Why go wireless, and what
are your options?
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.
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.
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).
Types of Wireless Headphones
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.
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.
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.
The best wireless headphones
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
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. $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.
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
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.
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.
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. Virtual
surround sound, which simulates the feeling of being inside a scene, can be a
David Carnoy and "The Audiophiliac" Steve Guttenberg at CNET name the (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.
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.
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
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.
headphones offer freedom of movement
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.
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.
money is no object, though, experts say the (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."
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.
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.
in all, "the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless sounds, looks, and feels
like a luxury product," Gideon says. For $100 less, the (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.
have hundreds to spend? Try the (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.
Beats headphones deliver style
and substance, at a price
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
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.
if you want a pair of wireless Beats headphones, which ones should you get?
Your best bet: (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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Cheap Bluetooth headphones cut
some corners, but perform well
As Gizmodo.com's Estes says: "Cheap headphones
often sound cheap." But the (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.
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.
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
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
a close second is the (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.
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
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."
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
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.
not cheap enough? Check out the (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."
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.
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."
call quality isn't great, Carnoy says, but the
12-hour battery life is "solid." The Sound Blaster Jam carries a one year
headphones: mute the outside world
has slashed the wires from its popular noise-canceling headphones, the (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 (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."
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.)
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.
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.
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 (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.
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."
you're on a budget, experts say the (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
Expert & User Review Sources
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.
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.