Astell & Kern Layla headphones

Superior in-ear headphones for committed audiophiles

Image: Hugh Threlfall

If you like to listen to music while you work, or just zone out to some sounds in transit, you’ll want the best possible ear input. I know that with photography, given the rise of Instagram and arty Lomography film cameras, lo-fi quality can be a trade-off for style. But I don’t think anyone knowingly chooses inferior audio.

The new Astell & Kern Layla carbon fibre headphones (named after the Eric Clapton song) are just about the best in-ear models in the world. Now I know you’ve heard this from me before. Until these, the best in-ear headphones I knew were the Japanese-made Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS (around £800). We’re very much into law-of-diminishing-returns territory here, because the Layla phones – at £2,000 – aren’t twice as good as the FI-BA-SS. But for me they are half a level better – just that smidgen richer and more refined. To listen to them is to love them. It’s quite addictive if you start buying 24-bit recordings from companies such as HD Tracks and Linn Records – these files, where each track is several times the size of a typical MP3 album, sound mesmerising, particularly if you plug Layla into a player of the quality of Astell & Kern’s AK240, which I reviewed here last year. Be warned, though; standard quality music from iTunes will sound thin and flat with equipment of this calibre.

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Layla earphones are sold under A&K’s label; however they are not made in Korea like its music players, but in Florida by a company called Jerry Harvey Audio. The specification is insanely upscale, with each earbud having 12 drivers (miniature loudspeakers) secreted away. They may look ungainly, as if the earpieces could never fit in your ears, but although tricky to put on, the galaxy of earpieces they come with do help them stay in place without leaking sound. They’re surprisingly comfortable, too – a little easier on the ear canals than moulded monitors. The lead, though, as is the way with very good wires, is not even slightly tangle-free. Store wisely.

Looking for the perfect pairing for these Layla headphones? The Astell & Kern AK240 pocketable player, with wifi, masses of storage and superior hifi, is it, suggests our audio expert.

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