Planning on buying wireless headphones? Here’s what you need to know about price, form, technical specs, and more.
In 2016, Apple removed the headphone jack from the iPhone. Companies such as Google, Motorola, and HTC quickly followed. Wireless headphones, which were previously considered niche, were suddenly thrust into the mainstream.
However, purchasing Bluetooth headphones can be perplexing. Each model works differently, from sound quality to setup. Let’s get started because there’s a lot to learn.
Wireless Headphones Types
Bluetooth headphones are most likely what come to mind when you think of wireless headphones (there are even truly wireless earbuds now). If your phone lacks a headphone jack, Bluetooth is your best option for music listening.
You could also use a USB-C headphone dongle. That’s a messier solution, and it gets worse if you also need to charge your phone.
Bluetooth is convenient because it is supported by all mobile devices and an increasing number of other electronic devices. It has a range of about 32 feet and uses very little energy.
It’s also rapidly improving as a result of the decision to eliminate headphone jacks.
There are a few other, older wireless headphone technologies that are still in use. Both are primarily used for television and require a separate transmitter. Infrared is becoming increasingly rare, and requires a direct line of sight connection between the headphones and transmitter.
Radio frequency, as seen in Sennheiser RS120 products, is more powerful.
It has a range of up to 150 feet and the signal can pass through walls, making it suitable for use with both a home stereo and a television. However, it is susceptible to interference and is not as secure as Bluetooth.
Bluetooth is now standard on many modern televisions. If yours does not, you can easily add a Bluetooth transmitter.
Bluetooth and Audio Quality
The audio codec used by your Bluetooth headphones determines the sound quality. The codec is a piece of software that encodes and decodes audio at both ends. It must be supported by both your audio player and your headphones.
Early Bluetooth versions compressed audio heavily, resulting in a harsh, digital sound.
The introduction of the advanced audio distribution profile kicked off the movement to improve quality (A2DP). This enabled the SBC codec to stream high-quality stereo audio. It is now effectively the norm.
SoundExpert, an audio quality testing site, concluded in 2014 that SBC was comparable to an AAC file encoded at 192Kbps at its highest possible bitrate of 372Kbps, and that “most artefacts it produces are beyond human perception.” However, because it is mostly used at lower bitrates, it isn’t always of the highest quality.
aptX is the next step up. This codec is supported by the majority of Android devices released in the last few years. It provides “CD-like” performance with a bitrate of 352Kbps and low latency. This makes use of compressed audio.
Even better is aptX HD, which is a high-definition upgrade to the original aptX formula. It’s still compressed, but it has a much higher bitrate of 576Kbps and lower latency.
aptX HD is supported by a small but growing number of devices, including the Galaxy Note 9, OnePlus 5T, and LG V30. It requires specific hardware, so there is no way to upgrade if your device does not support it.
Apple’s iPhone and iPad do not support aptX. Instead, it employs AAC, an improved variant of SBC. It has a lower bitrate (256Kbps), but codec efficiencies make it comparable to, if not better than, aptX. Using AAC-compatible headphones with an AAC source (such as Apple Music) reduces sound quality degradation.
We’ve already discussed latency, which is a major issue with Bluetooth headphones.
Latency is the short period of time between when an audio signal is sent and when you can hear it. When listening to music, you won’t notice it, but when watching a video or playing a game, it can cause the sound to be out of sync with the picture. As a result, wireless headsets designed specifically for gaming are available. If you don’t want to spend too much money on one of these, budget gaming headsets are available for less than $25.
Latency varies depending on the hardware and software configurations. When compared to older codecs, aptX HD has significantly lower latency. Apple’s use of AAC in the AirPods has reduced it to barely audible levels.
Wireless Headphone Battery Life
Bluetooth headphones are powered by a built-in rechargeable battery.
Over-ear Bluetooth headphones have a large battery that can be charged with a USB cable. Battery life should be between 20 and 30 hours—-the JBL Everest, for example, promises up to 25 hours.
The battery life of Bluetooth earbuds is limited. Those that use a cable to connect the two buds typically provide around eight hours of battery life and charge via a USB cable. True wireless earbuds, in which both parts are separate, have a battery life of three to five hours. They each come with their own charging case. This also keeps the charge charged when the buds are not in use.
Keep in mind that volume levels have an impact on battery life. The longer the battery lasts, the louder the music. On manufacturers’ spec sheets, battery life quotes tend to reflect ideal conditions rather than real-world use.
Connecting Bluetooth Headphones
Connecting Bluetooth headphones to a phone or other device can be as simple as plugging them in, or it can be extremely difficult.
The W1 chip in some Apple headphones has reduced pairing time to three seconds. Open the AirPods case (or press a button on the side of select Beats headphones), then tap an onscreen prompt to finish.
Android 6.0 and later include a similar quick system called Fast Pair, though headset support is currently limited.
NFC is used by some headphones to speed up pairing. This is a wireless technology that allows devices to communicate with one another by keeping them close to one another.
When used in conjunction with an NFC-enabled device, such as many Android smartphones but not the iPhone, the headphones can be paired with the device by simply tapping them against it.
If none of this works, you must manually pair your headphones. This entails going to your device’s Bluetooth settings, pressing a button on the headphones, and entering a passcode when prompted (usually 0000). It is slower and more laborious, so you may need to consult the manual to get it right.
Wireless Headphone Remote Controls
Wired headphones frequently have a remote on the cable, but Bluetooth headphones do not.
Instead, they incorporate some basic controls as well as a microphone into one of the earpieces. This could be done with buttons or touch sensors. It could also be a voice control activation button.
A double tap on the AirPods launches Siri. From there, you can control your music with commands like “Turn volume up” or “Skip track.”
Bluetooth headphones from companies like Bose and Sony work in the same way as Google Assistant. Jabra is one of the companies that supports Amazon’s Alexa.
When purchasing or keeping new headphones, you should always test the accessibility of the controls. The aesthetics of button design and layout are sometimes more important than practicality. They’re not always easy to find just by touch, especially if you’re in a gym.
Size and Form Factor
Wireless headphones are available in three basic styles: over-ear, on-ear, and in-ear. The first two look and function similarly to their wired counterparts. The latter, however, is quite different.
True wireless earbuds follow a recent trend in the in-ear format. Unlike earlier models, which had the two buds connected by a cable that wrapped around the back of your neck, many models now do not have wires at all.
The transition began with Apple’s AirPods. Most manufacturers are now on board, including Sennheiser, Bose, B&O, Samsung, and others. The Jabra Elite 65t is regarded as one of the best in-ear earbuds available.
All of these operate on the same principle: they come with a charging case that extends your play time. But there are some issues. Because latency can be an issue, they aren’t all suitable for video. The battery life is reduced to up to five hours. They cost more than wired earbuds. And their small size makes them easier to misplace.
However, they are unrivalled in terms of portability and convenience. The price is also excellent—-see the best wireless headphones under $100.