Libratone Q Adapt on-ear Wireless Bluetooth headphones
Libratone is a relatively new brand on the audio market but they hit the ground running and have been around for a few years now. Made popular by their customizable WIFI Speakers the ZIPP and ZIPP mini, Libratone has now decided to branch out into the headphone market with the introduction of the Q Adapt series. The Q Adapt are available as lighting earbuds for use with iPhones or as on-ear Bluetooth wireless headphones. Both feature the same adaptive active noise cancelation but today I’ll be looking at the wireless on-ear headphone version. Currently available for $249 US, these headphones aren’t cheap but they have a lot to offer for their price point.
Normally I don’t bother with the packaging of my headphones but Libratone went out of their way to make unboxing the Q Adapt headphones an interesting experience. As you may have noticed, they don’t come in a box. Instead, the packaging is round and round is the over all theme of this adventure. They may not stand up on a shelf very well but they do stand out.
Taking off the lid you are greeted by a round wall of black leather and a small pull tab. This is the provided carrying case for the Q Adapt. It is a flat disk of hardened thick fabric into which the headphones can slide. The sides expand to accommodate the thickness of the headphones and cover everything but the headband’s top edge. There is a small strap that can be clipped across the top with a magnet to keep the headphones from falling out of the pouch. It is just the same size as the headphones themselves and collapses back down when not in use so it takes up practically no room in your bag. I have never seen anything quite like it. Most headphones at this price range come with a silly felt bag that you will almost undoubtedly never use. This case is unique and a great addition to overall package.
Under the carrying case you will find the headphones wrapping snugly around the outer edge of the box. There is a thick spongy foam in the middle of the box to keep them in place. In the center of the foam is a round cut out where the cables are wound in, you guessed it, circles. Included is a USB 2 to micro USB charging cable and a standard headphone cable for wired playback. These are great looking cables with beaded fabric and thick rubber around the connectors to prevent fraying. My $400 B&O H8s didn’t even come with cables this nice. They may be the only headphone cables I keep and actually use.
The aesthetics of the Q Adapt are reminiscent of that of the Parrot Zik 2 or B&O H8s. They come in black or white and feature a padded head rest along the top of the frame with round metal arms that extend below and can be adjusted to length. The similarity to the above is that the bars bend back at an angle and attach to the ear cups just a bit behind the ears. The bars swivel to lay flat and the ear cups pivot just a bit at their connection so they rest better on your head. This design is purely cosmetic but it does make the Q Adapt look slick and modern. They stand out from the pack and say “I am a more than just headphones, I am a style accessory.”
As these are on-ear headphones they have round ear cups with generous soft padding to cover your entire ear and help block out as much ambient sound as possible. The pads themselves are a smooth lamb skin like material that wraps half way around the cup and attach to plastic shell of the ear cups. The plastic cups look good, not cheep and fragile.
Weighing in at just 7 ounces these are really light headphones. As such, they are far less cumbersome than most of their competitors. I barely noticed that I was wearing them at all. When you put them on they don’t squeeze your head to tightly but they stay in place and don’t slide around much while you are moving or bending over. My B&O H8’s squeeze much tighter but still slip right off your head if you think about bending over. These feel like they aren’t going to fall off.
I usually find on-ear headphones a bit uncomfortable but I was able to wear these for several hours at a time without any real ear fatigue. My ears got a little warm but not hot and sweaty like they do with many other on-ear designs. The soft padding goes a long way to make these all day wear headphones. I could easily see wearing them though my daily commute and most of my work day without problems.
Because the ear cups rotate flat, these are very comfortable to wear around the neck. This is in part due to their slim profile and thin head band but also because of their super light weight. Not only are they comfortable but they don’t impede your ability to turn your head. Lots of headphone promo pictures feature people wearing headphones around their necks but out of all those I have tried, these are by far the only pair I would consider carrying on my neck for any extended period of time.
The Q Adapt headphones take a very minimalistic approach to buttons for controls. In fact, their are only two buttons on the headphones at all. The power button is located on the back side of the left ear cup and a multifunction button is on the back of the right. That’s it. No more buttons. Everything else you do to interact with the headphones, such as music controls, volume adjustment and answering phone calls, is done through gesture controls located on the right ear cup.
One of my biggest complaints with gesture controls is that they are usually very easy to accidentally activate and sometimes unresponsive when intentionally touched. The Q Adapt headphones take a simple but interesting approach to addressing this issue. Almost all of the touch commands require two fingers to contact the surface for commands to be recognized. You also don’t tap them with your finger tips, you lay the pads of your fingers on the surface. This is much more ergonomic and makes accidental commands much more difficult to issue.
Press the center of the right ear cup with two fingers to play and pause your music. Double tap the center to skip to the next track. Activate Siri or Google Assistant by holding two fingers against the touch surface for two seconds. To adjust the volume you swipe around in a circle, forward or backwards. When you receive a phone call you press anywhere on the ear cup to answer the call and again to end the it. The last gesture is called Hush. If you cup your hand over the entire ear cup you will activate Hush. This mutes your music and disables all active noise cancelation so you can quickly hear anything around you. This way you can talk and listen without ever taking off your headphones. It is super convenient when your work gets frequently interrupted and you need to answer a question or participate in a conversation. Cup your hand again and you are right back to your tunes and noise cancelation.
It did take a second to get accustomed to pressing the gesture pad with the length of my fingers instead of my fingertips but after a few times I had it down. In daily use I found the controls to be rather intuitive but with just a little bit of delay. It’s not enough to be bothersome just noticeable when compared to feeling a button click. After several hours of use I had very few accidental commands issued, which is a blessing compared to the other touch interfaces I have used on headphones.
One other nice feature is that, after a small software update that I will talk about later, the Q Adapt will sense when you take them off and automatically pause your music. When you’re ready to get back to your tunes simply put them back on and your music will immediately resume. This is a pretty rare feature at their price point and it is amazingly handy. My one complaint is that the auto resume feature doesn’t care if you manually paused your music or if it was disabled because you took them off. When you put the headphones on they will start parlaying no matter if you had previous paused your music or not. This may be preferable to some but it just wasn’t what I was expecting. Until you get accustom to it, this can be a bit startling. If it is a problem for you, this feature can be disabled in the Libratone app.
Speaking of the Libratone app, lets talk about that for a second. This app has been out for a while because it is used to setup their WIFI ZIPP and ZIPP mini speakers but now the app can also control your headphones too. It does require you to create an account, which seems strange at first but since it also controls WIFI speakers, I assume this is needed to keep your network information secure. After you create an account it will begin searching for devices to add. If the Q Adapt are connected over Bluetooth they should show up immediately.
Their is already a software update available for the Q Adapt so you will be quickly prompted to download and install it. The update will take a few minutes but the wait is worth it. This enables a few of the features I have mentioned above and also increases the battery life substantially. If for no other reason, you should probably launch the Libratone app occasionally, just to check for software updates to your headphones. Who knows what other surprise features you may find in the future.
After updating, the app will offer you a quick tutorial on the controls for using your headphones. This is helpful for learning the gesture controls and you can always revisit it if you forget something. Once you select your headphones you will see a control screen that most prominently features a dial to adjust the level of City Mix and a quick button to enable and disable Hush mode. You can also adjust the sound signature of the headphones between normal, bass boost and treble boost. I personally prefer the balance of the normal setting but bass heads and Beats fans may want to switch to bass boost. Lastly is a button to allow you to activate “Plus 1” so you can share your tunes with another Q Adapt owner.
Plus 1 is a very interesting feature that I was unfortunately not able to try out because I only have one pair but the concept is simple. It allows you pair two Q Adapt on-ear headphones together so both sets will play the same music wirelessly. Libratone uses their phone app to create a bridge to the two headphones so both will receive the same signal in sync with no delays. I only know of one other headphone that supports a similar feature so if you want to share music with a friend over Bluetooth this is a rare commodity.
The Q Adapt use the Bluetooth 4.1 spec and include support for the AptX high quality audio codec. This will be a bonus for many android users. Unfortunately iPhones do not support the AptX codec so this slight boost in audio quality will not be available to them. That said, Mac computers do support AptX and for that reason I did my audio quality testing synced to my Mac. AptX is a great feature and I would have loved to have seen support for AAC, the Apple equivalent, but the quality boost is hard to notice unless you have a very refined ear and are in a silent room with nothing to distract you from the music itself.
The Bluetooth signal reception and range are absolutely amazing. Leaving my phone at my desk, I was able to get just about 80 feet down the hall before things started to break up. At pocket distance I didn’t detect a single drop out in the 40 plus hours I tested them. At home things were a little different. My house is full of signal interference and most of my headphones can barely reach 10 feet out of my room and some even break up while in my pocket. Still out performing, I was able to get about 30 feet from my phone before things started to break up. This is still within the expected and average range for Bluetooth headphones but I just wanted to warn you that if you have a lot of wireless devices in your home you may not make it 80 feet away. That said, if range is something that you are looking for from your wireless setup I haven’t seen a better option to date.
As the Adapt name implies, Libratone takes a customizable approach to active noise cancelation. Instead of just turning on and off ANC, the Q Adapt series allow you to cycle through four distinct levels of noise control. They call this feature CityMix and in my testing it can come in very handy. Level 1 is considered a pass though mode. It allows 80% of the ambient noise to pass though. This is enough for you to cary on a conversation without taking your headphones off but it’s even easier if you activate Hush. Level 2 allows 60% outside noise though which is perfect for riding a bike or working in an office. You don’t have to listen to the rumble of car engines or air conditioners but you will hear your phone ring or your boss trying to get your attention. Level 3 only allows 30% through and this is perfect for a busy train station or subway where you need to hear your station getting called but you don’t want to hear the tracks. Last but not least, we have level 4. Level 4 is full on 100% ANC. This is as quiet as it gets. Turn on your tunes and jump on a plane and you won’t have a care in the world. To use CityMix you simply tap the function button on the back of the ear cup and it will cycle though all 4 levels.
I tested all four modes and in my opinion they work just as described above. This flexibility is very convenient for daily use. They make the Q Adapt versatile than the all or nothing approach of every other ANC headphone I have tried. That said, for now I’m going to focus on level 4 as it is the most comparable to other ANC headphones from the likes of Bose, Sony or B&O. Remember, the Q Adapt are on-ear headphones so they don’t cup around your earlobes like most ANC headphones. This means that they are going to allow a little more sound to pass through around them than over ear headphones. That said in my opinion, level 4 provides a very appreciable amount of noise cancelation.
Though I didn’t have any flights to catch during my review time I found the next best thing. My building has an industrial cooling unit used to keep server rooms cold. If you have never been around one, they are very loud. Those rooms can easily be as loud as the inside of an airplane. I entered the room without the headphones on, so I could get a good feeling for the noise level. Putting on the Q Adapt and setting them to level 4 was like a night and day difference. The low rumble of the chillers was completely gone. In it’s place was the whistling sound of wind rushing out of the air vents, a noise that was previously completely masked by the roaring bass of the chillers themselves. In my opinion this put the ANC of my B&O H8s to shame. The Bose QC35s may mask a bit more noise but I would hardly say it is enough to warrant the price difference.
I also have a friend who lives very close to some train tracks. Every night a few trains will come through and it is impossible to hold a conversation during the noise. So I took the Q Adapt over to his house and we sat on the porch for a little bit, talking about video games, until the inevitable occurred. A freight train started coming down the tracks and since our conversation was obviously on hold I reached for my headphones. Again these bad boys didn’t fail to impress. I could still hear the train as it passed by but the rumble and roar of it was very muted. I could still hear the higher pitch sounds of the wheels as they scratched along the tracks but even that was at a very tolerable level. The train wasn’t gone by any means but the volume was diminished substantially, especially the lower end noises. I started some music at about half volume and it sounded great. The music was just enough noise to nock out the rest of the sounds from the train. Before the train had completely passed I handed the headphones to my friend and I could tell by the look on his face that he was shocked by the difference it made. The next time I travel, these will be the headphones I cary with me.
City Mix even makes phone calls better. When a call comes in the ANC will kick on and make sure your conversation isn’t bothered. I don’t usually take phone calls on my headphones unless my hands are completely full but I found it was very easy to hear my wife when talking through these headphones. She even said she could hardly tell that I wasn’t talking to her directly on my phone. I didn’t have to raise my voice and I felt like I could hold a private phone call without having to switch over to my phone.
Battery life can be an issue with ANC headphones. ANC eats a lot of power and it isn’t uncommon for headphones with ANC active to not last more than a few hours. Luckily Libratone has packed the Q Adapt wireless with quite a lot of juice. In City Mix level 1 I was able to get just over 26 hours of constant music playback. That is quite a lot of time for Bluetooth headphones in general and really good for any amount of ANC. When I bumped City Mix up to level 4 I was still able to squeeze 24 hours of continuous music playback out of them. That’s just amazing. Most companies only advertise their max play time with ANC off but because the Q Adapt always have some level of ANC active their advertised battery life is what you get in the most power drawing scenario. That is plenty of time for a full day of air travel. If fact, your phone, laptop and MP3 player will probably all be dead before your headphones bite the dust.
As great as blocking out the world around is, headphones are only as good as they sound. On their normal settings the Q Adapt have a very balanced sound signature. Bass is well represented and clear but I think there is a bit of bias towards the treble so your high notes come forward quite a bit. If your looking for thundering bass you will probably be a bit disappointed but in my opinion there is enough bass to fill out the sound stage and give you a very natural sounding listening experience.
As usual I did my audio quality testing from my Mac desktop so that I could take full advantage of the AptX codec and get the best wireless sound that the Q Adapt have to offer. I used my usual “Headphone Test” https://open.spotify.com/user/jrufer/playlist/4jATJN8TZzURuY7fAfqRs0 playlist on Spotify to make sure I could compare the sound to all the other headphones I have tested. This playlist is downloaded at 320 kbps which is more than enough quality to push the Bluetooth spec to it’s limits and insure that any issues with the sound are on the headphones, not the music.
The Avett Brothers’ I Love and You is a breath taking song on the Q Adapt. The vocals are so clear and focused and the piano rings clear with details to every note that feel like a live performance. The subtle violin comes in far to the left helping to distinguish a very wide sound stage. This track shows off the nuances of acoustic music that you can expect from these headphones. Ben Howard’s Old Pine also shows off the clean highs and mids of a clean acoustic guitar. The vocals have a lot of character and come though distinctly from the other instruments. Everything plays well together and you can feel the balance is just right.
Massive Attack’s Angel is a signature sub bass test case. The bass line pushes even the best speakers down as low as they can go. The Q Adapt were able to reach some very good lows without much distortion at all. The sound was good but it just doesn’t quite thump you in the eardrum the way I know some other headphones can. Still, they rumble low enough to sound good and deep.
Though these may not be a bass head’s wet dream, they can fill out some electronica regardless. Glitch In The System by Cryptex is all over the place with a a deep base line and a rich synth track that punches highs through clearly. Doctor P’s Flying Spaghetti Monster is also a great electronic track that shows off some deep bass and high squealing keys that are meant to almost hurt your ears. The Q Adapt handle a full spectrum of simultaneous sounds without feeling muddy.
All together the Q Adapt are some very feature rich headphones that really push headphone technology in every direction. With very impressive noise canceling, Hush mode, comfort and great reception, there is very little reason to ever take these headphones off. I wish the bass was a bit heavier but the overall sound is very good. The price may be a little high for some but trust me when I say that other headphones with comparable features usually cost a lot more. You can pick up a pair at Libratone’s website or on Amazon.