We here at Addicted To Audio love headphones. And where possible, we prefer wired headphones. There are no communications compromises when copper is connecting source and speakers. That said, we also live in 2022 and understand the incredible utility and convenience of wireless headphones.
So, what should you look for in wireless headphones. Let’s dig in to ensure that you get headphones that work best for you.
What to consider with wireless headphones
First, do you want wireless headphones at all? Perhaps wireless earphones would better suit your requirements, what with their increased portability. Or if sound quality is the highest priority, how about high-quality wired headphones and a portable DAC for your device?
Of course, you’ll have already thought this through and have decided on wireless headphones. So let’s only consider the options for them.
Second, there’s audio quality. Where possible you ought to audition headphones. Sound preferences in headphones tend to be intensely personal, and what might sound superb for one person may seem quite irritating for another. Perhaps for you. Reviews can give you some guidance – you can see what we think about some models in our Review section – but again, you may well hear things differently from the way they’re heard by any particular reviewer.
However, one thing to do with audio quality that’s less subjective is the Bluetooth codec it uses. We’ll touch on those below, but the basic Bluetooth codec has been improved on by optional codecs such as AAC and aptX.
Third, there are practicalities. What’s the battery life of the headphones? That may not be an important matter for you … or it may matter very much. If you’ve got a long international flight ahead of you, you’ll want headphones rated for at least 25 hours, perhaps longer. Will it work with the onboard entertainment system? These still use analogue connections with those weird two-prong plugs. Almost certainly your wireless headphones will come with an analogue cable – some even include the adaptor plug, although you can buy one separately for a few bucks.
And what connection is used to charge the headphones? Some older ones use Micro-B USB, which is a fiddly kind of connection. More modern ones use a USB Type-C connection, much to be preferred. And some use Lightning (ie. the same used by an iPhone). You always get a cable in the box, with a socket suitable for the headphones on one end and a standard USB plug on the other. Note, though, that the cable is usually less than 30cm in length. You can plug that into whatever power adaptor you have available, or a computer, or any of the many other devices that these days have USB Type-B sockets. If you have a preference, that could influence your decision. I’m inclined to think that Micro-B USB is on the way out, just as the Mini USB connection has now pretty much entirely disappeared.
And what’s the backup if the battery runs out of charge? Again, there’s the analogue cable. But do the headphones operate in passive mode (ie, switched off)? They most likely do, but will they sound the same? A lot of wireless headphones use DSPs (digital signal processors) to tailor the sound, sometimes to improve the performance of second-rate drivers, and this isn’t available without power.
How do the controls work? Do you like the way they operate? Some headphones use touch controls which can be a bit tricky in use. Again, this is very much a personal preference, although you shouldn’t judge immediately. Controls which initially feel a bit strange can become quite okay once you’ve grown accustomed to them.
Fourth, what are the additional features? If you’re flying, then you’ll probably want active noise cancellation. We’ll return to ANC shortly.
And you may find an “ambient sound” or “listen through” mode convenient. This pipes through external sounds into the headphones, typically pausing the music, so that you can hear what someone’s saying to you.
Fifth, and by no means the least important consideration, is comfort. Especially if you’re using them for travel, you will not want headphones that hurt your head after a couple of hours. The major weaknesses in comfort tend to be headphones which grip too tightly – but watch it, some can be nicely loosened with a bit of judicious stretching – or with earcups too small in size for your ears, or with insufficient padding on the headband. Making sure your choice will be comfortable is again a good reason to go in-store and check out the headphone options.
Let’s look at active noise cancellation. In fact, ANC in headphones can be a somewhat controversial matter amongst audiophiles: is it good or bad for sound quality. Well, that depends on several things. There’s the quality of the ANC system itself, of course, and just as importantly as the circumstances in which the headphones are being used. We dig into how ANC works more deeply in the article “How to Beat the Noise – Noise Cancelling vs Noise Isolating Headphones”.
Active noise cancellation systems can range from extremely effective in reducing noise, through to some which barely work it all (see for example this review of some Sony true wireless earphones I did a few years ago, in which I found that the alleged ANC was seemingly totally ineffective.) Modern systems from leading brands are astonishingly effective at reducing noise levels. The amount of noise cancellation is actually a design choice. I couple of years ago while interviewing a Sennheiser spokesperson, I noted that the ANC in the company’s Momentum True Wireless 2 earphones was fairly modest in effect. He replied, just a little huffily, that too much ANC would be at the cost of sound quality. (See my reviews of them here and here.)
All that said, if you’re sitting at home in a fairly quiet environment, if your headphones have an ANC capability, take a little time listening to music both with it on and with it switched off. There’s a good chance that the character of the sound will be different. Which do you prefer? I’ve found that about half the time they actually sound better with it off.
But if there’s a lot of noise around, they almost always sound better with ANC on. I for one don’t like not being able to hear the quiet bits in the music because of background noise.
Bluetooth 4.0? 4.1? Heh, how about the latest: Bluetooth 5.3? Bluetooth devices have been around since 1999. So, like all modern tech stuff, there have been many versions. The more recent the version, the more … actually, there isn’t all that much difference on the headphone front. Some have lower energy requirements, and so might extend the life of the headphones before a recharge is required. But the claimed battery life, generally printed on the box, is the real thing of interest here, not the Bluetooth version.
You see, Bluetooth is a communications package. It sets out the standards required for two devices to communicate with each other. Happily, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, which sets standards for Bluetooth, has been remarkably undemanding about unnecessary standards. In the case of audio – and I must mention the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP), the element of Bluetooth which permits decent quality stereo audio to be transmitted – a standard audio codec has been specified. It is quite widely used, but manufacturers are permitted to including higher quality codecs. That has permitted a lot of third-party innovation that has without doubt improved the audio quality delivered via Bluetooth.
But as to versions, Bluetooth insists that each new version also supports all preceding versions. So, really, don’t worry too much about whether your devices support Bluetooth 4.2 or 5.0 or whatever. Just look at the features they provide.
Classes and range
But there is one set of standards that have practical implications: that is the Bluetooth Class. There are five classes: 1, 1.5, 2, 3 and 4. These determine the maximum permitted power in the Bluetooth connection. The lower the number, the higher the power. Class 3 and Class 4 are for devices very close together. Perhaps the most popular is Class 2, which specifies a maximum power of 2.5mW and a typical connection range of 10 metres. That’s why you see so many Bluetooth headphones specify that range.
Class 1.5 quadruples the power of Class 2 to double the range (that’s the inverse square law in operation). And Class 1 allows up to forty times more power – 100mW – to give a range ten times that of Class 2: 100 metres. That’s clear line-of-sight connections. But it translates to higher connection reliability when your phone is in your pocket. After the first few times I reviewed various Bluetooth earbuds, I was starting to think that a reliable connection was only achievable when I held my phone in my hand, not have it placed in a pocket which left my body mass between the phone and the earphones.
Then I reviewed a set of wireless headphones that had no such issues. None at all. There was never a single dropout in the entire period of the review, short of extreme distance. I found that the connection was totally reliable out to sixty metres, regardless of headphone orientation (where’s that antenna located in the headphones?) Reading up on it, I found that those headphones were Class 1 rated.
Unfortunately, headphone makers rarely specify the Class rating. But more happily, I’ve noticed over the past five years that more and more headphones are delivering actually reliable connections out to several tens of metres.
That’s something where well-conducted reviews can help you out. Unfortunately, few reviewers seem interested in this aspect of performance.
Remember, Codec stands for Coder-Decoder. Since Bluetooth wireless is digital, analogue audio must be converted to a digital signal for transmission. And since bandwidth is limited with a Bluetooth connection, some digital compression is required because the 1.411Mbps (megabits per second) data rate of standard CD-quality audio won’t fit.
There are quite a few codecs on offer these days, in addition to the standard one which is supported by all headphones and audio source devices. I’ll look at these briefly, but if you want to get a fuller appreciation of them, along with bandwidth numbers, check out our article “Bluetooth codecs – getting music from your phone to your audio gear”.
The standard Bluetooth codec is SBC, for Subband Codec. It was designed to provide adequate stereo sound quality in the limited bandwidth available via Bluetooth and with very low processing demands. That was necessary in the early 2000s, given the relatively limited processing power then available. So it wasn’t optimised for audio quality. That said, SBC provides universal compatibility, a very reliable connection and in many cases an improved battery life.
A widely-used optional audio codec used in Bluetooth is AAC. It’s generally regarded as better sounding than SBC, at least when used with Apple devices. A lot of headphones support AAC, although not all. Many Android phones these days also support AAC, but not all. The AAC capabilities of some Android phones are considered poor. But if you are planning to use your wireless headphones to listen via an Apple device (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad or Mac), I’d strongly recommend that you choose headphones supporting AAC.
Much newer to headphones is aptX. There are variations on this, including aptX HD which is said to support 24-bit audio and aptX Adaptive which varies the bitrate to provide the highest quality connection compatible with reliability (and also claims to support 96kHz high resolution). An increasing number of headphones support one or other flavour of aptX, and there’s little doubt that aptX provides better sound quality than SBC, and probably also AAC.
No-one seems to know what the letters stand for in Sony’s proprietary LDAC codec, but at least in theory it really does support high resolution audio – up to 88.1kHz/96kHz, with 16, 24 or 32 bits of resolution. That said, there are suggestions that some implementations may in some circumstances actually end up providing worse quality than even SBC. That tends to make me cautious. But with an ideal connection and suitably configured gear, LDAC really can provide high resolution audio.
LHDC is a relatively new codec developed by what seems to be a Taiwan-based company, Savitech. It also supports both standard definition audio and high resolution up to 24-bit 96kHz. That said, I’ve seen nothing about the actual audio quality and how well it works in real life. Nor have I personally experienced it.
Another newbie is UAT (Ultra Audio Transmission). This codec is said to support up to 192kHz, 24-bit audio. So far, the only products I’ve seen which support this are DACs and amplifiers with Bluetooth receivers from SMSL Audio. In order to support such a high sample rate, it requires a relatively high bandwidth: 1.2Mbps. It strikes me that any portable connection running at 1.2Mbps is going to be quite iffy, so perhaps UAT’s best application is with in-home devices.
In 2020 the Bluetooth Special Interest Group – the outfit that sets the standards for Bluetooth – introduced the Low Complexity Communication Codec – LC3 – as “the successor” to SBC. I haven’t seen this appear in any devices or headphones yet, and little is known about it other than it is said to provide better audio and better “package loss concealment” (ie, it papers over data gaps better) than SBC.
Non-Bluetooth wireless headphones
All this so far has been about Bluetooth headphones. Are there other wireless standards? Well, no. But there are some proprietary wireless headphone systems. These have existed since long before Bluetooth and were intended primarily for in-home use, allowing personal listening without having to be tethered via cable to some electronics. So they consist of a wireless transmitter which would be plugged into a headphone output, and of course the headphones which would receive the signal.
It has been a couple of decades since I’ve tried out such headphones. I wasn’t impressed back then. They tended to be noisy – that is, the signal came through okay, but was accompanied by a clearly discernible level of white noise. I’m guessing a signal to noise ratio of less than 70db, A-weighted. If you can hear noise, it’s probably around there.
But that was then. These days such systems tend to use digital transmission, so noise is unlikely to be a problem. Importantly, some models of this kind allow two headphones to be connected to one transmitter – so you can share the sound – and also often allow a greater range. Some say up to 100 metres, which suggests you can go anywhere in your house or even yard while continuing to enjoy your music.
Our customer reviews suggest that the Sennheiser RS175 headphones ($499.95) are a real winner in this space. You can add an additional set of headphones ($249.95) to this system so it can be shared between two people.
Our suggestions for wireless headphones
1. ag WHP01K wireless noise cancelling headphones
These headphones were quite the surprise to me when I reviewed them a little while back. I was unfamiliar with the brand and wasn’t expecting much given the extremely competitive pricing. But they turned out to have, as I wrote, “effective noise cancellation not far short of the best in the business” and reasonable sound quality … when connected via Bluetooth. And much better sound when run passively. It turns out that they were tuned by high-end earphone and headphone maker, Final Audio.
- Bluetooth 5.0
- SBC, AAC, aptX and aptX LL codecs
- Active Noise Cancellation
- Up to 35 hours battery life (25 hours with ANC), USB Type-C charge port
- Available in black, cream or dark grey
- Provided with soft carry pouch, charge cable, 3.5mm analogue audio cable
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division (ag WHP01K wireless noise cancelling headphones)
2. FiiO EH3NC noise cancelling headphones
FiiO is best known for its wide range of portable digital audio players and headphone amplifiers. Its top end models are simply as good as these things get. It brings some of this expertise to these headphones. Despite the modest pricing, they have received Hi-Res Audio Wireless certification thanks to support for the LDAC codec.
- Bluetooth 5.0
- SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX LL, aptX HD, LDAC codecs
- Hi-Res Audio Wireless certification
- Active Noise Cancellation
- Up to 50 hours battery life (30 hours with ANC, 62 hours with ANC and no music playing), USB Type-C charge port
- Available in black
- Provided with soft carry pouch, charge cable, 3.5mm analogue audio cable
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division (FiiO EH3NC noise cancelling headphones)
3. Grado GW100 V2 wireless series headphones
Brooklyn-based Grado has its own vision for headphones, providing them with a unique look and highly regarded sound quality. With its sole Bluetooth model, it has retained its features: an open-backed, on-ear design with high quality drivers (matched to within 0.1dB!) It has reduced the amount of sound escaping from the open backs by 60% so that you’re not too bothersome to those around you.
- Bluetooth 5.0
- Codecs not stated
- Up to 40 hours battery life, USB Type-C charge port
- Available in dark grey
- Provided with charge cable, 3.5mm analogue audio cable
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division (Grado GW100 V2 wireless series headphones)
4. Sennheiser Momentum wireless noise cancelling headphones (M3AEBTXL)
Sennheiser is almost legendary in the world of headphones, and is particularly noted for introducing open-back headphone designs to consumers back in the 1960s. But these Bluetooth headphones are closed back, which helps assist in their noise cancelling activities. These are Sennheiser’s top-of-the-line wireless models.
- Bluetooth 5.0
- SBC, AAC, aptX and aptX LL
- Active Noise Cancellation, 3 modes
- Controllable with Sennheiser app
- Up to 17 hours battery, USB Type-C charge port
- Available in black
- Provided with carry case, charge cable, 3.5mm analogue audio cable
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division (Sennheiser Momentum wireless noise cancelling headphones)
5. HIFIMAN ANANDA Bluetooth Planar Magnetic headphones
HIFIMAN’s range of headphones are all about sound quality and the ANANDA Bluetooth models are no exception. And they are very different to your run-of-the-mill Bluetooth headphones. As with most of the company’s other models, instead of the usual dynamic drivers, these employ Planar Magnetic technology. (Read about the different driver types in “Headphone tech explainer – the machines behind the sound”). And in pursuit of quality, the headphones support all three of the arguably high-resolution codecs: aptX HD, LDAC and LHDC. Even more unusually, the headphones have no analogue input at all. Well, except for the socket for the included boom microphone (hey, gamers!) So even though you can’t plug in using the traditional 3.5mm cable, you can plug in via USB. If your phone supports USB audio, and most do, including Apple devices, that’s the way to connect.
- Bluetooth version not stated
- SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, LDAC and LHDC
- Up to 10 hours battery, USB Type-C charge port
- Available in black
- Provided with carry case, charge cable, boom microphone
- Available at fine high fidelity retail outlets, and direct from distributor's retail division (HIFIMAN ANANDA Bluetooth Planar Magnetic Headphones)
If you’ve read this far, I certainly hope that this article has helped you think about what you’d like from your wireless headphones. I must conclude, though, by saying that in the end, trust your ears. Visit quality high fidelity audio retailers and listen to all the wireless headphones they have available. Think about how they stack up against your favourite wired models. It’s al about the music, after all.