Despite my recent positive reviews, I’m not the biggest 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 make my own espresso drinks. 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.
1) Wired headphones perform better
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.” Though there are some really awesome Bluetooth headphones out there: 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 your standard 3.5mm.
2) Batteries are inconvenient
Title says it all: having yet another battery to charge is, in my professional opinion, an unacceptable pain in the ass.
Why on earth would you limit yourself that way, especially with the main instrument you use in situations like an airplane? 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 not all headphones allow that. At this point, your headphones are dead.
Unless your headphones have an active noise-cancelling unit, this isn’t an issue for wired models.
3) You’re paying extra when you don’t need to
Bluetooth headphones 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 cafe trips
- Putting it into a Roth IRA
- Investing in a better phone
- 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 what they can to maximize their “textbook” budget—and $50 buys a lot of really cheap beer.
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. 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 are still king in my eyes.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on Sept. 6, 2018 to add more information.
Frequently Asked Questions
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.