Types of Wireless Headphones
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. Most use RF
signals and have good range, even receiving quality audio through walls and
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 $60-and-up range sound quite good..
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.
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 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).
The best wireless headphones
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 (Est. $400) 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 (more than 325
feet). 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 earns 4.1 out of 5 stars at Amazon.com, with more than 250 owner
reviews posted. Like the professionals, owners say it delivers great sound and
comfort, and its wireless technology is mostly free from interference from the
usual sources, such as Wi-Fi networks, cordless phones, baby monitors and the
like. 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
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.
Carnoy and "The Audiophiliac" Steve Guttenberg at CNET name the (Est. $250) 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
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."
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 more than
1,100 owners posting to those two 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.
headphones offer freedom of movement
As noted above, most of the 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 did find
Bluetooth headphones that satisfy even picky experts.
The (Est. $230) isn't exactly cheap -- but it's "one the best sounding
Bluetooth headphones currently available," says CNET's Carnoy. Equally
important: Its battery soldiers on for 15 hours (it includes a cord, too, so you
can plug it into your headphone jack and keep listening if your battery gives
out), and testers find it blessedly feather-light and comfy. "At times,
you barely notice you're wearing the headphones," Carnoy says.
Style-wise, the SoundLink II looks
pretty much exactly like the Bose noise-canceling headphones that you see on
every airplane and subway train. "The neutral design means it goes with
banker and ballerina alike," says Ced Yuen at TrustedReviews.com. Available
in matte black or white, the sturdy-feeling headphones fold flat to stow in the
included zip-up case.
Although this isn't an active
noise-canceling headphone, "the around-ear design does a good job
passively sealing out a lot of that same ambient noise to begin with,"
Carnoy says. Music sounds "clean and well balanced with ample but not
overpowering bass." Buttons on the right earcup let you control your music
and answer calls without fiddling with your phone.
Owners love it. The Bose SoundLink
Around-Ear Wireless II earns 4.4 out of 5 stars at Amazon.com, with more than
1,075 reviews posted. Bose backs its headphones with a one-year warranty.
Beats headphones deliver style and
substance, at a price
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 the Beats b logo 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
So, if you want a pair of wireless
Beats headphones, which ones should you get? Your best bet: (Est. $215 and up). 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
"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
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. ConsumerReports.org
recommends the Beats by dre 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. (Note that Amazon is selling
the Beats Solo3 Wireless in some colors -- including black, white and red --
for $215 to $220, but other colors still cost $300.) Beats come with a one-year
Cheap Bluetooth headphones cut some
corners, but perform well
As Gizmodo.com's Estes says:
"Cheap headphones often sound cheap." But the (Est. $60) 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,"
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. Still, owners
award the Grind Wireless 4.3 out of 5 stars or better at Amazon.com and
BestBuy.com, although we did see a few complaints of dropped Bluetooth
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. CNET's David Carnoy says it competes well with some $200 Bluetooth
headphones he's tested. The Skullcandy carries a two-year warranty.
Running a close second is the
(Est. $65), TechRadar.com's Great Value
pick, and Wirecutter.com's favorite Bluetooth headphones, period. The Jabras
sound "about 75 percent as good as many luxury Bluetooth headphones for
less than one-fifth of the price," Wirecutter.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 the 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 (Est. $30),
Wirecutter.com's favorite ultra-cheapie and a hit with most of its buyers at Amazon.com,
earning 4.1 out of 5 stars with more than 85 reviews posted.
"We won't mince words: Once you
spend less than $70, most Bluetooth headphones are cheap looking and tinny
sounding, but this JLab Neon model actually feels solid, sports a 13-plus-hour battery
life, and sounds decent," Wirecutter.com's Lauren Dragan says.
The JLab comes in gray plastic with
bright trim (blue, purple or lime green) or solid black. Dragan calls it
"bare bone" -- the ear pads don't swivel, and it doesn't work as a
corded headphone -- but it does work while charging, and it does take phone
calls (although they sound muffled, Dragan says).
"But listen: Do you need
something inexpensive so you can listen to podcasts when you're cleaning the
house? Do you want a pair of Bluetooth headphones to stash in your desk so you
can check in on the game at lunch? Do you lose things all the time and get
tired of being sad about it?" Dragan asks. "If so, the JLab Neon
Bluetooth is for you." It carries a one-year warranty.
Bluetooth headphones for kids: Puro
headphones protect kids' hearing
When Wirecutter.com tested 30 kids'
headphones -- designed to limit volume to 85 decibels, the level that the World
Health Organization considers "safer" -- nearly half of them flunked
the test, allowing music to blare louder than the 85-decibel limit that
contributes to hearing loss. And kid-testers hated the way some of the
"safe" headphones fit.
But the (Est. $100) won on both
counts. "The Puro headphones not only
met our volume-limiting test standards but also were the only pair liked by
both the toddlers and the big kids who helped us test," Wirecutter.com's
Dragan writes. "They support Bluetooth (which can provide more effective
volume limiting than traditional headphone tech), but they also work corded (so
you can use them with lots of devices), and they sound good enough for adults
to use, too."
Unlike other kids' headphones, which
are made of cheap plastic, the Puro boasts a sturdy aluminum frame. Dragan stepped
on them in boots, flexed the headband and let her toddler chew on them -- and
they survived just fine. Kids liked the feel of the padded headband and
earpieces. Simple buttons on the side control volume, play/pause, and answer
As for battery life, "the Puro
surpassed its super-long claimed battery life of 18 active hours," Dragan
says. "We heard a warning beep at 22 hours, 16 minutes, and the BT2200
finally died at 22 hours, 25 minutes." If the battery does run out of
juice, you can simply plug the included cable into your headphone jack and keep
listening. A hard travel case is also included.
The Puro was the best sounding kids'
headphones in the test, too. Unlike most of the muddy-sounding competitors,
"we'd be happy listening to these headphones for a trip ourselves, if our
heads were a bit smaller," Dragan says.
Owners overwhelmingly like the Puro
BT2200: It earns 4.4 out of 5 stars, with more than 300 reviews posted at
Amazon.com. Parents echo the experts, saying that the Puro headphones sound
wonderful and feel comfortable for their kids. The Puro BT2200 comes with a
one-year warranty and is available in black, white, blue and purple.
Wireless noise-canceling headphones: Mute
the outside world
"Hell is other people, and
nobody shuts them up more effectively than Bose," begins
TrustedReviews.com's ode to the (Est. $350). Other experts
agree: Bose created the magic of noise-canceling headphones, and other brands
simply cannot match it. PCMag's Tim Gideon sums it up: "This is the best
noise cancellation on the market."
The QuietComfort 35 II takes last
year's model -- the critically beloved Bose QuietComfort 35 -- and adds two
upgrades. First -- and most obvious -- a new button on the left earcup allows
you to summon Google Assistant (the Amazon Alexa-like artificial intelligence
you summon with "OK, Google"). You'll be able to get notifications,
reply to texts, control your music, etc. without lifting a finger to your
Second -- and equally welcome -- the
QuietComfort 35 II lets you set noise cancellation to "High,"
"Low" or "Off." (On the QuietComfort 35, it was just
"On" or "Off.) The new "Low" setting is useful if you
need a little contact with the outside world (if you're listening for your
flight announcement, for example), or if you feel a sensation of pressure on
your ears with Bose's noise canceling set to "High" (some people do).
"Frankly, the inclusion of this
functionality almost feels like a humblebrag -- the QC35 II's Low mode is
probably as effective as most competitors' best attempts at noise
cancellation," Gideon says. "And High mode is a thing to behold --
in-room chatter is dampened significantly, and loud whirs from an AC unit are
almost eliminated completely."
Comfort is class leading --
"the padding is wonderfully soft," TrustedReviews.com's Ced Yuen
writes -- and 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 more than satisfies
testers, with none of the dreaded noise-canceling hiss. "Audiophiles like
to poo-poo Bose's sound quality, but the QC35 pours clean, crisp audio into
your ears," says Wired's David Pierce. "Sure, it's a little over-warm
and rich, but it still sounds good." The Bose QuietComfort 35 II has a one-year
One caveat: That sensation of
pressure some people feel with Bose's noise-canceling technology doesn't happen
with some other noise-canceling headphones, What Hi-Fi? editors point out --
including the 5-star-rated (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
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
If you're on a budget, experts say
the (Est. $250) 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 BackBeat Pro 2 has a one-year
Expert & User Review Sources
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. Wirecutter.com rounds up
dozens of wireless headphones for head-to-head shootouts in the noise canceling, home theater, Bluetooth and kids' headphone 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.