Until quite recently, if you considered yourself serious about your audio, you would have been right to dismissing wireless headphones as just a statement for the fashion-conscious. The early days of wireless audio were often marred by glitchy and intermittent audio, but still, wireless cans persevered and survived. Recent Bluetooth technology has really started to catch up with the concepts of how wireless audio should really behave (and, more importantly, sound). Here at TMS, we decided to pick the very best of the latest crop of Bluetooth headphones of this year for you, just to prove things really have caught up.

How We Choose:

What we’ve aimed to nail down when choosing the current best wireless headphones on the market is the golden formula of top components and build, audiophile-grade performance, glitch-free wireless streaming, continuous playback time on a single charge and, of course, aesthetics and presentation. Each pick here represents the best in class for its price. Where applicable, we namecheck and describe the presence of noise-cancelation, voice control and other unique features that might really tip you into deciding what spec is right for you. We should say, by the way, that there is some crossover between the models here and the ones on our noise-canceling list, but that's perhaps inevitable. Our Buying Advice section further below leaves very few stones unturned when dissecting the technologies currently available, so do check it out. And if you want something a little more high-end, check out our roundup of the best premium cans, too. At the time of our latest update (check under the big photo at the top), all prices were correct - and if you disagree with us, or think we've missed a pick, feel free to fight us (nicely) in the comments! 

Our Wireless Headphone Picks:

1. Master & Dynamic MW50 ($439)

Master & Dynamic MW50Continuous Playback Time: 15 hours 
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes 
Active Noise-Cancelation: No
aptX Capable: Yes
What We Like: Killer sound, luxurious design, excellent accessories.
What We Don't: Looks are slightly deceptive.

It was quite a surprise when we found ourselves putting a pair of on-ear headphones at the top of this list, but really, the MW50s are incredible. For a start, they are probably the most luxurious pair of wired headphones available, with superlative design, as well as a fantastic canvas carry-case to tote them around him. They work beautifully, and along with full aptX functionality, offer some truly amazing sound. It’s not going to trouble a big open-back pair of planars, but the way the MW50s treat the vocals has to be heard to be believed.

That being said: it’s an easy mistake to make (and we made it) that these are indeed open-back. The grille design makes it easy to be misled. Master & Dynamic confirmed to us that these are closed-back headphones, and anybody buying them needs to be aware of that. All the same, you should absolutely look at buying them. They are, for our money, easily the best pair of wireless headphones currently available. And given how crowded the market is, that’s quite an accolade. Oh, and we did a full review a while ago, too. If you want an over-ear version, which is just as good but a little pricier, check out the MW60.
See the Master & Dynamic MW50

2. B&O Beoplay H9 Wireless ($499)

B&O PLAY by Bang & OlufsenContinuous Playback Time: 16 hours
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes
Active Noise-Cancelation: Yes
aptX Capable: Yes
What We Like: Great update of an already great pair, killer looks and sound.
What We Don't: Barely noticeable high-pitched static noise, caused by the ANC circuit, although only when no music is being played.

We like the ethos driving Bang & Olufsen as a company. The B&O H9 is a proud successor to the previous H versions and shares most of their features, although it really cranks the style up. The use of aluminum and lambskin is already a B&O trademark in itself, and these easily rival the looks of other headphones in this class.

The H9 has an equally impressive wireless performance, but a substantial difference here is the presence of an in-house-designed and -tuned active noise-cancelation (ANC) circuit. This is a very welcome feature since, despite the fairly large pads, the H9’s acoustic isolation is not as hefty as one might expect. With the ANC active, though, the Beoplays are impressively quiet and can last up to sixteen hours before needing a charge. The aluminum interface on the ear cup is similar in design to previous models (H8, H7, etc.) and certain minor pops occasionally accompanying the control functions of H8 or earlier models are thankfully absent here. Since we’re comparing this pair to the older H8, we do notice a better range coverage and a slight improvement in audio quality as well. The H9’s cleverly utilise the latest Bluetooth 4.2, which with the low latency performance of the aptX codec make them into a real tour de force of portable audio entertainment. A superb choice for any wireless audiophile. 
See the B&O Beoplay H9 Wireless

3. Sennheiser HD1 ($497)

Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless Continuous Playback Time: 22 hours
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes
Active Noise-Cancelation: Yes
aptX Capable: Yes
What We Like: Looks, sound, range, foldability.
What We Don't: They might be good, but we reckon they are overpriced for what you get. 

The updated HD1s continue a line that listeners across the world have fallen in love with - and with good reason. Actually, several reasons. The multi-function controls are easily accessed from the rim edge of the earcups, which also house not one but several miniature mics - two for hands free calling (when paired with your smartphone) and a further four for the built in NoiseGard active noise-cancelation circuit. The HD1s offer an impressive twenty-two hours of continuous performance (in Bluetooth/NoiseGard mode) and can also be used as a wired passive pair (with an included locking 3.5mm jack). Made of stainless steel, aluminum and leather, they also have these cool thumbscrews for headband adjustments on the sides of the housing. As with many cans in this price range, the included accessories are top notch and we like the elegant carry case - perfect for longevity, since this is a foldable pair.

Interestingly, after being auditioned in a passive mode and then switched to an active mode, especially with the NoiseGard (ANC) circuit on, the sound character changes quite substantially - for the better. The internal circuitry is really well-specced, and these headphones can take full advantage of it by connecting to a digital device for audio streaming via its mini-USB cable as well. In its intended mode - wireless Bluetooth - the audio is rich and uninterrupted, thanks to the Bluetooth version 4.0, and the aptX low-latency codec helps enormously - whether you use the HD1s for music, movie soundtracks or for playing games. As we said in our review of the model that used to be called the Momentum Wireless, “Some things in this world just work.”
See the Sennheiser HD1

4. Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless ($400)

Bowers & Wilkins P7Continuous Playback Time: 17 hours
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes
Active Noise-Cancelation: No
aptX Capable: Yes
What We Like: Very impressive sound, beautifully built, long battery life.
What We Don't: Lack of quality accessories.

Featuring a smart-looking metal and leather combo, the B&W P7 headphones look exclusive, feel sturdy (even though they are also foldable) and are very solidly built - despite the flimsy-looking metal accents.The P7 Wireless, as the name suggests, has quite a few siblings, although all but one other (the P5) are wired.

To preserve the drivers’ acoustic performance, the company have opted not to use an active noise-cancelation circuit, and have gone for proper isolation using good padding instead. For enjoying detailed audio during air travel, you might want to go for something like the Beoplay H9s instead. But the P7 manages to keep most external noise out, and the audio performance is incredibly impressive. Bowers & Wilkins know more than a thing or two about reference speakers, and it really shows here. The sound, as we said in our review, is extraordinary. Being of low impedance (22 ohms), the P7s can be driven by any smartphone/handheld device, and do not really require a preamp per se. When put through one though, however, the pair elevates itself into a different league altogether, coming close in performance and audio detail to some serious wired-only reference-grade cans. If you can forgive the lack of accessories - outside of wires, all you get is a slightly boring, too-small carry case and a subscription to B&W’s album service for three months - you’ve got a winner. 
See the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless

5. Sony WH-1000XM2 ($350)

Sony WH1000XM2Continuous Playback Time: 30 hours 
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes 
Active Noise-Cancelation: Yes
aptX Capable: No (LDAC-capable)
What We Like: A fantastic update on an already great pair of cans.
What We Don't: Very little.

A previous entry on this list was the MDR-1000X from Sony, and this is the update: version 2 that takes everything the original did, and does it better. The WH is the extension of all the good ideas Sony had, and it really shows. For our money, these are top five cans - worthy alternatives to the bigger names on the list (and more affordable, too!)

You get scintillating sound, with tight, controlled bass and dynamic highs. You get active noise-cancelation. You get up to thirty (!) hours of playback. You don’t get aptX - but it’s a deliberate choice. Sony have included their LDAC transmission protocol, which claims to transmit up to three times as much data as conventional Bluetooth. Plus, you get their ambient noise control, and their excellent app. There’s so much to love here, and while we still prefer the cans above this, it’s a very narrow margin. Onwards, and upwards! (Although we do wish they’d come up with snappier names. Seriously.)
See the Sony WH-1000XM2

6. Bose QuietComfort 35 ($329)

Bose QuietComfort 35Continuous Playback Time: 20 hours
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes
Active Noise-Cancelation: Yes
aptX Capable: No
What We Like: Terrific ANC tech, great mic quality, very good overall tonal character.
What We Don't: No aptX support, you can’t turn off the ANC circuit, no auto-sensing power-off.

Bose’s QuietComfort range has been around for a while, to great acclaim. We like other models over it, but there’s no faulting its popularity, especially with the frequent-flyer crowd. The models in the series are quite different from regular headphones; this is due to the way Bose have employed their digital audio prowess in voicing the 35s. The tonal character of these cans relies entirely on the company’s digital tweaking - EQ curve, frequency levels, crossover points, and so on. And the sonic character has been digitally ‘imprinted’ - applying its magic before reaching the DACs ( ‘digital to analog converter’ chips, translating digital ones-and-zeros into actual sound). 

It really works, and the rich sonic image has plenty of balance and control throughout all the frequency registers. Unfortunately, you can’t deactivate the ANC function (even in wired mode) and in addition to that, external codecs such as aptX are not supported - a bit of a pity. However, Bluetooth audio signal is super solid, and a special mention is reserved for the 35’s voice call quality, which remains crystal clear even in the noisiest surroundings. 
See the Bose QuietComfort 35 Wireless

7. Parrot Zik 3 ($299)

Parrot Zik 3.0Continuous Playback Time: 7 hours (mode-dependant up to 18 hours)
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes
Active Noise-Cancelation: Yes
aptX Capable: No
What We Like: Quirky (perhaps ingenious?) swivel design and custom finishes, good audio performance.
What We Don't: Bluetooth 3.0 only, meaning no aptX.

The Parrot Zik 3 has been around for a little while now and we already have a very extensive review here. The super-cool quirkiness of the swivel design could be one of Jean Paul Gaultier's costume creations for the classic sci-fi flick The Fifth Element: visually-striking, unique and with a multitude of loud colors and finishes on offer. Strange they may be, and yet they manage to be pleasing and beautiful at the same time.   

The Zik 3 comes with a very capable ANC circuit, and a smartphone app which allows for user-controled features such as amount of ambience noise-reduction (handy!), EQ and virtual ambience settings, and smart pause via an accelerometer (just take the cans off your head and they’re on pause). Really, really cool stuff that matches and even surpasses the initial expectations given by the Parrots’ looks and design. The only let-down, for the price that is, is the fact that the main biz here - Bluetooth transmission - is a yesteryear version, 3.0. We’ll explain in our Buying Advice below the significance of having Bluetooth 4.0 or later. AptX codec support is missing too, due to the same fact. The result? Sound is OK, but the sonic wow factor is somewhat less punchy than the visual impact. So close though! 
See the Parrot Zik 3

8. Focal Listen Wireless ($299)

Focal Listen WirelessContinuous Playback Time: 20 hours 
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes 
Active Noise-Cancelation: No
aptX Capable: No
What We Like: Focal’s sound is always terrific.
What We Don't: Slightly clumsy controls.

Focal are making a major push into the headphone market of late. We recently named their ultra high-end Utopia headphones as the best on the planet, but they aren’t just focusing on the elite market. They also developed a pair of wireless over-ears for the mid range Bluetooth market, and we can confirm – after spending a month with these – that they did a superb job.

Our review is forthcoming, but in the meantime, we can say that the French company have really nailed the sound, which is crisp and precise. While the rubbery controls on one side of the housing are a little bit clumsy, this is probably the only negative aspect about these cans. They may not have aptX, but they make up for it with excellent battery life, good call quality, superb portability, and that wonderful sound. Think this company is going to dominate the headphone market very soon, and you should pick up these cans to find out why.
See the Focal Listen Wireless

9. EVEN Earprint H2 Wireless ($299)

EVEN EarPrint H2Continuous Playback Time: 20 hours 
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes 
Active Noise-Cancelation: No
aptX Capable: No
What We Like: Personalised hearing controls.
What We Don't: Vocals aren’t amazing.

EVEN are relatively new to the wireless market, and their Earprint H2s do something we wish other headphones would. They allow you to calibrate your audio with a short hearing test, meaning the headphones are personalised to your ears. It’s a nifty and useful little tool, and it helps that it comes in a very, very sleek pair of headphones.

We are always a sucker for wood effect on our cans, and that’s definitely a part of why we like these. The sound quality didn’t blow our minds enough to put these in the top five – we feel that the vocals, in particular, weren’t great, even after tweaking the controls via the well-designed app – but we still had a lot of fun using these. Plus, you get a great carry case, twenty hours of battery life, and a fun and unique pair of headphones that are different from most of what’s on the market right now. We can’t wait to see what EVEN do next.
See the EVEN Earprint H2 Wireless

10. Klipsch Reference Bluetooth Headphones ($299)

Klipsch HeadphonesContinuous Playback Time: 20 hours
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes
Active Noise-Cancelation: No
aptX Capable: Yes
What We Like: They look good, and we love the audio performance.
What We Don't: No ANC. 

We hardly need to introduce Klipsch as a brand - most music lovers already know of their speaker design bad-assery. The company is not new to the headphone market either, and the Klipsch Reference Bluetooth Headphones (yes, that is their name - the folks at Klipsch clearly aren’t romantics) are possibly the complete antithesis to the Zik 3’s above, on account of their fairly quotidian looks and total emphasis on audio quality. 

Don’t get us wrong, they are not bad looking headphones, by any account. One thing that they do exceptionally well is sound incredible for a Bluetooth pair of cans of this price tag. Taking a full advantage of some of Klipsch’s famed speaker design innovations, namely their Balanced Dynamic technology, which drastically reduces speaker distortion, these headphones achieve a very tight and clean-sounding audio performance. The bass frequencies are extended and round, controlled, and never muddy. For a Bluetooth set, this probably comes as close to a ‘reference’ grade performance as it is currently possible, so Klipsch are not boasting in vain - even though they don’t deliver the excitement or shine that we expect from cans if they’re going to crack the higher echelons of this list. The wireless audio is helped big time by aptX and AAC codec support, and last but not least, voice calls sound fantastic too. 
See the Klipsch Reference Bluetooth Headphones

11. Sennheiser PXC 550 ($400)

Sennheiser PXC 550Continuous Playback Time: 15 hours 
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes 
Active Noise-Cancelation: Yes 
aptX Capable: No
What We Like: Good sound, intelligent functionality.
What We Don't: Fiddly buttons.

We have rarely felt so conflicted about a pair of headphones. On the one hand, the PXC 550s offer terrific sound quality that can hang with the best. They also deliver some excellent functionality, including a clever feature where you simply have to click the cups ninety degrees to turn them on, making them among the easiest headphones to just grab and go. The noice canceling is good, too. There’s a reason - or several - why these headphones have dominated so many Best Of lists, and have won so many fans.

But, as we said in our review, there are certainly some issues. Chief among these are the fiddly controls and annoying buttons that make initial setup a bit trying. We also, when we tested it, encountered some issues with Bluetooth dropouts. This meant that, more often than not, using them was a slightly frustrating experience. To be clear: we still believe they deserve a place on this list, as they have plenty of good selling points. But they’re in the bottom half for a reason. 
See the Sennheiser PXC 550

12. V-MODA Crossfade Wireless ($300)

V-MODA Crossfade WirelessContinuous Playback Time: 12 hours
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes
Active Noise-Cancelation: No
aptX Capable: No
What We Like: Highly detailed performance, rugged construction.
What We Don't: The sci-fi commando looks may not be suited for everyone.

Once you see the V-Moda Crossfade Wireless headphones, it’s hard to un-see them. They make the same striking visual impression as the Parrot Zik 3’s, but in a much more sci-fi commando kind of way. The word ‘military’ is used more than once in the specs, as well as terms such as gunmetal black, steelflex and custom shield plate kit, which are more appropriate to something from a Tom Cruise movie. It’s all in the name of durability of course, and thankfully V-Moda have limited the military-grade-ness only to some of the materials and testing procedures. You’ll still be able to board a flight with them, but not unnoticed though - this is one big pair of headphones.

But even if you are not a big person, these headphones will fit well. They are fully adjustable and incredibly comfortable - no effort spared here, memory pads and all. The substantial size of the the earcups is due to the larger (50mm) speaker drivers - always a promise for a good, capable bass performance. Having already won multiple design awards, the drivers feature a patent-pending dual-diaphragm design, sporting inner and outer rings which separate bass content from the the mid and treble registers, a bit like reference bookshelf speakers featuring main drivers for low end content and separate tweeters for tops. Sort of. Being a headphone design obviously changes how things work, but what is important here is the result, and the audio is mightily impressive. There’s no ANC circuit on this model, but the extra padding does help, so these isolate ambient noise quite well. 
See the V-MODA Crossfade Wireless

13. Plantronics Backbeat 500 ($70)

Plantronics BackBeat 500Continuous Playback Time: 18 hours 
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes 
Active Noise-Cancelation: No
aptX Capable: No
What We Like: A great update on the Pro2.
What We Don't: Sound is no patch on the models above it, still no aptX.

We originally featured the Backbeat PRO 2 on this list, but after careful consideration, we think the Backbeat 500 deserves its spot. While it lacks the original’s noise-canceling, it offers much the same functionality for less than half the price, in an updated model that we think absolutely deserves a place on this list. Plantronics continue to be underdogs in this market, but maybe they shouldn’t be - this is a pretty grand pair of cheap cans.

There is no aptX Bluetooth, but all the same, the sound quality is very good, with crisp detail that sounds like it should come from a more expensive pair of cans. In addition, these headphones will give you a continuous playback time of around 18 hours before they need a charge – suitable for all but the longest journeys. In the sub-$100 category, these are real winners, and among the best out there. Check them out if you just want a cheap pair of headphones that will get the job done.
See the Plantronics Backbeat 500

14. Jaybird X3 ($100)

Jaybird X3Continuous Playback Time: 8 hours 
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes 
Active Noise-Cancelation: No
aptX Capable: No
What We Like: Good sound, genuine improvement on the X2.
What We Don't: Lose the charging gizmo? You’re outta luck!

The Logitech-owned Jaybird recently put out the third version of its X series earbuds, and they bring along some genuine improvements to the X2. For starters, they are less bulky, and a battery redesign means longer playtime. They also deliver everything we liked about this series, including very good sound with surprisingly deep bass. Most wireless earbuds tend to be geared towards use in sport and workouts, and these are no exception.

They do have one slight annoyance, which is the (included) charging accessory that you need to attach the headphones to when connecting them to a USB port. The design rationale is solid – it prevents the headphones having a port that can be clogged with sweat and dirt – but it does mean that if you lose the gizmo, you need to buy another one before you can charge your headphones again. All the same, this is a minor thing. And if you want to change up, the excellent Freedom Wireless buds are still available. We did a full review on them a while back.
See the Jaybird X3

15. Optoma Nuforce BE Sport3 ($69)

NuForce BESPORT3Continuous Playback Time: 8.5 hours 
Smartphone Controls/Mic: Yes 
Active Noise-Cancelation: No
aptX Capable: Yes
What We Like: Sound and design that gets the basics right.
What We Don't: Very little.

We hemmed and hawed about whether to include earbuds on this list, but eventually decided that there were a few models that were too good to leave off. This is one of them. We originally thought we might include newer version from Optoma, but in the end, we decided that this is the one we still go for. If you can look past the eyeball-searing colors, you’ll find a terrific little pair of sports buds.

They are aptX-capable, sweat resistant, and offers sound that really delivers. More importantly, their design shows quite a lot of thought, with simple controls and a range of included buds that allows you to get the exact fit you want. They aren’t the most exciting model on this list, and definitely won’t be for everyone, but in terms of wireless functionality, they really do work well. We liked these immensely, and said as much in our full review.
See the Optoma Nuforce BE Sport3

16. Jabra Move Wireless ($70)

Jabra Move WirelessContinuous Playback Time: 8 hours 
Smartphone Controls/Mic: No 
Active Noise-Cancelation: No
aptX Capable: No
What We Like: Virtually infallible Bluetooth signal, good sound for the price.
What We Don't: Not foldable, slightly cheap construction, only eight hours of battery.

We previously included Jabra’s Revo on this list, but we think it’s high time we replace it with something a little more robust. Enter the Move Wireless, a basic pair of headphones for a good price that offers a couple of killer features. Chief among these is the sound, which is comparable to models costing quite a bit more, as well as its terrific Bluetooth signal. While there’s no aptX, the Bluetooth 4.0 never dropped out while we were using them. Not once. Huzzah!

There are some downsides. The cheap construction, and the fact that you can’t fold them up, earmarks them as budget cans. Worse: they have a limited battery life, only clocking in at eight hours on moderate volume. But as a pair of budget wireless cans, and with frequent price drops on Amazon, there’s no reason not to check these out.
See the Jabra Move Wireless

Specs Table:

Headphones Price Driver Type CPT* Controls ANC** aptX
Master & Dynamic MW50 $439 40mm On-Ear, Closed 15 Hours Yes No Yes
B&O Beoplay H9 $499 40mm Over-Ear, Closed 16 Hours Yes Yes Yes
Sennheiser HD1 $500 40mm Over-Ear, Closed 22 Hours Yes Yes Yes
B&W P7 Wireless $400 40mm Over-Ear, Closed 17 Hours Yes No Yes
Sony WH-1000XM2 $350 40mm Over-Ear, Closed 30 Hours Yes Yes No 
Bose QuietComfort 35 $329 40mm Over-Ear, Closed 20 Hours Yes Yes No
Parrot Zik 3 $299 40mm Over-Ear, Closed 7/18 Hours Yes Yes No
Focal Listen Wireless $299 Unknown Over-Ear, Closed 20 Hours Yes No No
EVEN Earprint H2 Wireless $299 40mm On-Ear, Closed 20 Hours Yes No No
SONY MDR 1000X $328 40mm Over-Ear, Closed 22 Hours Yes Yes No
Klipsch Reference $299 40mm Over-Ear, Closed 20 Hours Yes No Yes
Sennheiser PXC 550 $400 Unknown Over-Ear, Closed 15 Hours Yes Yes No
V-MODA Crossfade $300 50mm Over-Ear, Closed 12 Hours Yes No No
Plantronics Backbeat 500 $500 40mm On-Ear, Closed 18 Hours Yes No No
Jaybird X3 $100 6mm In-Ear 8 Hours Yes No No
Optoma Nuforce BE Sport3 $69 6mm In-Ear 8 Hours Yes No Yes
Jabra Move Wireless $70 40mm On-Ear, Closed 8 Hours No No No

*CPT = Continuous Playback Time
**ANC = Active Noise-Cancelation

Focal Listen Wireless | The Master Switch

Buying Advice:

Pros And Cons Of Wireless Headphones

Wireless headphones are just like regular wired headphones, but outfitted with an internal Bluetooth wireless receiver. This receiver ‘picks up’ the music player - a Bluetooth equipped smartphone, tablet or a computer, and allows for it to be paired with the headphones - just like two smartphones can pair for data exchange, or how your Android or iOS watch might be linked to your smart device.  

The immediately obvious advantage of wireless headphones is the sense of physical liberation - great for sports or activities, or wearing clothing which would otherwise make things difficult, like a hooded ski jacket. By no longer being limited by a wire, you can move around - normally up to 30 feet, in some cases much more, and still enjoy your music. 

The first limitation - because yeah, there’s more than one - is the the battery life. All wireless headphones require power to function, and have built-in rechargeable batteries. The cans’ price and quality often determine longevity of playback on a single charge and this can vary enormously - from a few hours to up to a day of continuous music playing, and many more in a dormant standby mode. 

The main issue with wireless headphones is in the problems and shortcomings associated with Bluetooth tech itself - namely the steadiness of delivering glitch free audio, which can be quite a challenge. We’ll talk about different ‘grades’ of Bluetooth transmission below

Audio performance of regular wired headphones is often a result of their own audio characteristics (speaker driver performance) and those of the music player’s headphone preamp. Digital audio is being converted to pure analog sound at the player’s end, and is being ‘pushed’ through an analog cable to the headphone drivers. A fairly simple signal path, no? But Wireless cans are different. They bypass the digital-to-analogue converters (DACs) of your source player. These are the internal hardware chipsets ending in a 3.5mm mini-jack output - normally feeding a wired pair headphones. DACs are the chips converting digital data into actual analog audio, but when using wireless, they are rendered irrelevant since the player is beaming ones-and-zeros directly to the headset. 

Which from the word go is bad news for Bluetooth audio, since Bluetooth is by design a compressed format. It has to cut down the amount of data being sent, shaving off nonessential bits, in order to get the audio effectively and quickly to the headphones. That means a lower-resolution version of your audio reaching the headphones’ drivers. Compressed sound quality is often described as slightly crunchy, grainy, cold and pixelated, so is this not a good thing.

Considering that many listeners start with an already compressed audio file - the default 192 Kbps MP3/AAC files found in Amazon/iTunes as well as virtually all streaming services - it is easy to understand why the end result in many wireless headphone setups can sound worse than what you’d hear on a CD (uncompressed audio) of the same material pumped through a nice headphone preamp, driving a real fancy wired pair of headphones...

BUT. Hang on a second.

Even if the above is true, the good news is that many headphones on this list are so good, they’d probably ‘blur’ the subjective quality gap. The even better news is that Bluetooth has come of age and is trying hard to carry and deliver the large chunks of data that previously couldn’t even dream of lifting. How’s it doing that? We explain below…and if you want to switch to wired at any time, you should check out our guide to improving your headphone audio with DACs and amps. While we're at, we also have a guide to headphone specs. All the guides! Guides for everyone!

Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless | The Master Switch

Bluetooth 3.1 Vs 4.0

From a digital ‘ones-and-zeros’ perspective, it isn’t possible to fit enough data in a Bluetooth signal to get a proper, high-resolution sound, right? Well, yeah, that’s true, though version 4.0, (and especially the updates - 4.1 and 4.2, also known as Bluetooth Smart or Bluetooth Low Energy) are certainly trying to make things better. 

But how so? Bluetooth Smart (4.1), which makes a considerable leap forward when compared to the previous versions, offers major performance improvements in terms of quick (and smart) device pairing, increased range, speed and bandwidth, and up to four times less strain on battery power.

The big news for audio applications is version 4.1’s vastly improved latency - theoretically up to ten times better (or smaller figure). 

For example: if you are a gamer, or if you play a virtual synth on your device, it can be very disorientating to tap your device and hear the sound coming in your wireless cans not in ‘real time’ but noticeably later. In Bluetooth 3.0 or earlier versions, latency can often be of up to 200 milliseconds (ms), which honestly sounds like hearing your voice as a ‘slap-back’ wall echo in a large bathroom. This is the best way to describe latency.

Bluetooth Smart-equipped headphones (or speakers) deal with latency much better, in theory taking the latency numbers down to 40ms, which explains their much better ‘feel’ for real time control. It is much closer to that of a wired pair of cans in fact

It is a bit shocking to know that version 4.0 became commercially available back in 2010 and is just about now becoming the universally used version. It would be therefore exciting to see what version 5.0 has in store for us, and yes, it has already been announced that it will quadruple range coverage and increase the capacity of wireless data broadcasts by eight hundred percent. We can do the simple maths - this would easily mean that version 5.0 will handle super high-res files with ease!   

Sennheiser HD1 | The Master Switch

aptX Explained

Until Bluetooth 5.0 has kicked in though, we have a savior for transmitting high quality audio over Bluetooth: aptX.

The aptX audio codec (yes, it has no capital letter at the start) is a mode of wireless data transfer using a smarter type of compression, which packs larger chunks of data using a 4:1 ratio algorithm.  This means that it can easily handle up to ‘CD quality’ files - 16-bit 44.1 kHz.. Latency is also reduced considerably - down to 32ms,well within the 40ms threshold recommended for having no audio-visual ‘lip sync’ issues. This is the real deal, not just public relations.

aptX is pretty much the standard version of the codec when used in Bluetooth wireless audio, and you might often see it advertised as aptX Low Latency. Let’s note that there are indeed several quality ‘grades’ of aptX - including aptX Enhanced and aptX Lossless, which can broadcast proper hi-res formats of up to 24/48kHz and 24/96kHz respectively. Since these hi-res aptX versions are not widely used yet, let’s focus on the version relevant to our wireless cans on this list.

The most important thing to know about aptX Low Latency is its mode of operation. It runs pretty much exclusively on Bluetooth version 4.0 or higher, on account of its increased capability. The crucial fact that we need to take into account is that it can only work on compatible devices. 

It really is a case of ‘it takes two to tango’ - aptX works only if you have both aptX-capable player and headphones. Many aptX-enabled devices do not, unfortunately, indicate clearly if aptX is present or even active, but it is always easy enough to check if aptX comes as an option on your smartphone (or other music device)! 

What about aptX on Apple devices? Unfortunately Apple have dug their heels in the ground and have so far refused to embrace the aptX codec. With the iPhone being a virtual market leader of the smartphone market, that’s not such good news, is it? 

But not all is lost. You might have noticed us mentioning ‘AAC codec support’ in the descriptions of certain headphone models on this list. Apple devices do support AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), as it is a very popular codec widely used by Apple iTunes and YouTube. It was originally designed to offer a similar compression to MP3, though in theory at least, does offer slightly better quality than MP3 (all subject to bitrate figures of course). 

Until recently AAC was not used in wireless applications at all, but thankfully many modern wireless headphone models now offer native AAC codec support. By native here, we mean that the AAC ‘language’ beams directly from player to cans, and the quality is not ‘ruined’ by additional Bluetooth compression. Until Apple embrace aptX, this is the one you should be looking for if you use your top notch wireless cans with an iPhone!   

Parrot Zik 3 | The Master Switch

Impedance Explained

Impedance can be another puzzling technical term. We can explain it simply by saying that it measures how easily or not can a set of headphones be ‘driven’ to a decent playback level. The lower the impedance, the less you need to push the volume on your music player. 

Impedance in wireless headphones is all taken care of by the wireless circuit itself - you don’t really need to worry about impedance when they are used in their regular wireless mode, as the headphones’ built-in amp handles it. The DAC (digital-to-analog converter, as described above) converts digital data (audio) and feeds it into (the built-in) mini headphone preamp circuit. This takes care of the impedance necessary to feed the headphone drivers.  

The impedance of wireless headphones changes when you go into wired mode. This is where now you have to rely on an external circuit to power the cans - and this may of course be your smartphone, or a headphone amp or external DAC. Most wireless headsets are designed to have low or ‘friendly’ impedances, which means they can easily be driven by any device.

What is a low impedance figure, you might ask? Most (wired) cans with low impedance (say 25 ohms or less) will work well with ‘weak amplification’ gear such as  portable music players, phones, and other similar portable devices. Higher impedance wired sets (32 ohms and over) demand more power to deliver a proper playback level. The big plus with such high-impedance sets, is that they are actually better-protected from clipping damage or even "blowing" when used with more powerful audio sources. 

With higher impedance values (for example, 250 ohms and up to 600 ohms) it’s likely that portable devices will struggle to deliver decent playback levels at all. In such cases you’d need an additional headphone preamp (also known as headphone amp) to drive the signal of your wired headphones to an optimum listening level. 

Noise Isolation Vs Active Noise-Cancelation

Isolation refers to how well headphones eliminate ambient noise, by means of their physical construction, the type of materials used and the tightness of the fit on your ears. The better the isolation, the better you hear the music and more expensive models strike the perfect balance between isolation and comfort, even when worn for long periods. 

If passive noise isolation uses the design and construction to block out unwanted sound, active noise-canceling designs use a powered circuit, reducing ambient noise by a process called phase-reversal

Such designs require a power source, usually a battery, to drive their circuit. These circuits feature a teeny-tiny mic (or two, or even four in some recent models) dedicated solely for monitoring the outside noise. These mini mics feed the outside world into a mini processor, which reverses its phase (the direction of the soundwaves). This ‘reversed material’ is introduced, at a low level, into the cans’ playback - all in near-real time. The two ambient ‘feeds’ are quite like two identical ocean waves crashing into each other, resulting in reduction of each other’s level. 

Active noise-canceling technology can often attenuate ambient noise superbly, but it’s worth mentioning that it works best on constant or sustained sounds. These are mostly lower frequencies - airplane engine noise, distant traffic, that kind of thing. 

Regular noise suppression algorithms  (meaning those in cheaper units) are much less effective on sudden/quick sounds like a knock on the door or high-pitched noises. Certain more expensive headphones’ ANC circuits have the ability to seek-and-destroy noise located in much wider frequency ‘windows’ and so can be equally impressive in higher pitch noise reduction.

Many ANC-equipped headphones have the so called ‘Ambient” mode button, which lets you hear your environment. This is of course handy if you are crossing the street, or cycling, etc. The process involves ‘un-reversing’ the reversed ambience mic feed (which as described is employed for canceling the external noise). The result is that you are now hearing the ambience ‘straight’. Flip the button again and the phase-reversal kicks in.

Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless | The Master Switch

Frequency Response And Intelligibility 

At TMS, we try to avoid quoting frequency response figures. There are too many factors that make these figures subjective outside of a lab environment, and we don’t think they’re useful when you’re deciding which pair to buy. 

Ideally, headphones should sound transparent. It’s OK if they depart slightly from the ideal flat response (meaning the way music was intended and made by the producers). A little emphasis can be applied on both the bass and treble, and this is normally what we like to do from our player’s EQ settings. This helps simulate the sound you would be hearing if the levels were higher (the human hearing sensitivity at both spectrum ends drops drastically when the sound becomes quieter). 

Lower listening levels are the secret for prolonged hours of listening. If wearing a pair of cans for several hours a day, comfort and durability are also key factors. If listening in quiet environments, they do not really need to block external noises. Many people also want to hear and understand if someone talking to them without removing their headphones. An open-back design represents the best choice in such a case. Compared to closed-back headphones, they offer a flatter frequency response too (think truer sound), and are much less fatiguing after hours of listening. 

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