AnalogSenses

By ÁLVARO SERRANO

We need to talk about that keyboard

November 16, 2019

Apple’s long-rumored 16-inch MacBook Pro was announced this week, and it seems to pack many of the upgrades people were desperately hoping for, and a few others that nobody saw coming.

But we need to talk about that keyboard.

The butterfly-type switch was first introduced to the MacBook lineup in 2015, with the 12-inch MacBook

Back in 2015, in their quest to make even thinner laptops, Apple designed a new keyboard with what they called “butterfly-type switches”, which allowed for impossibly shallow key travel. This new switch type effectively achieved their thinness goal and even provided better stability, but unfortunately it came with two pretty severe tradeoffs.

The first of those tradeoffs was feel. Such a shallow key travel makes for a very different typing experience, and I do mean different. I hesitate to call it worse because the truth is a lot more nuanced than that. Yes, many people hated this keyboard, but many also quickly adjusted to it, and some even preferred it to the experience of the previous one. If I had to come up with a word to accurately characterize this keyboard it wouldn’t be worse, it would be polarizing.

Which, if you’re Apple, is one the last things you want your keyboard to be.

The butterfly keyboard made it possible to create thinner laptops, but it came with two severe tradeoffs

I own a 2017 15-inch MacBook Pro and personally, I’m slightly at odds with its keyboard’s feel. Even though I don’t hate typing on it, I also don’t love it nearly as much as any other Apple keyboard I’ve ever used. But typing feel alone wouldn’t be enough for me to not own this laptop. I love this computer to death, and I appreciate having this much horsepower in such a svelte form factor. I’m certainly willing to put up with its different typing experience if that’s what it takes to get it, and I suspect I’m not alone in that.

But then when we get to the second tradeoff: reliability.

As it turns out, having only 0.5 mm of key travel makes it quite easy for debris to become lodged underneath the key switches, effectively rendering them unable to function. What that means is that, over the life of this keyboard, you will probably experience some strange behavior in one or — depending how unlucky you get — more keys. Sometimes they may become sticky and lose their feel entirely. Other times, they may simply get stuck. Sometimes you’ll be typing and you’ll get missing letters or repeated ones. And if a key gets stuck while depressed you’ll see and endless string of repeated characters.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

The shallow key travel of only 0.5 mm introduced some serious reliability issues

Of course, no laptop keyboard is truly immune to dust, but how often the problem occurs actually matters. A lot. On the record, Apple has always publicly stated that the problem only affects “a small percentage” of computers with butterfly keyboards. We have no reliable numbers to know for sure, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the issue is a lot more widespread than Apple would have us believe. So much so that they had to launch a special repair program for it.

Whatever the actual numbers may be, if that small percentage was significantly higher than in previous keyboards, that alone would be bad-enough to merit scrapping the design altogether. But don’t worry, it gets worse.

Because this keyboard is effectively unrepairable.

In their quest to make the keyboard as thin as possible, Apple designed the key caps in such a way that they’re nearly impossible to remove without breaking the little hooks that hold them in place. If you’re not extremely careful, you may even damage the butterfly switch itself. Some keys, like the space bar, simply can’t be removed without breaking.

Some keys are impossible to remove without breaking, making repairability a nightmare

All of this makes it extremely difficult for users to clean their own keyboards. And even worse, every time you get a stuck key, you need to have the entire computer serviced. Which sounds bad enough, but hey, if it really only affects a small percentage of units then it’s not such a big deal, is it?

I don’t know about percentages, but it’s already happened to me twice. And that’s two times too many.

There is an Apple Autorized Service Provider a 5-minute walk away from my home. Last week, I had to get my right Shift key replaced because it had become unresponsive. Once I took it in, they replaced the key in under 5 minutes. Less than half an hour after I left home, I was back inside with a fixed computer. It was impressive.

However, as great as the service was, the point is I never should have needed to take it in in the first place. Certainly not because of a goddamned sticky key.

And that’s clearly the most optimistic scenario possible. If you don’t have a service provider near you, getting your computer fixed can easily take several days, or even weeks. I know because I’ve also had to go through that on account of — you guessed it — another sticky key. That time I took it directly into an Apple Store and they replaced the entire top case, but I was left without a Mac for about 10 days. No matter how much they tried to take care of me, that’s simply unacceptable.

In just over two years of ownership, I’ve had to have this computer serviced twice. I don’t recall any other Apple product I’ve ever owned — and it’s a long list — where that’s been the case. No matter how you look at it, the butterfly keyboard seems to be one of the worst hardware mistakes Apple has ever made. Yes, even worse than Antennagate.

But I digress.

There are many headline-grabbing features about the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro I’m sure Apple would want us to talk about, but I’m afraid we need to keep talking about the keyboard. Because with the 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple finally ditched the butterfly switches and designed a new keyboard that goes back to the more traditional scissor-type switches.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro’s keyboard brings back the physical escape key that was removed in the butterfly keyboard

It’s a new old keyboard, if you will. They’re even calling it the Magic Keyboard, in case you weren’t paying attention. It’s almost cute.

It also gives us another couple of features people had been calling for: a physical escape key, and inverted T arrow keys. We already had both of those before Apple took them away, of course, but pay no attention to that. The important part is, they’re back. Life’s good. Rejoyce.

With this new old design, Apple is clearly hoping people will stop talking about their laptop keyboards for good. They seem desperate for it to go back to being a boring, utilitarian feature nobody even thinks about: it’s good, it does what it’s supposed to, and that’s all there is to it. It just works. End of story.

For now.

Of course, there’s plenty to love about the new 16-inch MacBook Pro beyond its new keyboard: a bigger screen, much better speakers, greatly improved thermals and a bigger battery are all pretty compelling features, and make this by far the best MacBook Pro Apple has ever made.

And yet, all everybody keeps talking about is the keyboard.

The new keyboard also brings back the inverted T arrow key layout

You see, the 15-ish inch MacBook Pro has always been Apple’s flagship laptop. I’d even go so far as to say it’s their flagship Mac, period. It’s not the most powerful, but it’s the Mac they depend on to satisfy the demands of most of their professional users and as such, it’s a no-bullshit computer. This is where Apple has always put in their best efforts, and added new features only when they were absolutely sure it was worth the risk of tweaking this winning formula. Or at least that used to be the case, before the butterfly keyboard and the Touch Bar and the Thunderbolt-only ports — but don’t even get me started on those.

My point is, a new MacBook Pro being a great computer should surprise no one. That’s the bar Apple set for itself long ago and has been raising time and time again with each new generation. Another great MacBook Pro is just the normal state of the universe, and not newsworthy in the least. It’s a boring product, and that’s exactly the way Apple likes it. But a 15-inch MacBook Pro failing to meet Apple’s own lofty standards? Now that’s some news for you.

Despite Apple’s best efforts to confess nothing, the fact that we’re all still talking about the keyboard is entirely a trap of their own making.

So where does that leave us?

Well, if you’ve been holding on to that beloved 2015 MacBook Pro of yours, waiting for Apple to get their keyboard act together, it appears you’re in luck. Upgrading to the 2019 MacBook Pro should be a no-brainer, especially considering the price. With 512 GB of storage and 16 GB of RAM, the base model in particular is the best value I’ve seen in a MacBook Pro in a really long time.

However, while I’m fairly certain I won’t be keeping my 2017 MacBook Pro for much longer, I’m still trying to decide if I’m going to upgrade to the 16-inch model. It’s not just about the keyboard anymore, but also the way a Mac laptop fits into my current lifestyle. With the new productivity features in iOS 13, perhaps it’s finally time for me to give the iPad Pro a fair shot at becoming my mobile computer. For the most part, I don’t need the horsepower that the new MacBook Pro brings to the table, and I would certainly appreciate the significantly smaller and lighter form factor of the iPad when I’m away from my desk.

But that’s a story for another day.

♤ ♧ ♡ ♢

Here’s to ten more.

November 10, 2019

Today is the ten-year anniversary of Analog Senses. It’s been quite the journey.

Back in November 2009, I owned an iPhone 3G and a white plastic — sorry, polycarbonate — MacBook. I also owned a wonderful 24-inch aluminum iMac that felt like the best computer ever created and remains my favorite computer I’ve ever owned. The iPhone and the MacBook were soon replaced by newer, faster models, but that iMac stuck with me for the better part of a decade, until I eventually replaced it in 2017 with the 15-inch MacBook Pro that I’m using right now to type these words.

It’s not just the gadgets around me that have changed, though. Back then, I didn’t even have an Instagram account, probably because there was no Instagram. Instead, Flickr was the place where photographers uploaded their work for all the world to see. It was a vibrant community full of remarkably creative people, and it looked like it had an amazing future ahead of it. Oops, I guess we didn’t see that one coming.

There was no iMessage, either, and still wouldn’t be for another couple years. Oh, and in a nice coincidence, WhatsApp’s first public version was literally released that same month, right after Apple enabled push notifications for 3rd-party apps on iOS. But perhaps most strikingly of all, in November 2009 YouTube and Vimeo were still two relatively small, independent video-streaming services.

I know, I know. I’m suddenly feeling old, too.

The blogging scene was also very different. Massive content-aggregation platforms still hadn’t become popular, so instead we mostly used the wonderful, open RSS protocol and small independent services like Instapaper to keep track of whatever we wanted to read. Blogging platforms like WordPress and Tumblr suddently rose in popularity because they made it super easy to start your own thing, prompting many people to jump at the opportunity, including yours truly. In fact, the very first version of Analog Senses was a Tumblr-hosted blog, and I barely even changed the appearance of one of the stock themes. I just wanted to write.

Back then, I loved reading Daring Fireball, Minimal Mac, Rands in Repose, and a few other indie blogs that I found incredibly inspirational. Thanks to them, Analog Senses became a reality. Their authors will forever have my gratitude for giving me the push I needed to start. Because in any creative endeavour, as you know, actually getting started is the most difficult thing you will ever need to do.

Over the years, Analog Senses has gone through many different phases, but it’s always been a constant in my life. It started off as a creative outlet for a technology enthusiast with a decidedly pro-Apple bias. I mostly saw it as a way to put my thoughts out there and — I won’t lie — seek validation from those authors I deeply admired and wanted to call my peers.

In the early years I mostly blogged about Apple, but I also tried to touch on several subjects I’ve always been interested in. It was a fun period, as I tried my best to balance it with the typical responsibilities of an adult. There were stretches in there when I was more successful at doing that, and others when I just couldn’t find the energy or the time to write, but for the most part, it was a healthy hobby, and it never ceased to be fun.

Back in 2014, though, I decided to make a pretty drastic change. I was less than happy at my job, and I knew I wanted to write Analog Senses full time, so I made a two-year plan to build it into a sustainable business. To this day, it remains the scariest decision I’ve ever made, but I’m so glad I made it.

If I hadn’t taken that leap of faith, I never would have worked up the courage to email Shawn Blanc and point-blank ask him for a job writing for Tools & Toys. Thankfully I did, and he graciously gave me the opportunity to write for a wider audience and actually get paid for it. It was a game-changing moment for me, and I remain incredibly thankful, and proud of the work I did over the next few years. That work not only allowed me to put my name out there for more people to notice, it also made it possible for me to continue working on building an audience for Analog Senses.

Those were probably the most creatively fulfilling years of my life, and I’m quite proud to say that, for a little while, I was out there blogging with the best of them. However, the reason I’m so glad I took that leap of faith has little to do with the work itself. It’s all about the people I got to meet along the way.

You see, if I hadn’t sent that email to Shawn I probably never would have become friends with Josh, and never would have even met Marius. Candid never would have existed and, by extension, none of us would have met Thomas. These are three of the most important people in the world to me, and even now, years later, I talk to them every single day. They’ve become part of my family, and I wouldn’t change that for anything.

As for my plans to become a full-time indie blogger, well, let’s just say reality got in the way.

After three years writing Analog Senses full time, I realized the landscape was changing dramatically, and not for the better. Indie blogs were closing up shop left and right, and it soon became apparent that the Internet was shifting towards a different paradigm. YouTube was quickly growing into the monster-sized platform it is today, Google effectively drove a knife through the blogosphere’s heart when they decided to discontinue Google Reader, and the unstoppable rise of podcasting and mobile streaming enabled people to start consuming their content in video and audio form, instead of long-form written articles. In fact, the primary way written articles survive today is through big, privately funded companies like The Verge. And even those publications are quickly ramping up their video production efforts. They know where the eyeballs are.

As a long-time lover and advocate for the indie blog, this was disheartening to see. It was also a tough period because, even though I had achieved a certain level of economic success with Analog Senses, I still wasn’t able to support myself solely from it. And after three years of economic uncertainty and stressing about my future, I was exhausted and creatively drained.

So, after much pondering, in early 2017 I decided to make another drastic change and took up a different job, in which I happily remain today. When I took this new job, my plan was to find a healthy balance between it and Analog Senses, but in the past year or so that has proven to be more difficult than I initially thought. Hence, the lack of posting around here lately.

I do want to make it clear that I don’t see this as a defeat. I’m happy I made the choice to try this in 2014, and I’m not making excuses for my lack of success. I’m sure there are many other writers out there that decided to stick to their guns and were successful in doing so. I just wasn’t one of them. I was able to give it my best shot, and eventually I decided to quit on my own terms. That’s all any author can ever ask for.

When I started Analog Senses, I had a clear vision for what it should be: a site about the human side of technology. I’ve always felt technology has an unmatched potential to improve human life, but it requires us to be mindful of its potential dangers. Technology should be a tool through which we can better our lives, not merely a source of endless distraction. I’ve always tried to reflect about the struggle of existing as an analog being in an increasingly digital world, because I think it’s an important one. Whether I’ve been successful at that particular goal, dear reader, I leave for you to decide.

One thing is clear, though: ten years on, that same struggle lives on. It is, in fact, even more troubling than it’s ever been. Which is why, for as long as I’m around, Analog Senses will continue to exist, in one form or another.

I will say, however, that I’ve been having a hard time switching back to thinking about Analog Senses as a hobby. Because of my past efforts, I feel a sense of responsibility towards my readers, if they are even still out there. That makes me hesitate before posting a silly article about whatever may be crossing my mind. I want to maintain the standards I set for myself a few years ago, and so I feel that if I’m not adding value to the conversation, I may as well not say anything. That’s a noble goal, but it sucks all the fun out of writing.

If I want Analog Senses to continue being a part of my life for another ten years — and I very much do — I need to break away from those self-imposed handcuffs and just allow myself to write more freely. If, as a reader, you decide to stick with me for that new journey, I’m afraid I can’t promise you frequent updates, or long-form reviews. But I can promise you what I’ve always tried to give you: my deepest gratitude, and my utmost respect. And perhaps a few silly jokes. Because we could always use a few more of those.

The blog is dead. Long live the blog.

See you around, and thank you for reading.

♤ ♧ ♡ ♢

Putting B&O Play’s first crack at wireless noise cancelling headphones to the test

March 05, 2018

It’s a great time to be in the market for a pair of wireless, noise cancelling headphones. They’re a popular – and therefore, increasingly crowded – product category, and with good reason: from frequent flyers to casual dog-walkers, it seems like everyone has an excuse to use one of these.

Thanks to the increased public interest in the space in recent years, the pace of innovation in the industry has skyrocketed, and table stakes have been raised accordingly. The days when mediocre sound quality was an acceptable compromise for wireless headphones to make are long gone – and good riddance.

These days, even great sound quality doesn’t cut it anymore. In a world of low-cost air travel, smart voice assistants, and music streaming services, there are several key features any serious contender must offer. These include, in no particular order:

  • Over-ear design that is comfortable to wear for long periods at a time.
  • Rock-solid Bluetooth connection with support for the latest audio codecs.
  • All-day battery life.
  • Active noise cancellation.
  • Built-in microphones to make and receive phone calls.
  • A companion smartphone app that allows you to fine-tune the sound profile and the noise cancelling response.

The Beoplay H9 are B&O Play’s first effort at creating a no-compromise pair of full-featured, wireless, noise-cancelling headphones. They’re not perfect, but I’m happy to say they deliver the goods where it matters most.1

Let’s take a closer look at them.

Build quality and features

B&O Play’s products are well known for their impeccable Scandinavian design and high-quality materials, and the Beoplay H9 are no exception. Every element of the design has been carefully considered, and this thoughtful approach is immediately apparent upon picking them up.

The H9 are hefty by today’s standards, even among wireless headphones, but every bit of extra weight serves only to produce an even greater impression of quality. They’re not actually heavy by any means; instead, they just feel solid, and supremely well built. I only wish all headphones were made to these standards.

The H9 come in your choice of Black or Natural leather (as reviewed), and both colors are equally gorgeous to look at. The headband is made of anodized aluminum, and covered by a stitched leather band at the top with more than enough padding at the bottom. For those concerned about long-term listening comfort, I never experienced any sore spots at the top of my head while wearing these headphones.

The earpads, unlike most other wireless headphones out there, are also made of actual leather and filled with memory foam. As for what type of leather this is, B&O Play says it’s lambskin, but it may just as well have been sunshine and rainbows. It feels amazing.

It’s worth pointing out that real leather does require some time to soften up and adapt to the contours of your head. As a result, the Beoplay H9 won’t be as comfortable out of the box as other headphones, and will require a break-in period before feeling great.

My only ergonomic complaint about the H9 is that the earpads are a bit too thick and have a rather large resting surface on your head. This may cause slight to moderate overheating after a while, especially if your environment is already warm. That small quibble aside, the H9 are so comfortable they feel like wearing the world’s most luxurious earmuffs.

In terms of their Bluetooth connectivity, the Beoplay H9 are… complicated. I didn’t encounter any issues in my normal use: initial pairing with my iPhone 6S was not as seamless as I would have wanted – the H9 lack Apple’s custom W1 chip – but once the link was established the connection always proved stable and there were no dropouts. Once paired, the H9 would quickly reconnect to the phone upon being turned on. So far so good.

The main problem is the fact that the H9 don’t support multi-device pairing, so you’ll need to manually re-pair them every time you want to switch devices. It’s a big problem, and if you use your headphones with several devices every day, it may even be a deal breaker. Multi-device pairing has been a thing for a long time, and it’s baffling to me that the H9 don’t support it.2

I also encountered several issues while attempting to update the firmware with the Beoplay app. The update process became stuck at about 95% of the way through, and I needed to try again a few times until it finally worked. Not ideal, but it’ll do. I very much appreciate the kind of future-proofing that upgradeable firmware brings, so I’ll live with the occasional hiccups if that’s what it takes.

Phone calls are pretty good, with clear sound coming through without any dropouts or noticeable audio artifacts. At the other end, people reported hearing me very clearly as well, which was reassuring. However, the unreliable touch controls on the H9’s right earcup meant I often found myself grabbing the phone from my pocket in order to pick up and/or reject calls instead of using the headphones. This wasn’t bad enough to defeat the purpose, as I still used the headphones during the actual call, but it was close. The unreliability of the H9’s touch controls is by far my biggest complaint about these headphones – but more on that later.

Battery life is adequate, although this area has seen much improvement in the industry recent years. The Beoplay H9 are rated for 14h of playback with noise cancelling turned on, and I consistently managed to meet or exceed those numbers in my own testing. That’s long enough to keep them going for all but the longest intercontinental flights; unless you’re flying from Sydney to Los Angeles every week, you’ll be fine. And even if you do run out of juice, the Beoplay H9 still have a couple tricks up their sleeve.

The first of those tricks is that you can plug in the included audio cable and continue using the H9 passively, which is a nice touch.3 However, the really great trick is hidden inside the left earcup. The H9’s battery is user replaceable, and can be swapped in just a few seconds. That means you can extend battery life to a much more impressive 28h simply by carrying a spare battery with you on the longest trips, but it also means the H9 are decidedly future-proof. Indeed, being able to replace an ageing battery for a fresh new one after a couple of years of daily use is a very welcome feature, and one I’d love to see all manufacturers adopt.

Having said that, the one thing that bothered me about the H9’s battery life is the fact that they charge via Micro USB. It’s admittedly nitpicking, but for such a high-end product I really would have wanted a USB-C port instead.4

Noise cancelling is a bit of a mixed bag with the H9. While turning it on produced a noticeable reduction in ambient noise during my commute or at the office, they weren’t quite as effective as the market leaders in this category. Both the Bose Quietcomfort 35 II and the Sony WH-1000XM2 will be able to block out significantly more of the outside world, but the Beoplay H9’s showing here was still good.

On the plus side, noise cancelling didn’t have any noticeable impact on audio quality, at least as far as I could tell. Many other headphones, even high-end ones like the Bowers & Wilkins PX, suffer from a noticeable decrease in audio fidelity with ANC on, so it’s impressive to see B&O Play getting this right on their first attempt.

Overall, the Beoplay H9’s ANC isn’t bad, by any means; it’s just gentler than what you can find elsewhere. 5

Sound quality

Here’s where things get serious. After all, who wants to buy a pair of $500 headphones that don’t sound so good?

Fortunately, the Beoplay H9 have a very pleasing sound signature, with good separation and an impressively wide stereo image for a pair of closed-back headphones. Better yet, they make most of what you throw at them sound fun. It’s what B&O Play calls “Signature Sound”.

In English, that means the sonic profile of the H9 was designed to be flattering to the types of music people listen to these days. Electronic music, pop, hip hop, funk, and even jazz all sound pretty great on the H9. Generally speaking, anything with a healthy dose of bass and not too much detail in the highs will be helped by the H9’s subtle acoustic massaging. If you plan on listening to Beats 1 radio all day with these headphones, you will be extremely pleased with their performance.

Similarly, flat recordings that would normally sound boring and underwhelming when listened to on accurate equipment – like studio monitors – will be emphasized just a little bit in all the right places to sound more appealing on the H9. However you may feel about the importance of audio fidelity, there’s no denying B&O Play’s engineers have enough psychoacoustics tricks up their sleeve to keep people engaged in casual listening for hours.

Truth be told, audio fidelity – by which I mean “the degree to which audio equipment reveals the true nature of a recording” – is simply not a critical design priority for this type of headphones. You just can’t have it both ways: you either optimize for accuracy and fidelity at the expense of excitement – which is why most people actually dislike listening to music on studio monitors – or you optimize for casual listening at the expense of fidelity.

The problem is, accurate equipment only allows you to discern those fine details when listening in extremely controlled and sound-proof environments, like a production studio. As soon as you step out into the real world and get surrounded by all sorts of rumblings, those details get completely lost. However, by applying some clever tweaks to the headphones’ sound profile you can get them to sound pretty great – if not accurate – in a much wider array of environments.

It’s clear which way B&O Play went with for the H9, and though I’m sure some people would have preferred these to be more accurate, it’s hard to say they made the wrong choice.

The main thing to remember is that wireless, noise-cancelling headphones are designed for real world use first. That means listening to music in busy environments, surrounded by all kinds of noise. It also means you’ll probably be distracted by something else and not devoting your full attention to the listening experience. None of those circumstances are conducive to appreciating the fine details that only accurate equipment is capable of rendering.

Overall, I found the H9’s sound quality to be on the upper end of the wireless, noise-cancelling headphone range. They’re clearly better than the Bose QC35 II and almost as good as the Sony 1000XM2, but they don’t quite reach the highs of the Bowers & Wilkins PX. In the right conditions, those headphones just sound a little better – if by better you mean more accurate – because they’re less concerned about massaging the sound and more about letting its original character come through.

However, the Beoplay H9 definitely hold their own in practical, real-world use. Flat recordings or poorly produced tracks, for example, can sound slightly boring and unappealing on the PX, which is the price to pay for their superior clarity. This is where letting talented audio engineers work their magic pays off, and I’m willing to bet many people out there would actually prefer the H9’s sound signature over that of the PX.

The Beoplay H9 are supported by the companion Beoplay app, just like all of the company’s products. The app offers a very clean design, with a streamlined interface that makes it easy to toggle the ANC function and tweak the H9’s sound profile to better suit your musical taste.

Speaking of altering the sound profile, the Beoplay app offers what is easily the most user-friendly audio equalizer I’ve ever seen, which is great, because the H9 respond very well to subtle EQ tweaks. Like most truly great designs, it’s so simple and intuitive that explaining how it works is actually harder than using it. Alas, it is my job as a reviewer to try, so I’ll do my best.

The equalizer’s interface consists of a two-dimensional graph representing the headphones’ sound stage. On each corner there’s a word indicating a different sonic trait: warm, bright, relaxed, and excited. At the center, a small circle represents the H9’s default sound profile. The way users can alter the sound is by dragging the circle closer to the aspect they wish to emphasize in the H9’s presentation.

Since the traits on opposing corners are opposite, the whole process is intuitive. If you, for example, drag the circle closer to “warm”, you’re effectively taking it farther away from “bright” at the same time, which produces the expected result: it enhances the bass response, while at the same time softening the treble. Clever.

Another nifty feature hidden in the EQ is that you can pinch with two fingers to make the circle bigger or smaller. Make it bigger and the soundstage becomes wider. Make it smaller and… well, you can probably guess the result, which is the whole point.

Overall, it’s a really clever design, but what’s particularly great about it is that it actively encourages experimentation, which is essential in order to get the best audio experience out of the H9. Spend a few minutes playing with the app’s equalizer and you’ll soon arrive at a sonic profile you find pleasing, and well-suited to your taste. Once configured, the headphones will remember the settings even if you pair them to another device, which comes in handy if you want to use them with a device for which no Beoplay app is available.

Of course, there are some limits to the kind of performance you can get out of the H9, even when leveraging all of the EQ options available in the Beoplay app. If you want a pair of exquisitely neutral-sounding, audiophile-friendly headphones, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Similarly, if you love fine treble detail, other headphones may be better suited to your particular taste. It’s not that the H9 can’t provide treble detail – they can – it’s just not very balanced and easily muffled by the rest of the presentation, especially when listening to well-recorded, well-produced music. Unfortunately, the same audio processing techniques that help make poor recordings more palatable also result in a noticeable loss of treble detail that is most noticeable when playing properly produced tracks.

Finally, the Beoplay H9 can also be used passively with the included 3.5mm jack cable, although I wouldn’t recommend doing that on a regular basis. Keep in mind that by using them this way you’re giving up all of the signal processing and audio enhancements these headphones do behind the scenes. As a result, you should expect audio quality to degrade noticeably. And of course, you also lose access to noise cancelling, to the equalizer in the Beoplay app, and to the touch controls on the right earcup – although maybe that’s a good thing. Clearly, the H9 were designed to be used primarily wirelessly. It is neat that the cable option is there in case you ever need it, though.

Overall, when it comes to sound quality, the Beoplay H9 make a perfectly reasonable set of compromises for a pair of wireless, noise-cancelling headphones. Just go in knowing what to expect: these are not audiophile-grade headphones, but they sound great in the kind of listening conditions you’re most likely to encounter in the real world. That’s certainly good enough for me.

Real world use

Let’s start by giving credit where credit is due: the Beoplay H9 manage to deliver the goods on several key areas, like comfort, battery life, build quality, and sound quality – as long as your expectations are reasonable. If you want a pair of versatile, stylish headphones to be your daily companion, the H9 will more than be up to the task, provided you can live with their quirks.

The lack of USB-C is low-hanging fruit and too easy to pick on, so let’s not dwell on that. The H9’s biggest quirks have to do with their user interface, and specifically the touch-sensitive controls on the right earcup. While touch-based controls may look modern on paper, they proved too unreliable in my own testing, with frequent errors that significantly detracted from my enjoyment of the product. On top of that, if you live in a cold place and expect to be able to operate these controls while wearing gloves, well… good luck with that.

Now, as frustrating as the controls were, I still believe they were a good, innovative idea, if only it had been executed properly. Touch controls are a bit like the Force that way: you either do them right, or not at all. There is no try.

To be fair, you don’t technically need to use the touch controls. All of the H9’s functionality can be accessed via the built-in media controls on iOS and Android, as well as through the native Beoplay app. It’s just that, for a product in this price range, having a complete set of solid, reliable physical controls is definitely a must.6

The rest of the H9’s user experience was a lot better. Auto-pairing worked reliably and signal strength was never a problem. I never encountered any dropouts or lag when watching video, and the headphones were always quick to respond to any tweaks I made in the Beoplay app.

There’s something about Beoplay products in general – and the H9 in particular – that appeals to me at a very deep and personal level. They sure know how to tick all the right boxes, including the materials, the built quality, and the overall look and feel. Even the Beoplay app is head and shoulders above what we typically see from other manufacturers. This is a product created by a design-conscious brand at the top of their game, and it shows.

Room for improvement

The Beoplay H9 offer a comprehensive set of features that should be enough to satisfy most users, but they also forego a few nice-to-have features typically found in other high-end wireless headphones. These include:

  • A folding design that’s easy to fit into a travel bag. The H9 only fold flat by rotating the eacups inwards, but they’re still significantly bulkier than other models in this category.

  • A solid hard case for safe transportation. This is especially important when traveling, which should be a primary use case for this type of headphones.

  • Some sort of “transparency” mode that will turn noise cancelling off and use the built-in microphones to allow you to hear your surroundings. This handy feature lets you talk to flight attendants without removing your headphones, for example.7

  • Smart sensors that detect when you remove the headphones and automatically pause your music, as well as automatically resume it when you put them back on in order to save battery life (and for added convenience).8

  • Finally, USB-C connectivity and multi-device Bluetooth pairing are perhaps the two features most sorely lacking in the Beoplay H9.9

Conclusion

Maybe I’m grading on a curve here, but B&O Play’s original vision for what the H9 represent was so ambitious that I’m more than willing to cut them some slack for not nailing the execution. On paper, these are near perfect lifestyle headphones: exquisite design, superb build quality, a well-rounded and versatile sonic profile, and a comprehensive set of features. What more is there to ask for?

However, the reality of living with the H9 on a daily basis isn’t quite perfect yet. At an original MSRP of $499 they’re undeniably expensive for what they offer, especially considering their competition. On top of that, both the unreliable physical controls and the lack of multi-device pairing end up detracting a bit from what would otherwise have been a pretty solid package.10

Having said that, I think it’s important to end this review on a high note. In such a rapidly evolving industry, the Beoplay H9 are a valiant first attempt at creating the ultimate set of wireless headphones. They may not be perfect, but they’re still pretty darn nice. Moreover, nearly all of my complaints about the H9 have already been addressed by B&O Play in the H9i, which means the company is listening to customer feedback and aggressively acting on it. That’s enough to make me very excited about the future of the industry, and B&O Play’s role in shaping it.

More like this, please.


  1. As of February 2018, the Beoplay H9 have been replaced atop B&O Play’s lineup by the newly-announced Beoplay H9i, which offer a slightly improved bass response among several other refinements. That being said, the original H9 still pack enough of a punch to be worthy of your consideration, and may even turn out to be the smarter buy for some people. Especially if you can find them at a discounted price.

  2. For what it’s worth, the new Beoplay H9i do support multi-device pairing with up to two devices, so at least this appears to be a solved problem going forward.

  3. If your smartphone doesn’t have a 3.5mm jack input, you may want to buy an adapter, just in case. They’re cheap and tiny, and very easy to throw into any bag alongside the H9’s own audio cable.

  4. Both the Bowers & Wilkins PX and the new Beoplay H9i include a USB-C charging port, in case you’re particularly nitpicky about this stuff.

  5. Noise cancelling is another area that received an update in the H9i, although in my limited testing it seems like B&O Play may have overcompensated a bit. Testing the H9i in an official Bang & Olufsen store, I experienced truly excellent noise cancelling, but the headphones created a very uncomfortable air pressure buildup on my eardrums that had me feeling dizzy within 15 minutes. If you’re sensitive to this, you may be better served by the H9’s gentler approach.

  6. The same touch controls are still present on the new Beoplay H9i, although it’s possible they may have been improved. I still haven’t used the H9i long enough to know for sure.

  7. A transparency mode has been included in the new Beoplay H9i, although it’s toggled via the same finicky touch controls. This strikes me as a poor decision, because transparency is the kind of feature you want to be able to toggle as quickly and reliably as possible.

  8. Also added in the Beoplay H9i.

  9. Also added in the Beoplay H9i.

  10. Now that the Beoplay H9i are out, you may be able to find the original H9 at a significantly discounted price. If you can save $100 or more I wouldn’t hesitate to pick these up instead of the newer model.

♤ ♧ ♡ ♢
♤ ♧ ♡ ♢
♤ ♧ ♡ ♢

Candid, episode #54: Mint in Box →

December 03, 2017 |

In this episode, we address some listener feedback before talking about our experiences and recommendations for dealing with eBay and other used markets for buying and selling.

♤ ♧ ♡ ♢
♤ ♧ ♡ ♢

Candid, Episode #52: Behind the Shot →

November 03, 2017 |

In an experimental new segment, we choose an image from each others’ recent work and try to dissect the story and technique that went into realizing it. It was fun.

♤ ♧ ♡ ♢

Candid, Episode #51: Try to look untasty →

October 25, 2017 |

Marius returns from Africa bringing photos and stories. We talk about the experiences, and—of course—the gear. Olympus and Fujifilm are compared, the struggles of cultural photography are explored, and close encounters are described.

♤ ♧ ♡ ♢

Here’s what Canon doesn’t want you to know about their latest compact camera.

October 16, 2017

You’ve probably already heard but, earlier today, Canon announced their new PowerShot G1 X Mark III, their first compact camera with an APS-C sensor.

What you may not have heard, however, is how this unlikely camera came to be. It’s a very interesting story, and there are some important lessons to be learned here. That’s why I’ve decided to come forward and publish this article, even at the risk of burning a very well-placed source inside Canon USA. I’m sorry but I can’t stay silent; people need to know about this.

According to my source, exactly six months ago there was a very important executive meeting at One Canon Park, the company’s operational headquarters in Melville, NY. All the top brass from both Canon USA and Canon Japan were there, and the urgency of the meeting had been expressed in no uncertain terms. What follows is a word-for-word transcript of that meeting as recorded by my source, who personally attended it. I’ve merely redacted the real names of the people involved in order to preserve their privacy.

EXECUTIVE 1: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very serious situation. It’s recently come to our attention that a majority of customers don’t perceive Canon as an innovative company anymore. Now, according to our internal figures, C-Sat is still pretty good across the board for high-end products like the 5D Mark IV, but we can’t ignore the fact that those numbers are somewhat skewed by our long-term customers, whose loyalty remains strong. And let’s be honest, we can’t depend on those customers forever. Furthermore, we’re taking a huge beating in the mirrorless segment, where our latest products have gotten generally lukewarm reviews, to put it mildly. Obviously, we can’t have that. We need to rectify this ASAP, which is why we’re all here today. Any ideas?”

SENIOR PRODUCT ENGINEER: [raises hand nervously] “I, uhm, I have one.”

E1: “Really? You again, Bob? Is this going to be like that time you suggested we put IBIS in the 5D? Because I ain’t got time for that shit.”

BOB: “No, sir. This is different, I promise.”

E1: “OK. Let’s hear it.”

BOB: “Well, who’s more innovative than us?”

E1: “Everyone. Haven’t you been paying attention? That’s why we’re in this goddamned meeting.”

BOB: “Yes, but who’s being successful with a product we can easily copy?”

E1: [sighs in frustration] “I don’t know, Bob. Why don’t you tell us?”

BOB: “Fuji.”

E1: “Seriously? Fuji? Those fuckers can’t even spell “mirror”, and you’re telling me we should copy them?”

BOB: ”Be that as it may, they’re having a lot of success with the X100F. It’s crazy popular, basically backordered everywhere. More importantly, people are loving it. We should do one just like it.”

E1: “Keep going…”

BOB: “Well, it’s a simple concept, really. It’s like a compact camera but it has a big sensor inside.”

E1: “How big?”

BOB: “APS-C.”

E1: “APS-C, huh? Couldn’t we just slap on one of the sensors we’re already using? Like the one on the 80D?”

BOB: “Pretty much.”

E1: “Interesting… I like it. Alright, it’s settled, then! We’re doing one of those.”

BOB: “There’s just one problem.”

E1: [sighs again] “Of course there is. What is it, now?”

BOB: “The X100F is a hipster camera.”

E1: “What the hell is a hipster camera?”

BOB: “Well, it’s a rangefinder and it has a fixed lens.”

E1: “What do you mean, a fixed lens?”

BOB: “You can’t zoom with it.”

E1: “WHAT?? You can’t zoom? And people are still buying it? Why in god’s name would anyone buy something like that?”

BOB: “Beats the hell out of me.”

E1: “Never mind. I know what we’re going to do. We’ll make a camera just like that, but none of that rangefinder crap. We’ll put a good ol’ fashioned viewfinder inside, and we’ll put a goddamned zoom in, too. It’ll be great. People will go nuts.”

BOB: “Yes, sir. Do you want the viewfinder to be optical or electronic?”

E1: “What does the Fuji have?”

BOB: “Both.”

E1: “Alright. Let’s do both, then.”

BOB: “We can’t.”

E1: “Why not?”

BOB: “Because it would have to be a rangefinder.”

E1: “Son of a bitch.”

BOB: “We can do a tilting screen, though!”

E1: “Does the Fuji have that?”

BOB: “No, it doesn’t.”

E1: “Then you bet your ass we’re doing a tilting screen.”

BOB: “Should we make it a touchscreen, too?”

E1: [sighs again, nervously tapping on desk] “Bob, we’ve been over this. Touchscreens are for amateurs. Is Canon an amateur brand?”

BOB: “Uhm…”

E1: “IS CANON AN AMATEUR BRAND, BOB??”

BOB: “No, but…”

E1: “But what??”

BOB: “The Fuji doesn’t have a touchscreen.”

E1: “Oh, crap. That changes things. OK, you can have your fucking touchscreen. What else is there?”

BOB: “Price.”

E1: “What does the Fuji cost?”

BOB: “$1,299”

E1: “WHAT?? Thirteen grand for a motherfucking fixed lens camera? God, how many suckers are out there??”

BOB: “A lot, apparently.”

E1: “Well, let’s price-match those bastards. We’re a lot bigger than Fuji, with our scale we should be able to afford it, right?”

BOB: “Yes, we can probably hit $1,299, all things considered.”

E1: “Excellent. Now we’re talking. See, people? This is why we earn the big bucks. Alright, how about we put in the new sensor we’ve been testing? You know, the one with the much better dynamic range? Does the budget allow for that?”

BOB: “I think so, but it’ll be close.”

E1: “Never mind, there’s lots of great stuff in there already. We’ll leave that for the next version. Great job, everyone! Meeting adjourned!” [high fives all around]

♤ ♧ ♡ ♢