DALI IO-12 are incredible headphones that serve a hyper-niche audience

For £999, these headphones should cover a lot of bases. So why are they missing crucial future-proofing features?

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DALI IO-12

DALI IO-12

Review Overview

Our rating

8

Our verdict

Impeccable, enlightening sound quality
Superb connectivity, with multi-point, and easy set-up process
Reliable battery life
Supreme comfort
Top-class active noise-cancelling
Luxury design and carry case
Earpads are almost comically large
Not primed for outside listening
Not ideal for use in social situations, due to open-back design
No lossless codec or spatial audio capabilities
Prohibitive price

Price: £999/$1,040/€999

Let’s be honest, not many people are considering a pair of headphones at £999; most people’s eyes bulge at the price of Apple’s AirPods Max at £549. But, to diehard music fans, DALI’s IO-12 almost make a strong case for saving up the cash and truly enjoying your music with a luxury pair of headphones.

How do the DALI IO-12s sound?

These headphones sound outstanding. Wired and wireless, you get a truly enlightening listening experience — once you hear your favourite tunes on the IO-12s, you probably won’t reach for any other wireless headphones at home.

This is thanks to some seriously meticulous engineering on DALI’s part, with a “highly advanced” 50mm driver and a low-loss paper fibre diaphragm. The drivers are also made with DALI’s SMC material, found in its range of luxury high-end loudspeakers.

A look at the parts inside the DALI IO-12 ear pads
A look at the parts inside the DALI IO-12 ear pads

The IO-12s aptXHD and aptX Adaptive Bluetooth codecs will get you 48kHz/24bit audio resolution. This is fine for most, but a shame for the audiophiles wanting aptX Lossless. At £999, you’d expect this and spatial audio (also missing) for supreme versatility.

For the listening test, I’m referencing with Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, Channel Tres’ Topdown and Portishead’s Glory Box — all via wired on a lossless streaming service.

When listening to Dreams to test headphones, I usually listen for how Stevie Nicks’ voice sounds, how accurately the mix is conveyed, and if the headphones capably maintain the stereo width. The DALI IO-12s effortlessly impress on those fronts but unexpectedly guide my ear to parts I usually don’t listen for. With these on, I hear the backing vocals shine beautifully under Nicks’ lead vocal — something that’s usually lost on less-accomplished audio devices. Also, the reverb tails of Nicks’ vocal are clearer and more satisfying than ever.

Topdown is led by a deep bassline beneath Channel Tres’ vocal, so I activate the Bass Mode to get a more pronounced low-end. It works nicely, accentuating the bass but not making it overbearing, as other headphones like Beats’ Studio Pro sometimes do. The difference isn’t that dramatic but I still prefer the more balanced clarity of the default Hi-Fi mode — and the low-end is still impressively deep on this mode. The same can be said for Glory Box, which expertly articulates the low end while letting the vocal and backline shine.

Details on the DALI IO-12 earpiece

I’m comparing the IO-12s here with Sendy Audio’s Aiva headphones, Beats’ Studio Pro, and the Nuraphone, all of which are more affordable but have different USPs. I’ll spare you the details — the IO-12s sound the best — only slightly, though: the Aiva’s sound slightly harsher but are still as powerful in the lows and mids; the Nuraphone (sadly discontinued) sound pretty damn close with excellent balance and stereo width; Beats’ Studio Pro simply can’t deliver the same stereo image and clarity in the high end as the IO-12s.

The IO-12s most striking experience, though, is just how enveloped you are in the music. Completely isolated from the outside world and hearing new elements in your favourite songs is exactly what you’d expect from a pair of headphones like this. Although the actual sound quality isn’t drastically better than some other pairs, the listening experience somehow feels way more enjoyable.

DALI IO-12 connectivity options

You’ll be pleased with the various connections the DALI IO-12s offer. Bluetooth makes them fairly universal, and they boast effective multi-point connectivity so you can automatically switch between playback devices.

The battery life will keep you going for up an impressive 35 hours, sitting just above the battery life of competing headphones.

Meanwhile, an 3.5mm jack port and cable lets you plug into the aux socket of any other devices for hi-fi wired listening with 24-bit/96kHz resolution. Best of all, they use USB-C for hi-fi listening on your laptop or phone.

DALI IO-12 headphones on a stand
DALI IO-12 headphones on a stand

Lastly, other reviewers have bemoaned the lack of a companion app. This means no tweaking the sound profile of the IO-12s. This is an odd omission from DALI, but it’s also a treat to not be forced to download and tinker with an app before you can start listening to music, only to open said app once every few weeks. But this will definitely be a deal-breaker for those who love to get precise with their EQing.

Are the DALI IO-12s comfortable?

Time to get real about the fit of these headphones. They are big. The earpads are almost comically large and straight out of a 70s sci-fi movie. To my eyes, they aren’t as street-cool as headphones by Beats or Bose, but maybe you’re a fan.

Happily, the design has a purpose — these headphones are supremely comfortable and easily adjustable to your head. They’re also surprisingly light, considering their size, weighing 14g less than the AirPods Max. Also, the secure fit also ensures optimal noise cancelling. Before you even activate ANC (which is excellent), you’ll notice an awesome amount of isolation thanks to the snug cups.

DALI IO-12 headphones case
DALI IO-12 headphones case

To keep these safe, DALI has included a robust but soft carry case. Still, the size of the headphones and case means I struggle to take them out and about with me in a bag. Not that you’ll want to take them out of the house regularly, anyway.

Are the DALI IO-12 really worth it?

On the price: £999 is prohibitive. But are they worth it? Almost. The headphones are missing a few crucial features to make them the ultimate long-term purchase that they could be.

Without spatial audio and lossless Bluetooth, the IO-12s aren’t future-proof. Maybe these downsides seem minor, but you’ll want to use them for your home entertainment listening — these are £999 and spatial audio is a nice touch for watching movies, so why not at least have the option? And, if you’re serious about sound, why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of the lossless Bluetooth codec, made available in 2022? I’d wager you’ll want to swap these headphones in two to three years as more mid-tier audiophile headphones incorporate such technologies.

DALI IO-12 headphones on a stand displayed on a shelf
DALI IO-12 headphones on a stand displayed on a shelf

Plus, the bulky design means you can’t really take these out of the house with you for exercise and short commutes. And, at £999, why risk it? A pair that’s £300-400 less could give you more freedom and only a slightly lesser performance.

A close competitor is Focal’s Bathys headphones, which are £699 and sound excellent — not as detailed as the IO-12s, but still better than the likes of AirPods Max. If the IO-12s were £799, they’d be a strong recommendation if you’re looking for a reliable pair for at-home listening. £999 prices a lot of us out.

Should you buy the DALI IO-12s?

I love the sound of these headphones. I love how comfortable they are. I even love the voice assistant. But they’re tough to recommend when considering the alternatives.

It’s a shame that DALI hasn’t included spatial audio and lossless wireless listening. It’s a shame that they’re so big. And it’s a shame that they are priced so high. Yes, other audiophile headphones, such as Meze Audio’s Elite, could set you back an eye-watering £3,749. But their audience is defined and bespoke: purist audiophiles seeking a best-in-class wired listening experience. As the IO-12s attempt to straddle two worlds, they ultimately serve very few listeners.

But, honestly, if you have the cash or manage to find a deal on them, they’re worth considering if you want a reliable pair for flexible at-home listening and long commutes. They really do sound exceptional.

Learn more at DALI-speakers.com

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