Between Bluetooth headphones, wired in-ear Bluetooth headphones and true wireless Bluetooth earbuds, the choice isn’t easy. Here are a few tips to help you choose the product best suited for your needs.
Having made its first appearance 20 years ago, Bluetooth wireless transmission technology creates a direct link between two devices without the need for a local network (such as WiFi). Whether you are at home or out and about, it is possible to establish a wireless Bluetooth connection between a smartphone or DAP and a pair of Bluetooth headphones. All you need to do is pair the source with the Bluetooth headphones by holding down the headphone’s power button. Bluetooth headphones equipped with an NFC controller may even be paired with a smartphone simply by holding the two devices close together.
Wireless transmission offers a real advantage to the listener: a wire is no longer required to connect a smartphone and a pair of headphones. Benefiting from greater freedom of movement, the user can step away from his or her smartphone without interrupting audio playback, on the condition of remaining within a range of approximately 32 feet (10 meters) from the Bluetooth emitter. Certain Bluetooth emitters, notably those designed to be connected to the USB port of a computer, offer a wireless range of up to 320 feet (100 meters). These are labeled as Class 1 emitters.
Another advantage: Since Bluetooth technology is bi-directional, a pair of Bluetooth headphones may be used to place a call, as long as the model in question is fitted with a microphone.
Disadvantage: Bluetooth transmission generates a delay of a few milliseconds in length, due to the digital processing of the audio signal emitted by the source, which is subsequently processed again by the receiver integrated into the headphones. Consequently, the image and sound will often not be perfectly synchronized when watching a film. Certain smartphones automatically compensate for this, while TVs and AV receivers equipped with a Bluetooth emitter often propose an adjustable lip sync function.
Bluetooth 4.2 and 5 (coming soon)
The most widely-used version of Bluetooth technology is currently 4.2. Highly energy efficient, it allows the user to connect a single pair of Bluetooth headphones to several sources at once. A practical solution to answer incoming calls on a smartphone while listening to music on a PC, since there is no need to pair each device successively. The first Bluetooth 5 emitters are currently being integrated into certain high-end smartphones and should offer enhanced sound restitution by allowing for the playback of high-definition audio files (24-bit/96 kHz), in addition to offering a theoretical range of 820 feet (250 meters). As of today, no Bluetooth 5 enabled headphones are available for purchase.
Bluetooth: the codecs
Currently, the audio signal transmitted via Bluetooth is often compressed and lossy. Several compression technologies coexist: basic SBC, AAC, aptX and LDAC. The first three offer a speed of approximately 350 Kbps, while the LDAC codec (developed by Sony) triples this speed and allows for CD-quality, lossless transmission.
Does a wired connection offer superior audio restitution compared to a wireless connection?
The logical answer would seem to be yes: wireless Bluetooth audio transmission is not as efficient as a wired connection when using a DAP, for example. Yet, this is not always the case. In fact, a pair of Bluetooth headphones integrates a stereo amplifier, which has often been optimized specifically for the headphones’ drivers, sometimes with active frequency response correction in tow. In this case, the sound produced by a pair of Bluetooth headphones can be better than that obtained when using a DAC with a wired connection. Furthermore, the active noise canceling system integrated into certain Bluetooth headphones reduces distortion and subjectively improves the quality of the audio restitution.
Compared with in-ear Bluetooth headphones, circumaural and supra-aural Bluetooth headphones offer certain advantages due to their format. They feature larger drivers and are thus capable of offering better performance in the lows as well as a wider soundstage. Their format makes it possible to integrate a larger battery, and their battery life can reach 20 hours, or double that of the best in-ear Bluetooth headphones.
- Totally wireless
- Audio performance
- Active noise cancellation
- Battery life
- Bulkier than in-ear models
- Heavier than in-ear models
In-ear Bluetooth headphones (with a wire)
Wireless headphones with a wire… is this possible? Yes, and up until recently, wired in-ear Bluetooth headphones were the only available solution.
The market for Bluetooth headphones is growing rapidly. However, their design makes them subject to a unique set of constraints: their amplification system, Bluetooth receiver, battery and charging mechanism need to all fit into their ultra-compact design. For this reason, most in-ear Bluetooth headphones are connected by a cable along which is attached a component integrating the antenna, amplifier and battery. Wired in-ear Bluetooth headphones can offer a battery life of up to 10 hours.
- May be used during athletic activities
- Relatively long battery life
- The wired connection can be a nuisance, and the wire may also generate noise in some circumstances.
True Wireless Bluetooth earbuds
True Wireless Bluetooth earbuds, which are totally cable-free, are completely independent of each other. Since each earbud must have its own amplifier and battery, their design is particularly complex. What’s more, Bluetooth audio transmission only sends the signal to a single Bluetooth receiver, and the sound received by the first earbud–the one fitted with a receiver–must thus be transmitted to the second earbud via RF transmission. Musically speaking, these earbuds are as efficient as a pair of wired in-ear Bluetooth headphones. On the other hand, their battery doesn’t last as long, since the size of each battery has been reduced. The battery life of these models ranges from 3 to 5 hours. This may not be a lot, but manufacturers have been designing carry cases equipped with a battery so that, once stored, the earbuds are charged by the carrying case, and multiple charge cycles are possible.
- Absolutely wireless
- Total freedom of movement
- Suitable for intense athletic activities
- Charging mechanism integrated into carrying case
- Shorter battery life
- Risk of losing an earbud (since it isn’t attached)
Which headphones and earbuds do we recommend?
The Plantronics BackBeat Pro Plus Bluetooth headphones are a reference, and their Class 1 USB emitter and physiological sound signature send competing brands back to the drawing board. However, since their active noise canceling technology isn’t breathtakingly efficient, the Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless (with integrated equalizer) could be a better choice when taking public transportation. The Sony WH-1000 is also a model we recommend, notably for its excellent active noise canceling technology and compatibility with the lossless LDAC codec.
The Elipson In-Ear N°1 wired in-ear Bluetooth headphones are a solid choice among entry-level models. The Shure SE215 BT in-ear Bluetooth headphones, manufactured by an in-ear headphone specialist, are also worth considering. Meanwhile, the Sony WI-H700 will allow you to discover the benefits offered by the LDAC lossless codec. For those looking for powerful lows and clear highs, the Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear Wireless offers an appealing solution.French