Thursday, January 29, 2015

SOL Republic Tracks Air Headphone Review

I've been searching for a new pair of headphones for awhile. I used to use in-ear headphones, but they always seemed to break, so for the past few months I've been trying to find a good pair of traditional over-the-head headphones. In addition to my trusty Sony NC40s from 2008 (noise cancellation for flights), I recently picked up a Sony ZX set, an AmazonBasics pair, and now a set of SOL Republic Tracks Air. Since these are a bit pricey ($149-ish retail now), I thought I'd give you a review.

Short story: man, these things are nifty. I never knew cutting the cords would be quite this nice. Once upon a time, I worked at a place that sold wireless headphones that had a stand and connected by either infrared beams or low powered analog radio. They sucked. Static, finicky, expensive, and bad battery life. Thankfully, technology today is much different.

These headphones are bluetooth enabled, which means that your music streams wirelessly to the headphones from just about any modern phone or laptop. It's baked in to every smartphone and Connecting the headphones to my laptop was a snap, but even more impressive was setting up the connection on my mobile phone. All I had to do was tap the phone to the right earpiece where the NFC tag is and it just connected. Bluetooth turned on and a moment later, "Connected to TRACKS Air" appears on my screen.

Very slick.

All of the controls are on the right earpiece. Power, volume, and a multifunction button that lets you play/pause/skip tracks. You can also use the headphones as a headset as well: There are microphones built in to either side. The sound quality is pretty good with the microphones. My tests on Skype and on the phone came across clear. If you are a bluetoothless Luddite, the headphones also come with a a set of wires that will let you plug it into a a 3.5mm jack... but if that is your MO, then you can probably save some cash by foregoing all the bluetooth toys and buying a wired set like this.

Another concern you might have is play time, but fear not: A full charge gives up to 13 hours, so you only need to plug them in every other day or so with moderate use. The headphones charge over a standard micro-USB cable. Easy-peasy.

All those toys are nice (very nice), but what about the sound? After all, a wireless pair of headphones that suck still suck. I've been using these things a lot with Spotify at work, and overall I'm very happy with them. On a heavy day, I'll run through a couple hours of music, across a number of different genres.

For modern dance/electronica/trance, these things are great. Avicii, CAZZETTE, Pitbull, Robyn, Empire of the Sun, Deadmau5 (especially Deadmau5) and the like all get a wink and a nod from the engineers. The bass hits nicely and the vocals are clear. Something a little more... northwesty? No problem. Mary Lambert, Deathcab for Cutie, Macklemore, Postal Service, and even Sir Mix all sound great. The 808 kick drum makes people get dumb loud and clear. Luda comes in crisp and clear. Ne-Yo, Junip, Jonsi, alt-J, Two Door Cinema Club, Mumford & Sons, all sound good to me. These are designed and marketed towards a younger audience, so there is a little gaming with the sound going on to make them sound better with what is popular in the 20-30s crowd.

Where I did run into a little trouble came when I was running through my classic Big Band tracks. If there is an album that I have listened to ad nauseam, it is Ella Fitzgerald's Love Songs: Best of the Verve Songbooks. I was my first exposure to Ella and for awhile I listened to it pretty much non-stop. The net result is that even years after retiring the album from my main rotation, I still remember every single word and phrasing on the CD. The boomy profile of the headphones wasn't too well suited to the Big Band sound. Rich bass is good, but I am listening to as I type this "All the Things You Are", and I feel like the bass is getting in the way of some of the other components of the band. The brass isn't as bright I would like be. Listening to some Nate King Cole, it seems like Big Band isn't the best suited for the headset. The sound seems to be better paired to jazz trios, like much of Stan Getz and Carmen McRea.

Overall, the headphones worked well and despite a bump with a specific genre, I really like them. They are a solid performing headset, comfortable for longer periods, pretty sound isolating, and full of tech driven tricks. My next flight is in a couple weeks, so I'll write a follow up after that when I know how well they handle the noisy cabin while inflight and compare them to my active noise cancellation headphones.

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