July 14, 2024

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Wired headphones are about to experience a mini-resurgence

Wired headphones are about to experience a mini-resurgence

It's been more than seven years since Apple found the “courage” to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone, which in turn brought wireless headphones into the spotlight. Even today, listening to high-resolution music on a phone usually means finding a rare phone with a 3.5mm jack or accepting your new life. As if out of nowhere, a new generation of wired headphones has emerged, promising quality sound on any phone without the need for a dongle. Of course, there's a marketing term to go with it: True Lossless Earbuds (TLE).

You may not have heard of Questyle, but the company has been making amateur HiFi gear for years. Last November, the company tried something different with the NHB12 Lightning headphones. The IEM-style buds include a digital audio converter (DAC) capable of handling Apple Music's high-resolution Hi-Res Lossless files (192kHz/24-bit). Ahead of CES this month, the company released a USB-C version — the $350 NHB15 — bringing the all-in-one HD digital headphone to nearly every other phone, tablet, or PC.

Two days after Questyle announced the NHB15, rival Hidizs claimed its ST2 Pro DAC The model was the world's first high-resolution digital IEM. It's not quite a trend yet, but expect a small wave of similar products to follow and I'm not sure it matters who was first. What's even more interesting is that with iPhones switching to USB-C and high-res plug-and-play options on the table, all the ingredients are in place to revive tiny wired headphones — though I don't think that will continue and we'll get to why later. .

A close-up of the built-in DAC on Questyle's NHB15 USB-C headphones.

Photography by James True for Engadget

It's worth noting that all of these USB-C headphones have some sort of DAC, but they're rarely capable of high fidelity. “High-Res” sound. It is a broad termBut here we follow Apple's own language, which is… anything above 48 kHz. In recent years, some HiFi companies have released USB-C cables with DAC They have that Support higher resolutions. Queststyle and Hidizs take it to the next logical conclusion by putting everything together – which makes it even more interesting for the casual (but audio-conscious) listener.

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I've tried quite a few standalone DACs over my years here at Engadget and appreciate the superior sound quality they provide, but I've never found one I can use while abroad. There are some devices that come close, like AudioQuest's fantastic DragonFly Cobalt or THX's stylish Onyx but they all require something between your phone and headphones – at which point I'll reach for my best wireless set and be done with it. However, I can see myself using NHB15 on a regular basis.

The experience is no more complicated than connecting a regular 3.5mm set. The DAC is not invisible; At first you might think they were inline media controls. In fact, if this had buttons that would complete the illusion and add useful functionality, but for now they are only there to convert your music from zeros and ones to audible sound. The LEDs let you know if you're listening to lossless music (one lit) or living a true loss-free life (two lit). It's a simple but effective approach.

Apple Music Hi-Res Lossless settings.Apple Music Hi-Res Lossless settings.

apple

Let's ignore that the cheapest 3.5mm headphones you can buy on Amazon are also theoretically lossless earbuds, but TLE isn't a completely useless term. If it can become the equivalent of “UHD” but for USB-C headphones, with a certain minimum level of high-resolution audio support – perhaps anything above Apple's standard lossless level (48kHz), then that's useful enough Enough.

Most importantly, Questyle's NHB15 does a good job with music. When listening through Qobuz, I wasn't getting the LEDs on all the time, thanks to the variety of “lossless” configurations on the platform, but it was a fun game of listening to the audio first and then flipping the DAC to reveal how many lights were on and if I guessed correctly. Mostly I didn't, but perhaps that was a testament to how clear these voices were. The NHB15 is fairly neutral and less bass-heavy than a typical Beats pair, paired with just the right amount of brightness on the higher frequencies.

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For something that has its own DAC/amplifier, the maximum volume isn't as loud as I expected, but it's plenty. Even when listening to Spotify, which doesn't offer lossless music at all at the moment, these IEMs impart a sense of space that you're unlikely to find with Bluetooth headphones.

What's hard to determine is whether these are good IEMs with a nice DAC, a good DAC with proper drivers attached or something in between. Handily, Questyle includes a regular 3.5mm cable in the box so you can use the NHB15s with all your devices or do the direct comparison yourself. At least to my ears, all of my Spotify tracks sounded perfectly fine over a reliable 3.5mm connection connected to my computer. As far as I can tell, you can use the NHB15's DAC cable with any IEMs you may already own as long as they have a two-pin connector, so it's a flexible idea if nothing else.

Questyle NHB15 In-Ear Monitor Headphones connect to a phone in someone's hand.Questyle NHB15 In-Ear Monitor Headphones connect to a phone in someone's hand.

Photography by James True for Engadget

It's worth noting that there are several competing efforts to make wireless headphones on par with lossless cable options. Qualcomm's own family of codecs is the most popular, with the latest AptX Lossless having the technical muscle to do a very good job even if not many phones or earbuds (and you need both) support it.

Then there's the first wave of MEMS-based headphones, which are the new kid on the block. These “solid-state” drivers aren't designed specifically for wireless headphones, but California-based xMEMS sells its technology on the promise of delivering a HiFi experience regardless of boring stuff like codecs. The first products hitting the market show some promise, but we'll likely have to wait until next year to see MEMS-based headphones reach their full potential.

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The question then remains: Who would want these things? The average person paying for a regular music service doesn't need a high-resolution DAC. Casual audiophiles might be interested, but then it competes with dedicated mobile DACs and BYO headsets, and for this audience, convenience is not a huge selling point. The only conclusion is that they are meant for me, lazy Music lovers. I don't mind cables if the trade-off is better, louder sound, which is what these do.

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