Philips Fidelio L1 headphones
Philips told us it considers itself to be, first and foremost, a high-end audio brand. We've seen some evidence of this in its TVs, to be honest. It's one of few firms that takes TV sound seriously, and the results are always impressive. Its iPod and MP3 docks are also usually very nice-sounding devices too, so a move in to headphones seems to make sense
And headphones are very much the accessory to be making right now. Personal audio has exploded recently, and brands like Beats Audio have proved that people are prepared to spend a pretty decent amount of money on their headphones. And that's for headphones that don't boast any audiophile credentials, just enough bass to destroy the Death Star.
And, if we were sceptical, we'd say that Philips and others have noticed that people are prepared to spend silly money on headphones at the moment. This is a great time to exploit a thriving market, with decent profit margins, before the bargain-basement brands rock-up and spoil it for everyone with their ultra-low prices.
But whatever its reasons, Philips is proud of the L1 headphones, so we wanted to spend some time with them to see if the firm has come up trumps, or if these headphones are just cashing in on an expanding market.
Style and comfort
Philips has given the L1s an over-the-ear design. This is good, because it's by far the most comfortable design for any headphone. Were it not for the practicalities of taking a pair of full headphones out and about, this would be the preferred way to listen to music.
These headphones are incredibly comfortable, and we have found that - unlike most over-ear style cans - they don't really make our ears uncomfortably hot, and can be worn for extended periods of time without ever feeling like they're a drag.
They are weighty though, and a couple of times we tilted our head forward or backwards, and the headphones slipped. Keep your head level, and this isn't a problem - and it's not much of problem anyway, to be honest.
The look great too. The headband is finished in a two-tone brown and black leather that feels sturdy and well stitched. The earpads have a sort of soft faux leather covering, and beneath that are memory foam, which Philips claims is acoustically designed not to colour your music - apparently it can make a difference - and is very comfortable too.
The headphones come with two cables in the box. One straight, the other with iPod volume controls included. They connect to a drop cable which emerges from the left headphone and has a bulky silver connector. We like the fact the main cable is replaceable, but we really don't like that there is a hardwired cable in to the headphones. Why not make this replaceable, so if anything goes wrong you don't have to either send the headphones back, or throw them away?
Still, comfort-wise, the break-out cable design doesn't provide any issues, and when using the headphones we never really noticed it was there. Both cables supplied are quite short, too. This is good for portable use, out and about, but bad if you want to connect the headphones to your TV, if it's further than 1m away. You can substitute your own cable, or simply use an extension, if you're hoping to use these with your TV.
Isolation and privacy
Philips says these headphones will isolate you from external sound. We agree with this, normal room noise, like people talking and general noise, are easily excluded by these headphones and their over-ear design.
Privacy - or sound leakage - is a slightly different issue. In our tests, audio was clearly audible when they were on someone's head. It wasn't loud though, but close up, it was incredibly clear. If you put your ear to the back of one of the earphones you'll hear the music almost as clearly - but significantly more quietly - than the person actually listening to them.
We aren't too worried about this, as these headphones do leak less than most, and the sound that does escape is more complete than most headphones. While this might give away what you're listening to, it will also annoy people less than that high-frequency hissing you get from other headphones. But with that said, we don't think the leak is severe at all.
Sound quality and response
Headphones are, of course, a matter of considerable science, in the same way speakers are. One set will sound amazing to one person, while repulsing another. We can't see anyone hating these L1s, although their sound won't appeal to everyone. Philips tell us that these headphones have been designed to offer flat response, so you should hear what was originally recorded. It does seem worth pointing out, however, that a lot of things can mess about with that. Encoding to MP3 or AAC often changes the sound, so real audiophiles should listen to these headphones using lossless music from CDs or FLAC/Apple lossless files.
At times, we could get some seriously powerful low-end out of these L1s. Magnetic Man is always a good demo of bass, and the track "Mad" has plenty of low-frequency sound, but mixed with mid and high-end too. It all sounded controlled, with nothing too bright and no noticeable distortion from the original track.
Throw on some One Direction - yes, we said that out loud - and things aren't as impressive. The plucky young chaps sound like they're all being pushed in to the mid range. With virtually no interesting bass at all. Nicki Minaj, on the other hand, provided another solid performance through the Philips L1s. More than enough bass, but with good vocal clarity and no over-bright treble. "Last Chance" has especially impressive low-end, and certainly proves with a little EQ boost, the Philips cans are very capable of producing bass.
Once we'd finished listening for this review, there were very few pieces of music that we'd listened too that didn't sound brilliant.
Durability and portability
In the box, there's a carry case provided to carry the headphones around without them getting too badly damaged. The headphones also fold quite flat, allowing you to slip them in a bag without using up too much space.
The L1s also feel as though they will survive a reasonable amount of torture. They're well made, and they feel like they can go through the stress of everyday life without too much trouble. We're a bit worried about the cables that are exposed above each earpiece, and we have some worries about the break-out cable too, because things like that are harder to repair, and more likely to be a point of failure.
These headphones might not have the greatest bass response in the world, but with a bit of EQ from your device, you can almost certainly boost that. We used an iPod Touch with "bass boost" turned on for most of our listening. This is because we favour a little more than flat EQ on most music. Some tracks will be better without any boost, but that's really up to you to decide.
We find bass to be an issue that divides people. Some think a banging low-frequency track is the hallmark of quality. Some people think, in moderation, bass can be quite nice, and some utterly hate it being over-emphasised. Music choice plays a big part in this, so we'll let you decide how to set up your MP3 player.
But it's worth knowing, these headphones do have a flat output and you do have to force them to produce low-end a little.
But none of that matters, because we got them to sound magnificent with very little effort. Clarity was generally superb - although some pop tracks sounded as if they existed only in the mid-range, which is quite tedious. We adored wearing the L1s, because they are both comfortable and sound terrific. Long listening periods were no problem, and we found ourselves favouring them over speakers to listen to music.
The cost is an issue, but if you want a set of headphones to last you several years, these Philips cans are likely to fit the bill.