I was wrong. Okay, I’ve said it, can we move on, please!
What was I wrong about? Well, for the longest time, I’ve said it is not possible to get high sound quality in any noise cancelling headphones. If you want highest quality sound – or so I’ve said – you should get ‘ordinary’ headphones without any electronics between the output from your music player and the moving cone in the speakers.
In my defense, years ago this sort of made sense, and was confirmed by all noise cancelling headphones and their generally disappointing audio quality. It would seem that if you add all the sound processing and extra signals that come with noise cancelling circuitry, this will unavoidably cost you some purity of sound quality.
But progress is an amazing thing, and I’ve now been proven wrong. And not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong.
David Dillinger of Solitude Headphones has now proved me wrong, with his new Solitude XCS2 headphones. Their sound is some of the best I’ve ever heard, in any set of headphones, whether passive ‘pure’ audiophile headphones, or noise cancelling.
And, as David himself pointed out to me, there’s no longer any reason why adding more ‘intelligence’ to one’s headphones requires any tradeoff in sound quality. With modern digital circuitry, traditional quality losses are minimized, and the reality these days is that the sound is modified and shaped and enhanced and altered all the way through the process from the minute it meets the transducer in the microphone, through all the different mixing decks and editing platforms and so on, through the various codecs, onto and off a storage medium, through the amplification and everything, and finally out through the transducers in your speakers or headphones.
Indeed, it is common these days for high-end sound enthusiasts to add an extra ‘headphone amplifier’ between the output from whatever audio source they are using and their headphones. The concept of eliminating ‘unnecessary’ extra electronics no longer has any validity at all.
David says that rather than passively accept the imperfections of any speaker system, why shouldn’t the digital intelligence available to us now be used to compensate for it, and to continue the process of active sound protection and preservation, using active measures to give us the very best sound, most akin to being right next to the performers.
The Sound Quality
And that is what he set out to do – create stunning sound quality. He has succeeded with his latest generation of noise cancelling headphones. You can actually hear the difference – if you turn his sound processing off, you hear the headphones in plain passive mode – still reasonably good. But turn on the sound processing, and get ready to be stunned. You’ve never heard music this good before.
I’ve poked fun at some of the rhetorical flourishes used by high-end audio writers to try and explain what they hear with esoterically high-end equipment, but I found similar phrases rolling off my tongue as I listened, spell-bound, to some sample tracks through the XCS2 headphones.
I was listening to some piano music – the piano is one of the hardest instruments to record well, and I found myself feeling that I could ‘hear’ the polish on the wood of the piano. A very highly polished dark ebony concert grand Steinway, I imagine. What a ridiculous thing to say – ‘I could hear the polish on the wood of the piano’! But if you listen through these headphones too, see if you can’t also hear some polish. I could hear the percussive attack of the hammers hitting the keys, followed by the tone, overtone, and resonances, and then the lush decay.
These headphones were as clear and sharp as one of those wonderful winter days when the sun shines coldly through the perfectly clear air, reflecting off the ice, and with super defined shadows.
The transients were so beautifully resolved, pointing to extraordinary high frequency capabilities that while not audible perhaps help shape the summed square waves of some of the sound forms being played back.
I switched to some choral music and, my gosh – I could hear the individual voices in the choir. All of a sudden the choir became a group of soloists singing tightly together, rather than a fuzzy blur of voices mushed up.
So I’ve liberated myself from my earlier prejudice of having any sort of amplification or sound processing in the headphones. Every step of the sound’s path prior to reaching the headphones has involved electronics, why shouldn’t the headphones use electronics as a force for good, too.
So, there you are. If you’re looking for a high-end audiophone set of headphones, look no further than the Solitude XCS2 headphones. David says that the headphones are the best he has ever made, and points proudly to them being an industry first – the first ever set of noise cancelling headphones with dual drivers (two speakers) in each earcup. Almost all external loudspeaker boxes these days have at least two speakers in them – why shouldn’t headphones also divvy up the sound frequencies? What works well for loudspeaker systems works brilliantly well for headphones too.
With all this introductory talk about the sound quality – usually the thing I talk the least about with any noise cancelling headphones, it is time now to turn to the noise cancelling itself.
The headphones are noise cancelling, meaning that you can use them to cut down on all the background noise such as you’re likely to hear on a typical airplane. They also work well to cut down on machinery and a/c noises in offices and at home, but they don’t do as much for the sound of people speaking around you. Perhaps there’s a psycho-acoustical effect at work here – because they mask the steady background noises, when a ‘new’ sound arrives your ear notices it more prominently, whether the sound be somewhat muted or not.
Cutting down the background noise is beneficial on any flight. In my empirical testing, I strongly believe that if you don’t have as much constant din impacting on your hearing and causing your brain to ‘work’ (even if just to ‘tune it out’ and ignore it), you arrive at your destination less tired out and jaded. I believe the noise stress is a major factor in the overall malaise one encounters on a long flight. So I wear my headphones from prior to take-off until after landing, nonstop. Yes, even into the bathroom, and even while trying to sleep.
Doing this helps you listen to music or movies as well. By reducing the minimum sound level by probably 10 – 20 dB, the headphones allow you to set your sound level lower, because it doesn’t need to be louder than it should be for you to hear the quiet bits against all the background noise, meaning that it doesn’t then become too loud for the loud bits. It protects your hearing and gives you a wider dynamic range, in other words.
For that reason, they are even beneficial in a seemingly ‘quiet’ environment. Even in my quiet home, if I have the hvac running, maybe a computer fan, maybe a dishwasher or clothes drier or something, and a tiny murmur of outside noise coming in, there’s quickly more than 50 dB of ‘hidden’ sound that one doesn’t even realize is present. Those noises are no problem normally, but if listening to music, these headphones widen the dynamic range of the sound you’re listening to, and that’s a good – even revelatory – thing. (The famous example being Glen Gould humming along to the music he is playing – I can do without that, actually!)
Now, after all these superlatives, I have to tell you that when it comes to noise cancelling, these headphones are not as good as the Bose QC25 headphones. If all you want to do is sit on a plane with as much noise blocked out as possible, you should consider the Bose headphones, albeit costing three times as much. They mightn’t be three times better (how would you measure/quantify that statement anyway) but they are clearly better.
On the other hand, if the best sound quality is more important to you than the greatest reduction in ambient noise, the Solitude XCS2 are the headphones for you.
If you want headphones to use at home and in other less extremely noisy environments as well as on planes, perhaps the Solitude headphones are the better choice.
The Solitude XCS2 headphones make a tangible difference to the background sound on a flight, at home, in an office, and so on. I’ve suffered with some so-called ‘noise cancelling’ headphones that make almost no difference to the background noise at all, and indeed, introduce so much hiss from their cheap electronics as to make one wonder if they actually help or harm the overall objective. The Solitude headphones provide good noise cancelling, but the Bose headphones remain unquestionably the ultimate in noise cancelling.
There’s one other issue to consider as well. I find that I break my traveling noise cancelling headphones every few years. And, no, I’m not talking about bad experiences with Solitude headphones. I’m talking about my Bose headphones – my QC1 headphones were chewed by a friend’s dog while I was staying at his place, my QC2 headphones started malfunctioning in one ear piece, and the QC15 headphones started cutting in and out. So I’m on my fourth set of Bose headphones (the QC25) just from normal/occasional use when traveling. Other people have told me of their headphones (of any brand) breaking, and while sometimes it is from poor construction, sometimes it is also from the stresses of being stuffed in and out of travel bags, squeezed the bent up against other items, and so on.
Unlike my stay-at-home electronics which last years, even decades, my traveling headphones seem to last three or four years if I’m lucky. All the more reason to seek out value when buying headphones – there’s not so much sense in ‘investing’ in something that doesn’t have a long-term life.
Some Facts and Figures about the Solitude XCS2 Headphones
So, what do you get when you buy these, and how much do they cost?
Like the earlier model Solitude headphones, they come in a nice carry case that protects them in your travel bag. They have two connecting cables and use industry standard connectors at both ends so if you lose/break your cable, buying a new one is quick and easy. One cable is a straight through cable, the other includes a microphone so you can use it as a headset with your phone or tablet or computer (if it has a compatible socket of course). They come with two adapters – a double pronged adapter for use with some airplane seats, and a ‘thin to thick’ audio adapter to use with higher end headphone output sockets.
The headphones require a pair of AAA batteries, which, yes, are included, and claim to give you about 35 hours of sound. If the batteries die on you in mid-flight, you can continue to listen to audio, but you lose the noise cancelling and the superb sound quality.
The headphones have a one year warranty.
They claim a frequency response from 15 – 23,000 Hz, but don’t state within what dB limits that applies, making it a rather meaningless claim, but even the shortest of listens confirms their very wide frequency response. They are 32 ohm, which is a great impedance to drive for most amplifier outputs. They are seemingly sensitive and don’t need a lot of power to drive them (stated sensitivity of 105 dB, although this is also somewhat meaningless because it doesn’t say what power level is provided to create that sound level).
There is a volume control on the headphones, but you should simply set this to maximum and not touch it subsequently. I use a spot of instant glue to keep it in place. Use the volume control on your audio device to control the sound level, it is a better way and saves battery life in your player, too. There is however one time when the volume control might be useful – if two of you are both listening to the same audio source and have different volume preferences, you can then adjust your individual sound levels at your respective headphones.
The headphones are comfortable to wear for extended periods, and don’t put your head in as much a vice like grip as some earlier models did.
The headphones list on the Solitude Headphones website for $85.
So there’s your conundrum. Do you want the best sound, everywhere, and very good noise cancelling, all for less than $100? Or do you want the ultimate in noise cancelling, but only average sound, for $300?
Yes, you could buy two sets of the Solitude headphones – one for you and one for a traveling companion – and that way not have to argue over who has them on your next shared flight, plus also have enough cash left over to buy two Amazon Fire 7 tablets, too. The Fire tablets can be used as a reasonably good high-end (FLAC capable) digital music player and also of course as a great way of storing and playing movies. All of that, for less than one set of Bose headphones!
The best sound ever. Good noise cancelling. And with a stunning value offer through the end of the year, one-third the price of the Bose QC25 product. That’s a heck of a compelling combination. Recommended.