Wireless vs Wired Headphones: Which Has The Best Sound Quality?
The debate between wired and wireless headphones for the consumer market has been raging for over a decade now. Though headphones in some form or other have been around since the 1880s and wireless headphones have been around since the 1950s, it wasn't till Bluetooth version 1 came out in 1999 that these modern wireless devices started becoming mainstream. As with any new technology, there was initial reluctance in the adoption of this wireless technology by the mass market, with the primary concern being sound quality.
Wireless vs True Wireless
A new distinction to be aware of is the difference between wireless headphones and true wireless headphones. Though both are in-ear headphones, true wireless headphones have no wires connecting the earpieces; on the other hand, wireless headphones have adjoined earpieces but don’t need a cable connecting to your music playing device.
Researching a new technology can be overwhelming given all of the options to choose from. To a layperson, the technical specifications and the particular numbers can seem as incomprehensible as quantum mechanics. There's no need to worry though; these are the most important considerations you need to make when answering are wireless headphones good now.
Sound is nothing but tiny vibrations in the air that originate from a source, interact with our ears, and are converted by our brain into a voice, music, or unexpected thud in the middle of the night when sleeping. These sound waves are measured in cycles per minute, or in other words, how frequently they vibrate in a minute, hence the term, frequency, measured in hertz (Hz).
The audible human frequency range is 20Hz to 20,000Hz (20kHz). Frequency is the property of sound that is most directly connected to pitch. In a musical sense, frequencies between 20Hz (the generally accepted lowest frequency humans can hear), and 300Hz are bass. Frequencies between 300 Hz and 4kHz are middle tones, and 4kHz to 20kHz are treble. Human speech generally ranges from 300Hz to 6 kHz, but higher frequencies occur when singing and playing instruments.
Frequency response is the measure of how well an audio device can reproduce tones between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. Most headphones claim frequency ranges of 16Hz to 22kHz, which is the minimum variation in range you should look for when buying headphones. This is one of the specifications you should think about when answering the question, what are good wireless headphones? Whether listening to music, a podcast, or even an audio book, make sure to review the wireless devices to ensure they hit this marker.
Most of the music you listen to has probably been compressed. The original recording, made at a studio, a hi-res 24-bit studio master, is the best quality audio you can hear, but they’re huge files containing ambient sound. Compression allows a decrease in file size by using an algorithm to remove parts of the sound that can’t actually be heard. This is how an mp3 file takes so much less space than a lossless format like Wav.
- Music in formats like MP3, AAC, or WMA are considered compressed and lossy
- Music in formats like FLAC and ALAC are compressed but lossless.
- Music in formats like WAV & AIFF can store both lossy and lossless audio files.
- Music in formats like LCPM and BWF are uncompressed formats
To make a properly informed decision for headphone purchasing, you need to know a little about bitrates. Bitrates for music mean how much data is processed per second. Higher bitrates translate to more information per second and, therefore, better sounding music. Wired headphones can support bitrates of up to 2300 kbps, whereas modern wired headphones support a maximum bitrate of 768 kbps.
While this does mean that wired headphones can deliver higher quality music, most digital media files are 256 kbps.
- iTunes sells its music at 256 kbps
- MP3 files range between bitrates of 96 to 320 kbps
- Popular streaming websites like YouTube have a maximum bitrate of 256 kbps
- The free version of Spotify has a maximum bitrate of 160kbps on mobile devices
Essentially this means that if you are a casual sound enthusiast, wireless headphones will give you the same audio quality as wired headphones.
Wrap up your earphones, put them in your pocket for a few minutes, and the next time you pull them out marvel at how tangled up they get. This phenomenon perplexed people so much that in 2006 researchers at UCSD, Dorian M. Raymer and Douglas E. Smith ran experiments and wrote a paper entitled "Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String." Thankfully with wireless buds and headphones, cord and cable knots have gone the way of the dinosaur.
The most significant advantage of wireless headphones is also the most obvious; they don't have wires. How they connect to your other devices is through Bluetooth connectivity and pairing. Apart from tangles, wires limit your range of motion to a circumference with the radius of your cable. In the early days of consumer wireless headphones, long ago, back in the mid-2000s range was a big concern for establishing a reliable Bluetooth connection. The tradeoff being range vs. sound quality. Innovation and competition have been fierce though, and now you should expect a range of at least 30 feet from your music device. For those of you who enjoy listening to music during a workout, wireless buds could be a game changer for you, given the strong advancements in Bluetooth connectivity for pairing your other wireless devices.
The steady march of human innovation became a sprint when it came to wireless technology.
Though there are many ways to send music wirelessly, Bluetooth is undoubtedly the most common. Bluetooth was officially invented back in 1994 with the first consumer device released in 1999, and the first Bluetooth-enabled phone launched in 2001. From the beginning, one of its purposes was for wireless voice calls. Bluetooth pairing quickly rose to become the industry standard and is now an integral part of almost all computing devices.
Over the 20 years since Bluetooth 1.0 was released in 1999, Bluetooth has gone through several iterations, the latest being Bluetooth 5.1, which was released on January 21st, 2019. These advancements in Bluetooth pairing have allowed for improvements in latency, signal loss, range, interference, and bitrates.
Initially, audio data transferred through Bluetooth connection was heavily compressed and resulted in hearing low-quality sound, regardless of volume. The limiting factor was codecs. Codecs are software that encode data on one side and decode it after it is received. SBC or low complexity subband codec became the standard for Bluetooth devices and is still widely used. SBC supports transfer rates of 192-320 kbps but can have problems with significant data loss.
- APTx – The newest codecs like APTx HD (developed by Qualcomm and used in new android phones can support bitrates of up to 576 kbps, which delivers better than a “CD quality” listening experience.
- LDAC – Many companies are backing their own different codecs, Sony has LDAC that claims speeds of 990kbps, good enough for hi-res music, but suffers at frequencies higher than 20kHz.
- Apple AAC – Apple has stuck with AAC, which has a low bitrate of 256 kbps, but efficiencies in the codec make it work as well as APTx when used with Apple products.
Since there are so many codecs, and they work differently with different devices, make sure that your headphones and your devices are compatible for the most optimal, ambient experience. You may also need to check your phone's developer settings to push up the standard bitrate.
When considering what to look for in headphones, you must consider what kind of life you lead and how you consume your audio entertainment.
- If you enjoy being active, going for walks, playing sports, or just going to the gym to workout, the convenience and ease of wireless headphones will allow you freedom and comfort. However, when working out you want to consider your preferences of either in-ear or over-ear headphones, as well. Luckily, there are becoming more and more wireless versions in both styles.
- Wireless headphones are perfect for gamers who don't want to be too close to a screen but want an immersive gaming experience.
- Are you a cinephile in a crowded house? Sink back into your couch and watch your favorite movies without bothering anyone.
- Whether you fly around the globe, travel as a part of your job, or have a long commute to and from work, wireless headphones allow you to stay comfortable and relaxed.
However, it is very important to remember that because they do not rely on a cord to establish a connection, wireless headphones are typically battery operated, meaning you should review the battery life and how often or quickly the buds can charge up. Typically, noise-canceling headphones will require that the battery be charged more often.
How Good are Wireless Headphones?
It’s normal to be hesitant about any new technology, but the benefits of wireless headphones are immense, and the negatives are reducing and canceling out.
- No wires and no tangles – It is literally in the name. No more cables getting stuck on door handles yanking off your headphones right when the beat is about to drop.
- 30 feet of range – The freedom to move around and stay plugged into whatever you're listening to.
- Comparable sound quality to wired headphones – If you primarily listen to digital music, there is virtually no difference between wireless and wired headphones.
- Generally more expensive – You can get the same audio quality for cheaper with a wired headset, but there are terrific wireless headphones on the market for very affordable prices.
- Lags behind wired headphones for ultra-high quality audio – Most people say that the difference is almost imperceptible now. Still, your typical audiophile will most likely keep insisting that wired headphones are superior for a high-quality auditory experience.
- Battery life – Since the inception of mass-market wireless headphones, battery life has been its Achilles heel. Whereas many traditional headphones are plug and play, wireless headphones have to fit batteries into smaller and smaller earpieces. There is a lot of variation, but you can expect between 5 to 20 hours of battery life depending on the headphone. Most wireless headphones now come with cases that automatically recharge the earpieces when stored inside them.
- Possible interference – Since Bluetooth uses frequencies similar to other electronic devices, there is a chance of interference, but this has diminished with advancements in Bluetooth technology, codecs, and security protocols.
What are Good Wireless Headphones?
Wireless headphone technology has improved dramatically in the last few years. Many of the well-founded concerns of the past regarding battery life, sound quality, and cost have been addressed and are the focus of further innovation.
Good wireless headphones already exist for all but the most discriminating of us, so don’t hesitate to pick up a pair!
NCBI. Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2034230/
The Guardian. How much difference is there between MP3, CD, and 24-bit audio? https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/aug/21/mp3-cd-24-bit-audio-music-hi-res
The Sound Guys. What is frequency response and how does it affect my music? https://www.soundguys.com/frequency-response-explained-16507/
The Wall Street Journal. The history of headphones. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-history-of-headphones-1473274924
Lifewire. Does Bluetooth Wireless Audio Reduce Sound Quality. https://www.lifewire.com/what-to-know-about-bluetooth-3134591