You’d be forgiven in thinking that the removal of the 3.5mm auxiliary jack from the latest set of Apple devices was a bad idea. After all, the audio jack has existed as the default means to carry audio for the last century while the Lightning Port only has a mere five years under its belt.
But maybe, just maybe, if the $149 (around £115, AU$190) Pioneer Rayz Plus is any indication, the future won’t be so bad.
The Pioneer Rayz, one of the first big-name headphones to utilize all the capabilities the iPhone’s lightning port has to offer, is that courageous future Tim Cook pitched us on one short year ago: For those looking for a pair of decent in-ear, Apple-compliant headphones that have roughly hewn noise-cancellation and a few very neat smart features without breaking the bank, the Pioneer Rayz Plus are the drivers for you.
That said, they’re not perfect, and like Apple’s decision to remove the auxiliary jack, they’re hard to justify without providing a few caveats.
Despite some smart features and slick technology happening inside their remote, the outside of the Pioneer Rayz Plus isn’t all that impressive. The exterior is relatively plain with a standard rubber cable and an in-line remote. The cable isn’t braided, making it prone to tangling, and the in-line remote is made of hard plastic and could be broken over time – the same cheap-feeling material that the earbuds themselves are made from.
To make room for the two microphones on each driver, the buds themselves are long and jut out from the driver. This means they don’t really sit flush with the ear and can fall out rather easily. To make the situation slightly better, however, the Pioneer Rayz Plus does come with a full set of Comply foam-tip earbuds that help create a better seal and reduce slippage.
If there’s a redeeming factor about the design, though, it’s that the headphones incorporate a Lightning Port of their own, allowing you to charge your phone while wearing the earbuds. A handy feature if you need to charge your phone and listen to music at the same time.
We also can appreciate the extra programmable button on the remote that gives the ability to turn noise-cancelling and Hear Thru mode on and off. The button can be programmed to any three of six different tasks, but honestly the default options are probably the ones you’d need the most.
Most headphone reviews we write don’t have a features section. But most headphones don’t have as many features as the Pioneer Rayz do, either.
In total, the Pioneer Rayz Plus offer autopause, smart noise cancellation, Hear Thru mode, smart mute, a smart button in the remote and, soon, Hey Siri support. These are features that most name-brand headphones couldn’t even dream of including, and definitely not at this price. While we could dive into each one, let’s just focus on two highlights: Hear Thru and smart mute.
Smart mute turns the microphone that’s built into the remote off when you’re not speaking. It’s not exactly something you benefit from, but anyone who won’t struggle to hear you while you’re walking on a crowded street or in pouring rain will appreciate it.
As for Hear Thru, it uses the outer microphones that are located in the driver housing to pass exterior noise into the headphones.
Why would you want to hear the outside world after Pioneer has worked so hard on active noise cancellation that has the exact opposite effect? The reason is because sometimes hearing the outside world can be a matter of life and death. Take, for example, riding your bike through a crowded city street: You’d want to hear if someone was beeping at you, or shouting at you to stop before you collide with a car coming up on your blind spot. That last example is drastic, but it’s a real and potentially deadly one that Pioneer is trying to prevent.
Add to these two features the usual swath of features you’d find on higher-end ‘phones, and suddenly the design issues don’t seem as bad.
Things are even slightly better than average when it comes to performance. Sure, the Pioneer Rayz Plus never quite hit the highs (or mids or lows) of some of our other favorite in-ear headphones, but they are actually quite adept at providing decent audio, all things considered.
In terms of tonal qualities, the Rayz Plus do better on the edges of the u-shaped curve that most headphones follow, with a bit more bass impact and clarity on the high-end than most headphones. This effect can be enhanced, diminished or transfigured entirely using the EQ sliders found inside the Rayz app.
While audio reproduction was faithful and solid, friends and family told us that audio coming through the microphone wasn’t the best. We were told on several occasions that we “sounded sick”, “in a tunnel” or “under water” without being any of those things. We'll let you draw your own conclusions here but this subjective data suggests these might be the best headphones for business travelers.
If you do plan on traveling with them, however, at least the active noise cancellation is actually decent for a pair of in-ears. They won’t be better or more convincing than a pair of Bose QuietControl 30s, but we appreciated the inclusion of ANC nonetheless. Finally, the headphones thankfully aren’t that much of a battery killer, even with ANC and smart mute enabled.
The Pioneer Rayz Plus are a great first attempt at Lightning Port-powered headphones. They offer myriad features that you’d only find on headphones twice their price, and their sound performance left us mildly impressed – though not totally blown away. Some more work needs to go into the design of the headphones, and into the microphone built into the in-line remote, before we give them a full recommendation, however.
For now, they’re a decent option for those willing to leap into the future for a pair of decent in-ear, Apple-compliant headphones that have roughly hewn noise-cancellation and a few very neat smart features. For everyone else, however, these future-focused headphones aren’t quite there yet.
- Check out TechRadar's exhaustive guides to the best headphones to buy today including the best on-ear headphones, the best in-ear headphones and the best over-ear headphones.
- For some more specialist pairs, take a look at our guides to the best wireless headphones and the best noise-cancelling headphones.
- Looking for some headphones you can take in the pool? Check out our guide to the best swimming headphones.