Headphones are geeks tough crowd, especially when you take away their precious cables. Ask anyone who regularly peruses the r/headphones subreddit whether noise-canceling headphones or wireless headphones are any good, and chances are many people will tell you that they’re good for reducing external sound, but can’t come close to what wired headphones can do. offer in terms of sound quality.
So far, those votes have mostly been right. With very few exceptions, wireless headphones sound worse than their wired counterparts. This has led countless listeners to carry around bulky wired headphones, portable headphone amplifiers and various accessories to get the best sound on the go.
Now, a new generation of noise-cancelling headphones from established audiophile brands like Mark Levinson, Bowers & Wilkins and Focal are looking to challenge the long-established hierarchy, making it possible for audio geeks to use the same pair while traveling wirelessly as easily as it can for wired listening at home. Of the flagship models of the three brands, the Focal Bathys impressed me the most.
I’ve spent a few months with the French audiophile brand’s superb noise-cancelling headphones, and they’ve become my favorite pair in recent memory. The gorgeous magnesium and aluminum housings borrow design cues and driver designs from Focal’s higher-end wired headphones, but include cutting-edge digital-to-analog conversion and some of the most comfortable earbuds I’ve ever worn.
If you’re a discerning listener who likes a little style, you can’t do better on the go: Ditch the AirPods Max and opt for these. It’s like trading a red Corvette for a Rosso Corsa Ferrari.
Do you speak French
Say it with me: Foh-Cal Bat-hees. This pair of expensive noise-canceling headphones, named after a spherical submarine from last century, look like something you’d pull off Poseidon’s desk. Spherical cutouts of various shapes and sizes surround the tornado-shaped focal ‘F’ in the middle of each ear cup, like a net surrounding a dangerous vortex.
Fortunately, there are no subtle touch controls for new music divers. At the bottom of the right earcup you’ll find a power switch that lets you choose between off, on and DAC mode (more on that later), as well as a simple three-button setup for up, down and play/pause (continuous press for BT pairing). A button on the left earcup lets you choose between ANC modes. I like the Airpods Max’s bezel-like wheel for novelty, but I wish all earbuds were this easy to operate.
Plug them in and a gorgeous white LED illuminates the logo on each side, making you look like some kind of marine Tony Stark. You can turn off the lights (and adjust the EQ and ANC settings) in Focal’s app if you don’t want everyone around you to know how much you spent on headphones.
After all, devices like these aren’t for others to enjoy; they should help affluent listeners maintain their golden-eared lifestyles outside of their usual listening situations. And boy, are they comfortable.