When it comes to over-the-ear Bluetooth headphones, good sound quality can leave a lot to be desired. A-Audio is a relative newcomer to the already crowded headphone market, but its headphones are designed to offer excellent sound in a plush and stylish build. A-Audio sent us two pairs to review, its Legacy wired headphones and the Icon Bluetooth headphones. Here's our look at both models and how they performed.
A-Audio Icon Bluetooth headphones
Out of the box, pairing the headphones to a Bluetooth-enabled music source, such as a smartphone, is simple and straightforward. They use Bluetooth 4.0 technology and we didn't have any issues with the connection dropping, unless going out of range of the Bluetooth source device (about 30 ft/10 m).
After pairing up the headphones, three options are available for listening to music through what A-Audio refers to as Three Stage Technology. This allows a user to switch between passive, bass enhanced and active noise cancellation (ANC) modes by double-tapping the power button on the left earcup. A subtle beeping sound will indicate the changing between modes. If the headphones run out of power, you can plug them in using the included 4 ft (1.2 m) detachable cable with a 24k gold plated headphone jack and get wired passive audio.
This lead cable also includes an inline control with mic that lets you answer, end or reject phone calls, as well as adjust the volume and playback. The control mic works with iPad, iPhone and iPod, and possibly other devices. I was, for example, able to get varying levels of success with an HTC One running Android.
The Icons have a rechargeable lithium ion battery in the left earcup, which is charged up by attaching the included micro-USB power cable. A-Audio touts 12 hours of music playback per charge. Though we weren't able to test this out scientifically during the review period, we would say the claim is close with our day-to-day use.
Playback and volume controls on the left earcup bezel blend into the design of the headphones. Users press the top or bottom of the bezel for controlling volume, and the center to pause/play tracks.
For testing how they sounded, we used high-quality MP3s and FLAC files as well as physical media (CDs and vinyl). Listening to a variety of musical styles in different genres, we found the audio to have a full and rich sound with deep lows, and crisp highs. Even when listening to music in bass enhanced mode, the bass never gets too obnoxious or distorted. The music sounded airy and able to breathe, not cramped or boxed in.
Relatively speaking, however, when paired via Bluetooth and using ANC or bass enhanced mode, the sound seemed to be muddied and not as crisp as when they were plugged in.
Another problem is a noticeable hiss that can be heard in the background while using Bluetooth, which seems common among Bluetooth headphones in general. You can't really hear it when listening to music at a regular volume, but during quiet parts of songs or during pauses, the hiss is slightly noticeable, which can be annoying. Of course if you plug them in (not using Bluetooth), that connection hiss disappears.
The ANC did a great job of reducing environmental noise, except for something too loud, such as a fire alarm or your kids yelling at you. I'm from the country, but took a trip into the city to get a better feel for the noise cancellation capabilities. They were able to reduce traffic noise so effectively that I found it a bit uncomfortable, as I'm not used to walking in busy traffic without other audio cue's from horns, tires on the pavement, etc.
The build quality of both models is quite nice for headphones in this price range. You can choose between two colors – "phantom black" or "liquid chrome," and they include a leather band with diamond-quilted stitching and rotating ear cups with steel octagonal bezels. They are foldable and come with a custom carrying case which makes traveling with them a simple affair. The case also includes a pouch for cables, a polishing cloth, and warranty card.
It is worth noting that after prolonged use, the earpads tend to get hot (particularly on the left, where the battery is housed) and you may experience some ear fatigue as a result.
A-Audio Legacy Headphones
The A-Audio Legacy headphones include the same feature set as the Icons, sans Bluetooth. We tested this pair using the same types of high-quality digital files and physical media, and they sound virtually identical to the Icons, but of course without that annoying Bluetooth connection hiss or muddiness.
These headphones also feature A-Audio's Three Stage Technology, and you can move between the three modes by flipping a switch at the back of the right earcup. That technology is powered by two included AAA batteries that sit in the left earcup.
They also have playback controls located on the included 4 ft (1.2 m) detachable cable that allows you to control volume and playback. They are also foldable, and come with the same type of custom carrying case. The case includes two audio cables – one with a remote and microphone, and one without. Also included are a 6.3-mm (0.25-in) gold-plated adapter, a polishing cloth and warranty card.
The Bluetooth Icons cost US$379, and they're nice headphones that do reproduce some of the better sounding audio that we've heard from Bluetooth headphones. Still, the biggest issue with these is the wireless connection hiss and muddiness.
Since the Legacy headphones are cheaper at $299 and have virtually the same build quality, technology and style of the Icons, we're not convinced the extra money for the cable-free convenience of Bluetooth is really worth the compromise in sound quality.