B&O Beoplay H8i and H9i headphones review: Diminishing returns
B&O is a name that typically evokes an image of premium audio gear. Of course, those high-end materials and typically solid sound quality almost always come with a steep price, even if the device is part of the more consumer-friendly B&O Play line. Back at CES, the company announced updated versions of its high-end wireless headphones, the on-ear H8i and the over-ear H9i, with a handful of new features. The new additions are certainly improvements, but the total package here isn’t more compelling than the best Bose, Sony and others have to offer.
- Premium materials
- Up to 30 hours of battery life
- Lightweight and decently comfortable
- Crisp and clear audio
- USB-C charging
- Expensive compared to the competition
- No touch controls
- Unimpressive volume
- Companion app offers minimal audio controls
There are a number of things that haven’t changed from the previous-generation versions, the H8 and H9. First, the same mix of leather and aluminum is back to create the sophisticated look that has been B&O’s signature since the wired H6. Sure, it might be good to see a different aesthetic on new models, but I really like what B&O has here. Both the H8i and H9i are available in a “Natural” (gray/tan) color scheme or all black. For me, the combination of premium materials is a nice break from the plastic shells I’m used to seeing on other headphones, but it does require a bigger investment.
There are three key changes on both models for which I have to applaud B&O. First, the company switched the charging port from micro USB to USB-C. It’s a small tweak, but it means that the pricey headphones you’re about to invest in will have the latest connector (for now, at least), and likely the same cable as your next phone. Second, there’s now a proximity sensor in the H8i and H9i. This means that when you take the headphones off, the music automatically pauses. A number of other headphones also do this, but it’s a worthy addition nonetheless. Last, and most important, B&O significantly increased the battery life across the board.
When it comes to overall sound quality, the H8i and H9i are a mixed bag. There’s a crisp and clear quality to the sound — a trademark of B&O’s audio profile I’ve liked since I used the H6. It creates enjoyable listening sessions well-suited for a range of genres, not just selections like jazz or bluegrass. There’s also a decent amount of bass on both units, but it’s carefully harnessed so that it never becomes overbearing, even in the midst of a driving hip-hop or electronic beat. However, the H8i lacks the volume to really do that stellar clarity justice. Instead, I found myself reaching for the much louder H9i.
Both models also work with B&O’s Beoplay app, from which you can use a feature called ToneTouch to choose various EQ presets or use the swipe-based interface to come up with your own. ToneTouch uses terms like warm, excited, relaxed and bright instead of treble, bass and mids — either way, the actual changes to the audio are hard to spot on both models. Ditto for the presets. I could detect a change, but ultimately it doesn’t make enough of a difference that you’d want to bother.
The $399 H8i is the on-ear model in this duo. While it’s the cheaper of the two at $399, there are some decisions you’ll have to make in addition to wear style. The H8i still features active noise-cancellation, but it lacks the touch controls offered on the H9i. Instead, the H8i’s onboard controls take the form of physical buttons. On the right side, there’s a trio of keys: The outside two control volume, while the one in the center handles play/pause, Bluetooth pairing and summoning a virtual assistant. On the left, a three-way toggle switch doubles as the power control and a way of enabling either noise-cancellation or Transparency Mode.
The other big difference is battery life. With the H8i, B&O says you can expect up to 30 hours of audio with both active noise-cancellation and Bluetooth turned on. Indeed, I got about a week of use out of these headphones before I needed to charge, using them a few hours each day. That 30-hour rating is also on par with my current favorite over-ear pair, Sony’s WH-1000XM2. It sucks to have to pause your music to charge or employ a cable to keep the beats going, so longevity like this is a big plus. However, unlike the H9i, which has significantly less battery life, the battery itself on the H8i isn’t removable. This won’t be a dealbreaker for most people, but it’s something to keep in mind.
I’m not usually a fan of the on-ear style, but my time with the H8i reminded me to keep an open mind. These headphones are relatively lightweight, while soft ear cushions kept me comfy during long listening sessions. It’s still not my first choice, but B&O has done well here to create a pair of on-ear headphones that doesn’t suffer from that dreaded pinching feeling.
My main issue with the H8i is that it’s simply not loud enough. From my MacBook Air, things are slightly better, but from my iPhone (where I listen most often) there isn’t nearly enough volume. I admit I probably like my music a bit louder than most, but the highest volume on the H8i is noticeably less than what I’ve heard on the over-ear Sony WH-1000XM2 and Bose QC35 II — and even the H9i. And yes, this is partially attributable to the over-ear design, but there should be some compensation for that with extra oomph. The modest volume hampers what are otherwise great headphones. Despite the stunning clarity, listening to things like the driving metal riffs on TesseracT’s Sonder and the booming beats on Big Boi’s Boomiverse isn’t nearly as enjoyable. For me, the lack of volume translates to a lack of energy in the music.
In terms of on-ear alternatives, there are many, but you’ll likely have to sacrifice design and materials to save yourself some cash. For example, both the Klipsch Reference and the AKG N60NC are worthy competitors, and you can nab either for $300 or less. And that’s a big issue with B&O: Unless you’re smitten with the whole package, you can save money elsewhere without a big hit to sound quality. If you insist on a refined design, though, the Master & Dynamic MW50 is another option, but it’s $50 more than the H8i.
Let me be clear from the jump: The over-ear $499 H9i is one of the comfiest sets of headphones I’ve tested. Sure, it owes a lot of that to the design brought over from the H6, but it’s an over-ear style that is very comfortable to wear, especially when you need to keep them on for hours at a time. As on the H8i, the earpads here are soft and there’s not so much tension in the headband that it feels like the H9i is pinching your head. The H9i isn’t quite as comfy at the Bose QC35 II, mostly due to the fact that they’re slightly heavier, but it’s pretty damn close.
The H9i has touch controls similar to what I’ve seen on other models from other companies, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Sure, those gesture-based controls are handy for adjusting the volume, skipping tracks and flipping between ANC and Transparency Mode, but they can be frustrating to use. All headphones are different, and you should expect a learning curve when getting to know a new pair, but most of the time I wasn’t able to hit what I wanted on my first try.
For example, you swipe down to disable ANC and swipe down again to turn it back on. This sounds fine in theory, but in practice, it can be a bit frustrating. Often a swipe would turn something off and immediately back on if I didn’t move my finger away quickly enough. Same goes for the front and back horizontal swipes for skipping tracks, although those gestures were generally more reliable. The circular motion for adjust volume also worked well, as did the single tap for play/pause. I really only ever had issues with the vertical and sometimes the horizontal swipes.
Thankfully, the H9i does offer more volume than the H8i. I could use even a smidge more, but what the headphones offer is adequate and noticeably louder than what the H8i is capable of. Again, that’s partially due to wear style. That crisp, clear sound is much better served with the extra volume. The noise-cancellation isn’t quite on par with the best Sony and Bose have to offer, but it’s still very good. Ditto for the overall sound quality. The H9i sounds great, but for me, it falls just short of the WH-1000XM2 and QC35 II.
You won’t hear any shade from me if you decide you can’t bring yourself to spend $499 on headphones. The market for noise-canceling over-ear headphones is stacked, so you have a lot of options to choose from. The Sony WH-1000XM2 and Bose QC35 II are at the top of my list thanks to their mix of comfort, sound and great noise-cancellation. Beats’ Studio3 is also a favorite, and all three pairs are priced at $350. In fact, some retailershave the Studio3 for $239-$299 right now (depending on color), which makes that set an even more attractive alternative. I can think of a lot of things I could do with that extra $150. Again, if design and premium materials are what you’re after, Master & Dynamic is probably your best option. Just remember that it’s even more expensive than the B&O H9i at $549.
B&O continues its run of well-designed headphones with the H8i and H9i, and for the most part, the audio is up to par. The volume issue with the H8i is a big sticking point for me, especially when you consider how steep the investment is there. The H9i is a more well-rounded set and the audio is great, but again, better options can be had for significantly less money. B&O has proved it can nail the details time and time again, but it also remains a luxury audio brand that many will pass on — no matter how good the gear looks or how good it sounds.