Spend any amount of time on the train, bus or tram? Then you’ve likely seen more than a few people listening to their music, podcasts or radio on headphones that are missing one famously annoying feature – the cable.
If you pay close attention you’ll probably spot a tiny LED on them, blinking occasionally. It’s a sight you’re more likely to see than ever before, as this new breed of high-quality portable headphones have become more and more popular. They’re Bluetooth headphones. And if you’re a fan of portable audio, once you’ve tried them, there’s no going back.
What is bluetooth?
Bluetooth was invented over two decades ago by Eriksson, a company that was a mobile phone giant of the early 1990s. Originally designed to let users send data like contacts or backups to and from their mobile phone, it was quickly adapted to transmit audio. And soon enough, those little Bluetooth earpieces appeared on the market, allowing people to take calls while keeping their hands free. Then, the ability to stream audio in CD-quality stereo was added to Bluetooth’s capabilities, paving the way for fully wireless, high-quality headphones suitable for music listening. But it’s taken some time for Bluetooth headphones to go truly mainstream.
The main reason was cost. While a regular pair of headphones (or earbuds) mainly contains just two small speakers hooked up to a wire, Bluetooth headphones are much more evolved. Inside their otherwise normal-looking earpieces is a bunch of technology: a radio receiver and transmitter to talk to your mobile device, a tiny computer to process and decode the digital audio into something that can be played through speakers, and a tiny power amplifier to drive those speakers. All of this would usually be done by the phone, tablet or other device itself. Bluetooth headphones have to pack it all in there right on your head.
Like all tech, though, prices have drastically fallen over time. We’re now at the point where an excellent pair of Bluetooth headphones is available for only a small price premium over a similar-quality wired pair.
Why go wireless?
The obvious advantage with Bluetooth is that it doesn’t need a cable at all. You can stick your phone in your pocket or bag and never worry about the cord getting tangled or snagging on something. But thanks to the many different features that Bluetooth can support, you can also pause the audio, skip forward and back in an album or playlist, control the volume, and even make and phone calls thanks to a tiny built-in microphone. The exact features offered will differ from model to model, but those are found on most Bluetooth headphones these days.
What about sound quality?
That’s a question frequently asked when it comes to Bluetooth. While Bluetooth’s audio profile (A2DP) supports full-range stereo audio, it does rely on compression to get that audio to you using as little data (and battery life) as possible. In practice, you won’t hear any difference. But it’s worth keeping in mind that the music you’re playing will already be in a compressed form (such as MP3) and will need to be decoded then re-encoded to get sent to the headphones. Some companies have found ways around this. For example, Sony’s Bluetooth headphones support the AAC audio format – the exact same format that iTunes and Apple Music use. It can grab the data untouched from the phone and decode it without any quality loss.
Another advantage with Bluetooth headphones is the fact that they have to include their own stereo amplifier. In well-designed headphones, this is a good thing. That built-in amp will have been tuned carefully to match the headphones’ speakers exactly, something not possible when you’re plugging a wired pair into a phone with its unique amplifier and settings. This means that even modestly priced Bluetooth headphones tend to punch above their weight when it comes to sound quality.
What used to be a trickle of brands offering Bluetooth headphones has exploded into a vast range these days. All the usual suspects are on show – Beats, Sennheiser, Bose, Sony and even business headset maker Plantronic. Prices ranging from $60 all the way up to $500 and beyond. As a general guide, look around the $200 range for the best combination of quality, features and price. At higher price tiers you start to see high-end features like noise cancelling (the electronic removal of the sound of the world around you, great for frequent flyers) or hugely improved audio quality (usually requiring a cable to be plugged in to take full advantage of it).
Sony was one of the first mainstream audio companies to fully embrace Bluetooth headphones, and their large range is excellent at all levels. Especially at the cheaper end, where you get a lot of bang for your buck. It’s worth keeping an eye on Sony’s official eBay page, too, as they often have their Bluetooth headphones offered at a substantial discount. Those looking for more finessed audio might aim for Sennheiser, and those wanting big booming bass might gravitate toward Beats. But with 30-hour battery life and superb wireless range, Sony’s are great-sounding all-rounders.
Apple fans, of course, have another option – the hugely popular EarPods. An absolute marvel of Bluetooth headphone engineering that packs all of the tech we mentioned above into tiny rechargeable wireless earbuds. At about $230, they’re well worth considering, or if you prefer buds or own an iPhone.
When Apple released the iPhone 7 without a headphone jack, people were shocked – but Apple was just a little ahead of its time with the decision. With Bluetooth headphones now offering more quality, range and value than ever, people are adopting them in droves. And those old-school wired headphones are increasingly being left at home, where they belong.