In a surprise to many followers of Tivoli Audio, the Boston-based company recently announced the release of its first pair of headphones. Even more shockingly, these feature active noise cancellation, anathema to the audiophiles that favor Tivoli's high-end table radios and iPod docks, such as the iconic Henry Kloss–designed Model One.
Dubbed the Radio Silenz, the new on-ear models are designed with travel in mind, and so are small and fold up easily (and come with an airplane plug adapter and surprisingly chintzy vinyl travel bag). On the audio cable is a switch for noise cancellation as well as a volume-control wheel and a nifty defeat button, which, when pressed, pauses the noise cancellation and instead amplifies external noise, so you can, say, answer a question without having to remove your headphones or kill the volume.
For the venerable brand, which specializes in gorgeous devices with decidedly old school appeal (like its Portable Audio Laboratory radio), the sudden jump into the noise-canceling business in an age when everyone and their rap star brother (50 Cent, Ludacris, Dr. Dre, uh, Justin Bieber) have their own signature model might seem a tad like jumping on the bandwagon. "We saw this huge boom in the market but thought, geez, we could actually bring something to the party," says Tom DeVesto, CEO and founder of Tivoli Audio. "There are so many companies that just stamp stuff out left and right because there's a business opportunity, where I think we bring style and design and performance to our products in a way not many other companies do."
Sure enough, Radio Silenz do stand out from the cans crowd, their most distinguishing physical feature being solid wood ear cups, available in three different styles (black ash, cherry, and walnut). Looks aside, they're real-deal audio performers. Without noise canceling on, a sampling of our test playlist – a little Radiohead, some Stones, a dab of MGMT, a smattering of hip-hop from Tribe to Jay-Z, and some Beethoven, for good measure – yielded a satisfying, balanced, clear audio experience sans hiss and with nice separation, and notably without the bass overkill that most cans feature these days.
They're also comfortable on the ear, though the headband is a little testy to get situated just-so at first. Flipping on the noise cancellation without audio playing does indeed drown out atmospheric noise, but for us it felt as though nearby voices were almost highlighted (a fault of many pairs we've tried) and added hiss. Still, with music playing at even a low level, the hiss and most outside noise – and we subjected it to the traffic horns and other street sounds of downtown Manhattan – is nearly blocked out altogether. All in all, Radio Silenz jumps to the top of our list of must-have, affordable, approachable gadgets for any buyer. [$160; tivoliaudio.com]