Klipsch Reference On-Ear Headphone Review
They won't squeeze your head, but they might squeeze your wallet.
In the audio tech world, on-ear headphones don't get much respect. And while it's true that this type of headphone often struggles in performance and comfort, there are solid, adequately-priced on-ear options out there.
The Klipsch Reference On-Ears (MSRP $199) don't squeeze and pinch your ears the way some on-ear cans do, but given their price, they're not exactly winning in the bang-for-your-buck department.
From style to performance, the Reference On-Ears simply do not make a compelling case for their price tag. In fact, their comfortable fit is about the only area where these headphones excel; there's simply no way to justify the $200 asking price.
Comfort at the expense of style
Though there are certainly exceptions, on-ear headphones aren’t exactly known for their handsome looks. And although you can see the effort on Klipsch’s part to make the Reference On-Ears as clean as possible from a design standpoint, there’s not much in the way of actual style here.
Between the wide arc of the band and the somewhat bulky size of the cups, the Reference On-Ears sit a little too far from the listener’s head. The result is a pair of headphones that look much bigger than they actually are when they’re in use.
This less-than-elegant design—coupled with Klipsch’s “no frills, less-is-more” aesthetic—leaves the Reference On-Ears looking like cheap, commercial headsets, not unlike the ones found in call centers. There’s value in minimalism, but minimalism without style isn’t exciting.
The good news is that the Reference On-Ears are actually quite comfortable, particularly when it comes to long-term use. The cups create a healthy seal on the ears, and thanks to their generous amount of leather padding, they never feel like they’re pressing too hard against the sides of your head.
Attached is a flattened, tangle-resistant cord that features a three-button remote and microphone. Although the buttons on the remote are easily distinguishable and responsive, the remote itself is thick, especially when compared to the cord it's connected to.
The Reference On-Ears ship with a silky smooth traveling bag, and the cups fold inwards towards the band via two respective points of articulation.
Typically, on-ear headphones struggle with isolation. Unlike in-ear or over-ear headphones, which create a natural seal between your ear and the tunes you're hearing, on-ear headphones lack a robust seal, which usually leads to an uptick in ambient noise. Essentially, if you're planning on getting a good amount of mileage out of your headphones on the bus or train, on-ears might not be the best option.
Fortunately, the Reference On-Ears are better-than-average in this regard, and block a significant amount of higher-pitched ambient noise. Ordinarily, this type of isolation is a trade-off: What you gain in isolation you lose in comfort. The Reference On-Ears, however, manage to skate by without sacrificing comfort. For more on isolation and for the rest of our test results, jump over to the Science page.
That said, there are some significant shortcomings consumers should be aware of before dropping a couple of hundos on the Reference On-Ears.
In the days I spent cycling through my music catalog with these Klipsch on-ears, I began to notice a distinct lack of clarity in the low-end. Albums that showcase bassy elements, like Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, seemed muddied on the Reference On-Ears.
More over, musical moments that highlight delicate, airy noises—like spoken-word samples or splash cymbals—don't get the proper attention they deserve.
None of these shortcomings are egregious in nature, but they certainly raise a critical question: Should anyone be spending a couple hundred bucks on headphones that can't seem to pull their own weight?
It'd be one thing if these cans were priced accordingly and not touted as a "reference" model, but given their performance, there just doesn't seem to be a justifiable reason to spend so much on what you're getting here.
Headphones without a home
Since they don't excel in performance or style, it's difficult to assign a home for the Klipsch Reference On-Ears. They're certainly as comfortable as on-ears ought to be, but customer's wading in the $150-$300 range owe it to themselves to explore better options.
If stylish, reference-level on-ears are what you're after, take a look at the P5 Series from Bowers & Wilkins. They'll likely cost you a little more than the $200 Klipsch Reference On-Ears, but that's money well spent on what might be the best-looking on-ears on the market. From a performance standpoint, you'll also be stretching your dollar, as the P5 Series outperform Klipsch's Reference On-Ears in nearly every category.
For a sexier (and more reliable) blend of style and substance, consider the Beats Solo2 on-ears, which took home one of our coveted Best of Year badges late last year. Be advised, however, that these cans did not rest comfortably our editorial staff's ears.
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