Headphones are one of the best inventions of 20th century; the ability to listen to music anywhere, any time is a privilege of which I never tire. The only inconvenience is that there are so many from which to choose — a true first-world problem. The deciding factor often comes down to price and/or quality. As a self-proclaimed music devotee, I’m always eager to hear songs as true to their original recording as possible.
My wish was granted when I was sent a trial pair of Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H9i wireless headphones. “Our goal is to replicate the experience that an engineer will have in a recording studio,” said Christopher Devine, B&O’s PR and activation manager. “We’re trying to replicate the sound in the way that the artist intended.” It’s a goal the Danish electronics company undeniably achieves.
Founded in 1925 by Peter Bang and Svend Olufsen when they designed a radio that ran on alternating current, which was radical at the time considering batteries were the main source of power for radios, the company has continued its mission of creating products that are at the technological forefront and incorporate original, award-winning design. After decades of producing televisions, radios, even razors, among other products, B&O added headphones to its repertoire in 1978 (the year before the Walkman hit shelves). “They were designed by…Jacob Jensen and he was one of our core designers for many years,” Devine said. “He designed many products that wound up in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.”
Design is still a leading factor in the beauty and usability of B&O headphones and earbuds, which range from the high-end Beoplay H9i ($500) to the more pocketbook-friendly Beoplay H3 in-ear headphones ($150). My experience with the Beoplay H9i proved it to be an exceedingly comfortable apparatus that also delivered an exceptional listening encounter. “We use a really soft, supple leather over memory foam [for the ear cups],” Devine said. “[That] allows you to be fully enveloped but it also changes the user experience because it’s more comfortable so you don’t notice that you’re wearing the headphones…. [and are able] to be immersed in the acoustic experience.”
Another factor in a headphone’s immersive listening ability is its effective noise cancellation. Most headphones boast noise-cancelling abilities, but don’t necessarily differentiate whether they are passive (soundproofing) or active (ANC) — there’s a big difference. Passive noise cancelling headphones combat ambient sounds interfering with the music by providing a literal barrier — the ear coverings — between the extraneous sounds and the music coming through the headphone.
Active noise cancelling, on the other hand, uses electronic circuitry to interrupt and render neutral the ambient noises. Beoplay H9i are ANC headphones. “[ANC] poses a really unique set of challenges for our acoustic engineers,” explained Devine. Essentially, there are microphones on the outside of either side of the earphone canals that take the ambient noise, pull it into the headphone, and create [sinusoidal] sound waves that cancel out the ambient noise.” Tampering with sound waves is a precise business; too much sinusoidal wave interaction can have an adverse effect on the acoustics. “By pumping these extra sound waves in you can actually interfere with the music itself,” Devine said. “So we have to tune the sound to accommodate for this process of active noise cancellation….We’ve identified the exact tipping point at which we can maximize noise cancellation without interfering with the acoustic experience.”
The Beoplay H9i also scores high for usability. A touch disc on the right ear cup permits easy playlist (and phone) control. Its lithium-ion battery allows for a minimum of 25, maximum of 33 hours, between charges. For the user, the end-result is a delightfully nuanced listening experience that allows a multilayered aural immersion. At $500, the headphone is a significant investment, but reward is the satisfaction of hearing a recording as it was intended. In other words, if you want to hear the proper mix of bass, treble, and vocals, as well as the background plink of a delicate piano note, the harmonic ring of a guitar pluck, the warm thrum of a bodhrán, Beoplay H9i offers a dazzling sonic experience that is worth the price.