Bang & Olufsen's H9s are quite possibly the nicest headphones I've ever used. I think I'm in love. They're however also the most expensive headphones I've ever used, and as such, they're not necessarily the easiest purchase to justify.
What Are They?
The Beoplay H9s are Danish luxury audio manufacturer Bang & Olufsen's first pair of over-ear noise-cancelling headphones. They're wireless, include a 3.5mm cable in the box if you'd prefer to use them wired, and are almost identical to the Beoplay H7s, other than two small microphones used for noise-cancellation. At $499, they're also pretty expensive.
As you'd expect with a pair of $499 headphones, the Beoplay H9s sound amazing. In short, they offer a balanced, warm, detailed sound that isn't quite as bass driven as what you might get from a pair of Bose or Beats. That's not to say bass is missing, just more of a healthy medium between a more sterile studio pair of headphones and big bass alternatives. As a result, you end up with a nuanced profile that helps bring your music to life without compromising a song's mix. For example, the pounding bassline in the Run The Jewels' "Thieves!" packs a visceral punch, without overwhelming the rest of the song.
Densely layered tunes also benefit from the H9s' pristine sound. For example, bright guitar leads comfortably counter-play the heavy metal mayhem of The Ocean's "Let Them Believe". Scum's "I Am Messiah" has vocals mixed lower than the guitar, and while the H9s don't make the vocals more prominent, they still come through clearly, which is something I found other headphones struggled with.
The H9s also work wonders with more mainstream music. The pop perfection of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" sounds big and bold, as you'd expect from an immaculately produced song, while subtler elements - like the guitar riffage in the chorus and bridge - sear through as synth strings glisten over top.
A companion app - available for iOS and Android - lets you tweak the H9s' sound to your preference, but I was happiest with the out of the box sound. At least when it came to my eclectic taste in music.
Bang & Olufsen's audio range is just as much as a fashion statement as it is technology, and the H9s are no exception; they look as good as they sound. Combining aluminium, memory foam, lamb skin and leather, the H9s are pretty dang sexy - especially in argilla and grey - but they're also great in black.
One of my favourite design details is that H9s "arms" - for lack of a better word - extend seamlessly. While you can easily tell if the fit has been adjusted on most other over the ear headphones - often to the detriment of aesthetic - Bang & Olufsen found a way to ensure the H9s look good no matter what size you need them. Obviously fashion is quite personal, but I'd say the H9s are the nicest looking cans on the market.
In addition to looking great, the H9s are comfortable to the point I never want to take them off. They're not too tight, they're reasonably light for on-ear headphones, and I found I could easily wear them for extended periods of time.
In terms of battery life, Bang & Olufsen promises a healthy 14 or so hours with both Bluetooth and noise-cancelling switched on, which I found to be about right. If you're on a super long flight (say, Sydney to Dallas, which is 17 hours), you might run short if you're intent on listening to music the entire time. However, the H9s' battery is removable, so you can always purchase a second if desperately need more listening time.
The H9s recharge over a micro USB connection.
What's Not So Good?
While the H9s are billed as noise-cancelling headphones, the noise-cancellation technology isn't quite on par with the best from Bose. The H9s don't reduce noise quite as much as the Bose QC35s, but they still cut most background noise when you have music playing. At least enough to dull crying babies while on a plane, which is why noise-cancelling was invented in the first place, right?
One positive to the less intense noise-cancelling means wearing the H9s is they don't result in the same pressurized feeling that similar headphones can cause - such as the aforementioned QC35s. While this feeling isn't an issue for everyone, it can cause some users discomfort.
An odd quirk with the noise-cancelling is that it tends to make the sound of your footsteps much more noticeable when walking, to the point where I've had to switch noise-cancelling off when walking to work, for example. In general, it seems the H9s' noise-cancelling functionality is best used when stationary, like at your desk on a train, or on a plane. However, this also tends to be the case with other noise-cancelling headphones I've tested.
The biggest barrier to entry is however the H9s' whooping $499 price-tag. While I'd say it's mostly justified given the sound quality, premium build, and comfort factor, but $499 is nonetheless a hell of a lot of money to drop on a pair of headphones.
While there's a substantial difference between "okay" headphones and "good" headphones, the difference between "good" and "great" becomes increasingly marginal and a matter of preference as you spend more. Don't expect the difference between the $499 H9s and a $299 pair of Bose or Sennheisers to be like night and day, in the same way ditching your included earbuds was.
Despite the premium pricing, there's a few small features you miss out on with the H9s. For one, there's no carry case in the box. You get a small satchel, but nothing like the hard case you get with other cans. Secondly, the H9s aren't quite as portable as other noise-cancelling headphones. While they fold flat, you can't fold them in half, which could be an issue if you're a space conscious traveller.
Given Bang & Olufsen's fashion-friendly approach to the H9s, you shouldn't be surprised to find that there's no noticeable controls other than a power switch and a button to eject the battery. Instead, the right side functions as a sort of touch pad. Swipe up to turn on noise-cancellation, swipe down to turn it off, swift left or right to go between tracks, and draw a circle to adjust volume. While the swiping gestures are fine, adjusting volume can be a bit finicky and inconsistent.
The premium design can also be a bit of a downside; it can almost make taking the H9s outside feel a bit risky. It's hard to tell exactly how well the luxurious leather will hold up if you get caught in a storm, at least, compared to plastic headphones.
Who Are They For?
With Bang & Olufsen's Beoplay H9s, you're not just paying for sound quality, you're paying for the brand name, you're paying for fashion appeal, and you're paying for high-end design. If all you care about sound quality, there's probably more pragmatic ways to spend your money, but if you love the look, the H9s are among the nicest headphones I've used.
What Else Can I Buy?
If noise-cancellation is the main reason you're after a pair of high-end headphones, the Bose QC35s are hard to pass up. The might not be quite as plush or sound quite as nice as the H9s, but they're the best option if you've got the need for silence. The fit is a little tighter, but the QC35s are still a great all-round pair of noise-cancelling cans in terms of both comfort and sound.
Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H6 (Second Generation)
If you like the look of the H9s, but don't want to quite drop $499, the second generation Beoplay H6s are a good bet. They offer similar sound quality, and are based on the same design, but retail for $299 instead. The catch? They're not noise-cancelling, and they're not wireless.
Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2
Plantronics' BackBeat Pro 2 is a full-size pair of over-ear noise-cancelling headphones that retails for just $200. Despite undercutting the competition, the Pro 2s' noise-cancellation is still effective, battery life is strong, and sound is well balanced. The only real issue with them is that they're a bit heavier than the alternatives.