The consumer Bluetooth wireless headphones market is a crowded place, packed with offerings from specialist brands as well as manufacturers all too familiar to pro-audio audiences. While they’re aimed at consumers, these devices are crucial for recording pros at all levels when it comes to evaluating a mix, because they’re what your audience is using to listen to your work. Regardless of whether you’re laboring over an analog mix on a vintage SSL desk or recording a podcast with the barest of tools in your phone, you need to know how your end result sounds in the ear of the beholder—and more often than not these days, that mean knowing how it comes across over Bluetooth wireless headphones.
With that in mind, we put Panasonic’s first product for that marketplace—Panasonic RZ-S500W True Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones—to the test. Released in July, 2020, the RZ-S500W sits in the middle of the market price-wise with an MSRP of $179, and sports a number of features of interest to working pros—one of our favorites being that the earpieces each separately connect to a given device (your smartphone, for instance). With many wireless headphones, only one earpiece connects to your device, and then passes audio on to the other earpiece. Having independent left-right connections allows users to leave one ear open to the world if they want—and not have that ear already chosen for them by the headphones’ design.
The RZ-S500W headphones are each centered around an 8 mm driver, surrounded by three microphones so that wearers can use them for phone calls. Panasonic reports its MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems) microphones are seated within a labyrinth-style structure inside each earpiece; the design is intended to cut down wind noise. Using beamforming, they capture the wearer’s voice clearly with an emphasis on the high-end, nabbing a bit of room sound in the process. As you might expect, yanking one out of your ear and speaking directly into it simply overpowers the mics (they’re not meant to do that, after all). You won’t be replacing your Neumann studio mic with one of these, but you weren’t going to do that anyway. For phone calls in everyday environments, they’re absolutely fine, keeping your voice front and center if a tad peaky on the mids and high end.
The lightweight earpieces are controlled by conductive touch sensors—taps on the left earpiece control volume, accepting/rejecting phone calls and triggering voice assistants (Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant), while taps on the right take you back and forth between tracks and can also turn on and off Ambient Sound (a mix of what you’re listening to and the mics in the earpieces) and Dual Hybrid Noise Cancelling Technology. Derived in part from Panasonic’s telephony division, the earpieces’ Noise Cancelling combines proprietary digital and analog processing (Feedforward and Feedback Noise Cancelling) to achieve this. The tapping control is clever, though in testing it was easy to accidentally trigger a function while adjusting an earpiece; likewise, remembering which earpiece handles what function takes a bit of memorization, but these are User Errors that go away in time.
The RZ-S500W headphones are IPX4-equivalent resistant to water, so if you’re caught in the rain or work up a sweat while working out to your own mix, you’re covered. They also hold 6.5 hours of charge, and reside in a portable charging case (not water resistant; take it out of your pocket before testing that mix underwater) that holds up to three charges for a total of 19.5 hours. The case provides quick charging, so 15 minutes back in the box will net you 70 more minutes of listening.
Of course, the important part is, how do they sound? They’re outfitted with Bluetooth V5.0 and make the most of it. As a result, the RZ-S500W headphones sound decidedly solid, with welcoming mids and highs, and a surprisingly sizable low end that is present without feeling hyped or overpowering. Is it the same as listening to audiophile over-ear headphones or professional in-ear monitors? No, but again, that’s not their audience—and their audience is your audience. They’re meant for clear, pleasant, hassle-free listening in a variety of environments, whether you’re jogging, commuting or doing laundry, and they deliver that experience well.