Bang & Olufsen announced the Beoplay H8i last month at CES 2018 along with the H9i as its new flagship wireless headphones. Both devices offer proximity sensors to turn off your audio if it detects you have taken the headphones off, a one-touch transparency mode to allow you to hear what’s going on around you immediately, dual-device connectivity to be paired to your smartphone and tablet or laptop simultaneously, and superior battery life. The H9i differs from the H8i with touch controls over physical buttons, a bass port to offer more powerful bass, and improved active noise cancellation, but these extra features come at a cost: the Beoplay H8i has nearly twice the battery life of the H9i.
As someone constantly in teleconferences, WebEx sessions, GoToMeeting, Skype for Business calls, and more, I previously enjoyed B&O’s Earset 3i which served me for many years. These were cabled, not wireless, and while I wrestled with the cord tangling in my pocket I didn’t experience connectivity issues or battery life issues that plagued early Bluetooth headpieces. More than that, they were comfortable and high quality and worked and worked. I eventually moved to Bluetooth devices but retained my faithful Earset 3i, only finally giving it up once and for all when certain phone vendors decided the 3.5mm audio jack was no longer a necessity on a phone. My enduring memory of my Bang & Olufsen experience was a quality audio product that was well-built and gave a faultless performance.
So, when Bang & Olufsen, a company founded in 1925 by Peter Bang and Svend Olufsen and renowned for its striking designs, revealed its new range, I was very keen to try the Beoplay H8i for myself.
Technically, it offers Bluetooth 4.2 with aptX enhancement and advanced audio codecs. It has 40mm diameter speakers and an electret type microphone.
The headphones are cleanly designed, with minimal wording and symbols. You’ll need to remember what each button does, though there will be no confusion over which ear is which, with clear L and R labels.
There’s a smartphone app you can download, but it’s not essential. The app shows your headset’s firmware version and walks you through what each button does. Somewhat ironically you already need to have paired the headphones to your phone before you can use the app, and thus already need to be aware how to do so because the app won’t tell you. For clarity, you hold down the rocker button on the left headphone to turn power on, then hold down the middle button on the right headphone to turn on pairing mode.
You don’t have to use Bluetooth; the headphones have a 3.5mm socket and an included cable. This works perfectly well, though I found with both the 3.5mm cable and the USB charging cable connected I experienced a faint buzz periodically. I didn’t hear this when I only had the 3.5mm cable connected and ran from the battery, or when I had the USB cable plugged in to charge and played through Bluetooth, but connecting both cables again brought this buzz back. I imagine the cables touched, and it is not something that detracts from the unit, but I mention it simply to explain this is the circumstance in which it occurred, for others who might experience it.
The left earphone contains the sockets for these two cables, as well as the rocker button mentioned above. Push the button in to turn the headphones on, flick it forwards to turn on or off transparency mode, and flick it back to turn on or off active noise cancelling; it acts as a toggle for both of those functions.
Transparency mode works easily and swiftly, pausing your music and making you aware of your surroundings. You can join in on conversations and with a simple flick be back to concentrating.
The active noise cancelling is impressively powerful and effective. You can be immersed in whatever you are doing. In fact, powering the headphones on and wearing them without even playing music is a surreal experience, like all the surrounding noise has suddenly been sucked away outwards.
In fact, while writing this very paragraph I am sitting in my lounge room, MacBook Pro on lap playing Jean-Michel Jarre while my daughter is playing loud pop music through Google Home not even a metre away from me. She’s relaxing on a beanbag using a colouring-in app on her iPad called Sandbox, and we’re both enjoying ourselves, neither being bothered by the other. I truly cannot hear her music over mine despite being in the very same room.
If I flick transparency on, my music stops and I can hear what’s going on. If I flick transparency back off, my music resumes. If I flick active noise cancelling off, a small bit of background noise creeps in but the H8i continues to absorb my ears with its output. Pausing my music is where I notice the biggest difference; sitting with the headphones on and nothing playing is where I can really tell when noise cancelling is on or off; when off, I’m just sitting with my ears mildly blocked. When on, I’m still aware of my surroundings but it is all so much duller, so much farther away.
Earlier, I used the H8i with the PlayStation 4 VR (PS4VR) headset to re-enter the world of Skyrim, now in its seventh year, but enjoying remarkable endurance due to its depth of gameplay, the size of its world, and the continual re-release on new platforms. In the case of the PS4VR you no longer play Skyrim, you are in the world of Skyrim, and the dragons you encounter are dragon-sized. The world is all around your vision but if you are using your regular room speakers or the earbuds that come with the PS4VR you cannot be fully immersed. Yet, with the H8i I could not hear anything else; the world of Skyrim was right around me. I heard every crackle of every spell, every roar of every beast, and every clang of every sword, and I did not hear anything that was not in this fantasy world.
It is difficult to express the audio quality from these headphones. Yet, as I sit listening to music now I see my family moving around me silently. The H8i has succeeded in removing outside noise, delivering crisp and powerful audio, and it does so with comfort. The headphones have not once felt hot or heavy or uncomfortable.
Now, I began by speaking about my never-ending time stuck in conferences during the working week, so lest you feel the truth is I laze around playing music and video games I made some phone calls to try out the microphone. My experiences were mixed.
What I love is the dual-pairing. While playing music on my laptop, I could make and receive calls on my phone, both cable-free. The headphones switched source seamlessly and immediately when I used the phone, and back again once the call was over.
However, I found the experience not as positive as I would like. I could hear the other party fine, but they could not hear me as well, even saying I was muffled slightly. Turning noise cancellation off appeared to help, but they reported far better call quality when I removed the headphones entirely and just spoke into my phone directly.
This may or may not be a problem, depending on your usage. My experience is these are an awesome set of headphones, and if you enjoy quality music, or want to work undisturbed and block out noise, then the H8i does a fantastic job and is a robust, well-designed product which will give you many years of continued use.
However, if you view them as headphones for unified communications and voice conferencing then my experience is this is not the job they are made for, and while they perform, it’s not the same standard as headphones or earbuds specifically designed to be UC-devices. Bang & Olufsen do not market these as such and the microphone may perhaps be best thought of as a convenient inclusion on a tremendous set of headphones.
I also would have preferred the headphones to provide audio guidance beyond simple beeps, like some competitors do, issuing an utterance to say the device is powering on or off, or entering pairing mode. Though, I suppose Bang & Olufsen have aimed for a distraction-free experience and can live without those, but if nothing more, the inclusion of an audio indication of battery level would be extremely helpful.
Even if the smartphone app could give this information it would be better than just not knowing. Actually, opening the Beoplay app while using the headphones seems to create awful stuttering so I wouldn’t recommend it at all. Perhaps, fortunately, the app offers no real benefit so it can be easily avoided.
The battery life has been reported online variously at 30 hours to 45 hours, and down to 19 hours. There is no clear answer, and it will depend on your usage – Bluetooth and noise cancelling will both chew up the battery. Sadly, without the app or the headphones divulging battery life you will be left to your own judgement as you use the headphones and become more familiar with them.
All in all, the Beoplay H8i is a high-end and high-quality set of luxurious, comfortable headphones allowing you to enjoy the world with the soundtrack you choose to give it, free from distraction and disturbances, and able to focus on what you wish to focus on. It performs this admirably.
In Australia, the Beoplay H8i has a recommended retail price of $729.