In 2023, we saw a lot of great new wireless headphones and wireless earbuds emerging, like the Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones, Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, Anker Soundcore Liberty 4 NC, Sony WF-1000XM5, and the new USB-C variant of Apple AirPods. Pro 2.
Each of these products offers better performance than its predecessors in one or more categories such as sound quality, active noise cancellation (ANC), battery life, or spatial audio. But for a product to be considered innovative, it can’t just offer incremental improvements. It needs to break new ground by introducing something new or inspiring us to think in an entirely new way about an existing feature.
For 2023, that product is the Head Unity Wi-Fi Headphones.
Want to see the rest? Check out our full list of the hottest innovative tech products of 2023!
Winner: Head Unity Wi-Fi Headphones
The convenience of wireless Bluetooth headphones and earbuds cannot be overstated. Ever since Apple released the original AirPods in 2016, music fans have turned these categories into billion-dollar industries. But there’s one group of music lovers that has always viewed Bluetooth with suspicion: audiophiles.
Audiophiles rightly claim that Bluetooth is not a substitute for wired connections because Bluetooth traditionally requires lossy compression of digital music. To squeeze CD-quality stereo into a size that can fit inside Bluetooth’s invisible pipe from your phone to your headphones, some information has to be sacrificed. For high-resolution audio better than CD-quality? Fuggedabodit.
On the other hand, if wireless audio products like headphones and earbuds could use Wi-Fi instead of (or in addition to) Bluetooth, there would be enough bandwidth for even the highest-resolution lossless digital audio. To some, this may seem like an obvious statement, but until Head Unity came along, no audio manufacturer had ever attempted this.
By embedding Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, Head Unity becomes the first wireless headphones that let people listen to CD-quality and high lossless audio without having to worry about Bluetooth codec compatibility, or even wireless range. . As long as the headphones are within range of your Wi-Fi network, you can stream many sources of high-resolution lossless music to them, including Tidal, Qobuz, and your personal music collection, if it’s stored on your network. Is.
Audiophiles now have the option of wireless listening without the compromise of Bluetooth, but it doesn’t come without some major caveats. The first is the price. At $2,199 the Head Unity may be the most expensive wireless headphones you can buy that doesn’t use exotic materials like gold or diamonds.
Second, one of the reasons we haven’t seen Wi-Fi on headphones before now is that it’s incredibly power-hungry compared to Bluetooth. Not surprisingly, the Head Unity is only good for six to eight hours of listening before needing a recharge, making it one of the worst wireless headphones for battery life.
Third, Head is still making inroads with streaming music companies, so for now, Tidal and Qobuz are the only sources of lossless audio that are compatible with Wi-Fi on the Unity (you can connect to either service via traditional Bluetooth). Can stream).
For Head, being first may also have a price. Apple revealed that the H2 chips inside the AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C are capable of working with Wi-Fi on a limited basis – that’s how they can do lossless audio with the Apple Vision Pro. Separately, Qualcomm announced that its latest S7 Pro Sound Platform Gen 1 chips will support Wi-Fi streaming in a variety of wireless audio products, and with almost no impact on battery performance.
These announcements may mean that Head Unity’s Wi-Fi audio pole position will face serious challenges from other Wi-Fi products in the near future.
I recently received a pair of Head Unity for evaluation – I’ll post my thoughts as a full review soon.
Runner-up: JBL Tour Pro 2
In some ways, JBL’s Tour Pro 2 wireless earbuds are no different from the myriad other wireless earbuds you can buy. They have solid sound quality, ANC that can really reduce the amount of ambient noise, excellent battery life, and a ton of customization and convenience features. What sets them apart from almost every other set of buds on the planet is their charging case.
It carries and recharges the Tour Pro 2 just like any other case, and it has wireless charging, but it’s the embedded touchscreen on the front that really caught our attention. There is something about having an interactive display on a product that increases its cool factor to a great extent.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that having a charging case with its own built-in touchscreen is a game-changer – it’s not. At least, not on the JBL Tour Pro 2. Virtually every action the screen lets you do can also be done using the earbuds themselves or within the JBL Headphones app.
Still, I have to give JBL props for trying it out. The idea that you’d find it more convenient to access settings and features from the charging case rather than your phone was worth exploring, and for that reason alone, I’m glad JBL took a gamble on it. I’m even happier that the company managed to do this without charging too much. Poly’s Voyager Free 60+ also includes a touchscreen-enabled charging case in 2023, but it costs $350 – $100 more than the JBL Tour Pro 2.
Honorable Mention: Oladance OWS Pro
The world of open-ear earbuds exploded in 2023. After Bose effectively created (then abandoned) the category, and Sony came up with its own unique take on the idea (which became our pick for the most innovative headphones of 2022), tons of audio brands are jumping aboard the open-ear train. went.
But the reigning champion in this field is a company you’ve probably never heard of: OlaDance. In 2022, the Ohladance OWS proved to be the best open-ear earbuds you could get, but that was a very small area. Yet, in 2023, the company managed to do it again with OWS Pro. Although far more expensive than any other open-ear product, the OWS Pro has done more to advance the category than any other model.
Not only are they smooth and comfortable, but they also have the best audio quality you can find in a set of open ears. However, what makes them truly innovative is their focus mode. Typically, ANC is a nonstarter on a set of open-ear earbuds. ANC needs to be able to create its own little bubble of noise-canceling to cancel out the noise around you – open-ear earbuds are the opposite. And yet, Focus mode manages to cancel out a very specific range of annoying high-frequency sounds. It is amazingly effective.