Choosing the best wireless headphones for your budget and use case might appear difficult with so many choices available. Whether you’re using wireless headphones while running, gaming, talking on the phone, consuming content, or creating content, this wireless headphones buying guide untangles the terms and specifications you need to know and identify how to buy the best headphones at any budget.
Wireless Headphones Form Factors
How do you want your headphones to fit your head? Wireless headphones come in three types of form factors: in-ear, on-ear and over-ear. Each has advantages and disadvantages for portability, comfort, and performance. Headphones in each form factor run the gamut in budget range and sound quality.
In-ear headphones fit inside your ear canal. Manufacturers call them true wireless headphones because the left and right headphones have no wires connecting them. Compact and lightweight, in-ear headphones are ideal for taking on the go and great for listening to music or podcasts while working out. They usually charge via USB inside their case. Ear gels cover the speaker and offer a snug fit which isolates outside noise. In-ear headphones may attach to neckbands for a more secure fit when not in use, and these may incorporate a microphone and tactile controls so users can skip songs, take calls, and talk to their digital assistant without having to take their phone out.
Over-ear headphones fully encapsulate the listener’s ears. Due to their larger size and better sound isolation, over-ear headphones tend to be better suited for use at home rather than on the go, however, many offer fold-up designs that challenge this idea. Over-ear headphones provide maximum loudness and bass levels. The earcups create a large soundstage for the listener by effectively sealing the audio in and keeping outside noise out. This improves the user experience for low volume audio—like watching TV or making a phone call. Open-back designs offer a more natural soundstage for the listener and are typically used for gaming, or when tracking vocals or musical instruments.
On-ear headphones rest on top of the outer ears, so the level of noise isolation varies widely. These are popular in offices and call centers, where listeners still want to hear some noises from the outside world. On-ear offers a happy medium between the portability of in-ear models and the sound quality of full-size ones. Many models have fold-up designs for convenient storage. Those with closed-back designs offer a solution when users don’t want their headphones to leak sounds to neighbors. On-ear microphones with denser earpad material create a better seal for sound isolation.
We don’t just listen to headphones anymore. We want our headphones to hear us as well. We use wireless headphones for gaming online, making phone calls, and giving commands to virtual assistants, which makes the microphone an important part of the design. Standard headsets used for gaming or phone calls have an arm that extends around the mouth area for maximum clarity. High-end headphones typically have four or more microphones built into them to ensure maximum voice clarity, as well as to provide input that drives active noise cancelation features.
ANC – Active (adaptive) noise canceling
Noise-canceling features are great if you want to block out the world around and focus on your audio. The quality and feature set of noise cancelation mechanisms closely determines the price for a good set of Bluetooth headphones.
Passive noise cancelation is a fancy phrase for what earplugs do. Any set of headphones has passive noise cancelation if they fit well and cover your ears. Using fitted ear gels with in-ear headphones improves passive noise cancelation, and headphones with dense padding enhance passive noise cancelation capabilities for on-ear and over-ear types.
Active (adaptive) noise cancelation (ANC) is more technically involved. Using tiny microphones inside the headphones, ANC detects unwanted noise and then plays back the inverse signal of that noise back to the listener. This creates a deadening effect that blocks out the din of unwanted noise. ANC tends to work best against consistent, unchanging noise, like the rumbling of a train or a crowd of people talking.
Headphones manufacturers build onboard CPUs in headphones to deliver ANC features that adapt to your sound environment in their flagship lines of on-ear and over-ear headphones. From headphones that detect someone talking to you, to headphones that auto-adjust for airline flights, each brand builds in its own bells and whistles into their automated ANC features.
Over-ear headphones are usually best for noise cancelation. The Sony WH-1000XM series and Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 are consistent favorites among tech writers; also check out Beyerdynamic LAGOON ANC Traveler. ANC technology is also built into in-ear headphones as well, and popular examples include Sony WF1000XM3B and Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2.
Sound quality and drivers
We’ll skim the surface about how drivers relate to sound quality without getting too encumbered by the science. A driver unit is comprised of a magnet, voice coils, and a diaphragm that vibrates to create sound. Driver size ranges from 8 mm – 15 mm for in-ear headphones; 20mm – 50mm in over- and on-ear headphones. Larger drivers tend to produce better bass and higher output. That doesn’t mean that small drivers have poor sound; other factors impact the sound quality more than driver size.
Planar magnetic drivers are what you’ll find on high-end headphones used by audiophiles or studio production professionals (See: Audeze LCD-1) or Monoprice Monolith M1060. These drivers employ a more complex build, sandwiching the diaphragm between two magnets to produce a very high level of sound accuracy.
Premium in-ear headphones (See: Anker Soundcore Liberty 2 or OVEVO Q62 ) have balanced armature drivers, a configuration of several tiny drivers built into the earpiece capable of a wide frequency range with minimal distortion.
Durability is an important consideration for headphones. We are constantly handling them, and if you’re taking them from place to place with you, buying something a little more expensive will typically save you money in the long run. We’d also recommend getting a headphones carrying case if you’re an avid traveler.
Functionality and aesthetics: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
More expensive headphones generally have better engineering with replaceable metal parts at common breakage and wear points, like ear pads, bands, and wiring. Features like swivel earcups make it easy to safely pack headphones in a bag. Others have aesthetic features for a fashionable look, like attractive invisible hinges that are characteristic of Bose wireless headphones and the leather headband and metal fittings of Sennheiser Momentum.
Mobile app controls and voice assistant access
Most leading brands have mobile apps for entering playlists and audio presets for listening to different types of media—such as podcasts, different genres of music, or video content. For a hands-free user experience, Headphones with mobile app controls offer convenient access to virtual assistants such as Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri. Manufacturers incorporate specialized on-board chips into headphones to increase functionality for voice assistants; the Apple H1 chip built into Apple AirPods Pro is a good example of this direction. Headphones that have multiple microphone arrays offer added clarity and voice accuracy for virtual assistants.
3D Audio or 360 Audio features
Headset manufacturers build immersive audio features into all types of headphones, but over-ear headphones tend to offer the best immersive audio experience. Immersive audio is called many things but it all ties back to the concept of binaural sound recording and playback, which gives the impression that sounds are happening all around you instead of from two speakers. The effect is meant to recreate sound in a more natural way. Dolby Atmos and DTX:X systems are popular in film and VR gaming; Sony Reality Audio is at the forefront of this technology in music production. Several music streaming services have started encoding content in the MPEG-H codec making immersive audio features available anytime, anywhere for music lovers.
True wireless headphones are often sweatproof because they are designed for use during a workout. Many budget-level wireless in-ears have IPX4 ratings which means that headphones can resist sustained low-pressure water jet spray. If you spend time in the water and want totally waterproof headphones, look for an IPX7 rating like you’ll find on Jabra Elite Active 75t.
Bluetooth Codecs and connections
Bluetooth 5.0 is the current version of the wireless communication standard. Devices are backward compatible with each other. Bluetooth 5.0 witnessed a huge range increase; devices can communicate over distances of up to 800 feet, which is four times the range allowed by Bluetooth 4.2. The latest standard is also more efficient, which translates into longer battery life for devices.
Sound files are compressed and coded when traveling between headphones and the audio source. Codecs set the parameters for how this occurs, and there are four to note when discussing wireless headphones.
- SBC is the default codec for all Bluetooth headphones and generally offers the lowest sound quality, although it may vary from device to device.
- AAC is the codec that Apple products use for Bluetooth connectivity, and you’ll find it on some Android phones as well.
- aptX and aptX HD is an efficient low-latency codec used by devices with Qualcomm CPUs—which includes many Android phones and tablets
- LDAC is proprietary to Sony, and offers a range of audio qualities and potentially the highest quality connection of any codec thus far. It comes built into Android 8.0 Oreo, in addition to Sony products.
Bluetooth headphones capable of multipoint connection are useful if you use more than one device throughout the day or even simultaneously. For example, if you have a work phone and a personal phone, you can connect to both with a single paid or headphones. Or when you are gaming on your laptop and your phone rings, your headphones are smart enough to pair automatically when you take the call, and then resume gaming once the call is over. Some professional headphones take this a step further. The Jabra Engage Series has a docking base with a touch screen that unites all your connections and allows you to merge each into one conversation.
If you’re bringing your audio out and about battery life is an important consideration. Most wireless in-ear headphones have a battery life rating between five and eight hours. Bluetooth one-ear or over-ear headphones last around 25 hours or longer.