Ever since the first screechy transistor AM radio was slipped into a pocket protector during the 1950s, people have enjoyed the freedom listening on the go. Throughout the 1980s, Sony’s Walkman upped the game, and the iPod, introduced in 2001, was a magic musical vault that stored thousands of songs on a tiny device through the miracle of digital file compression. But that so-called miracle was found sorely lacking by music listeners who valued accurate sound, and MP3 files conspired to create a fatiguing listening experience compared to a true high-fidelity audio system. But times have changed. Thanks to huge advancements in DAC technology and miniaturization overall, it’s now possible to put a concert hall in one’s pocket, connected to earphones whose sound is so realistic as to require a suspension of disbelief. We looked at products from two companies at the forefront of the trend, and discovered a match certain to appeal to even the most finicky listeners. While by no means the only solution, each represents the best-of-breed in their respective categories.
If you consider MP3 files piped through plastic earbuds as enjoyable as fingernails on a chalkboard, consider Astell&Kern, the Korean company specializing in portable high-resolution audio players. Its new A&futura SE180 is roughly the size of an iPhone XS but, belying its build quality, twice as thick and heavy. At $1,499, the device is a tactile delight; the casework, fabricated from bead-blasted aluminum and high-impact glass, evokes the precision and craftsmanship of a fine watch. Listeners can tailor its sonic signature through interchangeable modules ($349 each) that best match both headphone choice and preferred music genres, based on the digital-to-analog (DAC) converter chips used. We listened with the default SEM1 module, which incorporates the excellent ESS ES9038PRO, an eight-channel DAC used in some of the best digital sources and CD players. It also supports playback of up to 32-bit/384 kilohertz PCM and DSD256 high-res audio. (The SE180 also allows for MQA playback of downloaded files and music-streaming services.) The player is equipped with 256GB of internal memory and can accommodate microSD cards up to 1TB.
The large, attractive screen display is intuitive to use, and you can transfer files wirelessly through any PC, smartphone or FTP program located on the same network. Want to play music stored on an external device, such as your phone? There’s a Bluetooth Sync function for just that purpose. Inputs at top accommodate 2.5 mm, 3.5 mm and 4.4 mm connections, and the SE180’s high-output amplifier can drive some of the most difficult headphones. During testing using two ‘phone systems, the sound was detailed, fulsome and never fatiguing. Apple may have put 1,000 songs in your pocket, as the original iPod slogan went, but consider the SE180 to be your portable concert hall.
Most audiophiles looking for “endgame” headphones choose over-the-ear models, which are ideal for the easy chair but less practical, if not impossible, to use on the go. Enter Sennheiser’s flagship IE 900 earphones, an in-ear design that delivers state-of-the-art sound in a mind-bogglingly micro-sized package.
Made at the Sennheiser headquarters in Wedemark, Germany, the housing is milled from a single block of aluminum. The internal volume is designed to counter the masking effect, an acoustic phenomenon that occurs when the human ear can’t perceive high-frequency sounds at low volumes if a louder sound is present in a lower-frequency range. Sennheiser specifies a frequency response of 5 hertz to 48,000 hertz, both extremes virtually impossible to hear; what one does hear is the all-important midrange, lucid and lifelike, with effortless transitions to high frequencies and bass that provide an eerie simulacrum of real low-frequency energy.
Comfort being key to usability, consider the IE 900s extremely usable, able to be enjoyed for hours without ear fatigue. How Sennheiser manages to render this level of fidelity from so small a package is such a marvel that, even at $1,300, the IE 900s should be considered a bargain. Truly the top-tier of in-ear options.