Wireless headphones are popular for good reason. Pair them with your phone, and you can listen to music cord-free -- while shutting out outside noise better than any earbuds can. You can walk around town, work out, or play games on your phone without getting tangled in cords ... and you'll be making a fashion statement at the same time.
Wireless headphones are also ideal for home use -- listening to music or watching TV -- 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.
Wireless headphones have their limitations, however. Though the best wireless headphones can rival the quality of wired versions, this kind of quality typically comes with a high price tag. Most wireless headphones still don't reproduce sound as faithfully as wired models, though the sonic shortfalls are usually small enough that casual listeners won't be bothered -- in fact, many will not even notice them to begin with. 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 (noticeable mainly during quiet moments) or occasional dropouts (breaks in the stream of sound).
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. The best sounding wireless headphones use newer RF technologies to overcome this problem.
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). Experts are often unimpressed with cheap Bluetooth headphones' sound quality, although several in the $70-and-up range sound quite good. 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 wireless headphones do a good job of simply sealing out noise -- but noise-canceling headphones take this a step further. They measure outside noise frequencies, then actively cancel it out by producing the same frequencies out of phase. You'll be able to hear your music clearly, but annoying background noise (like the drone of an airplane engine) will be erased.
Experts largely agree that for the very best audio quality when listening to music or watching videos, stick with quality wireless headphones that use RF technology. Most wireless headphones use Bluetooth instead; however, that technology compresses audio, invariably losing some detail in the process. Because of that, while Bluetooth wireless headphones (discussed below) are terrific for casual listening, and are often more portable than the RF wireless headphones discussed here, they aren't the best choice if the best audio quality is your first concern.
With that in mind, reviewers say that Sennheiser makes the best wireless headphones for home theater use. For serious music listeners who don't want to be tied to a cord, reviews say the Sennheiser RS 185 (Est. $220) is the right choice.
The Sennheiser 185 shuns Bluetooth and transmits uncompressed audio directly to your ears while you walk around the house. (They come with a charging dock that doubles as a transmitter.) These are also open-back headphones -- the ear cups are open, to let you hear a truer sound with no "reflections" like you might hear bouncing around inside closed-back headphones. However, they also let sound in and out of the headphones, so they're only for listening in a relatively quiet house where your music won't bother anyone else.
Comfort is terrific, according to most reviews. You won't be jogging in these or stuffing them in your backpack, so there's no need for them to be tiny or trendy.
"The headset is full-size, encompassing your ears with very large felt-covered pads. They're all about comfort," says Andrew Williams at TrustedReviews.com. The open-back ear cups and felt material won't turn sweaty like the typical pleather ring-around-the-ears can, and the padded headband and lightweight design makes them very comfortable. "I've been wearing the Sennheiser RS185 for hours at a time with no problem," Williams says. Its batteries can last up to 18 hours, and -- in theory -- it can transmit up to 100 meters away. In real life, reviewers say, it has no trouble getting a signal anywhere in a normal-size house.
Owners give the Sennheiser RS 185 a thumbs-up. It averages 4.2 out of 5 stars at Amazon.com, with 120 owner reviews posted. Like the professionals, owners say it delivers great sound and comfort, and its wireless technology is mostly interference free. The main complaint we saw from both experts and home users is that the tightly packed controls on the earpieces make it easy to hit the wrong button by mistake. Sennheiser backs its headphones with a two-year warranty.
If you want wireless headphones specifically to use while watching TV, your needs will be slightly different from those of a user whose main interest is listening to music. Rather than full, rich sound across the entire musical spectrum, your main need will be clarity in the low to middle range, where spoken dialogue tends to fall. You're also more likely to prefer headphones with fully enclosed ear cups, which filter out ambient noise and keep the sound of your program from leaking through to annoy others. Virtual surround sound, which simulates the feeling of being inside a scene, can be a plus.
David Carnoy and "The Audiophiliac" Steve Guttenberg at CNET name the Sennheiser RS 175 (Est. $170) the best wireless headphones for TV watching. "Yes, there are cheaper Bluetooth options for using wireless headphones while watching TV (you can connect a Bluetooth dongle to your TV and then pair it with any Bluetooth headphone model)," CNET says. "However, if you're looking for a more premium sound experience that offers a rock-steady connection, no latency issues and extended range, the Sennheiser RS 175 Wireless Headphone System is a good choice, even at its somewhat elevated price." The RS 175 uses the same radio-frequency (RF) technology as the RS 185, and its batteries can likewise last up to 18 hours.
The RS 175 is optimized for TV/movie watching, with a Bass mode and a Surround mode, which simulates surround sound within the earphones (you can turn these modes on or off). It looks just like the Sennheiser RS 185, only with a closed ear cup covered in leather-look material.
Experts like the sound quality: "Film dialogue was crisp through the RS 175, and with Bass mode on or off, the headphones pumped out plenty of rumble when watching modern TV and movies," says Tim Gideon at PCMag.com, who awards it an Excellent rating. "It's easy to forget you're listening to wireless headphones."
Owners love the Sennheiser RS 175, too: It's a favorite at both Amazon.com and BestBuy.com, earning an overall rating of 4.4 stars or better among owners posting to those sites. The biggest downside of the RS 175 is that it has the same crowded button arrangement found on the RS 185. Users at Amazon.com agree that it can be hard to find the right button by feel, but most think these headphones are worth it for their overall comfort, long range and quality sound. The RS 175 carries Sennheiser's two-year warranty.
As noted above, most wireless headphones on the market are Bluetooth headphones. These pair with your Bluetooth device (phone, tablet, MP3 player, computer, TV, home theater receiver, gaming console, etc.) so you can listen wire-free. Many have a built-in microphone so you can answer phone calls, and many will let you pair with two devices at once -- so if you're listening to TV with your headphones and you get a phone call, you can answer the call and resume listening as soon as you hang up.
The drawback? Sound quality isn't quite as good as with non-Bluetooth wireless headphones. In fact, ultra-cheap Bluetooth headphones can sound downright crummy. The good news is, we found headphones for $100 or less that satisfy even picky experts.
If money is no object, though, experts say the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless (Est. $400) is the best Bluetooth headphone you can buy. "Bowers & Wilkins' P7 Wireless are my new favorite headphones," Gizmodo's Adam Clark Estes says. "The audio quality is honestly jaw-dropping."
The P7 Wireless looks as lavish as it sounds. Wrapped in buttery black leather and brushed aluminum, it "looks a little like the interior of a high-end sports car," PCMag's Tim Gideon says. The well-cushioned over-ear pads are "exceptionally plush and exceedingly comfortable," and the headphones collapse to fit in their quilted leather carrying pouch. The on-ear controls are intuitive, and phone calls sound loud and clear. Even the aptX-capable Bluetooth connection is rock-solid, unlike many other Bluetooth headphones, experts say, and the P7 Wireless really lives up to its 17-hour battery life (see the Buying Guide for more about aptX). Owners shower it with praise; it earns 4.4 out of 5 stars at Amazon.com, with more than 250 reviews posted.
Listening through the P7 Wireless is an "immersive experience," Gideon says, and other picky experts agree. Bowers & Wilkins' signature warm, rich bass "has some growl to it," as TrustedReviews' Richard Easton puts it, but it never overpowers the clear, well-defined treble. In fact, both Estes and What Hi-Fi?'s reviewers discover new facets of some of their old favorite songs -- details that only the P7 Wireless unearthed.
All in all, "the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless sounds, looks, and feels like a luxury product," Gideon says. For $100 less, the Bowers & Wilkins P5 Wireless (Est. $300) is the same headphone, only with on-ear cups instead of over-ear. Testers find the P7 Wireless more comfortable and better-sounding, though, thanks to the over-ear design. Both carry Bowers & Wilkins' two year warranty.
Don't have hundreds to spend? Try the Plantronics BackBeat Sense (Est. $130). CNET dubs it the best "moderately priced" Bluetooth headphone, and offers it as a capable alternative to the Bowers & Wilkins. This on-ear headphone is sleek, lightweight and extraordinarily comfortable, testers say. The slim, stainless-and-faux leather design is "classy-looking," TechRadar.com's Cameron Faulkner says; you can choose either white/tan or black/espresso, with an included canvas carrying pouch. The bass doesn't boast quite the warm "oomph" of the B&W, but experts like the well-balanced sound. With crystal-clear phone calls and long battery life, testers say the BackBeat Sense is well worth a listen. The Plantronics headphones carry a one year warranty.
Bluetooth headphones aren't just a listening device, they're a fashion statement. And for many shoppers, only Beats will do. Beats, founded by rapper Dr. Dre, single-handedly launched the rebirth of the headphone in 2008. After years of cheap earbud domination, Dre argued that actual ear-covering headphones would make for a better listening experience. His shiny plastic headphones attracted celebrities like LeBron James and Lady Gaga -- and now, about two out of every three over-$100 headphones sold in North America have a bright-red b on the side.
That said, critics have never been crazy about Beats Bluetooth headphones. They argue that they're over-bassed, over-hyped and overpriced, and few recommend them. But they're by far the best-selling, most beloved headphones of customers at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com.
So if you want a pair of wireless Beats headphones, which ones should you get? Your best bet: Beats by dre Solo3 Wireless (Est. $250). With its "insane" range (120 feet, in Wired's test) and "staggering" battery life (40 hours, and the New York Daily News' tester says that's no joke), the latest Beats take wireless headphones to a whole new level -- in some ways.
But what about sound? Well, that depends on what you like. Basically, these sound the same its predecessor model, the Beats Solo2 Wireless headphones -- which themselves were a big improvement over earlier Beats, experts agreed, but still pretty heavy on the bass.
"Pop, hip hop and dance tracks sound pretty good," What Hi-Fi? says. But "for all they give us in full-bodied sound and enthusiasm, they miss out in subtlety and refinement."
CNET's David Carnoy agrees that for quiet-room classical listening, this isn't your best bet. But he points out that the boosted bass actually sounds more balanced when he tests the Solo3 Wireless in its natural habitat: the noisy streets and subways of New York.
The main problem with Beats, experts say, is that you're paying a lot more and getting a lot less. A major consumer testing organization recommends the Beats Solo3 Wireless based on performance, but doesn't name it a Best Buy. "The long and short of it is that the Beats Solo3 Wireless is a likable on-ear wireless headphone with great battery life, but $300 is a lot to pay for it," Carnoy says. Beats come with a oneyear warranty.
As Gizmodo.com's Estes says: "Cheap headphones often sound cheap." But the Skullcandy Grind Wireless (Est. $85) defies that trend. It wins an Editors' Choice at PCMag.com and makes CNET's list of the best wireless on-ear headphones. "Stellar sound without shredding your wallet," says Nick Pino at TechRadar.com, awarding the Skullcandy Grind Wireless 4 out of 5 stars.
Testers love the design. It's lightweight, comfy and "chic," the New York Daily News says, with a brushed-metal band, subtle skull logo and faux-leather padding. It comes in six colors, ranging from subdued solid black to a particolored plaid-and-camo set "that basically screams hipster audiophile or technophile lumberjack," Pino notes.
It doesn't fold, there's no carrying case, and phone call quality isn't great; at both CNET and the New York Daily News, testers could hear callers clearly, but not vice versa. Owners award the Grind Wireless 4 out of 5 stars or better at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com, although we did see a few complaints of dropped Bluetooth connections.
Still, sound quality is "surprising," Pino says. The Skullcandy Grind Wireless handles bass "better than a pair of Beats ever could," with crisp, clear highs to match. It can't equal the pricier Plantronics BackBeat Sense, CNET's David Carnoy says -- "but it does compete well with some Bluetooth headphone I've tested that cost $150 or even $200." The Skullcandy carries a one year warranty.
Running a close second is the Jabra Move Wireless (Est. $60), TechRadar.com's Great Value pick, and TheWirecutter.com's favorite Bluetooth headphones, period. The Jabras "sound about 75 percent as good as our luxury pick at less than one-fifth the price," TheWirecutter.com's Lauren Dragan says.
The Move Wireless is "surprisingly fashionable," says Sherri L. Smith at TomsGuide.com. Its lightweight, Beats-esque design comes in black, blue or red. Testers find the Move Wireless comfortable, with easy-to-use controls and crisp, clear phone calls. It can connect to two Bluetooth devices at once, so you can answer calls even if you're not listening on your phone.
"But the best aspect," PCMag.com's Tim Gideon says, "is audio performance." Experts agree that the Move Wireless certainly doesn't assault their ears like a cheap, bass-heavy Bluetooth headphone. In fact, Gideon says, this Bluetooth cheapie "can hang with many wired pairs in the same price range."
Like the Skullcandy, the Move Wireless cuts costs by cutting features. It doesn't fold, its eight-hour battery life is much shorter than pricier models', and the Move Wireless gets only the typical 30 feet of Bluetooth range.
Owners at Amazon.com generally like the Move Wireless, except for one common complaint: The ear pads fall apart. Multiple owners say theirs split at the seams within weeks or months. Jabra does back the Move Wireless with a one year warranty -- but it specifically excludes the ear cushions. Jabra sells replacement ear pads for $10 per pair.
Still not cheap enough? Check out the Creative Sound Blaster Jam (Est. $35), CNET's favorite ultra-cheapie and a big hit with Amazon.com customers. "The first [wireless headphone] at this ultralow price we can actually recommend," CNET's David Carnoy says.
At PCMag, Tim Gideon awards it a 4-star "Excellent" rating. "They may not be beautiful," Gideon says, "but the wireless Creative Sound Blaster Jam headphones are very comfortable and sound fantastic for the price."
Of course, beauty is in the beholder's eye: Carnoy finds the Sound Blaster Jam "endearingly retro ... a little like the headphones that came with the Walkman back in the 80s." But the plain black plastic frame and foam earpads don't endear Gideon at all, and neither does "the word 'Jam' scribbled in a font directly imported from the worst part of the '80s" on the side of the headband.
The sound does impress, though. "Powerful audio performance with deep bass and well-defined highs," Gideon says. Carnoy agrees: "The truth is, sound-wise, the Sound Blaster Jam sounds as good as or better than a lot of Bluetooth headphones in the $100 range."
Phone call quality isn't great, Carnoy says, but the 12-hour battery life is "solid." The Sound Blaster Jam carries a one year warranty.
Bose has slashed the wires from its popular noise-canceling headphones, the Bose Quiet Comfort 25 (Est. $300), covered in our report on wired headphones, and reviewers adore the result. "I've fallen a little in love," says Evan Kypreos at TrustedReviews.com, after testing the new Bose QuietComfort 35 (Est. $350). In fact, the Bose comes recommended more highly by experts and owners than any other wireless headphone, period -- despite the familiar silhouette that screams business-class frequent flyer. CNET sums it up: "The Bose QuietComfort 35 is the ultimate noise canceling wireless headphone you can buy right now."
Basically, Bose has taken its class-leading corded noise-canceling headphone -- the Bose QuietComfort 25 -- and cut the cord. (Actually, it comes with a cord that you can plug in, for those airlines that won't let you run Bluetooth equipment during takeoff and landing.)
And there's no tradeoff, testers say. You get the same "eerily silent bliss," says Mark Spoonauer at TomsGuide.com, and the same gently cushioned all-day Bose comfort -- just without any cords to hassle with. "There was nothing to untangle from my bag, nothing to catch on someone else on the subway," Spoonauer says.
Battery life is outstanding. Bose says the QuietComfort 35 will run for 20 hours wirelessly (40 hours in wired mode), and testers say it delivers. Phone calls sound clear. The sound quality isn't audiophile-worthy, but it more than satisfies testers, with none of the dreaded noise-canceling hiss. "The bass isn't boomin'," Spoonauer says, "but otherwise these headphones are practically perfect." The Bose QuietComfort 35 has a one year warranty.
One caveat: Some people feel a sensation of pressure on their ears with Bose's noise-canceling technology. That doesn't happen with some other noise-canceling headphones, What Hi-Fi? editors point out -- including their top pick, the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless (Est. $400). The Sennheiser costs more than the Bose, but it also comes with an elegant stainless-and-stitched leather design and two year warranty. It muffles outside noise quite well, testers say, but you won't get that almost supernatural Bose silence.
On the other hand, music sounds better on the Sennheiser, CNET's Carnoy says. In his review of the Bose headphones, Carnoy notes that "The Sennheiser's bass is a bit tighter, it's got slightly better clarity and just sounds a little more natural. It's currently our favorite Bluetooth headphone for sound quality. But the QC35's noise-canceling is more effective and clearly superior if that's what you're looking for."
If you're on a budget, experts say the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 (Est. $200) is the best value in this class. In tests at CNET, PCMag.com and TomsGuide.com, it lags just a bit behind the Bose in almost every way -- the Bose is just a little lighter, a little better-sounding, a little better at noise canceling. "The long and short of it is I'd rather have the QC35, but the BackBeat Pro 2 is the better value," Carnoy says. The Plantronics has a one year warranty.
We consider several factors when looking for the best wireless headphones for use at home and on the go. 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 CNET and PCMag.com evaluate all of these factors in detail -- and they test just about every major wireless headphone on the market, maintaining up-to-date lists of the best headphones. Almost as prolific are the testers at ConsumerReports.org, What Hi-Fi?, DigitalTrends.com, TechRadar.com, TomsGuide.com, Gizmodo.com and TrustedReviews.com. TheWirecutter.com rounds up dozens of wireless headphones for head-to-head shootouts in the noise canceling, home theater and Bluetooth categories. We also found helpful reviews (although not as many) at NYMag.com, Wired, New York Daily News and The Wall Street Journal. Reviews from retail sites such as Amazon.com and BestBuy.com help us evaluate how comfort and durability stack up for the majority of users.