Friends have often expressed surprise at the fact that I continue to use wired headphones. My beautifully-portable and much-loved Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones go with me almost everywhere, while my Master & Dynamic MH40s are my go-to headphones in the living room.
Friends know my aversion to visible cables, and I’m usually an ‘any excuse for a gadget’ type guy, so why, they ask, do I continue to wear wired headphones? There have been a couple of reasons for that. First, the ‘yet another device to charge’ factor – to add to my Macs, iPad, iPhone, bike cam, GPS and now Apple Watch.
Second, the sound quality of Bluetooth headphones hasn’t compared well to wired ones in my experience. I’ve tried a bunch of Bluetooth headphones in the store, but none persuaded me. However, designing with wood and leather is always a good way to catch my attention, so I thought I’d try House of Marley’s Liberate XLBT over-ear headphones …
House of Marley says that the company is founded on three principles: high-quality products, environmental friendliness and supporting 1Love, the charity created by Bob Marley’s family. The ‘earth-friendly’ approach is reflected in the choice of materials for the Liberate XLBT.
Every piece of wood used in a Marley product is certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). This governing body assures that the wood comes from a forest that is replenished making the material truly renewable and sustainable.
Recyclable aluminum is used in place of plastic in many components. This provides superior durability and reliability as well as giving our products a more robust and solid design aesthetic. In parts where plastic must be used, we incorporate the highest possible percentage of recycled material.
Packaging is also made from recycled materials, and is itself recyclable.
Look & feel
The look is hard to describe. Marley describes it as “a blend of high-tech and friend to the Earth design.” I’d go with ‘half rustic, half industrial.’ It’s an unusual look, but it works: this is an attractive set of headphones. They look and feel like a premium product with one exception: the plastic buttons. These have a cheaper feel to them. Not a deal-breaker, but metal would have been nice and wood would be lovely.
The headphones feel light and are comfortable to wear. As is often the case with headphones, they started out a little tight, and I had to stretch the band a little before they felt completely comfortable, but this done, the soft leather earcups remained comfortable even when worn for several hours at a time.
They do fold for easier packing into bags, but the cups don’t twist 90 degrees, meaning that they sit just under your jawbone when worn around your neck when not in use. It’s not uncomfortable, but it is slightly awkward.
Pairing was painless both to my iPhone and Apple Watch, requiring no PIN. Hold down the multifunction play/pause/phone/pairing button for three seconds and they go into pairing discovery mode. Once connected, they automatically pair with the same device next time you switch them on.
They can only be paired to one device at a time: pairing them to a second device disconnects them from the first.
All the controls are on the right cup, with six separate plastic buttons.
I’m used to wired headphones with the standard single multi-function button, so I thought getting used to multiple buttons that I couldn’t see might be difficult, but it in fact proved to be really easy to get used to them. If I put my second finger on the base of the headband (a very natural thing to do), my index finger falls naturally onto the volume-up button. From there, volume-down and track controls are easy to find by feel.
Play/pause is also easy to find by feel, the power button less so, but you don’t really need that while wearing the headphones.
Having another gadget to charge was one of the reasons I’ve so far avoided wireless headphones, and I was slightly concerned that Marley’s website doesn’t have a stated battery-life, but I needn’t have worried. Real-life battery-life proved to be around 19 hours, which would be several days use for me. Charging is via an exposed (though recessed) microUSB port, with cable provided.
Several days of typical use is where the balance of the convenience of wirelessness versus the hassle of charging starts to reach an equilibrium point for me. I’d consider this objection more-or-less overcome.
Marley does supply a tangle-free cable in the box, so you have the option of wired use. The headphones work with the cable even when the battery is dead. The cable has a single multi-function button that works in the standard iOS way. My only complaint here is that the plug can be slightly hard to pull out of the headphones.
You might wonder why I’ve left the most important category – sound quality – to last. That’s because, while there’s a subjectiveness to many elements of a review (looks especially), this is never more true than when it comes to sound quality.
We each have ears that can and can’t detect particular differences, and we each have our own tastes when it comes to the type of sound we like. One person may like Beats-style booming bass, another a more balanced sound while another person may be satisfied with nothing less than true reference cans.
I’ve often said I’m grateful that my ears don’t go above Bang & Olufsen/Bowers & Wilkins levels. To me, those are the standards against which I judge other audio kit. I have audiophile friends who spend truly frightening sums on both their kit and their listening rooms, and my credit card is extremely glad my ears aren’t that good.
Disclaimers disclaimed, I would describe the sound quality as commensurate with the price. At $150, it’s not fair to expect them to compete with B+W or B&O, and they don’t.
For my personal tastes, the bass is too heavy – but that’s part of what the brand is known for. It’s not completely crazy Beats levels of bass, just noticeably bass-biased. Treble also sounds a little muddy. My overall impression, despite adequate volume, is an ever so slightly muffled feel to the sound.
There was normally no radio interference at all, but there were two occasions where I experienced brief fade-outs lasting a second or two. This, I think, is largely unavoidable with Bluetooth devices.
These headphones are not going to replace either my P5s or MH-40s – but neither did I expect them to.
Having listened through them both at home and on the move, I would say that their audio shortcomings rule them out for home use, where I tend to be focused on the music I’m listening to. On the move, however, where music is providing background while competing with such things as not walking in front of a bus or missing your flight, their limitations were far less obvious. And for audiobooks and phone calls, I had no complaints at all.
If I were to rate the sound quality on a scale of 1 to 10, with Apple Earpods at 1 and Bowers & Wilkins P5s at 10, I’d give these a 6. So I’d say you’re getting what you pay for. For $150, you’re getting decent looks, comfortable wear, the convenience of wirelessness – and sound quality which is well above budget level while stopping short of what I’d consider true hifi level.