If you listen hard, you can almost hear the thought process at DALI that led to the arrival of these IO-12 wireless over-ear headphones. After all, the company’s less expensive, less extravagant headphone designs have all been competitive - and yet have little of the profile of their numerous, more celebrated, price-comparable rivals. At some point at DALI HQ in Nørager, someone flung their hands into the air and cried “sod it!” (except in Danish) and decided to throw caution to the wind, and with a company moniker derived from, Danish Audiophile Loudspeaker Industries, that isn't going to result in a meaningless gesture.
This, I’m weirdly confident, is what has brought the IO-12 to us. Here’s a pair of lavishly specified, over-designed and very expensive wireless over-ear headphones, the alternatives for which I can count on the fingers of one hand.
Certainly there are aspects of their specification that let you know DALI isn’t messing about here.
For example, the IO-12 feature the company’s patented ‘soft magnetic compound’ (SMC) magnet arrangement that’s only appeared in high-end DALI loudspeakers like the £70K Kore until now. Designed to reduce unintentional and unwanted resistance to the voice-coil, SMC combines with DALI’s preferred paper-fibre cones (here in big 50mm guise) to reduce this resistance and minimise harmonic distortion - the company suggests IO-12 has “electrostatic levels of midrange clarity”, which is a bold claim indeed. But, does this result, as Dali insists, live up to being “hi-fi speakers for your head”, albeit in a more convenient form?
If you’re expecting the DALI IO-12 to grab you by the lapels and yell “listen to how expensive I sound!” there’s every chance you’re going to be disappointed - at first acquaintance, at least. There’s an awful lot to admire about the way the IO-12 go about reproducing music, but there’s nothing especially visceral or showy about their performance. These are grown-up, mature headphones - which seems appropriate enough, given that the buyers are almost certain to be grown-up and mature too, given the price.
The ‘hi-fi’ setting is the way to hear the headphones - this way they strike their most convincing tonal balance and give every area of the frequency range similar attention. And there’s no doubt about it: these are attentive, observant headphones with numerous worthwhile observations to make where the tone, timbre and harmonic variation of instruments and voices are concerned. They retain and reveal a prodigious amount of information, are able to contextualise it without apparent effort, and create an utterly unified and convincing overall presentation.
Low frequencies are straight-edged and substantial - but they’re not muscle-bound, and as a consequence the IO-12 keep momentum levels high and express rhythms with real positivity. They modulate seamlessly into the midrange, which is in turn lavishly detailed and communicates freely. Voices heard through these DALIs sound immediate, characterful and sweetly eloquent - DALI’s SMC technology certainly earns its corn in this regard. At the top of the frequency range, meanwhile, there’s plenty of nicely judged attack - the IO-12 aren’t above splashing and crashing if the material demands it, but there’s nothing uncouth about the treble response here even if the recording you're listening to attempts to provoke it. ‘Hard’ or ‘edgy’ are not words that apply.
Dynamic potency is similarly impressive, both where the broad strokes of volume and intensity are concerned, and where the low-level dynamic variations apparent from one key-strike of a piano to the next are concerned. If a facet of a recording is going to elude the IO-12, then it is going to be so minor, so transient or so peripheral that it may as well not be there at all.
Switching to the ‘bass’ EQ brings a footling increase to low-frequency power and tilts the emphasis of the sound towards the bass end, just a touch. What it doesn’t do, though, is affect the unity or togetherness of the sound in the slightest - there are no circumstances in which the IO-12 don’t integrate both the frequency range and the individual elements of a recording with absolute confidence.
But while they’re not the most immediately captivating, there’s nothing tepid or analytical about the DALI IO-12 - their overall stance is musical and entertaining, and they’re more than happy to let their hair down if the content demands it. If it’s relentless ‘party on!’ attitude you’re after, though, you’ll need to look elsewhere - it’s not as if you’re short of choice in this respect.
The active noise-cancellation that’s available here is not, it’s fair to say, as successful as the sound reproduction. ‘Cancellation’, in fact, is to overstate it more than somewhat - ‘reduction’ is a more accurate way to describe what we’re dealing with here. The effect is even across the frequency range, at least, so it’s not as if you’re left with some low-frequency annoyances while the rest of the ambient sound is reduced - but the DALI don’t get anywhere near the sort of ‘blanket of silence’ that the likes of Bose (for instance) can deliver for significantly less money.
First things first: these are pretty large headphones, especially where the earpads are concerned. I flatter myself that I’m an average-sized bloke with an average-sized head - but not only do the headphones fit me nicely with the headband in its smallest position, but the square, leather-covered earpads cover what feels very much like half of my head. If you’re on the petite side, I think it’s inevitable you’ll feel a tad swamped by the DALI IO-12.
Still, if you’re of appropriate proportions you’ll find the IO-12 a luxurious proposition. As well as the earpads themselves, the outer surface of the headband and the back of the earpads are covered in soft, tactile and entirely vegetarian-unfriendly leather, while the padding of the headband and the earpads is very nicely judged. DALI has gone to the trouble of making the earpads asymmetrical - there’s a bulge at the lower rear portion that is designed to ensure a good seal and minimise sound leakage.
On the left earcup there’s a 3.5mm socket, allowing you to make a hard connection to a source player - but the majority of the action is over on the right-hand side. The right earcup features a USB-C socket - this is used for charging the battery (battery life is quoted at 35 hours from a single charge) and can also be used for data transfer. Make a hard USB - to - USB connection and the headphones’ on-board DAC can deal with file sizes of up to 24bit/96kHz resolution natively, and will downscale anything larger.
There are three little buttons around the edge of the right earcup, too. One is an EQ adjuster - your choices are ‘bass’ or ‘hi-fi’, and I’ll leave it to your imagination what the broad differences are there. Another cycles through your active noise-cancellation options - select between ‘on’, ‘off’ or ‘transparency’. And there’s a ‘power on/off/Bluetooth pairing’ button (Bluetooth here is of the ‘multi-point’ type and is compatible with the aptX Adaptive codec). All three controls are lightning-fast in their response, which I find disproportionately gratifying.
The outer surface of each earcup features feed-forward and feedback mics to handle noise-cancellation, telephony and interaction with your source player’s native voice assistant. And the surface of the right earcup has physical controls for ‘volume up/down’, ‘play/pause’ and ‘skip forwards/backwards’.
There’s no denying all these controls are properly implemented and responsive - but nevertheless, DALI’s assertion that this means there’s no need for a control app is debatable to say the least.
Even if it’s only for the sake of appearances, a pair of headphones that sell for this sort of money really should have more granular EQ and ANC adjustment than is available here. It would be nice to be able to have access to all streaming service subscriptions in one place. But no - “simple, app-free operation” is what you get here, unlike those rival products from the likes of Bowers & Wilkins, Focal, Mark Levinson et al.
The IO-12 fold flat, which makes it easier for them to slip into their fairly big, fairly lavish travel-case. There is a nice selection of braided cables in there too: between USB-A/USB-C, and 1.2m and 3m 3.5mm/3.5mm cables, wired connectivity is covered in every circumstance.
A premium price doesn’t automatically make for a premium product, and neither does a quantity of premium materials. But the DALI IO-12 manages to combine performance, materials and price into an undeniably premium package - albeit one that goes without the control app that some customers might be expecting. As far as audio performance is concerned, though, there’s nothing lacking here.
Tortoise Cornpone Brunch
This band’s eponymous debut album is packed with extremely stern tests of tonality, and this is probably the sternest of the lot. Between the richly adept rhythm section, some hectic keyboard arpeggios and a serving of overdriven, effects-laden electric guitar, your headphones need the tonal response to keep it all sounding natural
Tricky Black Steel
In which the polemic of Public Enemy’ Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos is reimagined as a smokily metallic and, yes, chaotic rampage with Martina Topley-Bird’s vocal the calm centre around which the uproar unfolds. Midrange resolution and rhythmic positivity are just the most obvious of the requirements this recording demands of a pair of headphones
Doris Troy What’cha Gonna Do About It?
Here’s a recording that sounds neither expensive nor over-rehearsed - and yet in the right hands its ability to raise goose-bumps is reliable. A lop-sided, primitive stereo mix with Troy’s character-packed vocal the only element occupying the centre of the stage, it’s a profound test of separation and focus in particular
You buy the DALI IO-12 because you take mobile listening very seriously indeed, because you have a portable source of music with which to do them some justice, because you like nice things, and because you’re in no way vegetarian.