V-Moda S-80 on-ear headphones
“They’re gorgeous, but too expensive, heavy, and lacking in features.”
- Great design
- Top-notch materials
- Good sound quality
- Heavy and uncomfortable
- No ANC/transparency
- Mediocre battery life
- Speaker feature is underwhelming
It’s generally true that when it comes to headphones, you get what you pay for. As prices go up, you can expect better materials, better craftsmanship, more and better features, and better sound quality. That’s why V-Moda’s new S-80 wireless, on-ear headphones are so surprising. At $400, they cost as much as Sony’s WH-1000XM5, which we consider to be the best wireless headphones right now. At that price, the S-80 should be exceptional, but instead, they’re an oddity — a well-crafted but highly limited set of headphones that lean on a single idea for their appeal: when you twist the earcups outward, they become speakers that you can supposedly use for personal or small-group listening.
Is it possible that this one feature can justify such a lofty price? Here’s what we found.
What’s in the box?
Table of Contents
The S-80 come in a very nice, big box. Unfortunately, inside that box, you’ll simply find the headphones, a USB-A-to-USB-C charging cable, and V-Moda’s signature magnetic shields on the outside of the earcups, which I’ll explain in a moment. The big missing thing here, especially when you consider the price, is any kind of storage case or protection. Seriously, V-Moda doesn’t even provide a drawstring bag.
I have to hand it to V-Moda — the company has never failed to offer really good-looking headphones. The S-80 are quite striking in their minimalist design, with fully integrated, single-sided aluminum earcup pivots that extend up into the headband on tubular sliders. The headband itself is adorned with slash-cut aluminum endcaps, which give a truly sleek appearance. Our review unit featured a black/rose gold color combo (though frankly, it looks more like copper to me) but you can also get them in black/silver and white/silver combos.
V-Moda’s signature design element — the hexagonal earcups — are present and accounted for, though smaller than the company’s other models because of the on-ear design. It has also kept its other signature design feature — swappable outer earcup shields — but the S-80 has embraced the current trend to make everything magnetic. Instead of bolting the shields to the earcups with a series of tiny screws, they’re held in place by magnets. The company got the magnet balance just right: they’re powerful enough to keep the shields from becoming accidentally dislodged, but weak enough that you can pry them loose without needing a tool.
I’d love to be able to say that once you put them on, all of that weight magically goes away, but I can’t.
The same thing goes for the ear cushions, which are also magnetically latched, making them very easy to replace.
In short, the look splendid and the craftsmanship is top-notch. But there’s more to design than looks. The earcups fold flat, but there’s no secondary hinge. So unlike most of V-Moda’s other cans that offer the company’s clever Clique Fold hinges (dramatically decreasing their travel size), the S-80 remain really big when it comes time to stow them away.
Comfort, controls, and connections
If you were to guess how much the S-80 weigh, just by looking at them and comparing them to much larger, over-ear models, you’d be tempted to think they were quite light. Maybe not featherweight, but the word “heavy” wouldn’t be the first you’d pick to describe them. But they are, in fact, heavy. Crazy heavy. At 355 grams (12.5 ounces), they weigh far more than any other on-ear model you might be considering, including the Beats Solo Pro (9 ounces), Beats Solo 3 (7.5 ounces), or the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H8i (7.5 ounces). In fact, they weigh more than most over-ear models too.
I’d love to be able to say that once you put them on, all of that weight magically goes away — something that Apple’s very heavy AirPods Max (13.6 ounces) manage to mostly achieve. But it doesn’t, and I can’t. The headband simply isn’t wide enough or well-padded enough to distribute all that weight.
The three main control buttons are beautiful, but impractical.
The clamping force is considerable and tries valiantly to make up for all of that mass, but ultimately fails. The problem, as near as I can figure, is that most of the weight is concentrated in the headband, not the earcups or their supports. If you keep your head held high and don’t move around too much, it’s not intolerable, but the moment you lean forward, the headband makes a dive toward your face. In other words, they’re lousy for the gym and for workouts in general.
This is a shame, because the ear cushions are sumptuously padded, and should be very comfy. But that powerful clamping force adds a lot of pressure, making them a lot less cushy. If you wear glasses, as I do most of the time, you’ll be in pain within 20 minutes as that pressure sandwiches your glasses limbs between your ears and your head, like a vise. Perhaps because of that pressure, I found that my ears also got hot quickly — something that should be less of a problem with on-ears.
But what about when they’re just resting around your neck, with earcups pointed upward in “speaker” mode? They’re still ludicrously heavy, and you’ll grow tired of wearing them that way, but at least it’s more comfortable.
V-Moda continues to favor form over function when it comes to the controls on its wireless headphones. The three main control buttons (a multifunction button flanked by volume up/down buttons) sit atop the right earcup, where they’re mounted almost perfectly flush to the sloping edge. It’s beautiful, and completely impractical. Each button is very small and each has a raised icon so you can feel them with your index finger. Problem is, they all feel identical to your finger, and they’re so close together, it can be tricky to tell them apart in that moment when you reach up to pause your tunes or answer a call.
For a set of on-ear headphones, the S-80 sound very good.
They provide a decent click response when you press them, but there’s so little travel on the mechanism, it can be difficult to do double- or triple-presses. Still, all the functions you need are here: play/pause, track skip forward/back, call answer/end/reject, volume up/down, and voice assistant access. What you don’t get is any kind of auto-pause, because there are no wear sensors built into the earcups.
The power/Bluetooth pairing button on the bottom edge is just as finicky as the top controls, but at least you won’t be using it as often.
Bluetooth connectivity is strong and reliable, and you can pair up to two devices simultaneously thanks to multipoint support. Pairing is straightforward, but don’t expect any extra help as there’s no Google Fast Pair or Microsoft Swift Pair.
For a set of on-ear headphones, which can sometimes suffer from a lack of bass, the S-80 sound very good. There’s plenty of kick in the low end, good definition through the midtones, and decent if not crystal clear high frequencies.
I found that the ear cushions did a very good job of passively blocking external sounds (probably because of that clamping force I mentioned). The soundstage is narrow for a set of premium cans, which tends to place the music mostly inside your head, only peeking out for the most extreme stereo mixes. But even so, the S-80 compare well to the Bowers & Wilkins PX5, a now-discontinued set of $299 on-ear headphones.
V-Moda offers four EQ presets in its Headphone Editor app (an odd name given just how few edits you can actually make) — rock, pop, hip-hop, and jazz, and then lets you adjust the EQ manually using a five-band set of sliders. It will remember your adjustment, but you can’t save it under your own preset so you can try something else.
The S-80 support the AAC codec on iPhones and Android devices, as well as Qualcomm’s aptX HD on compatible Android phones. AptX HD does provide a small but noticeable improvement to overall fidelity.
In speaker mode, results are far more mixed. If you use them for personal listening, they can be kinda fun. Twisting the earcups into speaker position boosts the volume by what feels like 30% or so, but you can crank it louder if you like. Angle the earcups just right, and you can almost get a poor man’s spatial audio effect, with the sound feeling like it’s hovering all around you. V-Moda says “it envelops your space with vibrant sound,” — I wouldn’t go quite that far.
But as a group listening device, they’re mediocre at best — way worse than even the cheapest, $25 Bluetooth speaker you can buy on Amazon. Though they can get loud enough to be heard across a room (assuming the room is fairly quiet), there’s zero bass response. That isn’t surprising given that these are still headphone drivers. They’re simply being pushed to their absolute limit in terms of power.
And that’s the amusing (or maybe just sad) part about the S-80 when used as a so-called speaker. When I ran them side by side with my iPhone 11 in speaker mode, I actually found the iPhone did a better job. It’s a purely mono experience, versus the S-80’s stereo, but to get even a hint of that stereo imaging, you need to be sitting in the headphones’ sweet spot, which is a very small spot indeed.
Having sensors inside the hinges that automatically switch the drivers to speaker mode is handy, no doubt. But then V-Moda fails to keep that convenience going: if you set a volume level that works for speaker mode, it affects the volume for headphone mode too. This forces you to adjust the volume each time you mode switch, which defeats the benefit of having that sensor in the first place.
The S-80 deliver very good call quality in quiet locations, with zero wind. Your voice will sound full and natural and very easy for your callers to hear. It’s an ideal tool for doing Zoom or Teams calls while at a desk, indoors. Outdoors, it’s a totally different ball game.
Even the slightest breeze (or just the movement of air caused by running) will create a whooshing sound through the mics, and the moment there’s any competing sounds like traffic or a lot of loud conversation, your voice quality will suffer considerably.
There’s also no side-tone option for being able to hear your own voice more clearly.
V-Moda rates the S-80’s battery life at 20 hours when in headphone mode, and 10 hours when in speaker mode, but these will vary depending on the volume level you choose for each. Realistically, if you max out the volume on speaker mode, you’re probably looking at about eight hours or less.
While there are no other headphones with speaker mode to compare to, there are plenty of regular headphones that can support much longer play times, from 30 hours on the Sony WH-1000XM4/XM5 to 50 hours on the Jabra Elite 45h, a super lightweight $100 set of on-ears. It’s also worth noting that the S-80 don’t have a quick-charge feature.
At this price, far too much:
- No carry case
- No active noise cancellation
- No transparency mode
- No wear sensors
- No analog input (they’re wireless-only)
- No quick-charge
The V-Moda S-80 are an elegantly designed set of on-ear headphones that offer decent sound and superb craftsmanship. But their sky-high price, brutally heavy weight, and almost total lack of standard features like ANC make them a tough sell. Worse still, their signature twist-to-listen-out-loud feature just isn’t very impressive.
Is there a better alternative?
On-ear headphones are something of a rarity in the premium audio market, so finding another $400 set to compare the S-80s to has been a challenge. That said, I just don’t think there’s any reason to spend that much. For $300, you can get the Beats Solo Pro, which offer similar sound quality, have ANC and transparency, are lighter and more comfortable, and they fold up for easier storage. Like the S-80 though, they have no headphone jack.
But if you have $400 to spend and you really want an outstanding set of wireless headphones, look no further than the Sony WH-1000XM5. They’re better than the S-80 in every way but perhaps style.
On the other hand, why not save yourself a whack of Benjamins and buy the excellent and far more affordable $100 Jabra Elite 45h? They’re super comfy, have massive battery life and though they don’t sound quite as good, they get everything else right.
How long will they last?
The V-Moda S-80 are very well built. Super-sturdy and made from top-notch materials. But as wireless-only headphones, their useful life will be determined by their rechargeable battery. And since that starts at just 20 hours, and will conceivably drop to 50% of that capacity within a few years, you’ll probably be looking for new cans sooner rather than later.
V-Moda backs its wireless products with just a one-year warranty, so that might not help with longevity.
Should you buy them?
No. Despite their gorgeous looks and unique twist-to-listen-out-loud speaker system, there are plenty of wireless headphones that will cost less and perform better. Then you can spend that extra money on a real Bluetooth speaker.