Music is one of those great things that you live for, which is already more than I can say about life itself sometimes. As someone who is personally more attuned with introversion, it has been an invaluable part of my life, letting me cope with the white noise of everyday routine and making the silence of crowds more palatable for my ears. In the age of modernity, it is no longer a question of accessing music, but of how to best consume it—how do we make music a part of our everyday lives with the best experience possible?
Answering this question really boils down to what we use to listen to music; I want to listen to the songs I love in a way that encapsulates and integrates style, comfort, convenience and quality into my life. It was therefore with much joy and excitement when I heard that I would be given a chance to review the latest flagship headphones that Bang & Olufsen had to offer— the Beoplay H8i and H9i. Thanks to the kind folks at Bang & Olufsen, I was able to enjoy the use of these beauties and really look at how well they were able to enhance and integrate my enjoyment of music into my daily life.
From the get-go, both the H8i and H9i grab your attention with their sleek outlook and chic, minimalist designs. Incorporating anodised aluminium, lambskin and cowhide leather into their design, the H8i and H9i are visually stunning and serve as versatile accessories that can really help to anchor your fashion style, whether it’s just elevating your casual attire, or giving your planned outfit a great touch. Both sets are available in black and beige white, but I preferred the black H8i over the beige white H9i, simply based on aesthetic considerations—my love for the gothic just makes me gravitate to black in general.
The great craftsmanship and the high quality of the materials used are obvious at the point of touch — the lambskin and cowhide, in particular, made for a very comfortable user experience. If you’ve used headphones before, you’d be familiar with the discomfort that typically comes with some headphones after a period of prolonged usage; your ears start to hurt and the weight of the cans bear down on your scalp, giving you a headache after taking them off. Weighing in at 215g and 285g respectively, the H8i and H9i sidestep these issues through their lightweight design. The lambskin was comfortable enough on my ears that it felt very natural and easy to use them; there were moments when I forgot I was even wearing headphones at all, which is a testament to the design sensibilities that went into their making. Jakob Wagner truly does deserve recognition for his design concepts and philosophy.
It should be noted, however, that the H8i at 180mm x 186mm x 51mm, is somewhat smaller than the H9i at 195 mm x 200 mm x 52 mm. Thus between the two, the latter was better at covering my ears entirely – The H8i got me feeling some discomfort after a period of usage as compared to the H9i. In view of this physical difference, the H9i may be better suited for individuals with larger head circumferences or larger ears, while the H8i would work well for those with a more petite headframe or preference for a smaller headphone.
User Experience & Convenience
Most of the time, it can be quite a hassle for the average person to listen to music through normal earpieces— either the wires become a nightmare to untangle after taking them out of your pockets, or they get caught on something and the earpiece gets tugged off. It can get quite frustrating having to re-plug in your earpiece multiple times in a row after a while. The H8i and H9i alleviate this problem beautifully with their wireless Bluetooth capabilities. All I had to do was to pair them with either my laptop or my phone, and voila – my hands were freed from having to constantly adjust pesky wiring, and I was able to continue enjoying my music even when I was separated from my devices. I could head to the washroom or go refill water without having to interrupt my Spotify jam. Oh, and the Bluetooth connection between the headphones and my smartphone was really solid—I was still able to stream music without a hitch even when I was a few meters away, from my toilet and living room.
For those of you who’d prefer a headphone jack or are prone to situations where Bluetooth can’t be accessed, however, both the H8i and H9i come with a 3.5mm jack audio cable that anticipates this need. It is also notable that the 1.25m USB-A to USB-C cable included them also allows for audio playback; even when the headphones are charging, it’s still possible to use them. The headphones really do pursue their goal of keeping you connected to your music to a logical extreme.
The user interfaces of the H8i and H9i have been emphasised as a key feature since their launch and I got to test and experiment them thoroughly over the course of my time with them. The basic controls for both headphones are similar and become intuitive over time. The H8i is designed with analogue controls, with buttons and switches that require more tactile press than the H9i, which is designed with touch-sensitive controls reminiscent of your usual touchscreen devices. I found that the H8i has a gentler learning curve for its user controls than the H9i. Analogue controls generally do give a greater sense of control and responsiveness as compared to touch-sensitive controls—this holds true for the H8i and the H9i, even beyond the initial learning phase of using the headphones.
The H8i’s analogue controls are much more reliable in the sense that you know for sure when you’ve given the headphones a command: whether you’re trying to pause your music or skip to the next song. With the touch-sensitive controls of the H9i however, it was much harder to be certain whether you were correctly executing the commands, or it was the headphone itself simply taking time to read your touch.
The user experience for both headphones was quite smooth and a pleasure to use when they were working as expected. It was a different story for when reality didn’t quite meet expectations. It wasn’t as frustrating with the H8i when things went south because its user controls are analogue-based; it was easier to troubleshoot any issues and the H8i didn’t have much trouble registering user input most of the time.
The H9i was rather vexing when it didn’t work as expected; the user experience is highly dependent on how responsive the touch responsiveness is, and how difficult it is to master. For the H9i, I found it almost impossible to pause and play music from Spotify on my laptop more often than I would have liked. It was frustrating to keep swiping to end up with a totally different command from what was intended.
While paired through Bluetooth to my phone, however, both the H8i and the H9i were a lot smoother to use although the latter still proved to be significantly more jarring to use because of its finicky touch controls.
Now, The Cool Stuff
Both the H8i and H9i also sport proximity sensors that are able to detect when you take them off or wear them, pausing and playing music or video that you’re watching accordingly. This feature did make it more convenient for me to use them throughout the day; there wasn’t a mad scramble to pause your music whenever you had to take your headphones off to talk to someone. There’s a slight delay between the movement and the moment when the headphones register it, so your music pauses only when it’s certain that you’ve taken the headphones off completely. While it may come across as slightly disruptive to the user experience, it also means that the headphones aren’t overly trigger-happy either, which I can appreciate.
Other than that, both headphones also come with two additional functional modes: Anti-Noise Cancellation (ANC) and Transparency Mode. Accessible through either toggling a switch on the H8i or simply swiping up on the H9i, the ANC Mode for both headphones was quite formidable. There was construction work happening across the road from my house, but right from the very first day I got to use the headphones, I never had my music or TV shows disrupted by the blare again. The noise cancellation was so effective that I could hardly even hear my own voice when I tried to talk to others with ANC enabled. It served me well in crowded areas and let me marinate in my own introvert bubble with my own music, all without getting overwhelmed by the noise of maddening crowds.
In fact, I even got caught off-guard by the sudden magical appearance of food on my table on multiple occasions, before realising that my domestic helper had entered and left my room without my notice. It should be spotlighted as well that the ANC really allowed me to focus deeply on writing my university and scholarship application essays. That being said, should you decide to engage in more private and clandestine activities on incognito mode, it would be advisable for ANC to be turned off – you would really do without nasty surprises for both you and your parents.
As for the Transparency Mode, I thought that it was a nice touch to the user experience that really made sure you didn’t have to take your headphones off unnecessarily. Making use of external microphones on the headphones themselves, it turns off any input from the device your headphones are connected to, and lets you listen to the environment with crystal-clear clarity. In practice, this means that you can carry out conversations with other people quite well without removing your headphones. But more importantly, you’re able to sneakily eavesdrop on conversations if you so wish, since the outside world will just assume you’re listening to music. It also gave me an added sense of safety; you could enable Transparency Mode when navigating heavy traffic or before crossing roads so that your attention isn’t split from the potential road hazards.
The H8i and H9i are also designed to auto-shutdown after 15 minutes of non-usage. This feature helps to conserve battery life throughout the day, and also ensures that forgetful people like me who stay up late and then KO unknowingly don’t end up wasting the battery life of their headphones, because they were too tired to switch them off.
Beyond these smart features, however, the most important thing to consider about headphones is, of course, the quality of sound that it gets you. In this aspect, the H8i and H9i definitely do not disappoint. I was engrossed with the Black Panther soundtracks at the time of reviewing the headphones and was pleased to discover that both headphones carried the haunting voices of The Weeknd and SZA just as well as they channelled the heavy bass beats that Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples rapped to. Watching videos and movies on my laptop was also a treat with the headphones with the headphone sound enhancements available in Windows 10. I really do think that my enjoyment of music was elevated as compared to life before the H8i and H9i; they did justice to my favourite artistes which include Lorde and Bleachers, letting the nuances of their songs come through in clarity.
To further allow you to customise your listening experience, Bang & Olufsen also designed the Beoplay App for smartphones that interfaces with the H8i and H9i over a wireless Bluetooth connection. The app has options for you to alter how your music is played through the headphones, adjusting warmth, brightness, excitement and relaxation according to your personal preferences. I felt that this feature would be a boon for serious audiophiles, eager to exert exacting control over their music. But for the average layperson, it could be a tad too gimmicky and doesn’t really value-add to the listening experience.
The Beoplay App also contains updates for your headphones, downloading new software patches for the H8i and H9i when required. It’s good that this ensures your headphones are up to date and software issues can be addressed, but the updates generally take about half an hour to finish installing, during which your phone has to have the Beoplay app open. This could be a slight annoyance as your phone can’t really be used for anything else during the updating process.
At final evaluation for everyday use, I would say that they definitely surpass the average person’s audio needs. The ANC and Transparency Modes make them great choices for road trips and travelling – letting you chill out without concern for extended periods of times. The flight adaptor and carrying pouch included, let you travel in style and convenience. The H8i and H9i fit nicely in both work and home environments, letting you effectively multitask, especially as the H9i which has dual-device Bluetooth connectivity; you can answer a call from your phone even while listening to music on your laptop.
Overall, the H8i and H9i are solid choices for your next pair of headphones, if you can live with the little caveats. The H9i is honestly cooler with its touch-sensitive controls, but you’d have to be prepared to suffer frustration until you master them adequately. At a reported 30 hours and 18 hours of battery life with Bluetooth and ANC enabled respectively, the H8i and H9i aren’t too shabby that last you through a few days until they require charging again, but lose their wireless connectivity when on low power. The H8i is suitable for those who prefer something smaller, compact and tactile input while the H9i works well for millennials who are more likely to be comfortable with touch-sensitive technology and those with a taste for something more luxe.
At SGD$599 for the H8i and SGD$699 for the H9i, I feel they may be a little too “high SES” for the average person. However, given the multiple smart features, included accessories and design, you aren’t just buying a pair of headphones: you’re diving into a lifestyle philosophy that you desire.
Photos and visuals courtesy of Bang and Olufsen.