Despite my positive reviews, I’m not a fan of Bluetooth headphones. Don’t get me wrong: even an old curmudgeon like myself can see the convenience afforded by wireless audio, but I’m not about to let go of my wired cans anytime soon.
My view basically boils down to the fact that I’m not comfortable with choosing convenience over reliability and quality… ever. Bluetooth headphones are often the disposable point and shoot of audio, the K-cup machine, the IKEA living room set. Sure, all those things appear to get the job done: but well? Not often.
I’m the dinosaur that still shoots with a full-frame DSLR. I roast my own coffee because I refuse to pay more for burnt beans. And if I need furniture: I build it out of mahogany, oak, or birch. Maybe you don’t have a lot in common with my worldview, but I think it’s pretty clear that the older, wired designs are still superior to wireless. At least, for now.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on August 18, 2021 to add relevant links, update for style.
1) Wired headphones perform better than Bluetooth headphones
This one’s a gimme: Bluetooth simply doesn’t have the bandwidth or the performance ceiling to keep up with the best wired headphones. That’s not to say that all wired headphones are better than all Bluetooth headphones. Oh no. That just means that the performance ceiling—and floor—is much, much higher. Ever wonder why the most high-end headphones out there are all wired monstrosities chained to amps? It’s because Bluetooth can’t hack higher quality audio as well as wired cans can.
This may change in the future with advances in battery design and Bluetooth technology. Heck, it may even change with the most recent update to Bluetooth 5. Still, in order to have a set of Bluetooth headphones that competes with, say, a Sennheiser HD800, you’d need a strong neck to support a monster battery, good shielding, and a very loose definition of “competing.” Even though there are some really awesome Bluetooth headphones out there (see: Sony WH-1000XM3, Shure AONIC 50): those are the exception, not the rule.
Bluetooth does a really great job at transmitting “good enough” music for commuters, and that’s great—but when engine noise and other sounds mask out lots of notes in your music, it’s a pretty low bar to clear. Though most people can’t really tell the difference between a FLAC file and an MP3 file at 320kbps, the point here is that Bluetooth’s ceiling is merely at that point; the actual average performance is a bit lower. MP3 compression may be able to maximize quality by deleting out sound we can’t hear, but you can definitely tell when you lose quality after a certain point.
In the future, wireless audio will easily beat the crap out of our current wired headphones where audio quality is concerned via digital audio transmission. However, that day isn’t today: and if you really want the best of digital audio, you need a cable—be it USB-C, Lightning, XLR, or preferably your standard 3.5mm.
2) Batteries are inconvenient and wasteful
Having yet another battery to charge is, in my professional opinion, an unacceptable pain in the ass. It’s also very bad for the environment!
Why on earth would you limit yourself that way, especially with the main instrument you use in situations like an airplane trip? You might find yourself without access to power, and welp: you’re outta luck. Sorry about that! While battery tech is getting better, there’s always that point where a cell will stop charging. When that happens, you need to be able to change out the battery—but almost no headphones allow that anymore. At this point, your headphones are dead. Unless your headphones have an active noise-cancelling unit, this isn’t an issue for wired models.
That doesn’t even touch upon the issue that true wireless earphones in particular are strong drivers of e-waste. If you’ve ever had a set of true wireless earphones break on you, did you do the research to find the proper recycling facility, or did you just throw them away? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
3) You’re paying extra when you don’t need to
Bluetooth headphones in general are undeniably convenient when you discount the headaches associated with having to charge the damn thing. However, when you’re paying $50-100 more for the same set of headphones—and the wired version works just as well—you may want to just save the money to spend on better things.
Better things include:
- A good number of café trips
- Putting it into a Roth IRA
- Spring for a better streaming service
- Investing in a better phone
- Buying new music
- Showing that special someone you care
- A good steak or bottle of scotch
Everyone has that point where the extra cash is worth it for the convenience, but truthfully not everyone can throw around cash willy-nilly. Students, for example, should really be doing whatever they can to maximize their “textbook” budget—and $50 buys a lot of really cheap beer. While it’s tempting to really tee off on Apple right about now, I’m going to hold back because luxury products aren’t something you buy when you’re looking to save money. If you’re seriously considering the AirPods Max, cost is not really something I imagine you care too much about.
4) “Wireless” isn’t always a durability feature
In theory, the ability to ditch the wire—the most delicate and oft-broken part of any headphone anywhere—is a positive for durability and safety. And Bluetooth headphones seem to be the logical fulfillment of that idea. However, this problem can be side-stepped if headphone manufacturers use a removable cable. To wit, V-Moda, Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, Beats, Bose… and pretty much all of the major headphone companies use a removable cable on many of their non-Bluetooth headphones.
But that doesn’t even address the other part of this issue: adding a battery and other sensitive electronics adds another point of failure. Ever drop a set of headphones or knock it off a table? I sure have. Ever stuff them in a bag and subsequently toss the bag onto a hard surface? Guilty. Banging around your Bluetooth headphones probably won’t kill them, but there’s more to break inside. If one of the solder points shatters, if the electronics break, or if—God forbid—the battery pulls a Note 7 on you: your headphones will die.
Wired headphones aren’t impervious to breakage, but they’re definitely much simpler (and cheaper) to fix with the right design.
Now for the kill shot: Bluetooth just isn’t as reliable as a directly-wired connection, and that’s a big deal.
As with most machines, adding a link in the chain will often introduce potential points of failure, and Bluetooth headphones in particular add a point where the connection is subject to external factors not applicable to wired ones. Lots of things can affect whether your headphones will work the way you’ve come to expect them to, and the crappier Bluetooth headphones seem to consult a pantheon of frustration gods to decide how they’re going to piss you off on any given day.
Being in a room with too many other Bluetooth devices can affect your headphones, as can bad software. Maybe your phone is too old and your new headphones will only use an SBC profile instead of the A2DP or aptX you were promised. Maybe you’ll suffer packet loss for no discernible reason, and your music skips. There’s lots that can go wrong with a wireless connection.
Wired headphones don’t skip occasionally, nor are they hard to use with your phone (assuming it has a jack). They don’t have trouble when there’s lots of other Bluetooth devices around, and they won’t default to a lower-quality standard of connection if your source is 2-3 years old. They may not be glamorous, but wired headphones are extremely reliable. They don’t have lots of points of failure, they’re cheap to fix, and they work.
For the above reasons and many more: wired headphones will always be king in my eyes.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you are being prompted for a Bluetooth PIN for pairing, try 0000. This is the default used by a few manufacturers. If it doesn't work, search for your specific earbud model online.
Good question! That can vary wildly from headset to headset, as using the wired option will substitute the headphones' internal DAC/power source for the one from the wired source, which might nor work as well for the headphones. In theory it shouldn't make a huge difference, but in practice we've seen it happen a few times. For most wireless headsets with wired options, it seems like the wired functionality is put in as an afterthought. Wired-only headsets, on the other hand, are purpose built for one thing only: wired listening. So in general they'll be better than Bluetooth headsets. However, the difference between the two is not as earth-shattering as you might think.