Wired headphones are about to have a mini revival

It’s been more than seven years since Apple found the “courage” to do this Remove the 3.5mm headphone jack From the iPhone, in turn, the focus is on wireless headphones. Until now, listening to high-quality lossless music on a phone usually meant searching for the rare phone with a 3.5mm jack or accepting a new dongle into your life. A new breed of wired headphones has appeared out of nowhere, promising audiophile quality on any phone without the need for a dongle. Of course, there’s a marketing term to go with it: True Lossless Earphones (TLE).

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

Two days after Questyle announced the NHB15, rival company Hidizs claimed that its own DAC packaging ST2 Pro model was the world’s first high-quality digital IEM. It’s not quite a trend yet, but expect a mini-wave of similar products to follow, and I’m not sure who’s the first to matter. More interestingly, with iPhones moving to USB-C and high-fidelity plug-and-play options on the table, all the ingredients are there for a resurgence of mini-wired headphones – although I don’t think it’s going to last, and we’ll get to why later.

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

Photo by James Trew for Engadget

It’s worth noting that all of these USB-C headphones have some sort of DAC, but they’re rarely high-definition. Hi-res audio is a broad termbut here we follow Apple’s own language, viz everything above 48 kHz. In recent years some HiFi companies have released USB-C cables with DAC that in them supports higher resolutions. Queststyle and Hidizs bring everything together to its next logical conclusion – which makes them all the more interesting to the casual (but audio curious) listener.

I’ve tried several stand-alone DACs over the years here at Engadget, and I appreciate the superior audio quality they provide, but I’ve never found one to use while out and about. There are some that come close, like the fantastic DragonFly Cobalt by AudioQuest or the brilliant Onyx by THX, but they all require something between your phone and headphones – by which time I’ll reach for my best wireless set and be good to go. NHB15 though, I could see myself using them regularly.

The experience is no more complicated than connecting a regular 3.5mm kit. DAC is not invisible; at first you might think it’s an in-line, yoke-style media control. In fact, if only it had buttons on it that would both complete the illusion and add some useful functionality, but for now it’s just there to turn your music from zeros and ones into an audible sound. LEDs let you know if you’re playing it with lossy music (one lit) or true lossless life (two lit). This is a minimal but effective approach.

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


Let’s ignore that the cheapest 3.5mm buds you can buy on Amazon are in theory truly lossless headphones, but TLE isn’t an entirely useless term. If it can be converted to the equivalent of “UHD”, but for USB-C headphones, with minimal confirmed high-quality audio support – anything above Apple’s standard lossless (48kHz), perhaps that’s useful enough.

Most importantly, Questyle’s NHB15 does a good job with music. When listening through Qobuz, I didn’t always get two LEDs thanks to the various “lossless” configurations on the platform, but it was a fun game to listen to the audio first and then flip the DAC. the lights were on and if I guessed correctly. I didn’t often, but maybe that’s a testament to how clear these voices are. The NHB15 are fairly neutral and less bass heavy than a typical pair of Beats, combined with just the right amount of brightness in the higher frequencies.

For something with its own DAC/amplifier, the maximum volume isn’t as loud as I’d expect, but it’s sufficient. Even when listening to Spotify, which currently doesn’t offer lossless music, these IEMs instill a sense of space that you can hardly find with Bluetooth buds.

What’s harder to determine is whether these are OK IEMs with nice DACs, OK DACs with decent drivers attached, or something in between. Of course, Questyle includes a regular 3.5mm cable in the box so you can use the NHB15s with all your devices or make a direct comparison. To my ears at least, Spotify tracks sounded just as good with the trusty 3.5mm connection plugged into my computer. And as far as I can tell, you can use the NHB15’s DAC cable with any IEMs you might own as long as you have a 2-pin connector, so if nothing else it’s a flexible idea.

The Questyle NHB15 In-Ear Monitor headphones connect to the phone in someone's hand.The Questyle NHB15 In-Ear Monitor headphones connect to the phone in someone's hand.

Photo by James Trew for Engadget

It’s worth noting that there are a number of competing efforts to bring wireless headphones on par with lossless cable options. Qualcomm’s family of codecs is famous for its newest AptX lossless having the technical power to do a good enough job even without multiple phones or headphones supporting it (and you need both).

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

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

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