Why go wireless, and what are your options?
Wireless headphones are ideal for home theater, a home stereo system or even video games when you don't want a cord to get in the way. They give you the freedom to listen in privacy but still be able to get up to open a window or get a snack. Owners who are hard of hearing often use wireless headphones to watch television without having to crank up the volume to levels that will annoy others in the house. Wireless headphones are also popular for workouts, where a dangling headphone wire could get snagged.
Wireless headphones have their limitations, however. In general, they don't reproduce sound as faithfully as wired models. Because wireless headphones have to transmit audio signals through the air, there's no way to avoid a little bit of sound degradation. There may be a background hiss or occasional dropouts (breaks in the stream of sound). The best wireless headphones can rival the quality of wired versions, but this kind of quality typically comes with a high price tag. Also, very few wireless models are available with active noise-canceling technology, which creates interference to cancel ambient noise. However, some wireless models do a good job of sealing out noise passively.
In general, the best-sounding wireless headphones are designed for home theater use, such as watching movies and listening to music. They tend to be bulky and aren't ideal for those on the go, but they're often more comfortable than portable models. Many home theater headphones transmit sound via radio frequency (RF). RF signals offer a broad coverage range and can pass through walls and floors but, depending on the frequencies used, can be subject to interference from other devices, such as cordless phones, Wi-Fi networks, baby monitors and microwave ovens.
Better wireless headphones use different technologies to overcome that issue. We saw some of the best reviews for headphones that use Kleer wireless technology. Kleer has a shorter transmission range than standard RF, but it offers CD-quality audio and uses a frequency range that is less susceptible to interference. Another technology, DSSS (direct-sequence spread spectrum), produces audio with even higher audio fidelity. It's also theoretically less susceptible to interference, though real-world issues crop up in reviews.
The most common method of wireless transmission, for headphones as well as most other devices, is Bluetooth. Bluetooth headphones can connect to any Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a cell phone, MP3 player or tablet. Bluetooth headphones have a limited range (about 30 feet), and experts are often unimpressed with their sound quality. Many Bluetooth headphones can also be used as corded headphones, which can improve their fidelity. However, professional tests show that the best Bluetooth headphones sound just as good without the wire.
Some Bluetooth headphones and some newer mobile devices use aptX audio compression technology to boost their sound quality. However, unless you have an aptX-enabled device, paying a premium for this technology won't improve your headphones' performance. Moreover, we found that many Bluetooth models, such as our Best Reviewed Bose AE2W, sound very good (for Bluetooth) even without aptX.
For playing video games on computers or gaming consoles, most users prefer dedicated gaming headphones designed specifically for this purpose. Wireless gaming headphones may not have great range, but they offer excellent clarity and performance. Most gaming headsets include a microphone for communicating with others in multiplayer games. Many also have simulated surround sound that does a great job of placing you in the heart of the action, though it won't be as completely realistic as a surround-sound setup made up of separate speakers placed around the room.
We consider several factors when looking for the best wireless headphones for use at home, on the go and for gaming. Sound quality is paramount, of course, but even the best-sounding wireless headphones won't be appreciated if they're uncomfortable to wear. Ditto for headphones with poorly placed controls or other usability issues. Finally, we consider value: how well the headphones' performance, features and durability justify its price tag. Expert reviewers at sites such as CNET, PCMag.com and ConsumerReports.org provide detailed feedback on performance. Reviews from retail sites such as Amazon.com help us evaluate how comfort and durability stack up for the majority of users.