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New Lightning-powered headphones offer sneak peek at next generation of iPhone accessories

Headphones that plug into the the Lightning port of your iPhone, iPad or iPod and draw power from it are due to hit the market soon. Here's a preview of the JBL Reflect Aware, the Philips Fidelio M2L and the Fidelio NC1L.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
3 min read

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A couple of upcoming Philips headphones, including the Fidelio M2L, offer a direct Lightning connection to your iOS device. David Carnoy/CNET

One of the advantages of Apple's Lightning port is that it's bidirectional, meaning that it can be used for charging its host device or have the host device power an accessory connected to it. Until now most of the charging has been one-way, with iPhones, iPods and iPads receiving energy not giving it.

That's soon about to change as last year Apple quietly added a spec for Lightning headphones to its Made for iPhone/iPad/iPod (MFi) Program last year and a few headphone makers -- Philips and Harman JBL -- get set to release new models that connect directly to the Lightning port on your device rather than the headphone jack.

The Philips Fidelio NC1L is the first Lightning-powered on-ear noise-canceling headphone. Philips

What are the benefits? Well, not only are you getting a direct digital connection, but the headphones can draw juice from your device to power components in the headphone, which could include an internal DAC (digital to analog converter) and amplifier that bypass the internal DAC of the iPhone and/or active noise-cancellation circuitry.

In the future, headphones with health-related sensors could potentially get their juice via the Lightning port, but presently we're seeing features such as heart-rate monitors, integrated into wireless Bluetooth headphone rather than wired models.

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The JBL Reflect Aware, a sports headphone with noise-cancellation, is due to ship this spring for $150. David Carnoy/CNET

Philips' on-ear Fidelio M2L (around $300, spring) has a built-in DAC and amplifier and can play high resolution 24-bit audio, while its Fidelio NC1L, another on-ear model announced at CES last week, adds active noise cancellation. It's due to hit stores in April for $299.

As I write this article, I'm listening to a standard Fidelio NC1 , which I like a lot, though it, too, is pricey at $300. (The standard version is due to be available a little earlier -- in late February or March).

I had a quick test run with the M2L in Las Vegas and can't say I was blown away listening to a few high-res audio tracks. It sounded good but it didn't sound any cleaner or more dynamic than the NC1 and actually was in need of a slight volume boost. To be clear, it was an early unit and the Philips reps said there was still quite a bit of tuning and tweaking to be done before final units shipped.

I also played around with JBL's Reflect Aware, which is more modestly priced ($149, spring) and has a sports slant. It, too, includes noise cancellation and has no internal battery. JBL will sell both Lightning (for iOS devices) and Micro-USB (for Android/Windows) versions of the headphones.

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The JBL Reflect Aware's free companion app. David Carnoy/CNET

When it ships, the Reflect Aware will come with a free companion app that allows you to adjust the level of noise cancelling. As a safety measure while running, I was showed how you can turn noise-cancelling off in one ear, allowing you to hear traffic better through that ear.

If you're wondering just how much power these headphones draw from your phone, it's unclear, but both Philips and JBL say they don't require much power and shouldn't have a major impact on your device's battery life.

Of course, the big drawback to these types of Lightning headphones is that you can't use them with non-iOS devices. But if you're someone who doesn't like having to charge your noise-canceling headphones every few days, this battery-free solution certainly seems appealing.