The high-end Danish speaker maker Bang & Olufsen, affectionately known by its initials B&O, has long been known for building audio and video components sporting stylish, striking designs that command very high prices.
Hit hard by the 2008 economic crisis, B&O has since refocused on its traditional strengths, including building a solid line of headphones. The B&O Beoplay H9i reviewed here are the company’s flagship over-the-ear, active noise-cancelling cans.
Styling and features
The Beoplay H9i are simply gorgeous. These are stylish, eye-catching headphones that scream premium quality and first-class construction. They come in two colors: Traditional black and natural. The latter was the color of my review pair.
Bang & Olufsen
B&O Beoplay H9i headphones in black.
The headband’s arms are made from brushed aluminum anodized to match the headphones’ color. The aluminum arms slide in and out in a perfectly smooth, infinitely adjustable motion. This is no clunky, click-adjustable headband. Best of all, once you set the headphone’s arm positions, they don’t slide or move.
You’ll find similar high-quality materials throughout this product. The top of the headband is genuine cowhide, for example, while the ear pads consist of ultra comfortable memory form enveloped in soft lambskin. Should you ever need to, you can replace the entire ear pads for $70.
The ear cups are adjustable and fold flat. You’ll need to look hard to see the fine line at the base of the headband arms indicating these are two pieces of metal joined together. The folding ear cups accommodate both travel and adjustments to fit the contour of your face. The folding motion is silky smooth.
Theo Nicolakis / IDG
The Beoplay H9i’s ear pads are removable and replaceable.
The acoustically transparent fabric covering the electrodynamic 40mm drivers is printed with a large “L” or “R,” so you can easily discern which is left and which is right. The ear cups are made of a plastic polymer and capped with matching brushed aluminum B&O branded discs. The plastic polymer doesn’t feel cheap by any means.
In contrast to the cowhide leather on top, the headband’s underside has a cloth covering with four quadrants of padding, which doesn’t seem to do much. These headphones tended to become uncomfortable after long listening sessions. After about an hour, I’d feel pressure at the very top of my head, forcing me to either take the headphones off for a bit or loosen them. This was a bit of a disappointment considering how comfortable the ear pads are.
I found the Beoplay H9i easy to slip into a backpack or extra large coat pocket, but the headphone arms don’t fold. You can’t get them into an ultra-compact form factor like you can with the Bose QuietComfort 35 or the Sony MDR-1000XM3.
Angled drivers for optimal sound
Most over-the-head headphones position their drivers in the middle of the ear cups. The drivers therefore fire directly at your ears. The drivers inside the Beoplay H9i’s ear cups are positioned forward and at a slight angle. The end result is the drivers fire sound slightly from the front of your ears, creating a sound stage that tends to be slightly more in front of you, mimicking (to a slight degree) what you’d get with traditional loudspeakers. You typically need to spend hundreds of dollars more to find such a driver positioning.
Theo Nicolakis / IDG
A detailed view of the Beoplay H9i’s angled drivers.
The Beoplay H9i are also built with some slick integrated intelligence. A proximity sensor knew when I took off the headphones and would pause the music. When I put the headphones back on, the music would pick right up again. The feature worked almost every time. The times it didn’t work as advertised were when I didn’t take the headphones off in a typical fashion. Lifting both ear cups and then placing them back on my head re-engaged the music. All in all, this feature worked really well.
These headphones support Bluetooth 4.2 and the the AAC codec, but you won’t get any of the more advanced Bluetooth codecs: aptX, aptX HD, or LDAC.
Solid battery life
The proximity sensor also helps the Beoplay H9i deliver 18 hours of Bluetooth playtime with ANC engaged on a single charge. The number jumps to 23 hours if you’re using only Bluetooth without noise cancellation, and up to 24 hours if you’re using ANC with the headphones plugged into your music source. It takes about 2.5 hours for a full charge.
Theo Nicolakis / IDG
A close-up of the gesture pad on the Beoplay H9i’s right ear cup.
Some wireless headphones today are pushing even longer play times. But here’s what is truly unique about the Beoplay H9i: Its 770mAh battery is removable, so you can purchase an additional battery for $50 from B&O’s website and pop it in for added flexibility.
I used the Beoplay H9i during a transatlantic round-trip flight and didn’t have any problems with the battery life on either leg of the trip.
B&O’s mobile app
B&O developed a companion app for the Beoplay H9i, which is available for Android and iOS devices. The app requires you to register before you can access its features. Once you do, it will display your headphones’ battery life and allow you to apply DSP filters for different sound environments: commute, clear, workout, or podcast. It’s unclear at first glance what each of these modes do. There’s no EQ graph with the name that shows you the impact, but cycle through them and you’ll pick up the differences quite easily.
The Beoplay H9i’s “ToneTouch” option is slick, allowing you to tailor the headphones’ sound to be warm, bright, excited, or relaxed. It does so with a simple interface, eschewing any complicated manual EQ curves that might confuse novice users.
The app also gives you easy access to enable or disable the headphones’ active noise cancellation and its transparency mode (a feature that lets environmental sounds mix with the music to aid in your situational awareness. I’ll get deeper into this in a bit.) Enable the BeoLink option, hidden behind the gear icon, and you’ll gain centralized access to Spotify, Deezer, and DLNA servers on your network; your local iTunes library on your device; TuneIn; and more.
The Beoplay H9i come with a soft, supple, two-layer cinch sack.The inner layer gives the headphones a velvety-soft surface that won’t subject them to friction, but the sack easily turns inside out when you pull out the headphones. Also included in the package is a USB-A to USB-C charging cable, a 3.5mm cable, and a two-prong airplane adapter.
A smart touch interface
There’s a touch-sensitive gesture pad on the right ear cup. Tap on the aluminum disc for play/pause, swipe forward to fast forward the song your listening to, and swipe to the back to rewind. Moving your finger clockwise around the disc increases the volume, while turning it counter clockwise lowers the volume. Swipe from top to bottom to turn on ANC, and make the same gesture to turn it off. Turning transparency mode on and off is the opposite: You swipe from bottom to top to turn it on, and again from the bottom to top to turn transparency mode off.
Bang & Olufsen
B&O’s touch interface worked extremely well and even worked with gloves or moist fingers.
Unlike smartphone surfaces that only work with your skin or a special material, the aluminum plate’s gesture surface is mechanical and pressure sensitive. It works if your hands are moist and even if you’re wearing gloves. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that feature during the fall and winter months.
But I do wish B&O had a different alert sound for turning modes on and off—the headphones produce the same knocking tone for all of them.
Excellent active noise-cancelling performance
One of the main goals of noise-cancelling headphones is to reduce the likelihood of noise-induced hearing loss. The noisier the environment, the louder you’ll want to play your music, which increases the risks of hearing damage. According to the National Institute of Health, long or repeated exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. The louder the sound, the shorter the amount of time it takes for hearing loss to happen. An airplane cabin, for example, can often reach sound pressure levels (SPL) of 94dB. That’s almost equivalent to the sound of a motorcycle and can result in permanent damage in just a few hours.
ANC headphones reduce your risk by reducing ambient noise around you (lowering the noise floor), so that you can play your music at a lower volume. As you’ve probably guessed, some ANC headphones are better at this than others. If active noise cancellation is the most important feature you’re looking for in headphones, the Bose QuietComfort 35 and Sony’s WH-1000XM2 and WH-1000XM3 are better choices.
That said, the Beoplay H9i come very close to ANC parity with those competitors, and I think B&O’s headphones sound better musically speaking. I tested the Beoplay H9i over a period of about five months in a variety of environments: on an international flight, in subways, on trains, walking city streets, and in several noisy and crowded environments.
The Beoplay H9i were extremely effective at mitigating ambient noise in every situation. These headphone did a great job of putting me in a cone of silence. When I plugged the headphones into the airplane’s audio jack while watching Ocean’s 8, for example, I could listen to the movie easily at only one-quarter to one-third volume. When I switched to the Bose QC35 on the same flight, I noted how the Bose did a slightly better job in the ANC arena, lowering the noise floor even further.
Like all other ANC headphones, turning my ears to the direction of AC vents on the train or airplane caused an accentuated rumbling sound—much like the effect when you open a single window in a car while traveling at high speed.
In the air, the B&O H9i headphones applied some pressure to my ears, but not as much as the AKG N700 NC.
Theo Nicolakis / IDG
The headphone’s power, USB-C charging port, and 3.5mm analog audio input are located on the right-hand ear cup.
Perhaps more importantly, not only did the Beoplay H9i mitigate ambient noise effectively, they did so without sacrificing too much of their audio performance. Typically, when you activate ANC on a headphone, it tends to inflict a sonic hit on the music reproduction. While there was a slight thinning out of the sound, the Beoplay H9i did a remarkably good job of maintaining their tonal balance and sonic character.
Transparency mode allows you to hear your outside surroundings clearly even while you’re wearing headphones. It’s very useful when you need to listen for boarding announcements or when you need to be keenly aware of your surroundings—such as when you’re crossing the street.
B&O’s transparency mode is excellent. Activating it and then lifting one of the ear cups was an odd experience—there was very little difference in the volume or tonal balance with the one ear covered and the other ear uncovered. Things like air conditioning took on a slightly different tonal balance. I loved this feature.
On many other headphones I’ve tested, ambient-aware mode sounds artificial. It can even be painful to leave on for an extended period of time. Not here. I applaud the B&O team here for its excellent implementation.
Theo Nicolakis / IDG
A detailed view of the beautiful anodized brushed-aluminum finish on the arms.
I played the Beoplay H9i with an iPhone XS and a Fiio X7MKii hifh-res player. I used music streamed via Tidal and high-res audio files on the Fiio as my primary source material.
The Beoplay H9i are best described as reproducing B&Os signature sound. You’ll find tight bass, a clean mid-range, and a crisp top end. I enjoyed detailed, dynamic sound no matter what I threw at these cans.
The previously mentioned DSP settings on the mobile app can significantly change the sound of the headphones. It’s therefore a bit difficult to characterize it as warm, neutral, or bright because you can tailor each of these settings effectively.
I preferred the neutral setting, but I can see where some users would want to shift it to gain a bit more warmth. I didn’t like shifting the headphone’s DSP setting towards bright or the other options. My comments below pertain to the headphone set in neutral.
Drums on Robert Plant’s and Alison Krauss’s “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” and “Please Read the Letter,” from Raising Sand, were taut and controlled. There wasn’t a sense of bass bloat anywhere. I noted that the Beoplay H9i delivered pistonic mid-bass performance on Dido’s “Let us move on,” featuring Kendrick Lamar. Percussive bass notes on Imagine Dragons “Bad Liar” started and stopped with excellent control, maintaining detail at all times. If you’re looking for accurate, controlled bass, you’ll love these headphones. If you’re a bass head and like headphones with “Xtra Bass,” then you’ll want to pass on these.
The Beoplay H9i did a fine job creating a layered, detailed sound stage no matter which songs I played. Vocals and accompanying instruments on “Bad Liar,” for example, came across with a good sense of space around them and didn’t exhibit smearing.
Vocals sparkled too. The Beoplay H9i reveled in reproducing female vocalists such as Adele, Ariana Grande, Natalie Merchant, Dido, Rihanna, and P!nk. These cans did a fine job rendering Adele’s signature vocals on “When We Were Young” and “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).”
What’s especially unusual is that the Beoplay H9i sounded great in both wired and wireless modes. Oftentimes, a wireless headphone can sound significantly different with and without a cable attached, with the wireless mode typically suffering in comparison.
Bang & Olufsen
B&O’s Beoplay H9i headphones sport a stylish design.
Sweet sound and stand-out performance
B&O’s Beoplay H9i headphones hit a high note, with superb sound, premium build quality, and excellent ANC performance that falls just short of the reigning champs from Sony and Bose.
What sets these headphones apart from other high-end wireless cans is how good they sound both wired and wireless; with and without ANC engaged. B&O’s transparency mode is also outstanding. If you’re looking for stellar headphones with strong—even if not best-in-class ANC performance—and you don’t mind paying a bit extra for style and premium materials, You should audition B&O’s Beoplay H9i.