Introduction - What is the Fidelio L3?
The Philips Fidelio L3 is an over ear Bluetooth headphone with noise cancelling and voice assistant support. This is not a radical specification in 2021 because we’re inured to the idea of headphones packing the sort of specification that would have been the stuff of science fiction not that long ago, so the Philips arrives competitively specced rather than outlandishly so. While the specification is notionally conventional, some aspects of the Philips are worthy of note.
The first is that Philips has been tinkering with wireless headphones, noise cancelling and other relevant technology for a long time. As a company that makes things well beyond the scope of Hi-Fi, Philips has technical resources at their disposal that could mean that, beyond the spec, the Fidelio L3 has abilities that would push it to the top of your shortlist.
The second is that the L3 shares a fair bit of technology and thinking with the Fidelio X3 and that is very encouraging news indeed. While wired headphones can feel like a bit of an anachronism in this day and age, there is no ignoring that the X3 is a superb sounding device and an Editor’s Choice winner so, if some of that DNA is present in the L3, it could mean that this unassuming looking headphone is a happy blend of technology and talent. Let’s see if that holds true.
Specification and Design
For the avoidance of all doubt, the L3 is not a straight ‘wireless conversion’ of the X3 (although such a thing does exist in the market and is frequently very good indeed). Where the X3 is a full size home headphone with 50mm drivers, the L3 is more in keeping with the ‘Nomad’ category of headphone that is portable but sufficiently large to work as a static headphone when called upon to do so. Not only is the L3 smaller, the drivers it mounts are correspondingly smaller too.
These drivers are 40mm designs that take much of the thinking from the X3 but in a smaller form. They combine a three layer composite diaphragm with a damping layer of PEEK polymer that increases stiffness without needing to make the cross section of the driver thicker (and therefore heavier). Where the X3 is semi open, a decision that makes sense in the context of the design, the L3 would be fairly useless if so equipped, so it is closed back.
Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on the claimed frequency response. The L3 has a claimed sweep of 7Hz- 40kHz or precisely 2 (two) hertz less than the X3. This also means that the L3 retains Hi-Res audio certification. So we’re clear, the effect this has when the L3 is used in wireless Bluetooth mode is absolutely none. Even the most sophisticated Bluetooth modes are doing absolutely nothing of relevance in the part of the audio spectrum where this is notionally important. The only way to realise the technical benefit of this engineering is to use the L3 in its wired configuration. A better way to look at it this might be to see that the Philips is going to be bullet proof operating at Bluetooth bandwidths.
The choice of codecs to use Bluetooth with are usefully comprehensive. Above the default SBC codec, the L3 has AAC, and aptX/aptX HD. There’s no Low Latency but this is still a fairly rare fitment on partnering devices and I have yet to experience a significant performance boost from it being present. LDAC is also absent but it’s arguably even rarer. Range is claimed at 10 metres and under test this has felt reasonably believable although, as with all devices, a myriad of other factors will decide absolute range. In keeping with key rivals, the L3 can connect to two Bluetooth sources at once to make call management easier.
This audio hardware is mated to a noise cancelling system that also feels in keeping with key rivals. The L3 has adjustable levels of noise cancelling based on an internal/external mic principle that ensures that the amount of cancellation being applied is adaptive rather than blunt force. Voice passthrough is supported and remains as incomprehensibly wonderful as it did the first time I used it. Being extremely picky, the system that Bowers & Wilkins debuted on the PX and developed further on the PX7 remains the most witchcrafty of all the ones I’ve tested but the Philips is good enough to catch a platform announcement if you need to.
Where the Philips hits back over the Bowers (and indeed, pretty much everyone else) is in battery life. Over the time I’ve been testing wireless models, various factors have conspired to increase life from the low teens to the low twenties but the L3 is a significant step forward as it claims no less than 38 hours running wireless and a barely less impressive 32 hours with the noise cancelling selected. Testing here suggests that these figures are almost certainly achievable so long as you have a Bluetooth 5.0 source and you aren’t pushing levels too hard.
Philips has opted for a combination of buttons and touchpad for the controls on the L3 and over testing, I have found it to work well. The right hand enclosure has a touchpad with track skip, volume and play/pause and it’s logical and responsive enough to be something you use for choice. If you place the L3 around your neck, they will power off and restart again when you place them back on your head and they will also do the same if you lift the right (but, oddly only the right, which as a left hander is… sub optimal) enclosure. There are hard buttons for power, noise cancelling adjustment and the voice assistant which are logically spaced and don’t require much thought to use.
Not everything is quite so successful though. The L3 is supported by the ‘Philips Headphone’ app and some of the user feedback online ought to be a clue that this isn’t completely seamless. On iOS, the app has worked fairly well but it’s still not as responsive as the Bowers or Sennheiser equivalents. On Android, it is rather more demanding. It required some feedback from Philips on getting it to pair successfully (the issue effectively being down to the L3 being seen separately as an audio device and a BLE device) but, once done, the result has been largely in keeping with the iOS app; solid but not spectacular.
Where the L3 is on stronger ground though is the industrial design. In what might be a sign that we’ve reached ‘peak Kvadrat’, the L3 forgoes the material, opting instead for a black sheen finish with leather pads and headband section (although the inner section of the headband is suede). Where the L3 has an edge over most things is that it uses the same frame arrangement as the X3 which means that it feels light and incredibly strong. It doesn’t fold however so the overall size of the Philips is larger than some rivals, although not by the margin you might think. The carry case is a tight fit but keeps the overall dimensions down to that of key rivals. This is a comfortable and well made headphone that feels worth the asking price and that won’t attract unwanted attention at the same time.
Where the L3 has an edge over most things is that it uses the same frame arrangement as the X3 which means that it feels light and incredibly strong
How Was the L3 Tested?
The Philips has been used for the most part on the end of an Oppo Find X2 Neo Android smartphone offering both aptX and aptX HD support. Some additional testing (and app use) was via iPad Pro with AAC Bluetooth and an LG55 B7 OLED TV for latency testing and a Chord Electronics Mojo and Poly combination was employed for testing the wired connection. Material used has been Qobuz, Tidal, Deezer, Disney+ and some limited YouTube.
It took about five minutes (or roughly the length of Agnes Obel’s Myopia) to establish that there is a huge amount of the same ability that was so arresting in the wired X3 present in the L3 as well. Before we do the subjective aspects of that, it’s worth covering what Philips has achieved to make this happen. Connected to a mobile device at idle, there is no clue that the Philips is under power and has amplification sat at idle. It is utterly silent and, with the noise cancelling switched off, it is effectively the same as having a passive pair of headphones sat on your head. Over the years, wireless headphones have got better and better at this but the Philips feels like a step forward again.
No less notable is that the L3 might be the first headphone I’ve ever tested where I feel it has given its best performance with the noise cancelling engaged (The Sennheiser Momentum Wireless is a partial exception in that it only works with ANC running). Using the L3 passive, it feels natural but very slightly inert and congested. Switch the ANC on and, as well as the world around you being kept at bay more effectively, it manages to open up the soundstage to sound more open and airy. Susan Sundfor’s Accelerate sounds bigger, more immersive and no less forceful with the noise cancelling in place. Given that this is how Philips wants you to use the L3 and how most people will be running their own examples, this feels important; the first time where there is no performance deficit to the deployment of the convenience features.
The noise cancelling is effective too. In the absence of going anywhere these days, the effect of playing 737 cabin noise through the Kudos Titan 505 was that the Philips is able to drop external noise levels very well and this would allow you to sleep or listen to music in a manner that might be legitimately seen as ‘critical’ rather than background. If you are trying to sleep, the Philips has to take a back seat to the more expensive Yamaha YH-E700A which has a greater noise cut and ear pads that are better suited to leaning against something and sleeping. If you simply want to concentrate on listening to something though, the Philips has the edge.
Against this notable ability, there isn’t much at all to critique the Philips for. Using it paired with the LG B7 for TV viewing, did suggest that there might be fractional latency hiccups that people who are particularly sensitive to such a thing might pick up on but nothing I found unusable. More subjectively, I haven’t found that the wired performance of the L3 ‘kicks on’ in the way that the L3 continues to improve as your source equipment does. Using the L3 with the Mojo and Poly doesn’t unlock some higher tier of performance but this comment is made on the understanding that, thus far anyway, no wireless design has managed this.
I’m not unduly concerned by this though and the reason why is that the L3 shares the same lovely performance balance as the X3. This is a headphone that will deal with low bitrate material in a manner that is forgiving and enjoyable but still shift up a gear when you give it something better. With Bluetooth, the basic limitations of the medium preclude the same leap that the X3 can demonstrate but listening to Eliza Shaddad via Qobuz is still a superb experience; shifting something from more than simply reproduction and into an actual performance. Tonal realism is extremely good and the decent bass extension ensures that everything has a believable scale to it. The Philips has managed the all important feat of me continuing to listen to it after the actual nuts and bolts listening has ended. That impressive battery life is enough to ensure that those sessions can go on as long as you can realistically stay awake for too.
No less notable is that the L3 might be the first headphone I’ve ever tested where I feel it has given its best performance with the noise cancelling engaged
- Sound excellent with and without noise cancelling engaged
- Superb battery life
- Comfortable and well made
- Some Android app niggles
- Look a bit dull
- Don't fold
Philips Fidelio L3 Bluetooth Headphone Review
The Philips Fidelio L3 does, at the time of writing at least, have a minor black mark that cannot be ignored and that is that the Android app needs some tweaks to be as easy to use as its key competition. The fact that the app works fine for iOS does suggest this will be sorted promptly. That Philips has been savvy enough to replicate the functionality on the headphone itself, meaning that no part of the L3’s feature set bar a dubiously useful EQ feature is impossible to access, is enough for me to end this review in a positive manner.
This is because the L3 is a superlative wireless headphone. It is a small but significant step change in that it feels like the first design of its kind to achieve the best sonic results with the noise cancelling engaged. Throw in the superb battery life, solid build, comfortable and attractive design and you have a headphone that is indisputably Highly Recommended.
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