Whether you’re at home, at the beach or travelling on public transport, Bluetooth headphones are a versatile and simple solution for enjoying music without the limitations of wires.
Paired with a smartphone, a tablet, a computer, a TV, an amplifier or any other compatible source, Bluetooth earphones and headphones ensure good sound quality, as long as you choose the pair best suited to your needs. This is where things start to get complicated; it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of models currently available on the market. What are the fundamental characteristics that Bluetooth headphones must have? What is the built-in microphone for? What are aptX HD and LDAC codecs? Is active noise cancellation really a must-have? In this comparative guide about the best Bluetooth headphones, we will provide all of the elements necessary to help you choose a pair of headphones that is adapted to your needs.
Why choose Bluetooth headphones?
First launched over twenty years ago, Bluetooth wireless transmission technology is now systematically integrated into smartphones, tablets and most laptops. Bluetooth has significant assets that allow the listener to cut the cord between their smartphone and headphones. With greater freedom of movement, the listener can also move away from their smartphone (usually within 10 meters) without affecting playback. Very easy to use, you simply have to pair the source to the headphones by pressing and holding the latter’s on/off button. Some Bluetooth headphones, such as the Bose QuietComfort 35 II (you can read our review here), feature an NFC chip that automatically pairs the headphones with your smartphone when both devices are within range of one another. Another advantage: Bluetooth technology is bidirectional. Therefore, it is possible to answer and make phone calls with a pair of Bluetooth headphones. Provided that you choose a model that features a built-in microphone of course, as we will discuss later in this comparative guide about the best Bluetooth headphones.
Initially developed for wireless phones, Bluetooth transmission still suffers from a bad reputation and is considered to be incompatible with high fidelity listening as sound is transferred using lossy compression. Whereas basic codecs such as SBC and AAC compress sound and are limited to 350Kbps, more recent codecs like aptX HD and LDAC are optimized for Bluetooth transmission of HD audio files up to 24-bit/48kHz for aptX HD and 24-bit/96kHz for LDAC. Consequently, it is important to take into account the source of your music in order to determine which pair of Bluetooth headphones is right for you. If you only listen to MP3 files, any Bluetooth headphones will fit the bill. On the other hand, to fully enjoy FLAC files or lossless online music services such as Qobuz and Tidal, it is better to choose a pair of headphones that supports Bluetooth aptX HD or LDAC. These models are now rather common, with models such as the Sony WH-1000XM3, Nura Nuraphone and B&W PX Wireless.
Note that in order to benefit from high definition codecs such as aptX HD and LDAC, it is vital to make sure that the headphones and the source are both compatible with these formats. For example, if a pair of headphones supports LDAC but your smartphone doesn’t, you will only be able to use standard codecs.
In addition to sound quality, it is also important to look at the codecs supported by the headphones if you wish to use them while watching videos or playing video games. Bluetooth generates latency of a few milliseconds due to the digital processing of the sound by the source and the receiver in the headphones. This is why the sound and image can sometimes be desynchronized during a movie. Choosing headphones that are compatible with aptX Low Latency means that you can avoid this inconvenience. However, it is important to note that some smartphones and other Bluetooth devices automatically compensate for desynchronization. TVs and A/V receivers that feature a Bluetooth emitter often allow the user to adjust the synchronization (Lip sync function).
Bluetooth headphones with active noise reduction
By using ear pads that entirely cover the ears, Bluetooth headphones provide passive isolation which acts as a barrier, blocking out a certain amount of background noise. In an environment that isn’t too noisy, at home or in an office for example, this is usually enough to stop background noise from disrupting your listening session (as long as the music isn’t being played at very low volume). However, to maintain an immersive listening session, even in very noisy environments such as public transport (airplanes, metros, trains, etc.), it is preferable to opt for active noise reduction headphones. This reduction compliments the isolation already provided by closed-back headphones, letting you enjoy your music without having to raise the volume. The way it works is very simple and is based on the integration of one or several microphones to pick up environmental sounds and diffuse them using an opposite phase to that of the original signal. Diffusing a sound that is identical to the original on an opposite phase cancels out or reduces the original sound. As a result of this principle, not all systems offer the same performance. The effectiveness of the reduction depends entirely on the precision of the microphones and DSP (Digital Signal Processing) signals that analyze and invert the signal. Some of the best active noise cancellation Bluetooth headphones include the market leaders Bose QuietComfort 35 II, Sony WH-1000XM3, Jabra Elite 85H and Sennheiser Momentum Wireless (M2).
Noise reduction can be turned on or off using a button that is usually called ANC (Active Noise Cancellation) or NC on one of the headphones’ ear cups. It is important to note that some wireless Bluetooth headphones have several noise reduction modes to suit your needs. For example, the level of noise cancellation on the Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2 headphones can be easily adjusted thanks to a dedicated control placed underneath the left ear cup.
Some Bluetooth headphones also feature “smart” noise reduction that adapts to different situations. This is the case for the Technics F70 headphones that integrate an “ambient sound” mode that lets you activate the microphone by simply touching the ear cup. This activates the microphone and allows you to listen to an announcement in a train station or on a bus, for example, or to be aware of what is happening around you when listening to music in the street. This feature is important to cross the road free of danger. The Japanese manufacturer Sony includes a “Waiting” mode in its Sony WH-1000XM3 Bluetooth headphones, allowing the frequencies corresponding to the human voice to pass through so that you are able to hear conversations, and a “Walking” mode, which filters everyday noises, such as traffic for example.
Bluetooth headphones: battery life
Not all Bluetooth headphones feature the same components or battery. Therefore, battery life can vary greatly from one model to another. Moreover, the battery life of a pair of headphones depends entirely on how you use them. For example, listening to music without noise reduction won’t use as much battery power as listening to music with it activated, and the same goes for making phone calls. Consequently, it is important to know what you are going to be using your headphones for before deciding how much battery life is necessary. Even if you don’t travel long distances, it is highly recommended to invest in a pair of Bluetooth headphones with a long battery life in order to ensure optimal performance, without having to recharge them every night. Some of the best Bluetooth headphones in terms of battery life and sound quality are the Audio-Technica ATH-SR5T which provide around 38 hours of battery life, the KEF Space One Wireless which offer up to 40 hours when noise reduction is deactivated and up to 30 hours when it is activated, and the Marshall Major 3 Bluetooth which boast a battery life of 30 hours.
Note that most Bluetooth headphones also come with a removable mini jack cable so that they can be used even when their battery is drained.
Bluetooth headphones: control interface
Most Bluetooth headphones feature a control interface on one of their ear cups to control audio playback when paired with a smartphone or tablet. Generally, this interface allows you to pause music, change tracks (previous track or next track) and answer calls when the headphones feature a microphone. In addition to phone calls, a growing number of Bluetooth headphones, such as the Jabra Elite 85h, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and the Sony WH-CH500N are also compatible with the Google Assistant, Siri, or Amazon Alexa voice assistants installed on the paired mobile device.
The voice assistant is usually activated using a dedicated button on the ear cup. It is then possible to control all your music with ease, without taking your smartphone out of your pocket. Compatibility with a voice assistant also means that your headphones can answer a huge number of demands. For example, you can ask the assistant to read the latest news headlines, tell you the temperature, remind you what time you are supposed to be at your appointment, add an item to your shopping list, and so on.
Which is the best pair of Bluetooth headphones in 2019?
Throughout this comparative guide, we have listed the best Bluetooth headphones on the market according to different factors such as Bluetooth codecs, active noise reduction, battery life and control interface. However, it is difficult to choose the ultimate pair of Bluetooth headphones, as this depends on the uses and needs of each user. For example, someone who travels a lot won’t have the same needs as a sedentary user who is exposed to background noise. But, as we saw earlier in this guide, the battery life and sound quality are the two main criteria no matter where the headphones are used. Taking the models that meet these criteria, we were able to create three selections: best Bluetooth headphones under €150, from €150 to €300, and over €300.
Best Bluetooth headphones under €150
- Sony WH-CH700N
- Sony WH-XB700
- Focal Listen Wireless
- Plantronics BackBeat Fit 505
- Marshall Major 3 Bluetooth
Best Bluetooth headphones from €150 to €300
- Sony WH-1000XM3
- Sennheiser HD 4.50BTNC Wireless
- Sennheiser Momentum Wireless AE (M2)
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II
- Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2
Best Bluetooth headphones over €300
- Nura Nuraphone
- Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless
- Technics F70
- Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC Traveler
- Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H9i