From its establishment in 1906, Montblanc has been known as a producer of high-quality writing instruments. Often associated as a rite of passage, given to mark special occasions such as graduations and promotions, the brand has grown into a luxury goods powerhouse, producing not only pens but a wide range of stationery, leather goods, jewellery, eyewear, and, of course, timepieces. Some of these products have led to natural extensions linked to modern technology: there are “digital notebooks” which the brand has dubbed “augmented paper”, whereby your written notes and drawings are digitised and transferred to your device of choice, and its Summit line of smart watches is on its second generation, aiming to capture those who want these devices on their wrist without compromising on traditional watch styling, or simply because they’re loyal to the brand. Now, Montblanc is venturing into a new category entirely, with the launch of their MB 01 Travel Headphones.
The expectations were set fairly high because the MB 01 headphones have a nice list of technical specifications: materials employed include aluminium, silicone and leather, Bluetooth 5.0 for wireless connections (with a wired adapter included should you be in-flight and not allowed to use Bluetooth), active noise cancelling, aptX and AAC codecs, a sensor that stops the music when the headphones are taken off the head, and USB-C charging. It ticks many of the boxes for the latest connectivity and functional options.
Stylistically, the MB 01 are offered in three colourways: a light grey with polished metal accents, black with chrome accents, or brown with gold accents (pictured), all with the Montblanc snow cap logo prominently displayed on the arms. Initially, they may seem physically large, but once you pick them up they come across as lighter in weight than anticipated, tipping the scales at 280g. Fit is certainly personal; for my head (which is admittedly large) I needed to extend the headphones to their maximum length, but they then fit extremely comfortably, with the large earcups exerting just the right amount of pressure while providing sufficient closure to dampen external noise. I was able to wear the MB 01 for extended listening sessions without ever feeling the need to take a break from having them pressing or heating up on my ears and head.
The controls were adequate, with everything being centred on the right earcup. The large silicone surface is a multifunction button, which I prefer over touch surfaces that, with many of the headphones and earphones I’ve tried, can be temperamental. I did find the tactile feedback a little soft, given the large surface, presumably to avoid pressing too hard on the side of your head: one press starts or stops the music, two will advance by one track, and three will go back by one track. Additional buttons on the chrome surface will access Google Assistant, turn on or off the active noise cancellation (ANC), and control the volume. A fully charged battery should give you around 20 hours of listening time, although the specifications do not state whether the ANC has a significant impact on this or not.
Acoustic performance is even more personal though; I tend to like a slightly warmer sound with good bass, and on that front, the MB 01 delivered without being overpowering. Montblanc collaborated with Alex Rosson, an audio engineer who co-founded Audeze, a specialist headphone company based in California, and who is now the head of Rosson Audio Design, certainly bringing a high level of experience to the acoustic development of the MB 01. Whether ardent audiophiles will like the resulting default sound profile is another matter, which is also made more difficult because an app for iOS and Android that was mentioned when the headphones were launched, that would presumably allow for sound equalisation to tailor to personal tastes, is not available yet. Montblanc did confirm that it is still under development and will be released in due course.
Hopefully it will also allow for some customisation of the active noise cancellation, for while its effect is discernible, it does not isolate you in the way that some of the other over-the-ear headphones on the market might. I do find that noise cancellation is most effective in-flight, to remove the drone of the aircraft engines, obviously a scenario which I’m not able to test at the moment. It does bring me to another aspect though, the fact that Montblanc call these “travel” headphones. Whilst they do fold, doing so doesn’t save much space, and the included case is a fabric pouch rather than a hard shell; although the build quality is high, some extra protection in the form of a more rigid design would be welcome, for added peace of mind during a trip.
With all this in mind, another detail needs some consideration: the MB 01 comes in at a relatively high HK$5,000. I suppose we can make the comparison with watches; whilst I know many collectors who would not shy away from spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a timepiece, there are many more who simply wouldn’t fathom that kind of expense on a watch. High end headphones can also cost tens of thousands (bypassing the jewel-encrusted precious metal talking pieces), which the aforementioned audiophiles might see as completely justifiable, the MB 01 are at a price point that is already firmly on the high side for those products.
Overall, I did enjoy using the MB 01 over a few days, as they are genuinely some of the more comfortable headphones I’ve come across recently, especially when worn for extended periods, whether listening to music for pleasure or as a way to mask background noise when working. Price point aside, they’re a likable and well-executed (even if unexpected) debut for Montblanc in this product segment, and certainly one that will appeal to those who are keen on the brand’s other offerings.