Transitioning to some 24-bit/96 kHz FLAC downloads from Norwegian label 2L (you can freely download samples at http://www.2l.no/hires), the classical and jazz/fusion arrangements sounded huge and gorgeous, upping the already solid depth and sound stage from the compressed music. You could hear the breathiness and full-body detail of every trumpet note during the Hoff Ensemble’s Quiet Winter Night, set against the thumping of percussion and sinewy fusion guitar playing to create a haunting ambiance. For rich, deep frequencies, Iver Klieve’s church organ performance of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” sounded stunning and clean as I turned the volume way up. On Vivaldi’s “Recitative and Aria Cantata” from Belleza Crudel, Tone Wik’s soprano fluttered about and soared effortlessly through the vTrues with no hint of strain in reproducing the incredible female vocal extension.
While the vTrue may represent Velodyne’s serious listening side, the vFree could be seen as its fun side. Bluetooth headphones are emerging as a convenient way to listen to devices such as smartphones and tablets hands- and wires-free, if you want, to go with traditional wired listening.
That’s not to say the vFrees are a slouch on the performance end—they’re very good, not quite on par with the vTrues, but clearly coming from the same engineering pool and delivering in many of the same ways. Driver size for the vFree is 34mm, with frequency response listed as 20 Hz to 20 kHz and sensitivity of 98dB. But what differentiates the vFree certainly stems from its feature set, which unlike the vTrue you need to consult the manual and memorize some things.
The vFree design features a gloss plastic finish (my pair is black, but it also comes in white or silver), and there are optional patterned “skins” you can wrap and protect the headphones in for $39. The padding on the earcups and headband is a soft black foam, more reminiscent of other on-ear headphones, and the vFree is collapsible so you can easily stow it in the included carrying pouch—which is about half the size of the vTrue carrying pouch as those headphones do not fold. Without all the forged aluminum and leather, the vFree weighs half as much as the vTrue, so for me felt more comfortable, though the materials make it more susceptible to wear and tear than the durable vTrue.
The vFree uses a rechargeable lithium-ion polymer battery, and you can juice it up by connecting the USB cable to the micro USB port and any compatible charging device (I used my PC). Velodyne lists charge time at 1.5 hours to deliver 10 hours of music playback time. The headphones’ LED status indicator will go from red to green when fully charged. The indicator also glows blue, which is the standard color when it’s powered on and leads us into the next feature, wireless Bluetooth playback.
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As a Bluetooth newbie, using the headphones in this manner was a blast, and I can certainly see the allure of the exploding Bluetooth headphone and speaker market. After I charged the headphones, I followed the relatively simple instructions for pairing them with my Bluetooth device, in this case a Droid Razr phone. In the phone settings I clicked the Bluetooth mode to “on” and then powered on the vFree (Velodyne says to keep the device and headphones within a meter for this process) by holding the power button until the LEDs flashed blue and red; I then had the phone search for Bluetooth devices, and the vFree soon popped up onscreen (along with a co-worker’s Macbook) in the “devices found” list; selecting that I waited as the vFree LED indicator flashed blue five times to let me know the process worked.
I tested the Bluetooth listening using to Pandora, YouTube and some MP3 files stored on my phone of the Dylan album and Live Phish tunes from my PC. This is where the headphone controls take some getting used to for you to appreciate the convenience of having them right on your ear (in this case, buttons are incorporated into the right earcup design). Up and down volume buttons are on the side, by the back of your ear. Three pieces of the earcup then provide the main controls—play/pause on the bottom, next/previous above that piece in the middle, and power/pair toward the front of your ear. The play/pause button also doubles for answering/ending phone calls, because you can use the vFree as a hands-free phone microphone/receiver.
It does take some repeated usage to get acquainted with finding and hitting the right buttons. I figured the next/previous track skipping function would be limited to local or cloud-stored music on my phone, but it worked with Pandora as well. Velodyne says the Bluetooth transmission is good to about 33 feet, and walking around my home and work office with the headphones it seemed to extend a bit beyond that until the signal got choppy.
The Pandora playback had me a little worried about the quality of the Bluetooth listening, because it didn’t sound very crisp, and actually got a bit crunchy as I turned up the volume. However, when I began playing YouTube music videos and concert clips and then moved to the Live Phish tracks the playback was solid and considerably smoother. It didn’t have quite the same punch as when I hard-wired the headphones into my PC for listening, with the wireless playback sounding a tad thinner and brighter. When plugged straight into the PC to hear some of the same MP3s and 24/96 files as I did with the vTrue, as noted the vFree achieved high levels of instrument definition and imaging, with ample dynamic impact and detail.
I’m definitely more of an in-ear headphone listener than on-ear, but Velodyne’s efforts with the vFree and vTrue headphones will certainly appear to those who seek an upgraded private listening experience. Unlike the company’s acclaimed subwoofers, there’s more to these products than low-end rumble, but they offer big impact just the same.
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Arlen writes about home technology installations and product news and reviews for electronichouse.com
and Electronic House magazine.