December 20, 2016 5 min read 18 Comments
The common opinion held by most music fans is that wireless Bluetooth headphones are pretty darn cool. I mean who needs to be getting all tangled up in a rat's nest of wires and cables when you're listening on the fly? And with the new jack-less smartphones all the rage, a Bluetooth headphone is really the way to go.
That is unless you're a hardcore audiophile. In which case, Bluetooth is to be shunned like Keith Richards at a nunnery.
We have reviewed a lot of Bluetooth headphones over the years, a few good, most not so good. But never fear. Our intrepid headphone.com staff has diligently sifted through the chaff to find a few great Bluetooth headphones we can confidently recommend to the wire-free listener.
Our quiet hope is we can at least begin to partially debunk that old-timey "Bluetooth sucks" audio myth starting now.
While it remains true that wireless Bluetooth audio is not quite up to par with similarly priced 'wired' headphones, Bluetooth sound quality has steadfastly improved over the past few years.
The current Bluetooth 4.0+ algorithm was updated as of December 6, 2016, to new Bluetooth 5.0 functionality which quadruples the wireless transmission range, boosts the broadcast messaging ability by 800% and doubles the data speed capacity — the critical factor for enabling a robust audio connection with true 'lossless' uncompressed quality.
The concept of lossless Bluetooth audio has already been touted for a while with companies like Qualcomm devising a lossless codec they call 'AptX' that is said to allow for 'CD-quality' full bandwidth wireless transmission. The big rub with the proprietary AptX technology is that both the source audio/smartphone/tablet/computer as well as the receiver/headphone unit need to be AptX-enabled and compatible to take full advantage of their Bluetooth codec sound quality.
For example, Apple famously does not support AptX on the iPhone and instead employs their own Apple Lossless Bluetooth streaming codec (AAC), creating a bit of a sticky audio wicket for folks who have AptX-ready headphones and use the iOS platform. In that case, there's an argument to be made that your Bluetooth/AptX headphones are not making full use of their lossless sound quality potential.
The other significant barrier that's kept Bluetooth audio from breaking into the consciousness of the high-quality music listener has been the actual headphones themselves. Not only have most Bluetooth headphones been plagued by horrific sound quality, poor fit ergonomics, and low-quality construction flaws, but the extremely short 4-6 hour run times of early Bluetooth models made using them nearly impossible before the batteries died on you mid-jams. Few things can kill the joy quicker than dreaded 'Musica Interruptus'.
What all this translates into is the simple fact that a good set of top Bluetooth headphones will cost you a little more than regular cans. But we think the benefits of a solid wireless audio connection sans annoying glitches or pops, a comfortable fit, and the best possible sound quality are well worth it compared to the onslaught of craptastically cheap Bluetooth headphones you can find at box stores and better gas stations all over.
In our headphone.com staff opinion, the two clear winners in the Bluetooth category as of this writing are either the Sennheiser HD1 Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, which also have an active noise-cancelling feature, or the recent Bose QuietComfort QC35 headphones which offers excellent fit and strong sound quality performance, along with some of the best noise-cancellation technology this side of actual earplugs.
Both sonically and in terms of cosmetic style, we lean towards the upscale Sennheiser HD1 Wireless NC headphones as delivering the best combination of cool modern looks, a widely comfortable universal fit and solid sound quality substance. The Bose QC 35 probably takes the cake in pure ambient noise cancelling ability and comes very close to the HD1 Wireless in overall sound quality. Both also share a similar approximate 20-hour battery run times before needing a recharge. The QC35 is also a little slimmer-profile in its frame size and construction and very tidily designed with a neat travel case valise that's ideal for safely carrying the Bose cans during your journeys.
Given that the Bose QuietComfort35 headphones are relatively well-priced at $350 versus the Sennheiser HD1 Wireless model costing slightly more, the choice likely boils down to a personal call based on budget and/or cosmetic preferences. Our staff impressions are that both models are truly top-of-the-category performers that rival each other in sound and feature sets, so it would be pretty hard to go wrong with either candidate for astute listeners seeking top noise-cancelling Bluetooth wireless headphones.
For those interested in getting good Bluetooth sound but not quite ready to make the leap into the $350+ terrain for a top-shelf wireless headphone, perhaps the next best choice in this field is the Phiaton BT460 headphones which also have a slim over-the-ear fit and very attractive styling. The Phiaton BT 460 features AptX technology and comes in black or white. It's especially well suited for smaller-headed folks or for the younger set seeking the best Bluetooth quality possible under $200. Although they're not quite as acoustically smooth or dynamically detailed as the Bose QC-35 or the Sennheiser HD1 wireless cans, the BT460 hold their own with a superb 20 hour battery time and easy, solid wireless pairing from any Bluetooth device.
Phiaton also makes a pretty decent wireless in-ear headphone with AptX Bluetooth technology called the BT220 model. It's a fine performer in this specialized category for those listeners preferring a more isolating earphone or 'earbud-style' approach for their Bluetooth headphone. The BT220 also provides an active noise-cancelling feature and has a built-in mic for your smartphone calls.
In the end, we think both audiophiles and average Joe listeners will be impressed by the high caliber of sound possible with Bluetooth nowadays. Once top manufacturers begin releasing their updated Bluetooth 5.0-compatible headphones, we expect to hear even further sonic improvements in this very convenient and extremely popular headphone category.
That's certainly welcome news for those of us who despise being tethered to wires and always seem to find ourselves getting all tangled up in blue.
As of April 2018, Anker's truly wireless Zolo Liberty headphones are the only ones that support Bluetooth 5.0. They also happen to be the highest rated pair of "truly wireless" headphones on the market.
We'll update this list as we test new Bluetooth 5.0 releases
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