“It’s the flight, Doug. It exhausts me,” I said to Doug Schneider as we were discussing our plans for Audio Video Show 2023 in Warsaw, Poland. “I can never sleep on planes. These overnight flights leave me crippled and exhausted.”
Doug responded, “Do you have a pair of noise-canceling headphones?”
I own no such thing. I’ve always relied on in-ear monitors and the mechanical isolation provided by the squeaky-tight fit of their rubber nozzles. It seemed to me that just keeping the noise out should be enough.
But I’ve had troubles with IEMs. The level of insertion that’s required to maintain that isolation eventually renders them uncomfortable, and they often worry their way loose—which means I have to repeatedly jam them back in again. Also, I find it impossible to sleep with two foreign objects lodged deep in my ears.
“How about you try a pair of Focal Bathys headphones for the flight?” said Doug. “I just got a pair back from James Hale, who just finished with them—there’s a review going live on SoundStage! Xperience shortly.”
Matt Bonaccio and I met Doug in the departure lounge at Toronto Pearson Airport as we connected for our flight to Warsaw. Doug handed over the fully charged Bathys headphones, which retail for $699 in the United States. A downloaded quick-start PDF from Focal’s website got me going.
It honestly startled me when I put them on and energized the noise-canceling circuit by way of the app that I’d downloaded onto my phone. The level of background noise in an airport’s crowded departure lounge is significant, but you don’t realize just how loud it is until that racket is gone.
The Bathys headphones’ earcups provided a decent seal on their own. But as soon as I clicked the app over to Silent mode, I was near-as-dammit floating in a black void. Noting my amazement, Doug stuck his camera in my face to capture the moment, as is his wont.
While we waited for our boarding call, I puttered around with the headphones’ controls and explored their sound quality using some albums I’d downloaded from Tidal. It took a few minutes of experimentation for me to realize that the background roar wasn’t totally gone. I could still distinguish a sense of the space, the generalized mutter of hundreds of people, and the overall size of the room. But that roar was now so far down in level that it might as well have been gone.
I’ve never been much impressed by the sound quality of Bluetooth. My experiences with Bluetooth headphones and car systems have left me with the impression that it generally flattens everything, squeezing out much of the juice that makes music sound real and personal. Playing some of my downloaded albums through the Bathys ’phones via Bluetooth, I got a feeling of dynamic richness and contrast that really surprised me.
Again, I was listening in an environment that, short of a metal-stamping factory, might be one of the worst places in the world for evaluating high-end audio equipment. So I wasn’t really trying to determine how the Bathys cans compared to, say, the open-backed Sennheiser HD 599 headphones I use at home.
That said, it was clear to me that the sound quality of the Bathys headphones, fed via Bluetooth from my Samsung S22 Ultra, was a significant step up from any wireless system I’d yet experienced.
After our plane took off, I pulled the Bathys headphones out of their tidy little case and lowered them over my ears. It was like entering a different room. Immediately the roar of the fans and engines receded—not completely, but most assuredly by a huge amount. I was now cocooned in a bath of calm. Switching the noise cancelation off and then on again via the app was revelatory.
During the first part of the flight, I watched a couple of episodes of Gen V on the Prime app that I’d downloaded on my phone. Notwithstanding my disappointment that the show didn’t live up to the satirical, dystopian promise of The Boys, I was very satisfied with the way the Bathys headphones rendered dialog in an extremely clear manner, free of any aural contamination from the cabin noise.
After the lights went out, I switched off the music and videos and left the Bathys ’phones running so that I could still benefit from the noise cancelation. I don’t sleep well on airplanes. I might nap a bit, but the best I hope for is to be able to rest and wait for the experience to end.
The Bathys headphones truly helped me relax. The economy seat was still narrow and thinly padded, so it was difficult to get comfortable. But with the ambient roar hugely diminished, I felt a sense of detachment from the environment. Worth it? Yes, these headphones are worth the price just based on the improved quality of life.
After my first day as a sleep-deprived zombie came to an end, I retired to my quiet hotel room in the Radisson Blu Sobieski, then woke up refreshed the next morning. As I was drinking my first coffee, I pulled out the headphones and took a listen. Although the room seemed essentially silent, lowering the Bathys headphones over my ears revealed that there was actually some low-level noise from the ventilation system. Once again, the Bathys ’phones dropped a blanket of blackness over this dull roar.
As I write this, I’m listening to Sonatas of John Field (16-bit/44.1kHz, Telarc Digital / Tidal), performed by John O’Conor. It’s the perfect performance at the perfect time. The day outside is gray and overcast, as it generally is in Warsaw during the show period. I’ve got O’Conor’s light, delicate touch piped directly into my head. I’m very familiar with this recording, and the Bathys headphones capture it perfectly. The sound is better than anything I’ve yet heard from Bluetooth. It’s got all that juice and flavor that I earlier complained was missing in action.
I’ve sampled a bunch of other recordings, and in each case, I’m getting sound quality that essentially matches that of my wired rig at home. Doug, Matt, and I are about to head out and get started on our exploration of Warsaw Audio Video Show 2023, so I don’t have time to really dig into the sound quality of the Bathys cans. But James Hale has already done this. For his November 1 “Art+Tech” column on SoundStage! Xperience, James listened to Roger Eno’s latest album through these amazing headphones.
For my part, I believe that the promise of true audiophile-quality wireless headphones has been fulfilled, and I’m experiencing it right here and now.
Senior Editor, SoundStage!