Klipsch Reference On-Ear review

Klipsch's pillowy plush Reference On-Ears feel like a La-Z-Boy for your ears

The Reference On-Ear deliver incredible comfort, a bit of boost in the bass, and some beautifully-treated highs, while midrange takes a bit of a hit.
The Reference On-Ear deliver incredible comfort, a bit of boost in the bass, and some beautifully-treated highs, while midrange takes a bit of a hit.
The Reference On-Ear deliver incredible comfort, a bit of boost in the bass, and some beautifully-treated highs, while midrange takes a bit of a hit.

Highs

  • Crystal clear treble
  • Powerful bass
  • Extremely comfortable
  • Quality design

Lows

  • Midrange cloudier than expected, especially at the center
  • No removable cable
  • Pricey

For some audio enthusiasts, the term “reference” is serious stuff. It comes from recording studios, where “reference monitors” are used to mix and master recordings. “Reference” implies excellence and transparency; a standard by which others can be judged. But over the past couple of decades the word has become a brand moniker for many audio companies’ products, watering down its original meaning. Klipsch happens to be one of those companies.

Klipsch’s new Reference series of gear encompasses everything from speaker bars to home theater systems, and though the products represent the pinnacle of Klipsch’s modern design efforts, that doesn’t mean they necessarily suit a purist’s view of what a reference device should be. Still, that won’t stop one from hoping for the best.

With the new Reference On-Ears, Klipsch commits to an aural experience befitting those seeking the ultimate in unfettered sound, claiming the luxurious cans provide “proper representation” of the music, without adding anything that isn’t there. While we didn’t find that description to be altogether accurate, the newest Klipsch headphones do deliver an engaging sound signature wrapped in one of the most comfortable designs we’ve ever put on. And branding aside, that alone makes the new Reference On-Ear worthy of a close look.

Hands on video

Out of the box

The Reference On-ears strike you with a beautifully bold headband comprising a half-inch or so of thick padding bulging beneath a sheath of buttery leather. The earpads are equally luxurious. The headphones unfold with a minimalist touch of elegance that serves to complement an ergonomic design. You can tell the Reference On-Ear will be extremely comfortable long before you put them on.

A satiny bag lined with a felt interior accounts for the Reference On-Ear’s only accessory, making for a succinct, if not slightly austere, package.

Features and design

Though the Reference On-Ears seem to be tailored for a comfy fit, Klipsch has managed to craft their comfort without causing a visual spectacle. There’s just enough leather and brushed metal on board to lend the headphones some real class, yet wearing them feels like a headphone version of an overstuffed La-Z-Boy.

The powerful bass is more targeted, steering clear of a thunder-clad free-for-all.

There’s also some solid build quality at work here. We have some minor concern that the metallic name plates on each earpiece might be subject to chipping over time, but otherwise the headphones feel pretty robust. Thick cuts of plastic support metallic facades along the arms, allowing for a light but resolute frame, and the earpieces extend from the band along a heavy track to keep them locked in place.

We’re surprised the flattened cable isn’t removable, though it does a decent job of staying out of the way when the headphones are folded in for travel. Like the rest of the package, the cable feels resilient, and sports a sturdy three-button iOS in-line microphone.

Comfort

Aside from its comforting qualities, the Reference On-Ear’s generous padding also offers a fair amount of passive noise isolation, especially for an on-ear. Forced to come up with some quibbles, we’d say the cans rest a shade high on the head, and might get a little warm in the summer sun.

Audio performance

As we alluded to earlier, the Reference On-Ears’ sound signature is far from what we’d consider transparent, instead pouring a good bit of ruddy color across the sonic landscape. The headphones follow a formula we’ve encountered often lately: a healthy boost in the bass that’s offset by a crystal-etched upper register designed to help cut through the hefty layers below.

However, the Reference On-Ear take a more pleasing approach to this familiar sound sculpture. The power in the lower bass is more targeted than, say, Beats headphones, providing some serious beat to a groove without getting carried away . There were a few times we wished we could tone down heavier bass lines and the resonance of tom drums, but the bass mostly steers clear of a thunder-clad free-for-all.

Klipsch Reference On-ears bottom
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The brilliance in the treble provides some gorgeous moments, as well as some welcome space and dimension. The clarity up above makes for a nice showcase of instruments mixed to the extreme left and right, like percussion, acoustic guitar, and horns.

The headphones fall well short of transparency in the midrange, though. Complex tracks from the likes of Peter Gabriel’s Up, or Radiohead’s In Rainbows reveal a murky haze that clouds midrange instruments. Vocals are often flat and stomped down in the mix — there just isn’t enough clarity there to expose the nuances in synthesizers, or the subtleties of an airy breath before a vocal entrance. Snare hits feel especially short-changed here, losing some of that snap that helps drive the excitement of rock and pop tracks.

While every pair of headphones has its shortcomings, the Reference On-Ear are perhaps most disadvantaged by some very tough competition. Homerun efforts like Sennheiser’s brilliantly detailed Momentum On-Ear, which can now be had for a steal at $100, represent a tough matchup for Klipsch’s $200 asking price. Still, there are a lot of checks in the win column for Klipsch’s latest effort, and those willing to take a slight hit on performance in exchange for unbridled comfort may find the Reference On-Ear are worth the extra green.

Conclusion

Klipsch likely had noble intentions when it decided to adopt “Reference” as the moniker for its top-tier product line, and indeed, the line represents some of Klipsch’s finest work yet. But if you’re looking for transparency and even-keeled balance in a headphone, you won’t find it in the Reference On-Ear. Instead, expect a tasteful boost in the low bass accompanied by a sparkling and detailed treble and a midrange that takes a slight hit in the process. And if comfort is of paramount concern, the Reference On-Ear are bound to be one of the most comfy headphones you’ll ever wear.

Updated 3/4/2015: After spending more time with the Reference On-ear, we had to upgrade them to a 4 star product: They’re just too darned comfy. We still find them a bit bassy and crowded in the mids, but those who like extra bass, and tripled-down comfort will want these headphones, no doubt.

Highs

  • Crystal-clear treble
  • Powerful bass
  • Extremely comfortable
  • Quality design

Lows

  • Midrange cloudier than expected, especially at the center
  • No removable cable
  • Pricey
Home Theater

Get the most boom for your buck with the best headphones under $100

Everybody wants a bargain, and this list has a bunch. For those looking for a solid set of headphones without spending a big stack of cash, this list is is your starting point. Check out our picks for the best headphones under $100.
Home Theater

Wireless headphones are finally awesome, and these are our favorites

With sleek forms, prime audio quality, and the freedom of untethered listening, there has never been a better time to pick up a pair of wireless headphones. These are the best ones currently available.
Deals

Need a new tablet? Here are the best iPad deals for April 2019

In the wide world of tablets, Apple is still the king. If you're on team Apple and just can't live without iOS, we've curated an up-to-date list of all of the best iPad deals currently available for April 2018.
Trash

The best noise-canceling headphones paint your music on a cleaner canvas

Drowning out the sound of babies, jet engines, and the outside world isn't as difficult as it seems. Here are the best noise-canceling headphones, whether you're concerned with style, comfort, or sound.
Home Theater

The best MP3 players of 2019 cram tons of music into a small package

Want to go for a run, but your phone is weighing you down? Don't sweat it. Can't fit your whole music library on your smartphone? No worries. Check out our list of the best MP3 players, and find one that works for you.
Home Theater

Still listening on tinny, muffled TV speakers? Try one of our favorite soundbars

You no longer have to sacrifice sound for size when selecting home audio equipment. Check out our picks for the best soundbars, whether you're looking for budget options, pure power, smarts, or tons of features.
Product Review

Powerbeats3 wireless headphones are all about that bass, and not much else

With the new Powerbeats Pro grabbing headlines, it’s worth taking a look back at Beats’ previous flagship wireless earbuds. Do these popular, bass-happy workout buds still deserve your consideration?
Home Theater

Set your ears free with the best completely wireless earbuds

If you can't stand the tangle of cords, or you're just excited about completely wireless earbuds, you're going to need some help separating the wheat from the chaff. Our list serves up the best true wireless earbuds around.
Deals

JBL and Sony wireless noise-canceling headphones get sharp price cuts

While Beats headphones are one of the better bluetooth headphones out there, they don't come cheap: you'll spend $300 or more for a pair. But there's no need to spend that kind of money, especially with a multitude of worthy alternatives…
Home Theater

Report: Apple AirPods 3 with noise cancellation coming later this year

A report that is decidedly light on details, suggests that Apple could introduce its next generation of fully-wireless earbuds as early as the end of 2019, with noise cancellation as its key feature.
Home Theater

Amazon drops prices on Bose speakers and sound systems by up to 50%

Amazon knocked $220 off the price of two Bose 301-V Direct/Reflecting bookshelf loudspeakers, a 50% discount. The 301-Vs are suited for music or for home theater systems. Amazon's sale also includes the Bose Solo 5 TV Sound System.
Home Theater

What’s new on Netflix and what movies and shows are leaving in May 2019

Our complete list of what's new on Netflix for May 2019 and which titles will be removed will help you catch up on your bingeing, and also ensure you don't miss any titles heading into the streaming ether.
Home Theater

Dream on: The concert of the future is in Vegas, and Aerosmith leads the charge

Aerosmith has partnered with THX, L-Acoustics, 1More, and Mixhalo to provide fans with an unparalleled, tech-fueled concert experience for the band’s 50th anniversary. Here’s how this one concert series could shape the future of live…
Home Theater

Rock out, dance, or just nod along with the best Bluetooth speakers

The market is saturated with wireless audio solutions fit for any and all circumstances. Check out our picks for the best Bluetooth speakers available, whether you'll be listening in the kitchen or on a mountaintop.