Why go wireless, and what are your options?
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 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 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). 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. The best wireless headphones use newer RF technologies to overcome this problem.
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). Experts are often unimpressed with cheap Bluetooth headphones' sound quality, although several in the $100-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.
Several of our Best Reviewed 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 -- including our Best Reviewed budget pick, Jabra Move Wireless (Est. $90) -- 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.
Finding the best wireless headphones
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.
The best wireless headphones for music
Experts largely agree 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. $300) is the right choice.
The Sennheiser 185 is different from many other wireless headphone choices as it shuns Bluetooth, which compresses the audio and, unfortunately, discards some of the data. Instead, these wireless headphones use radio frequency (RF) to transmit uncompressed audio directly to your ears while you walk around the house. (They come with a charging dock that doubles as a transmitter.)
Second, they're 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. (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.)
Finally, they're designed for ultimate comfort. 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.)
Like the Sennheiser RS 180 (Est. $240) it replaced (thought that model can still be found at retail), owners give the Sennheiser RS 185 a thumbs-up. There aren't a ton of reviews yet, but the 4.5 stars it earns at Amazon.com is nonetheless impressive. 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.
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 ear cups, 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.
David Carnoy and "The Audiophiliac" Steve Guttenberg at CNET name the Sennheiser RS 175 (Est. $200) 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 4.5 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.