There’s a lot of debate in the headphone world about wireless audio. Wireless standards like Bluetooth are capable of making music sound great, but because Bluetooth relies on data compression, it will never sound quite as good as a wired connection. The big question is, with the improvements in Bluetooth, can anyone tell the difference anymore between Bluetooth audio and wired audio? We’re skeptical that the difference is meaningful, so here’s our best advice: if you’re an audiophile who cares about hearing music in high fidelity, you’ll probably be better off with a set of wired headphones; if you need everything to sound great but prefer the convenience of wireless connections, go for a pair of Bluetooth headphones.
We run every pair through a rigorous testing process over several days or weeks. That includes playing them in all sorts of scenarios — be it on a bus, in the listening room, or at the office — and playing back from a wide array of sources. We know most people use their headphones with a smartphone, often with lower-quality MP3 resolution tracks, so we do, too.
They’re among the best-performing wireless home/studio-style headphones in our ratings, and though the price fluctuates, you can often find them for as little as $150. That’s less than half of what you’d pay for some comparable models. If you want over-ear headphones with the convenience of Bluetooth, this pair is a steal. It comes with a detachable audio cable so that you can use your headphones without draining the battery, and the ear cups fold in for easy storage and travel.
The Bose Frames are non-polarized sunglasses with special speakers built into each arm. The idea is that they’re designed to look like regular sunglasses, but also act as Bluetooth headphones. Since there’s no earbud that actually goes into your ears, the speakers have been engineered to shoot audio down into your ears; the neat thing is that the Bose Frames do a very good job at masking your audio so that the people around you can’t really hear what you’re listening to. They are available in two different frame styles, round (Rondo) or square (Aldo).
No matter what type of headphones you want, you can't go wrong with any of the options here. That said, you don't need to spend top dollar for a quality pair of cans. If you're shopping on a budget, take a look at our picks for The Best Headphones Under $50. And once you've found the right pair, check out our 5 Easy Tips to Extend the Life of Your Headphones and 6 Ways You're Using Your Headphones Wrong.
Will Greenwald has been covering consumer technology for a decade, and has served on the editorial staffs of CNET.com, Sound & Vision, and Maximum PC. His work and analysis has been seen in GamePro, Tested.com, Geek.com, and several other publications. He currently covers consumer electronics in the PC Labs as the in-house home entertainment expert, reviewing TVs, media hubs, speakers, headphones, and gaming accessories. Will is also an ISF Level II-certified TV calibrator, which ensures the thoroughness and accuracy of all PCMag TV reviews.
Unlike with other codecs, AAC test signals from Android phones like the Huawei P20 Pro, LG V30, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 all vary wildly. Though we can’t definitively say why each Android device seems to handle AAC encoding differently, the fact of the matter is that only Apple can do it well. We suspect some of the power saving features baked into the Google ecosystem’s varying hardware has consequences for audio playback. Nowhere is this more apparent than Huawei’s power-sipping P20 Pro, which seems to cut out at around 14.25kHz.
A headset is a headphone combined with a microphone. Headsets provide the equivalent functionality of a telephone handset with hands-free operation. Among applications for headsets, besides telephone use, are aviation, theatre or television studio intercom systems, and console or PC gaming. Headsets are made with either a single-earpiece (mono) or a double-earpiece (mono to both ears or stereo). The microphone arm of headsets is either an external microphone type where the microphone is held in front of the user's mouth, or a voicetube type where the microphone is housed in the earpiece and speech reaches it by means of a hollow tube.
We still wish you could control volume using the same touch gestures that control playback, but then again, you can always ask Alexa to adjust the volume instead. Battery life at 5 hours per charge is about average these days, as is the 20 hours of total playtime enabled by the charging case. Both are minor drawbacks to what is by far the best value in the true wireless market today.
The impedance of headphones is of concern because of the output limitations of amplifiers. A modern pair of headphones is driven by an amplifier, with lower impedance headphones presenting a larger load. Amplifiers are not ideal; they also have some output impedance that limits the amount of power they can provide. To ensure an even frequency response, adequate damping factor, and undistorted sound, an amplifier should have an output impedance less than 1/8 that of the headphones it is driving (and ideally, as low as possible). If output impedance is large compared to the impedance of the headphones, significantly higher distortion is present. Therefore, lower impedance headphones tend to be louder and more efficient, but also demand a more capable amplifier. Higher impedance headphones are more tolerant of amplifier limitations, but produce less volume for a given output level.
We use a commercially-available Bluetooth high-def interface with an S/PDIF output to test the Bluetooth output of four flagship phones. This way, we’re able to record test signal output and compare the datasets with our in-house analysis software. We kicked the tires on a 96kHz/24-bit test file to see how Bluetooth handled high-bitrate music, as well as normal 44.1kHz/16-bit files to see how each codec treated CD-quality streaming audio. We then measured the recorded sample against the original file. We used both lograrithmic sine sweeps, and complex signals like square waves in order to provide a more realistic set of tests for how people actually use Bluetooth headphones.
The rule that I use is that the bigger the size of the headphone, the bigger the need for amplification. Of course factors like driver sensitivity and impedance will matter, but the general rule of thumb is, use a dedicated headphone amplifier for a full size headphone. Even a portable amplifier can be enough, depending on the type of the headphones.
Despite big promises from Bluetooth’s only Hi-res codec, the standard doesn’t really deliver at best, and it falls far short with its basic 330kbps setting. Both the 660kbps and 990kbps connections offer decent quality, but the 330kbps setting has a lot of noise—and a comparatively poor frequency response with higher-def content. You probably won’t hear it, but it definitely falls short of the marketing.
If you have a bass problem you could find a filter of some kind that cuts the low bass. Some bass controls can do that. I haven’t found a music genre that totally lacks strong bass, although “acoustic” sometimes doesn’t have strong bass. Mainly, you should make sure your system is matched properly with amp and headphone, so the different frequencies are in balance. Then you will have better luck with different music.
Headphones connect to a signal source such as an audio amplifier, radio, CD player, portable media player, mobile phone, video game console, or electronic musical instrument, either directly using a cord, or using wireless technology such as Bluetooth, DECT or FM radio. The first headphones were developed in the late 19th century for use by telephone operators, to keep their hands free. Initially the audio quality was mediocre and a step forward was the invention of high fidelity headphones.