Headphone nerds are a tough crowd, especially when you take away their precious cables. Ask anyone who regularly browses the r/headphones subreddit whether noise-canceling or wireless headphones are any good, and you’re likely to get a lot of folks telling you that they’re fine for reducing outside sound, but can’t approach what wired headphones can offer in terms of sound quality.
So far, those voices have mostly been right. With very few exceptions, wireless headphones sound worse than their wired counterparts. This has led countless listeners to tote around cumbersome wired headphones, portable headphone amps, and various accessories to get the best sound on the go.
Now a new generation of noise-canceling headphones from established audiophile brands like Mark Levinson, Bowers & Wilkins, and Focal are looking to challenge the long-established hierarchy, making it possible for audio nerds to use the same pair while easy wireless traveling as they might for wired at-home listening. Of the three brands’ flagship models, it’s the Focal Bathys that have impressed me the most.
I’ve spent a few months with the French audiophile brand’s superb noise-canceling over-ears, and they’ve become my favorite pair in recent memory. The gorgeous magnesium and aluminum cans borrow design cues and driver designs from Focal’s higher-end wired headphones, but include cutting-edge digital-to-analog conversion, and some of the most comfortable earpads I’ve ever worn.
If you’re a discerning listener who loves a bit of style you can’t do better on the go: Ditch the AirPods Max and go with these. It’s like trading up from a red Corvette to a Rosso Corsa Ferrari.
Parlez Vous Francais
Say it with me: Foh-Cal Bat-hees. This pair of expensive noise-canceling headphones, named after a spherical submersible from last century, look like something you’d pull from Poseidon’s desk. Spherical cutouts of varying shapes and sizes circle the tornado-shaped Focal “F” in the middle of each earcup, like a net surrounding a perilous whirlpool.
Thankfully, there are no finicky touch controls for new musical divers. On the bottom of the right earcup, you’ll find a power switch that lets you pick between off, on, and DAC mode (more on this later), as well as a simple three-button setup for volume up, down, and play/pause (long press for BT pairing). A single button on the left earcup lets you pick between ANC modes. I love the bezel-like wheel on the Airpods Max for novelty, but I wish all headphones were this easy to operate.
Turn them on, and a glorious white LED backlights the logo on each side, making you look like some sort of nautical Tony Stark. You can turn off the lights (and adjust EQ and ANC settings) in Focal’s app, if you don’t want everyone around you to know how much you spent on headphones.
After all, devices like these aren’t for others to enjoy; they’re to help well-heeled listeners maintain their golden-eared lifestyles outside of their usual listening situations. And boy, are they comfortable.