Wired headphones are about to have a mini revival

It’s been over seven years since Apple found the “courage” to remove the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone, in turn forcing wireless headphones into the limelight. To this day, listening to hi-res lossless music on a phone usually means a hunt for a rare handset with a 3.5mm jack or accepting your new dongle life. As if from nowhere, a new breed of wired headphone has emerged, and it promises audiophile quality on any phone with no need for a dongle. Of course there’s a marketing term to go with it: True Lossless Earphones (TLE).

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

Two days after Questyle announced the NHB15, rival company Hidizs claimed that its own DAC-packing ST2 Pro model was the world’s first hi-res digital IEM. It’s not quite a trend yet, but expect a mini wave of similar products to follow and I’m not sure it matters who was first. What’s more interesting is that, with iPhones switching to USB-C and plug-and-play hi-res options on the table, all the ingredients are there for mini wired headphone revival — although I don’t think it would last and we’ll get to why later.

Photo by James Trew for Engadget

It’s worth noting that all these USB-C headphones have some sort of DAC in them, but rarely are they hi-res capable. “Hi-res” audio is a broad term, but here we’re following Apple’s own language, which is anything above 48kHz. In recent years, some HiFi companies have released USB-C cables with DACs in them that support higher resolutions. Queststyle and Hidizs are just taking it to the next logical conclusion by bundling everything together — which is what makes them more interesting to the casual (but audio curious) listener.

I’ve tried a fair few standalone DACs over my years here at Engadget and I appreciate the superior audio quality they provide, but I never found one I’d use while out and about. There are some that come close, like the fantastic DragonFly Cobalt by AudioQuest or the sleek Onyx by THX but they all require something between your phone and your headphones — by which time I’ll just reach for my best wireless set and be done. The NHB15 though, I could see myself using these on the regular.

The experience is no more complicated than connecting a regular 3.5mm set. The DAC isn’t invisible; at first you might think it was in-line, yoke-style media controls. In fact, if this had buttons on it that would both complete the illusion and add handy functionality, but for now it’s purely there to turn your music from zeros and ones into audible sound. LEDs let you know if you’re slumming it with lossy music (one illuminated) or living the true lossless life (two illuminated). It’s a minimal but effective approach.


Let’s ignore that the cheapest 3.5mm buds you can buy on Amazon are theoretically also truly lossless earphones, but TLE isn’t an entirely useless term. If it can become the equivalent of “UHD” but for USB-C headphones, with a minimum confirmed level of hi-res audio support — anything above Apple’s standard lossless (48kHz) perhaps, that’s useful enough.

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

For something with its own DAC/amplifier, the max volume isn’t as loud as I’d expect, but it’s plenty. Even when listening to Spotify, which offers no lossless music at all right now, these IEMs imbue a sense of space you’re unlikely to find with Bluetooth buds.

What’s harder to determine is whether these are OK IEMs with a nice DAC, an OK DAC with decent 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 make the direct comparison yourself. At least for my ears, the Spotify tracks all sounded just as good over the trusty 3.5mm connection connected to my PC. And as far as I can tell, you can use the NHB15’s DAC cable with any IEMs you might already own as long as they have the 2-pin style connector so it’s a flexible idea if nothing else.

Photo by James Trew for Engadget

It’s worth mentioning that there are several competing efforts to bring wireless headphones up to par with lossless cabled options. Qualcomm’s family of codecs is the best known, with the latest AptX Lossless having the technical power to do a pretty good job even if there aren’t a lot of phones or earbuds (and you need both) that support it.

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

The question remains, then, who might want these? The average person paying for a regular music service doesn’t need a hi-res DAC.The average audiophile might be interested, but then it’s competing with dedicated mobile DACs and BYO headphones and for this crowd, convenience isn’t as much of a selling point. The only conclusion is that they are meant for me, the lazy audiophile. I don’t mind cables if the trade off is better, louder sound, and that’s what these do.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/wired-headphones-apple-hi-res-lossless-184534388.html?src=rss 

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