Hardware Reviews

Dali IO-12 on the move and in the home

Dali IO-12 headphone review https://the-ear.net

Dali IO-12 wireless headphones

There is a sizeable cohort of music lovers for whom the world of portable audio is off-limits. It’s true that there is a rich choice of in-ear monitors (IEMs) and some of them, I have it on good authority, are really good-sounding. So what’s the problem? The portable audio exclusion zone is created by simple biological morphology. No matter what the make or model of IEM, some people – and I am among them – either find them uncomfortable, or can’t achieve the good seal within the ear canal required for the proper reproduction of lower frequencies. Our ears are just the wrong shape.

Dali IO-12 headphone review https://the-ear.net

Danish speaker manufacturer Dali is one of a number of audio manufacturers offering the thus marginalised audiophile an alternative. The company’s IO-12 wireless headphone is its latest model, priced at just under £1,000. Dali would like us to see the IO-12 as the only headphone we will ever need; able to excel in the portable, wireless role, but also in the wired, domestic role. Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the start. The IO-12 does not have the beating of Hifiman’s Susvara (six times the price) or Audeze’s LCD5 (four times the price), two of a number of top-drawer wired headphone models from other vendors that we could point to. But then it’s not meant to. Instead it should be evaluated against functionally similar portable alternatives around its price-point.

Dali IO-12 headphone review https://the-ear.net

The IO-12 is not only AAC, aptX, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive compatible, but has active noise cancelling, a USB-C input in which mode its internal DAC can handle up to 24-bit 96kHz files, and it has a purely passive wired-only mode for use with a headphone amplifier, via a 3.5mm stereo jack. There’s no app to go with the IO-12. Some might see that as a negative while others will appreciate the no-fuss simplicity of the buttons on the right hand earcup that toggle noise cancelling on and off, power/pairing on and off, apply bass boost and allow volume and track selection to be controlled. The 35 hours of battery life with noise cancelling and Bluetooth turned on is likely to prove more than sufficient for most users.

On the street

Overall this is a broadly similar feature set offered by rivals to the IO-12, some of which are less costly. Where the IO-12’s stiffer RRP may be justified is in the area of sound quality. Dali has applied low-distortion driver magnet technology that it developed for its flagship speaker designs, and the company wants us to know that its performance makes the IO-12 the portable headphone choice for audiophiles. The IO-12 certainly sounds very acceptable when operated in Bluetooth mode. Frustrated by the failed trials with IEMs, I was tickled by the novelty of being able to listen to music and podcasts while walking around a busy town. The closed-backs and plush leather pads of the earcups exclude some extraneous noise, but that’s augmented by the active noise cancellation which while it is not effective to the point where it blocks out all external noises, does a good enough job to allow the programme material to be heard with clarity even when walking by the side of a busy road.

Dali IO-12 headphone review https://the-ear.net

The novelty of music on the move having worn off, I then used the IO-12 in purely passive mode, connected to a Burson Soloist 3XGT headphone amplifier and a front end of Grimm MU1 network player and Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC. Using Bluetooth trades sound quality for portability; the lossy codecs do a surprisingly good job of transferring musical information, but using the IO-12 in its tethered modes, either via USB-C or the stereo jack, reveals just how much more detail is available, and how engagingly capable the IO-12 is as a passive headphone.

On the sofa

Two qualities that had been appreciated while listening on the move, the relatively light weight and a well-judged grip that make the IO-12 secure without being a skull-crusher, also make it a comfortable companion during lengthy sofa-based listening sessions. Dali’s marketing spin around the use of its Soft Magnet Compound in the drivers turns out to have some foundation; even when compared against dedicated wired headphone models the IO-12 does indeed exhibit notably low levels of perceived distortion, delivering a clean, airy and detailed presentation. Then soundstage is more towards the circumaural than the narrower letter-box that characterises some wired headphones, and that can make listening to some forms of music through the IO-12 a particularly immersive experience.

Dali IO-12 headphone review https://the-ear.net

In my system the IO-12 tended towards mid-forwardness and while as the claimed 10Hz-48kHz frequency range would suggest it can indeed dig deep, the low end in passive wired mode can feel slightly lean. However, in compensation for what may not be a strictly accurate overall frequency response, we do get a ballsy, satisfyingly performance with generous transfer of dynamic energy that combines with that notable soundstaging on high quality recordings to generate a pleasing sense of ‘you-are-there-ness.’

Verdict

I must confess that initially I did not really understand what Dali is trying to do with its IO-12. At its price point it is twice what we need to pay for a high-performing wired headphone such as Sennheiser’s 660S2. However, if we approach the IO-12 as Dali intends us to – as a premium product designed to straddle both the wired and wireless world – then the IO-12 makes a lot more sense. I actually like the fact that is doesn’t have an associated app; the relative simplicity of buttons appeals to my desire for a less complicated life. And in terms of sonic performance this Dali proved to be quite addictive; strictly and wholly accurate or not, its airy and dynamic presentation grew on me.

Dali IO-12 headphone review https://the-ear.net

The IO-12 turned out to be one of that relatively rare breed of audio product that I missed having around when it had gone back to the manufacturer. Head sizes differ widely so try before you buy. Otherwise the Dali IO-12 is a strong recommendation.

Specifications:

Type: wireless noise cancelling headphones
Ear coupling: over-ear (circumaural)
Transducer principle: dynamic
Driver: 50mm with SMC based magnet
Frequency response: 10 – 48,000 Hz
Maximum SPL: 100dB
Distortion (THD): not specified
Bluetooth codecs: AAC, aptX, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive
Connections: Bluetooth 5.2, 3.5 mm mini jack, USB-C
Weight (w/o cable): 370g
Accessories: carry case
Warranty: 2 years

Price when tested:
£999
€999
$1,300
Manufacturer Details:

Dali A/S
T +45 9672 1155
http://www.dali-speakers.com

Type:

wireless headphones

Author:

Kevin Fiske

Distributor Details:

Dali A/S UK Regional Office
T 01462 337320
http://www.dali-speakers.com

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