We’re testing our fair share of noise-canceling headphones, but we’ve never seen a pair like the $ 199 Urbanista Los Angeles that incorporate a solar cell material called Powerfoyle to convert light into battery power. That alone is impressive enough to deserve our TechX Award for the headphones, but of course it wouldn’t mean much if they didn’t sound good too. Fortunately, the headphones deliver powerful sound with rich bass and sculpted highs, along with effective active noise cancellation (ANC) for the price. Thanks to their combination of technological (and environmentally friendly) innovation and impressive audio performance, Urbanista Los Angeles headphones also receive our Editors’ Choice Award, and we hope that more products will use this charging technology in the future.
Powered by light
You might expect solar-powered technology to be unwieldy and heavy (for us it conjures up an image of flashy solar panels taped to a headband), but the Los Angeles headphones are pretty stylish. They are available in matte black or gold and have an appealing minimalist aesthetic.
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The ear cups are circular like typical on-ear pairs, but they are large enough to cover all of your ear and part of the surrounding area, like the ear cups on over-ear models. The headphones put a little too much pressure on the ears every time they are positioned, but the ear cushions have generous cushioning for added comfort.
Internally, dynamic 40 mm drivers provide a frequency range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz with an impedance of 32 ohms. The headphones are compatible with Bluetooth 5.0 and support the AAC and SBC codecs, but not AptX.
There is a three-button control panel in the side wall of the right earcup. The central multi-function button takes over playback, call management as well as power supply and pairing. The plus and minus buttons on either side control volume when you press them or track navigation when you hold them down. We’re not fans of combining these functions on the same button as it’s far too easy to accidentally skip a track when all you want to do is adjust the volume.
The headphones come with a well-designed case that uses a similar matte material. The case leaves the headband exposed, which we would normally find fault with, but it makes sense here because the headphones can be charged while you protect the ear cups.
The left earpiece has a function key; Press the button to toggle between ANC, Ambient and Off modes, while holding it down, bring up your phone’s voice assistant. Switching between modes is intuitive thanks to the voice prompts every time you press the button. Next to it is a USB-C port for charging (the box contains a USB-C to USB-A charging cable), which you probably won’t need very often. Even though the headphones weren’t plugged in during our test period, they never ran out of battery. Most of the time, the battery level fluctuated between 70 and 85% according to the companion app.
Urbanista estimates the headphones can last around 80 hours on battery power, but your results will vary based on volume. Of course, this requirement helps ensure that the headphones are always charged as long as they are exposed to light. The brightness of the light source determines how much energy the headphones can get from it, but the Powerfoyle material can even capture some energy from a dim light bulb or window sill on a cloudy day. Even if that battery claim is a long way off, and actual battery life is roughly half that, this is still an impressive feat.
The coolest feature of the Urbanista Audio Companion App (available for Android and iOS) is a simple graphic that shows whether the headphones are losing or increasing in performance. It’s satisfying how quickly the meter toggles when you put your headphones under a light.
In the app you can also make some basic settings and switch between ANC and ambient listening modes. Another option is to toggle the headphones’ ability to tell whether or not they are sitting on your ears. The app doesn’t include an EQ, however, which is disappointing as the drivers seem to be able to achieve a more nuanced sound signature than their default setting.
Above average noise suppression
The headphones do a good job of reducing the deep, low-frequency rumble you hear on an airplane, but mids and highs are a bit more of a challenge. The couple reduced the lows and mids of a shot of a busy restaurant with relative ease, but the highest frequencies crept past the ANC circuit when tested. The difference between Ambient and Standard Noise Cancellation modes is subtle – you hear your surroundings similarly in both modes, but Ambient mode enhances the high mids so you can focus more easily on conversations.
Unfortunately, the headphones add a layer of high frequency noise when the ANC is active. The noise isn’t awkward (think faint white noise), but it’s a tell-tale sign of a low-end noise-canceling circuit. The ANC also affects the sound signature – the sculpting in the high mids seems to differ slightly depending on the track. However, these problems are not significant for the price.
Powerful bass-forward sound
On tracks with an intense sub-bass component, such as “Silent Shout” by The Knife, the headphones deliver a noticeable thump and avoid distortion at the highest, unwise listening levels. At more moderate levels, the bass depth is still powerful – the sound signature is decidedly bass-heavy, but the treble design ensures balance.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover”, a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better feel for the sound signature. The drums on this track are heavy and big – the bass boost is obvious, but it doesn’t push things into overwhelming thunderous terrain. Callahan’s vocals get a little extra low-middle richness and high-middle presence that keep the lows from drowning out their details. The acoustic beats and higher percussion beats sound bright, and the band hiss in the background takes a small step forward in the mix.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” the bass drum loop gets enough high-mid presence for its attack to maintain its punch, but it could use a little more high-mid definition. The sub-bass synth hits that underline the beat come across with serious depth. The raised bass threatens to distract from the vocals at times, but the headphones manage to provide enough space for it. Purists won’t love the sound signature, but it should satisfy anyone looking for an amplified, subwoofer-like bass depth.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, get a little more bass depth than they need, but the real boost is in the sub-bass. Here the deeper instrumentation takes a step forward in the mix, but without overwhelming the balance. The higher registers brass, strings and vocals keep their bright place in the spotlight.
We tested the built-in microphone with the Voice Memos app on an iPhone and were able to clearly understand every word we recorded with no apparent Bluetooth audio artifacts. With a strong cellular signal, call clarity should not be an issue.
Forward-looking audio never sounded better
If Urbanista Los Angeles headphones sounded terrible, we’d still praise them for their innovative, eco-friendly design. Fortunately, they manage to deliver above average ANC performance for the price, along with a robust bass depth that will appeal to many listeners. And we can’t stress enough the convenience of not having to plug these in to charge at any frequency, which the headphones deserve from our Editors’ Choice and TechX awards. For a similar price, the HD 450BT from Sennheiser probably offers a better sound, but without the advantage of solar charging. And for the absolute best active noise cancellation, we recommend the Bose QuietComfort 45 headphones, though they cost a lot more at $ 329.
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