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
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
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
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.
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.