Smartwatches have proven to be a fairly successful foray into technology for German luxury brand Montblanc, while its more experimental digital notebook (opens in new tab) at least caused some buzz.
Now, it wants to get into another travel tech essential: headphones. This is uncharted territory for a company best known for bags, pens and watches; smartwatches were a logical avenue for Montblanc to explore, but audio tech less so.
The Montblanc Smart Headphones, as they’re officially named, offer active noise cancelation and support for Google Assistant, wrapped in Montblanc’s luxurious design. Here’s what we think of them.
Price and availability
The Montblanc Smart Headphones are available to buy for $595 / £525 / AU$960. That’s a lot of money for a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, but Montblanc has long prided itself on selling luxury items at eye-watering prices.
Although it turned to other experts to provide the tech and tune the audio, the design of the headphones is Montblanc through and through. They come in a closed-back design, with oval-shaped ear cups that we’re rather fond of.
The headphones blend metal, plastic and leather, and come in a choice of three finishes: black leather with chrome metal, brown leather with gold metal, and a light grey/white leather with polished metal.
And yes, they all have a suitably Montblanc-luxury feel, but without looking ostentatious. The color combinations have clearly been inspired by Montblanc’s pens, so if you’re familiar with those you’ll immediately see an aesthetic overlap here.
The Montblanc logo is also emblazoned on each side, but there’s no big lettering like you’ll find some other major-brand headphones. What we’re trying to say is… they’re subtler than we expected.
Better than that, we’re happy to report they’re very comfortable. Comfort is clearly one of Montblanc’s primary concerns here, as the marketing materials talk of “today’s traveller” and “those who live life on the road or in the air”.
So to test that we wore ours for a 15-hour flight, only taking them off for short breaks, and at no point did we find them uncomfortable. The closed-back design helps that (as well as the active noise cancelation, of course), as do the large ear cups; some of our regular closed-back headphones start to hurt our ears after extended listening periods.
There are several buttons alongside the right ear cup: ANC, Google Assistant, a volume rocker, and a power button. Slap-bang in the middle of the same earcup is also where you’ll find the (rather squishy) play/pause button.
At the very bottom of the right earcup is a USB-C port, which can be used to plug in the 3.5mm auxiliary adapter included in the box, and to charge the headphones.
And when they’re not in use, the headphones can be collapsed and slipped into the carry bag that Montblanc also supplies.
What are 'smart' headphones anyway? According to Montblanc, the two criteria are active noise cancellation and smart assistant support.
There are three sound modes on the Montblanc headphones: regular, live mode and active noise cancellation. These can be cycled using the ANC button on the right earcup, but we’d prefer it to be a simple on/off function.
Rarely do we find ourselves using the live mode, which – you’ve probably guessed – lets noise to bleed in so you can hear the outside world without having to take the headphones off. Still, it works perfectly fine should you want to use it.
As for the smart assistant, Montblanc has turned to Google to provide its digital concierge. If you’re using an iPhone, you’ll need to have the Google Assistant app running in the background at all times to work. If you push the Assistant button and the app is closed, it will ask you to open it up.
So long as it’s open, you’ll be able to push the button at any time to have Google Assistant read out the time and any notifications you might have. Hold it and you can ask the Assistant a question.
Unlike some other headphones, there’s no Montblanc companion app. The upside of this is that everything is set to go out of the box, providing you already have Google Assistant on your phone. The downside is that there’s no custom equalizer, so any EQ adjustments will need to be made in your music app of choice.
Montblanc promises 20 hours of battery power in ANC mode, which is more or less what we've experienced in testing.
On a 15-hour flight of almost continuous use with noise cancelation on, we still had a few hours left in the tank. Turn off ANC and you’ll be able to stretch that battery life even further.
Oh, and thanks to the USB-C, charging is also nice and fast.
Montblanc’s headphones are running off a Qualcomm chip, but when it came to tuning the sound Montblanc turned to Alexa Rosson, one of the co-founders of headphones maker/audiophile appeaser Audeze.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the sound quality of the Montblanc Smart Headphones is pretty good, with decent separation for the most part.
However, we do have a gripe: while there’s nice clarity in the highs – the cymbals in Max Rach’s Lonesome Lover came through wonderfully – they can be a little too present and, in a lot of cases, overly shrill.
In fact, with both the lows and highs more prominent, that middle range can sometimes lose detail and become too soupy with the lower end.
The active noise cancelation does an effective job of blocking out white noise, and worked particularly well during our plane test. However, in quieter environments you’ll notice the headphones emitting a faint hissing sound when in ANC mode, and it’s a little annoying.
For its first pair of cans, Montblanc’s Smart Headphones are an admirable effort. They not only look good, but Montblanc has made a real effort to make them sound great where it could very easily have phoned it in.
We have some issues with the balance, but not to the extent it’s a dealbreaker. The price is a different matter; while some people will pay for the Montblanc name (or in this case, just the logo), $600 could buy you a much better pair of over-ear headphones (or multiple pairs) with similar features – the Sony WH-1000XM3s, for example, or indeed just about anything on our list of the best noise-cancelling headphones.
But will they look as good? Probably not.
- Check out the best over-ear headphones of 2020