Reviewer: Peter Taylor, February 2020
This is a review of the Beyerdynamic bluetooth wireless noise-cancelling headphones, including comparisons with the similarly spec’d Sony MDR-1000X
UPDATE MAY 2020: Continue reading for a very favourable review of the Beyerdynamic Lagoon headphones, highlighting the very good audio performance. Unfortunately I now have to report two very concerning issues that have developed.
One of the headband sliders has cracked. It has not held up to the stresses of normal use. I was concerned when this happened with my Sonys after three years. It is completely unacceptable that this should happen with the Lagoons after just five months of use. It sounds like the warranty will be honoured, but unfortunately I have now shifted overseas, meaning that freight costs rule out a warranty claim.
Secondly, I am losing battery charge at the rate of 20% every few days. I have recently taken to using the headphones wired and unpowered for working at my desk. So it was very disappointing to find that the battery had gone completely flat from a full charge over a couple of weeks, without the headphones having been turned on.
So that is two significant and unacceptable faults in under six months. Good chance that both issues would be solved under warranty, but unacceptable nonetheless.
The upgrade itch
This review came about as a result of a growing dissatisfaction with my existing headphones, the Sony MDR-1000X. The Sony’s are a great wireless noise cancelling headphones, and its very similar successors the WH-1000XM2 and WH-1000XM3 are widely regarded as the best in the market.
Over time I a came to suspect that the Sony was not delivering the level of engagement that I should expect with this standard and pricing of audio equipment. I wondered whether this was due to audio fidelity not being high enough, and whether later models or other manufacturer’s models might have seen some technical advantages that might address this.
After much research, I settled on the Beyerdynamic Lagoon as the headphone most likely to address these concerns.
First and foremost this review is about music reproduction. I touch on other features below, but getting the music right is what it is all about for me and trumps everything else.
All of my analysis was done using the USB Audio Player PRO software. This is an Android app that allows you to by-pass Android’s audio processing and send unadulterated digital data directly to your playback device via the USB port. But it also improves sound via headphone outputs and Bluetooth. In these modes, it directly accesses the phone’s hi-res audio chip, bypassing much of Androids audio processing software.
The sound improvement is very real, if your phone is one of the many that will allow the app to access the hi-res audio chip. I adopted USB Audio Player PRO prior to receiving the Beyerdynamic Lagoon and immediately regretted the Lagoon purchase. The improvement in sound quality via the Sony headphones was dramatic.
However, my regret was short-lived once the Beyerdynamics arrived.
In considering the Beyerdynamic Lagoon I was concerned about the lack of AptX-HD and LDAC high bit-rate Bluetooth codecs. The LDAC codec delivers high bit-rates, more audio data than any other Bluetooth codec. This is what led me to Sony in the first place. But observations in some reviews and my previously satisfactory experience with Beyerdynamic gear led me to take the plunge.
If you compare with the Sony using the lows-mids-highs systematic break-down assessment that I see in so many headphone reviews, you could conclude that the Lagoon is generally on a par with the Sony, with each headphone exhibiting different voicing, tonality or frequency response. But if you simply live with each headphone for a while, the Lagoon comes out the clear winner.
Music through he Lagoon is so much more composed and organised-sounding. The Sony in comparison sounds messy, as if the musicians are not taking as much care to play together as a unit. Noises sound a bit random and mixed-up. The result is that the Sony just does not engage to anywhere near the same degree. This explains why over time my use of the Sony has strongly tended towards spoken word podcasts. I thought it was because of how my brain operates when I am working on manual tasks (one of my most common use scenarios). But actually, it is because the Sony fails to make music sufficiently compelling. In comparison, I just can’t get enough of music through the Lagoons.
With the Sony, I often wanted to go hear the music on my main stereo, to hear what it was all about, resolve the confusion. With the Lagoon, I’m already feeling it, and the main stereo just gives me more of the good stuff that the Lagoon has already drawn me into.
After further analysis, the issue with the Sonys appears to be in the upper midrange, where either an amplitude peak or distortion or both are muddying and stressing the sound. Male vocals are given a raspy quality, and there is a slight harshness and forwardness with instruments in that range.
The Sony’s bass and soundstage both come across as impressive, with deep notes and good width. But the bass notes are not as clearly tuneful and defined as they are with the Lagoon. The Lagoon soundstage may be minimally narrower, but the 3D placement of the components occurs across a blacker background. With the Lagoon you can better “hear” the space between the sounds, the Sony is smeared in comparison.
So now, I don’t care about the higher bitrates delivered by LDAC or AptX-HD, I just want the magic dust organic musical performance that the Beyerdynamic Lagoon gives me.
The Lagoon makes music sound slightly better via a wired connection versus over Bluetooth. When plugged into my Samsung Galaxy S7, the Lagoon is slightly clearer, with a more open soundstage.
There is very little difference between using the Lagoon powered or unpowered with a wired connection.
This is profoundly different from the Sony. The Sonys don’t sound that great wired and are unusably bad if you try to use them unpowered.
An undocumented feature of the Lagoon is the ability to play audio via a USB connection. So you can plug it into a computer and have it recognised as an audio device.
You can also do this with your phone if you make use of USB Audio Player PRO. The PRO software will bypass much of the phone’s Android operating system manipulation of audio and send unadulterated original hi-res digital data to your external playback device, via your phone’s USB port.
I was hoping for a step-up in audio quality, but what I found was that the headphone output on my Galaxy S7 was slightly better-sounding than having the Lagoon decode the data sent via USB. I expect that this will differ significantly depending on the analogue audio quality of your phone. The S7 is obviously pretty darned good!
Your mileage will vary on this comparison and will obviously be dependent on your:
- Phone’s analogue output amplifier quality; and
- Music player software’s access to the phone’s high definition audio chip.
UPDATE MAY 2020: The Meridian Explorer 2 DAC is a tiny USB DAC that is powered from the USB port on a computer. Listening to the Lagoons plugged into the Explorer provides the best sound that I have heard through the Lagoons. Greatest fidelity and finesse, and no shortage of weight and volume. Highly recommended. The Explorer has a remarkable synergy with the Lagoons, bringing out the best in both the DAC and the headphones.
ORIGINAL COMMENT: I also tried the Lagoon’s analogue input via a Meridian Explorer DAC, connected to the Galaxy S7 phone via USB. This gave a little more subtlety, space and black background, but suffered from a lack of volume. This meant that the more satisfying weight and presence via other sources off-set the minor gains in detail via the Explorer.
Beyerdynamic A20 headphone amplifier
I tried running the Lagoons in my big rig, with analogue output provided by the Beyerdynamic A20 headphone amplifier. Sources included the Wadia 122 DAC, Sony HAP-Z1ES music streamer, and a heavily modded LP12 turntable. This was a fairly unsatisfying experience. Despite the massive lift in source and amplification quality, the improvement in the sound coming through the Lagoons was modest.
Music reproduction summary
The Lagoons are very much engineered to deliver sound at a certain fidelity point, which is exceptionally high quality Bluetooth music reproduction. You can juice the source and amplification as much as you like, but improvements are fairly subtle and you fundamentally have the same sound regardless. The one exception is the remarkable synergy between the Meridian Explorer and the Lagoons that I stumbled across after first publishing this review.
The Lagoon’s earpieces are highly insulated and perform a lot of the noise isolation. But switching on the active noise cancellation does take it to another level.
The Sonys perform objectively better noise cancellation, but the Lagoons are competitive.
For air travel, the Sony’s advantage is not a deal-breaker for the Lagoons. The Lagoons do a fantastic job at virtually eliminating engine noise. But this does make the sound of conversations around you much easier to hear. The Sonys still let voices through, but much less so compared with the Lagoons. The good news for the Lagoons is that all this is pretty much irrelevant when the music starts up. The Lagoon noise cancelling effectively suppresses any background noise that would have a masking effect on the music, and the music drowns everything else out.
The Sony’s ambient sound settings for letting external sounds in are very valuable when you want to be responsive to people in your vicinity or your general surroundings. Brilliant feature, which I used a lot. Not so good for music quality, but perfect for spoken word podcasts. There are times when the lack of this facility makes the Lagoons too inconvenient or anti-social to use in situations where the Sonys would be perfectly usable.
Both the Lagoon and the Sony feature touch pads on one earpiece for basic control of the music. Very useful!
The Lagoon’s lack of confirmation tones for touch pad taps cause uncertainty, especially as pause, start and volume changes tend to have slight delays. The Lagoon touch pad was also less reliably responsive than the Sony.
The Lagoon has slightly smaller earcups than the Sony, greater clamping force and feeling of weight. This does not translate to discomfort, but your feeling about the fit might vary between comfortingly secure and mild claustraphobia, depending on your mood, environmental temperature, etc.
The Sony is wonderfully mechanically silent while the Lagoon suffers from creaking noises if you move your jaw, raise your eyebrows, etc. This is not an issue sitting on a plane, but is a significant annoyance when listening to spoken work podcasts or low volume music while active, e.g. weight training or working in the garden.
The MIY app bundled with the Beyerdynamic Lagoon is a mixed bag. Its standout feature is a hearing test and audio equalisation based on the results of that test. Similar to the software bundled with Samsung phones.
The app does not provide a link for updating your headphones to the latest firmware. To do this, you have to connect your headphones to your computer.
I have got no way of verifying whether the hearing loss compensation feature makes for more accurate frequency response. The app has a slider to change the magnitude of the frequency response adjustment. It suggests the mid-point of adjustment would suit most people. In my experience, this is correct, when set to maximum, the adjustment is clearly too great and exaggerated and introduces distortion. For me, with typical middle-age high frequency hearing loss, I found the adjustment made both the bass and high frequencies more prominent, to satisfying effect. This did seem to create a flattening of frequency response, lifting the highs to make them even, rather than exaggerating them into the dreaded U-shape response curve.
Overall volume was lifted with the adjustment switched on, which makes comparisons very difficult. I could happily live without the adjustment, but it seems to be helpful and if not set too high, it is not detrimental to fidelity.
But I am left wondering why there is a slider to adjust the magnitude. Surely, once your hearing is measured, there is a right or a wrong level. Leaving the user to make an adjustment by ear seems to defeat the purpose of running a hearing test. Other hearing adjustment apps do not have this confusing adjustment.
The app is also supposed to measure whether you are within healthy noise exposure levels. It is supposed to reset at 3am each day. In my experience, that exposure level was reporting very low, despite fairly high volumes, then just kept on increasing day after day. I could not make sense of this, and can only assume that there is a bug in the software.
Using USB Pro over Bluetooth, Samsung’s hearing adjustment app is locked out of the audio processing loop and makes no difference, but the Lagoon app does work.
Using USB Pro with the headphone output, the Samsung hearing adjustment does make a difference, but the Lagoon app does not work.
Battery life for the Lagoon is advertised as up to 45 hours without active noise cancelling and 24.5 hours with noise cancelling turned on. I can only report that I have been surprised at how quickly the reported battery level drops. Unfortunately, so far I have not been systematic enough in monitoring this to advise whether battery life is any shorter than advertised. I will update if I get around to getting a fix on this.
The good news is that regardless of the battery life conclusion, you get very good quality audio via the analogue input and a useful degree of noise isolation with the headphones turned off. This is in stark contrast to the Sonys and a pair of AKG wireless headphones I have used, which produced such poor audio when powered off that I found them unlistenable for music reproduction. This is a major benefit of the Lagoons.
The Beyerdynamic Lagoons successfully scratched the nagging itch of dissatisfaction that I had with the Sonys. They are a better performing music reproducer. Highly recommended.
The Sonys retain significant advantages in usability features.