IFA: All the audio

A quick run-down of the best in audio products from IFA Berlin.

Man holding headphones at IFA Berlin.

If there’s a trend in audio products, it’s “true wireless”. Market data says one in every five headphones sold is true wireless – meaning wireless earbuds with no cables at all.

From phone manufacturers making accessories to go with their devices to high-end audio companies trying to create unique experiences, most brands have at least one model – and they’re all decidedly average.

Technics EAH-TZ700 1200€ in-ear headphones.
Technics EAH-TZ700 1200€ in-ear headphones.

I tried more than a dozen models from several manufacturers and none impressed me with their sound quality. The problem is they’re all fighting physics. The small size of earbuds means you simply can’t put great audio equipment in them. And if the speakers are also competing for space with Bluetooth antennas, then you’ve got a recipe for some mediocre sounds.

This isn’t to say the sound is bad, it’s just … fine.

Technics EAH-T700.
Technics EAH-T700.

The earbuds with the best sound quality weren’t wireless. At the Technics booth, I sat down and tried its top-of-the-line €1200 (NZ$2097) wired earbuds (EAH-TZ700). They were incredibly good for earbuds, but not $2000-good.

Technics also had an over-ear pair (EAH-T700) that cost the same amount, and these were the best headphones I’ve ever listened to.

The sound was helped by the powerful SU-6700 amplifier and was so perfect it almost brought a tear to my eye. I messaged my wife to say I may come home with them.

Sony had a similar range of headphones, including a strange pair of buds that hook over your ears and an over-ear pair that had a great feel and a specialised braided cord, which looked cool, but I’m unsure if it helped the sound quality. These were paired with Sony’s new high-def Walkman (yes, a Walkman!) and the sound was almost as good as the Technics – you can tell by the difference in my expression (see photo below).

Left: Sony MDR-Z1R headphones using the MUC-B20SB1 woven cable. Right: Sony IER-Z1R in-ear headphones with the NW-WM1Z Walkman.

But these sorts of high-end headphones are completely different to the wireless buds every other company is pushing. These expensive, wired models are for listening to music at home, plugged into a good source, while cheaper wireless models are for listening on the go or when exercising.

Party boxes on display at IFA Berlin.
JBL PartyBox 1000.
JBL PartyBox 1000.

A quick note here about fit. Wireless buds can easily fall out if they aren’t fitted correctly (and sometimes even if they are). But you wouldn’t believe it if you were walking the halls of IFA with giant billboards showing attractive, young people running around having the time of their lives.

In any case, going by what I tried at IFA, what you can expect in the next year is a lot of cheap earbuds with average sound quality and, probably, quite poor Bluetooth connection strength.

Another audio trend is one I am very excited about: Party boxes.

Party boxes (sometimes called party speakers) are large speakers that are loud and light up. They often have inputs for karaoke. Sony makes ones that come with cup holders!

They weren’t as numerous as the wireless earbuds, but were much more noticeable. The coolest was the new JBL PartyBox 1000 (pictured). Its integrated LED back panel creates all sorts of lighting effects and on the top is a panel for creating loops and other DJ effects. It also comes with glowing “air gesture” wristbands, which can change the pre-programmed lightshow with a flick of your wrist.

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Our tech writer, Hadyn Green, reports from one of the world's largest trade shows for consumer electronics to bring you the latest trends in consumer tech and home appliances.

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