By Henry Phillips
on 8.7.13
Photo by HP

The recent rise in popularity of luxury headphones has created a large pocket of those who want high-quality audio, integration with their phone and portability but don’t want to look like they’re DJing a set at The Tunnel. Boutique Headphone companies are just now beginning to plug this hole in the market by finally producing attractive headphones with an uncompromising view on build and sound quality. Sennheiser has the Momentum; Bang and Olufsen’s released the BeoPlay H6; but after testing a pair for the past week, it’s clear the KEF M500 ($300) sits at the top of the heap.

OTHER GREAT HEADPHONES: AKG K391 NC | Best Over-Ear Headphones Under $250 | 10 Best Noise Cancelling Headphones

KEF is a relatively small but highly revered UK firm famous for making impressive, hi-fi loudspeakers with a strong eye for design, and their foray into headphones marches to the same beat. The elegant aluminum and leather on-the-ear headset inspires confidence as soon as it’s picked up. A suitable heft and size lets the user know they’re dealing with a serious piece of equipment, but the headset still folds with enough compactness to fit in a nearly filled bag. These portability and size factors paired with a flat, tangle-free cord complete with a 3-button remote and microphone (compatible with Apple products) make it clear KEF designed the M500s with commuters and mobile users in mind. For that set, the quality construction, dimensions and accouterments alone seem to justify a solid chunk of the $300 price tag — even before they’re plugged in.

Two things are immediately striking when you first put them on: (1) the comfort of the memory foam earpads, and (2) the surprising amount of noise isolation that they create. These aren’t actively noise-canceling headphones, but the amount of passive noise reduction is more than sufficient to drown out noisy subway cars and annoying coworkers. But the high level of noise isolation doesn’t come at the expense of comfort. The soft leather earpads never felt like they were too tight, nor did the set feel heavy or unwieldy. They were comfortable for hours at a time. Then there’s the sound. Frequency response is pleasantly consistent across the entire range from 20 to 20,000hz, meaning you’ll hear all kinds of music exactly as intended without any artificial increases in bass or treble. That being said, the bass is tight and the rest of the spectrum is surprisingly open and airy for a closed, on-ear headphone. They won’t dethrone any audiophile stalwarts acoustically, but their sound quality is entirely befitting a set in this range.

Though $300 is a tough price tag (the equivalent of a wallet root canal for some), KEF’s M500s outperform more expensive competitors in design, construction and portability. With solid sound as a given, they strike a balance between style and performance that any commuter with a bonus to blow should find entirely appealing.