Nobody needs to be reminded that the past 14 months have taken a toll on our collective psyches; being quarantined for months in New Jersey made it very hard to review equipment without interruption with a house full of kids stuck learning online and few manufacturers had inventory they could ship. Fortunately, people kept buying headphones and brands like DALI, HiFiMan, and Meze Audio were able to keep the pipeline open. There is no question that the luxury headphone category has taken a beating during the pandemic and recession as consumers have been watching their money; leaving some real opportunity for manufacturers who can provide world-class sound quality for under $500.
$500 is a lot of money for headphones. The Head-Fi crowd who are willing to spend $3,000 on a pair may respectfully disagree with me, but for 99% of the planet — $500 is a lot of money to spend on a pair of headphones.
But if you’re willing to spend $500 for a pair of wireless headphones, what are some of the best options?
Certainly not the Apple AirPods Max. Sorry Apple fanboys but they don’t cut the mustard for the asking price of $549.00
Over the past four months, I’ve been lucky to have 8 pairs of headphones pass through my home and 4 really made a very strong impression. I have never been a strong proponent of wireless headphones as their sonic performance has never impressed me enough to consider them as daily drivers that I would consider over wired passive headphones.
The ability to be connected to an iPhone, desktop headphone amplifier, or USB DAC/headphone amplifier like the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt proved to be a very important feature that made me warm to the DALI IO-6 ($499.00) and HiFiMan Deva ($299.00) wireless headphones.
Both headphones look and feel very expensive; the DALI is more compact and will prove more tempting for some due to its closed-back design. It offers an excellent seal and proved to be very comfortable during long listening sessions.
The Deva redefines what can be done with wireless headphone technology; there are elements of its performance that I preferred to its more expensive sibling that I reviewed earlier this year – which doesn’t mean that the Ananda-BT isn’t a superior headphone overall but that the performance gap might not be worth the extra $600 for a lot of people.
Danish in the morning for breakfast
DALI has been manufacturing high-end loudspeakers for more than three decades, and while they have proven their expertise at manufacturing award-winning transducers, the IO-6 represent their first entry into the already heavily saturated headphone category.
The wireless noise-cancelling IO-6 support Bluetooth aptX, aptX HD, and Apple AAC making them a solid option for those wishing to listen to high-resolution audio tracks from Qobuz and red book CD quality from Tidal. The IO-6 also include a USB-C connector which supports high-res digital audio streaming from your Mac or Windows-based platform. There is also a 3.5 mm mini-jack if you prefer a wired connection to your smartphone or laptop.
DALI claims 30 hours of battery life but experience with wireless noise-cancelling headphones driven at normal volume levels tells a slightly different story. 20-25 hours proved to be the range when streaming Qobuz from my MacBook Pro with the volume level set slightly above average and I doubt that too many people will complain about that considering the high level of sound quality delivered by the IO-6.
The IO-6 utilize ear pads manufactured from memory foam (same stuff you sleep on) and are finished in a synthetic leather that doesn’t get too hot or sweaty and creates an excellent seal. The headband is quite sturdy and felt quite comfortable on my large head.
Deva of soul
HiFiMan has been one of the leading high-end headphone manufacturers for close to a decade and the Deva represent an interesting departure for the company making some of the best planar magnetic headphones in the world. Charging $299 for the Deva was a bold move on the part of HiFiMan because it raises the bar in the wireless category against more expensive rivals, and also makes planar magnetic headphones more affordable.
HiFiMan has a wide range of headphones in its arsenal; ranging from $200 to almost $50,000 for its statement SHANGRI-LA electrostatic headphone system that is not even the most expensive personal audio system available. Take a bow Sennheiser.
What makes the Deva so intriguing is that its wireless capabilities are made possible by a detachable wireless Bluetooth module that includes a DAC, and headphone amplifier. The “Bluemini” module plugs into the left ear cup and powers both channels of the Deva and does so with considerable authority.
Before you scoff at the idea of having to plug the Deva into another component that has to be paired to your smartphone or laptop, remember that this makes the Deva upgradeable, and a pair of headphones that can be used in passive mode with external sources like a DAP or desktop DAC/headphone amplifier.
With multiple connection options, the Deva can serve as the hub of a true high-resolution audio personal audio system that is priced far below its rivals.
The Deva supports multiple codecs including Bluetooth aptX, aptX HD, Apple AAC, LDAC, and SBC – making it one of the most HD compatible headphones around.
Unlike the IO-6, the Deva are open-backed planar magnetic headphones which means that everyone will be able to hear what you are listening to in the office at your desk or on the train in the morning.
How do they sound?
There are some distinct sonic differences between the IO-6 and Deva but one thing that became very clear during their respective listening sessions was that the bar has been lifted when it comes to wireless headphones.
The Deva possess the transparency and midrange resolution of some of the best planar magnetic headphones and that’s pretty astounding considering their asking price. Going back and forth between the Deva, HiFiMan Sundara, and Ananda-BT, one can discern the uptick in bass response with the more expensive headphones – but that may only matter to those who listen to bass-heavy music.
The Deva’s bass response is quick and detailed but not the last word if you crave a more visceral impact.
Where the Deva absolutely crushes most headphones below $300 is in the reproduction of the human voice and the accuracy of its tonal reproduction when it comes to specific instruments. The layers of detail with a really good headphone amplifier slowly pull you into each performance and that’s where the Deva really shine. Transparency and midrange resolution are superb across the board with good recordings.
The top end is detailed without becoming too hard when pushed and there is an airiness to the sound that really works with horns, strings, and the human voice.
The Bluemini wireless module works exactly as advertised and I had to remind myself on more than one occasion that I was listening to a wireless headphone when streaming from Tidal or Qobuz. There is no question that a wired connection to a DAC/headphone amplifier will produce the best results with the Deva, but its wireless performance is very impressive.
The DALI IO-6 perform exceptionally well as a wireless noise cancelling headphone, but there is no doubt that you are listening to a dynamic closed-back design. The IO-6 will be a better choice if you crave more impactful bass response combined with a warm tonal balance, and slightly laid-back sounding presentation. The IO-6 are the antithesis of an aggressive sounding pair of headphones which many listeners may find to be ideal if they plan on listening for many hours while they work.
The IO-6 are engaging to say the least even with their slightly laid-back presentation; music moves with deliberate pace across every genre.
The DALI serve music with sufficient meat on the bones, but they do not offer the same level of transparency that is the hallmark of the Deva; something that one should expect when comparing a dynamic cone driver to a planar magnetic transducer.
Both work exceptionally well with all types of music but I would give the edge to the Deva when it comes to the human voice; the emotional connection with Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone was really quite extraordinary.
Which one should you buy?
If you need a closed-back headphone for work or commuting, the DALI IO-6 is one of the best wireless headphones I have tried so far. It is built well, comfortable to wear for hours, and easy to operate and use. It deserves a serious look from anyone looking at its price level.
The HiFiMan Deva threw me for a loop. It may not be the last word in bass response, but it doesn’t take a backseat to any headphone I’ve heard in 2020 below $1,000. For $299, its wireless performance makes it one of the best in class. When used with a dedicated headphone amplifier and DAC it delivers sonic performance you would never expect from a headphone at this price.
Where to buy?
Dali IO-6 – $499 at Amazon
Dali IO-4 (without ANC) – $399 at Amazon
HiFiMan Deva – $299 at Amazon
HiFiMan Deva (wired version) – $219 at Amazon