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.
Best Wireless Headphones
Sennheiser scores big for performance and comfort
Experts largely agree that Sennheiser makes the best wireless headphones for home theater use. However, there's some disagreement about which Sennheiser model is the absolute best. The Sennheiser RS 180 (Est. $245) earns multiple recommendations for its comfort and its superb sound quality, which CNET's Steve Guttenberg says rivals that of similarly priced wired headphones. Guttenberg especially likes the RS 180's Automatic Level Control (ALC) feature, which evens out the sound levels between scenes in TV and movies. He says this feature is so useful, "Sennheiser should put it on all of its wireless headphones."
The RS 180 gets strong feedback from users as well. We found more than 600 reviews for it across retail sites such as Amazon.com, Newegg.com and Crutchfield.com, and on every site its overall rating is at least 4 stars out of 5. Like the professionals, owners say it delivers great sound and comfort, and its Kleer 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.
We also found many positive reviews for the Sennheiser RS 220 (Est. $380), Sennheiser's flagship model. Instead of the Kleer technology found on most Sennheiser wireless headphones, the RS 220 uses a more advanced system called DSSS (direct-sequence spread spectrum). Experts say this technology transmits wireless signals with terrific fidelity. CNET's Guttenberg says the Sennheiser RS 220 "has a degree of refinement/clarity lacking in the less expensive models." However, he also says that the RS 220 sounds only marginally better than the RS 180 -- certainly not enough to justify the $135 difference in price between the two. Testers at TheWirecutter.com say they actually prefer the sound profile of lower-priced Sennheiser models to the "audiophile sound" of the RS 220, saying that it suffers from a boosted upper range and flatter mids and lows.
Moreover, the RS 220 doesn't fare nearly as well in user reviews as the RS 180. We only found about 40 reviews for it on Amazon.com, and its overall rating is a mediocre 2.9 stars. Owners generally love the headphones' sound quality and comfort, and many find them easier to use than the RS 180. However, we saw repeated complaints that the supposedly superior DSSS technology doesn't deliver a steady wireless signal. Many users say the sound drops out even when they stand just a couple of feet away from the receiver. But some add that the chief culprit is interference from other devices operating on the same frequency range -- mainly Wi-Fi networks/routers. Changing the channel those work on is simple, and reports say that doing so minimizes or completely eliminates dropout problems.
Wireless headphones for TV focus on privacy and clarity
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 earcups, which filter out ambient noise and keep the sound of your program from leaking through to annoy others. Also, virtual surround sound, which simulates the feeling of being inside a scene, can be a plus.
Reviews of wireless headphones generally focus on how good they are for listening to music. However, there are a few models that are often specifically mentioned as being great wireless headphones for TV. Lauren Dragan of TheWirecutter.com names the Sennheiser RS 160 as the best wireless headphones for home theater use, saying they "not only sounded the best, but cost $100-plus less than the next great-sounding alternative." Editors at What Hi-Fi? are a little less enthusiastic, describing the RS 160's sound as a bit "aggressive" on the treble end, but still "extremely crisp and clean." The RS 160 uses the same Kleer technology as the RS 180, and its batteries can last up to 24 hours.
In general, however, we found better reviews overall for the Sennheiser RS 170 (Est. $240). In terms of looks and sound performance, these are basically identical to the RS 160. They have the same Kleer technology and long battery life, which is good for viewing marathons. However, their wireless range is much longer: up to 260 feet, compared to only 60 feet for the RS 160. They also include bass boost and surround-sound features, though Dragan says her team didn't find either one especially useful.
CNET's Steve Guttenberg doesn't like the sound on the RS 170 quite as well as that of the RS 180, but he says this set still "delivers CD-quality sound." He also notes that it has only a single 3.5 mm analog input, but he doesn't see that as a problem for TV watching, since "users can plug all their sources (cable box, game consoles, Blu-ray player, etc.) into their television or AV receiver and simply connect the RS 170 to the TV or receiver's stereo analog outputs." The biggest downside of the RS 170 is that it has the same awkward arrangement of buttons found on the RS 180. 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 "amazing" sound.
The Sony MDRDS6500 (Est. $205) are another consideration for those looking for wireless headphones for TV. User reviews say they are very comfortable, their controls are intuitive and their sound quality is excellent. One owner posting at Amazon.com enthuses, "I can now hear dialogue from movies, etc., without turning the volume up to Blast! The system they have for making speech clear over music and explosions is great." But while these Sony wireless headphones rate highly with users, they have not been covered in any professional reviews.