Hed Unity review: Are Wi-Fi headphones really $2,000 better?

Hed Unity Wi-Fi headphones.

“For deep-pocketed audiophiles, the Hed Unity makes the holy grail of wireless, lossless audio a reality.”

Pros

  • Excellent build quality
  • Class-leading sound
  • Top-notch materials
  • Cushy, cozy comfort
  • Wi-Fi connection for lossless audio
  • Excellent wireless range

Cons

  • Sky-high price
  • Awkward set up and control
  • Limited streaming services for Wi-Fi
  • Poor battery life
  • Software/features still under development

The Hed Unity headphones — the first product from Swiss audio company Hed — are groundbreaking. They’re the first Bluetooth wireless headphones to also offer a Wi-Fi connection, which brings two major advantages: totally lossless transmission of audio — even at very high resolutions — and essentially unlimited wireless range.

They also have a groundbreaking price of $2,199 — making them the most expensive wireless headphones we’ve ever reviewed. For that level of investment, the Hed Unity are going to have to check a lot of boxes beyond lossless Wi-Fi.

After spending three weeks with them, I’m impressed with what Hed has accomplished. But unless you have a compulsive need to be on the bleeding edge (and the discretionary cash to support that compulsion) you may want to wait before jumping into the world of Wi-Fi headphones.

Hed Unity: why Wi-Fi?

Hed Unity.
Simon Cohen /

Before we dive in, just a quick 101 on wireless audio: Bluetooth is the standard wireless technology that connects headphones, earbuds, and speakers to your phone or other compatible device. Its bandwidth (the amount of data it can transmit per second) is limited and grows smaller the farther away you are from your phone. Although there are some special Bluetooth codecs out there like LDAC, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, and others that promise to preserve the detail found in your music, the reality is that none is perfect, and none is universal — especially if you have an iPhone, which doesn’t work with any of them.

On the other hand, Wi-Fi also has bandwidth limitations, but they’re nothing compared to Bluetooth. Wi-Fi doesn’t need special codecs to help preserve information, and as long as you’re within range of a Wi-Fi access point, your connection quality should be very good. These qualities make Wi-Fi perfect for streaming lossless, hi-res audio. It’s the technology used by all of the best whole-home wireless speakers like Sonos, Bose, Bang & Olufsen, Sony, and many others.

But Wi-Fi is power-hungry, which has made it a poor choice for small, personal audio products like wireless headphones and earbuds. Wi-Fi audio products require extra software, and, much of the time, they cannot connect to a phone directly — they need a wireless network to act as the go-between.

Hed Unity: design

Hed Unity seen with Apple MacBook Air.
Simon Cohen /

Everyone has their own idea of what luxury should look like. For me, it’s always looked like understated simplicity. Top-notch materials and build quality. Clean lines — no fancy, frilly details. Think Porsche 911, not Ferrari Testarossa. By that standard, the Hed Unity are the epitome of luxury — dark grey anodized aluminum earcup shells that blend almost seamlessly into a matching headband. The removable memory foam and microfiber-wrapped earcushions look like natural extensions of the carbon-reinforced nylon body.

Except for the small and tasteful unity logo and the four control buttons on the earcups, nothing interrupts the flow. I think they look fantastic, and I’m sure it’s no accident that Hed chose an aluminum color that complements Apple’s Space Gray MacBooks.

In some ways, the Hed Unity is more aligned with Apple’s design language than Apple’s own AirPods Max headphones.

If there’s one drawback to the Unity’s minimalism, it’s a total lack of hinges or pivots, which you’d find on almost any other set of wireless cans. Apart from the adjustable headband sliders, they don’t change shape at all. This might have implications for comfort and fit — which I’ll touch on in a moment — but the biggest tradeoff is portability.

Hed ships the Unity with a travel and storage case made from a very lightweight yet hard-shell material that provides — in Hed’s words — “military-grade protection.” But the Unity’s rigid design and the case’s construction create a package that’s more than twice as thick as the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones — you’ll need plenty of space in your carry-on for these cans.

Included with the case is a small circular zippered pouch containing a braided USB-A-to-USB-C charging cable, a USB-C-to-USB-A adapter, and a USB-C-to-3.5mm analog input dongle.

Hed Unity: comfort

Simon Cohen wearing the Hed Unity.
Simon Cohen /

At just a snick under 1 pound (14.4 ounces), the Hed Unity are even heavier than the hulking AirPods Max (13.8 ounces), which is saying something, especially when the Sony WH-1000XM5 are just 8.8 ounces. And yet, despite their weight and lack of adjustments, I found them incredibly comfortable. That sensation only increased as I switched back and forth with some of the best wireless headphones on the market.

The earcups are roomy and the memory foam earcushions felt like they were giving my head a soft yet firm hug. Even with some vigorous head movements, they stayed put, but I strongly recommend against taking them to the gym or on runs (they have no sweat or water protection).

These Wi-Fi headphones come with some weight to them.

The mass distribution, the headband width, and the clamping force are all exceptionally well-balanced. There’s no denying you’ll feel that nearly 1-pound weight over time. But even after two hours of uninterrupted wear, I didn’t notice any pressure points.

My only caveat is for those of you with really small heads. At their smallest setting, they were perfect for me, which suggests that (despite my tiny cranium) some of you may find them too big.

Hed Unity: controls and set up

Hed Unity right earcup controls.
Simon Cohen /

The Unity’s controls are fairly standard for wireless headphones. The right earcup has a triple-button cluster that handles volume, playback, and calling functions, along with a fourth button dedicated to active noise cancellation (ANC) mode. On the left earcup is a single button that handles power/Bluetooth/Wi-Fi and pairing actions.

You should be aware of two notable omissions: there’s currently no way to trigger your phone’s voice assistant, and no auto-pause/resume feature for when you remove the cans.

The controls are intuitive, but the triple-button cluster is tricky to use. The buttons are quite small and very close together, and the central multifunction button is barely taller than the flanking volume buttons, which makes it hard to locate with your thumb. I got used to it, but I never got comfortable with it.

The Hed Unity take a whopping 44 seconds to boot up with Wi-Fi.

Another thing you’ll need to get used to is the time it takes to power on the Unity. Most Bluetooth headphones take less than 5 seconds to power up and connect to the last device you used. The Unity, however, take 44 seconds from the time you long-press the power button until the time you hear the “Unity is ready” message in your ears. It’s not unusual for Wi-Fi products to take longer to boot up than Bluetooth devices — but this is long, even for Wi-Fi.

Technically, the headphones reconnect over Bluetooth faster than that. But for Wi-Fi operation, you need the full boot-up time.

If you want to strictly use the Unity as a set of Bluetooth headphones, you can do that right out of the box. Just power them on, and they’ll enter Bluetooth pairing mode. But that would defeat their main selling point. To get them working with Wi-Fi, you’ll need the Unity app (iOS/Android) and some patience.

The app makes the setup process seem simple enough, but I had to go through several rounds of adding and removing the headphones from my iPhone’s Bluetooth menu before finally getting them to be recognized by the app. Once that happened, I was able to add the Unity to my Wi-Fi network and configure the options. Not that you get many.

The Unity app currently has four main functions: a battery meter, a Wi-Fi configuration tool, a way to switch ANC modes, and an equalizer with a variety of presets.

Originally, the Unity app was going to be a one-stop shop for all your music streaming needs, similar to the Sonos or BluOS apps. If you check out Hed’s website it still refers to a “multisource music player” within the app. But things haven’t quite worked out as planned.

Instead, to stream music over Wi-Fi to the Unity headphones, you’ll need to use different third-party apps depending on where you get your tunes. Spotify and Tidal users will have it easy — the Unity headphones are compatible with the “Connect” feature in these apps. Simply select the Unity headphones from the list of available wireless speakers within the app and you’re good to go.

You might not be able to use your favorite music service.

Want to use other services? That might be a problem. There’s currently no way to stream Apple Music, even if you have an iPhone. The Unity support Wi-Fi, but not Apple’s AirPlay 2 streaming technology. It won’t work on Android either because Apple Music only streams to Wi-Fi devices that have Chromecast built-in — which the Unity also lack. The same thing can be said for Amazon Music, YouTube Music, Pandora, and Deezer.

If you grab a third-party app like mConnect (iOS/Android) or BubbleUPnP (Android only) you can access Qobuz — you’ll get three months of that free, by the way — plus your personal library of digital music as long as it’s stored on a DLNA-compatible media server or device.

Hed didn’t offer a specific timeline for improved access to music services, but it has said that it plans to embed streaming music capability directly into its app by April 2024. For now, it’s fair to say that the company’s promise of “Your taste is complex and diverse. Now, it can be served by one centralized platform” is more aspirational than achievable.

Hed Unity: wandering around with Wi-Fi

Hed Unity with included accessories.
Simon Cohen /

The Hed Unity’s Bluetooth wireless range is about average for a set of wireless headphones. While wandering between floors of my house, it was generally stable. But the further I roamed from my phone, the more the audio would start to break up.

Wi-Fi, however, never faltered. I have really good Wi-Fi coverage at home, and it showed. Things were great as long as I was within range of an access point.

But they weren’t perfect. I have a Netgear Orbi mesh Wi-Fi system with two access points. As I drifted from the edge of one AP into the other, the Unity treated it like I was joining a new Wi-Fi network — each time announcing “Wi-Fi connected.”

I also noticed that because the headphones maintain Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections simultaneously, I’d get a “Bluetooth disconnected/connected” message as I moved in and out of the Bluetooth range of my phone.

You could, I suppose, simply force the Unity to disconnect from your phone’s Bluetooth. But if you do that, you lose the ability to work with the Unity app. For now, given how little the app does, maybe that’s no hardship. It might be a different story in the future.

Hed Unity: sound quality

Hed Unity with earcushion removed from right earcup.
Simon Cohen /

Whether you’re using them to stream lossless, hi-res audio via Wi-Fi, lossy audio via Bluetooth, or untouched signal via the wired dongle, the Hed Unity sound amazing. No, not $2,199 amazing — they don’t deliver more than four times the audio quality of a Sony WH-1000XM5, Apple AirPods Max, or Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless — but they do sound significantly better to me than all three of these excellent wireless headphones.

From a sound signature standpoint, they are kissing cousins with superb Master & Dynamic MW75 — very balanced across the frequencies, with just the slightest hint of bass-forwardness. The Unity app contains a generous nine-band equalizer with saveable settings, plus a whole host of presets. I’m thrilled that these presets are labeled for what they do to the sound as opposed to music genre-based labels, which have never made much sense to me. There’s a lot of range here, but I think you’ll find the adjustments are subtle — just nice little tweaks to help you get things dialed in the way you like them.

Some of the credit goes, I think, to the 40mm titanium-coated drivers: transients are fast and precise, highs are beautifully clear, and the midranges abound with detail. One of my favorite tracks for torture-testing any audio gear is Billy Eilish’s Bad Guy. Being able to render the punishingly low bass line while simultaneously letting Eilish’s whispery vocals float weightlessly on top is no easy feat, yet the Unity handled it with ease.

Listening to Silver Springs by Matt Beringer — a track that makes excellent use of instrument and vocal spatial positioning — reveals the Unity’s soundstage. It’s not massively wide or high, but it’s tightly controlled and very precise. This bodes well for when Hed updates the headphones with its promised spatial audio compatibility.

Hed Unity in travel case with accessory pouch.
Simon Cohen /

But here’s the real $2,199 question: does lossless Wi-Fi streaming make a noticeable difference versus Bluetooth? Absolutely.

Compared to the Unity’s Bluetooth connection, Wi-Fi streaming revealed more detail and nuance, let the music relax, and eliminated the most annoying side-effects of compression — the bloating of bass and the sharpening of highs.

But is that a fair comparison? After all, in Bluetooth mode, the Unity only support SBC and AAC — both lossy and limited to 16-bit. Not exactly Bluetooth at its best. In a perfect world, I could have tested aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, or LDAC on these cans, but alas, no dice.

Wi-Fi music sounds better. Full stop. But thousands of dollars better?

So I did the next best thing and compared them to the Master & Dynamic MW75 connected to a Motorola ThinkPhone via aptX Adaptive. Using Qobuz lossless tracks with both setups, I could detect only the tiniest differences in detail. Given that these headphones are close — but not identical — it’s impossible to say if those differences were due to the wireless connection or any number of other physical and processing differences.

I’m forced to conclude that while Wi-Fi is, on paper, the best way to experience wireless music, you don’t need $2,199 headphones to achieve a quality that is 99% as good (to my ears at least). Still, this doesn’t detract from a key Unity benefit: for Bluetooth to measure up, you need codec compatibility and you need a very strong Bluetooth signal. Sony’s LDAC codec, for instance, is notorious for not being able to maintain its highest bitrate of 990kbps unless you’ve got nearly perfect conditions.

The Unity’s Wi-Fi connection lets you forget about all of that. Even the weakest Wi-Fi signal is likely to be many times faster than the best Bluetooth signal, and codec compatibility is irrelevant. For folks who like knowing they’re always getting the best audio possible, there’s real value in Wi-Fi — I’m just not sure it’s $2,199’s worth of value.

Hed Unity: active noise cancellation

Hed Unity.
Simon Cohen /

I’d argue that the combination of the Unity’s passive noise isolation — thanks to those fantastic earcushions — and their impressive sound quality is so effective you probably won’t feel the need to engage ANC most of the time.

Still, it’s a nice feature to have, and it does do a good job of neutralizing many lower-to-mid frequencies for a quieter listening environment. It’s not as effective as the ANC you’ll get from Sony, Bose, or Apple. And if you’re not listening to any audio, you may notice a very small amount of hiss.

My only real criticism is that Hed hasn’t added a transparency mode yet (the company says it’s on the way), and there’s no way to disable the voice feedback when you switch ANC on and off — perhaps that will be updated in the future, too.

Hed Unity: call quality

Hed Unity headband interior.
Simon Cohen /

Up until one week before I got my evaluation model, the Hed Unity didn’t have voice calling over Bluetooth enabled. And based on my experience, Hed still has some work to do. The gain on the mics is too low, making your voice hard to hear, there’s almost no background noise cancellation, and wind noise is a real problem. Things were better indoors, without background noise, but nowhere near what we should expect from a top-flight set of headphones.

In theory, these issues should be fixable. After all, the Hed Unity is equipped with an astonishing 12 microphones — four of which are dedicated to calls. But for now, calling is not among the Unity’s strengths.

Hed Unity: battery life

Hed Unity left earcup with USB-C port.
Simon Cohen /

Let’s just say it: the Hed Unity’s battery life is dismal. With a maximum playtime of just eight hours — and that’s under optimal conditions with ANC off and only streaming over Bluetooth — you’d be hard-pressed to find a set of wireless headphones with a shorter lifespan.

Why so short? The Unity are packed with electronics. There’s a dual-core processor, a Wi-Fi transceiver, 16GB of storage, and a ton of motion sensors. This gives Hed a lot of room to make the Unity better over time, but it also takes a heavy toll on battery life.

On the bright side, it doesn’t take long to charge them up: 15 minutes gets you about 90 minutes of extra playtime, and you can fully charge them in 1.5 hours.

Hed Unity: untapped potential

Inside the Hed Unity are two technologies that are currently unavailable for use: 16GB of onboard storage for music and/or additional apps, as well as a nine-axis motion sensor that’s intended for a future head-tracked spatial audio feature.

Being first almost always comes with a premium price. The first Tesla, the first plasma TV, the first folding phone — if you wanted to be the first among your friends to own these products, you would have paid far more than the folks who bought them two years later. That’s how it goes.

So, while the Hed Unity’s price remains distressingly out of reach for most buyers, I tend to think of them as a proof of concept. If those who can afford them buy them and like them, it won’t be long before the market responds with more affordable alternatives. Some of those alternatives might come as soon as 2024.

In the meantime, the company’s first customers are getting fabulous build quality, top-notch materials, luxurious comfort, and sound quality that has few equals in the wireless headphone world.

And of course, they’ll get the marquee feature: Wi-fi connectivity that promises bit-perfect transmission of lossless music anywhere in your home. Maybe that’s worth the price of admission.






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