As 2023 comes to an end, so does my first year at the helm of SoundStage! Solo. OK, technically it’s the end of my first 11 months, but let’s round up. This isn’t exactly a best-of-the-year story. It’s a few standouts from the year, along with a few headphones and gear I keep returning to between reviews. Let’s dive in.
Headphones of the year
Doug and the team have already chosen the Focal Utopia 2022 headphones ($4999, all prices in USD) as a product of the year, but I never got to hear them. Focal’s flagship headphones were the subject of one of Brent Butterworth’s last reviews before I took over Solo. He adored the Utopias, and I’m sad I missed them, because they seem amazing.
Of the headphones I reviewed, my favorites were the Yamaha YH-5000SEs. These are just beautiful machinery. At $4999.95, they’re ruthlessly expensive, but they’re a stunning way to enjoy music. As I said in my review, I wish they were cheaper so I could afford them.
For a lot less money, I really liked the sound of the Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2 true wireless earphones. These might be a controversial choice, which is why I’m explicitly saying “I liked” rather than citing them as “the best.” The Pi7 S2s are very bass-heavy and not for everyone. However, if you do like bass, especially when paired with delicate and lifelike treble, these aren’t to be missed. I wish their noise canceling was better, and they should be $300, not $400, but regardless, they’re a great listen. As of this writing, the price is down to $329, which hopefully is their new regular price, as it’s close to spot on.
For even less money, the JBL Tour Pro 2s ($249.95) are a well-balanced and interesting pair of true wireless earphones. They’re the solid B student, doing everything well, though not quite as well as some others. They’re a bit cheaper than the top-of-the line true wireless models, plus the case has a cool and surprisingly useful touchscreen.
Long-term testing update
Earlier this year I bought a Sony Walkman, specifically the NW-A306 ($348), which runs Android. I wanted a replacement for my iPod. The Walkman can run Spotify and Qobuz, so it seemed like a natural pick. It also looks super cool. I’ve since traveled with the A306 extensively, and for the most part, it has filled the niche left vacant by my troublesome iPod touch.
There were, and are, a few issues. As I mentioned in my review, the NW-A306 is a little on the quiet side. This isn’t a dealbreaker, but it is an odd limitation. Second, it is always dead. There doesn’t seem to be an automatic shutdown, so if it sits for a few days between uses, the battery is invariably drained. It’s also very slow to boot up, so it ends up being quite an annoyance. Yes, I should remember to shut it down if I know I’m not using it the next day, but it’s easy to forget.
The ’phones I’ve listened to the most
I purchased a pair of Sony WF-1000XM4 true wireless earphones for a project earlier this year. They were already a little long in the tooth, so to speak, and I got them at a great price of $200, down from their original list of $275. They quickly became my go-to earbuds. While their noise canceling isn’t quite as good as that of the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II earphones, it’s close enough and a fair trade given the Sonys’ vastly better sound. They’re also small, with a tiny case, and quite comfortable. Well, comfortable for short listening. During long flights the material of the eartips became rather scratchy. Sony replaced these with the WF-1000XM5s, which are “better,” but I like the sound profile of the XM4s more.
I’ve also ended up using the WH-1000XM5s ($378) as my go-to over-ears for listening at my desk while I’m working. While I like their sound, it’s mainly their light weight that keeps me grabbing them from the stack of headphones that is forever encroaching on my workspace. I’ve never been much of a Sony fan, so I find it amusing that this year I purchased multiple Sony products and use them regularly. I think the last Sony product I bought before this year was a laptop circa 2006.
Best of the rest
While I do the majority of my headphone reviews here at SoundStage! Solo, occasionally I’m asked to review some for other outlets. There was one standout worth mentioning. The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds model is the new version of the Ultra Earbuds II I reviewed in 2022. They are a little better, though if you already have the UEII earphones, there’s no need to upgrade.
Hope you and yours have some happy holidays, and I’ll see you in 2024.
. . . Geoffrey Morrison