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TechnologyTell Review: A-Audio Icon Wireless headphones

Sections: Audio, Headphones, Reviews

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Sometimes I think of an interesting or engaging intro for a product review. This is not one of those times, haha. But I will comment about how I liked the A-Audio booth at CES 2015. Compared to many of the garish-looking booths at the show, A-Audio’s sophisticated panache was quite refreshing and very fitting for their product lineup.

Design & Connectivity

The A-Audio Icon Wireless headphones are certainly dressed to impress. It reminds me of a very modern suit style that has class but also a bit of an edge. For some, the Icon Wireless may seem overly aggressive. I don’t know. I’ve seen wackier designs and styles out there with more prominent logo placement. These are pretty good in my opinion.

A-Audio Icon Wireless headphone box contents

This is a lot of gear that all fits in the case!

One of the main reasons why you’d want to get the Icon Wireless is because you value quality materials and attention to detail. The headband is evenly cushioned with supple foam and wrapped up in soft synthetic leather with a quilted stitch. Is the stitching style necessary? No. But are the headphones better looking for it? Yes. It’s a nice touch.

The band ends with all-metal hinges which connect to the plastic ear cups. Considering how well the matte black of metal and plastic match each other, you could think it was all made of metal. Thankfully not, since I’m sure it would only add unnecessary weight.

The oval-shaped over-ear cups are padded nicely, and the insides are also lined with cloth-covered padding. I consider the Icon Wireless to be a full-sized headphone that comes up short of being considered as bulky.

The right ear cup houses the buttons for volume and track control, all of which deliver an audible click that goes into the ear. Despite the intrusive noise, the buttons are very responsive. The main button, where the logo for A-Audio is, serves as a multifunction for play, pause, and handling phone calls. I dig how these buttons are seamlessly disguised as part of the exterior design, and they’re not hard to feel for either. It’s pretty cool and executed quite well.

A-Audio Icon Wireless headphone case

Just like that, neatly.

A-Audio get props for providing a 5-LED energy indicator on the left cup. A quick press of the power button flashes the remaining wireless power.

Strangely, though, I’ve only seen the 5th light lit when charging. As soon as I unplug it (after being fully-charged) and press the power button to check levels, only the other four show. The left cup also houses the internal battery underneath a magnetically-attached cover. This is a feature we don’t see enough. Batteries fail over time, and A-Audio provides a means to keep the headphone and simply replace the battery.

The included cables are good. I like the skinny tips with metal, though the cable material takes a little longer to uncurl and straighten out than some newer ones. The in-line microphone/remote has a great feel with the metal casing and silicone buttons. There is no mistaking the buttons and their responsiveness to clicks for track control, a small detail that some manufacturers still haven’t gotten right. The only complaint I have with the remote cable is that the volume doesn’t work with Android (seems common to me, might just be for iOS), leaving me to adjusting audio via my smartphone.

A-Audio Icon Wireless headphone cables

Metal plugs and remote are always appreciated for durability.

The Bluetooth range is pretty solid, maintaining a connection up to about 9 meters before dropping. Slightly less if you plan on putting an interior wall between you and the music device. Although the Icon Wireless automatically reconnects once it re-enters range, it doesn’t automatically connect to devices that turn their Bluetooth on after the headphones have already been on. Even if you press a track button. This is pretty common, and could be more on the device side than the actual headphones.

When it comes to wireless quality, I have yet to hear a single artifact, spit, pop, interruption (not related to range or obstacles) or anything else (also not related to the ANC) while listening. Music and audio come through clean, drawing no undue attention to the headphones.

A-Audio seeks to create that premium headphone experience, and the included accessories certainly add to that. Not only does the Icon Wireless come inside a carbon-fiber styled hard-shell zippered case, but you also get: a pair of audio cables (one with and one without remote), a folding-prong wall adapter that can output 2.1A, a USB charge cable (seems standard at 1A, not fast-charge up to 2.1A), and a roll of licorice-flavoured Life Savers. Just kidding – it’s really an external battery pack (likely 2000mAh 5V/1A output). All of this fits neatly inside a velcroed nylon pouch inside the case. Talk about being dressed to the nines!

Comfort

The A-Audio Icon Wireless headphones sport an over ear design that encapsulates, creating a reliable audio seal. If you have an average-sized head, the cup extension should be sufficient to reach your ears. My head is a bit bigger than that. Even though the cups can go all the way down to my ears properly, the headband presses on a spot right at the top of my head. Thankfully, the thick quilted padding prevents soreness, despite the Icon’s weight bearing straight down. But average heads? You’ll be good to go.

A-Audio Icon Wireless headphone LEDs

The power indicating LEDs are a nice touch.

I like the light foam padding on the inside of the cups. I can feel my ears brush against it sometimes, making the Icon Wireless feel cozy and not oversized. You (or at least I) don’t want ears just floating in the cavernous space of ear cups.

The foam that presses against the head is nice and squishy, yet firm enough to support. Although the cups have that flat-swivel factor, it only goes in one direction and doesn’t really help with lateral movement. The same applies with the vertical adjustment; it’s good, but my bigger head wouldn’t mind a fudge more.

So, in the end, the bottom and front (face side) of the cushions press down unevenly with respect to the top and back. Does it matter? Not really. There is more than enough padding to compensate. Most importantly – the seal remains.

The clamping force keeps the headphones in place without excessive pressure. Even for big-head people. It’s almost to the point of messing with my glasses, but not quite. After an hour and a half, fatigue builds up along the entire length of the ear cups, cheek side.

A-Audio Icon Wireless headphone hinge

All-metal, quality hinge construction.

The fatigue comes gradually and without focusing on a singular point or pinching. A five-minute break is enough time to refresh me for another couple of hours. But eventually I need to take a serious break to rest my face. Brief breaks are common, even with some of the most comfortable cans, and the Icon Wireless do pretty darn well for all-day listening binges.

You can expect your ears to get warm/hot, maybe even slightly sweaty for some. At least the heat is not more than what you’d expect from over-ear closed-back headphones. Heat from the headband is negligible unless, maybe, you have full contact all the way around. As far as I can tell, there is no extra heat generated from the left-side ear cup due to the internal battery.

For easy carrying while you’re not actively wearing the A-Audio Icon Wireless, you can fold the cups flat and wear the headphone around your neck. It works for the short-term, unless you don’t mind part of the padding continuously pressing up against the base your throat. If the cups could extend just a teeny bit more, and if the clamping force were just a teeny bit less, it would be perfect.

Audio Performance

When you first put on the Icon Wireless, when connected via Bluetooth, don’t be alarmed by the hiss. That’s just the ANC. It has nothing to do with Bluetooth signal quality or lack of electronic isolation. But more on ANC later. If you don’t like it, just connect the included audio cable and enjoy pristine-sounding music.

A-Audio Icon Wireless headphone folded

Even without the case, you can fold the headphones up compact (more or less)

The A-Audio Icon Wireless headphones have 16 steps of volume that can bring the sound to zero, no matter what the volume setting is at on the connected device. Single clicks or a press-hold let you find that perfect level. Keep your hearing in mind, since these suckers can get loud. And if you’re listening to some hot EDM or hip-hop, prepare to have the Icon Wireless shake your face with incredible low-end output. It’s almost worth having the music play a little louder than preferred.

But if you want to maintain sound integrity, you’re likely to keep the volume toned down to better listening levels. Excessive volume adds sibilance to lyrics, forces vocals to be rabid-aggressive toward the listener, creates messy distortion in the mids and highs, and also adds a sharp brittle aspect to brass in the upper registers. And all that seems to happen with the lows is that they sound way more bitchin’. I can totally respect that.

Thanks to the ear cushioning and solid seal, someone would have to be within a meter of you in order to hear music playing. Let’s assume the level is moderate and not blowing the drums out. Even then, the ambient noise would have to be pretty quiet for that person to zero in on the source. Noise isolation is good, and the headphones are very leak-free.

A-Audio Icon Wireless headphone wear neck

Or just wear it around the neck

The audio movement between the left and right sides is lively and dynamic. You feel that the music is wrapped all the way around the front, fading slightly past each ear. Instrument positions, including relative depth, are admirably imaged.

You can hear when artists lean in a little closer when singing, like in the song “My Left Hand” by Mr. Moonshine. Better than that are tracks with instruments clearly in the background and the singer up front at the mic, and the voice completely fills the open area of the stage. The spaciousness between instruments without any overlapping edges of sound creates such a warm, inviting atmosphere. It’s better with tracks that have multiple elements going on all around and at varying volume levels.

Prepare to enjoy some good detail. In fact, you’re likely to notice things you might not have heard from your music in a long time (or ever). The hit and scratch of acoustic guitar strings. The unique sound of maracas or rain sticks with each shake. The undulating, psychedelic wail from electric guitar. The subtle echoes bouncing off a wall before fading away, like in the Bruno Mars song, “If I Knew”, off of Unorthodox Jukebox. That last aspect – other headphones tend to blur it into the background.

A-Audio Icon Wireless headphone side

See the track controls on the right-side cup? No? That’s what makes them good.

There is an incredible amount of clarity and transparency that comes through the A-Audio Icon Wireless, making you feel there is almost nothing between you and the music (aside from the ear cups). It’s much better when the headphones are plugged in via the cable, and you don’t have to listen to the ANC hissing behind the music (more on that later).

For having such obviously muscular lows, I’m rather impressed with how well the Icon Wireless’ highs are represented. Vocals and instruments both come detailed, but without the excessive sparkle common with bass-heavy headphones. The highs don’t get obliterated by the lows either; they come off as sweet, but not like someone trying to cram 12lbs of sugar in a 10lb bag.

The musical edges are crisp and very focused. This is easier to identify while listening to flutes and/or violins, whose staccato notes come sharp, punctual, and without blurring into each other. Notes from harps, flutes, dulcimers are delivered energetic. The tone is pretty accurate, and I can hear individual notes even when they play as a flurry. The decay comes about as quick as the attack. Females vocals sound lush, full, and natural sounding; quite lovely all around.

When it comes to the highs, it’s feels like the lateral imaging is more precise than the depth. Layers don’t develop the same front to back separation as they do side to side. It’s subtle. However, the edges maintain themselves so it’s still very easy to identify one instrument from the next. The tone and crisp detail help to support individual imaging to a listener’s ears.

A-Audio Icon Wireless headphone battery

The left-side cup houses the replaceable battery.

The midrange reproduction is good, considering the Icon Wireless sounds more like it has a v-shaped curve. But to its credit, vocals deliver much soul, even if they aren’t as sharp as ones in the highs. But even if a song increases in action and complexity, the midrange vocals are still right up there towards the front, still certainly ahead of the drums and bass. It’s good they don’t get nudged back much.

However, guitars sound recessed, especially against strong midrange vocals and active drums in the lows. This seems more prominent with electric guitar and/or metal songs than it does with acoustic guitar and/or rock. Part of it has to do with the lows taking the spotlight and elbowing in front of the mids. The harder the music, the more the mids suffer versus the highs and lows.

You can expect to hear some warm coloration of instruments, especially in the lower mids. Edges turn a touch blurry as complexity increases and note decay blends a fuzz. But if you listen carefully enough, or tone down the lows with an equalizer, the midrange detail is still apparent. It just doesn’t have the same level of vibrance and sharpness as it would from headphones with a neutral/balanced sound signature. Most of that goes to the highs, and then the lows deliver the mass.

A-Audio Icon Wireless headphone wear front

There is a bit of gap between the band and head.

There is no mistaking the purring, rumbling mid- and sub-bass notes when you’re listening with the Icon Wireless. While some headphones are good at giving you a taste, these deliver a heaping mouthful. It gets better and more prominent as volume increases; just don’t go too far to harm eardrums and/or distort the audio quality. This low-end reproduction goes beyond surface hits, adding a rich layer of depth to the whole listening experience. People who settle for bass that can only get loud are missing out.

The low end hits, especially the ones that deliver the physical component, are firm, almost taut. The punch is quick on the attack, controlled; the decay is almost as snappy, but not quite. Less so when beats come out rapid fire, like with furious drumming. But considering the emphasis on the lows, it’s a pretty good balance of muscle and technical acuity.

It’s like A-Audio shrunk down a floor-standing subwoofer, appropriately tweaked the output, and engineered it into the Icon Wireless. And you don’t need to play hardcore drum & bass or EDM to enjoy this aspect. The song, “Silhouette (feat. Ellie Goulding)” by Active Child delivers subtle ‘heartbeat’ lows you can feel as they’re lightly thumped out in the background.

Audiophiles may appreciate the amount of low-end detail as much as they oppose the added emphasis. But for anyone who loves fun and excitement bursting from their music, the Icon Wireless is like having your bass-cake and eating it too. It all comes down to personal tastes.

3-Stage Technology

So ‘3-Stage Technology’ is just fancy talk for wired, ANC (Active Noise Cancellation), and Bass Enhancer modes. The ANC and Bass Enhancer modes apply only when connected wirelessly. Switching between these modes can only be done while music is playing. But you can just wear the headphones and benefit from blocking out some white noise with the ANC.

A-Audio Icon Wireless headphone wear side

The over-ear cups are sized well and not too big.

When switching back and forth between the wireless modes, there is a very unnecessary “b-BEE-boop” sound that goes with. I would have greatly preferred a simple switch and/or zero sound effect. I know that the A-Audio Legacy uses a switch, but the Icon Wireless switch could have still been a switch, although more streamlined and stylish. Though not a big deal, the beep is a jarring interruption of music nonetheless. This sound effect scales with the headphone volume and can get pretty loud, so use connected device volume first.

But the real kind of big deal is that the ANC is always on in wireless mode. So the 3-Stage Technology is more like 2-Stage Technology because there is no way to turn the ANC off. It’s fine if you’re enjoying music in a noisy environment. But at home when things are quiet, the ANC ends up adding almost double the noise, continuously at that. The only way to not choose ANC is to go wired.

On top of the ANC strangeness, the Bass Enhancer mode doesn’t sound much different from the ANC mode (and the accompanying beeps don’t indicate which is which). You’d have to really be paying attention in order to pick it out, and not every track will showcase the added accentuation. So the Icon Wireless performs in either wired or wireless+ANC mode (basically).

At first blush, one might mistake the level of ANC for some poor Bluetooth isolation, resulting in the light hissing. This is not the case. It is the actual ANC white noise, though it is mostly effective for softer to mid-level sounds. The low drone of a lawnmower motor doing work across the street still carries through, although muted. I can still hear the tips of the sounds associated with cars driving on the freeway just 770 meters away. Sure, this is without any music playing, but the ANC is only situationally beneficial. It’s also a little over-eager, and you can hear/feel that pressure click when powering the headphones down.

Verdict

If you value a fun sound signature, comfy cups, meaty lows, and all the accessories you’d want with and over-ear headphone, the A-Audio Icon Wireless headphone is worthy of your attention. Although the company may be relatively new on the scene for personal audio products, they’ve definitely got the eye for appearance and hardware. The durable metal and synthetic leather look and feel great.

Hidden track and volume controls in the right ear cup are intuitively fun, though just a touch clicky. I like how the ear cups can swivel and lie flat or fold up into the band compact. Not only does it provide a little more movement to comfortably fit skulls of all shapes and sizes, but it adds to the flexibility of carrying. The battery life is consistently good for 10 hours of wireless audio at minimum (I know I didn’t touch on it much, but this was successfully tested repeatedly).

The only aspect that would give some potential users pause is the issue regarding wireless operation and ANC. You don’t get a choice to turn off ANC, unless you plug in an audio cable. But then you miss out on the wireless convenience. It really depends on one’s listening habits. Either way, the Bluetooth signal is solid and free of the noise that lesser headphones often exhibit. I definitely like the A-Audio Icon Wireless and what the company is all about. Go with the Phantom Black, especially if you are like me and don’t like the fingerprints shining back at you on chrome!

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