This year, Klipsch unveiled numerous new speakers and headphones carrying the Reference moniker. Among them was a new pair of on-ear headphones aimed at audio fanatics on the go, the Reference On-Ear ($200). The new design places emphasis on comfort as well as performance.
Klipsch geared the Reference On-Ear toward portable use—it is lightweight and folds up for easy storage. The on-ear design provides a significant amount of passive noise reduction, and its flat cable has an in-line mic with volume control for use with phones and tablets.
These headphones use a 40mm transducer, offer a frequency response from 20 to 20,000 Hz, and have a maximum output of 110 dB. Klipsch specs the impedance at 32 ohms, and they weigh a mere 7 ounces. Reference On-Ears come in either black or white with brushed-aluminum accents.
My current headphone collection consists entirely of over-ear models. Compared to on-ear and in-ear headphones, over-ear designs offer a listening experience that tends to sound more expansive. They also tend to be more comfortable thanon-ears during extended listening sessions since the cushion does not touch your ears. Even so, I’ve enjoyed listening to on-ear models from brands such as Grado, Bang & Olufsen, and Monster. But for every good on-ear I’ve tried, there were many others that I could not stand to wear for more than a few minutes.
Because of bad experiences with other on-ear designs, I was nervous about reviewing the Reference On-Ears—I figured I’d find them uncomfortable. It turns out the fear of discomfort was completely unfounded; these are easily among the most comfortable on-ear headphones I’ve worn. The earpads have just the right amount of pressure, softness, and thickness to provide an effective seal without causing fatigue.
A good seal provides the audible benefit of passive noise reduction. With a lower noise floor, you can hear audio clearly at lower volumes—even in noisy environments. This is a key ingredient to enjoying high-fidelity headphones on the go.
I prefer passive noise reduction to active noise cancellation because I’m not a big fan of headphones that cease to function properly when they run out of battery power. Furthermore, passive noise reduction works for all sounds, not just the drone of jet engines. I was pleased Klipsch put so much thought into making the Reference On-Ears comfortable as well as effective at blocking outside noise.
Comfort is a huge factor for headphones, but even the world’s most comfortable cans are little more than glorifiedearmuffs if they don’t sound good. That can be a challenge for closed-back on-ear designs, which often use smaller drivers than over-ear models. Fortunately, the tight seal offered by the Klipsch has the added benefit of closely coupling the 40mm driver’s output to your eardrum—it makes the most of what its got.
I tested frequency response with a calibrated microphone and my own ears. I don’t have an ear simulator or a dummy head, so I work with a combination of direct open-air nearfield measurement with a UMIK-1 and listening to sine-wave sweeps. With the right headphones, I can hear bass right down to 20 Hz and sense it down to 16 Hz. Furthermore, my high-frequency hearing cutoff is 17.4 kHz. Beyond that, I have to rely on a mic to confirm there’s output that high.
Using a nearfield measurement, I confirmed what my ears told me when I listened to sine waves—bass extends all the way down to 20 Hz, as the specs claim. But the bass doesn’t really kick in with full force until around 28-30 Hz, at which point it is strong and distortion-free. In addition, it’s not exaggerated or overpowering bass. The 20-20,000 Hz spec is legit, but the prime performance envelope of these headphones is in the range from 30 Hz to 19,000 Hz—still very impressive.
I spent a lot of time listening to the On-Ears with a Sony NWZ-A17 Walkman. The Sony supports high-resolution audio and drives full-sized headphones to satisfying levels. It had no problem pushing the On-Ears beyond safe listening levels with zero distortion. Numero Deux, an album by the Dining Rooms, captivated me from the get-go—I felt compelled to keep listening. It was one of many albums I played from start to finish because they sounded so good.
I don’t do much listening while tethered to a receiver, but I did plug the Reference On-Ears into a Pioneer Elite SC-85 AVR and listened to some tracks stream with Tidal. As far as I could tell, it sounded the same as with the portable player—clear, dynamic, and balanced. I also checked out some Blu-ray content—namely Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They sound just as good with movies as they do with music.
The Reference On-Ears also performed well when paired with an iPhone 6 Plus. As with the Sony, there was plenty of power to spare and no trace of distortion. For a few seconds, I cranked Deadmau5 “Maths” up to maximum volume—I heard nothing but clean yet unsafely loud music.
There is an app for iOS and Android called Z+ that plays music mastered in DTS Headphone:X format. I purchased the soundtrack to Interstellar, mixed in Headphone:X. Hans Zimmer appears in an intro video, where he says it is “the closest you get to the experience I have while writing the music.” Heady stuff!
After choosing “on-ear” as the headphone type, a brief DTS demo played, which convincingly showed it could emulate a 7.1.4 immersive-audio speaker layout, including height channels. One warning—the tracks cost $2 each and there are 16 tracks in the album. There is a free track called “Day One,” but you’ll want to hear the whole album to appreciate how effective Headphone:X is.
Klipsch’s Reference On-Ears, unbound by the usual “inside your head” sound of stereo, delivered a thrilling rendition of each track that far exceeded what I’ve come to expect from portable audio—the headphones disappeared, leaving nothing but the music, which sounded unbelievably grand. In fact, it sounded as good as some of the best stereo systems I’ve heard.
After several weeks with the Reference On-Ears, I can safely say they join the ranks of my favorite headphones. The combination of comfort and quality they offer is a cut above a lot of the competition. If you need a pair of quality cans for your commute, the Reference On-Ears are worth serious consideration.