The BlueAnt Embrace on-ear headphones ($200) look luxurious and, if you don't mind, adult. I sometimes think a lot of today's headphones are designed to look cool to 15-year-olds, with boosted bass and highs designed to dazzle young ears. The Embrace's demeanor is more, shall we say, reserved?
Maybe it's the all-black color scheme and lack of flash that first appealed to me, but then I fell in love with the thickly padded headband and pillowlike ear cushions. My ears and head appreciate being coddled like this. The sound mimics the Embrace's look and feel: it's smart and sophisticated. The on-ear design does a fair job blocking external noise. Accessories include a sumptuously designed carry case, and two detachable plug-in cables. There's one 36-inch straight cable, and one with an in-line remote control for volume and a microphone that allows users to switch between music or taking hands-free calls.
The Embrace's prime sonic virtue is its balance, and it does nearly everything well. The bass-midrange-treble response is very good, with a mild bass emphasis. As soon as I heard the Embrace, it reminded me of the Bowers and Wilkins P5 on-ear headphones ($300). The P5's styling is leaner and it feels less bulky, but I was more interested in how these two would compare sonically. The pulsing bassline that opens Amy Winehouse's' "You Know I'm no Good" had more texture over the Embrace. The P5 seemed to flatten dynamics comparatively, and that loss of soft-loud contrast was even more evident on the drum break on the Decemberists' "Down By the Water." I also felt the sound was more open, and less stuck inside my head with the Embrace.
A face-off with my favorite affordable closed-back, full-size headphone, the Audio Technica ATH-M50 ($200), wasn't close. That design was even more open-sounding and had much better and deeper bass response, and sweeter treble than the Embrace or P5. The only real downside to the Audio Technica is its size; it's a lot bigger and less portable than the other two headphones.