Bluetooth wireless technology has exploded in the last 10 years, freeing consumers from tethered connections that had no alternative a generation ago. The main attractions are short-range, simple connectivity combined with low power consumption. This makes Bluetooth a perfect platform for wireless headphones. Though it can’t match Wi-Fi for data transfer rates, Bluetooth is plenty fast enough for wirelessly streamed music.
Bluetooth gained its initial foothold in the smartphone field. Also ideal for connecting hands-free earpieces and microphones, the walls between applications began a crossover. As smartphones incorporated personal music playlists, plugging in headphones began in earnest and soon features such as microphones and phone controls appeared in headphones designed for music enjoyment. Music headphones could now provide speakerphone features, though of course the speakers are wrapped around the user’s head.
Wireless headphones naturally followed, since Bluetooth was already in the phones. It was a simple matter to move the mics and controls into the headphone cups. Then, in the summer of 2016, a potentially game-changing event occurred when Apple introduced the iPhone 7 with — gasp! — no headphone jack. While this is generally perceived as a forced obsolescence tactic by the tech giant, there’s no question that it spurred new interest in wireless headphones, since the new alternative for a tethered connection uses the phone’s single Lightning connector. This means no listening while the iPhone charges, at least not through conventional headphones with a 3.5mm plug.
It’s no secret either that Apple’s Lightning connector is licenced, so any manufacturer wanting to offer a device with a Lightning cable connector now has to pay Apple. This could be another push toward wireless headphones as the norm, rather than a specialty, as they are now. The tech is developed, and there’s market awareness by consumers. Even before Apple’s release, affordable wireless headphones featured in the market. Already there’s wide product availability, so much so that the 10 Bluetooth headphones presented here only scratch the surface. The wireless headphone product niche is only going to expand.
|Sennheiser Momentum||190 g||Over Ear||22 hours||Yes|
|Master & Dynamic MW60||345 g||Over Ear||16 Hours||No|
|Bose QuietComfort 35||308 g||Over Ear||20 hours||Yes|
|V-Moda Crossfade Wireless||390 g||Over Ear||12 hours||No|
|Beats Studio Wireless||213 g||Over Ear||12 hours||Yes|
|Sony MDR-XB950BT||281 g||Over Ear||20 hours||No|
|Samsung Level On||236 g||On Ear||10 hours||Yes|
|Jabra Move||150 g||On Ear||8 hours||No|
|Skullcandy Hesh 2 Wireless||180 g||Over Ear||15 hours||No|
|Kinivo BTH240||73 g||On Ear||10 hours||No|
Bluetooth Speaker Reviews
1. Sennheiser Momentum
Sennheiser has a long history of manufacturing superior headphones, along with other audio equipment for the recording field. Simply, the sound of the Momentum is superior, placing it atop the models reviewed. Other considerations are secondary, although the Momentum gets these right as well.
There’s no such thing as a completely accurate speaker or headphone, only those that perform better compared to others. For that matter, human hearing maybe as individual as a fingerprint, with everyone having their own unique acoustic response and perception. The Momentum is more true to the original sounds than the other models listed here. Some listeners may find it less flattering. Yes, headphone makers do construct models with the intent to make music sound better, overlaying tone alterations to accentuate deep, booming bass and adding sparkle and life to high frequencies.
This can sound pretty good and some prefer the alterations. Others, though, do not. They want the headphone to do its work and stay out of the way. The Momentum stays out of the way. That’s not to say that bass doesn’t boom and treble doesn’t sparkle, because they do. There’s a natural quality with the Sennheisers that make it easy to feel you’re in the room with the players.
Other features include active noise reduction. These aren’t the quietest headphones in that regard and noise reduction is always on when the ‘phones stream Bluetooth audio. The Momentum uses NFC (near field communication) technology to aid setting up Bluetooth quickly and easily. These headphones are supported by the CapTune app, which is both a music player and tuning program for customizing your listening experience.
Sennheiser doesn’t publish a weight figure for the Momentum, just a “contact pressure” spec that’s neither described nor quantified beyond a mysterious 3.6 N. These feel equal with the heaviest models tested, so probably about 0.75 lbs., but the design is such that you don’t feel the weight with them on your head. Construction is flawless, as are the materials chosen. While these are one of the most expensive models tested, the quality reflects the price. Great sound seals the deal.
2. Master & Dynamic MW60
Giving the Momentum the closest run for the money, the MW60 is similarly well-built with a feel that speaks refinement. The price tag is even steeper than the Sennheiser, but it speaks more to the Momentum’s value than to the M&D being overpriced. Stainless steel and lambskin certainly make an impression.
While the accoutrements are first-rate, the MW60 has one shortcoming. Those with tiny heads may not find a comfortable listening arrangement. Given that these are heavy headphones, proper fit is important to comfort for the wearer. While the Momentum adjusts to most crania, the MW60 only gets so small. If you have the chance to try a pair on, do that before making a buying decision.
Sound performance is as serious as the construction. Compared with the Momentum, though, the MW60 was just a shade off. These by no means sound bad. There’s plenty of bass, enough to please a dance hall DJ but without overpowering or sounding contrived. The MW60 seems smoother around voices. They don’t pop the same way as the Momentum.
Headphone controls are again intuitive. Battery life extends a respectable 16 hours and the Bluetooth range of the MW60 is better than average. Fewer lost signals when you step away from the sound source. The MW60 operates passively with the supplied audio cable. The accessories included are of a similar quality and do the device proud.
There’s no noise cancellation, but the circumaural design and hefty construction do create an isolated experience. M&D presents a frequency response figure of 5 to 25,000 Hz, although without a tolerance indicated. Considering that number while listening, it seems to indicate there’s plenty of headroom, so that the frequencies a human actually can hear aren’t near the limits of the device.
3. Bose QuietComfort 35
If noise cancelling is a priority for you, then this Bose product should be on your radar. They are perhaps the leaders in noise reduction, establishing a cone of silence that remains astonishing, even after you’ve used the feature regularly. If you’ve never tried a good set of noise-cancelling headphones, take the QuietComfort 35 into an already quiet room. Put the ‘phones over your ears, turn them on and wait for the hush. It’s almost complete aural sensory deprivation, in the nicest possible way.
However, you don’t need to remain deprived. Cue up some music on your smartphone and beam it over to the QuietComfort 35. These Bluetooth ‘phones are a good example of a device that flatters music well. Unlike the Sennheiser Momentum, the QC35 is not particularly accurate, but the sound enhancements rarely interfere with program material. There’s a bit of high frequency sheen added that gives sparkle and life. If you’re really up on the sound of natural instruments, it should be apparent immediately. If you’re not, it will likely just sound ‘better’ to you.
Fidelity aside, the QC35 performs solidly. While these are heavier than the QC25, its cabled cousin, the headband is wider and there’s not much difference in the feel of the fit. These are one of the nicest fitting headphones in the group. You’re aware that they’re on, they completely encapsulate the ears and sit positively without sliding around. There are no pressure points, and the band accepts to fit any reasonable head.
Without a battery charge, the QC35 still performs as a passive, wired headphone, but the sound is not spectacular. That’s not the intended use of the device, so that shouldn’t count as too much of a con.
Controls are on the right earcup, for volume, song navigation and call management. Bose’s Connect app is free and makes quick work of Bluetooth pairing, though it’s a fundamental app currently. Noise reduction extends to phone use as well, reducing ambient sounds from your locations so callers hear you speak more clearly. You can include your own voice in the earcups for calls so that you don’t go into Yell Mode since you don’t hear you that well with the QC35 in action otherwise. In all, this is one of the best sounding Bluetooth headphones, and its noise cancellation is the best of the bunch.
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4. V-Moda Crossfade Wireless
V-Moda took a somewhat different approach to wireless with the Crossfade. Based on the maker’s M-100 wired headphone, V-Moda set out to make a product that offered wireless performance, but still sounded as good as their premier passive wired ‘phones. While that’s not on the shopping list for consumers focused on wireless, it’s still a very nice touch, because batteries can and do die and usually when you’re as far away from recharging or new battery vendors as you can get. With the Crossfade, the music can go on. As long as you’ve remembered the cable, of course.
For those looking for bling appeal, the roughly hexagonal shields on each cup are interchangeable, though additional shields require purchase. Since gold, silver and gold-platinum plated shields are options, that additional purchase could be hefty. The look of the big shield may not suit all tastes but it does give the Crossfade a distinctive look.
Earcups aren’t double hinged, so they don’t fold as compactly as some. The cups do rotate to a flat position, but they don’t tuck into the headband space for ultimate compactness. As a stock item, the Crossfade is not the most comfortable headphone on the list. Consider buying the XL cushions if extended wear is important to you. These make an enormous difference that likely improves speaker performance with a more positive seal around the ear. V-Moda has a line of additional accessories, such as a boom mic and premium cables, all of which are compatible with the Crossfade.
As for sound, the Crossfade moves a little further away from natural sound, with both bass and treble emphasis that can sound unnatural for acoustic music, but which suits beat-heavy urban tunes, rendering solid bass and sparkling percussion. Vocals may not be as clear compared with other headphones, but they aren’t buried. The Crossfade may be a dance music fan’s favorite Bluetooth set.
5. Beats Studio Wireless
Beats headphones have always been as much about image as about sound. The original Beats Studio cabled headphone sold in bucketloads, though discerning listeners were not won over by its sound. The Studio Wireless, fortunately, is redesigned. Gone is the ridiculously top-heavy bass. The Studio Wireless set gives a much more balanced sound than the worst offenders in the Beats lineup, warranting its inclusion in our Guide.
Comfort is definitely the first thing you’ll notice about the Studio Wireless. Good fit with comfortable earcups. These, like the Bose QC35, would stay in place through jogs and moderate workouts. While featuring noise cancellation, the Studio Wireless version is more modest than the Bose. It’s still an improvement over noisy traffic, but there’s not a feeling of remarkable quiet that the QC35 provides.
Cell phone call management is handled adequately, although controls are on the left earcup. There seems to be some outgoing noise suppression also, as ambient noise doesn’t overwhelm the outgoing voice. The call button also doubles as a music navigation control, with volume controls above and below it. Simple and intuitive, as long as you’re not painfully right-handed.
The Studio Wireless is another headphone with modest battery life of 12 hours when using Bluetooth streaming. Connect the cable and you’ll get more like 20 hours. There’s a five-segment battery level indicator on the right earcup below the on/off button. Remaining charge is also indicated on your remote device.
Noise cancelling can’t be shut off. That’s probably the biggest Achilles Heel of the Studio Wireless. There must be some battery life or you get no audio. This holds true with wired connections as well as, obviously, Bluetooth. The Studio Wireless does not have a passive listening mode.
6. Sony MDR-XB950BT
Those who fancy the aesthetic of large hockey pucks on each side of their head will dig the look of the MDR-XB950BT. While this Sony unit owes much to the Beats school of ridiculous amounts of bass, the design is unimaginative to the point of dorkiness. While nerd appeal may regard that as a merit, these really aren’t a good looking set of headphones.
There are comfort issues too. Movie-length listening sessions may prove too much. The pressure from the brushed metal headband is firm. Positive fit is one thing. Some users may find these a bit skull crunching. The thick padding on the earcups makes for a comfortable initial feeling, but the squeeze is relentless.
Despite these drawbacks, the MDR-XB950BT made the Buyer’s Guide based on, well, bass. The Bass Boost on these ‘phones is massive. Fortunately, it’s switchable. For those who listen to nothing but urban and dance music, the switch will likely remain engaged at all times. For those who enjoy more variety, the boost will be on or off, depending on program content. The Bass Boost is not a minor EQ setting for those who like a little more bottom. It’s the sonic equivalent to the difference between a tack hammer and a wrecking ball.
Other manufacturers of heavy bass headphones put all their energy into the boom. The chief asset of the MDR-XB950BT is that these sound really good with the boost shut off. The balance and clarity are quite impressive. Acoustic and classical piano positively sparkle, but in a very natural and in-the-room kind of way. Audio over Bluetooth never competes with the best cable-connected version, but the MDR-XB950BT comes as close as any. Considering this Sony set sells for less than half of some of the pricier units on our list, the sonic performance is quite impressive.
Controls are another shining point for these visually bereft cans. Volume, navigation and call management are all very intuitive. Connectivity is also a breeze, both with conventional Bluetooth setup and the touch-and-play convenience of NFC.
Voice isolation during calls is, however, down there with the visual stylings. The phone mic in the device sounds great, it just has no discretion. Even a modestly driven side street sounds like Times Square at rush hour on the other end of a call. The speaker’s voice often gets lost in ambient noise.
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7. Samsung Level On
It’s logical for smartphone maker Samsung to market accessories optimized for use with their devices. Such a beast is the Level On Wireless. It’s optimized for the Android platform, though it will work with any Bluetooth-enabled device. The Level app gives these ‘phones tweakability over sound in a handy package.
This is the first on-ear design to make the Buyer’s Guide. It’s a questionable decision to have an active noise cancelling in an on the ear design, since even a heavy-duty ear cup can’t form the seal necessary for really effective sound isolation. Still, some noise cancellation may be better than none at all. If you’re the sort of listener who likes to go whole hog on the feature, then this is probably not your first choice.
Touch control on the right earcup is another polarizer. Those who like gesture control will love it. Others who accidently pause a tune or boost the volume to the max may not enjoy it so much. The Level On handles calls adequately and there’s no particular issue with the on-board mic. It picks up voices well over ambient sound.
No particular issue. That phrase may be the reason this headphone didn’t rank higher. The Level On sounds good. No particular issue, except for a lack of excitement. It’s hard to put a finger on. Bass is satisfying, vocals are clear, acoustic instruments are detailed. But enjoying music isn’t about analyzing each component. If words could cover it, we wouldn’t need music. This offering from Samsung is not a bad choice, it’s simply an unspectacular one.
8. Jabra Move
As one of the most affordable Bluetooth headphones, the Jabra Move looks and sounds good. This is another on the ear design, but it makes no pretense about noise reduction. The design feels comfortable and remains so for extended listening sessions. Wearing these during a run or workout would probably send them flying, however. In fact, even during yoga, they’d probably try to slide off your head, but conventional listening positions remain secure.
The Move has a very satisfying enhanced bass. Those who dig the deep beats will go right on digging, but these aren’t so overhyped that other music styles sound odd. The highs are well reproduced too, but somewhat processed sounding. While certainly a pleasure to listen to, the Jabra Move is not the truest reproduction. There’s also not a whole lot of difference between cable and Bluetooth listening.
The design looks clean, no obnoxious logo or button text marring the earcups. Available in red, blue or black, there’s a bit of variety, though Jabra offers little in terms of accessories. Controls sit on the left earcup and include a multi-function button with volume controls on opposing sides. Power and pairing switch is on the right side, along with the micro USB charging port. The Move ships with audio and USB cables.
Battery life is the weakest in our sample pool at only 8 hours, but recharging only takes a couple hours. The Move is also on the light end of our selections, so assume that a smaller battery contributes to the short life. It’s a reasonable trade-off at this price point.
9. Skullcandy Hesh 2 Wireless
The look of choice for skaters and wannabees, Skullcandy has a visual appeal that’s more important to some consumers than the sound. With that in mind, the sound of the Hesh 2 is certainly competent, but it doesn’t seem focused on its core demographic.
Similar in price to the Jabra Move, the Hesh 2 is here primarily because of the sound. What’s somewhat odd is that it’s not a bass-optimized device. It does a fine job of low frequency delivery, but it’s not in the Beats territory of bottom end madness.
Construction suits the price level. Conventional foam earcups reign, instead of the memory foam that’s prevalent in more expensive designs. The cups still seal tightly around your ear. The look is low-key in basic black. Skullcandy is noted for its wide range of graphics, so picking “my pair” is half the fun for many users.
Smartphone operation is easy, though it breaks informal convention a bit. On most Bluetooth ‘phones, up and down volume controls serve only the one task, while a single button handles call management and song navigation, if offered, with multiple taps. The volume buttons shape to form big + and – signs that are easy to sense by touch. Holding these down for a few seconds changes function to navigate forward or backward through song lists. The multifunction button handles play and pause, call management and on/off duties.
The Hesh 2 operates in passive mode with the included audio cable. The recharging port is hidden at the top of the left earcup. You need to rotate the cup to access it, which means it’s protected during regular use. Battery life is 15 hours, a decent level for a design at this price.
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10. Kinivo BTH240
Under $100, Bluetooth headphone performance starts to get sketchy. However, not everyone has the scratch to indulge. Normally, an under $30 set would not make the Buyer’s Guide, particularly when top models are nearly 20 times the price. It’s often just not fair to expect any sort of parity across that kind of price divide.
The Kinivo BTH240 won’t compete with the best-sounding Bluetooth models, but neither are these a trashy budget headphone. All the features of the pricey models are here, from volume, song navigation and call management, to noise cancelling mic for improving voice clarity during calls.
Design is on the ear, with a behind the head band style. These are very light headphones, so the piece of the band that runs over the ear places very little pressure on the ear itself and the back band keeps a secure fit without excessive clamping. The BTH240 feels natural and comfortable. The fit is secure enough for active users.
While sound isn’t as detailed as more expensive designs, it’s not an afterthought either. Bass reproduction is solid and while warmer than most, mid and upper frequencies remain distinct. Note that the BTH240 does not have a 3.5mm jack for wired operation. Without a charge, these ‘phones do not operate.
The gloss finish of the plastic earcups may be off-putting for some and a bling point for others. Overall, the BTH240 is a tiny set. How durable they are remains to be seen, but when you can buy two pairs for under $100, that may be a secondary question, if you’re otherwise happy with this product.
The Voodoo of Headphone Specifications
Sorting through the crowded field of Bluetooth headphones can be overwhelming, even for an audio engineer, since the lessons learned with conventional headphone marketing applies to wireless units as well.
The problem is a lack of common measurement standards. At least when you compare apples and oranges, you’re still dealing within the category of fruit. The way many headphone makers publish specifications makes it more like comparing wrenches and elephants. There’s really no rhyme or reason. While there are behind-the-scenes talks in the works to develop industry standards for purposes of fair comparison. In a competitive industry poised for a growth explosion, don’t hold your breath on quick agreement. And as it is now, it’s easy to make a headphone’s performance look great on paper, while it is outperformed by other brands with humble specs. Take all spec comparisons with a grain of salt. If headphones don’t sound good and feel comfortable, it doesn’t matter how well a set score in terms of specifications.
The figures 20Hz to 20,000Hz are offered up so often, they’ve become meaningless. Do a search on the frequency range of human hearing and you get… 20Hz to 20,000Hz. Can’t get a better match that that, right? These days you’ll see headphones boasting low end reproduction in the single digits with high frequencies billed as 23,000Hz or beyond. Without another figure — tolerance, -3dB or -10dB — to qualify the frequency range, the numbers don’t really say anything. Hertz alone (the Hz value) doesn’t contribute anything about how those frequencies are reproduced, only that they are.
Impedance is another specification that’s very important when matching amplifiers to speakers. It’s also important in headphone design, but it’s rarely anything a headphone wearer needs to consider, particularly with wireless headphones.
Here’s why: The Bluetooth audio signal needs amplifying after it arrives at the headphones. The reason Bluetooth headphones need batteries and charging is because of the amp. So an engineer at the headphone manufacturer did all the worrying about impedance that needs to be done, matching the amp inside the headphones with the speaker drivers within the headphones.
Sometimes, batteries die and charges expire. Most Bluetooth headphones will continue to function if connected with a regular headphone cable (but beware, not all of them do). Impedance then is a theoretical concern, and it affects how the headphones perform, but, unlike speakers, there’s rarely anything you can do about it.
With more and more headphones entering the market designed to work with smartphones as both a music listening and phone call monitoring device, it’s in the interests of the makers to choose impedances that work with typical phones. Leave the impedance worry to them.
When comparing two headphones, the one that sounds louder has the highest sensitivity. That’s pretty basic. However, the specification most manufacturers use is dB per 1 mW. Since amps output volts, milliwatts don’t mean a whole lot in this context. Besides, there are many variables that contribute to what the ear perceives as loudness. You know those commercials that come blaring 10 times louder than the movie you’re watching? That racket can be measured and proven no louder than the program material in the movie. On paper, anyway. Loudness is mistakenly equated with “good” so often that music makers and equipment manufacturers work hard to make their product louder than the next guy. So, if you see sensitivity numbers like 103 dB/1 mW and 107 dB/1 mW, likely the latter headphone will seem louder. But how does it sound? That is really the spec that matters.
Headphone Design Basics
There are a few things a Bluetooth headphone shopper should consider about the way headphones are built, since these affect the sound and therefore suggest the areas of best performance and taste matching.
Circumaural vs. Supra-aural
The first two fundamental design divisions simply refer to how the headphones sit on your head. Circumaural go around the ear, as the name suggests, while supra-aural models sit on the ear. Neither type is inherently better. Each has trade offs.
Circumaural, or over-the-ear headphones, create a seal around the ear as part of bass reinforcement. The better the seal, the better the bass, usually. On the downside, this design is often heavier, and the sealed environment can heat up, making the wearer uncomfortable. Isolation from outside noise is also more complete. Headphones with active noise cancelling ability are over-the-ear design to acoustically block ambient noise in addition to electronically filtering this content.
Supra-aural headphones are often called on-ear design. The headphone cups rest on the ear itself, there’s no attempt to envelop the ear. These models tend to be smaller and lighter, and as such, they don’t isolate the ear and ambient noise like circumaural design, which forces different design approaches to achieve balanced sound.
Many users prefer that there’s no feeling of being completely cut off from the world and there’s overheating of the ear. Most of the weight of the headphone rests on the ear, however, and some people find that uncomfortable. In practice, you’ll find those who insist their preferred design — over or on the ear — is the only one offering comfort. It comes down to preference. As with sound, neither design is necessarily more comfortable than the other. There are both comfortable and tortuous examples in both categories.
Closed vs. Open-Back
The terms closed and open are often used incorrectly. Some have the impression that these are synonymous with over and on the ear designs. This isn’t the case. It refers to the shell of the headphone itself, and the way a speaker is enclosed within it. Just as monitor speakers come in sealed and ported designs, so do headphones, though the physics of sound is different. Sound coming from ported speakers reinforces that coming from the speaker itself. In an open-back headphone, sound that’s ported out from the back doesn’t contribute to what the listener hears. It reduces the pressure behind the speaker element and affects the way the speaker moves, and therefore how it creates sound.
Once again, there is no “better” design. Each philosophy has its own advantages and drawbacks. Open backs are less isolating and create more of a sense of music in an acoustic space. Closed backs block more of the world, though the sense of isolation may be clinical, rather than natural. Open-back design also lets music spill out into the world around the listener. Late at night or in a recording studio, this might be very unwanted.
There is, however, little choice in the Bluetooth headphone world. Most feature closed-back designs, and in fact all the models represented in our Buyer’s Guide are close-backed models, though some are circumaural and some are on-the-ear. Any models featuring active noise cancellation are both over-the-ear and closed backed for best isolation.