I paid hundreds of dollars for or use cheap Panasonic ones for listening to Audible or podcasts. I’d even get an HTC 10 (inexpensive now that it’s been replaced) and use it as a portable music device and keep the iPhone if I had to have one an iThing.

  11. Lance W says:

    I don’t understand how having a separate, dedicated audio device to charge is less of a hassle than having to charge headphones. As I see everything from an ecological standpoint I also balk at adding anything new that has a battery. That coupled with wireless being lower quality means I will not be going wireless with headphones. In my mind convenience is the root of all evil. I do have a dedicated player (Cowon) because phones just sound awful (usually). But I am the kind of person who removed the garage door opener at my house because I felt the power use was not justified 24-hours a day for something used only seconds per day. So full disclosure on my crazy ways.

    • The dedicated audio device has a (larger) battery too, and often a specific charging cable/ dock etc. plus longer charging times. Wireless is lower quality, in general, for now – I would say the B&W P7Ws are a clear exception to that – the rest, I agree have some improvement to go yet.

      Surely a garage door opener is only consuming power when in use…?

      • Lance W says:

        The opener is plugged in and waiting for a signal all the time, some consumes power at all times. I know it’s not like a refrigerator. But wasted energy bugs me. I am not elderly so can open a simple garage door. My Cowon Plenue uses a micro USB, same as my phone and so many other devices. It does charge much too slowly, but doesn’t need to be charged nearly as often as headphone would need to be. I have never used an iPhone so don’t concern myself with proprietary cables.

  12. Bill Walter says:

    As an old audiophile who hasn’t yet gotten into wireless products, it’s great to read positive reviews on some of the latest technology. Especially when junk like the Rocblok is selling pretty well (presumably to the naïve younger crowd). You make an excellent point about the preference of using lower volume when using headphones with a better fit/seal. Photography isn’t the only field where “less noise” is a good thing.

  13. AK100, Onkyo DP-X1A, iphone/ Dragonfly Red

  14. Steve G says:

    What external player did you use previously?

  15. I also ditched the iPhone as a portable music solution and opted for an A & K Kann. plays up to 32 bit High res files and the difference between this and the iPhone was like night and day. As I spend on average 40 hours a month either in airports or in the air, I paired this with a set of Sennheiser headphones (noise cancelling and bluetooth, although I always use them wired.) I never had faith that IEM’s would block out the noise on a plane or not bleed out too much sound into the ears of the guy sat next to me. Couldn’t be happier as I don’t have to play at potentially damaging volumes to hear the music when I am flying.

    • Personally, the IEMs work well for me as far as isolation goes, but noise cancellation mostly makes me feel nauseous. There has to be significant sound pressure exerted to cancel loud noises (e.g. airplanes) which is fatiguing; if there isn’t, then noise cancellation isn’t effective. My main beef is needing another device, another charger, more cables, something else to get tangled in while you try to sleep etc…been down the cable route (AK100, then iPhone/dragonfly, or later Onkyo), and frankly hated it.

  16. …why not ditch the iPhone and get a phone that has a 3.5mm jack?

    • No matter which phone you use – with or without jack – sound has to pass through the phone’s DAC, and few phones are any good for audio. The few hours a week on average I listen does not offset the inconvenience of every other aspect of the device (not to mention extracting my data in the first place). This isn’t meant to be an apple vs other discussion – there’s enough of that on the internet already.

  17. As a recovered audiophile (and headphone geek), I’ll offer up two suggestions in case you find that the Apple AirPods do not work for you in the long run. First, I have been a big fan of Etymotic Research IEM’s over the years. Yes, there are more expensive, and better sounding, products, but as I have some Senn HD 600’s that I have had for years and truly enjoy when I want to focus on my listening experience, my Ety’s are primarily for when I am on the go. Their ER4’s are time tested and still my favorite, but the HF5’s are a good bargain alternative.

    Now, the second item you might possibly find a bit more interesting, depending on the music apps that you are using on your phone/tablet/laptop. I picked up a Google Chromecast Audio and just plug my headphones into it. It does require a USB power source, but what I enjoy is that the connection is via wifi and that the Chromecast acts as the DAC. Google Home is the app that integrates into other music players or apps and makes the wifi connection from the source. It’s not a bad way to get music to the phones, and I find the sound decent for less than critical listening. With a tiny USB power bank, you can shove the Chromecast puck and the power bank in your pocket and be wireless form the source. I know that it is not everybody’s cup of tea, but at $35USD for the puck, it is a nice option to pair with a favorite set of cans when you want a bit of freedom.


    • I’ve tried the ER4s; they just aren’t comfortable for me, both in terms of fit and overemphasis on the highs. Airpods aren’t fantastic – they’re just ‘good enough’, and probably a bit more tips in their favour when you factor in wireless convenience.

      If I’m at home, then I’ll use the larger B&W P7Ws – which are wireless, have a built in (and matched) DAC, and phenomenal battery life and range. They play nice with the laptop or iPhone, too. Plus I think they’re probably the best sounding wireless cans, period – there is very little difference to running them wired off a well-matched amp, and they’re excellent in that state, too.

  18. Sony’s new wireless series is truly remarkable. The WH-1000Xm2 is a marked improvement over the original MDR-1000X, and the air pressure optimization is really useful on long flights.

    Personally, I still can’t ditch the wired earphones. The MDR-EX1000s are, personally, the most perfect IEMs ever created and I carry them with me whenever I travel and even managed to mod a pair with 4.4mm MMCX cables to use with the Sony WM1Z setup.

    I feel there are two lines of Sony audios, the “consumer” products that optimize for cheap tricks like ExtraBass & ClearPhase or the professional lines that trace its roots to their days collaborating with the likes of Karajan and Sakamoto Ryuichi. Evidently, I’m deeply entrenched in Sony’s camp of audio products, but I do believe their products are not always so “spec sheet driven” if you look past their consumer offerings.

    If you had the chance, try to pay JustEar a visit. It’s Sony’s brand of tailor-made IEMs that promises to provide the “perfect sound” by tuning to your personal standards. It’s probably as good as audio would get, provided if you know what you needed, and most of the time that’s actually the trickiest part: Is there a final destination or are we just chasing the next thing?

    • Not heard of JustEar – I suppose it’s time for another trip to Japan…I suspect we quickly get used to certain sound signatures; we start looking again when bored, but then find ourselves not so easy to ‘switch out’ precisely for the same reason – everything else tends to sound wrong somehow, and you notice the difference more than enjoy the music. My hypothesis is therefore is as much as you’re trying to chase the next thing – there is probably an endgame in which you land up with ‘the best of’ whichever headphone corresponds to the sound signature you prefer. All of what I’ve bought and kept for any prolonged period of time has a fairly similar signature with fairly minor variances.

  19. fazalmajid says:

    BTW the Oppo HA-2SE will charge the phone as it plays, no bulky adapter needed. It’s crippled by iOS or Android’s 48kHz limitation, though.

  20. I would ditch the iPhone, and have in fact done so, getting on Onkyo DP-X1 instead. It supports high-resolution audio and has a high-quality DAC, has a decent amp, including balanced support, and with dual microSDXC slots you can store over 500GB of music on it. Combine with good IEMs like Etymotics, or B&O H6, or even full-sized cans like Focal Elear or Sennheiser HD800 withbalanced cables, and you have a very versatile yet high-quality system.

    • I’ve already got one, and UE18Pro customs IEMs. The quality is unarguable, but I have not used it in a while because it’s another thing to charge and set up etc when you travel…

  21. I concur. The Soundsport Wireless has near ideal compromise between convenience, connection reliability, battery life and sound quality. Only a tad uncomfortable after prolonged usage.

  22. Derrick Pang says:

    I would think the Bose Wireless earbuds are much better than Apple’s

  23. Bruce McLaughlin says:

    As an alternative to the Apple AirPods you may want to check out Pioneer Rayz. They are wired (via lightning port), in ear, noise cancelling earbuds. They need an iPhone app to run and they use the iPhone’s power. Their iPhone app has a 5 band equalizer. They can be bought with an additional Lightning connection port for charging the iPhone while listening. I use them and like them, but I do not have experience with AirPods and this is my first pair of noise cancelling headphones.

  24. richard warren says:

    Be careful with that stuff Ming – there was a medical report about growing deafness and the contribution these ear phones are making. From what I recall of the program, the better these small ear phones fit into the ear, the worse the risk.

    Also standard headphones – the smart guys here are the radio & TV hosts – you’ll generally see them with only one of the two speakers on their headphones anywhere near either ear, and the other one only loosely NEAR (not ON) the other ear. Apparently that minimises the deafness factor for them. But if you want stereo sound, that kind of defeats the purpose, so there’s no perfect solution for everyone.

    • Actually, I find the better the fit/seal, the lower the volume you need because less background noise makes it in. That, and better headphones tend to be more linear/ consistent performers at low volume levels.


  1. […] might have noticed I’ve abandoned the in-ear setup from the previous instalments; part of the problem is one of prolonged comfort/sensitivity – namely my ears’ […]

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