Despite so many glowing reviews, I’m not a fan of Bluetooth headphones. Don’t get this wrong: even an old cynic like myself can appreciate the convenience of wireless audio, but I’m not about to abandon my wired cans anytime soon.
My point of view basically boils down to the fact that I will never, ever choose convenience over dependability and quality. Bluetooth headphones are frequently the disposable audio point-and-shoot, the K-cup machine, the IKEA living room set. Sure, all of those things appear to do the job: but how well? Not very often.
I’m the dinosaur who still uses a full-frame DSLR. I make my own espresso drinks at home. If I need furniture, I make it from mahogany, oak, or birch. Maybe you don’t share my worldview, but I believe it’s pretty clear that older, wired designs are still superior to wireless. At least for the time being.
1) Wired headphones outperform wireless headphones.
Bluetooth simply lacks the bandwidth and performance to compete with the best wired headphones. That is not to say that wired headphones are superior to Bluetooth headphones. Oh, no! That simply means that the performance ceiling—as well as the floor—is much, much higher. Have you ever wondered why the most expensive headphones on the market are all wired monstrosities chained to amps? It’s because Bluetooth can’t handle higher-quality audio like wired headphones can.
This may change in the future as battery design and Bluetooth technology improve. Heck, it might even change with the most recent Bluetooth 5 update. Still, in order to compete with, you’d need a strong neck to support a monster battery, good shielding, and a very broad definition of “competing.” Even though there are some fantastic Bluetooth headphones available (see: Sony WH-1000XM3, Leaf Bass Headphones), they are the exception rather than the rule.
Bluetooth does an excellent job of transmitting “good enough” music for commuters, which is fantastic—but when engine noise and other sounds mask out many notes in your music, it’s a pretty low bar to clear. Though most people can’t tell the difference between a FLAC file and an MP3 file at 320kbps, the point here is that Bluetooth’s limit is only at that point; actual average performance is a little lower. MP3 compression may be able to maximise quality by removing sound that we cannot hear, but you can definitely tell when quality begins to deteriorate after a certain point.
In the future, wireless audio will easily outperform our current wired headphones in terms of audio quality thanks to digital audio transmission. But that day isn’t today, and if you want the best of digital audio, you’ll need a cable—whether it’s USB-C, Lightning, XLR, or, preferably, your standard 3.5mm.
2) Battery replacement is inconvenient
Why would you limit yourself in such a way, especially with the main instrument you use in situations such as an aeroplane flight? You might find yourself without access to power, and then you’re screwed. Sorry for the inconvenience! While battery technology is improving, there will always be a point where a cell will stop charging. When this happens, you must be able to replace the battery, which not all headphones allow. Your headphones have died at this point. This isn’t an issue with wired headphones unless they have an active noise-cancelling unit. (For example, the Leaf Hush ANC Wireless Headphones include a switch for activating and deactivating Noise Cancellation. It also has a battery life indicator. It also has a battery life of 20 hours, which is the longest available in this price range.)
That doesn’t even address the fact that true wireless earphones, in particular, are significant contributors to e-waste. If you’ve ever had a pair of true wireless earphones break, did you do your homework to find a proper recycling facility, or did you just throw them away? That’s exactly what I thought.
3) You’re overpaying when you don’t have to
However, this does not address the other aspect of the problem: adding a battery and other sensitive electronics adds another point of failure. Have you ever dropped a pair of headphones or knocked them off a table? I certainly have. Have you ever stuffed them into a bag and then tossed the bag onto a hard surface? Guilty. Banging your Bluetooth headphones around will probably not kill them, but there is more to break inside. If one of the solder points breaks, the electronics fail, or the battery dies (God forbid), your headphones will stop working.
Wired headphones are not indestructible, but they are much easier (and less expensive) to repair with the right tools.
4) “Wireless” does not always imply durability.
In theory, being able to remove the wire—the most delicate and frequently broken part of any headphone anywhere—is a plus for durability and safety. Bluetooth headphones appear to be the logical culmination of that concept. This issue, however, can be avoided if headphone manufacturers use a detachable cable. V-Moda, Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, Beats, Bose… and nearly all of the major headphone manufacturers use a removable cable on many of their non-Bluetooth headphones.
But that doesn’t even address the other part of this issue: adding a battery and other sensitive electronics adds another point of failure. Ever drop a set of headphones or knock it off a table? I sure have. Banging around your Bluetooth headphones probably won’t kill them, but there’s more to break inside. Wired headphones are not indestructible, but they are much easier (and less expensive) to repair with the right design.
Now for the kill shot: Bluetooth simply isn’t as reliable as a wired connection, and that’s a big deal.
As with most machines, adding a link in the chain introduces potential points of failure, and Bluetooth headphones, in particular, introduce a point where the connection is subject to external factors that are not applicable to wired connections. Many factors can influence whether your headphones work as you’ve come to expect them to, and the poorer Bluetooth headphones appear to consult a pantheon of frustration gods to determine how they’re going to irritate you on any given day.
Being in a room with too many other Bluetooth devices, as well as bad software, can have an effect on your headphones. Perhaps your phone is too old, and your new headphones will only support an SBC profile rather than the A2DP or aptX that you were promised. Perhaps you will experience packet loss for no apparent reason, causing your music to skip. A wireless connection can go wrong in a variety of ways.
Wired headphones do not occasionally skip, nor are they difficult to use with your phone. They don’t struggle when there are a lot of other Bluetooth devices around, and they won’t fall back to a lower-quality connection standard if your source is more than 2-3 years old.
Although they are not glamorous, wired headphones are extremely dependable. They don’t have many points of failure, they’re inexpensive to repair, and they work.
For all of the reasons stated above, and many more, wired headphones continue to reign supreme in my opinion.
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