It was a surprise – though not the biggest ever – when Dali launched two headphones at the IFA trade fair in Berlin in September 2019. Surprising because the manufacturer is otherwise only known for its speakers. But still not so shocking, since headphones is a market that just keeps growing.
These are the IO-4 and IO-6 headphones, which are similar, except that the IO-6 we are testing here is equipped with electronic noise cancellation (ANC).
With IO-6, Dali has entered the ongoing top battle in the market for noise-reducing luxury headphones. IO-6 feels and looks as exclusive as the price tag. The earpieces are large and round, and the ear pads are made of memory foam and lined with artificial leather. The hoop that holds them in place is made of aluminium, and the mechanical parts look solid. Bang & Olufsen H9 is still a bit more luxurious, but we are on the same street – and Bose, Sony and the other luxury noise cancelers are not quite in the same league.
With and without cable
IO-6 is primarily intended for wireless use via Bluetooth, but you can also listen to the cable via USB and “analog” with standard 3.5 mm minijack cable. “Analog” in quotation marks as the signal is converted in the headphone and processed digitally from there. You can also listen completely passively analog by turning off the headphones. The same applies if the battery runs out (after 30 hours). In that case, it will of course be without ANC and DSP correction. IO-6 supports the “hi-fi-friendly” codecs AAC, aptX and aptX HD.
The Dali IO-6 can be Bluetooth-paired with up to four devices at a time, and they will then try to connect to the last used device first, and from there work their way down the list.
Like all other newer ANC headphones, the IO-6 has a “transparency mode”, where the signal from the surroundings is passed through so that you can follow what your colleagues are saying when they think you are in your own world. On the other hand, they lack the ability to vary the amount of noise reduction offered by the majority of competitors. And you will be looking in vain for a controlling app.
IO-6 is obviously aimed at those who do not spend time changing audio profiles and messing with equalizer settings. As Dali themselves put it: “Headphones are basically speakers that are placed on opposite sides of the head”.
No touch control
Dali has also gone against the trend of touch control. It can not be immediately seen on the design, because the buttons are hidden behind the panels on the right earpiece. But that means you can clearly feel in your fingers whether or not a button is pressed. What is best is a matter of taste, but I find it comfortable to avoid feverish groping after the correct finger movement while in the experiment I involuntarily change the melody, turn down the volume or turn off the noise reduction.
The sound quality
The Dali IO-6 is one of the cleanest and most undistorted wireless headphones I have ever heard. It may be related to the drivers, which were produced by Dali themselves, and built as speaker units – with diaphragms in long-fiber paper and with edge suspension. According to Dali director Lars Worre, extra work has also been done to give the units a good “cabinet” to work in.
And it seems that the work has met with success. Most closed headphones can reproduce fairly deep bass, but the bass from IO-6 is more dynamic than most. Drums sound like drums, with a slap from the drumhead, followed by a bass pressure.
The Dali IO-6 is wonderfully free of “sound” or “sound signature”. It’s neither too little nor too much bottom (so if you like club sound, you need to listen somewhere else).
It is also easy to hear the difference between a good and a less good recording. Or on the instruments in the middle of a familiar melody. And suddenly you find yourself listening to Peter Gabriel’s tambourine playing on the live edition of “Supper’s Ready” or Ray Manzarek’s Marxophone playing on Doors’ edition of the “Alabama Song”. Two songs I would not recommend for test use, but which still turn out to contain undiscovered details.
Electronic noise reduction always has its price, as some of the music signal inevitably comes with the purchase when the noise from the surroundings is shaved off. But on the Dali IO-6, this price is very modest. The dynamics become a little less impressive when the ANC is turned on, and the space around voices is a bit subdued. But since it happens with a high level of quality, the bottom line is still a sound that is freer and cleaner than other really good ANC headphones.
IO-6 is Dali’s debut in the headphone market, and they have proven here that they are able to transfer the experience from their own speaker units to the smaller format. There is indeed a lack of a nice lifestyle app for the mobile, and it is only an ANC setting. But why make it unnecessarily complicated when it already works perfectly? The noise reduction is not as effective in the midrange as Sony’s, but it is sufficient, and the effect on the sound is more gentle. The strongest card of the IO-6 is and will be the sound quality, which is the best I have heard so far on a pair of ANC headphones. This, together with a build quality that is matched by few, makes it a very good alternative in the luxury class.