With rumors flying around that the next iPhone might ship without a headphone jack, more people than ever have been considering buying their first pair of Bluetooth headphones.
But what about wired headphones? Don't they sound better? What're the trade-offs? I hear those questions a lot from my friends, family, and coworkers.
If you're debating cutting the headphone cord, here's everything you need to know.
Batteries or a cable: Pick one
Wired and Bluetooth headphones both have one "big thing" you have to worry about. They're not deal breakers by any means, but they're something to consider.
Wired-headphone users already know about dealing with a cable, which can vary in annoyance, depending on the cables size and shape. Case in point, one of my favorite headphones of all time, Sony's MDR-7506's; they sound incredible, but their cable is a long, lanky mess. That didn't stop me from wearing them in high school, but only when I wore a hoodie and could stash the extra cord inside the front pouch. It... wasn't a good look.
Bluetooth headphones, on the other hand, free you from the curse of the cable, but you have to worry about recharging your headphones every once in a while. This is a bigger hurdle to deal with, because it's a new concept to most people. We're used to our headphones working, whenever, wherever, for however long we'll need them. Sure, we're used to charging our phones, tablets, and computers, but I'll be the first to admit it takes a little while to get used to charging headphones.
I didn't use Bluetooth headphones before joining Insider Picks, and I thought the battery issue would be a bigger deal than it ended up being. I use mine during my commute (about an hour and a half each day), and then switch between them and a pair of wired headphones throughout the day. While I'm not using them, I connect them to the wired USB hub on my desk and I'm always good to go. On a cross-continental flight, you'll definitely want to plan ahead and have them fully charged. In that case, you can always recharge them mid-flight with an external battery pack, or keep a pair of earbuds on you "just in case."
Can you hear the difference between really great and excellent?
The most important thing to consider when buying a pair of headphones (once you've decided on your price range), is how you want the headphones to sound. Audiophiles want purity, while people who love certain genres of music gravitate to a pair of headphones that suit their taste. Regardless, you want your headphones to sound good, at least to you.
It's easy to go on for a long time about the sound quality of wired versus Bluetooth headphones, but it gets confusing pretty quickly. It's true that Bluetooth wasn't created with audio transfer in mind, but once headphone makers started to use it, that started to change. There are different codecs and standards, all of which require specific hardware and software, but to most people sounds like alphabet soup.
Instead, the question to ask yourself if whether you can hear the difference between really great and excellent. For the foreseeable future, wired headphones will beat out Bluetooth headphones because they can provide latency-free, uncompressed audio 100% of the time. Regardless of which Bluetooth audio compression technique your Bluetooth headphones use, they're still manipulating your music in ways wired headphones don't need to. That can sound like a scary proposition for people who want really good sound. But you know what? Unless I'm really listening, the difference isn't huge. It's there, and when I sit down with a good pair of wired headphones and my nice DAC at home I can hear the difference, but it's far from a night-and-day difference.
I've gotten to try a few pairs of Bluetooth headphones from different companies, at different price points, and I'm confident in saying the best pair of Bluetooth headphones I've tried sounds better than most of the wired headphones I've tried. This is especially true because I listen to music primarily on-the-go on my phone, or from a flash drive on my work computer. In both cases, my music library is comprised of compressed AAC files. When I'm not doing that, I'm streaming music from Apple Music, which also offers up compressed AAC files. In both cases, I'm satisfied with the sound quality.
So, in a nutshell: Wired headphones will sound better overall, but most people won't be able to tell the difference, or, it'll be so small even fewer people will really care.
The high-end Bluetooth headphone compromise
Wired headphones might have a bit of an edge in the sound department, but really nice high-end headphones have a trick up their sleeves: They can become wired. It's not a feature I wish was standard on all Bluetooth headphones, but most nicer pairs I've tried have an audio jack in them and come with an audio cable. If your batteries die, you can plug the cable into the headphones and your audio source, and keep listening.
Ironically enough, this eliminates any of the Bluetooth compromises I mentioned earlier, but does saddle you with a cable, which you'll have to deal with. It's a trick that wired-first headphones can't compete with; they can't suddenly become Bluetooth. Again, this isn't a feature in all headphones, but it's definitely something to consider.
What do I recommend?
Whether you're going with a wired or Bluetooth pair of headphones, my favorite pair in either category are made by Bang & Olufsen. The Beoplay H6 headphones, the wired pair, have absolutely stunned me with their audio quality. They sound better than any other pair of headphones I've ever worn; if you'd like to hear more, I've already given them a full review. The same goes for their Beoplay H8 Bluetooth headphones, which ended my multi-year quest to find "the" Bluetooth headphones. I can't see anyone being unhappy with either pair, and yes, the H8s do have a "wired mode," so if you're looking for the best of both worlds, that's the pair for you.
There's no right or wrong answer in the wireless versus Bluetooth headphones debate; both styles have their high points and weak spots. I have both types of headphones and gravitate more toward one depending on the day and what I'm doing.
As with everything in audio, follow your ears. If a pair of wired or Bluetooth headphones sounds really great to you, don't worry about whether or not the grass is really greener on the other side.