Blue Microphones Ella – the new first lady of planar magnetic headphones

 

Pros:  Crisp and detailed sound, good dynamics, excellent sense of musicality for a “neutral” tuning, exceptional spatial cues, good comfort, onboard amp circuitry to make the driveable by just about anything, ON+ mode for a more “analogue” sound

Cons: Unusual headphone construction leaves you feeling like an extra from Dr Who, could do with a bit more presence in the bass, still require plenty of volume from the source even with amp circuitry engaged, sloppy action on amp switch

Price: £660 (amazon.co.uk)

Blue Microphones Ella

Acknowledgment

I picked up the Ella on a well known online auction site recently after hearing two of their predecessors (the Mo-Fi and the Lola). I have always been curious about the benefits of planar magnetic technology in over-ear headphones, but was always wary of the additional power requirements needed to properly drive them as most of my listening is done on portable sources and I am not a massive fan of amp-stacking. On discovering the Ella packed an upgraded version of the built amp tech used in their first generation Mo-Fi model, it seemed like a perfect set of headphones to finally dip my toe in the water properly with a set of planar magnetic cans and see what all the fuss was about.

About me: recent convert to audiophilia but a long time music fan, also aspiring to be a reasonably inept drummer. Listen to at least 2 hours of music a day – prefer IEMs for out and about, and a large pair of headphones when I have the house to myself and a glass in my hand. Recently started converted my library to FLAC and 320kbps MP3, and do most of my other listening through Tidal HiFi. I am a fan of rock, acoustic (apart from folk) and sarcasm. Oh yeah, and a small amount of electronica. Not a basshead, but I do love a sound with some body to it. My ideal tuning for most IEMs and headphones tends towards a musical and slightly dark presentation, although I am not treble sensitive in general. Please take all views expressed below with a pinch of salt – all my reviews are a work in progress based on my own perceptions and personal preferences, and your own ears may tell you a different story.

Introduction

Blue Microphones will be a familiar name to anyone who has used a hobbyist or studio recording microphone in the last twenty or so years, making their name as a quality purveyor of all things microphonic. About 18 months ago, the company decided to branch out into products that produced sound, as well as recorded it, and the Blue Mo-Fi was born. With a unique headband mechanism, an onboard amp (designed for the project by the people at Fiio) to ensure the drivers could be properly driven and a refreshing focus on sonic quality in the £250 price bracket, the Mo-Fi and its immediate successor the Lola became quite a hit with the audiophile crowd, garnering excellent reviews for the sound quality and general confusion about the Cyberman-esque headband mechanism.

Fast forward twelve months and the second wave of Blue headphones has now surfaced, comprising of an updated dynamic driver model (the Sadie), a Bluetooth model utilising a quad dynamic driver setup for onboard noise cancelling, and the current flagship of the range, the Ella. The Ella also has the distinction of being the only planar magnetic model in the current lineup. Sporting an all-new amp designed in house and dual-sided 50mm x 50mm drivers, the Ella is positioned squarely for a tilt at the mid and higher end headphone bracket, enabling the user to get the benefits of planar technology without needing to lug an extra amplifier around. It is an interesting proposition – to find out if the magicians at Blue have succeeded in cracking the planar magnetic market, read on…

Unboxing

As standard across the Blue headphone range, the Ella come in a large square presentation box with a lid that covers ¾ of the box underneath. Lifting the lid off, the headphones sit in a formed plastic base attached to the base of the box itself, sitting vertically in a presentation box style. It’s a nice initial impression, and looks quite unusual compared to the usual style of having headphones embedded horizontally in foam cutouts or locked away in a hard carry case.

Lifting the headphones out of their base, a clearly marked tab saying “Lift here” allows you access to the various accessories underneath. The loadout for this price bracket is reasonable, with a nicely designed 1.2mm fabric cable (terminated in 3.5mm connector and carrying a microphone and inline controls), a longer 3 metre cable for use with your home audio setup. A 3.5mm to 6.3mm adaptor and a very plush velour style soft carry pouch to keep the Ellas comfortable. Unfortunately there is no hard case included, which would have been a nice option as the design of the headband precludes use of most of the generic over-ear headphone cases. The accessory package is finished off with the usual raft of warranty booklets and a small instruction manual showing how the onboard amplifier works.

Overall, the presentation is unusual, very well thought out and suitably high end – nothing mind blowing, but a very solid effort. The presentation case style of the base also doubles as a headphone stand if you wish to keep the Ella out on display, which is a nice touch.

Comfort and design

The design of these headphones will be very polarizing for most people, with an unusual series of hinge and bracket style joints making up the headband, and taking inspiration from the suspension on a Formula One car to handle the adjustment and weight distribution. Blue claim this design allows for a perfect seal around the ear, giving better bass response and less sound leakage. In practice, the headband, while unusual looking, does actually distribute the weight of the headphones quite evenly and comfortably across the skull, and once adjusted, sit nicely in place with the cups keeping a solid seal around the ears.

They even look pretty cool while doing this, sporting a cyberpunk look that will definitely turn a few heads as people try and work out if you are a Martian, a movie extra or just a madman walking down the street with a steel beartrap strapped to your head. The more OCD audiophiles out there may also not like the lack of symmetry that usually occurs on the dual hinged crown section of the headband, with one hinge usually locking down flat and the other remaining bent. This makes no difference to the comfort, with a plump and well cushioned headband ensuring that the pressure is always spread across the top of the wearer’s head and never particularly onerous. The padding on the earcups is also soft and plush, and apart from a tendency to generate a little heat when worn for extended periods, they otherwise sit perfectly still and comfortable for hours at a time.

All of the above is fine for stationary listening, but the sheer weight of the headphones (461g)  and the unusual angles of the headband mechanism mean that the rock solid clamp these exert when sitting does become a little more wobbly when worn out and about. The clamping force is perfectly fine (and would probably become quite uncomfortable if ratcheted up any more), but I find that in motion, the headphones tend to destabilise themselves with any serious movement up or down, so required readjustment on a few occasions when I wore them walking around the local city centre one lunchtime. In my opinion, these are very much an indoor headphone rather than a commuter can.

One other notable feature of the Ella is the acoustic tuning of the earcups, with Blue modelling the interior of the cups on high-end speaker cabinets to maximise the soundstage. In practice, this does seem to have an effect on the sound, with the oversized earcups allowing a larger than usual sense of stage and airiness for a closed ear can.

Overall, the design touches on the Ella are well thought out and are as well executed as they are unusual. Even the onboard amplifier (itself a rarity in non-bluetooth headphones) has its own unique touch, with the headband automatically cutting off the power to the amp circuit when the headphones are taken off the wearer’s head, and the Blue logos on each earcup lighting up with a white LED when the amp is in use (very cool in a dark room). The Ella are proof that style doesn’t have to come at the expense of substance, with a unique take on the over-ear headphone that is more than just a gimmick.

In fact, the only thing I can think of that detracts from the overall feeling of quality is the amp switching mechanism – this is triggered by turning a small circular dial that surrounds the cable entry jack into the headphone, and the connection is very indistinct, with far too much play between the different modes. In fact, it is even possible to “click” the switch in but not fully engage the next amp stage, leading to some interesting audio artefacts, and occasionally a loss of volume in one of the channels until the amp switch is fully engaged. After my initial worry that I had blown something in the headphones, I managed to repeat the above quite regularly, and while you quickly learn how to feel when the amp has engaged correctly (apart from the obvious), it is the one area that the Blue team can certainly do better on next time, especially considering the price bracket the Ella are inhabiting. It also feels like the only area of the ‘phone that may be prone to QC issues over time, if the “play” in the switcher loosens any further – definitely a work-on for the engineers if they ever make a second generation of this particular can.

Audio quality

Moving past the various design decisions and unusual combination of technology that makes up Blue’s current flagship, one thing is reassuringly familiar – whoever tunes the cans at the Blue Microphones HQ certainly knows how to put together a good sounding set of headphones. The Ella are one of those rare beasts that manage to combine an almost neutral frequency response with a sense of musicality more usually found in far more coloured sound tunings. The sound is beautifully pure from the lowest of the sub-bass all the way up to the crystal clear highs, with an excellent grasp of 3D placement and depth to the sound that belies its closed-back design. There is a sense of effortless enjoyment that comes with listening to these headphones that is easy to describe but very difficult to pull off – this is a sound that can pull you in deep into the music you are listening to, keeping the detail levels high enough to do their planar magnetic heritage proud, while still remaining easy enough on the ear to let the music take you where it needs to.

Overall, the sound is refreshingly balanced, with a slightly leaner than expected (for a planar) bass, a nicely forward and smooth midrange and good extension and shimmer in the top end that stays on the side of crystal clear rather than aggressively sparkly. I can honestly say that these are one of the most enjoyably tuned headphones (in or over-ear) I have listened to in the last 12 months, with just enough of everything (detail, texture, slam and all the other descriptors you can possibly think of) to make it a true all rounder.

Bass

Starting with the bass, the Ella present a lower frequency response that is pretty even and surprisingly close to neutral, with an emphasis on texture and tonality over outright weight. The onboard amplifier does offer a slight mid-bass boost (the “ON+” mode), but this comes with an added portion of warmth in the higher bass and lower mid frequencies that can cloud some of the impressive clarity the Ella is capable of. It is a nice option to have, but for me it works best as advertised on the Blue literature, adding a bit of warmth to old vinyl recordings played through my main hi-fi system rather than on more recent tracks, where any bump to bass would be better served by some judicious parametric EQ instead. Unless otherwise noted, any further sonic impressions will be based around the standard amplifier (“ON”) setting.

Flicking through my usual test tracks, “Bad Rain” by Slash comes up first. The bass riff that gives the song its snarling character is well served by the presentation of the Ella, kicking in around the 20 second mark and giving a raw and rasping texture to the sound that remains audible as the main riff fires up over the top of it. The bass is barely north of neutral in quantity, present enough to prevent the song sounding anaemic but not overpowering. Texture is also the overriding impression left when the next test track comes up (“Hello, It’s Me” by Sister Hazel). This song has a gloriously velvety bassline underpinning the jangling guitar and smooth vocals, and the Ella presents this almost perfectly, the bass guitar licks slinking around the lower end of the soundscape and filling up the gaps while still keeping a sense of reality and fine detail. A useful tester on detail retrieval for me in this frequency range is the bass lick that slowly climbs from the 13 second mark in the track – through the Ella, the stings can clearly be heard vibrating after each pluck, adding a feeling of texture and realism to the main body of the note without losing the all-important substance. This is a driver that can pull some serious detail from the lower registers when needed. Completing my current trinity of texture-based testers (try saying that after a few beverages), “Palladio” by Escala puts some cello and strings into the mix, all of which the Ella handles in the same effortless manner. The orchestral sweep of the opening bars hits with real power, notes rasping and echoing into nothingness as the atmosphere in the track build. In fact, all my classical/fusion tracks sound excellent on these cans, the blend of dynamism and detail really working well with more orchestral styles of music.

Switching from texture to presence, “Heaven” by Emile Sande is my go-to benchmark for sub bass and punch, with “Why So Serious” from The Dark night soundtrack the test case for the extremes of frequency response. On these two tracks, the sub-bass on the Ella is reasonably well extended if not absolutely subterranean, with a decent level of sound pressure to fill the lower end of the music as required. Even with the “ON+” engaged these will never stray too far into basshead territory, with the extra presence feeling more centred in the higher sub and lower mid bass ranges to me. It certainly doesn’t feel lacking to me – as a former owner of the Aurisonics ASG-2.5 portable bass ear blending units I am partial to a little emphasis in the lower end of the scale, and the Ella does enough to satisfy my particular tastes without ever excelling in terms of sheer quantity. Moving up through the mid-bass there is a small but noticeable hump in the otherwise linear extension, adding just enough body to the sound to stop it feeling too analytical in the higher frequency ranges. Again, the emphasis is on detail over body, with the notes sounding neither thick or thin, sitting a little like Little Red Riding Hood’s final choice as “just right” for most styles of music.

In terms of speed, the planar tech used in these headphones is certainly no slouch, keeping the notes firing through without muddling the sound in the most dense and congested of tracks. Kick drums explode into hearing with the right amount of boom, and fade naturally into the background just as quickly, the dynamic shifts being handled well by the 50mmx50mm driver array. Percussion sounds punchy and direct, giving a good level of physical impact in more intense tracks – again, this isn’t a set of headphones that will shake the fillings from your teeth with brute force, but they certainly present enough slam to bring the music to life.

If I had to categorise the overall bass presentation, I would say “enjoyably neutral” is a good place to settle, with the drivers being able to fill up the soundscape with richly textured bass velvet when needed, and tap dance nimbly through lighter tracks without leaving any undue warmth in the air. It isn’t my usual favourite presentation, but I can’t help but enjoy what the team at Blue have done here – the addition of the “ON+” mode for just a little more of everything at the expense of a little fuzzy warmth further up is also a nice touch.

Mids

The Ella are refreshingly mid-centric compared to a lot of headphones I have heard to date, with no major dip in the frequency range to emphasise either the bass or the treble. I am a fan of a forward midrange (a la the old Aurisonics ASG series “house sound”), and the tuning of the Ella really allows vocals to shine. It isn’t overly thick in terms of note weight, but like the bass there is just enough body behind the sharper edges of the notes to give substance to the detail.

Putting some Jack Savoretti into the queue, his cover of Dylan’s haunting “Nobody ‘Cept You” sounds beautifully accomplished, the singer’s uniquely gravelly presentation revelling in the textured approach of the Ella without sandpapering the ears of the listener in the process. At some points, it almost sounds like the microphone is actually only a few feet away from the ears of the listener at eye level, with the softly strumming acoustic guitar coming from a little further back and lower down in the soundscape, mirroring where it would come from if you were actually stood face to face with the artist in the recording room. This is a good example of one of the major plus points I have found with these headphones – the spatial positioning and imagery is top notch, giving each sound a rounded and three dimensional feel to it that allows the listener to sink more effectively INTO the music, rather than just observing an interpretation of it from outside.

“Mother Maria” by Slash is up next, and takes full advantage of the imaging capabilities, layering Maria Hart’s breathless and emotional vocals over the Spanish guitar style acoustic refrain and Slash’s more electric noodlings on the track, the vocals pouring in straight through the centre of your forehead like liquid silk, flanked on either side by crisply defined and effortlessly musical guitar. The nuances and inflections in the singer’s voice are captured excellently, lending a real emotional heft to the delivery. I mentioned the old Aurisonics “house sound” for vocals earlier, and this is a headphone that comes close to matching the prowess Dale Lott and his team in Nashville used to show for portraying singers in the best possible light. Vocals sound sweet and soulful, with male vocals showing up just as strongly as their female counterparts, again full of soul and texture while retaining a smoothness and liquidity that is very addictive.

“Virginia” by Whiskey Myers is another favourite track of mine for testing out vocal response, and the Ella sails through it without pause, Cody Cannon’s voice sounding both powerful and delicate at the same time, sitting nicely above the acoustic and electric guitar (a common theme here) without feeling too separated from the body of the music. “Coco” by Foy Vance passes through my ears just as effortlessly – in fact, the vocals are so beautifully smooth and liquid that I failed to take any useful notes in three different attempts to listen to the track, getting swept away in the song each time and landing a few tracks further down the album, In short, I would be very surprised if any vocal lovers found major fault with the tuning of the Ella – it is just THAT good (IMHO anyway).

Tonality on other mid-range instruments is similarly adept, guitars (both acoustic and electric) sounding clean and clear and possessing that rounded sound and ring of truth that makes them feel almost live in presentation. Detail levels are high (as you would expect from a planar magnetic driver in this price bracket), the tiny micro details of the scuffed guitar intro and background noise in “Coco” presenting with ease in the listener’s mind.  The acoustic guitar lick around 20 seconds in to “Everybody Knows She’s Mine” by Blackberry Smoke also passes the listening test, sitting clean and clear above the chugging electric refrain underneath it rather than smearing into the main riff like it has a tendency to do on less resolving headphones or IEMs.

Electric guitar in general is well presented, chugging with authority on tracks like “Dubai Blues” by Chickenfoot and providing a nice crunchy texture to heavier rock fare, the ability of the drivers to resolve texture giving each riff a nice clean “edge”. Throwing multiple Slash tracks at the Ella, the frenetic guitar work “World On Fire” comes crashing through with the right amount of energy to set the song alight, “Shadow Life” following suit in a blaze of heavy riffing and stop start rhythm that never feels rushed or congested. Staying with Mr Hudson and his guitar, the twin guitar lines of “Welcome To The Jungle” by G N’ R (who else?)  are well separated and articulate, highlighting the complexity of the interplay between Slash and Izzy through the song (a very underrated track from a technical point of view) without taking the listener out of the glorious 1990’s sleaze-rock vibe that always follows the song into your ears like one of their famlously persistent groupies.

Overall, the midrange feels like the star of the show here, with an engaging 3D feel to the sound and highlight on vocals and guitar that make this a very good choice for listeners of those particular genres. That isn’t to say that things like piano are poorly represented, as the Ella nails the tone and timbre of a grand piano  (and to a lesser extent more synth based tones) in a similar manner to the excellent handling of rockier fare, but there is just something special for me about listening to some of my favourite rock tracks on these. A very accomplished piece of tuning here.

Treble

The treble tuning keeps in line with the midrange and bass, tastefully just a little outside of a truly neutral sound, steering more toward clarity rather than excessive sparkle. The notes are pure and clean, feeling more like a draught of ice-cold spring water hitting the ears than a glass of finely sparkling fizz. This is squarely in line with my ideal sonic preference for treble, so please bear that in mind when reading on, as the Ella have pretty much landed dead centre on my wish-list of tuning choices here.

That isn’t to say that the treble feels as impeccable to me as the midrange, as there is a slight edge to certain notes that I occasionally notice. Hitting up my first treble test track, “Starlight” by Slash and Myles Kennedy sits right on the border between clear and harsh, the dissonant high notes of the intro cutting into the brain and stopping just short of unpleasantness, but certainly containing enough energy to capture the attention. Kennedy’s vocals are a different story, the stratospheric falsetto he uses throughout the song sounding impeccably smooth and exhilarating without ever grating. I don’t think it is fair to say that these ‘phones will play particularly nicely with tracks that are prone to sibilance in certain treble bands, but they certainly don’t accentuate it as far as I can hear. This may be something to consider for people with particular sensitivity to certain frequencies, but as mentioned, isn’t a concern for me.

One of my other test tracks for uncomfortable sibilance or harshness is “Whiskey And You” by Chris Stapleton, the vocals on this country ode to broken relationships and booze quite often cutting as deep into the listener’s ears as the lyrics. With the Ella, the gravelly sandblasting of the chorus is again just on the right side of the line for me, giving a rawness to the track without making it unbearably hot or spiky. The sounds of the room Stapleton is singing in are also a high point on this track, with the Ella setting up the singer on his stool right in the middle of my forehead, bouncing tiny echoes off the walls into the outer edges of my hearing and setting and almost photographic (and probably totally inaccurate) picture of how the track was recorded in my mind. In fact, the only track I managed to get some high end discomfort out of was “My Kind Of Love” by Emile Sande, with the high notes in the chorus feeling just a little too sharp for my personal preferences.

Moving on, cymbals and other percussion are handled well by the planar drivers, sounding suitably metallic and lingering just long enough on the cymbal crashes not to sound hemmed in, but not overstaying their welcome or overpowering the sound with unrealistic shimmer and pizzazz in the top end. Violins and strings sound shimmery and defined in the higher registers, carrying a nice weight and clarity. Moving into more electronic fare, synths also sound very good, floating in the topmost registers of the soundstage and feeling almost ethereal in their presentation, allowing tracks like “Go” by the Chemical Brothers to breathe and soar into the euphoric chorus. Again, the neutrality of the tuning works well here, with the sharpness of the treble being balanced out nicely by the upper midrange to present a very coherent and convincing sound.

In summary, the treble isn’t the most mind-blowing presentation I’ve ever heard in terms of sparkle, but it presents a nice sense of air and a solid weight to the notes and clarity of sound that just works with the ranges below, retaining the musicality of the overall tuning. If I have to be hyper-critical, it could do with a little bit of smoothing over in the very upper mid/lower treble transition on a few of my tracks, but that is possibly as much to do with the mastering of the music in question as any major shortcoming of the Ella. Very well done.

Soundstage, separation and isolation

The Ella are a closed back headphone, but Blue have managed to buck convention again in a few important areas, with isolation that isn’t quite as good as you would expect and a soundstage that is much better than it should be. Looking at isolation first, the Ella is prone to a little leakage in both directions, with music being able to be heard a couple of metres away (albeit very quietly) with the cans at normal listening volume. External noise isolation is also only decent rather than mind-blowing, with a reasonable reduction in outside noise but nothing class leading, some external chatter on trains or buses and general noise making it through the pads and earcups unless the music is at normal volume. I would say that these aren’t ideal for plane travel unless you like listening loud, and are more suited for stationary or at home listening in most instances, although they do hold up well enough on short public transport trips.

Soundstage, on the other hand, is one of the strong suits of these headphones, presenting a stage that extends a short way outside of the head in all directions despite the closed back nature of the design. This is aided (or defined) in part by the exemplary imaging ability of the Ella, with the soundstage feeling almost spherical in terms of width and depth, and sounds layering themselves neatly from front to back of the stage as well as from left to right in my ears. Added to the highly resolving nature of the drivers and the texture of the notes, this allows for excellent separation between different strands of the music, with chorus lines allowing you to pick out individual voices if you listen out for them, and complex guitar or orchestral passages winding around each other while still presenting as individual strands of music in your mind. Layering (the ability to stack multiple musical parts in the same space on stage) is also impressive, again helped by the detail output and the 3D staging. Overall, this is a very 3D sounding headphone to me, and the first set of cans that has made me jump when listening to certain tracks (like “Patience” from G N’ R) as sounds on the recording actually made me think they were coming from something in the room behind me. I don’t have any experience with higher end planar setups as yet, so this may very well be one of the “common features” associated with the more expensive technology, but it is worth mentioning anyway, as I think it is a major contributing factor to the immersion these headphones are capable of.

Comparisons

Audioquest Nighthawk – the Nighthawk is one of my all time favourite headphones, and has pretty much monopolised my “late night, dark room, glass of something interesting” listening at home when I have a spare hour to really sink into some music. In terms of the tuning, it isn’t a million miles away from the Ella, with more emphasis on a warmer and more organic sound, but a similar approach to clarity of treble and overall resolution. It is based on a biocellulose dynamic driver with some proprietary design tech to minimise resonance and distortion retailing at a couple of hundred dollars less at current RRPs.

In terms of bass, the Nighthawk has a warmer and slightly fuller sounding bass (even over the “On+” setting, showing good resolution but a little less sense of speed than the planar drivers used in the Ella. Extension is slightly better on the Nighthawk, digging deeper and more solidly into true sub bass territory than the cleaner and leaner Blue model. “Bad Rain” by Slash is a a good comparator, the bass riff sounding fuller and a little more fleshed out than the exquisitely textured Ella’s interpretation. Again, this isn’t a basshead ‘phone by any means, but if you value a fatter and more organic sounding bass with only a slight loss in perceived detail retrieval, the Nighthawk will be your go to here, with the Ella working better for people after a more traditionally “neutral” and textured tuning.

Moving up to the mids, the vocals on the Nighthawk feel more laid back in terms of positioning than the mid-forward Ella, and possessing a warmer and more organic tone in comparison to the crystal clear and liquid Blue planar. Crunch and speed is again more emphasised on the Ella, with the Nighthawk taking a weightier and slightly softer around the edges approach, although detail retrieval is similar on both. The Ella can sometimes appear more detailed due to the relative sharpness of the tuning, but listeners of the Nighthawk will know that the drivers are capable of truly excellent resolution once your brain adjusts to the overall tuning and lack of treble emphasis.

Treble is the main point of difference between these two headphones, with the Ella all crisp and jangling and the Nighthawk taking a clear but smooth approach, without any specific emphasis on the high notes. This can initially lead the Nighthawk to sound slightly veiled until your brain burns in, but much like the midrangem all the details are there if you listen out for them, but just not presented in the more emphasised way the Ella manage. In terms of extension, the Ella sound stronger going up into the very high treble, so this will be the headphone to recommend if you prefer a more emphasised but still smooth treble, with a bit more overall crispness to the cymbals and other higher register sound than the more laid back Audioquest. Again, both headphones offer different but very enjoyable takes on treble – for me and my sonic preferences, I prefer the Nighthawk and its smoother blend of clarity and weight, but that doesn’t mean the Ella is anything less than very good in this department either.

Finally, in terms of soundstage, the two headphones are very similar, with the Nighthawk having just a little more spatial width and bigger “feel” to the sound due to its semi open nature – the Ella certainly doesn’t feel outclassed here, and competes very well for a fully closed back can. Both headphones are technically very adept at layering and separation, with the Nighthawk presenting sound in a bigger and more accessible way, but the Ella providing a crisper definition to everything on its slightly smaller sonic image. An honourable draw here, with neither headphone coming out convincingly on top for me.

Overall, these are headphones that share some similarities, but diverge just enough to offer two different and enjoyable musical signatures. My preferences lie with the Nighthawks for extended listening to older classic rock, and the Ella if I’m listening to acoustic and singer/songwriter genres – both are technically excellent, extremely enjoyable and masterfully tuned to bring the listener into the music rather than just throw the notes at them. If I had to choose just one, it would be the Nighthawk, but as it is nailed on as pretty much my ideal tuning in all aspects, the fact the Ella has taken some head time off it over the last few months is testament to just how good I think they are as well. Lovers of a sharper and more emphasised treble but within the bounds of a musical and neutral signature should look seriously at the Ella, though – I haven’t heard anything quite like it so far on my audio journey, and it is definitely a headphone worth investigating.

Audeze Sine – I had the Sine in my possession for a brief time, and managed to lose my comparison notes after moving them on, so this is written purely as a set of impressions from memory so please bear that in mind. The Sine seemed to share a few similarities with the overall neutral yet musical tuning of the Ella, but were definitely a little harder to drive to their full capacity without a powerful source or external amp, losing ground in that respect to the Ella with their onboard amping solution. Soundstage also seemed larger on the Ella in comparison, with the Sine sounding more like a traditional closed back. Detail retrieval feels more apparent on the Ella, with more of a sensation of clarity – the Sine still feel like a very resolving headphone (especially at the price), but just lack a little finality in the treble and higher midranges compared to the Ella. Vocals also feel a little more recessed on the Sine than the Ella.

Finally, in terms of build the Sine are a more portable and comfortable solution, offering far less leakage out and similar to slightly better sonic isolation – they really are a closed can you can use for travelling or portable scenarios, providing you have a stacked DAP/AMP or standalone source with a decent level of power to get the most out of the very capable drivers. In terms of looks, the Sine are far more understated, with the leather effect cups and leather headband giving a very refined and high end feel.

Overall, for my tastes the Ella are the better headphone, but at almost twice the price and lacking the portability and ease of use that the Sine offer, they are aimed at very different markets – fans of a classic planar magnetic sound won’t go far wrong with either of these offerings.

Specifications

Specifications
List Price £675
Frequency Response 20 – 20000 Hz
Type Planar magnetic driver, 50mm x 50mm
Impedance 50 Ohms passive, 10 Ohms active
Amplifier output power 250mW
THD+N <1% (94dB SPL, from 20 Hz to 20 KHz)
SNR >101 dB
Noise <20 uV
Battery capacity 1000mAh
Battery usage Approx. 12hrs use, 3-4 hours to charge

Conclusions

As my first extended foray into Planar Magnetic technology, the Ella have been a resounding success. While the unusual styling and design may not be for everyone, the sound output is truly deserving of the price tag these headphones come with, and makes them a very compelling proposition for at-home or stationary listening from almost any source. They are a little unwieldy and poorly isolated to a be a true “go-to” pair for your everyday commute, but despite the in-built amp, I don’t think that was where Blue was positioning these – they are much better suited to sinking into a long listening session in a chair, allowing yourself to drift into the middle of a good album and keeping the sound clean, clear and foot-tappingly engaging.

The choice to keep the sound neutral, and leave the midrange a little more forward than the usual “audiophile-V” has paid off in spades for me, with the Ella presenting a sound that is immediately enjoyable and just downright musical. Add in the technical capability of the planar drivers strapped to each ear and the ability of this headphone to connect the listener to the music and I would say that the Ella is an outstanding piece of engineering in its current price bracket, and an easy recommendation for all but the most die-hard of bassheads or for those who need portability and isolation above all else.

One thought on “Blue Microphones Ella – the new first lady of planar magnetic headphones

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  1. I played with a pair of these for an extended listen as well not long ago and spent most of the time comparing the built in amplifier with a larger desktop tube amp. My TL;DR takeaway was:

    “I think the Ellas are a very nice pair of headphones with a decent built-in amp. The amp in Active mode adds a lot in comparison to using the headphones in passive mode from a mobile source. Bass is certainly more present and the rest of the frequency range also feels more relaxed and organic. On the other hand, there is more detail that can be wrung out of the drivers with a quality separate amp. Put another way, they scale pretty well with amplification. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

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