Bluetooth Headphones - is it time to change?

Posted by Bien Commerce Collaborator on

We're not resistant to change but we have to say it's taken us a long time to be able to write this post discussing the quality of Bluetooth headphones. The reasons are two-fold - the first is that it's hard to believe Bluetooth wireless will ever have a better sound quality than wired. The second is accepting that function sometimes has to trump quality. So the question is - have Bluetooth headphones and earphones finally reached the point where they sound as good as wired headphones and is it time to change?

First, open your mind

It's easy to sound like a snobby audiophile when you hold firm to your beliefs which consist of commonly held theories. Some of those being:

  • Analog is better than digital
  • Wired is better than wireless
  • Lossless is better than Compressed

We don't need to go through these particular beliefs in detail, and both sides of every argument have some science to back them. At the end of the day, it's about what sounds best to you regardless of science and testing.

Bluetooth headphones were always a bit of a joke. For starters Bluetooth audio in the early days was terrible so it was easy to label them as that and leave it there. Some brands made an impact as Bluetooth headphones started to improve and Beats would be a good example of that - love or hate them, they caused some mainstream adoption even beyond what Sony had managed to that point. Generally, first generation Beats were derided in the audiophile market along with Skull Candy, House of Marley, Street/SMS Audio (50 Cent) and others.

While all this was going on in the sub $500 market, Bose continued it's domination of the high end. Only in the last year or two have Sennheiser Headphones, Beats, Sony, NAD and others started to really chip into this market. But Bose are probably not too worried as the global sales of headphones have increased year on year for a while meaning there is more in the pot to share.

Headphones Interest Growth over time

Global Headphone Growth Graph

Bluetooth Headphones Interest Growth over time

Bluetooth Headphones Sales Growth

Bluetooth limitations

One of the limitations of Bluetooth was the amount of data it could transfer. Currently, you can expect Bluetooth transfer to operate at around 25mbps. A CD quality audio file could be expected to transfer at about 1.4mbps which is plenty for a full quality encoded file.

aptX encoding for Bluetooth Headphones

aptX was one of the first codecs that made it possible to believe the audio might be acceptable, and now aptX HD which promises beyond CD quality sound (let's not go back to debating Tape and Vinyl at this point). The challenge here is that the device and receiver need to be compatible which a lot of people don't realise. At this time aptX is probably the best known and trusted sign of audio quality for Bluetooth audio transfer. aptX is still a compressed transfer format, it's just meant to not impact audio quality. It can transfer audio at the same rate of CD (16-bit/44 kHz), hence their claims of CD quality.

If you are an iPhone user at the time of this being written then you're iPhone doesn't support aptX (Macbooks/iMacs do though). Instead, Apple went with support for AAC in iPhones. So if you are choosing a pair of Bluetooth headphones and want the best quality audio, and you plan to use an iPhone for most of your listening, then you need to check that the headphones mention AAC in the specifications.

Currently, the latest models from Sony, Bose and Sennheiser (HD1) do support AAC.

Other considerations about Bluetooth Headphones

The big fat caveat to all the science you can list are things like:

Is it a decent headphone regardless of Bluetooth? If they sound crap wired or wireless than the argument around Bluetooth quality is a bit moot right?

Are you in an environment where it matters? If you are commuting, going to the gym or running then perhaps the nuances that might be lost in Bluetooth don't actually matter?

Is the practicality of Bluetooth Headphones the decider?

Putting the audiophile quality of Bluetooth audio aside for a moment it is easy to see why going wireless, regardless of quality is a winner. The growth of the noisy open office, the need to be motivated when running or the ability to commute with headphones without the cable getting caught on your bag in embarrassing moments causing your headphones to be yanked from your head, all contribute to making Bluetooth headphones a solid choice. With the quality of Bluetooth reaching a place where they actually can sound great it's hard to not choose them for activities such as those above.

So is Bluetooth Audio worse or the same as wired?

Bottom line is that as Bluetooth is currently used in audio listening applications, the quality is lower. Is it enough for you to hear, or care about? That in part depends on the quality of the headphones and the attention to detail the makers and manufacturers have paid when making their hardware.

Our take?

It's good enough if you choose the right headphones. We've tried the Sony, Bose, Sennheiser and nura Bluetooth headphones and believe for typical life use they have finally arrived at a point you can still enjoy your music enough that it's not a big deal. Especially if you're using them in a noisy office, plane, gym, train or walking around the local streets. The good news is, they can only get better. So, give up the audiophile obsession just admit that Bluetooth is getting realy really close to being great.

What's next?

Bluetooth 5 is coming next. With mainstream adoption planned it will surely give us all we need to end the Bluetooth audio debate. According to early estimates, it is meant to increase the range of Bluetooth by 4 times and double the speed of connection to devices. 

By then it should surely come down to the quality of the headphones, not the transmission of the signal. aptX HD is also spreading which increases Bluetooth audio quality.

What are you're thoughts on this topic - do you thing you can hear a significant difference in Bluetooth audio? What Bluetooth Headphones do you own?


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