How To Buy Wireless Headphones

February 10, 2017

Wireless headphones are becoming the defacto standard for portable audio gear. There is no question about it. As cables lose their appeal, it's important to understand what kind of wireless headphone you would need. 
Wireless headphones - Bose AE2 SoundLink

But first, let's look at how wireless headphones came about and how they evolved.

In the past few years, wired headphones have been gradually losing their cables. Manufacturers have long been grappling with the questions on how to lose the wires while maintaining sound quality. Not just a decent sound but the sound profile that one would expect when listening through a cabled version. 
Wireless headphones - B&O BeoPlay H7
Wireless headphones - B&O BeoPlay H7

More than a decade ago, Bluetooth technology was developed. The first versions where primitive and standards were being established. Bluetooth 2.0 came about and by end-2005, the first products started supporting the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) transfer standard. This determined that high quality audio could be streamed from one Bluetooth device to another. With A2DP, it mandated that the SBC codec that supports up to a relatively decent 345 kbps data rate be used.
Wireless headphones - Bose Soundsport Wireless
Wireless headphones - Bose Soundsport Wireless

Nokia came up with the HS-12W in 2006 and it really took a while (like about 5 years) for everyone to warm up. The audio manufacturers while initially slow, began to embrace A2DP. If you look at the top manufacturers by dollar sales in 2016, Bose joined in 2010, Beats in 2011 while Jaybird already embraced Bluetooth with its first product (JB100 Freedom) in 2007. And in mid-2016, we have now come to a point where Bluetooth headphones accounted for 54% of US sales in the category, beating non-Bluetooth for the first time.
Wireless headphones - Jaybird X2 Wireless
Wireless headphones - Jaybird X2 Wireless

Why Buy Wireless Headphones?
Probably the most significant injection to boost the need for wireless headphones is Apple's landmark decision to remove the headphone jack from its iPhone. Yes, the iPhone 7 did away with the 3.5mm jack in 2016. And since Apple commands the biggest global smartphone marketshare of Q4 2016 (17.8%), we have come to a point where probably all major headphone manufacturers acknowledge that it is absolutely vital to churn out wireless headphones lest they stare at an abyss of sales in the coming years. Apple has the tendency to set trends (for example, removal of the floppy drive / CD drive) where the industry has grudgingly followed and the 3.5mm jack is no different.
Removal of 3.5mm jack from iPhone
Do you miss that 3.5mm jack?

How to Buy Wireless Headphones
And now we come to the point of the article. This is where we look at how to buy a pair of wireless headphones. After reviewing a ton of headphones over the past years, it is not so simplistic to say X headphone is the best, Y headphone is the worst. Such a frivolous assessment would be an insult to manufacturers who have put in effort to develop and position their headphones.

When every manufacturer floods you with different products and concepts, it complicates the buying process a little bit. With that, we look at certain considerations when assessing what pair of wireless headphones to get.

1. Types
There are loads of wireless headphone categories. Let's break them down:

i. Over-ear headphones:
Characteristics - Ear cushions fit around your ear
Example(s) - Master & Dynamic MW60, Sony MDR-1ABT
Wireless headphones - Master & Dynamic MW60
Over-ear headphones - Master & Dynamic MW60

ii. On-ear headphones 
Characteristics - Ear cushions sit on your ear
Example(s) - B&O BeoPlay H8, Beats Solo2 Wireless
Wireless headphones - B&O BeoPlay H8
On-ear headphones - B&O BeoPlay H8

iii. Neckband headphones 
Characteristics - Buds that sit around your neck collar
Example(s) - LG TONE series

iv. Sports in-ears 
Characteristics - Buds that are tuned for workouts and usually sweat-proof
Example(s) - UA Headphones, Jaybird Freedom
Sports wireless - UA Headphones, Sony NW413, LG TONE Active, Jaybird X2, Beats Powerbeats2
Sports wireless - UA Headphones, Sony NW413, LG TONE Active, Jaybird X2, Beats Powerbeats2

v. In-ears 
Characteristics - Buds for everyday use
Example(s) - Plantronics BackBeat GO 3, Klipsch R6 In-Ear Bluetooth
Wireless headphones - Plantronics BackBeat GO 3
In-ear headphones - Plantronics BackBeat GO 3

vi. Truly wireless 
Characteristics - Just two buds. Absolutely cord-free
Example(s) - Samsung Gear IconX, Erato Apollo 7 
Wireless headphones - Samsung Gear IconX
Truly wireless headphones - Samsung Gear IconX

2. Sound Quality
You want headphones that sound good. And yet, it may not be a primary consideration if you are a fashionista. If you are an audiophile, you may swear by cables but the truth is that top manufacturers are now pushing quality wireless headphone products consistently. Take a look at Sony or Klipsch. Sony even created their own LDAC codec that supposedly ups the ante on sound quality. Outside of Sony, the most common high quality codec used is aptX that promises CD-quality type audio. Manufacturers like Jaybird and Beats are quite content without aptX as they contend that users audio needs are sufficiently met for different reasons. For example, Jaybird is usually used for workouts so pristine sound quality is obviously not the priority when there are already so many environmental sounds. 
Wireless headphones - Sony MDR-1ABT
LDAC headphones - Sony MDR-1ABT

3. Fit
This is absolutely crucial if you want earphones for working out. You really don't want them slipping out of your ears while you're in the zone, sweating it out in the gym. It may surprise you but just because a manufacturer shows pictures of people jogging in the earphones, it does not necessarily mean they have a good fit. We reviewed quite a few wireless sports audio products. My experience is that Bose and certain Jaybirds have got this spot on. For those that don't, consider adding Comply Foam tips which can help greatlyEven with headphones that you put over-ear or on-ear, you will need to consider - how much clamping force is there on your ears (even more so if you wear glasses)? 

Read - Wireless Sports Audio series
Wireless headphones - Jaybird X3 Wireless
Wireless sports headphones - Jaybird X3 Wireless

4. Battery Life
All headphones last for different durations. Headphones generally have a bigger profile and can accommodate bigger batteries and hence last longer. The average is about 20 hours. For sports earphones, we're looking at a range of 4 to 10 hours where the average is around 8 hours. Neckband headphones are around 10 hours. Our recommendation? Well, the obvious is to get one that lasts as long as possible.
Wireless headphones - Klipsch R6 In-Ear Bluetooth
Wireless headphones - Klipsch R6 In-Ear Bluetooth

5. Style
The priority of someone who may want a headphone as an accessory and why not? Beats in itself is single handedly eating up the headphone marketshare with its branding and making sure that it sells truckloads of it 'cos they/ are used by top tier athletes. Even celebrities lap them up, likely 'cos Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine are passing truckloads to them. Superficial factor? Maybe. A factor to consider? Certainly.
Wireless headphones - Beats Solo3 Wireless
Wireless headphones - Beats Solo3 Wireless

6. Weight
You don't want a pair of headphones to weigh you down. On the contrary. When you listen for extended durations, you want comfort for your ears (and head). How much pressure is there exerted by the headband on your head? You may not notice straight away so you will likely need to try headphones for periods of 10 minutes or more to fully appreciate if there be some discomfort. If you can't wait, do check the specs. Headphones in excess of 300 grams may cause discomfort but again, it depends on how a manufacturer handles the weight distribution.
Wireless headphones - Sennheiser PXC 550
Wireless headphones - Sennheiser PXC 550

7. Noise Canceling
If you travel loads, active noise canceling (ANC) headphones are they way to go. We previously reviewed and compared 3 noise-canceling in-ears. Common questions arose. Was there a switch to power the ANC? What about the noise canceling intensity? It can differ quite a bit depending on the tuning of each ANC headphone so it's recommended to try each of them in a noisy environment. If you want to go a step further, you can even control how much ambient sound you want to let into your listening experience. This is great for safety reasons eg. crossing the road. 

Read - Noise Canceling Immersion series
Wireless headphones - Bose QC35
Active noise canceling (ANC) headphones - Bose QC35

To cut the long story short, let's recap the 7 points that determine what you would look at when buying a wireless pair of headphones:

1. Headphone type
2. Sound quality
3. Fit
4. Battery life
5. Style
6. Weight
7. Noise canceling

All that said, it's actually recommended you assess what are your priorities when purchasing a pair of headphones / earphones. It may be one or two of the above factors but it certainly cannot be all of them. And there some really good choices at your disposal.

Everyone's considerations are different and knowing what you want will really make a big difference in your headphone experience.

Feel free to drop me a note should you need any help!

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