DALI IO-12 Noise Cancelling Over-Ear Headphones Review

Posted on 8th May, 2024

DALI IO-12 Noise Cancelling Over-Ear Headphones Review

Matthew Jens goes jet-setting with this exotic pair of high-end, noise-cancelling headphones…

DALI

IO-12 Noise Cancelling Over-Ear Headphones

AUD $1,799 RRP

Time to play in the big league. As Bluetooth headphones started becoming the norm a few years ago, the market became more complex. Many moons ago, travellers would buy and be done with the latest Bose offering. But these days, the choices are more complicated. Do I want a travel companion that seamlessly integrates into my technological ecosystem (a la the Airpods lineup), or do I emphasise my sound quality above all else (Sennheiser or Sony)? Or do I want the most impenetrable wall of noise-cancelling possible (as per the Bose NC700)?

There are many choices for the average consumer to consider, but what happens when cost is no longer an issue? Welcome to the Business Class of the headphone world. Your options get more interesting when you're rich enough to demand more from your noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones than simple sonic performance. Take the price of your Sony, Sennheiser, or Bose top-end flagship, then double it. Only then can you consider the Focal Bathys, Bowers & Wilkins PX8, and the DALI IO-12. These go beyond noise cancellation or audio performance – they are luxury statement pieces that accompany the most demanding travellers.

I was recently tasked with reviewing the IO-12, so a Business Class trip from Melbourne to Los Angeles would be fitting. This latest offering from DALI offers boatloads of luxury with some lofty promises befitting of a luxurious journey. The question is, do they truly belong towards the pointy end of the aeroplane? 

UP CLOSE

The IO-12 is unapologetically luxurious, for better or worse. Its earpads are made from beautiful, soft leather—the same hide that adorns the entire width of the headband. This fresh and natural leather gives you that “new wallet smell” when you remove it from the case for the first time. 

Fit and finish are exquisite, and a confidence-inspiring frame and yolk give me the impression that the IO-12 would travel many miles easily, whereas the soft-touch points of the pads and headband provide a comfortable experience. Finished in a 'dark chocolate' colour, the headphone assembly combines high-quality plastics and metal with an immaculate fit and finish.

Calling the IO-12 a comfortable experience is selling it short. DALI has produced the only noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones I've used that properly sit around the ear – my ears don't touch the cups. It's a stone's throw away from being a similar experience to the Sennheiser HD800, were it not carrying a battery and other technology bits-and-bobs.

I was able to wear these cans for several hours without any hassles or discomfort. My ears never needed to take a break. I could sit up and be engaged in a movie or recline back and enjoy music without any itchiness or fatigue. The fit honestly reminded me of my bulky, ultra-comfortable hi-fi headphones back home (such as the Denon D5000). Worlds apart from the usual comfort levels of noise-cancelling headphones…

The case in which the IO-12 comes in is massive - it's so big that it is borderline unusable. The headphones are quite large already – more so than most – so including a case like this is silly. Instead of contouring around the headphones to avoid eating up too much bag space, the case is a sizeable squircle-shaped affair, holding the cables and chargers. Despite my increased hand luggage allowance as a business class passenger, this case was far too bulky, and I didn't even bother bringing it on the trip. I would love to see an optional slim case as a reasonable alternative.

Usually, this is where I start talking about the included app with a Bluetooth pair of headphones, but upon searching in the App Store, I couldn't find one from DALI. It turns out that it doesn't exist. This absolutely blew my mind. How could a pair of Bluetooth headphones be this expensive and not have any app included?

I won't attempt to justify or defend this in any way. But after taking several long-haul flights with this pair of headphones, I must admit that I now understand. It's not a Nissan GTR equivalent, built for tweaking and fettling to your heart's content, but more of a Bentley Mulsanne with a big leather-wrapped steering wheel and only basic adjustments to help you keep your mind on the journey. No distractions, no fuss, just a strong emphasis on comfort.

There are three settings for noise cancelling – on, off, or transparency. They are adjusted purely with a button press and confirmed heartily by a man with the purest BBC English accent you've ever heard. Amazingly, noise cancelling still works just fine when the headphones are cabled. There are no earcup sensors to automatically pause your content when you remove the headphones. I am not too offended by this, as I've never seen this feature implemented perfectly before.

The battery life is obscene. It is advertised as 35 hours, but after a 14-hour flight of heavy usage, I was only down to 80 percent – so this is a well-and-truly “charge me once a week” pair of headphones. And soundwise, the good news just keeps on coming…

This design uses DALI's proprietary SMC Drivers, which are unique for their innovative use of non-conducting magnetic materials. This technology, previously employed in the company's high-end speakers, has been integrated into headphones for the first time. By utilising SMC components in the headphone drivers, distortion caused by eddy currents and voice-coil movement is said to be significantly reduced, ultimately enhancing clarity and fidelity in sound reproduction.

These drivers can be fed by your source material via aptX Adaptive (when via Bluetooth), an analogue 3.5mm cable, or via USB (up to 96kHz). It's safe to say that despite its simplistic presentation (sans any form of app), the IO-12 is packed to the gills with tech. But has all of this technical wizardry paid off in the long run? In a word, yes!

THE LISTENING

This pair of high-end DALI headphones sounds seriously good. For example, with Found Footage by Brock Berrigan, the jazzy piano samples and slapping hip-hop beat are presented in a warm and enjoyable way that makes it hard not to tap my feet. The piano work sounds really natural, and stereo imaging is impressively expansive, too. You get a super-accurate sound that makes you want to come back for more. 

While there isn't any adjustable EQ, there are two sound modes to choose from: 'hifi' and 'bass'. These are both precisely what they say on the tin. Bass mode gives a hearty mid-bass thump, which many DALI loudspeaker listeners would think is a little excessive, but it was delightful and just right for me. I believe 'hifi' mode gives the natural tuning of the drivers, which doesn't cause anaemic basslines but does bring out the higher ranges of the recording in a more open way.

While watching Mission Impossible, I was blown away by the IO-12's dynamic range. Usually on flights, this is the first thing to be thrown out of the window. Still, with adequate noise cancelling and an extended frequency response, I could properly enjoy movies instead of just battling with the volume control the entire time.

The IO-12's noise cancelling could be better, especially when compared directly with that of the Airpods Pro Max or Bose NC700. Still, it is adequate for general use and leagues above many other cheaper models on the market. Engine noise was no problem during my flights, immersion was at an all-time high, and flight attendants could sneak up on me multiple times as I just flat-out couldn't hear them talking at first.

When listening in cabled mode, you can choose active or passive. The former allows for noise-cancelling and DSP, and the latter has none. I tried this mode out when listening to Clara by Hedex, using my trusty Questyle M15. With the size and weight of the headphones, it's almost stunning how much it feels to use a home hi-fi design and not just a Bluetooth headphone. Basslines are produced with clean, visceral accuracy, and the midrange remains untouched, presented with all the delicacy and nuance the artist and producer intended.

THE VERDICT

With luxurious design and premium sound quality, DALI's IO-12 headphones are totally at home near the pointy nose of the plane. Exquisite levels of comfort and superb audio performance come standard, but the omission of a companion app is odd, and the cumbersome carrying case makes for puzzling first impressions. The well-respected Danish speaker specialist has found an elegant way to offer discerning travellers a first-class audio experience. So, if you're in the market for headphones that prioritise luxury and sound, the IO-12 is an essential audition.

For more information visit DALI

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    Matthew Jens's avatar

    Matthew Jens

    Constantly keeping himself busy, Matthew is a production manager, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, Head-Fi fanatic, coffee enthusiast and all-round cool Dad.

    Posted in:Headphones Applause Awards 2024 Headphones Over / On Ear Noise Cancelling Bluetooth / Wireless
    Tags: dali  amber technology  amber 



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