Review: Tivoli Audio Radio Silenz Noise Canceling Headphones

Tivoli's staked out a secure place for itself on the bedside tables and desks of stylish folks worldwide, and now they've decided to bring their tasteful finishes and wooden accents to the category everybody's getting into these days - headphones.

The headphone in question, introduced with some fanfare but refreshingly little hype last month by company boss Tom DeVesto, is the Radio Silenz ($159) a lightweight, extremely portable noise canceler, featuring wooden earcups in a choice of three finishes - walnut, cherry, and black ash - that will immediately be familiar to fans of the company's incredibly popular table radios and minisystems. Will Tivoli win a place in our hearts, briefcases, and carry-on bags?

And perhaps more importantly, does the Radio Silenz stand up to the hot competition in the low-cost noise-canceling headphone market?

As is true in most segments of the headphone market, we've seen a significant uptick in announcements of new low-cost noise cancelers lately. While most new entrants have hewn closely to the patterns established by category pioneer (and still leader) Bose, Tivoli's new offering takes a somewhat different tack, its basic ultraportability owing more to classics like Sony's original Walkman 'phones or the Koss Porta Pro.

Tivoli has come up with an appealing, if somewhat retro package, much in line with the company's table radio designs in terms of both form and functionality. Many designs we've seen recently have placed the NC circuitry and battery pack within the headphone itself, but here the vitals live in a line lump, along with a volume attenuator, the on-off switch, and a handy bypass switch; the placement does lighten the headphones themselves but means you have a relatively weighty little object to clip to your shirt pocket. A single AAA cell makes the magic happen (for a claimed 50 hours of operation), so the load isn't too much to bear, but be aware. The thin cable terminates, quite intelligently, in the 45-degree minijack configuration along the lines of that we've seen lately in products from V-Moda, and that we'd like to see more of, since in practice it's even more pocket-friendly than a 90-degree jack.

Turning to the headphones themselves, the lightweight earcups rotate 90 degrees and offer what looks like about 30 degrees of tilt along their mounting axis; this should make fitting easy for most ears (and lets the Silenz easily fold flat for storage in the included soft bag)

Nor has Tivoli capitulated to contemporary trends in headphone voicing; there's no massive bass on tap here. Rather, this is a fairly neutral-sounding headphone, with a bit of a warm tilt and not a ton of detail up top. In keeping with the Radio Silenz' looks, Tivoli has given the headphone what you might call a relaxed presentation - likely, I'd say, to be enjoyable with a wide range of material. While it doesn't offer a great sense of ambience, the gently rolled-off treble and reasonable amount of bass combine to make it pretty forgiving of most things your average person might want to listen to while traveling, from classical to heavy rock. It's definitely an enjoyable all-round listen.

That said, I didn't love Tivoli's noise cancelation - on the positive side, when switching it in there's little effect on the overall sound signature, but outweighing that is the fact that the circuit introduces a large amount of residual high-frequency hiss. In an environment with a lot of steady-state noise (say an airplane cabin, commuter train, or subway car) it might not bug you, but this probably isn't the kind of NC headphone you'll turn to if you're looking to isolate yourself from air-conditioning hum and gentle chatter in your open-plan office cubicle. That said, it's small size lends itself to tossing into a carry-on bag, so it's a very nice traveler's companion and might make sense as something extremely portable to have on hand solely for airline travel. If you're particularly sensitive to this sort of noise-cancelation artifact, however, you may want to look elsewhere.

"I think they're OK," S+V contributing editor and headphone measurement guru Brent Butterworth concurred "Tonal balance is nice and sounds overall pretty even. Upper bass and low mids sound a little overemphasized, which makes bass sound a bit soft and bloated. The midrange is pretty good, but to me everything between about 1 kHz and 6 kHz sounds subtly rough/coarse/unrefined. Could use a tad more energy above 6 kHz; there's not much air and not much sense of space. I guess for this price that's not unusual.

Measurements

I measured the Radio Silenz using a G.R.A.S. Type 43AG ear/cheek simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. I experimented with slight differences in position of the ear cups to get the best seal of the headphone on the cheek plate and the most representative frequency response curves. As often happens with on-ear models, I had to use the simulator's clamp mechanism to get an adequate seal. Because of this, my measurements may show a little more bass response than you'll get in actual use.

The frequency response measurements for the Radio Silenz show a little less output than average in the low bass, and a few dB more output than average in the region between 200 and 800 Hz. The powerful peak at 2.5 kHz may give an upper-midrange/lower-treble emphasis. Admirably, the frequency response barely changes when you switch from passive to NC mode.

Adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can's 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a typical low-quality headphone amp bumps up the bass in passive mode by max of 1.5 dB at 70 Hz, but has no effect on frequency response in NC mode.

Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA is very low above 100 Hz, rising at 50 Hz to 4% in passive mode and 5% in NC mode, rising at 20 Hz to 20% in passive mode and 23% in active mode. This is a little below-average performance but probably doesn't have much effect on subjective performance because the frequencies in question are so low and the level is high.

Impedance in NC mode is flat at 149 ohms. In passive mode, it's fairly flat, averaging 32 ohms but peaking at 54 ohms/50 Hz.

Isolation in passive mode measures typically for an on-ear design, at -5 dB to -23 dB from 1.5 kHz to 17 kHz. In NC mode, isolation improves isolation by -2 to -4 dB from 80 Hz to 800 Hz. However, you can also see that there's a lot more energy between 1.4 and 10 kHz. This indicates hiss introduced by the NC circuit, not a reduction in isolation. In terms of isolation and added hiss, this is below-average performance for a noise-cancelling circuit.

Average sensitivity at full volume with a 1 mW signal at 32 ohms impedance (my standard measurement technique for active headphones) from 300 Hz to 10 kHz is 104.4 dB in passive mode, 106.3 dB in NR mode. From 300 Hz to 6 kHz, it's 105.7 dB in passive mode, 107.7 dB in NR mode. This is one of the rare noise-cancelling headphones that doesn't sacrifice much output in passive mode. - Brent Butterworth

Bottom Line

Like many things in Tivoli's lineup, the Radio Silenz is both attractive and eminently practical. Clearly this isn't a critical listening device - the bass is a little loose and one-notey, the apparent soundstage a little closed-in and small; the minimal earcups unsurprisingly don't provide a ton of isolation either - but considering it offers reasonably good performance, in an ultracompact package, at quite a low price point for active noise cancellation, the Radio Silenz sounds good on its own terms. Given it's mix of rather good sound quality, affordability, portability, and attractive looks, it's likely to find its way into many a carry-on bag this year.

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