(Pocket-lint) - Having no experience whatsoever in building headphones no longer seems an impediment to actually going ahead and building some. For every brand with a long and distinguished history of turning out headphones, there's a brand from an unrelated industry more than willing to give it a go too - and that seems to apply especially to wireless noise-cancelling over-ear headphones. From Adidas to Asda, from Nixon to Harvey Nichols, everyone seems to think they're entitled to have a stab.
So it's really no surprise to find Montblanc throwing its high-end hat into the ring. After a century of turning out exquisite (and exquisitely expensive) writing instruments, it's more recently brought its sumptuous touch to everything from leather bags to watches - so why wouldn't it fancy a slice of the seemingly endless wireless noise-cancelling headphones pie?
- Comfortable for long sessions
- Choice of three colourways
- Flawless build and finish
Of course, it wouldn't do for a Montblanc product - any Montblanc product - to be anything other than frighteningly expensive. The brand has a reputation to uphold as far as design and craftsmanship are concerned, after all. So in a market where the very best products by the very best brands (the likes of Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, Sennhesier and Sony) sell for a few hundred per pair, Montblanc has unblinkingly priced its MB-01 wireless noise-cancellers at over half a grand.
One suspects the prospective Montblanc owner would be disappointed if it wasn't so. Certainly Montblanc seems to think the 'luxury business lifestyle' customer it's serving expects to be paying top dollar. What about the rest of us, though? Out in the real world, can the MB-01s possibly make sense if judged purely on their technical merits?
There's no arguing with the first impression the MB-01 makes. For all that it has no headphones experience, Montblanc most certainly knows what it's doing when it comes to using the best materials in the best way.
Anyway, the scope for design flourishes when it comes to over-ear headphones is limited in the extreme. So what Montblanc has served up is a reasonably compact pair of headphones, flawlessly constructed from discreetly opulent materials. No matter if you decide on black leather with chrome accents, brown leather with gold-coloured metal accents, or grey leather with polished metal accents, your MB-01 choice will look and feel both tasteful and expensive.
The headband, memory foam-filled earpads, and the earcups themselves are all immaculately finished in soft, pliant leather, while the headband adjustment mechanism both feels and sounds positive in its action.
The MB-01 swivels and folds at the yokes for greater portability, and comes supplied with a fabric travel-bag (rather than the protective hard case of some more affordable alternatives).
- 730mAh battery, 20 hours playback
- Wired or wireless operation
- Bluetooth 5.0 aptX HD
As with 'design', it would have been tricky for Montblanc to tear up the 'features' rulebook here - even if it had wanted to. Everyone knows what the feature-set of a premium pair of wireless noise-cancellers should be - and the MB-01 sticks pretty closely to that template.
These cans use Bluetooth 5.0 for wireless connectivity, which is enabled up to aptX HD standard - so that high-end Hi-Res Audio streaming service subscription can be maximised.
Once the music is on board, it's delivered by a pair of 40mm free-edge neodymium drivers - and even with active noise-cancellation engaged the entire time, the battery should be good for around 20 hours before it runs out of breath.
Charging is via a USB-C input on the bottom of the right ear-cup - Montblanc provides a branded, and extremely expensive-looking, USB-C cable for the purpose. From empty to full shouldn't take much more than two hours, and the MB-01 still runs for over two hours on just a 10-minute top-up.
Should you run out of battery and not be near a charging-point - which probably means you're not sitting in First Class, which is most un-Montblanc-like of you - there's also a USB-C to 3.5mm analogue cable provided. Like the USB-C to USB-C cable and the headphones themselves, it's subtly branded with the Montblanc six-pointed star.
There's not quite the full set of features, though. Unlike any number of nominal rivals, the MB-01 doesn't feature accelerometers - so will, despite what Montblanc's website claims, continue playing even if you these headphones off and fold them up. Also there's currently no control app, and consequently no facility to adjust the sonic signature of the headphones. Montblanc is confident an app, complete with EQ adjustment, will be ready 'soon' - but for now, the sound of the MB-01 is non-negotiable.
- 'Live mode' amplifies external sound
- Google Assistant voice control
- Push-button control
Like a whole stack of wireless noise-cancellers, the right earcup is where the MB-01 action is. Embedded in the slim, neat and shiny metal band running around the right ear-cup are controls for power on/off/initiate Bluetooth pairing, summon Google Assistant, volume up/down, and to cycle through the three-stage active noise-cancellation settings.
There's a fairly big push/push play/pause control on the face of the right earcup, too, and mic openings for voice control and noise-cancellation dotted about as well. On the left-hand side, though, there's just a couple of mic openings.
All of the controls work smoothly and responsively - though quite why Montblanc is only dealing with Google as far as voice control goes is one question the assistant can't (or won't) answer.
So far, Montblanc has demonstrated its superlative craftsmanship and understanding of materials. It's made it clear it knows how a pair of premium wireless headphones should be specified. But its hubris doesn't extend as far as going it alone where the sound of its very first headphones is concerned, so the company drafted in Alex Rosson - a well-known engineer and musician - to both assist in voicing the MB-01 and to lend the entire project some full-on credibility.
It was a canny move, and it's paid dividends. The MB-01 isn't quite the complete package when it comes to sound quality, but these headphones have some areas of real talent and expertise.
Stream in an MQA-powered Tidal Masters file of Talking Heads' This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) and the Montblancs give a pretty complete account. Initially, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the sound is the wide, open soundstage they describe and the solidity of the way instruments are positioned within it. Every element of the recording exists in its own pocket of space, but doesn't sound in any way isolated from the rest of what's happening - the vocals sit front and centre, with more than enough air around them, while the instrumental strands behind integrate into a convincingly unified whole.
Delivering the sort of separation that makes even a complex recording simple to follow, while simultaneously knitting it all together to resemble a performance rather than numerous isolated occurrences, isn't straightforward. Several of the most well-regarded alternatives to the MB-01 are no more adept in this respect.
The tonal balance of the Montblancs is unquestionably warm - down in the lowest frequencies, especially, there's discernible heat, and at the opposite end of the frequency range the last drop of bite and shine is rolled off more than somewhat. It's not an approach that will please every listener - and the current lack of EQ adjustment doesn't help - but it's understandable and probably sensible. If forced to choose, it's more rational to play it safe than to pitch the sound right on the edge.
This rather luxurious sonic signature may chime with the necessarily well-heeled customers Montblanc is seeking to attract, but it doesn't really help a less accommodating recording like Four Tet's Wing Body Wing attack in the way it wants to. A little drive and impetus is lost to the MB-01's 'better safe than sorry' emphasis, and the tune loses some of its dynamic potency as a consequence. Still, despite the slightly overheated bass response, the Montblancs have little trouble attacking a tempo and pushing it forwards. The start and stop of individual low-end sounds are observed well, and the numerous mid-range bleeps and squelches have their mechanical abruptness described in full.
In fact, the Montblancs turn out to be a game listen in any circumstances. The relentless grind of Pixies' Alec Eiffel is delivered with apparent relish, digging in and serving up even the finest details of the crunching indie thrash explicitly. There's a sense of authority to the way the MB-01 controls a recording like this - less capable designs will let the tune run away with itself, but the Montblancs keep things on a fairly tight leash.
The midrange is communicated eloquently too - the stronger a singer's melody line, the more power the MB-01 gives it. There's an articulacy and coherence to the way music is delivered - any music, of any genre - that makes these headphones easy to listen to and easier still to return to.
With noise-cancelling activated, the MB-01's presentation narrows just a little. There's no drop-off in detail or punch, though - enough external sound is negated to make a long-haul flight that bit bearable. Turn it off, of course, and the Montblancs are a more convincing listen - and activating 'live mode' introduces enough ambient sound to make eavesdropping on conversations really easy.
The warmth of overall sound from these headphones won't appeal to everyone, and the price will cause a few double-takes too, but taken on its many merits the MB-01 is quite an achievement - all the more so given this brand has precisely zero previous experience in this area.
A premium brand commands a premium price, of course - but there's more than enough substance here to back up the Montblancs' undoubted style. You can spend less in order to buy better headphones, but those won't have quite the jet-set credentials of the MB-01.
If you want flawless, indulgent design and don't mind paying for it then these are the headphones for you.
Bowers & Wilkins PX7
These cans, while still expensive, are made to look something of a bargain by the Montblancs, although the finish isn't quite so indulgent. And, of course, B&W combines neutral tonality, outstanding detail retrieval, and an innate sense of musicality into an extremely tempting overall package. Everything you'd expect in premium headphones from an audio brand with a global reputation.