Great noise canceling and a nice mix of features are offset by finicky fit and average sound quality
I remember when SOUL Electronics first hit the market as another celebrity-driven headphone brand, a la Beats. That was over ten years ago, and back then, they were known as SOUL by Ludacris, a nod to the hip-hop star who was the face of the brand.
Now, the company is simply known as SOUL, and they primarily concentrate on making both stylish and affordable wireless headphones. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard one of their products, so when I was offered a pair for review, I was curious to see how their headphones sounded today.
The company sent out their Emotion MAX Active Noise Cancelling Over-Ear Headphones, which retail for $119 and is one of the least expensive ANC headphones we have reviewed.
SOUL promises that these headphones deliver a “perfect blend of optimal sound quality, the latest technology, and extreme comfort,” so I plan to check them out and see if they deliver in these aspects. I also wish to see what type of active noise-canceling performance you can get at this price.
Disclaimer: The review unit I have on hand is provided by SOUL in exchange for our evaluation. No input has been given regarding the content contained within.
The Emotion MAX is nothing fancy when it comes to Build, but it still manages to look pretty stylish with its sleek profile and minimalistic matte finish. The metallic logo plates on the earcups also add a touch of class. We got the Dark Blue pair, which I liked, but Black and Beige versions are available if Blue is not your thing.
Despite the heavy use of plastics, which are used just about everywhere except for the strip of metal reinforcing the headband, they feel pretty sturdy. In addition, the plastic frame makes them ridiculously lightweight (209g), so much you barely feel them when picking them up.
There are no elaborate touch controls, just three buttons along the rear of the left earcup, which control volume, play/pause, track skip, ANC, and power. This should be no surprise when talking about full-size headphones at such a low price point.
That said, the buttons are nicely laid out and easy to reach. Their operation is also very straightforward, which is more than I say for some touch control schemes.
The ANC on/off switch works independently of the overall power on/off switch, so it’s possible to turn the majority of headphone functions off while noise-canceling remains on. This is good if you want to use ANC while listening on the wire. That said, if you forget to turn both switches off before you put away the headphones, it will impact battery life.
Comfort-wise, the lack of swivel and short extension on the earcups adversely affected my fit, and I found it hard to make them fit comfortably on my big head.
The cushiony earpads (both sets) helped a bit, but overall, the headphones felt a bit too small. If your head is smaller than mine, YMMV. I just wish there was some type of adjustment on the earcups; I think it would help a lot.
As mentioned above, these headphones come with two sets of earpads, one pre-installed protein leather pair, and a breathable mesh pair made to keep your ears cool during active use. Both sets are soft and provide sufficient cushioning for long-term wear, as long as you can deal with the Max’s tighter than average clamp.
Inside the cups are 40mm drivers, which is basically the standard (or optimum) size for over-ear headphones, and the headphones have bass ports on the side of the earcups, which are supposed to even out the bass response.
On the bottom of the earcups is the 3.5mm jack for the included headphone cable for wired use and a USB-C connector for the included USB-C to USB-A charging cable. The Emotion MAX is rated for 24 hours of playback with ANC on and 38 hours with ANC off, which is good, especially at the price point.
By the way, these headphones do fold up into a relatively small bundle, making them easy to stash in the included cloth carrying pouch.
Charging time is about 3 hours for a full charge, but a 10-minute fast charge will give you about 1.5 hours of playback in a pinch.
Bluetooth 5.0 is on deck, making long battery life and extended range (33ft from the source) possible. You also get multipoint connection so you can connect to two source devices (i.e., a phone and tablet) at the same time. Additionally, you get aptX and AAC BT audio codecs for enhanced sound quality, which again is nice for the price.
When it comes to Active Noise Cancellation technology, the dual microphone version used on the Emotion MAX is quite impressive. To be honest, it was much better than I expected for a $120 headphone. I’ve heard $300 headphones that didn’t match up to these.
The SOUL ANC did a good job of cutting out the vast majority of background environmental noise (like HVAC systems, train noise, etc.) without adding a lot of hiss.
It didn’t do as well with voices, but it still did an admirable job there, reducing their volume considerably. Overall, the performance was quite good. In reality, you have to move up to $350 plus headphones for optimum performance in this area. Our favorite in this regard is the $349 Technics EAH-A800.
Conversely, I wasn’t as impressed with the Emotion MAX’s Transparency mode, which sounded quite weak in comparison to the noise-canceling mode. It didn’t bring in much outside noise at all, and what it did bring in was quite muffled.
Another thing to note is the lack of a companion app for EQ and codec adjustments, amongst other things. This is forgivable based on what these headphones cost, but it is something you come to expect with wireless headphones nowadays.
Sound quality-wise, I find the Emotion MAX to be adequate for casual listening at work or during a commute, possibly a trip to the gym. If you’re looking for audiophile-level sonics, you won’t get it here. Nevertheless, they do have some good things going for them, like a relatively clear midrange and some decent detail up top.
Listening to Mary Halvorson’s new Belladonna album, I was impressed by the nuance and realism given to the group of string instruments. They sounded beautiful through the Emotion MAX, even if there was just a little bit of edge in the upper mids. I did, however, find them to sound a little closed in due to a fair amount of treble roll-off.
On the new Dance Fever album by Florence + the Machine, again the mids sounded pretty natural, with the drums and vocals sounding quite engaging despite a little edge in the upper midrange. That said, there was not a lot of soundstage or separation between the elements of the mix, and the bass, while weighty, was a little loose.
That brings me to my main issue with the Emotion MAX’s sound, and that would be the low end. When you play music with a lot of bass, it isn’t that well-controlled, which makes things sound somewhat muddy. For example, when I played “Rock N Roll” from the new Pusha T album, the bass became distorted and bled into the vocals, throwing off the whole tonal balance.
The Wrap Up
In conclusion, I found the $120 SOUL Emotion Max to make good on its promise of providing the latest technology, but not so much on the optimal sound quality and extreme comfort fronts.
The Active Noise Cancelling is really good for the price, the multipoint Bluetooth connection is fast and stable, plus the controls are well laid out and easy to use. Battery life is also impressive.
On the other hand, because there is no swivel to the earcups, comfort will vary widely from person to person, and in addition, the sound quality is pretty average, even at the Emotion Max’s reasonable price point.
At the end of the day, if you’re primarily looking for inexpensive headphones with excellent noise-canceling for the price, then these may be right up your alley. Just keep in mind if you have a larger head, they may be a tight fit.
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I’m an audio writer who started as a young audio salesman/consumer electronics professional back in the late 90s. That’s where I discovered the magic of 2-Channel sound. My hunger for great sound has led me on a delightful music quest that continues today.