(Pocket-lint) - Since the world of true wireless in-ears blew up, there haven't been all that many high-quality wireless over-ear cans to grace the headphones landscape in 2021. Until now, with Philips' Fidelio L3 making an assured statement about the kind of quality you can get in this market.
These over-ears feature active noise-cancelling (ANC), touch controls on the earcups, and a wide-reaching audio signature - including Hi-Res Audio support - that sets them up to be an instant favourite. But there are a couple of caveats.
Design & Comfort
- Dimensions: 304mm (H) x 160mm (W) x 52mm (D) / Weight: 360g
- Buttons: on/off; ANC control, voice assistant
- Auto pause upon removal
- Philips Headphones app
Slip the headphones out of the box and it's the included carry case that you'll see first, a trapezoid-shaped zip-up container, complete with Philips branded loop to the upper side. It's bigger than some carry cases, such as the more slender one with Bose's NC 700 Headphones, but its stiffened panels and soft interior lining will keep the Fidelio L3 protected nonetheless.
The headphones themselves are nicely understated: there are Philips logos towards the connection point between earcups and headband, but they're not large or obtrusive; while the debossed 'Fidelio L3' on the headband is something you'll only glimpse if the light catches it a certain way. Shades of black and a more satin grey metallic are the total of the subdued colour palette - the latterbeing the colour of the metal 'rings' to which the almost free-floating earcups are attached.
Comfort is considerable, in particular thanks to the large aperture of the earcups. Even big ears aren't going to get chapped in these. Then there's the soft Muirhead leather coating the plush memory-foam cushions. We've had the L3 adorning our head for days during a week or so of use, and the comfort only goes from good to great over time thanks to this well considered selection of materials and design.
The fit is also arranged so the headband sits fairly vertically over the head, which helps avoid it slipping around - the kind of motion that can cause sound profile changes in plenty of competitor headphones. Sure, you can still reposition the L3's earcups relative to your ear to get a different (less desirable) sound profile, but that's not going to happen unless you're being purposeful about pushing them around.
In terms of controls there are a few additions: physical buttons beneath the earcups on both sides; touch-sensitive tap- and swipe-based controls on the main exterior part of the right earcup only; and there's also an app.
In terms of physical buttons, the left side features the power button, while the right features Bluetooth pairing and voice assistant control. There's a somewhat muffled voice that talks to you based on those buttons' use - "power on", and so forth - which is useful given how close together the pair of buttons is on the right side (by which we mean they're far too close).
Then there's the touch-based controls, which are sensitive enough to be highly responsive. That's great on the one hand, but sometimes it's hyper responsive - you might be trying to skip a track, for example, but instead pause the music as the headphones register a central tap rather than back-to-front swipe. It'll take practise to get this right and we've seen it implemented far better elsewhere, such as in the Bose NC 700 Headphones. That said, the L3's auto-pause/play when removing/returning the headphones from/to your head is super and has been consistent throughout our use.
Last up is the app - called Philips Headphones - which with our first pair of review headphones was of zero use to us as it crashed every time (tested on four different Android phones and one iPhone). Philips sent an additional pair of L3 headphones to a colleague, who had no such problems, so we can only put this down to an internal software version in the headphones themselves. Off-the-shelf models shouldn't suffer this issue. Still, we were able to live without the app to be honest - it has EQ adjustment and some controls, our colleage tells us - because sometimes it's little more than a distraction anyway.
- Closed cup design, 40mm drivers
- Frequency response: 7Hz to 40kHz
- Hybrid Active Noise Cancelling (ANC)
- Battery: 32-38 hours per charge; USB-C charging
- Bluetooth 5.1; supports: SBC, aptX, aptX HD, AAC / Hi-Res Audio
So the Fidelio L3 is subtle by design, supremely comfortable, and its sound is seriously sophisticated too. The kind of immersive quality you can get from over-ears compared to less comfortably fitting in-ears is really quite something; and as these headphones rest like a cloud on your head it's a non-obtrusive way to get deep into your music.
From our very first listen the thing that stood out is the considerable articulation in the higher-end frequency ranges. The kind of sharpness these headphones can deliver without ever, indeed, sounding too sharp is quite something. Hi-hats, for example, take on a whole new meaning, really giving tracks an open and airy soundstage - but one that's also firmly grounded thanks to the way the rest of the range is handled.
That's backed up by taut bass delivery that, as the spec details, is capable of hitting extremely low levels - allegedly to 7Hz, but you'll never even hear that, as it's not audibly feasible. Still, crank out some underground bass tracks on these headphones and they won't disappoint: no low-end note is too much, yet you won't be drowning in a sea of loose bass that's out of control - quite the opposite, in fact.
In the middle frequency range, as the bass is so tight and the high-end so separated, there's roominess to allow vocals to almost float around your headspace. You'll catch additional airiness from rasps and breaths from classic vocal deliveries, even catch reverb tails spanning into the mix more than your speaker-based listens will ever have revealed. And it's always fun to discover new delicate touches to your favourite tracks - that's the kind of detail the Philips Fidelio L3 can reveal.
Feed the best source you possibly can to the L3 and you won't be disappointed either. With Hi-Res Audio support, thanks to aptX HD, those Tidal streams will sound extra special to your ears.
This is all backed up with active noise-cancellation (ANC), which is part of the package in keeping that sound profile as we've described. It's not class-leading in terms of actually cutting out external ambient noise entirely, however, so if you want that 'in a bubble' kind of sensation - as if cut off from the world entirely - then you'll likely want some more travel-focused headphones, again such as the Bose NC 700 Headphones.
Lastly there's longevity, which at 32 hours per charge is certainly a decent innings. That's a full four working days immersed in ANC. And given how comfortable these headphones are you probably could indeed wear them for that long. Recharging is via the exposed USB-C port to the base of the left earcup.
If you're looking for a slice of top quality comfort with sophisticated audio quality to boot then the Philips Fidelio L3 delivers one of the most outstanding over-ear experiences of any headphones released in 2021.
However, the Fidelio L3 can't deliver class-leading active noise-cancelling (ANC) - so if you want to more-or-less remove all of the outside world's ambient noise then look elsewhere - and the app, in our experience, has some issues.
Still, if it's crisp high-end, floaty mid-range, and taut low-end sound quality that you're looking for then the Fidelio L3 delivers an impressively articulate soundstage - and that, above all else, is the key selling point and why these cans are ultra-easy to recommend. The price is very fair, too, given how outlandish some competitors' asking prices are.
Bose NC Headphones 700
If you want more intense noise-cancelling for when on the go, these are the headphones to choose. Ideal for travellers, too, given their smaller frame and fitting. They do cost a chunk more cash though.