Why you can trust ZDNET : ZDNET independently tests and researches products to bring you our best recommendations and advice. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission. Our process

'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?

ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.

When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.

ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.


These wireless headphones with 'SMC drivers' have set a new standard for me

The Dali IO-12 match the audio quality of open-back headphones with a wire-free listening experience. Just be prepared for its price tag.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
The Dali IO-12 against a sunset background
Jada Jones/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways

  • The Dali IO-12 are a wonderfully crafted pair of high-end, closed-back Bluetooth headphones. You can find them online for $1,300.
  • The patented audio components produce a clear, smooth, and detailed sound profile.
  • The IO-12 are large, heavy, and not portable, so you should leave them at home.

When I listen to music, I love picking apart the songs and noticing as many small details as possible. The best part of my day is when I can throw on my favorite headphones, sit in a comfy chair, and get lost in my favorite songs.

Unfortunately, most Bluetooth headphones don't let me hear every part of a song, forcing me to resort to wired listening. Bluetooth connections can't sustain the large amounts of data needed to listen in perfect audio quality, and the codecs that promise higher sample rates and bit depths aren't always easy to access on your smartphone.

Also: Finally, Focal's new headphones have all the best audio tech without the $1,000 price tag

Bluetooth's pitfalls are why people in the audiophile community recommend wired, passive, open-back headphones for unblemished audio quality. Such cans might be intimidating to people who don't have fancy audio interfaces or don't know what it means to "drive" a pair of headphones.

So, given that people online have crowned the Dali IO-12 as the "best-sounding Bluetooth ANC headphones," I was delighted when the company sent me a pair to try. If you consider yourself an audiophile, but your setup consists of only an iPhone and a cheap digital-to-analog converter dongle, let me explain why these headphones are the ones you've been looking for.

View at Amazon

I'll get straight to the point: These headphones sound phenomenal. The IO-12 feature 50mm custom drivers made from the company's patented soft magnetic composite (SMC) technology

There's a lot of convoluted physics behind the SMC technology -- so stay with me. In a speaker, currents move through the voice coils, creating a magnetic field. The magnetic field causes the coil to react to another magnet, which creates movement in the speaker cone, resulting in sound waves. SMC is used in the driver magnets, and it's the secret sauce that decreases harmonic distortion, allowing for a buttery smooth listening experience.

This may sound cheesy, but listening to Michael Jackson's Human Nature through the IO-12 moved me to tears. The staccato plucks of the electric guitar were reproduced so clearly, earnestly representing the song's melancholy vibe in the pre-chorus. 

Jackson's vocals and harmonies in the upper midrange had a velvety feel, and his iconic high-pitched vocal run between verses didn't even come close to piercing my eardrums, even at high volume. For closed-back headphones, the IO-12 have an incredibly wide and airy soundstage with commendable audio imaging. 

Also: Sonos' new S2 app simplifies audio control, but there's a catch - or two

If you close your eyes, you can visualize where the vocalist and their accompanying musicians may be in the room -- it's that good. Even a pop song like NSYNC's Bye Bye Bye receives depth and a sense of artistry that might have been previously disregarded. 

Because the IO-12 headphones don't have a companion app, you won't have EQ settings or any fancy software features. I would argue that these headphones are so perfectly tuned that you don't need an app. Buttons on the ear cups dictate power, volume, track skips, audio modes, and play/pause. Your ANC options are "On," "Off," and "Transparency." The ANC is nothing to write home about, but it does add a light layer of protection from quiet environmental noises to keep you focused on the music.

Dali IO-12 headphones on a wood desk
Jada Jones/ZDNET

The IO-12 have two audio modes: Bass and Hi-Fi. I preferred listening with the Bass setting enabled. It adds a roundness to the music, making listening more fun, without muddying or overpowering the other frequencies. Hi-Fi mode is balanced and clear, but lacks the thump and fullness that I like.

The IO-12 sport oversized, plushy ear cups, and the cups and headband are made from genuine leather, while the headband extenders are made of aluminum. The headphones stay comfortable during long listening sessions, which is good because the battery boasts 35 hours of continuous audio playback.

Also: YouTube's new AI-powered 'Jump Ahead' feature lets you skip to the good part

Unfortunately, the IO-12 are huge, slightly heavy, and not portable; I don't recommend lugging these on your daily commute. Dali gives you a well-constructed carrying case (which is also huge) to keep the IO-12 safe and clean when not in use. Inside the case are USB-C and 3.5mm headphone cables for wired listening.

I would treat the IO-12 like a pair of open-back headphones. Leave them at home for quiet, intimate listening sessions in a comfy chair. They struggle with sound leakage and their portability score is subpar.

ZDNET's buying advice

The Dali IO-12 are the closest thing you'll get to the luxurious sound, feel, and look you get from open-back headphones without actually buying open-back headphones. If you prefer to listen wire-free but want headphones with state-of-the-art audio tech that overcomes the struggles of lower-quality Bluetooth audio, these are for you.

Also: The best headphones: Expert tested and reviewed

The IO-12's only punch in the gut is that they cost $1,300, but that's still less than comparable open-back headphones from high-end brands like Audeze and Focal. If you want to invest in your ears, the Dali IO-12 won't disappoint.

For alternatives, if you're set on open-back headphones, consider the Sennheiser HD 660S2. If you want an elevated pair of closed-back headphones but the IO-12 are too expensive, consider the Bowers & Wilkins Px8.

Editorial standards