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A look at two alternatives to those $200 Beats headphones

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Thanks to Beats, there's no shortage of $200 headphones on the market. But what about cans coming from folks known for their speakers rather than their rhymes? Given their heritage in the audio space, I had high hopes for both the Klipsch Reference On-Ear Premium headphones as well as Polk's Hinge Wireless Bluetooth cans. At first glance, they're pretty comparable: Both are foldable on-ear models with plush carrying bags and tight iOS/OS X integration. As it turns out, the similarities fell away quickly once I actually put them on my skull.

Gallery: IRL: Klipsch Reference On-Ear headphones and the Polk Hinge | 22 Photos

It's pretty well established that I'm a fan of Klipsch's stuff. But given my last experience with a pair of headphones from the company, I was wary going in here. I shouldn't have been. The References feel every bit worthy of their $200 price tag at first glance. Brushed-aluminum and chrome accents marry with well-padded, black, faux leather on the headband, while memory foam fills the ear pads. They look classy.

The earcups extend downward about two inches on each side with a firm ratcheting click for those of us with larger heads, too. Even after countless extensions and retractions over the course of a few months, the headband still feels incredibly solid -- same goes for the spring-loaded hinges that give the cans their foldable functionality. It's worth mentioning that a hairline crack formed on the left side of the headband near the earcup slider, but as of this writing it doesn't seem like it's going to spread. Honestly, I didn't notice it until I was going through photos for the write-up. A generous linguini cable sporting an inline controller and mic extends from the left earcup, rounding out the entire package.

The flipside of the snug fit is that, as someone who needs corrective lenses, after about three hours the headset's tightness became uncomfortable because the earcups were pinching the stems of my glasses between my ears and head. If you aren't four-eyed, this might not cause a problem, but if you are and need to take a cross-country flight, these may not be the headphones for you. If you're worried about them staying in place during a sweaty 45-minute session on an elliptical trainer, however, that's unwarranted. Trust me, I tried it.

Speakers don't need to be pretty and a headset's looks and form only get it so far. It's a good thing, then, that the References live up to their name. Klipsch launched the Reference line of products in 1999 as a way to deliver its best engineering and sound to audio enthusiasts. I can say without any hesitation that the Reference On-Ear are the best sounding on-ear headphones I've ever listened to, easily beating options that cost over twice as much from the likes of Shure.

Everything I played on the References sounded great. From the downright weird aural landscape of producer Amon Tobin's Foley Room or El-P's High Water jazz album to Katy Perry, Drake, Taylor Swift, Run the Jewels, Deftones or Trent Reznor's soundtrack work; everything sounded killer. It didn't matter if the source was a lossless audio rip, YouTube on my cellphone, Spotify, Google Music from my computer or if I plugged directly into my A/V receiver, either. There's plenty of bass, but most importantly, mids and highs don't get lost in the mix.

The only real downside is that the inline mic isn't sensitive enough. If I wasn't constantly pulling the cable toward my mouth, my voice became extremely quiet (you can hear this on the JXE Stream of Splatoon I was on). The controller itself is great however and is a huge improvement over what's found on Klipsch's R6m earbuds: Buttons are clicky and they adjust volume, start/stop songs or skip to the next one without any fuss on either my MacBook Air or my iPad Mini 2.

I wish I could say as much positive about the Polk Hinge Wireless, though.

Despite their price, the headphones don't feel like they cost $200. The ochre and gunmetal pair Polk sent me feels cheap at almost every turn. From the thin and narrow headband to the eponymous hinge that felt loose after just three weeks of use, I couldn't help but think that corners were cut here and there. There's a fine balance between a device being light and feeling flimsy, and the Hinge falls on the less desirable side of that spectrum.

The volume dial that doubles as the power button on the right earcup feels cheap and hollow as well, with its plastic construction that seems incredibly insecure. Earcups are incredibly wobbly too, and feel like they could fall off given a hard enough jostle. They didn't form a great seal around my ears either, but they make me acutely aware of how my glasses and ears don't get along after about 45 minutes.

Music always felt distant and I lost a lot of the oomph from whatever I was listening to when I used the Bluetooth connection because I could never get the cans in a comfortable position. Bass neither resonates nor does it pack much punch, and the rest of the sound spectrum is equally uninspired. Running the included wire between my source and the Hinges brought a bit of drama back (and added inline volume and media control) to my tunes, but not much.

When operating over Bluetooth, there's about a quarter-second of lag as well. It isn't so noticeable or bothersome when you're listening to something in the background, but I couldn't watch YouTube videos with people talking onscreen because lip sync was distractingly off.

The lone bright spot for me was the battery life. I listened to the Hinges for roughly two hours a day for two weeks before I needed to recharge the first time, and there were at least a few times when I'd forgotten to turn them off after a session. Like the References, these stayed in place during a particularly laborious session on the elliptical trainer as well.

For the price, however, I can honestly say I was expecting a lot more; there's no contest between the Hinge Wireless and the Reference. If for whatever reason you're looking to spend a few Benjamins on headphones without the letter "B" on the side, the latter are hard to, ahem, beat.
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