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I found the perfect headphones for anyone looking to get into high-res audio for less

The Edifier Stax Spirit S3 headphones combine the convenience of Bluetooth with the auditory satisfaction of hi-res playback.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
The Edifier Stax Spirit S3 headphones lying on a wooden desk
Jada Jones/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways

  • The Edifier Stax Spirit S3 headphones, priced at $350, are a fantastic entryway into high-resolution audio.
  • Sound quality is smooth and balanced, offering a lower-priced alternative to the higher-end headphones in the same category.
  • These headphones are fairly heavy and lack noise-canceling tech, so they're not ideal for commuters.

Nothing is better than listening to your favorite song and feeling so immersed in the music that you can hear instrumentals you never noticed before. The artist sounds like they're singing only to you, every sound is perfectly balanced, and you can't help but move to the beat.

If that sounds like your kind of jam sesh, you may be ready to jump into the wonderful world of high-resolution (hi-res) audio. Much of the audio equipment in the hi-res space is very expensive, as the best of the best can cost thousands of dollars. However, there's a lower-priced option out there, and I tried it to tell you how it holds up.

Also: OnePlus' $99 earbuds look and sound extraordinary, but there's one big catch

I've been testing the Edifier Stax Spirit S3 headphones for the last two weeks, listening and jamming to my favorite tracks, and these may just be the best place to start if you're looking for an entry point into hi-res audio.

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The Spirit S3 sports planar magnetic drivers typically found in open-back, over-ear headphones, so I found it interesting to see them inside the closed-back design. 

Let me tell you why that's exciting. Many Bluetooth headphones use inexpensive dynamic drivers that replicate the bass-forward sound most people enjoy. However, dynamic drivers are notorious for creating harmonic distortion at high volumes, which means audio may not sound exactly like it should.

Also: The 5 biggest headphones trends that you'll be hearing more about in 2024

Planar magnetic drivers are thin and use magnetic fields to vibrate the diaphragm directly to produce sound. The direct communication between the magnets and the diaphragm creates a higher-quality sound, and it's rare to find them in a pair of closed-back Bluetooth headphones.

The 89mm x 70mm planar magnetic drivers are responsible for the Spirit S3's clear, balanced, and detailed sound. Over a Bluetooth connection, the Spirit S3's sound is vibrant and transparent, with low distortion that promotes easy listening. 

When I listened to Young Thug's Faces, the Spirit S3 produced bass that wasn't overpowering, allowing the vocals and instrumentals to shine. However, the magic happens when you listen to these cans over a wired connection. 

The Edifier Stax Spirit S3 headphones wired to a MacBook
Jada Jones/ZDNET

The Spirit S3 supports hi-res audio with a 24-bit/96 kHz sample rate that most accurately sounds like the studio recording. I access hi-res audio on Apple Music. Not every song in Apple Music's catalog is encoded in hi-res, so you'll have to do some digging. However, the platform's entire catalog is available in lossless CD-quality (16-bit/44.1 kHz), and I promise you can't hear the difference between lossless and hi-res audio. 

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Still, even the most casual listeners can tell the difference in sound quality between Bluetooth and lossless or hi-res audio, and those differences are highlighted even more by a pair of headphones like these. I listened to Beat It by Michael Jackson by wiring the Spirit S3 to my iPhone 14. If you didn't know, Apple's Lightning to 3.5mm connector has a built-in digital-to-analog converter to access hi-res audio on your iPhone. 

By listening this way, you hear everything like how it was meant to be heard. Eddie Van Halen's iconic guitar solo and Jackson's layered harmonies were so clear and electric. Hearing every detail for the first time breathed new life into a song I've been listening to since I was a kid.

The Edifier Stax Spirit S3 headphones lying on a wooden desk
Jada Jones/ZDNET

The Spirit S3 are unique because they blend everything I love about modern consumer headphones with audiophilic accents. If you have an Android phone and don't have Apple Music or if wired headphones aren't your thing, you can access Snapdragon's host of high-quality audio AptX Bluetooth codecs included with the Spirit S3. There's also Tidal, Qobuz, and Deezer for hi-res audio listening.

I'll note this: Planar magnetic headphones are typically heavy and not portable due to the large size and quantity of magnets in the headphones' drivers. But the Stax S3 are an exception in the sense that they fold up nicely and come with a carrying case. 

Also: The best noise-canceling headphones: Expert tested and reviewed

Despite them being lighter than most planar magnetic headphones, they're still a hefty pair, weighing in at 329g, which is slightly lighter than Apple's AirPods Max and about 100g heavier than Sony's XM5 over-ears and Bose's QuietComfort Ultra. Despite being lighter than AirPods Max, the Spirit S3 carries much of its weight in the ear cups that are supported by a lightweight plastic headband. On the other hand, AirPods Max sport an aluminum headband that offsets the weight of the ear cups.

The Spirit S3 are fitted with thick ear pads, and the headband has a relaxed fit. After a few hours, I did experience some neck fatigue, which likely stems from the Spirit S3's weight. These headphones can stick around for a whopping 80 hours since they lack active noise-canceling, which is a popular culprit for battery drainage.

Lastly, if you're looking for headphones with all the software bells and whistles, these aren't it. They don't have wear detection or highly customizable EQ settings, but if you primarily use them for wired listening or want a pair of headphones that you can just put on and start listening, you don't need to worry about any of that. 

ZDNET's buying advice

The Edifier Stax Spirit S3 are a novice audiophile's gateway into the world of hi-res audio. I wouldn't recommend these headphones for daily commutes, especially if you'll be walking around and bobbing your head, as they're on the heavier side and lack noise-canceling technology. 

But for what they are, planar magnetic headphones, the Spirit S3 are priced much more affordably than competing models. Even if you choose to go wireless with the Spirit S3, the drivers will offer you an audio experience that's smoother and clearer than traditional consumer headphones. If you're interested in hi-res audio or you mix and master music as a hobby or for school, these headphones won't disappoint.

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