Urbanista's solar-powered headphones tease a charger-free future

Asia's Tech News Daily

81 percent. That’s the current battery level on the pair of Urbanista’s Los Angeles headphones sitting on my desk. When I took them out of the box about a week ago, the battery level was 75 percent. Number of charges? Zero. Hours of use? Around 10. In short, with some fairly typical listening and precisely no interaction with a charging cable, the headphones have more battery life than when I received them. Impressive, though not without some caveats.

Urbanista's solar-powered headphones tease a charger-free future
Urbanista's solar-powered headphones tease a charger-free future
© James Trew / Engadget Urbanista Los Angeles solar-charging headphones.

First, let’s back up a little bit. If you missed the announcement, the Los Angeles’ main selling point was that they came with “Powerfoyle” solar charging cells in the headband for $200. The promise was simple: even indoors, these headphones will slowly charge when not in use. Go outside? They might even maintain their level while playing music; if it’s a particularly sunny day they could even gain battery life while you listen, even with ANC on.

The headphones themselves have a classic Scandinavian understated look. Acoustically, they don’t offer too many surprises. That’s to say, expect a slightly bottom-heavy EQ experience, but overall they deliver robust clear audio that won’t tire your ears. They are Bluetooth only, though, so no wired option here. More on that in a bit.

Urbanista's solar-powered headphones tease a charger-free future
© Provided by Engadget

Of course, the real interest is that claim of a “nonstop audio experience.” As my intro suggests, the company’s claims are true. Or should I say, can be true? The headphones definitely charge themselves, even indoors, but it’s not time to throw away the (included) USB cable just yet.

If you plan on using these mostly indoors, then you will almost certainly be charging them. Even about as much as you might any other pair. That’s because while the claim about indoor charging is true, it’s barely a trickle and only really under direct light. If you place them near a window between uses you can expect a little more juice, but it’s still more of a modest top-off than a flow of free energy.

This I can say with relative confidence thanks to the companion app which kindly shows you power coming in versus power being used with a fancy little circular chart. When the photons are abundant, the chart turns a pale green and a reassuring “up” arrow lets you know the headphones are gaining power. Enter the shadows, however, and things turn red to let you know you’re draining the battery. You can even see the amount of energy coming in or being used at any one time.

Urbanista's solar-powered headphones tease a charger-free future
© Provided by Engadget

With this info we can start to get an idea of how effectively the solar charging works. For example, just by turning the headphones on they will use about 2.6mA to maintain a connection to a phone. Play music, and this goes up to around 9mA. Add on either ANC or Ambient mode and this can creep up to around 13-15mA. Those are our numbers to “beat.”

In my testing, when laid flat on a table in a room without direct sunlight or any lights on during the day, they won’t charge at all. If I placed them directly under a lamp or bulb you might get between 0.2 and 1mA of charge. Place them near a window during the day and this can climb to about 3mA. Open that window and it’ll increase to maybe 4mA (indirect sunlight). So far, you’re only really slowing down their battery use by a tiny amount.

As I already hinted at, things get a lot more interesting once you head outside. Walking in the shade in the street you can expect about 3-5mA of input. Again, you’re still in net loss. Head out directly into the sun, however, and everything springs to life. I was frequently able to achieve 24mA of “gain” while listening to music with ANC (for around 8-10mA of drain).

The short version is… that the Urbanistas will charge when there’s ambient light. A bit. But take them outside (and with good sunshine) and they will even charge while in use. All this to say that, if I used these like I do any other wireless headphones, I would expect the solar charging to maybe add a few hours to their battery life. If I only used them outdoors, they would live forever.

This is all good news though. What Urbanista has done here is set a benchmark. JBL tried something similar, but that project was tabled due to COVID travel restrictions making them unviable. Urbanista is actually shipping its version and it can only get better from here.

Perhaps the most understated achievement here is that the headphones don’t look like they have a solar panel attached. At least if you opt for the black pair. The cells in the head strap more or less blend into the design of the Los Angeles, just with the Powerfoyle logo on them (also in black so it’s fairly subtle). The headphones are also available in “sand gold” which is more of a cream/mushroom color. On those, the solar strip is painfully obvious but done in such a way it could be passed off as a style choice.

There are some other minor notes to consider. Most notably, for me, the volume. Urbanista says the pair I received for review are set at about 2dB below what the retail model will offer. But using them with an iPhone I have to almost always have them on full volume if I want to be immersed in a song. I found myself frequently mashing the volume button in vain when a banger came on and I wanted to get truly lost in sound but there was never anywhere left to go. I listen to a lot of bangers.

For people that don’t assault their ears, the volume is probably fine. It’s not hugely lower than, say, the AiAiAi TMA-2s I use. Connect things to a computer and, well, you can go a bit louder, so some of this, the company suggests, is down to your device’s chipset and regional limitations.

Urbanista's solar-powered headphones tease a charger-free future
© Provided by Engadget

If there was a second bugbear, it’d be the buttons. The Los Angeles has three buttons on the right side for volume/play/pause and skipping tracks and power. Then there’s a lone button on the other side for switching between ANC, Ambient mode and “default” mode or activating your phone’s assistant. The problem is, the buttons on the right side — i.e. the ones you interact with most — are tiny and very close together. This means that swift volume changes are difficult. Instead, you have to sort of fondle around to “count” the buttons with your finger to find the first or third one.

I do also wish there was the option to use them with a 3.5mm cable. Not only does that give you an option for whenever the battery does run out (or you’re in an Airplane mode situation) it would ameliorate some of my volume woes for when I really do need to feel a drop right to the core of my amygdala. (DACs are wonderful things.)

As for other small positives, the app is a nice touch and opens up the door for possible firmware updates or new features. It was a little flakey in connecting sometimes. Or rather, once it had been connected and then left idle, I’d sometimes have to restart it, but for the amount of time you need it it’s not a major pain to swipe it away and open it again.

There’s also auto-pause when you take the headphones off. This is a subtle but welcome addition that gives things a slightly more premium feel.

All in all, the Los Angeles’ features and pricepoint come together to make a pleasing experience. The sound is very capable without being too aggressive in the lower frequencies. The battery life is obviously a selling point if you frequently find yourself without gas while on the go. And the small touches like Ambient mode/ANC, auto pause and so on just round them out to be a little more comprehensive than other options in this price range. If they were a smidge louder and had a 3.5mm port then these would be a solid pick for me, but even without those features, it’s hard not to admire what Urbanista has done here for $200.

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