Bluetooth stereo headphones are meant primarily for use on the go. Audio quality doesn't quite measure up to the best wireless headphones for home use, mostly due to the limitations in dynamic range imposed by Bluetooth technology. Because Bluetooth headphones are commonly used when out and about, style can be an important consideration. The MEElectronics Air-Fi AF32 (Est. $65) offers style in spades, with a streamlined look and black and red color scheme.
A slick design is just the beginning; both reviewers and users rate these wireless Bluetooth headphones highly for their 12-hour battery life and great sonic clarity. Unlike some Bluetooth headphones designed for musical enjoyment, the Air-Fi AF32 doesn't disappoint when talking on the phone. Sound quality won't satisfy audiophiles, but it's more than good enough for casual listening, critics report.
What might not satisfy is comfort, at least for long listening sessions. The on-ear design can leave ears a bit hot, says CNET's David Carnoy, who nonetheless gives the MEElectronics Air-Fi AF32 high marks for comfort. He says, "I had no problem wearing them on a 30-minute commute every day to and from work," but not all users agree. Posts at Amazon.com and Newegg.com complain that these wireless Bluetooth headphones are prone to slipping off with just moderate activity.
The Plantronics BackBeat 903+ (Est. $45) is another alternative that also comes with mixed reviews. The headphones connect two in-ear buds via a sporty, behind-the-ears headband that's supposed to be one size fits all, but there are reports of the 903+ slipping off users' heads. Plantronics intentionally designed the ear buds to allow a small amount of outside noise to seep in, making it safer to use the headphones while walking; they have no noise-cancellation features.
The controls on the BackBeat 903+ take full advantage of Bluetooth 2.1's AVRCP features, which allow you to navigate musical tracks with the touch of a button. Standard calling options like Answer and Reject are also available, as is a useful OpenMic mode that pumps in noise from your surroundings when music is paused, so there's no need to remove the headphones while talking to someone face to face. A redesign melds the ear buds with the outer part of the headset to prevent sweat from dripping into the seam lines.
Nick Broughall of Gizmodo Australia says audiophiles should probably shy away from Bluetooth headsets, but if you're fine with their limitations, the BackBeat 903+ is one of the better options. "Audio quality is fantastic -- there's really good range in both the low and high ranges, with the mid range performing well, too," he writes. Other reviewers aren't as enthusiastic, but most agree that the headset's music performance is top-notch for a Bluetooth set.
Reviews are more mixed when using the Plantronics as a cell phone headset. The microphone is located in the left ear bud and critics say call quality suffers as a result. "Everyone we spoke to while connected with the 903 complained about the volume and clarity of our voice," says Joseph Hanlon at CNET (Australia). "We could hear them fine, but when it comes to phone calls, you do need both elements to work really well."
CNET's Nicole Lee reports similar problems: "Callers said we sounded much softer than usual, and static seemed more pronounced." Even so, the BackBeat 903+ makes CNET's list of top portable wireless headphones.
For consumers with a bigger budget, the Harman Kardon BT (Est. $200) gets the best reviews among Bluetooth wireless headphones. Styling, however, is a mixed bag; some users like it while others don't. Editors at Britain's What Hi-Fi? who are always up for a little dry humor, say: "While some will applaud the industrial materials and Cyberman-esque shape, it can also look as if you're wearing two smartphones strapped to your face."
But those extra-big cans allow for a spacious over-the-ear design that suits most users, no matter how large their ears. In addition to a leather inner headband, Harman Kardon includes two steel outer headbands in the box to ensure most users get a good fit. Memory foam ear pad cushions that shape themselves to your head are another plus. On the downside, all that makes the BTs a bit heavier than some competing options, but reviewers still find them comfortable.
Experts are all on the same page when it comes to performance, agreeing that the Harman Kardon sounds far better than average Bluetooth headphones. The sound isn't without some coloration, however. "Lovers of deep, rich bass will enjoy the BT's sound signature, which manages to lean heavily to the low frequency end of the spectrum without sacrificing clarity," says PCMag's Tom Gideon. "Purists seeking flat or brighter responses may not love the BT, but it packs a powerful audio performance in a good-looking body and ships with quality accessories."
In any event, these headphones are capable of better performance than Bluetooth technology allows; using them corded with the included cable reveals even better sound quality, reviewers say. The BT also supports aptX technology, which helps Bluetooth sound at least a little better, although few mobile devices are compatible thus far. Still, like many music-oriented Bluetooth wireless headphones, outgoing call quality isn't the best.
Moving up another level in price, the Parrot Zik (Est. $400) Bluetooth wireless headphones are among the best-sounding in their class, although perhaps not right of the box. They ship with an app that lets you adjust a number of performance parameters, including equalization. To some reviewers, the ability to adjust the sound is crucial to this headphone's performance.
"To be blunt, without the EQ, the Zik does not sound very good," says Tim Gideon at PCMag.com. "If adjustment were impossible, the Zik's rating would probably be a 3.0, saved from a worse rating by its excellent, groundbreaking design," he adds. PCMag.com gives these headphones 4 stars out of 5, but not an Editors' Choice award.
Speaking of their design, "The Parrot Ziks are some of the most stylish headphones we've seen," say What Hi-Fi? editors, who call the black leather, memory foam filled ear cups and curvy aluminum headband striking. Most reviewers add that these wireless headphones are comfortable, although some nitpick issues with the fit or weight.
Blessed with cutting-edge technology, the Zik comes with sensors that can detect when you put them on or take them off, and start or pause your music. Other sensors switch noise cancellation in and out, and allow the user to control things like track selection and volume with a swipe of a finger. With all such tech, however, things don't always go as planned. "If you rest your headphones around your neck or place your fingers in the wrong spot while holding them, you might hear your music start up unexpectedly," Gideon says.
There are other downsides, as well. We see lots of complaints regarding battery life in user and professional reviews, and like many music-oriented Bluetooth headphones, call performance is lackluster. Value is another oft-cited concern.