by Aaron Bendich
According to NPD, Bluetooth capable headphones account for 54 percent of headphone sales in 2016 thus far. This change can in part be attributed to decreasing sales prices as well as the surge of new products and promotions. Rumor has it that Apple’s next iPhone will exclude the 3.5mm headphone jack in favor of Apple-branded lightning ear buds and third-party Bluetooth headphones. With this seismic shift in headphone technology, many consumers may feel overwhelmed and under-informed. While many of the important specs and selling points of these new-era headphones are quite the same as their wired ancestors, there are a number of new details to look out for.
First, the basics…
What is Bluetooth?
Bluetooth is a standard for wireless communication between devices. It utilizes short-wavelength UHF to transfer data between phones, from phones to computers or vice versa, or to connect computers with mice, keyboards or headphones. While Bluetooth is the standard for wireless data sharing and device connection, it is a technology that is continuing to improve. With this improvement over time, Bluetooth has become more secure, less demanding of devices’ battery power, and generally more effective. The current standard is v4.2, which was released over a year and a half ago. Bluetooth v5 was recently announced, and when it is released it will greatly increase the range and speed of connection between devices. Wireless technology has come a long way in the past 10 years since the popularization of Bluetooth for low energy devices. The future of Bluetooth is bright and manufacturers, retailers and consumers all know it.
The most apparent difference between wired and wireless headphones is the need for a separate power source. While the headphones of yesteryear generally worked off of your audio device’s power and at most required a disposable battery or two for noise cancellation, Generally, Bluetooth headsets utilize built-in, rechargeable batteries. It would follow that longer battery life should be a selling point for the consumer; however it is important to keep in mind how you intend to use the product. If you are looking for headphones strictly for use at home, the battery life variable may be less important. On the other hand, if you enjoy long hikes or camping trips, you may want to find a model with a longer battery life.
After battery life, you may think to compare the wireless range between various headsets. Just the same, manufacturers and retailers boastfully advertise their Bluetooth headsets transmission range alongside other specifications. Ironically, you may notice that all Bluetooth headphones sport the same exact wireless range, 33 feet or 10 meters. These headphones are all class 2 Bluetooth devices; this designation reflects the amount of power the headset has access to and complies to a technical standard set by the Bluetooth technology. Don’t be misled by retailers boasting a range of “over 30 feet”. They all have that!
While wireless technology, particularly Bluetooth, is the way of the future, that doesn’t mean that all audio devices have the required connectivity. If you are a headphone user with an assortment of devices, you may prefer a wireless headset with a 3.5mm jack. A number of major brands have released wireless headsets with this option, while others dove headfirst into the new technology. If you’re sure you will only use your new headphones with Bluetooth compatible devices then don’t worry about it. Otherwise, keep your eyes open and make sure you are looking at the right options.
Other than device-specific requirements, such as the new iPhone, many are drawn to Bluetooth headphone technology for use in athletic settings, particularly running and working out. While waterproofing is important for all sports headphones, it’s a must for independently powered, more expensive, higher tech headphones. If you are planning to use your headphones while working out, look for water resistant coatings.
Volume Controls / Microphone
Inline controls and built-in microphones have become standard fare for wired headphones over the last five years, with even budget models sporting some type of control feature. You may notice that wireless headphones lack the line on which a mic or set of buttons can be placed. Some headphone models compensate for this difference by including volume buttons built into the cup’s exterior. However, plenty of wireless headphone offerings lack this feature; it appears to be de-emphasized in wireless models. A built-in microphone is even less common in the wireless headphone market. If you intend to use your headphones for phone calls, consider the small subset with microphones included. If you anticipate the need to alter the volume without access to the audio device itself, consider the larger subset with volume controls.
Unlike nearly all preceding headphone products, Bluetooth sets are intended explicitly for smartphone use. Smartphones can be tricky about connecting to Bluetooth devices and nearly impossible to effectively equalize. With this in mind, a number of headphone manufacturers developed tie-in apps for their Bluetooth offerings. These apps feature dynamic equalization through your smartphone’s touch screen, and/or easy, intuitive Bluetooth device management. If you are using your Bluetooth headset for your smartphone and care about equalization or simply need to use multiple devices, you may want to consider options with a related app.