Beginning life as a manufacturer of high-end equipment for audio professionals, Blue has been tentatively easing its way towards the lucrative consumer market for some time. Its new Satellite headphones are its most high street-friendly pair yet, but it still has some way to go to bridge the gap between studio and sidewalk.
Compared to Blue’s positively outré Mo-Fi and Ella headphones, these ones are relatively conventional. They maintain the retro, 70s aesthetic – especially the cream and brown ones – but lack the slightly ludicrous retro-futuristic design, which seemed like a mad homage to classic science fiction. You won’t be embarrassed walking down the street in these, and they’re also more comfortable, with the simple, silver plastic headband exerting less pressure on your cranium.
Even though they’re mostly plastic (the only metal is the connecting arms, which swivel to lie flat when they’re not in use), they’re still a hefty pair of cans, although the generously padded woollen headband means you could wear them on a long train journey without risking brain damage.
On paper, they pack in a lot for the price, even though that price is a cool £385. For that you get wireless connectivity – a must for new iPhone and Pixel users – a built-in amplifier and active noise cancellation (ANC).
First the good stuff: they sound great. Like, really, really great. While a pair of Bluetooth headphones won’t match the clarity or quality of a dedicated pair of wired ones, this is some pretty astonishing noise to have poured into your ears while you’re queuing at Sainsbury’s. The amp pays huge dividends, offering far louder, clearer sound than you’d expect. Listen to something bassy like The xx’s Angels with the volume turned up and you can feel the vibrations against the side of your head, while the vocals are still crisp and distinct. The whole soundscape floats around you in three dimensions; it’s a joy.
But then things start to go wrong. The noise cancellation is terrible, among the least effective of any high-end headphones I’ve tried. It will muffle the constant, low drone of trains and planes, but only just (although it does provide a slightly cleaner backdrop for your music). Worse, if you have ANC activated while you’re walking, it introduces a maddening clicking into the left can, which is audible even over loud music.
Equally frustrating is the faint mosquito-drone that accompanies the Bluetooth connection, and is exacerbated by the ANC. It’s not loud enough to hear over music, but it’s noticeable between tracks, which is pretty unforgivable in a near-£400 pair of headphones. Another negative is the lacklustre finish, especially on the buttons surrounding the “Blue” logo on each can, which feel cheap.
But the real deal-breaker for me is the lack of creature comforts that you tend to find on other headphones in this price range. Pairing to a single device is straightforward, but try introducing more than one source and they throw a hissy-fit; each time I wanted to pair with a new phone or tablet I had to mess around making it “forget” the previous one. The Sennheiser PXC 550 (£329.99), by comparison, will remember multiple devices, meaning it will play music from my phone on the walk to the tube, automatically switch to the iPad as soon as new audio is detected, then continue the music where it left off when I put the iPad away.
Neither does these headphones automatically switch off when you fold them up, meaning you’re constantly leeching battery life if you forget to manually power them down (i.e. every time you stop using them). This is particularly bad given battery life is already limited to eight hours when the amp and ANC are activated.
In pure audio terms, these are great headphones. In certain, very specific circumstances – sitting stationary on a train, for instance – they're near the top of the class for this price. But for every-day listening – surely the prime use-case for Bluetooth headphones – they’re just too pernickety to justify the price tag. If Blue wants to compete for the mainstream market, the user experience needs to be far more streamlined. When that day comes, sign me up, because on this evidence, it’s only an iteration or two from making something really special.