Blue's first headphones have a built-in amp for better mobile audio

Blue Microphones, as the company's name suggests, specializes in recording equipment, from professional studio mics to desktop models to mobile accessories. Today, Blue is breaking into a brand new product category, though not really out of its comfort zone, with the launch of the Mo-Fi headphones. It's a move you may have been expecting, given Blue announced its intentions at the beginning of the year, and has continued to tease this first foray into listening gear ever since. Put simply, the idea is to bring the kind of high-fidelity audio you'd get from a home sound system to other, more portable devices (as long as you're willing to pay for it). Blue's Mo-Fi cans are available in the US today for $350, and will be coming to the UK "soon" for £275.

The Proposition

Part of the reason high-end home audio setups are able to kick out superb-quality sound is due to their large amplifiers. The problem, as it were, with the devices most people listen to music on is that their amplifiers are tiny chips, not sizable pieces of dedicated hardware. The more power you want from these chips, the more distorted the output becomes, which affects the clarity and definition of what you ultimately hear. Thus, in an effort to improve the listening experience for smartphone, tablet and computer users, Blue's Mo-Fi headphones feature a built-in, custom-made amplifier. This means the source device has to do hardly any of the amplification work, making for a much higher-quality output when the dedicated headphone amp has done its magic. It helps, of course, that the signal is then piped out of custom, 50mm drivers tuned specifically for the internal amp.

Getting into the headphone game was a relatively easy decision for Blue. As CEO John Maier told us, headphones and microphones share more or less the same technology, they're just put together differently. As well as knowing its hardware, Blue has a ton of experience in audio processing, too, with microphones like the Nessie and Spark Digital able to enhance recordings automatically (no software required). It only makes sense, then, to leverage this expertise and attempt to create some great-sounding headphones.

The Tech Specs

You don't need to be an audiophile to grasp the benefit of a external amplifier, but for those who'd like a breakdown of the key specs:

  • Amplifier:

    • 240mW output power

    • 0.004% total harmonic distortion plus noise

    • 10Hz - 20kHz frequency response

    • Less than 105 dB signal-to-noise ratio

    • Less than 20 uV of amplifier noise

  • Drivers:

    • 50mm fiber-reinforced dynamic drivers

    • Sealed enclosure with tuned damping materials

    • 42 ohms impedance

    • 15 - 20kHz frequency response

Aside from the cans themselves, you also get a selection of cables in the box, all with gold-plated connectors. There's a regular 3-meter cable and a 1.2-meter lead with volume and track-selection controls that work with Apple devices. Both cables terminate with a standard, 3.5mm jack, but can be modified with either of the included 6.35mm or airplane adaptors (the two-pronged type). You also get a velvety carry pouch, USB cable and wall plug for charging the internal 1,020mAh battery, which powers the amp for 12-15 hours of listening time.

How They Look

With an integrated amp, Blue's trying to do something a little different with its Mo-Fi headphones, and they certainly look unorthodox, too. It might appear as if an overzealous engineer has taken Blue's usual, retro design language and added a futuristic flare, but all the visual complications are purely in the pursuit of comfort. The elaborate, multi-hinged headband, which would usually be just one flexible semi-circular piece, keeps the earcups vertical and always parallel to one another, regardless of how wide you open them. This means no matter the size of the head wearing them, pressure is distributed uniformly over the entire earcup. This is both for comfort's sake and isolation, as the snug fit means there's no opening for outside sound to get in or your music to leak out. You can even adjust the tension of the hinges from a dial on the top of the headband, should you want to change how tightly the cans clamp down.

The earcups themselves are attached to moveable arms with smooth, friction-based joints that allow you to adjust the orientation of each one individually. They're not only handy for getting the Mo-Fis fitted just right, but if you tend to slip headphones down around your neck, extending the arms fully will stop the earcups digging in to your throat area. While the intricate design is geared towards making the cans more comfortable than your average pair, I can't say they actually are an improvement over others I've used.

For one, there's too much give to the earcup foam, leaving the outer perimeter of my ears slightly squashed against the thin layer of mesh that covers the plastic speaker grilles. It's not immediately painful, but it can be after an extended period of use. I usually prefer the cocoon of over-ears to any other style of headphone, but I find my ears reaching stifling temperatures far too quickly in the Mo-Fis. My main gripe with them, though, is they're far too heavy at 466g (16.44 ounces). They might be built with portable devices in mind, but they aren't portable themselves, due to both the size and weight of them. I've been wearing them consistently for some time, and yet my neck hasn't gotten round to accepting the burden for any extended period of time without needing some restpite.

In terms of materials, the majority of the headphones are covered in an attractive, metallic-grey plastic; a faux-leather material covers the foam on the headband and around the earcups. There are also accents of faux-metal plastic around the earcups, and where the Blue logo sits at the end of each driver (a layer of rubber hides the driver as it merges into the earcup). A yellow LED beneath the Blue logo on either side indicates when the headphones are powered up, and blink when they're running out of battery. The Mo-Fis might not be as pleasant to wear as I would like, but the build quality is almost faultless. All the complicated hinge mechanisms are solid, not flimsy, and every component fits together perfectly. It's also important to note that the Mo-Fis I've been using are the final design but not the final build, so retail units will be finished to an even higher standard.

How They Sound

In short, the Mo-Fis easily produce the best quality sound of any headphones I've used. I'm no connoisseur, but I've used my fair share of different styles and brands ranging in price from ten bucks to around two hundred. Mo-Fis have three 'modes' you choose via a switch on the base of the left earcup. Two of them -- "On" and "On+" -- take advantage of the internal amplifier that substantially boosts music volume. Beyond that, though, the cans kick out a rich, well-defined sound that source devices are simply incapable of producing alone. You don't even need super high-bitrate tracks to feel the benefit. The vast improvement in clarity and warmth is easily noticeable when streaming music online or playing normal-definition mp3s.

The + in On+ signifies outbound audio is being given a slight bass boost in addition to running through the amp as normal. The increased emphasis is only subtle -- it's intended for adjusting the levels of vinyl-era tracks and any others where bass frequencies are being lost to the overall melody. The final mode is "Off," which means the amp isn't powered up but the drivers are still capable of producing sound. You only really want to use this when you're out of battery (the amplification is then taken care of by the source device), or if you are plugging into a sound system that has a superior amplifier.

The headphones also have a neat kill-switch feature: when you remove them and the earcups come close together, the amp turns off to conserve battery life. Otherwise, there's no wireless or noise-canceling capabilities; both could negatively impact sound quality, which is at odds with what Blue's trying to achieve. And achieve it has, because the Mo-Fi headphones sound great, even if they are too bulky and at times, uncomfortable.

Up Next

Blue's only dipped a toe into the headphone market with its first set of cans, but CEO John Maier intends to go swimming. He believes there's plenty of opportunity left in the headphone category, from sporty models right up to top-of-the-range, audiophile gear. Within six months, Blue plans to release another set of headphones with different drivers that'll be higher-end than the Mo-Fis launching today. More models are also set to pad out the range by the end of next year. The company's looking into other making other input/output devices, as well -- anything that could suit its expertise. Microphones will continue to be a major focus, of course, and Maier says there are still niches within the category Blue is yet to address.