Style and Substance: The Search for the Ultimate Pair of Headphones

At the beginning of this decade, you would have been hard-pressed to find a slew of urbanites walking around with bulky, stylish headphones wrapped around their heads. Nowadays, the high-end headphone market is experiencing a renaissance of sorts due to the rising quality of digital music files and the improved designs of the earpieces themselves.

Over the past month, we’ve tested three popular headphones by Beats, Bose, and Parrot. In addition to discussing the sound quality, we also want to emphasize the user experience and style; these headphones surely blur the lines between fashion items and technology products.

Beats Solo 2 Wireless

First up is the newest Beats On-Ear headphones. Beats products have that unfortunate reputation of looking better than they sound. In this newer iteration, which features Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology, there’s a notable improvement in both the range and depth compared to previous models. The bass sounds fluid but is oftentimes overbearing. The mids are clearer and there’s a solid overall dimension of sounds in comparison to previous models.

The advantage Beats clearly has over other headphones is design. In comparison to many other headphone models out there, nothing compares to its sleek and refined contours. The headphones are comfortable for short periods of time and are easily made compact to fit into a bag or purse. Controls are positioned on the left ear for easy access to standard play, pause, next song, and previous song buttons. I found it difficult at first to know which button was being pressed but quickly got used to the positioning of the controls. Features that many of us typically use on our wired in-ear headphones are the built-in microphone for phone calls and a button that allows us to activate Siri (on an iPhone). In this case, I could not make phone calls or activate Siri, making this product lacklustre for everyday usage. It was quite a daunting experience to answer an incoming call while listening to music, but fortunately, there is a wire that comes with the headphones to activate these features.

Bose SoundLink® Around-Ear Wireless II (AE2)

Bose® has been one of the best high-end audio brands for decades. Their foray into the headphones market makes even greater gains with the SoundLink® II series, released in 2015. This new restatement of around-ear headphones is remarkably comfortable, with a truly vast range of sound. Using a combination of TriPort® technology and Active EQ, the AE2s deliver clear and fresh mids and nearly inaudible highs, coupled with the widest bass range for a pair of over-ear headphones that I have ever experienced.

The wireless capabilities of these headphones work quite well. Sound quality for bass is clear and non-latent. On-headphone controls are responsive and easily navigable by touch. iOS users can active Siri by pressing the play/pause button, providing an easy way to make calls without touching your phone. With advanced microphone technology, calls remain easy to hear even when in windy and noisy environments.

I had just a few gripes about the AE2s concerning the relatively short battery life and rather bland design. In my testing, battery life lasted about 10–12 hours, a few hours shy of the specified 15 hours. The design of the product also felt unconsidered with a build quality common to many other cheaper headphone manufacturers. Looks aren’t everything, but in a market where headphones are more and more becoming fashion items, it may be time for Bose to step up their design game.

Parrot Zik 3

I was surprised by the combination of elegance and utility in the Zik 3s, a forthcoming product by well-known drone manufacturer Parrot. Designed by Philippe Starck, an influential industrial designer, the build quality of this product is extraordinary. Made with a soft rubber texture around the earpieces and headband, the phones also show hints of brushed anodized aluminum that provides a sturdy, comfortable feel. The basic mix is generous and clear in terms of volume and range. With the EQs and concert hall effects (activated from either the iOS app on your iPhone or on your Apple Watch), you can change the sound dramatically to fit within any time of music. Acoustics from a concert hall to a jazz club, and precise tuning with a five-band, full-parametric equalizer makes the Zik 3 quite the versatile listening experience.

The on-ear controls are commanded with touch gestures on the right earpiece. You can swipe forward to skip to the next track and tap anywhere on the piece to toggle Play/Pause. The Bluetooth connectivity between the phone and headphones were stable throughout hours of testing. The battery lasted at least 17 hours for me on several occasions, oftentimes exceeding the 18-hour battery life Parrot outlines.

The Zik 3s are designed to be entirely wireless, and out of the three headphones tested here, I felt that this pair is the best at combining unique style with sound quality and technology.