Review: Blue Ella Headphones
Perhaps the biggest announcement that Blue made at CES this year was that of its new flagship headphone, the Ella ($700). With the Ella, Blue reaches further into the high-end with an entirely different driver type, kept mostly portable with the inclusion of battery-powered onboard amplification. The Ella is our favorite of Blue's headphones so far and definitely worth checking out, even if you're not a fan of its still-crazy headband.
This is the third Blue headphone we’ve reviewed with the company’s unique construction and design. The Ella has many similarities with the Sadie and Lola - it has the same love-it-or-hate-it multi-link headband mechanism and cup shape, with pads arranged to touch contact points only. Like the Sadie, the Ella also has illuminated logos and a built-in amplifier can be used in passive (off), “On”, or bass-boosting “On+” mode. We discussed in detail our impressions of Blue’s signature design in our review of the Sadie, so be sure to check that out first.
Despite the Ella’s visual similarity to the other headphones in Blue’s range, there are some upgrades in this model that make it feel like a flagship headphone. Though we liked the Sadie’s dark gray color scheme, the Ella’s contrasting silver, black, and brown looks as classy as a luxury sport car or high-fashion suit. The Ella’s design reminds us of the B&W P9 we reviewed last year, but with a more futuristic aesthetic. The Ella’s brown leather pads feel softer than those of the Sadie, and feel like a higher-grade leather. In our two weeks of testing, we found the Ella to be a bit more comfortable than the Sadie, despite the 40 grams of additional weight apparently added by the Ella’s planar drivers. The Ella’s facbric-sleeved cables are perfect; though they undoubtedly add to the Ella’s cost, these are exactly the kind of cables we like to see included with high-end headphones. Three of these excellent cables are included - a 1.2 meter audio cable with inline controls, a 3 meter cable, and a charging cable — along with a 1/4-inch adapter and suede carry case.
The Ella’s premium feel lives up to its price tag with one exception — the amplifier switch. The plastic knob which, like that of the Sadie, mimics knurled aluminum, is actually looser than that of the Sadie. Instead of locking into its three distinct modes, the knob — again plastic mimicking knurled aluminum — freely jiggles at least a millimeter in each direction. This would be a minor complaint, except that you will necessarily be interacting with this switch every time you use the headphone. Worse still, the knob sometimes did not fully engage into the “off” position; when this happened, the left channel would scratch and fade out until we jiggled the switch some more. On the Sadie, this loose knob was just a small detractor from an otherwise thoughtful design. On the $700 Ella, however, it’s much harder to accept.
The big news here is that the Ella represents Blue’s first foray into planar magnetic headphones. Unlike the Sadie, the Ella’s drivers don’t pick up noise from powerful sources, and emit no background hum with its built-in amplifier’s “On” or “On+” modes. We think the inclusion of an amplifier makes even more sense with the Ella than it did on the Sadie; the Sadie was already a sensitive headphone, whereas the power demands of the Ella’s planar magnetic drivers easily outpace what mobile devices can deliver. Blue’s solution for portable planar magnetic headphones is especially interesting in the context of how this design has been tackled by others — Audeze, for example, instead gets the extra power using inline amplifiers in its Cipher cables. Their solution works, but comes at the expense of slightly decreased battery life on the device.
The Ella’s sound is a step above that of the Sadie, and will be familiar to fans of planar magnetic drivers. Bass extends low, detail reproduction is very good — exactly what we’d expect from planars. The Ella’s sound is warm overall but, like the Sadie, does not overpower with low-end until you click the amplifier into “On+” mode, which provides a not-subtle but still clean bass boost. Compared to our reference headphones, the Ella can sound just a tad congested and lacking in “air”, but it’s probably not something you’ll notice unless actively switching back and forth to high-end open-back cans. Running through dozens of test tracks, we found that the Ella plays well with many different genres - even metal, which seems to be rare these days.
We really have no complaints about the Ella’s sound signature. Our only caveat about the Ella’s sound is that its drivers are very power-hungry, and it really only sounds its best with its amplifier activated. We tested the Ella with some very powerful desktop amplifiers, and were surprised at how high we had to crank the volume when the Ella’s internal amplifier was switched off. The risks only a minor inconvenience, however, since we found the Ella lived up to Blue’s promises about charging (3 – 4 hours) and battery life (about 12 hours). As with the Sadie, the Ella’s amplifier turns off immediately when the headphones aren’t on your head.
We really like the Blue Ella. It sounds great and its classy, striking paint job makes it look like an entirely new headphone, despite its having virtually identical construction to the Lola we reviewed last year. We still are not fans of the multi-link headband mechanism, but everything else about the Ella’s design was good enough to win us over. If the Ella marks a trend of continued improvement in Blue’s headphone lineup, we can’t wait to see what they come up with next. Blue has done extremely well here — the Ella gets our general recommendation.