Until quite recently, if you considered yourself serious about your audio, you would have been right to dismiss 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 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) and right now, wireless cans sound almost as good as their wired counterparts. Here at TMS, we decided to pick the very best of this year, just to prove things really have caught up.
   

How We Choose:

First things first: we’ve tried, where possible, to avoid too much crossover between this list and our list of the best noise-canceling headphones. Our criteria for this was simple: if a pair of headphones felt like it was marketing itself as more of a wireless model with noise-canceling added, then it got on the former, and if it felt like a pair of noise-cancelers that just happen to be wireless, it got on the latter. Hardly scientific, we know, but it’s the best we could do to establish even a blurry line! If you don’t find your favorite pair here, chances are they’re on that other list, which we link to below.

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. 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. Bowers & Wilkins PX ($400)

Bowers & Wilkins PXBattery Life: 18 Hours
Noice-Canceling: Yes 
aptX Bluetooth: Yes
What We Like: Terrific user experience, excellent sound quality.
What We Don’t: Design feels a little unfinished.

The Bowers & Wilkins P7 was already one of the best wireless headphones available; the PX took everything that made it good, and supercharged it, making it an absolutely essential pair of headphones that we think rank as the best available.

It’s not just the incredible sound, which retains what made the P7 so special. It’s how intuitive and fun they are to use. While other headphones might pause the music if you pull them off and hang around your neck, the PX will do so if you simply pull one cup away from your ear – a feature that you don’t know how much you need until you actually try it. They have a very respectable battery life, even with the noise-canceling turned on, and although there are a couple strange design issues – such as an exposed wire underneath the lower part of the headband – they remain among our favorite headphones, and a pair that we highly recommend. It’s also worth noting that they come with a fantastic app, that allows you to adjust your noise-canceling modes. Over the past couple of years, B&W have left other manufacturers in the dust, and this is probably going to be the state of affairs for some time to come.
See the Bowers & Wilkins PX
 

2. Master & Dynamic MW50 ($449)

Master & Dynamic MW50

Battery Life: 15 Hours
Noice-Canceling: No
aptX Bluetooth: Yes
What We Like: Killer sound, luxurious design, excellent accessories.
What We Don't: Looks are slightly deceptive.

We adore the MW50s, but on balance, the PX has them beat - the tech on the latter is too good, and the sound quality just edges New York’s finest. However, that doesn’t mean the MW50s are no longer worth buying. They are one spectacular pair of cans. 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. Read our in-depth review.
See the Master & Dynamic MW50
 

3. EVEN Earprint H2 Wireless ($299)

EVEN EarPrint H2

Battery Life: 20 Hours
Noice-Canceling: No
aptX Bluetooth: No
What We Like: Personalised hearing controls.
What We Don't: Vocals aren’t amazing.

The last time we updated this list, these were ranked in the middle. We had a chance to listen to them again, and we think we did them a disservice. They aren’t going to beat the Bowers & Wilkins or the Master & Dynamic, but they really are very good - although we do think the H3, when it appears, could do with some work on the vocals.

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’re always suckers for wood effect on our cans, and that’s definitely a part of why we like 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
 

4. Sennheiser HD1 ($497)

Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless

Battery Life: 22 Hours
Noice-Canceling: Yes
aptX Bluetooth: 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 HD1 - previously known as the Momentum Wireless, for reasons too utterly boring to go into here - are superb. 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 22 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. The MW50s have a better carry case, true, but we still like the one from Sennheiser.

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. Read our in-depth review of the Momentum Wireless - same cans, different name.
See the Sennheiser HD1
 

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

B&O PLAY by Bang & Olufsen

Battery Life: 16 Hours
Noice-Canceling: Yes
aptX Bluetooth: 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 - although for the record, the MW50s by Master & Dynamic are much, much cooler. Sorry B&O. (On a related note: why do so many top performing headphone companies have a ‘&’ in their name? That’s now three out of the top five. Weird.)

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, 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 did 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


6. Sony WH-1000XM2 ($350)

Sony WH1000XM2Battery Life: 30 Hours
Noice-Canceling: Yes
aptX Bluetooth: No
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: a version two 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. These are worthy alternatives to models like the Beoplay H9, and one of the few crossovers between this list and our list of the best noise-canceling headphones. That should tell you just how good they are.

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
 

7. Parrot Zik 3 ($328)

Parrot Zik 3.0

Battery Life: 18 Hours
Noice-Canceling: Yes
aptX Bluetooth: 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 are probably due an update soon. 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! Read our in-depth review.
See the Parrot Zik 3
 

8. Focal Listen Wireless ($299)

Focal Listen Wireless

Battery Life: 20 Hours
Noice-Canceling: No
aptX Bluetooth: 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. We still prefer the Parrot Zik3s, which are just a little bit more fun with more features, but these are an excellent alternative.

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 for quite a while, and you should pick up these cans to find out why.
See the Focal Listen Wireless
 

9. Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless ($350)

Bowers & Wilkins P7

Battery Life: 17 Hours
Noice-Canceling: No
aptX Bluetooth: Yes
What We Like: Very impressive sound, beautifully built, long battery life.
What We Don't: Lack of quality accessories.

It takes quite a bit for us to keep an old model on the list after it’s been superseded by a new one, but in this case, we’re going to. For while the PX – at the top of this list – is far and away superior product, this is still such a good pair of headphones that it would be remiss not to include them here, especially since they’ve recently undergone a price drop.

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. 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. The sound 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. Read our in-depth review.
See the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless
 

10. Klipsch Reference Bluetooth Headphones ($299)

Klipsch Headphones

Battery Life: 20 Hours
Noice-Canceling: No
aptX Bluetooth: 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 3s 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, making them a top-ten pick, easy.
See the Klipsch Reference Bluetooth Headphones
 

11. Philips Fidelio M2BTBK ($216)

Philips Fidelio M2BTBKBattery Life: 10 Hours
Noice-Canceling: No
aptX Bluetooth: Yes
What We Like: Superb functionality for the price, NFC.
What We Don’t: Getting a bit old now.

To our knowledge, these haven’t been updated for a while, and we think they are a little bit old. All the same, they remain among our favorite wireless headphones, thanks to some great features and solid sound quality that bely the sub-$250 price – sometimes sub-$200, if you happen to be on Amazon at the right time.

They have Near-Field Communication (NFC), which means all you need to do – so long as you have a compatible source – is tap the headphones on it to pair them. It’s still a surprisingly rare feature among top-flight headphones, and we are glad to see it here, along with the aptX Bluetooth. The sound quality has plenty of punch and liveliness, with an exciting audio signature that we find addictive to listen to. While we don’t think these are quite as accomplished as something like the Klipsch Reference, and again, we think they are getting a little bit long in the tooth, we still recommend them.
See the Philips Fidelio M2BTBK


12. V-Moda Crossfade 2 Wireless ($343)

V-Moda Crossfade 2 WirelessBattery Life: 12 Hours
Noice-Canceling: No
aptX Bluetooth: Yes (Rose Gold color only)
What We Like: Supremely fancy design.
What We Don’t: Sound is nothing special.

V-Moda really, really want you to believe that these are a premium pair of headphones, custom built by Italian craftsmen. Yeah…not so much. Don’t get us wrong: we enjoyed using them immensely, and they are definitely worth the asking price. But subtle these aren’t. They’re a major improvement on the original Crossfade, being far more comfortable and versatile (as well as finally being foldable) but they’re definitely an acquired taste.

For starters, the sound – while it manages to avoid the overcooked bass of models like the Marshall Major II – is still heavily biased towards the lower end, and definitely isn't what you’d call reference grade. Nothing wrong with that – we like pumping up our music, too, when we’re in the mood – but you do need to be aware of this before you buy. Secondly, the design is definitely not going to appeal to everyone. It’s blingy, and fancy and fabulous - especially in Rose Gold, which is the color you’ll need to buy if you want aptX Bluetooth - and while we do love it, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. We’ll have a full review of these coming soon.
See the V-Moda Crossfade 2 Wireless


13. Sennheiser PXC 550 ($300)

Sennheiser PXC 550

Battery Life: 15 Hours
Noice-Canceling: Yes
aptX Bluetooth: 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 noise-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 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, and just can’t compete with the sound quality or features of something like the Focal Listen Wireless, which has a similar price after this model received a drop. Read our in-depth review.
See the Sennheiser PXC 550


14. Plantronics Backbeat 500 ($70)

Plantronics BackBeat 500

Battery Life: 18 Hours
Noice-Canceling: No
aptX Bluetooth: 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, better than the more expensive Marshall Major II Bluetooth.

There is no aptX wireless, 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
 

15. Jaybird X3 ($100)

Jaybird X3

Battery Life: 8 Hours
Noice-Canceling: No
aptX Bluetooth: 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.
See the Jaybird X3
 

16. Optoma Nuforce BE Sport3 ($69)

NuForce BESPORT3

Battery Life: 8.5 Hours
Noice-Canceling: No
aptX Bluetooth: 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. We do, however, prefer the Jaybirds, which we think have better sound quality - although these have slightly better battery life.

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. Read our in-depth review.
See the Optoma Nuforce BE Sport3
 

17. Jabra Move Wireless ($70)

Jabra Move WirelessBattery Life: 8 hours 
Noise-Canceling: No
aptX Bluetooth: 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
 

18. Marshall Major II Bluetooth ($84)

Marshall Major II BluetoothBattery Life: 30 Hours
Noice-Canceling: No
aptX Bluetooth: No
What We Like: Sound is meh.
What We Don’t: Great battery life.

Marshall occupies a strange position in the market: a manufacturer of storied amps that puts out headphones that could charitably be called Beats By Dre Lite. The Major II is one of the few exceptions from the company, and one of the only models they produce that we actually like: a pair of Bluetooth headphones that may not wow with their sound, but which deliver exceptional battery life – up to thirty hours at a moderate volume, which is really very good indeed.

It’s worth noting, however, that these – while long lasting – are far from the best headphones on this list. The sound feels bloated, with the bass turned up way beyond acceptable levels, and a definite lack of balance in the other frequencies. And while the design looks good, the build feels pretty cheap, which is never a good sign. We do think these belong on the list, thanks to their battery life, which far surpasses many other models - only the Sony WH-1000XM2 comes close, and that costs over four times as much - but you have to be aware of what you’re paying for.
See the Marshall Major II Bluetooth
 

Comparison Table:

Headphones Price Batt.* ANC** aptX Type Driver Weight
Bowers & Wilkins PX $400 18 Hours Yes Yes Over-Ear 40mm 11.8oz
Master & Dynamic MW50 $449 15 Hours No Yes On-Ear 40mm 8.5oz
EVEN Earprint H2 Wireless $299 20 Hours No No On-Ear 40mm 10.6oz
Sennheiser HD1 $500 22 Hours Yes Yes Over-Ear 40mm 9.5oz
B&O Beoplay H9 $499 16 Hours Yes Yes Over-Ear 40mm 8oz
Sony WH-1000XM2 $350 30 Hours Yes No Over-Ear 40mm 12oz
Parrot Zik 3 $328 18 Hours Yes No Over-Ear 40mm 9.5oz
Focal Listen Wireless $299 20 Hours No No Over-Ear 40mm 10.6oz
B&W P7 Wireless $400 17 Hours No Yes Over-Ear 40mm 10.2oz
Klipsch Reference $299 20 Hours No Yes Over-Ear 40mm 9.6oz
Philips Fidelio M2BTBK $216 10 Hours No Yes On-Ear 40mm 6.7oz
V-Moda Crossfade 2 $343 12 Hours No Yes Over-Ear 50mm 11oz
Sennheiser PXC 550 $300 15 Hours Yes No Over-Ear 40mm 8oz
Plantronics Backbeat 500 $500 18 Hours No No On-Ear 40mm 8oz
Jaybird X3 $100 8 Hours No No Earbuds 6mm 0.6oz
Optoma Nuforce BE Sport3 $69 8.5 Hours No Yes Earbuds 6mm 0.5oz
Jabra Move Wireless $70 8 Hours No No On-Ear No 5.6oz
Marshall Major II Bluetooth $84 30 Hours No No On-Ear 40mm 7.1oz

*Batt. = Battery Life
**ANC = Active Noise-Cancelation

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Focal Listen Wireless | The Master Switch

Buying Advice:

Wireless Headphones: Pros And Cons

The immediately obvious advantage of wireless headphones is the sense of physical liberation - great for sports or activities, or wearing under 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 thirty feet, in some cases much more -  and still enjoy your music. 

The first limitation - because yeah, there’s more than one - is the battery life. All wireless headphones require power to function (again: obviously!) 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 internal circuitry - its built-in amplifier and preamplifier. Digital audio is converted to pure analog sound at the player’s end, and is then sent through an analog cable to the headphone drivers. A fairly simple signal path, no?

Master & Dynamic MW50 | The Master Switch

But wireless cans are different. They bypass the digital-to-analogue converters (DACs) of your source player, and do it themselves, right next to your eardrums. That’s because for sound to reach a pair of wireless headphones, it has to be sent digitally - rather than as an analog signal which we could pick up with our ears, and which would normally come down a cord. So, the headphones themselves have to convert the audio from digital 1s and 0s to analog sound. That can be an issue for a couple of reasons: not just because the chips in the headphones aren’t usually as good a quality as those found in external tech, but also because of the nature of Bluetooth audio itself.

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 without glitching or buffering. That means a lower-resolution version of your audio reaching the headphones’ drivers.

BUT. Hang on a second. Even if the above is true, the good news is that many headphones on this list are so good, and tech has come so far, that they still sound fantastic. Especially if things like aptX come into play. We explain below.

V-Moda Crossfade Wireless 2 | The Master Switch

Wireless Headphones Battery Life Explained

No, it isn’t just a simple as a pair of headphones lasting for the exact amount of hours that the manufacturer specifies. That will be very useful, but sadly, it often is untrue.

This isn’t because the manufacturers are duplicitous. It’s just that they use various tricks to get the most out of their official headphone battery life, so they can use it in their marketing, and advertise how many hours the headphones will run for. It’s worth taking every battery life figure you see with a grain of salt. Here’s why.

To get their battery life figures, what manufacturers do is typically run the headphones in ideal conditions. They will run them at anywhere between 50-70% of maximum volume – lower volume means less power means extended battery life – and they will almost certainly do this in thermal conditions that help the battery last longer. What that means is that if the manufacturer says you will get twenty hours of battery life out of something, you won’t be able to unless you replicate those conditions. Which, because we all play our headphones at different volumes and in different conditions, is unlikely.

The good news: normally, the variance is between half an hour and an hour from the stated figure, and even though you aren’t likely to get as much battery life as advertised, you should still get more than enough. For reference, the headphones that perform the best on this list, in terms of battery life, are the Sony WH-1000XM2. They offer a whopping thirty hours of battery life, and they get pretty close to that.

Not happy with your battery life? There are a few things you can do to improve it. If possible, turn off noise-cancelation, and if you’re going to be in one position for a while – such as in an aeroplane seat or at your desk – you should make sure to use the wired option, if your headphones have one, which will mean that the internal battery doesn’t have to be drained.

Sennheiser HD1 | The Master Switch

Bluetooth: 4.1 vs aptX 

Ever since its inception, the Bluetooth software has come in different versions. Currently, 5.0 has just been released, although it’s relatively uncommon. For the purposes of this article, we are going to stick with two of the most common things you’ll see: Bluetooth 4.1, and aptX. Let’s talk about 4.1 first.

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 4.1, (also known as Bluetooth Smart or Bluetooth Low Energy) is certainly trying to make things better. 

Bluetooth 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, as well as vastly improved latency. 5.0 is set to offer vastly-improved speed and data transmission. Until that kicks in, 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 transfer using a smarter type of compression, which packs larger chunks of data into the signal, and transmits it faster. It’s capable of what’s known as lossless audio, meaning that it is, in theory, able to transmit higher quality sound than standard Bluetooth. While it’s never going to touch a pair of wired headphones with a dedicated DAC and amplifier, right now it’s far superior to Bluetooth 4.1, and arguably to Bluetooth 5.0. All of the cans on our list handle Bluetooth 4.0 and up (with the exception of the Parrot Zik 3, which only runs up to 3.0), and several handle aptX.

The crucial fact that we need to take into account is that aptX 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!   

It’s also worth noting that there is a newer version of aptX, called aptX HD, said to be even higher quality. However, to our knowledge, this hasn’t made it into wireless headphones just yet.

Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless | The Master Switch

Isolation vs. Active Noise Cancelation

As we mentioned, there's quite a lot of crossover between this list and our list of the best noise-canceling headphones of this year. That’s understandable: plenty of wireless cans have noise-canceling, and vice versa. We’re not going to spend too much time on it here – we go into it in far more detail in that link above – but it’s worth touching on.

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 (ANC) 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. The top headphone on our list, the Bowers & Wilkins PX has fantastic noise-cancelation – although if we were to evaluate it purely on that particular metric, it would probably lose out to the Bose QuietComfort 35 II.

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

Driver Size Explained

You’ll notice that in the comparison table above, we give driver sizes. This measurement, always in millimeters, refers to the size of the driver in each side of the headphones. The driver, if you didn’t know, is the part of the headphones that actually turns the electrical signal into sound waves that you can hear.

Although it’s been said that larger drivers give more powerful sound and increased bass, this isn’t always the case. Although a larger surface area does tend to result in sound with higher detail – which is why we give the figure in the first place – it shouldn’t be the first thing you look at when buying a pair of wireless headphones. That especially true when you consider that many of the headphones on this list have an identical driver size of around 40mm. Sound quality – including the bass – is far more influenced by how these drivers are tuned, the type of materials used in the headphone construction, and a myriad other things.

The headphones with the largest drivers on our list are the V-Moda Crossfade 2 Wireless, at 50mm. This neatly illustrates point: while they do have good sound, and very solid bass, they are far from the best-sounding headphones on this list.
 

Weight Explained

When buying a pair of wireless headphones, it’s worth looking carefully at the weight. After all, if you’re going to be walking around with these, you want to make sure that they are light and easy to carry!

Generally speaking, this is a bit of a trade-off. The heavier the headphones, the more likely it is that the components will be of a high quality. This is especially true with wireless headphones, where the headphones have their own internal amplifier, and weight usually means better components. However: the heavier the headphones, the harder they are to wear! You need to work out how much weight you are willing to take.

However, don’t let it take up too much of your time. We’ve noted where headphones are uncomfortable or too heavy to wear, and for the most part, we are usually only talking about the difference of an ounce or two. Comfort is usually going to be impacted far more by the type of materials used. If the standard pair of headphones is likely to be uncomfortable, you may want to go for a pair of wireless in-ears, like the Jaybird X3, which are super-light and comfortable.

Parrot Zik 3 | The Master Switch

Why No Open-Back Wireless Headphones?

One word: bleed.

Let us explain. Open-back headphones refer to models where the outer part of the housing isn’t solid. Instead, it takes the form of a grille, through which you can usually see the internal driver. The advantage of this is that the air that interacts with the driver vastly improves the sound signature, making it quite literally more airy, with loads more space and detail.

The downside: these headphones leak sound like crazy. There’s nothing to prevent the noise the driver makes from emanating out through the grille, not just into your ear, and that means that everyone else around you is likely to hear what you’re listening to. As wireless headphones by definition designed to be used in places with other people – planes, trains, buses, workplaces – it’s probably not a very good idea, if your headphone maker, to make your wireless headphones open-back!

For that reason, all the models on our list are closed-back. The sound quality suffers a little, but you’ll protect the ears of your co-workers.

Sennheiser PXC-550 | 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. 

You’ll notice but we haven’t included it in our comparison table above. There's a very good reason for that. It’s only useful when the headphones are being driven by a separate amplifier, whether that’s the one in your smartphone or a separate external unit. Obviously, when using a pair of wireless headphones, the amplifier is contained in the headphones themselves, and so there’s no point paying attention to impedance!

However: sometimes, you may want to connect a pair of wireless headphones to an external amp, and bypass their internal amplifier. When that happens, it’s good to know the impedance, which is usually listed on the manufacturer’s webpage.

Most headphones with low impedance - 32 ohms (Ω) 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, although technically, smartphones should still be able to do it. With higher impedance values (over 100 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 amp to drive the signal of your wired headphones to an optimum listening level. 

The good news: almost all the headphones on our list have friendly impedances, should you want to connect them to an external amplifier. For example, the Master & Dynamic MW50 have an impedance of 32 ohms, meaning just about any amplifier can drive them.

Back To Our Wireless Headphone Picks Back To Our Comparison Table

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