In 2023, we saw plenty of great new wireless headphones and wireless earbuds emerge, like the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones, Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, Anker Soundcore Liberty 4 NC, Sony WF-1000XM5, and the new USB-C variant of the Apple AirPods Pro 2.
Each of these products delivers better performance than its predecessors in one or more categories like sound quality, active noise cancellation (ANC), battery life, or spatial audio. But for a product to be considered innovative, it can’t just offer incremental improvements. It needs to break new ground by offering us something new or by getting us to think about an existing feature in an entirely new way.
For 2023, that product is the Hed Unity Wi-Fi headphones.
Want to see the rest? Check out our full list of the most innovative tech products of 2023!
The convenience of wireless Bluetooth headphones and earbuds can’t be overstated. Ever since Apple released the original AirPods in 2016, music fans have turned these categories into multibillion dollar industries. But there’s one group of music fans that has always greeted Bluetooth with skepticism: audiophiles.
Audiophiles correctly claim that Bluetooth is no substitute for a wired connection because Bluetooth has traditionally required lossy compression of digital music. In order to squeeze CD-quality stereo into a size that can fit inside Bluetooth’s invisible pipe from your phone to your headphones, some information must be discarded. As for better-than-CD-quality hi-res audio? Fuggedaboudit.
On the other hand, if wireless audio products like headphones and earbuds could use Wi-Fi instead of (or in addition to) Bluetooth, there would be more than enough bandwidth for even the highest-resolution lossless digital audio. To some, that may seems like an obvious statement, but until the Hed Unity came along, no audio manufacturer had ever tried it.
By embedding Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the Hed Unity have become the first wireless headphones to let folks listen to CD-quality and higher lossless audio without worrying about Bluetooth codec compatibility, or even wireless range. As long as the headphones are within range of your Wi-Fi network, you can stream several sources of hi-res lossless music to them, including Tidal, Qobuz, and your personal music collection if it’s stored on your network.
Audiophiles now have the option of wireless listening without the compromises of Bluetooth, but it doesn’t come without a few major caveats. The first is the price. At $2,199 the Hed Unity might just be the most expensive wireless headphones you can buy that don’t make use of exotic materials like gold or diamonds.
Second, one of the reasons Wi-Fi hasn’t shown up on headphones before now is it’s incredibly power-hungry when compared to Bluetooth. Unsurprisingly, the Hed Unity are only good for about six to eight hours of listening before needing to be recharged, ranking them among the worst wireless headphones for battery life.
Third, Hed is still making inroads with streaming music companies, so for now, Tidal and Qobuz are the only sources of lossless audio that are compatible with Wi-Fi on the Unity (you can stream any service via traditional Bluetooth).
For Hed itself, there may also be a price for being first. Apple revealed that the H2 chips inside the AirPods Pro 2 with USB-C are able to work with Wi-Fi on a limited basis — it’s how they can do lossless audio with the Apple Vision Pro. Separately, Qualcomm announced that its latest S7 Pro Sound Platform Gen 1 chips will support Wi-Fi streaming in a variety of wireless audio products, and with almost no hit to battery performance.
These announcements could mean that the Hed Unity’s Wi-Fi audio pole position will face serious challenges from other Wi-Fi products in the very near future.
Curious about whether or not the Hed Unity can justify their extreme price? Check out our in-depth Hed Unity review.
In some ways, JBL’s Tour Pro 2 wireless earbuds are no different than myriad other wireless earbuds you can buy. They’ve got solid sound quality, ANC that can really cut down on the amount of ambient noise, excellent battery life, and a ton of customization and convenience features. What sets them apart from just about every other set of buds on the planet is their charging case.
It carries and recharges the Tour Pro 2, just like any other case, and it has wireless charging, but it’s the embedded touchscreen on the front that really got our attention. There’s just something about having an interactive display on a product that ups its cool factor considerably.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that having a charging case with its own built-in touchscreen is a game-changer — it isn’t. At least, not on the JBL Tour Pro 2. Virtually every function the screen lets you do can also be done using the earbuds themselves or within the JBL Headphones app.
Still, I have to give JBL props for trying it out. The idea that you might find it more convenient to access settings and features from a charging case instead of your phone was worthy of exploration, and for that reason alone, I’m glad JBL took a gamble on it. I’m even happier that the company was able to do it without charging a fortune. Poly’s Voyager Free 60+ also includes a touchscreen-enabled charging case in 2023, but it costs $350 — $100 more than the JBL Tour Pro 2.
The open-ear earbud world exploded in 2023. After Bose effectively created (then abandoned) the category, and Sony then came up with its own unique take on the idea (which became our pick for the most innovative headphones of 2022) tons of audio brands have jumped on board the open-ear train.
But the reigning champ in this space is a company you’ve probably never heard of: Oladance. In 2022, the Oladance OWS proved to be the best open-ear earbuds you could get, but it was a very small field. Still, in 2023, the company managed to do it again with the OWS Pro. Though way more expensive than any other open-ear product, the OWS Pro have done more to push the category forward than any other model.
Not only are they sleek and comfortable, but they also have the best audio quality you can get in a set of open-ears. What truly makes them innovative, however, is their Focus Mode. Typically, ANC on a set of open-ear earbuds is a nonstarter. ANC needs to be able to create its own little bubble of anti-noise to cancel the noise around you — open-ear earbuds are the opposite of that. And yet, Focus Mode manages to cancel a very specific range of annoying high-frequency sounds. It’s surprisingly effective.
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