IFA 2014: Headphones and Wireless Speakers

01
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New Personal Audio Gear From the Berlin Show

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Brent Butterworth

Berlin's IFA show is Europe's biggest consumer electronics expo. Unlike CES in Las Vegas, IFA is open to consumers, so the focus is less on trade and more on spectacle. It's become something of a showcase for mainstream consumer electronics, and there are always many new product introductions at the show.

I've already reported on the reintroduction of the Technics audio brand, now I'll highlight some of the interesting headphones and wireless speakers I saw, presented here in alphabetical order. (Sorry, Urbanears!) Where possible, I list U.S. release dates and prices, but for some of these products, this info will not be released until CES next January.

What about high-end audio? It's not at IFA in any meaningful way. Honestly, except for personal audio, this isn't much of an audio show. Probably half of it focuses on home appliances. (Very cool home appliances, though.)

02
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IFA 2014: Beyerdynamic A 200 p Headphone Amp

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Brent Butterworth

The cool little A 200 p portable headphone amp from Beyerdynamic accepts digital input from the Lightning connector on iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch) or through the micro USB output on phones running Android OS version 4.1 or higher. Plus, of course, USB input from computers. It also has a 3.5mm analog input. The big circle on the front is the volume knob. Price is €299, or about $388.

03
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IFA 2014: Geneva Aerosphere Wireless Speakers

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Brent Butterworth

I'm not so sure about the industrial design of Geneva's new Aerosphere Large wireless speaker; it looks temptingly like an over-padded barstool. But the guts are pretty impressive: AirPlay, Bluetooth and DLNA wireless audio, and according to the sign, five channels of kraftvolle Class D Verstärker (or powerful digital amplification). Price is €749 (about $971). A smaller, shelf-top version the Aerosphere Small, runs €399 (about $517).

04
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IFA 2014: Harman Kardon Omni Wireless HD Speakers

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Brent Butterworth

I just received a press release announcing several new Harman Kardon products, so I was disappointed to find they weren't on active display at IFA. (At least not in the dealer/press tent I visited). The speakers above are the new Harman Kardon Omni Wireless HD multiroom speakers. That's the $299 Omni 20 at left and $199 Omni 10 at right. In the center is the $129 Adapt, which converts conventional stereo gear for use with the system. A controller app lets you access music stored on hard drives or selected streaming apps. Harman Kardon also announced a Bluetooth version of the Soho on-ear headphone.

05
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IFA 2014: Marshall Acton and Woburn Bluetooth Speakers

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Brent Butterworth

I was mega-impressed with the Marshall Stanhope Bluetooth speaker when I worked on The Wirecutter's recent Best Home Bluetooth Speaker test. The new Acton (left) and Woburn (right, in white and black versions) have basically the same features and use basically the same engineering. The principal difference is that the smaller Acton has a 4-inch woofer instead of the Stanhope's 5.25-incher, and the Woburn has dual 5.25-inch woofers. The Woburn's massive, tight bass and high output ultra-mega-impressed me. The Woburn has already been announced for U.S. delivery at $500. The Acton hasn't yet, but its European price is €229, so figure $300.

06
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IFA 2014: Marshall Mode and Mode EQ In-Ear Headphones

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Brent Butterworth

At IFA, Marshall launched its first in-ear headphones, the Mode and Mode EQ, which will retail for about $69 and $99, respectively. The Mode EQ (shown above) including an EQ switch that lets you boost the bass by about +5 dB below 1 kHz. I didn't get to hear them, but hope to soon.

07
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IFA 2014: Panasonic SC-ALL8 and SC-ALL3 Wireless Speakers

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Brent Butterworth

Panasonic's new SC-ALL8 (left) and SC-ALL3 (right) wireless speakers use Qualcomm's new AllPlay, a WiFi-based wireless technology that is something like a version of AirPlay that's designed to work with any portable devices, not just iOS devices. Instead of opening an app on your smartphone or tablet to operate the speaker and access your streaming services, as you do with Sonos and Play-Fi devices, you activate the AllPlay device from within, say, a Spotify app. However, AllPlay works only with select streaming apps -- including Spotify, Rhapsody, TuneInRadio and iHeartRadio, but not (yet) with Pandors. AllPlay devices work straight through a WiFi network without requiring a separate bridge device.

All AllPlay devices are said to work together, so if you want to combine one of these new Panasonics with one or more of the new Monster SoundStage wireless speakers (just announced but not on display at IFA), you can.

For more about AllPlay, see my frequently updated article explaining wireless audio standards.

The larger SC-ALL8 has two tweeters, two midranges and a woofer with 80 watts total power. The smaller SC-ALL3 has two small woofers and two tweeters with 40 watts total power. Prices weren't listed in the booth, but I found the SC-ALL8 listed on a U.K. site for £299, or about $487, and the SC-ALL3 for £229, or about $373.

08
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IFA 2014: Philips Fidelio X2 and NC1 Headphones

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Brent Butterworth

The Fidelio X2 (shown above) is a larger version of Philips open-back X1 headphone, with 50mm drivers that are tilted 15 degrees so that they align better with your ears. Based on my brief listen, I think they'll appeal to the same people who like the emphasized lower treble and de-emphasized bass of the AKG Q 701 and K 551. Price is €299, or about $387.

Also on display was the Fidelio NC1, a compact, on-ear noise-cancelling headphone. I thought the NC1 had a nice, mostly neutral tonal balance with a mild (and nice) bass boost. The noise cancelling seemed a little above average, although I noticed more noise in the right ear; maybe I just had a problem getting a good seal. The NC1 works in active and passive modes, so you'll still get sound if the battery runs down. European price is €249, or about $323.

09
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IFA 2014: Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear

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Brent Butterworth

I really like the Sennheiser Momentum over-ear and on-ear models, so I was happy to see Sennheiser's introducing an in-ear model, which presumably has a somewhat similar voicing and tonal balance. Price is €99, or about $128. Sadly, I didn't have any spare ear tips and none were on offer in the booth, so I didn't get a chance to listen to it.

10
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IFA 2014: Sennheiser Urbanite and Urbanite XL

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Brent Butterworth

 "Urban" is used as a euphemism for various things, and I gather from listening to the new Sennheiser Urbanite on-ear and Urbanite XL over-ear that one of those things is lots of bass. Sennheiser had a terrific demo of these playing in a nice, quiet little metal "hut" between buildings 1 and 2, but both of them had way too much bass for my taste -- so much that James Taylor's voice sounded kinda Barry White-ish. The Urbanite costs €179 (about $232), the Urbanite XL €229 (about $297).

11
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IFA 2014: Sony MDR-Z7 Headphone and PHA-3C Headphone Amp

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Brent Butterworth

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to hear Sony's new PHA-3C headphone amp and MDR-Z7 headphone -- not that it would have been all that illuminating considering how loud it was inside the gigantic booth. But they look very, very cool. The MDR-Z7 goes for €600, or $778, while the PHA-3C costs €800, or $1,037. The headphone uses gigantic 70mm drivers with aluminum-coated liquid crystal diaphragms. Usually 50mm would be considered a very large headphone driver.

The PHA-3C amp has balanced output (driving each channel with completely separate hot and ground, instead of combining both grounds into one line as most headphones and amps do), and accepts PCM digital signals in up to 32-bit/384-kilohertz resolution, or DSD digital signals at 2.8 and 5.6 MHz sampling rates.

12
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IFA 2014: Sony XBA-Z5 In-Ear Headphone

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Brent Butterworth

This is Sony's new flagship in-ear headphone, the XBA-Z5. Sadly, I couldn't find anyone in the booth who knew anything about it, including the price. Given the model number, we can assume it incorporates five separate drivers. The XBA-H1 hybrid is one of my favorite in-ear headphones, so I'm eager to hear what this one sounds like.

13
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IFA 2014: Urbanears Plattan ADV Headphone

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Brent Butterworth

I've always loved the design of the Urbanears headphones, and I liked the sound of the original Urbanears Plattan when I did a shootout of ~$59 headphones for Sound & Vision a couple of years ago. The new Plattan ADV (which has been announced in the U.S. for $60) is inspired by the original, but it's a completely new design. It's lighter, for one thing, but with tighter clamping force and plusher ear pads. The headband has a washable cover, and it's super-flexible. As with the original, the detachable cord fits in either earpiece, and the unused jack can be used for daisy-chaining more headphones. The ADV comes in seven different colors and will hit U.S. shores on November 18. I got a sample of it at IFA and was happy to hear that while it's still a little on the bassy side, it's better balanced and more detailed-sounding than the original Plattan.