The Buckles have a lot going for them: A unique design, sturdy parts, a comfortable fit, and decent audio quality. That's not to say there aren't any drawbacks. In our lab tests I found the headphones drastically under-emphasized musical elements and bass distortion, which is a shame given how pricey these are.
While they're not the créme de la créme of high-end audio—you can find our favorites for about the same price—the Buckles are only around $146 online. Even beyond pure price vs. performance considerations, the design alone is a breath of fresh air compared to the mass of anonymous all-black over-ears that clutter the market.
A heavy-duty design that's nevertheless quite comfortable
You might not be crazy about the "belt buckle" look, but there's no denying it's unique. The sturdy brown band is lined with neat stitching along either side, joining the ear-cups via boxy silver buckles made of a cool-to-the-touch, matte-finished metal. The ear cups are backed in brown plastic that transitions into cushy, creme-colored pads. It's a wholly unique look unlike any other headphones on the market.
The build quality is obvious from their sturdy design and firm clamping force, but with all that hardware the Buckles do stray a little onto the heavy side. They're comfortable despite this, though, and even after an hour of listening I'm happy they're on my head. But over a long-haul flight or similar long-term listening session the weight difference compared to something like the Sony MDR-7506 is notable. You'll also never forget that you're wearing them, like you can with the lighter Sony cans.
The Buckle make use of a detachable brown cable that's wrapped in heavy-duty rubber. The flex point at the jack is especially well-protected; it's one of the sturdiest I've seen this year and it screams durability. In the box you'll also find a 3.5mm to quarter-inch adapter and a cream-colored carrying pouch with a leather pull cord.
Many new headphones feature a three-button controller somewhere along the cable, but these have a round, grooved selector on the back of the right ear cup instead. The selector mimics a traditional controller: Push it to take/end calls or skip through tracks in a playlist, and roll it up/down to change volume. It's a unique approach, but it's a little esoteric and will require some getting used to.
When dealing with any speaker, the frequency response is a measurement of how that speaker emphasizes each note from the deepest bass to the highest treble. During our frequency response test, we feed a frequency sweep at 78 dB into our Head-and-Torso simulator, which then spits out an illustration of a headphones' frequency response.
One reason I say that the Buckles present a subtle soundscape is precisely because of their frequency response. Given a static 78 dB tone, the Buckles boost sub-bass very gently to about 82 dB, but by 400 Hz are already mildly under-emphasizing those bass tones at about 72 dB. Emphasis continues to drop, falling as low as 59 dB by 4kHz, over 20 dB quieter than the sub-bass frequencies.
This bass-forward emphasis lacks the sibilant "punch" of brighter mids and trebles, but it isn't a bad sound. The only drawback is that upper mid-range frequencies that sometimes rely on that harsher sound to break through to the forefront are obscured, so that music tends to lose some of its former edginess when played back through the Buckles.
Strong overall performance, but with a couple of flaws
The Buckles sound good, but they're not perfect. Music receives subtle treatment, with gentle emphasis on bass and treble tones. There's a good amount of clarity and balance between high, mid, and low frequencies, but harder-to-hear elements in the upper-mid range are under-emphasized, making them almost invisible to the ear. This drop in emphasis is the only real flaw in the audio quality, and it'll be pretty hard to hear unless you're attempting professional studio mixing.
Likewise, I measured very little by way of audible distortion, though the deepest bass elements don't always come out entirely clean. For the price, we'd prefer if the Buckles had no distorted notes or clipped frequencies, but it's a minor problem. Likewise, the Buckles exhibit unevenness in the volume balance between each speaker. Some notes are louder in the left speaker than the right, and vice versa. Neither of these issues are huge problems, but they're flaws that plenty of $200 headphones manage to avoid.
For over-ear headphones, I'm impressed with how little sound the Buckles leak. I've been blasting everything from Metallica to Daft Punk to Rush while reviewing these cans, and none of my co-workers have asked me to turn it down or seem to be judging my musical selections. Despite their excellent lack of leakage, though, the Buckles don't block noise on the level of active cancelers or in-ear style headphones. You'll still hear most of the outside world around you, though really high-pitched stuff is dampened considerably.
Overall, this is decent performance, but it'll only blow you away if you're not familiar with high-end audio. Amongst the upper echelon of consumer-level over-ear headphones the Buckles sound pleasantly subtle, but at a small cost to finer details.
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) refers to the presence of clipped harmonics and poorly reproduced bass sometimes present in music due to the natural mechanical defaults in a speaker or set of headphones. Almost all speakers or headphones suffer from some amount of distortion, but the ideal amount is 3% THD or less.
For the most part, the Buckles fall within the ideal threshold. We measured THD peaking above 3% between around 35 and 70 Hz, which is a hard-to-hear area in the sub-bass range. For the price (about $200), we'd like to see THD below 3% across the entire frequency spectrum, but this isn't an overly negative result, either.
Not just another notch on your belt
The Polk Audio Buckles feature a design that is a welcome departure from the norm, and the company has clearly combined its knowledge of free-standing speakers with an eye for design and detail.
The sound quality here is certainly not audiophile-grade, but it's hardly something worth complaining about. Subtle bass presentation and flat mid-tone emphasis make for a healthy balance between musical layers—if it weren't for the under-emphasis of mid-high range notes, this would be blue-ribbon sound.
On the design side, everything's win-win. The Buckles are heavier than the average over-ears, but they make up for it with incredibly durable, high-quality materials and a unique look that's unlike anything else on the market. Just know that you're paying a small markup for the design, with some cheaper over-ears on the market outpointing the Buckles on audio quality.
In the end, these are a fine choice if you like the style, don't mind spending a bit more than is absolutely necessary, and aren't obsessed with perfect audio fidelity. Sure, it might feel a little bit weird to wear a belt on your head, but don't knock it 'til you've tried it.
On the front page, I mentioned that the Buckles exhibited mild discrepancies between the volume of the left and right speakers. We determine this result using our Head-and-Torso simulator to analyze the volume of each frequency as its plays back through both speaker channels. Ideally, frequencies will play at the same volume from both channels, but many headphones exhibit small (usually imperceptible) errors.
The Buckles are one such pair—they tend to sway between the left and right speaker channels by between 2 and 4 dB, which is hardly enough for human ears to notice, but could still be audible for certain content types, like podcasts. There is a swing of about 8 dB just around 9.5kHz, but this is such a high frequency that you'd almost never notice.
Meet the tester
Editor, Home Theater@Koanshark
Lee has been Reviewed's point person for most television and home theater products since 2012. Lee received Level II certification in TV calibration from the Imaging Science Foundation in 2013. As Editor of the Home Theater vertical, Lee oversees reviews of TVs, monitors, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers. He also reviews headphones, and has a background in music performance.
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