Li­bra­tone Q Adapt

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Head­phones with ac­tive noise can­cel­la­tion (ANC) can fil­ter out the noise pol­lu­tion that ac­com­pa­nies mod­ern travel, whether it be the low-fre­quency rumble of a jet en­gine or the drone of a train or bus on your daily com­mute. Ba­sic ANC tech­nol­ogy has been around for years, and bat­ter­ies are be­com­ing good enough that it can be used with wire­less mod­els. Man­u­fac­tur­ers have also started adding fea­tures that make ANC even more ef­fec­tive. For Li­bra­tone, that means giv­ing you the power to con­trol how much of the out­side world is al­lowed in.

The £216 Q Adapt wire­less head­phones don’t look all that spe­cial, but they do sport Blue­tooth 4.1 and they sup­port the high-qual­ity aptX au­dio codec. If your smart­phone, dig­i­tal au­dio player, or other source also sup­ports aptX, then you can stream near-CD qual­ity au­dio. They sound great, de­liv­er­ing well-bal­anced sound with­out any glar­ing sonic short­com­ings. These lit­tle head­phones aren’t high-end mod­els, but they do have lots of fea­tures that set them apart from the crowd.

If you’re one of those peo­ple who won’t let go of the 3.5mm Y adap­tor that lets you share mu­sic across two sets of head­phones, you’ll love what Li­bra­tone has done. With a fea­ture they call Blue­tooth Plus 1, you can con­nect to a friend’s Q Adapt via the Li­bra­tone mo­bile app and en­joy mu­sic to­gether, wire­lessly. This would be even cooler if you could use it with any old Blue­tooth head­phone, but both mod­els must be Q Adapt head­phones, so I didn’t get a chance to test the fea­ture.

The bat­tery charges via a stan­dard Mi­cro-USB port on the bot­tom of the right ear cup, and Li­bra­tone says a full charge should yield 20-plus hours of lis­ten­ing. After I sub­mit­ted this re­view, Li­bra­tone re­leased an up­dated firmware for the Q Adapt that the com­pany says in­creases bat­tery life to 30 hours of con­tin­u­ous use, and that’s with ac­tive noise can­cel­la­tion at 100 per­cent.

Recharg­ing the Li­bra­tone Q Adapt is quick – it takes just un­der three hours. To re­duce the need for recharg­ing, Li­bra­tone has done some in­ge­nious things that en­able the Li­bra­tone Q Adapt to con­serve its bat­tery.

The Li­bra­tone Q Adapt has a fea­ture called ‘Wear De­tect’ that will au­to­mat­i­cally stop the mu­sic and any noise can­cel­la­tion when you take the head­phones off. It’s

pretty good and worked re­li­ably in most of my test­ing. Lift­ing one of the ear cups off my ear would also en­gage this fea­ture. And after 20 min­utes of in­ac­tiv­ity, the Q Adapt will power down au­to­mat­i­cally. Li­bra­tone told me that the afore­men­tioned firmware up­date now gives you the abil­ity to turn this fea­ture off via the app.

Should the bat­tery run out, or if you just don’t want to use the head­phones wire­lessly, you can con­nect the in­cluded 3.5mm au­dio ca­ble. Like most Blue­tooth head­phones, the Li­bra­tone fea­tures a built-in mi­cro­phone, so you can use them in con­cert with your smart­phone. I used the Li­bra­tone Q Adapt for sev­eral calls dur­ing my

re­view pe­riod. No one com­plained about it be­ing dif­fi­cult to hear me, and ev­ery­one I asked for feed­back said the clar­ity of my voice sounded great.

You can con­trol most of these afore­men­tioned fea­tures (in­clud­ing the Ci­tyMix noise-can­cel­la­tion tech­nol­ogy) through Li­bra­tone’s An­droid or iOS app. It will also push firmware up­dates and al­low you to con­nect to a dizzy­ing ar­ray of in­ter­net ra­dio sta­tions. It also al­lows you to se­lect EQ set­tings, and there’s a vis­ual tool for con­trol­ling the level of can­cel­la­tion vis­ually. I don’t imag­ine most peo­ple will use the app on a daily ba­sis, but it’s there if you need it.

Por­ta­ble, but not ul­tra-por­ta­ble

At 200g, the Li­bra­tone Q Adapt are rel­a­tively light. The ear cups fold flat, but un­like AKG’s N60 NC head­phones, the head­band it­self doesn’t fold. That’s not a deal-breaker if you want to carry the Q Adapt head­phones in a back­pack, but I couldn’t fit the Q Adapt head­phones in most jacket pock­ets.

I re­ally liked the soft, cool mesh-weave head­band, and the ear cups are a sup­ple and soft syn­thetic leather with a thin layer of mem­ory foam. They’re com­fort­able when they sit on your ears – that’s not a small feat for on-ear head­phones.

Ges­ture con­trol doesn’t al­ways un­der­stand your ges­tures

The right ear cup serves as a touch-sen­si­tive, ges­ture con­trol pad, giv­ing you full ac­cess to pretty much ev­ery ma­jor func­tion. Touch­ing the Li­bra­tone Nightin­gale logo with two or more fin­gers tog­gles play/pause. Dou­ble-tap­ping the Nightin­gale with two or more fin­gers ad­vances to the next track in your queue, and triple tap­ping takes you to

the pre­vi­ous track. An­swer­ing or end­ing a call fol­lows the same ges­ture as play/pause.

The play/pause and vol­ume-con­trol ges­tures worked well for me, but dou­ble and triple tap­ping didn’t. In­stead of ad­vanc­ing to the next track, dou­ble-tap­ping of­ten paused the mu­sic in­stead. I reached out to Li­bra­tone about this prob­lem, and they said that you need to keep your fin­gers spaced apart. I tried that, hold­ing two fin­gers in a v-shaped “peace” sign. It worked bet­ter, but it was still quirky about 40 per­cent of the time. Fi­nally, after hold­ing three fin­gers in the shape of a stool leg, I was able to get the for­ward and re­verse to work re­li­ably and pre­dictably. Ges­ture con­trol shouldn’t be so hard to mas­ter.

En­gag­ing Siri was easy, but it took two to three sec­onds too long. You need to press and hold the touch in­ter­face with two fin­gers for about five sec­onds to sum­mon her. If you’re used to the ca­dence of us­ing Siri with the iPhone’s but­ton, this sub­tle de­lay will drive you mad.

Hush

One of the bet­ter fea­tures is called Hush: Hold the palm of your hand over the right ear cup and in about three sec­onds, what­ever you’re lis­ten­ing to will pause and you can hear the out­side world. It’s a great fea­ture for lis­ten­ing to an­nounce­ments. The ef­fect isn’t com­pletely nat­u­ral, though. You can tell that the head­phone speaker is play­ing out­side sounds; nev­er­the­less, it didn’t suf­fer from the tinny, cy­ber­netic sounds. Fi­nally, you can con­trol the Li­bra­tone Q Adapt’s vari­able noise can­cel­la­tion by press­ing a ded­i­cated func­tion but­ton on the lower back of the right ear cup. De­press­ing the but­ton ad­vances the noise can­cel­la­tion level and then loops it from the be­gin­ning.

Aside from the dou­ble- and triple-tap­ping is­sues, there were other quirks I ex­pe­ri­enced where Hush would en­gage when tip­ping my head or grip­ping the outer rim of the ear cup. I did a quick test after up­dat­ing the firmware, and all the is­sues I ex­pe­ri­enced seemed to have been re­solved. I wish this firmware had come out when I had started my test­ing! I’m sure many early buy­ers will never think to look for a firmware up­date that will im­prove the prod­uct, but that’s a whole other dis­cus­sion.

A unique, though con­fus­ing, ap­proach

Fea­tures and pe­cu­liar­i­ties aside, what sets the Li­bra­tone Q Adapt apart from the com­pe­ti­tion is it’s Ci­tyMix

ad­justable ANC tech­nol­ogy. You can choose from four Ci­tyMix level set­tings, and the ‘hush’ fea­ture I de­scribed above makes it five. Log­i­cally, you’d ex­pect level one to be the least amount of noise can­cel­la­tion and level four to be the high­est. It doesn’t work that way. In re­al­ity, from my test­ing what I no­ticed was as fol­lows: Level two is ac­tu­ally neu­tral, where ANC is es­sen­tially off. Set­ting the head­phones to level two and then turn­ing them off pro­duced neg­li­gi­ble dif­fer­ence. Set­ting one lets in am­bi­ent noise and plays it through the head­phones’ driv­ers. It’s like a speak­er­phone to the out­side world.

Through the Li­bra­tone App you can set the amount of ac­tive noise can­cel­la­tion or de­ter­mine how much of the out­side world to let in.

Level three kicks in a low level of ANC. Level four ac­ti­vates the high­est level of ANC. In ac­tu­al­ity, then, level

two is equiv­a­lent to ANC off or zero. Level one is re­ally left of zero at -1 and Hush is -2. Level one and Hush ac­tu­ally let more out­side sounds into your head­phones as op­posed to mask­ing noise.

Level three, there­fore, is +1, and level four is +2. Con­fused yet? Once you un­der­stand this ba­sic premise, the head­phones make much more sense to use.

Handy, but quirky in real world ap­pli­ca­tions

I took the Q Adapt with me in a va­ri­ety of set­tings in New York City, in­clud­ing the sub­way and walk­ing around the city. Here’s a rundown of my ex­pe­ri­ences: Level one tries to turn the on-ear ex­pe­ri­ence into ear­buds. You can hear mu­sic, but also what’s go­ing on around you. Be­cause the out­side is pumped to your ears via the Q Adapt’s head­phone speak­ers, you don’t get an even sound; some fre­quen­cies are am­pli­fied more than oth­ers. Word to the wise, don’t use level one when it’s windy out or you’ll re­gret it.

Level two is like hav­ing ANC off. The out­side is muf­fled by the ear cups, but it’s not com­pletely blocked.

ANC kicks in at level three, where the out­side world takes an im­me­di­ate back seat. Level three re­duces the noise floor and masks out­side sounds. There’s a clear dif­fer­ence in the noise-can­celling al­go­rithm used be­tween level three and level four. In fact, you might find your­self bounc­ing be­tween the two lev­els to see which one you like best in a par­tic­u­lar set­ting. I found that level three is the best mode when you’re out­side walk­ing and in windy con­di­tions. In some slightly windy con­di­tions, it ac­tu­ally blocked out al­most all wind noise and per­formed bet­ter than Ci­tyMix level four, which am­pli­fied wind noise. I also had the abil­ity to hear cer­tain im­por­tant spa­cial cues while

walk­ing, so that I wasn’t to­tally in my own world. All in all, I’d say this is the best op­tion for medium-noise en­vi­ron­ments.

Ci­tyMix level four is clearly geared to­ward en­vi­ron­ments with en­gine noise and is best com­pared to the per­for­mance on premium ANC head­phones. It ex­celled in en­vi­ron­ments with rum­bling and en­gine noise – such as on the un­der­ground or train. In fact, when I was on the train in Lon­don, Ci­tyMix level three let in some of the train’s rumble, hum, and creaks as it moved along the tracks. Kick­ing things up to level four was the dif­fer­ence maker, where I now pri­mar­ily felt cer­tain phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions as op­posed to hear­ing them, too.

The draw­back with Ci­tyMix level four is that ANC pres­sure builds up. If you’re sen­si­tive to that ‘un­der­wa­ter feel­ing’, then you’ll feel it full swing. On a few oc­ca­sions, I could feel the pres­sure in my si­nuses. When I turned Ci­tyMix off, I could feel my face de­com­press like a bal­loon be­ing emp­tied of air. I didn’t get the same op­pres­sive sense with ei­ther the Bose QC35 or the Sony MDR-1000X; then again, si­nuses tend to be more sen­si­tive dur­ing win­ter months.

Bot­tom line, the Li­bra­tone’s noise can­cel­la­tion tech­nol­ogy is very ef­fec­tive, but I’m not sure I’d put it quite at the level of the Bose QC35, Sony MDR-1000X, or AKG N60 NC. Nev­er­the­less, its in­ge­nious Ci­tyMix lev­els em­pow­ers you with the abil­ity to tai­lor the amount of ANC to your taste or to the en­vi­ron­ment at hand, and its Hush need-to-hear-what’s-go­ing-on tech is the best that I’ve tested to date. Ver­dict All in all, the Li­bra­tone Q Adapt is a stylish and dis­tinc­tive wire­less on-ear head­phone. Its mu­si­cal pre­sen­ta­tion is nat­u­ral and well bal­anced for just about any genre. The up­dated firmware is a must and fixed a long se­ries of frus­tra­tions I had. In­stead of a mixed rec­om­men­da­tion, I can fi­nally say that the Li­bra­tone Q Adapt is worth it if you want a head­phone that of­fers the abil­ity to turn the world on or off at your com­mand. Theo Ni­co­lakis

Li­bra­tone’s mo­bile app al­lows you to choose from dif­fer­ent EQ set­tings, pair with another Q Adapt head­phone, browse in­ter­net ra­dio sta­tions, up­date the firmware, and chose your Ci­tyMix ANC set­tings

The right ear cup with the Nightin­gale fea­tures a lack­lus­tre ges­ture con­trol panel

Through the Li­bra­tone App you can set the amount of ac­tive noise can­cel­la­tion or de­ter­mine how much of the out­side world to let in

You can up­date the firmware and check the Q Adapt’s bat­tery sta­tus via the app

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