Four stylish on-ear headphones worth hearing

By R. Matthew Ward, TechHive |  Personal Tech, headphones

When Bowers & Wilkins released the $300 P5 Mobile Hi-Fi Headphones (4.5 rating on a 1-to-5 scale) back in 2010, the company essentially introduced a new headphone category: comfortable, high-quality, portable, on-ear headphones that--perhaps most notably--looked great. The P5's clever Apple-esque design touches and classy, leather-upholstered style made it look like a fashion accessory for successful executives, yet it also sounded great and blocked an impressive amount of external noise, making it an ideal portable model for people who aren't fans of in-ear headphones. In fact, Macworld gave the P5 an Eddy Award in 2010.

Three years later, the P5's influence is visible in products from many other companies: After releasing the full-size Aviator ($150) two years ago, Skullcandy recently followed up with the on-ear Navigator ($100). Meanwhile, V-Moda offers the Crossfade M--80 ($200), a smaller, more refined version of that company's full-size Crossfade LP (also $200). RHA has attempted to make such headphones more affordable with the SA950i ($60), and even B&W has worked to broaden its reach with the P3 Headphones ($200), a less expensive version of the P5.

Each of these four models follows the P5's example in attempting to create attractive, portable, great-sounding on-ear headphones (or more accurately, headsets: each model includes an Apple-style, three-button remote/microphones module). Like the P5, they use earpieces with a supra-aural design--each earpad sits on the ear rather than around it--yielding smaller, more-travel-friendly earpieces than full-size circumaural designs offer. And these earpads are designed to block outside noise to some degree. Finally, each model offers a generous warranty and replaceable cables, the latter to ensure that the headphones provide useful life beyond the warranty period. (The cable is the most frequent point of failure for headphones.)

RHA SA950i

RHA is a British headphone company that produces high-quality, attractive headphones at relatively low prices without skimping on premium features. Indeed, the SA950i looks great given its $60 price. The headband and earpads have a leather-like texture, and the glossy-black earpieces are somewhat similar to those of Skullcandy's Aviator and Navigator. Chrome highlights grace the design as well. When I pulled the review sample out of its shipping box, I guessed that it cost two or three more than it actually does.

The SA950i features a three-button, Apple-style inline remote and microphone module for controlling music and taking phone calls. The fabric-wrapped cable attaches to the left earpiece via a standard 3.5mm miniplug. Unlike the other models here, the SA950i doesn't come with a carrying bag or case--or any other accessories--but RHA does provide a three-year warranty.

Comfort is good for a model of this size, with adequate earpiece and headband padding and light weight, though the SA950i doesn't feel as sturdy as the other models here. People with large heads should try out this headset (or any of the other three reviewed here) before buying, as its small size and sealed design put more pressure on a wearer's ears and head than most full-size models do. For my large head, however, the SA950i exerted the least pressure of the four models I tested. The disadvantage of the less tight fit is that the SA950i offers less noise isolation than the other three headsets.

RHA designed the earpieces with the ability to pivot 180 degrees, so the SA950i can double as a set of DJ headphones. The SA950i's cloth-wrapped cable, though a nice touch, is prone to kinking and doesn't feel as sturdy as the V-Moda Crossfade M-80 v2's cable. The remote's volume buttons are helpfully raised and easy to access, but the depression for the center (play/pause/talk) button is a bit too small and a bit too recessed for reliably effective pressing. I found that the glossy-plastic earpieces scratched and scuffed fairly easily, so consider using a bag or case to transport the headphones.

The SA950i looks much better than its $60 price tag would lead you to expect, and it delivers fun sound, with a slight high-end emphasis that makes cymbals sparkle. High frequencies are distinct, though they lack the realism of the treble reproduction found in higher-end models. The SA950i also has a low-end boost that provides strong bass response, including kick drums with substantial impact.

Bass quality is good overall, though it possesses some of the flab that I've come to expect from sealed (non-in-ear) headphones. Neither the highs nor the lows overwhelm the midrange, which is pleasant and offers good detail. The headset also does a good job of communicating subtleties that give music its drive. Beyond tighter bass and better high-frequency detail, the primary thing missing from the SA950i is the je ne sais quoi of higher-end models that draws a listener fully into the music.

But let's not lose perspective here: We're talking about an attractive set of on-ear headphones with a three-button remote/microphone and pleasant sound for $60. The SA950i is a great value.

(The SA950i is available from Amazon and at Apple's retail stores, though not the online Apple Store.)

Skullcandy Navigator

Skullcandy's $150 sunglasses-inspired Roc Nation Aviator was the best looking headset the company had ever released. It also showed the headphone world that Skullcandy was serious about making good-sounding headphones. With the $100 Navigator, Skullcandy has downsized that stylish look, retaining some of the sophistication of the B&W P5 but adding a little edge. If the P5 is Don Draper, the Aviator and Navigator are more Indiana Jones or the Rocketeer.

The Navigator features sunglass-lens-like earpieces, similar to those found on the Aviator; they're available in solid black or white, or semi-transparent pink or (my favorite) blue. Each version comes with a color-matched headband. I miss the brown leather and gold trim of the Aviator, but these are still great-looking headphones.

The Navigator's cable attaches to the left earpiece with a 2.5mm (sub-mini) 90-degree plug that fits into a recessed port. The earpads (or "ear pillows," as the company calls them) have a leather texture, with a mesh grille on the inside shaped like the company's logo. The headphones also fold (again like sunglasses) into a smaller shape that fits in the included drawstring carrying bag. Skullcandy provides both a lifetime warranty against manufacturing defects and a one-year accident warranty that amounts to a 50-percent discount on new headphones in the event of accidental damage.

The Navigator's fit was tight enough to be less comfortable than the RHA SA950i on my large head. Its earpads are terrifically soft, though, and the tighter fit means that the Navigator blocks more external sound than the SA950i does. I would have appreciated more padding in the Navigator's headband, however.

The Navigator's remote includes raised hints that make each of the three buttons easy to locate and activate, and the linguine-like flat cable resists tangling.

I didn't review the Navigator's larger sibling, the Aviator, but I very much liked it when I auditioned it briefly. Based on that experience and my extended time with the Navigator, I have to say that the latter seems like a step backward, even taking into account its lower price tag. The Navigator's high frequencies and midrange beat the SA950i's, offering better detail, but I prefer the SA950i overall: The Navigator produces too much bass relative to the rest of the frequency range, hampering enjoyment of midrange and treble frequencies music. The Navigator does sound good with sparse, acoustic music such as folk, but the headphones lost me when I began to listen to music with significant bass content.

Unless you want big bass, to the exclusion of bass quality and tonal balance, I can't recommend this beautiful-looking model--especially since the RHA SA950i is available for $40 less.

Bowers & Wilkins P3 Headphones

B&W's P5 has been a hit critical and (as best I can tell) commercial hit. Its design, comfort, and sound make it a good value at $300, but that price tag is too big for some consumers to swallow.

The P3 aims to make a good amount of the P3's design and quality available at a lower price--specifically, $200. To achieve that price, the company had to surrender the P5's luxurious leather in favor of attractive cloth and rubberized plastic. On the other hand, unlike the P5, the P3 is available in blue, as well as black and white versions. The size of the P3's earpieces is smaller, as is the size of the drivers within the earpieces. However, the P5 retains the P3's overall look, chrome and brushed-metal highlights, removable magnetic earpads, and removable cable with three-button remote and microphone (an audio-only cable bundled with headset). As with the P5, each cable plug is cleverly hidden behind the earpieces, with the cable wound inside to provide strain relief. B&W includes a two-year warranty.

To use a car analogy, the P3 is like buying the base model of a car instead of one that offers a higher trim level, with cloth seats instead of leather, and with a few luxury touches omitted. The P3 still looks great, though not as spectacular as the P5, and the earpads are soft and comfortable. Large-headed buyers should exercise caution: Like the Navigator, the P3 would benefit from a headband with more padding. Also, whereas the P5 relies on a single cable that attaches to the left earpiece, the P3 uses a split cable that attaches to both earpieces (via mono 2.5mm plugs); I find that two-sided cables tend to get in my way more than a single-sided cable.

In an improvement on the P5, the P3 folds into a smaller package, though the P3's earpieces don't swivel to the degree that the P5's do, making the P3 slightly less comfortable to wear. I liked the P3's rigid clamshell carrying case, which offers more protection than the P5's quilted carrying bag. Like other B&W models, the P3's remote and microphone module is perfectly cylindrical except for a depression that indicates the location of the center button. This makes the center button easy to press, but it's also hard to determine the front of the volume up and down buttons, making them hard to press.

Moving directly from the Navigator to the P3, I noticed improvement in the treble frequencies, which also do a better job of standing up to the P3's bass. However, though the P3 dials back the bass in comparison to the Navigator, the bass is still excessive and a little sloppy. As a result, the P3's midrange frequencies, which are recessed relative to the low and high frequencies--are largely overwhelmed by the low frequencies. Overall, I liked the P3's sound better than the Navigator's, but I still found listening to the P3 for long periods of time to be fatiguing.

I borrowed a friend's P5 headset to assess how it sounded next to the P3--and using the P5 after the P3 was a revelation. Not only did I get the luxurious feel of the P5's leather, but the sound was vastly superior. Bass was tighter and extended deeper; high frequencies were more detailed, and the P5's lovely midrange was clearly audible against the bass. The P5's sound isn't strictly neutral (it still has slightly exaggerated bass), and it isn't the last word in detail (it errs on the warm side), but it's well-balanced and exceedingly pleasant to listen to, a quality that the P3 is somewhat deficient in.

V-Moda Crossfade M--80 v2

V-Moda made its name with bass-heavy, in-ear headphones, and the company's older $200 Crossfade LP is a full-size offering that continues that bass-heavy sound signature. In making a more portable version of the Crossfade LP, however, the company signaled that the resulting Crossfade M--80 targeted audiophiles.

The M--80 (as well as the V--80, a version featuring branding and design touches from HBO's True Blood television show) has remarkably solid metal, plastic, and cloth construction. The design is much more angular, industrial, and edgy than any of the other headphones here; it won't be to everyone's taste, but I think it looks great. The headphones are available in shadow (black/dark gray) and pearl (white/light gray) color schemes. Notably, you can customize the outside of each earpiece with interchangeable "shield" faceplates that are available in various of colors, with optional text or logos (including the option to submit a custom logo). You get an additional pair of shields free if you purchase the M--80 directly from V-Moda, or you can purchase them later for $25 per pair.

V-Moda includes two cloth-wrapped and Kevlar-reinforced cables in the package: Each has an inline microphone, but one of them features an Apple-style three-button inline remote and a microphone, while the other uses a generic one-button inline remote for use with non-Apple devices. The current version of the M--80 (v2) separates the microphone from the remote module, positioning the microphone higher--and closer to your mouth--with the remote lower on the cable to make it easier to see and use. Either cable attaches to the left earpiece via a 3.5mm miniplug. The company sells replacements for the three-button cable for $20, or the one-button version for $15; an audio-only cable (with no microphone or remote) is available for $12.

Also included with the M--80 is a hard-plastic "Exoskeleton" case whose design suggests a Klingon forehead or the boney torso of Ridley Scott's Alien. Beyond its sci-fi trappings, the case features interior elastic bands for holding cables. V-Moda offers a two-year warranty against manufacturing defects, along with a 50-percent discount on a replacement headset in the event of user-inflicted damage or out-of-warranty failure.

Though the M--80's earpads don't feel as luxurious as the P5's, or even the Navigator's, I found these headphones to be the most comfortable overall. As before, my big head caused comfort problems during longer listening sessions, in part due to the pressure of the earpieces, but that pressure also yielded impressive sound isolation--and the M--80's metal construction enables you to bend the headphone a bit to improve comfort. (Again, I would like to see more padding in the headband.) The cables give the impression of quality, though they're heavier than the other cables here. The company's three-button remote is a little bulky but easy to use.

Sonically, I found the M--80 to be the most impressive headphone of the bunch. There's a bit of bass emphasis--V-Moda's "modern-audiophile" sound is purposely designed to provide a bit of extra kick--but the bass sounds tight for a sealed headphone, and it doesn't interfere with the midrange and treble frequencies. Those frequencies are impressive, too, as the M--80 provided more detail than B&W's P5 and made me feel more involved in the music. On the other hand, some listeners may prefer the P5's smoothness, and the M--80 did have a bit more of the closed-in sound characteristic of sealed headphones. The M--80 isn't the best pair of headphones I've used, but it's the best pair of sealed, supra-aural headphones I've tried.

Speak into the mic

A microphone often seems like an afterthought in full-size headphones; but since these models are designed with portability in mind, I tested each model's inline mic. Ultimately, each works fine for occasional phone calls, though the none sounded as good as the microphone on Apple's pack-in EarPods. The Aviator's microphone sounded somewhat distant, and the V-Moda M--80's sounded particularly distant. The P3's microphone came closest to matching the excellent performance of the EarPods, followed by the SA950i.

Bottom line

Among the four models here, I found two hits and two misses. The RHA SA950i isn't perfect, but it looks and sounds great for $60. The Skullcandy Navigator also looks great, but only committed bass heads should choose it over the SA950i. For its part, the Bowers & Wilkins P3 looks great but sounds crowded, closed-in, and overly bassy; I recommend stepping down to the SA950i or up to the V-Moda M--80 or over to the previously reviewed B&W P5. As for the M--80, it sounds fantastic and its build quality is impressive. In fact, though some people may prefer the smooth sound of B&W's P5, I think the M--80 delivers better audio for $100 less. (At a street price of $150, the M--80 is a spectacular bargain.)

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