You heard us right: your ears are probably too old and broken down to hear the difference in audio quality over Bluetooth headphones… even though Bluetooth is objectively inferior in every way to wired listening.
While Bluetooth is by no means as good as wired audio—and we’ve expended several articles on the subject—the types of errors and deficiencies introduced by the wireless standard are largely inaudible. I say this, because most people in the US physically can’t hear the levels of noise or frequency cutoffs in Bluetooth because they are too old to hear them.
You don’t have golden ears
One of the most persistent myths in audio is that lots of people have what’s called “golden ears,” or the notion that one has perfect hearing. Though many sites list the limits of human hearing as 20Hz to 20kHz, the truth is that you probably can’t hear that anymore. Most people hear a significantly narrower range of sounds than that.
In order to have said golden ears, you have to have undamaged, extremely young ears. Even if you avoid concerts, never get an ear infection, or somehow avoid noise-induced hearing loss—by age 24 you’ll start to lose your high-frequency hearing as your stereocilia start to fall out. It’s just a fact of life: it happens. If someone in their 50s tells you they can hear above 18kHz, they’re trying to sell you something. Try it for yourself!
This isn’t some debilitating condition, and in all likelihood your hearing is far worse than you think. But the upside is this: if you haven’t noticed it until now, it’s not so bad, right?
Beyond that, you have to realize Bluetooth headphones need to appeal to an extremely broad market of people that has varying stages of hearing loss. If we accept that anti-teen loitering devices that play a 17.5kHz tone is an effective way to sort hearing ability of humans, then a generous read of the population should put our critical age of 24 as the cutoff for 18kHz and above. Let’s take a look at how many people in the US are above that age.
There’s almost twice as many people older than 24 than there are younger than 24. Considering that almost 70 percent of the population can’t hear over 18kHz, some of those high-frequency cutoffs start making more sense, especially when cutting those frequencies out means less noise. Of course, hearing ability varies from person to person, so be sure to test it for yourself. You shouldn’t be surprised when you can’t hear 20kHz.
You may hear noise
Now this isn’t to say that you can’t hear a difference, but you probably won’t—at least not in a way that’s going to make your music sound worse. However, if you really crank your tunes, you’ll start to hear noise from Bluetooth headphones that you wouldn’t normally be subjected to.
This is the one major advantage that wired listening has when you’re old and busted like I am. If you’re really rocking out, every single available codec will wash your ears in more noise than wired headphones would. If your headphones use AAC, like Apple’s AirPods or wireless Beats headphones, you can expect noise to cross the threshold of audibility if you push your headphones up over 80dB. That’s pretty loud, but it’s not so ear-shattering as to be an uncommon listening level.
But it still hammers the point home that Bluetooth headphones are objectively worse than wired listening. You’re not getting CD-quality sound, you’re just getting music that’s just a little better than you might be able to hear.
As much as you may think that the best products will always win out, the fact remains that with a higher margin on Bluetooth headphones and the quality downsides are near-inaudible to the target demographics: it’s no surprise that the headphone jack lost the format war for personal audio.
If you wanted to maximize profits, you’d go after a high-margin product, right? Or would you try for a cheap product at scale? Well, the current economics show that Bluetooth headphones are insanely profitable compared to wired headsets.
It’s no surprise then, that the age groups with the most money to reach for those insanely expensive headphones are in the “can’t hear above 18kHz” crowd. If the bulk of your income is coming from people who won’t know (or care) about ultra-high frequencies, it’s a logical corner to cut. It’s very similar to how the whole MP3 encoding works, so why not keep running with a good thing?