These are a clever and well-designed pair of headphones, and the latency-free wireless tech is definitely smart. Bluetooth and wired options are a welcome addition, too. If you need low-latency wireless headphones, this is your only choice currently – and luckily they definitely live up to their promise.
First Impressions / Setting up
All AIAIAI headphones are fun to receive and set up, coming as they do in multiple (recycled) plastic bags, each containing a component or two – you assemble them yourself, which is easy. That allows the company to mix and match components so you can “build” the headphones that suit you on the website, so model numbers are really just a pre-chosen set of components.
In this case, as well as the usual drivers, over-ear “alcantara” pads (soft fabric) and cable, you get a special headband that contains the battery, Bluetooth and all important new W+ wireless receiver. AIAIAI’s aesthetic is black, simple, rubberised and minimalistic, with just one discrete piece of AIAIAI branding on the top of the headband.
You also get a wireless transmitter, which is about the size of a small phone battery pack, and is also largely rubberised. It has a short, coiled, detachable flourescent TRS lead for plugging into your headphones output. I found myself wishing the wired full-length lead was also supplied in this colour.
They come partly charged, as does the wireless transmitter unit, so you can get going right away – but charging is quick (a couple of hours) via the supplied USB-C lead.
Obviously to use them wired you don’t need to turn them on at all, you just plug them in – but for everything else, you press the middle of three discrete little buttons on the right-hand outside of the headband, and they spring into life.
To select Bluetooth, you slide a little switch on the right-hand end of the headband to the blue position, then press the outer two of the little buttons on the headband to put the headphones into pairing mode. The little “on” LED by the buttons on the headband glows blue to show you’re in Bluetooth mode, flashes slowly to show they’re not paired, flashes fast to show they’re in pairing mode, and is steady once pairing is complete.
It took me a couple of goes to get the pairing to work, but once it did, all was good.
Setting up low-latency W+ wireless is a little different. To get this to work, you slide the selector switch from its blue setting to its white setting. The LED slow flashes white, to tell you they’re not yet paired. Again, you press the top and bottom buttons on the headphones to enter pairing mode (you get tonal audio cues for all this stuff in the phones), but this time, you first turn on the transmitter (long hold on its only button), then quickly double press the button to put it into pairing mode. Pairing is near instant, and you’re good to go – just plug the transmitter into your usual headphones output to connect the audio.
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So let’s talk about the low-latency wireless first. I found it was great to be able to work on my music in Logic on my laptop when out and about, without a lead. It’s surprising how annoying a lead can be, especially when – for instance – you’re in a plane seat. As you only ever try to make music on Bluetooth headphones the once, and this solves the latency issue instantly. If you’ve always hankered after DJ headphones minus the connection to your mixer, ditto you’re going to love this.
Sound quality was near perfect (it is compression-less). A bit of background hiss, but frankly without noise cancellation, in anything other than an ideal studio situation that is the least of your issues – you really don’t notice it at all after a few seconds.
Of course, this mode relies on the transmitter, which is not the smallest thing in the world, so just bear that in mind when assessing where you’ll use them (you’ll also need to use them with gear that actually still has a headphones output, or use an adaptor – for all you iPad producers out there…).
In this mode too, bear in mind that they work as “dumb” headphones – clearly a third-party wireless system can’t feed any info back to the source of the audio, so no play/puase, volume adjustment etc.
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You get 16 hours of use from it and the headphones and transmitter charge quickly. (Note that there’s only a charging cable supplied, not an adaptor, which is usual nowadays.)
In Bluetooth mode, though, the three buttons do what you’d expect, at least on iOS and iPadOS, which was what we tested the Bluetooth functions on. So you can turn the volume up and down (outer two buttons), and play/pause, skip forwards a track, and back a track (one, two and three presses of the middle button). Note that they don’t have a microphone built in for true out-and-about use as a companion to your phone.
Bluetooth gives a generous 80 hours of playtime too, and again, sounds great.
In general, the headphones are very comfortable. While the headband is necessarily a bit bulkier than some due to the kit it contains, it’s fine to wear and definitely light enough, and the earcups – while a little tight for my liking – are still comfy, thanks to the luxurious pad supplied.
There’s nothing to compare these to right now, because to the best of my knowledge there are no low-latency wireless headphones on the market apart from these. And happily, the headline wireless function works great, as does Bluetooth.
We would like to have had spoken instructions rather than beeps and tones (“Bluetooth connected”, “volume full” etc), which would make the headphones easier to get used to.
Design wise, we do like AIAIAI headphones, and we buy in to the modular concept; you genuinely can mix and match components, and also replace anything that breaks – it feels like the way forward. That said, the parts are all supplied in individual plastic bags, which isn’t so good – yeah they’re recycled plastic, but that plastic still had to be made, and will still need to be recycled again. Surely the headphones can be built for you, saving all of that? Either that, or wrap the items in tissue paper, for instance?
Also, the headphones come with a simple fabric bag, but once you add in the extra bits (lead, transmitter, charging cable) this bag doesn’t feel like enough. We’d like to see the option of a better case for those who need it that can more safely store those extra bits and pieces.
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Audio quality-wise, suffice to say that AIAIAI cites Richie Hawtin’s involvement in the three years of development, so I’ll defer to his approval here – they certainly sounded fine to me in all modes. That said, some producers do question how “flat” AIAIAI’s drivers are – but the thing is, with headphones it’s as much about getting used to the sonic qualities of the ones you’ve chosen as it is obsessing over perfection. As few producers will mix and master on headphones alone, anyway, I’d say you’ll be good to go with these unless you’re particularly exacting.
Finally, if you’re thinking of buying these headphones for DJ use, you may want to switch out the pads for some which cancel external noise better – presumably that will become an option on the AIAIAI website once they go on full sale in January 2022 (we’re reviewing a sample sent to us in December 2021).
Really, whether these are for you depends upon how much you’ve been wishing for low-latency wireless headphones. As I say, for producing on the road, wires can be annoying, but also I guess in larger studios where you can get up and walk around, the ability to do so may be freeing, rather than being tied to the console. I also think livestreamers who have sets they can wander around while performing may find a use for these, and DJs on stage or in big DJ booths too.
Overall, they’re a winner. While you may not use the low-latency wireless option all the time, it’s great to have for when you need it, and Bluetooth (or indeed wired mode) work great for other times. For an industry first, low-latency wireless is exceptionally well implemented, and the price is fair for the tech.
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