Urbanista Los Angeles put to the test: solar-powered headphones keep a high promise

Solar powered headphones are a tempting prospect. The battery life of wireless models has improved a lot over the years, but is still far from perfect, and these wide headbands provide the perfect surface for a solar panel to allow for continuous charging.

Urbanista isn’t the first company to try this idea – JBL announced its own pair in 2019, which later had to be postponed due to the pandemic – but its Los Angeles are the first solar-powered headphones to actually hit the market made. Although the design is almost identical to the company’s existing Miami headphones, a layer of PowerFoyle solar cells on the headband allows them to continuously soak up solar energy when exposed to light. Urbanista believes the average listener should be able to pass months without having to top up.

It’s a tempting idea that has the potential to remove an item from the list of devices people need to charge regularly, but can it live up to expectations? And even if so, are these $ 199 solar-powered headphones even worth a charge?

Margin score

7.5 from 10

Good stuff

  • The solar charge works
  • Crisp, powerful sound
  • Good noise cancellation

Bad things

  • Controls too close together
  • No 3.5mm port for wired connections
  • Tight fit with large heads

Urbanistas Los Angeles has a simple, uninspired design that is largely in line with the company’s existing Miami headphones. My test unit was a pretty bland black, but there is also a more colorful “Sand Gold” option if you’re feeling more adventurous.

Things get interesting with the Los Angeles headband, which contains a layer of Powerfoyle material made by Exeger to capture the light that is eventually converted into battery power. Unfortunately, this material is black no matter which color you choose the headphones and from the press pictures I think it doesn’t look good with the gold option.

The Urbanista app shows exactly how much power is gained and lost. Here the headphones were used in direct sunlight, played music with ANC and gained electricity. Screenshot: Urbanista

For the most part, you don’t have to actively think about the headphones’ solar charging capabilities. They’ll charge automatically whether you’re wearing them and listening to music or they’re turned off (although the software limits their solar charge to 90 percent to protect the battery). However, if you want a better idea of ​​what’s going on under the hood, Urbanista’s companion app has a great user interface that shows the headphones’ power consumption versus solar charge. The app is great fun to play around with, see what effect turning ANC on and off has on battery usage, or how much solar power you can get from exposing the headphones to as direct sunlight as you can find.

I think the benefit most people get from solar charging in Los Angeles is a metaphorical parachute that slows down battery drain so you don’t have to recharge it as often. How effective this parachute is depends a lot on whether you use it to listen to music indoors at your desk or on the subway, or whether you wear it when you are out and about in a sunnier part of the world. But as a baseline, listening in a pitch black room with the ANC off should give you 80 hours of listening time.

In my experience of using it on cloudy autumn days in the UK, I have generally seen the Urbanista app either report minimal power consumption or add an almost equal amount of power to consumption. It was less common for me to see the headphones actually gain performance when I used them, but this happened when I used them in direct sunlight (as you can see on the screenshot above).

The times I’ve seen headphones get the most power from solar charging were when they were sitting idle in the sun. I’m sure you could get into the habit of leaving them on a sunny windowsill with the headband facing straight into the sun to maximize benefits, but if you try that hard you might as well close it simply at. The nice thing about the Los Angeles headphones is that you don’t really have to think about them, and when you’re obsessed with leaving them in the sun to charge it feels like it misses the point.

The headphones can fit snugly on larger heads.

This little logo is the only visible indicator of your solar charging capabilities.

After listening for a few hours a day for two weeks, including at my desk next to a west-facing window and on the London Underground with the ANC turned on, the Urbanista app reports that I’m still at 81 percent power. It’s an impressively small amount of battery drain even when I’ve used it in situations with no natural light or under overcast skies.

I don’t think anyone will get away with never plugging those Los Angeles headphones into a USB-C charger. But in my experience, I have been able to see that they will last a month or more with regular use in winter, and even longer when used in sunnier conditions.

I could see these headphones last for months without the need to charge

Aside from the solar cell headband, the Los Angeles looks and works like your typical wireless noise-canceling headphones. Their controls will be familiar to anyone who has used wireless headphones in the past five years. On the right earcup there are three buttons for increasing and decreasing the volume and a middle playback control button that also turns the headphones on and off. On the left is a customizable quick access button that responds to either a short or long press to toggle between noise cancellation, transparency mode, or a voice assistant.

It’s a reasonable selection of buttons; I just wish the volume controls weren’t that stupid together. You can learn to live with them, but just a little more space would make it a lot easier to feel that pause button with your finger in a pinch. It would also have been nice if there had been a dedicated shortcut to put the headphones in pairing mode instead of having to manually disconnect from a previous device first.

Playback controls on the right and ANC and USB-C charging on the left.

The branding on the headphones is minimal.

There’s a USB-C port on the left ear cup if the sun’s rays aren’t enough to charge these headphones, but unfortunately there’s no 3.5mm jack for wired connections. Urbanista tells me that the physical socket has been omitted in order to keep the power consumption of the headphones as low as possible. In fairness, the Los Angeles’ battery life is 30 hours longer than Urbanista’s Miami headphones, which “only” provide 50 hours, which suggests these performance tweaks have worked. But a 3.5mm option would still be useful for onboard entertainment or business calls where I don’t want to risk Bluetooth disconnection, and it’s a shame the Los Angeles didn’t have that flexibility built in.

Away from the sunlight and into the bowels of the London Underground network, I was pleasantly surprised by the Los Angeles noise cancellation, which quite successfully drowned out the screeching of the subway as it passed through subway tunnels. It’s not as powerful as class leaders like the AirPods Max or Sony WH-1000XM4, but I think the Los Angeles ANC level is good for the price.

A snug fit helps with noise cancellation

The Los Angeles’ ability to suppress noise is aided by the fact that they fit snugly against your head when worn. They were so tight at first that they were uncomfortable to wear for the first few days of use. But when the headband became softer over the course of two weeks, the headphones changed from “uncomfortably tight” to just “snug” on my somewhat large head. If you have the opportunity to try them on before you buy, I would take it. Just to be sure.

The Los Angeles offer a rich, round sound that has a lot of effect. Listen to techno like Humanoid’s recently released 7 songs, and the thumping bass line has weight and impact but manages not to get overwhelming. But switch to something more layered, like Bloc Party’s We Are Not Good People, and the boundaries of that bass-first approach become clearer. The Los Angeles just don’t give the rest of the track that much room to be heard, and in the case of Bloc Partys track you lose some of the definition and crackle of the overdriven guitars.

Los Angeles doesn’t sound bad at all. Far from it – they are a very audible pair of headphones. But their sound has a weight that can crush more delicate parts of a track. There are far worse headphones out there for the price, but if you long to hear every detail in a song then the Los Angeles are not interested in providing you with these.

In the cups.

Los Angeles from the right.

Making headphones that can be charged with light without looking like they can charge with light is not an easy task, and the biggest compliment I can give the Los Angeles is that they incorporate that functionality so seamlessly that you are basically forgetting that they can solar charge at all. That is, until after several days of use you look at your battery level and find that it has only dropped 10 percent. The only notable compromise is the lack of a 3.5mm port for optional line-in listening. For some people this won’t be a problem. For others, it becomes a deal breaker.

When it comes to headphones, the Urbanista Los Angeles makes a few missteps. Their controls could be clearer and more dispersed, and their fit could be more comfortable on larger heads. But ultimately they manage to be very audible headphones, even if their sound quality cannot compete with more expensive pairs from Sony and Sennheiser.

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