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What makes a good set of wireless headphones?
When you think of all the gadgets and gizmos that get you through the day, a smartphone and laptop likely come to mind, but there’s one product that we use with little thought: wireless headphones. A good pair of wireless headphones is an invaluable tool in your everyday survival kit; it can quiet a train car, facilitate conference calls, or be a vehicle of escape from stress. Let’s go over how to find the best set of Bluetooth headphones for your lifestyle.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on June 20, 2021, to include new frequency response charts and expand upon technical information.
What type of wireless headphones do you want?
There are a few types of headphones to choose from, even within the confines of wireless technology. The main choices you have are between on-ear and over-ear headphones, but there even exist a pair of wireless open-back headphones. And it would be remiss of me to omit wireless earbuds and true wireless earbuds.
Wireless on-ear headphones
Bluetooth on-ear headphones are great for those with transient lifestyles who value sound quality and have little room to spare in their bags. Each ear cup houses a relatively large driver, which is good for bass reproduction. Despite the compact size of on-ear headphones, many boast impressive battery capacities like the Jabra Elite 45h.
Bluetooth over-ear headphones
If size isn’t a concern for you, go ahead and bump up to wireless over-ear headphones. These kinds of headphones occupy the most space, but they have their benefits too: extended playtime, accurate frequency response, and greater comfort. A wide variety of designs exist within the wireless headphones tree. You can get something classic and rugged like the Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT or something more modern and travel-friendly like the Sennheiser PXC 550-II.
True wireless earbuds
Listeners who want the most compact, portable, and convenient wireless headset should grab some true wireless earbuds. Each pair of true wireless earphones includes a protective carrying case, which doubles as a charging case (though this has its downsides, too). Totally wireless technology has matured over the years, and today there is a wide variety of options to accommodate a wide range of budgets. Whether your wallet empties at $50 or $100, you can easily find a good pair of earbuds.
Athletes gravitate towards this kind of headset because of the wire-free experience. There are plenty of durable options for exercise, many of which usually include important safety features like ambient aware mode or an open-type ear tip design. There even exist a host of noise cancelling true wireless earbuds, built for jet-setters, commuters, and coffee shop studiers alike.
Related: Best true wireless workout earbuds
Wireless earbuds were the go-to option before true wireless earbuds stole the show, and afford many of the same conveniences, but to a lesser extent. You might want to snag some neckband wireless earbuds instead of the true wireless alternative, because long-term battery degradation is less prevalent, and they’re usually more affordable. This kind of audio accessory is also great for athletes, and there are plenty of stellar options like the Beats Powerbeats and Jaybird X4.
What features make a pair of wireless headphones good?
Each person prioritizes headphone features differently; a frequent flyer might require noise cancelling, while a college student who attends most classes over Zoom may need headphones with a stellar microphone. No matter your needs, there are plenty of features to consider when you’re considering a pair of wireless headphones.
A Bluetooth headset is only as good as its battery life
Unlike wired headphones, which are powered solely by your smartphone, wireless headphones require their own source of power, and battery life varies across the board. Generally speaking, on-ear and over-ear headphones last much longer on a single charge than wireless and true wireless earbuds. Any wireless audio product with updated Bluetooth firmware will have improved battery life, as well. For instance, Bluetooth 5.1 is more energy-efficient than Bluetooth 4.2, though this won’t make a gigantic difference in battery life.
See also: What makes a good set of in-ears?
While standalone playtime is important, particularly for international flyers, another overlooked feature is fast charging. Fast charge technology tops up a headset to a certain capacity in short order. For a while, the standard quick charge rate was when 10 minutes of charging provided 60 minutes of playback. With improved technology, we’ve seen this rate increase quite a bit. OnePlus leads the pack with its WarpCharge tech, but brands like Sony and Samsung have efficient quick charge rates too. Not all Bluetooth headphones and wireless earbuds support quick charging, but most modern options do.
Office and remote workers get wireless headphones with a good microphone
More and more of us conduct our professional lives over conference call apps, which occasionally makes microphone quality a make-or-break feature. If you want the best microphone quality, you should look into a headset with an external boom mic: this is the best way to reduce the proximity effect. Listeners who want a more versatile, all-in-one setup still have plenty of wireless headphones with good mics to choose from though:
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (embedded microphone):
Corsair Virtuoso Wireless SE (external boom microphone):
Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro (embedded microphone):
Shure SM7B (XLR microphone):
Your phone determines what which Bluetooth codecs matter
If you don’t have the time or desire to learn about Bluetooth codecs, here’s the quick rundown of what you need to know: iPhone owners who want to stream high-quality audio should get Bluetooth headphones with AAC support. Android smartphone owners should get a pair of wireless headphones with aptX support; LDAC works too, but its high-res specifications fall short in real life.
Become an expert: Understanding Bluetooth codecs
Certain smartphone manufacturers have their own specialty Bluetooth codecs that operate similarly to aptX Adaptive. Take the Samsung Scalable Codec, which works with any Samsung Galaxy source device when it’s paired to a Samsung Galaxy Buds headset (Galaxy Buds, Galaxy Buds Plus, Galaxy Buds Live, or Galaxy Buds Pro).
A good mobile app keeps your headphones’ software up to date
Bluetooth earbuds and headphones are more than just a way to listen to our favorite rock songs, they’re an extension of our smartphones and include plenty of smart features to boot. When you buy a pair of Bluetooth headphones, particularly if it’s from a bigger brand, it likely has a companion app for you to download.
Apps like these range in functionality, but the most important thing they all have in common is that they let you access software and firmware updates. If you intend to use your headset for years to come, this is invaluable. Jabra added noise cancelling to its Elite 75t series true wireless earbuds via software update, and Bose updates its headsets with new features regularly.
Some headphone manufacturers limit access to updates by making it exclusive to proprietary hardware (like the AirPods and iPhones), but most companies have OS-agnostic apps. Be wary: headphones can act as a vehicle for companies to collect data about you. If you’re privacy-oriented, please read the terms and conditions of headphone apps before you download them.
Quality construction extends the life of your product
Construction quality is so obvious a feature that you might forget to take it into account looking at different headsets.
Good build quality matters: if you get a product with tenuous hinges, it’ll probably break the first time you chuck it into your overstuffed backpack. Plastic isn’t always indicative of poor quality—plenty of premium headsets use it. However, metal construction is more durable (and usually heavier, too).
Construction quality aside, another thing to look out for is an official durability rating which comes in the form of an Ingress Protection (IP) rating or MIL-STD-810G certification. Water-resistant headphones are hard to come by, but they’re around. If you want a premium pair of IPX4-rated headphones, check out the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Alternatively, we have an entire list of workout headphones for gym-goers. V-MODA makes nearly indestructible headsets, like the Crossfade 2 Wireless Codex Edition.
What feature is most important to you?
To immediately narrow down your search, set a budget
Whether you’re buying your first pair of Bluetooth headphones or are a proud audio enthusiast, any headphone purchase can be expensive. We have a whole host of best lists catered to specific budgets, going as low as $20, all the way up to $1,000. Most of you will fall somewhere in between, and a great sweet spot for Bluetooth headphones is $200. A handful of quality noise cancelling headphones retail for around $200, and plenty of non-noise cancelling headphones fall below this budget too. When you up it to $300, your world really opens up to the best that true wireless and consumer headphones have to offer.
We don’t want anyone to go into debt for a pair of Bluetooth headphones. Sure, expensive headphones can be worth it, but not at the expense of your credit score. If you feel comfortable sanitizing a pair of used headphones or earbuds, the secondhand market is a great way to stretch your dollar. If you have a healthier budget, you can spend a bit more and buy from a reputable vendor. When you purchase headphones from a place you trust, the company will likely cover the product with some kind of extended warranty, too.
What about technical specs like frequency response?
While it may seem like we’ve already covered a lot of ground, there are plenty of more technical concepts to cover. Audio purists should comb through frequency response charts to make sure a headset fits their needs. More often than not, this means a pair of headphones with a neutral-leaning sound signature, but highly accurate audio reproduction isn’t for everyone. In fact, most of us prefer a bit of bass and treble emphasis, at least when it comes to casual listening.
To make the most of the sound quality, proper isolation is key. You should make sure the headphones fit well. This is a bit more of a trial-and-error kind of thing, as everyone’s heads and ear canals are shaped differently—what seals well to my ears may not seal as well to yours. For over-ear options, it’s important to find a pair of headphones with ear cups that create a cogent seal around your ear (this is hard for bespectacled listeners). With earbuds, you want the ear tips seal to the entrance of your ear canals without causing an uncomfortable suction sensation.
That wraps up our wireless headphones seminar. Now when you shop for a pair of Bluetooth headphones, you’ll know how to cut through the marketing mumbo jumbo and identify what features are important to your needs. Now stop reading, and get back to listening!