Blue hails from the United States, and is perhaps best known for its microphones. (Heard of the Blue Yeti?) But it also does a bunch of headphones. We have the wireless NC Blue Satellite model currently under review for next issue, but here we spent time with the cabled Blue Ella, the top of Blue’s range.

They are unusual in a number of ways. First, they have dual modes available: active and passive. They have a 250mW amplifier built in (it’s unclear whether that’s total, or per channel) and a lithium-ion battery to store power. But they are not Bluetooth headphones; they are purely wired. Furthermore, they’re primarily intended for plugging into headphone outputs, even when you’re using active mode. They have no volume control. The only control is a three-position switch: Off, On and On+. The last position is supposed to “restore the low-end character to vinyl-era music”. Hrrmpphh! Think of it as a bass boost.

They have a rated run time of 12 hours in active mode, and they charge via a Micro-B USB socket on the side, switching off automatically when the earpieces are allowed to rest against each other without an intervening head.

The switch is a collar around the 3.5mm input socket. The writing on it is tiny and very hard to read.

Inside, the driver is a 50mm square magnetic planar unit. The headphones are large and heavy — the heaviest of any of this group test by quite a margin. Nonetheless I found them comfortable to wear.

While the cable is detachable and uses a 3.5mm plug at the headphone end, this is on the end of a long, thin plastic extension to the cable, so you won’t be able to use third-party cable replacements. But it comes with two — one is a straight three-metre cable for use with your home hifi system, the other a 1.2-metre cable with an inline control pod that’s compatible with iOS devices. The play/pause and volume buttons work even through the Lightning audio adaptor required for newer iPhones. (The play/pause button works with Android phones too.)

So, here’s the big question with these headphones. Passive or active? (I’m going to say straight out that no one would want to use the bass boost mode, even though I did note that this mode is fairly subtle... nonetheless I wish it weren’t there because it would make switching on and off more intuitive.)

The first thing to note about the two modes is that there isn’t a whole lot of difference between them in the character of the sound. That says to me that Blue Designs hasn’t used the powered mode to apply a stack of EQ or other processing. Mind you it’s impossible to do a valid A/B test because the powered mode is significantly louder than the passive mode. A quick and dirty measurement with pink noise suggests that it’s around 7dB louder.

And that’s a good thing, because it overcomes the limited output levels available from many players, particularly European ones.

Nonetheless I did do a fair bit of listening in passive mode. Blue doesn’t give the sensitivity for the headphones in passive mode, but it was clearly considerably higher than the 92dB (1mW input) of the Dekoni Audio Blue headphones. The 2V-output headphone amplifier and DAC was quite capable of getting these headphones to very satisfying levels with the orchestral section of the Telarc 1812 overture.

And with the internal amplifier on, they could well and truly overdo even this low-level recording.

With regular modern music they could achieve good levels in passive mode even from a Euro-hobbled portable music player.

I did most of my listening, though, with the built-in amplifier switched on. Heck, it’s there, and it gives relative independence from the source. Indeed, even if the claimed 250mW of output power is total, the 125mW into 50 ohms is delivering considerably more than just about all portable devices, and most desktop devices.

As it happens, I’ve been using these headphones for a couple of months as my main set, even before I was asked to do this group test, and I have been very satisfied with them. I set them aside to use all the other headphones, and I wrote them up first. After experiencing the superb quality of some of those others in the group, I was starting to think that perhaps the Blue Ella headphones weren’t quite at the top level.

And then I returned to them to do the formal listening and found that I’d been wrong. Their virtues had faded in my memory. In every way but one they matched the performance of the best of them. That one way is inherent in their design. It’s nearly impossible for closed-back headphones to produce that same sense of airiness available from open-backed designs. It’s just the way things work.

But it is better than the open-backed designs in a different way: sound isolation. If your circumstances involve you doing your music listening in the same room as someone else is watching the TV, these are the headphones to go for.

As for specifics, the tonal balance was subjectively even. Bass, while strong, was not overblown. The main bass line in the Eminem was solid and powerful, but everything else remained clear. It was extended. The cannon and bass drum in the Telarc 1812 had that solid, rumbling underpinning that completed the sound, made it real. That despite very high listening levels (I’d brought up the very quiet part to the level at which I’d normally listen to orchestral music). The bass accompaniment to the Melanie track was at a good level: clear and easily followed, without being overblown.

These headphones also revealed the crunchiness of that track, particularly on the massed vocals, but without undue emphasis.

The Schubert matched the best of the others for sweet strings and a sense of vitality. The sound was limitlessly detailed.

So it’s a tradeoff — a slightly greater openness for some of the others, versus reduced environmental noise with these ones. This one also eliminates the problem of low amplifier outputs, and likewise amplifier outputs with high in-line resistance. Indeed, if you’re using one of the latter, make sure you turn down the volume on the amp before switching from passive to active mode! The different impedances between passive and active mode change the received signal level radically with some AV receivers, from around 10% of the nominal output voltage to 90%, in addition to the 7dB gain increase...

Blue Ella
Price: $1299.95

+ Excellent all-round sound quality
+ Built-in amps give relative independence from vagaries of sources
+ Good isolation from ambient noise

– Not quite the ‘air’ of open-backed designs

Drivers: Planar magnetic
Quoted frequency response: 20Hz-20kHz
Nominal impedance: 50 ohms
Sensitivity: not stated
Weight: 481g