Somehow the HED Unity contrive to be exceptional wireless headphones and one of the most aggravating products you’re ever likely to encounter, all at the same time.
- Profoundly accomplished sound quality in every regard
- Premium materials and great build quality
- Exclusivity and then some
- Unfinished, incomplete control app
- Ruinously expensive
- Unremarkable noise-cancellation
- No touch controls (or, as it stands, voice control either)
Drivers40mm titanium-coated dynamic drivers
Battery lifeSix to eight hours per charge
9-axis head-trackingKeep track of movement with AR audio
First things first: these headphones are called Unity, and they’re the product of a company called HED Unity. Let’s agree straight away, shall we, that we’ll refer to the headphones as Unity and the company as HED? Otherwise, confusion will reign…
And with that out of the way, consider this instead: the Unity are the world’s first wireless high-definition lossless audio headset. That’s right – by using Wi-Fi, rather than Bluetooth, for wireless connectivity, the Unity can deal with lossless digital audio files from local storage or music streaming services at a resolution of up to 24-bit/96kHz. That’s not something that even the most accomplished, most advanced Bluetooth codec can claim.
Breaking new ground can be tricky, though – by getting the jump on every nominal competitor, HED Unity finds itself squarely in the spotlight. Is that an entirely comfortable place to be?
The Unity wireless on-ear noise-cancelling headphones are on sale, and in the United Kingdom, they’ll set you back £1795 for a pair. In the United States they’re an equally considerable $2199, while in Australia they go for AU$3299 or thereabouts.
You don’t really need me to tell you that this is an awful lot of money for a pair of wireless headphones, the fact that they’re the “world’s first” something-or-other notwithstanding. It makes the fact I had a quiet fit about the price of the Mark Levinson No.5909 on these site a little while ago seem almost quaint.
- Premium materials
- Unarguable build quality
- Fairly heavy
How do you make a pair of wireless over-ear headphones look like they cost the best part of two grand? Not easy, is it? After all, it’s not as if you can take liberties with the established design template.
HED has accepted as much and has instead concentrated on making the Unity feel as premium as possible, while attempting to up the sophistication quotient of the look as much as it’s able. And while I’d suggest it’s nigh-on impossible to make a product like this look like it costs as much as this, the Unity is a nicely realised and undeniably tactile design.
Take the outer portion of the earcups, for instance. They’re milled from 6063 architectural-grade aluminium, and the light anodisation they’ve undergone means they feel as good as they look. The frame of the headphones is built from carbon fibre-reinforced nylon, which offers strength, lightness (the Unity are just 421g), and excellent rejection of vibration.
The headband has more of this material, along with polyamide. The concealed adjustment mechanism operates with nicely weighted resistance. The earpads comprise a mixture of memory foam and cooling gel, and they’re covered in a soft microfibre material that’s just as tactile as the rest of the headphones.
The overall look is decently compact by the standards of pricey over-ear headphones, nicely understated and clean. There’s some very discreet Unity branding on one side of the headband that only adds to the impression of good taste.
- 40mm titanium-coated dynamic drivers
- 20Hz – 20kHz frequency response
- 9-axis head-tracking
Unlike its design, HED has an opportunity with its features to give you a strong sense of where all your money might have gone. And with a notable exception or two, that’s exactly what it’s done.
I’ll start with what HED is calling Full Fidelity. This is the Unique Unity Selling Point: the ability to use Wi-Fi to stream from music streaming services or local storage, at a lossless 24-bit/96kHz resolution. They said it couldn’t be done and it turns out they were wrong.
To be fair, though, ‘they’ said it couldn’t be done while maintaining half-decent battery life. But given that a single charge will keep the Unity running for between six and eight hours, depending on conditions, ‘they’ are nevertheless left looking a bit daft.
Charging the battery takes place using the USB-C socket on the left earcup – 90 minutes will take you from flat to full, while just five minutes or so should hold you for an hour. And that USB-C is good for data transfer, too – so wired listening, using the USB-C / USB-A cable or the USB-C / 3.5mm analogue adapter, is on the menu too.
If you absolutely must use Bluetooth for wireless streaming, though, the Unity are 4.2-equipped and have compatibility with SBC and AAC codec. Perfunctory is the word I’ll apply here.
Whether it arrives via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, audio information ends up being delivered to your ears by a pair of 40mm titanium-coated full-range dynamic drivers. They’re good for a claimed frequency response of 20Hz – 20kHz.
An inertial measurement unit consisting of a three-axis gyroscope, three-axis accelerometer and three-axis compass means the Unity has a nine-axis head-tracking and motion-detecting arrangement. Extremely handy where audio AR and what-have-you is concerned.
And there are a total of a dozen mics distributed over the Unity frame – eight are digital, the remaining four analogue. They take care of active noise-cancellation, telephony, and interaction with the HED voice assistant. Or, at least, they will deal with voice-assistant interaction from early 2024 – that’s when the native HED assistant is due to come onstream.
In the absence of a voice assistant or any touch controls, though, you’re left with a selection of physical controls and an app that’s free for iOS and Android to get your bidding done. The physical controls are arranged around the edge of the right earcup – the usual three-button strip deals with all major playback, volume and telephony controls, while the fourth button can have its function defined in the control app.
The app itself is quite as clean and good-looking as the headphones it controls. In addition to playback controls, it features a toggle to switch ANC on or off, a nine-band EQ with some presets, and an indication of battery life.
It includes what HED insists on calling its multisource music player, which, in actual fact, is an upmarket way of saying the app allows you to examine any local media files, any UPnP or DLNA devices on a common network, and to integrate your Qobuz and/or Soundcloud accounts for ease of access. TIDAL Connect will be available soon, and both Apple Music and Spotify Connect are supported via their own apps. Fans of Amazon Music or Deezer (for instance) will just have to deal with their absence.
There’s an issue with the app, though, and it’s a pretty big one: it doesn’t work properly. It’s forgetful, for starters, and easily confused about what it’s meant to be playing. It can’t keep time properly – during my time with it, for instance, it suggested a song began at 4m 05s and finished at 2m 37s. It struggles to get from the first song to the last in a playlist in any kind of order, and it’s often keen to return to the start of the playlist – especially if you’ve been negligent enough to let the screen of the device on which the app is loaded go to sleep. You’re routinely treated to artwork unrelated to the music that’s playing.
It’s rare to encounter a control app that gives every impression of being unfinished these days. I’d go as far as to say it’s unheard of in an app that’s accompanying a product as relatively expensive as this one. I’d suggest it will be enough to ruin the ownership experience for some customers almost immediately.
- Thrillingly complete, balanced and accomplished sound
- Prodigious powers of detail retrieval
- Noise-cancellation is a let-down by comparison
The Unity control app is far from the most helpful. But let’s suppose you’ve managed to get some music playing – maybe even the music you asked for in the first place. How do the HED Wi-Fi headphones perform?
Brilliantly is not to overstate it. Even when given a fairly ordinary CD-standard 16-bit/44.1kHz file of TV on the Radio’s Wolf Like Me to deal with, the HED Unity are bravura performers. They’re able to identify and deliver the most fleeting, minor details of tone, timbre, and texture efficiently, and can put them into appropriate context without any apparent effort.
They create an extremely spacious, widescreen soundstage, which allows every element of a recording more than enough space in which to operate – and they tie each element back into a complete and unified whole with ease. They have the sort of vaulting dynamic potency that makes the distance between very quiet and extremely loud seem like a gulf – and they can switch between the two states without breaking sweat. At no point are you likely to wonder if there is any aspect of a recording, no matter how transient or subtle, you’re not party to.
The tonal balance the Unity strike when given a full-on, full-fat and losslessly streamed 24-bit/96kHz file of Aretha Franklin’s Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business) is basically perfect. Low frequencies are deep, textured, utterly convincing where timbre is concerned and carry a stack of harmonic variation in them – punch is just one of the things the Unity can do when given the low-end tools to work with.
At the opposite end of the frequency range, they have body and bite, and such a lot of substance and variation in percussion sounds that it seems possible to discern whereabouts a cymbal is being hit from strike to strike. There’s brilliance to the top end, but even if you like to listen loud there’s nothing edgy or otherwise uncouth to the way the HED serve up the treble.
And in between, the absolutely peerless vocal is delivered with what is surely every single scrap of information regarding tone, character and technique intact. It would be difficult to make Aretha sound anything short of spine-tingling, of course – but the Unity have such powers of resolution that the immediacy of her delivery is enough to raise goosebumps. As far as powers of direct midrange communication are concerned, the HED Unity are – to my knowledge, at least – without meaningful competition where wireless headphones are concerned.
The fact that the active noise-cancellation here is nothing more than satisfactory can’t help but seem like a bit of a let-down after the sonic fireworks of the sound reproduction that’s available. The Unity are a match for some pretty well-regarded over-ear headphones in this respect (all of which, let’s not forget, are several orders of magnitude less expensive), but you’re never going to confuse the significant reduction in external distractions for the uncanny blanket of silence a pair of Bose noise-cancellers can throw over you.
Should you buy it?
You want to hear lossless high-resolution audio using wireless headphones.
The HED Unity are currently the only product that can do it, and they do it in some style.
You know what a properly developed and well-realised control app is like.
The Unity control app is, as it stands, the electronic equivalent of a bin-fire.
I was going to write that I’m conflicted – but I’m not, not really. The HED Unity are the best-sounding pair of wireless headphones I’ve ever heard, I’m confident of that. But I’m equally confident that I wouldn’t buy them even if they were half of the asking price – the control app is so infuriating I could almost take it personally.
How we test
We test every set of headphones we review thoroughly over an extended period of time. We use industry standard tests to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever, accept money to review a product.
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Tested across several weeks
Tested with real world use
For the best audio performance on the HED Unity, Wi-Fi would be the preferred option. With Bluetooth these headphones support SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs, so you won’t get Hi-Res Audio support via Bluetooth.
Up to 24-bit/96kHz
40mm titanium-coated dynamic
Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2
20 20000 – Hz