Philips Fidelio L1 £230
14th Mar 2012 | 12:57
Philips aims for audio accuracy with its new premium L1 headphones
Philips Fidelio L1
The Philips Fidelio L1 headphones represent the famous Dutch company's latest offering in the world of premium headphones.
Designed for use in the home as well as on the move, Philips is hoping to strike a chord with that rare beast: the iPod owner who cares deeply about clear, natural sound quality.
You only need to look at the number of people still rocking the bundled white earbuds to see that sound quality is simply not a consideration for the majority. And with celebrity-endorsed ranges like Beats by Dre occupying entire sections in highstreet shops and subsequently hoovering up a large portion of those people who think they care about sound quality (Beats by Dre are an expensive fashion accessory, they are not a serious audio product), there's not much room for manoeuvre for those products that do offer genuine performance.
As soon as you take the L1 cans in your hand, though, you can tell that a lot love as gone into them - they're built to a very high standard indeed. They absolutely stink of premium, and they look like they mean business too - even your Grandaddy would like them, and he wouldn't look silly wearing them either.
But that's really not a hard feat to pull off if you're willing to invest a little money. Even Beats by Dre cans look and feel great to the touch. But it's what's inside a pair of headphones that ultimately dictates their worth and that's why we're torn with these Philips'.
A lot of the music we put through the L1 cans sounded absolutely stunning. Acoustic tracks sound first class across the board. The A-minor twang of a guitar, the snap of a snare drum, the wail of a Roger Waters – it's all as sonically pure as any other headphones we've tested in recent times.
Some of the tracks we used to test were revealed to contain instruments we never even knew to be in the mix – always a great indicator of quality.
The L1s love vocals in particular and do a great job of putting the vocalist right in front of your face. You don't need complex computer algorithms at the source to do that – it's all about care and passion in the design process. It's about driver design, materials and attention to detail.
Every sonic fibre is reproduced with a clarity you simply will not find anywhere under the £200 mark, and the better production values a track has, the better it will sound with the Fidelio L1s.
But this sadly is where the L1s peak and start to show some imperfection.
For as many tracks as we could find that made the L1s sound like the best headphones in the world, there were as many that brought them back down into the realms of normality.
The sticking point for us is the bass. While the soundscape in most tracks is handled with dazzling clarity, deep bass is often lost into the midrange, reducing the scale of the soundscape and mildly blunting the listening experience.
Philips has deliberately tuned them this way and many people will accept the compromise as worthwhile - they certainly can't be accused of exaggerating bass like many products do. But after the L1's went on a tour around the TechRadar office and across several of our partner magazine teams, the general consensus was that bass was a disappointment.
Take a track like Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits, a personal favourite (shut it, you). The beauty of that track is in the production. It's about as moody as '80s music gets and has been used to magic effect on the big and small screen over the years. But the L1's push all of those luscious deep notes into the background of the midrange and so the track loses its foreboding sense of atmosphere.
If the L1's were a Philips TV, they'd be a brand new 4K set with dazzling, detailed picture quality and resolution but with disappointing black levels.
It's not all doom and gloom at the bottom end though. The punchy bass drum in a track like Pink Floyd's Money is delivered with vibrancy. It's just the deeper, more subtle bassy undertones that can go AWOL and for many people that won't be a problem.
The Philips Fidelio L1 headphones are designed for the discerning listener more than the street-walking basshunter. If you want to look down with the kids and have your head blown off with bass and nothing else, Beats by Dre are more your bag. But the L1's are about taking music from its source and delivering it to your brain in the most natural way possible.
This may lead to a lack of immersion when it comes to really deep bass, but the clarity and detail on offer elsewhere in the soundscape will be enough for some to make this purchase worthwhile.
Ultimately though, we expected a slightly better all-round performance from a pair of cans that cost well north of £200. And that's why we've given them 4 stars only. If you can find them for cheaper, or if a bit of bass being shaved off the bottom end is not troubling to you, these could easily be the cans you've been waiting for.