Ask LH: Does Bluetooth Audio Still Suck?

Does Bluetooth Audio Still Suck?

Dear Lifehacker, I want a pair of wireless headphones to wear while I'm working, but I've always heard that Bluetooth audio sounds terrible. I had a pair a while back, and everything through them sounded really robotic. My friends say they've come a long way though. What's the verdict? Do Bluetooth headphones sound any good these days? Sincerely, Blue Teeth

Pictures: Tarchyshnik Andrei (Shutterstock), Bryan Solomon (Shutterstock), Josh Hallett, Brett Jordan

Dear Blue Teeth,

Well, you're right about one thing -- there was a time where Bluetooth audio sounded terrible. Whether it was for headphones or speakers, Bluetooth just wasn't initially designed for high-quality audio. Times have changed however, and Bluetooth has quietly come a long way. Let's take another look at it.

Why Bluetooth Audio Used To (and Still Largely) Sucks

Does Bluetooth Audio Still Suck?

The problem with Bluetooth audio has always been digital compression: in order to send your audio to your headphones, you were forced to sacrifice quality. Traditionally, especially on older devices and with older Bluetooth versions, this meant the sound was so badly compressed that the result sounded robotic, buzzy and noisy. Listening to podcasts and spoken words wasn't a big deal, but it was a different story when it came to music. You have none of the richness or warmth of sound that a pair of wired headphones offers.

In addition to compression ruining the audio quality, there are other factors at play. For one, Bluetooth rides the same 2.4Ghz wireless frequency that so many other things in your home, like wireless mice or keyboards, Wi-Fi signals, or even microwaves. Those things won't have a huge impact on sound quality, but they can -- and often do -- cause audio drops and other quirks. Of course, all of those are reasons why Bluetooth audio was never -- and still isn't -- a match for traditional wired audio. That doesn't mean it's without its merits.

Bluetooth Audio Has Come a Long Way, But Be Careful What You Look For

Does Bluetooth Audio Still Suck?

Bluetooth has improved, and the audio compression isn't nearly as bad as it was even five years ago. Bluetooth standards have improved significantly since the days of Bluetooth 1.1 and 2.0 (which is when Bluetooth headsets and headphones really hit the market), and today's Bluetooth 3.0 and 4.0 devices are built with more attention to stereo audio.

If you want the best possible audio quality from a Bluetooth device, look for headphones and speakers that support aptX, an audio codec designed for CD-quality audio transfer over Bluetooth. Alternatively, look for support for A2DP, or Advanced Audio Distribution Profile, which also requires compatible devices, but is designed for sending stereo audio over Bluetooth to speakers, car stereos and headphones. In either case, even if you don't have supported devices, you may be able to find adapters to help bridge the gap.

That said, it's still not as good as wired audio, and some people say it's still unacceptable overall. Still, there are situations where it's good enough for what you want:

  • When portability is most important. This is probably the biggest use case for Bluetooth audio, whether it's headphones or speakers. If you need to listen to your music far from the audio source, or if you can't be tied down with a cable because you're out exercising, Bluetooth headphones are a good option. Of course, because Bluetooth audio costs more, you'll pay for that convenience.
  • When your expectations are low. We're not all audiophiles, and we don't all need the best audio quality all the time. Sometimes convenience trumps fidelity, or maybe the luxury of no wires is just too nice to argue against. As long as you understand the limitations of Bluetooth audio and go into the listening experience knowing you're not going to get high quality, you'll be fine.
  • In noisy environments where audio quality can't really be appreciated. If you work in a noisy environment and want headphones that you don't need to take off of your head to walk around, a pair of Bluetooth headphones might be perfect for you. Similarly, if you prefer to listen to your own music over chatter around your desk, and portability is important, go for it. We even mentioned some Bluetooth models in our guide to noise-cancelling headphones, which would be perfect for those office situations.
  • When you're listening to middling-quality streams or lossy audio. If portability is important, and you know you're not exactly listening to high-quality audio files or streams, it may all be a wash anyway. We're not advocates of anything that might make your music sound worse, but if you can't tell the difference, and you want the convenience that Bluetooth offers, there's no reason to shy away from it (aside from price, of course). Still, even if you don't care about fidelity, this underscores the importance of getting the highest-quality streams and rips you can, so the effects of audio compression are as small as possible overall.

If any of that sounds like you, then feel free to wade into the world of Bluetooth audio peripherals. However, if you're the type who really enjoys listening -- and I mean actively listening -- to music on high-quality headphones, and you use terms like "soundstage" and "frequency response" to judge one pair of headphones over another, you may be disappointed, especially when you compare your wireless listening experience to a wired one. Also remember how much you'll wind up spending just to get rid of those pesky cables -- Bluetooth comes at a premium, especially considering great audio quality can be quite affordable otherwise.

Does Bluetooth Audio Still Suck?

If you're looking for specific suggestions, our friends at CNET have a few Bluetooth models to check out, and keep an eye on The Wirecutter -- it's planning to update its Bluetooth headphone recommendations any day now.

The same rules apply to shopping for Bluetooth headphones as for any other kind of headphones. See if you can try them out before you buy (or buy from someone who has a great return policy, so you can get your money back if you're disappointed). Listen to music you know and love inside and out. Check their reported battery life and recharge time, along with warranty information. Finally, read as many reviews as you can before buying. As long as you're aware of what you get and what you give up, you can make the call to go Bluetooth and pick a solid pair of headphones, or ditch wireless altogether and stick to wired headphones with confidence.

Cheers Lifehacker


Comments

    I use a pair of cheap $25 bluetooth headphones from the Post Office tech goodies section. Biggest problem I had was the proprietary drivers competing with the audio drivers on the laptop. Once fixed, they're slightly tinny, but fine for using at work, and a huge benefit over having my neck yanked around when I forget to take them off before standing up. ;-)

    Bluetooth anything with cost you $$$. I bought $12 worth wireless headphones from cheapy shop, added an antenna to the base and replaced the AAA battery compartment with a cradle for AA batteries. I can now go around the house without loosing the transmission. Added bonus, you can get another set and use it with same base, so 2 ppl can watch tv and let your baby sleep.

    I find the idea of BT audio very cool.
    I can see one day surround sound systems speakers are BT.

    I bought a pair of KitSound Manhattan from Tesco in the UK when i was visiting for Christmas. They set me back 35 Pound Sterling. When I went to pair them with my phone they displayed as Beats SOHO. Which when I looking at Dixons.co.nz price for 129 Pounds Sterling. Which was strange as Beats Soho's are not bluetooth. Any how they are a awesome pair of headphones and even come with a micro usb to 3.5mm audio cable so you can use them wired where wireless connectivity is not permitted. I.e Flying.

    They're not Bluetooth, but Logitech G930 are good quality wireless headphones. The wireless transmitter is USB only though, so you can only use them with a PC. IMO they sound just as good as any other headphones in their price range (around $200), so you don't pay a premium for the wireless capability.

    In 2006 I purchased a pair of Sony DR BT50 bluetooth headphones. I use them for +2-3 hours everyday. And still do here in 2014. I keep waiting for them to die... or most likely the battery to reach it's useful life. Yet everyday they fire up and faithfully play me music, podcasts and audiobooks.

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