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What to look for when buying a pair of Bluetooth headphones

There are so many different Bluetooth headphone models from different companies — and of course, they all claim they are the best — and so many different opinions that it's easy to feel lost and end up buying something that doesn't work for you. And they aren't exactly cheap, which can make it a costly mistake.

You can save yourself a bit of a headache if you think about what you are looking for before you click the Buy button or hand your plastic to someone. Experts — both pro and amateur — usually tell you why they think something like a particular pair of Bluetooth headphones are the best. Most times you'll be able to decide if the things they think are important are things you think are important and buying on a recommendation usually works out. But if you like to research before you buy, or even know what the experts look for, we've got five things you need to consider.

Comfort and fit

Meizu EP51

Knowing how you're going to be using your headphones can make a big difference. The best Bluetooth headphones for someone who listens while running every morning aren't going to be the best for someone who uses them to listen to music or audio books while they are working. Decide which style of headphone you want — Bluetooth headphones come as earbuds, on-ear, over-ear, open back and most every other style that wired headphones use. Think about how you'll use them, then look at other options.

Read user reviews to see if others have complaints about how they feel while they're being used.

Once you've figured out what type of headphones you want, think about how comfortable they will be. Some earbuds pop out all the time. Some over-ear headphones can feel heavy or clamp your head too tightly. Read user reviews to see if others have complaints about how they feel while they're being used.

There are two absolute truths here — everyone hates uncomfortable headphones, and people like to complain. Use that to your advantage. Of course, nothing beats trying on a pair yourself. If you have access to a place that specializes in electronics or audio gear, take the time to check out what they have for sale. Don't be afraid to try on any outside-the-ear models.

Battery

The next thing to look for is how long the battery will last and how easily they charge.

There is nothing wrong with a pair of headphones that will only get five hours of use from a charge, provided you won't need to use them longer than five hours at a stretch — and they don't hurt your head while doing it. But if you need a pair to last you all day plus a commute, for example, that's not going to work. Look at the packaging or the product's website to see what the people who make them say, then knock off about 15% of the times they give. Also, reviews will quickly tell you if the manufacturer is grossly over-estimating the battery life.

Will you lose a proprietary charging cable or other attachment? I would, so I stick to devices that charge over USB.

How they charge is just as important. Will you lose a proprietary charging cable or other attachment? I would, so I stick to devices that charge over USB. Check to see if they can be charged while you're using them because one day you just might need to do it. Pick a pair that makes it convenient for you to maintain a charge.

Technology

Samsung Level Over

How they work and what they can do is pretty important when it comes to headphones. An obvious example would be needing a microphone to answer the occasional phone call, but there are other things to look for that can be just as important.

  • aptX is a set of audio codec compression algorithms from Qualcomm. Bluetooth isn't a very fast wireless connection, so the files get an extra layer of compression. Your Bluetooth headphones will need to decompress the data and play it back. aptX does a really good job with this. Your phone may not support aptX, but it's a wise decision to look for it anyway because your car or your laptop might.
  • A2DP and other Bluetooth profiles can be important. All Bluetooth headphones should support A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile), which is the protocol used to stream digital audio from one device to another. Headsets — both single ear or both ears — might not. Other profiles that can be important if you want to use your headphones as a headset are HSP (Headset Profile) to allow for use in calls, HFP (Hands-Free Profile) to allow for things like last number redialing or call waiting. If you just want to listen to media — movies, music audio books and the like — you won't have to worry much about this. If you know you'll be using the headphones for calling, you should.
  • Bluetooth version is important. Don't buy a pair of Bluetooth headphones that don't support Bluetooth 4.2. Android supports it fully, and your phone probably uses it. Besides Internet of Things connectivity improvements, 4.2 brought some critical security features. While nobody will hack your headphones, seeing no wires means they know that your phone has Bluetooth turned on.

The best Bluetooth headphones will support Bluetooth 4.2 and aptX.

More importantly, devices with mismatched versions can get flaky when paired together. Everything is supposed to be backwards-compatible, but getting the right equipment up front is always the best solution. Having said that, your phone probably is using Bluetooth 4.3, but the changes in the small version bump don't affect any of the audio transfer protocols; they were only for Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) devices that stay connected and stay powered all the time.

  • Extra features can be a great addition. Make sure you don't need them to use your headphones, but an app can offer extras that aren't part of the regular Bluetooth stack. The Samsung Level app (opens in new tab) is a great example and lets you use audio presets for "better" sound or use speech to text for input when using Samsung Level headphones. Without the app, the headphones still work — which is the important part — but the extras are nice. Also, decide if you need to be able to answer calls, or skip tracks, pause/play or use any other controls from your headset. You can't add any of this later.
  • Noise cancellation is a must-have for a lot of people. If you are one of them, don't depend on anything but active (powered) noise cancellation. A tight fit and thick foam pads can muffle a lot of sounds, but that's not a substitute. Some expensive models also offer a noise-cancelling microphone (like the one in your phone) that cancels ambient noise to make voice calls clearer. These make a set of headphones more expensive, but can be worth it.

The sound

House of Marley Liberates

The way your music and movies sound matters. You know what's acceptable and what is not for your ears, but if you see folks saying that a particular pair of headphones sounds bad or sounds great, it usually means exactly that. Some headphones, Bluetooth or wired, just sound bad because of the design or the fit.

Some headphones just sound bad so check user reviews before you buy.

Don't go into this thinking that you'll get the same level of fidelity from Bluetooth that you can with wired headphones. The audio processing components on quality Bluetooth models can be very good, but the source data from your phone over Bluetooth isn't good enough to make use of the great hardware. For now. aptX Lossless is coming (announced in June 2016) and should make for obvious improvements.

Chances are, a good pair of Bluetooth 4.2 headphones with aptX support (with a phone that has the license to use it) will sound plenty good enough for most people under most conditions. Just look at what others are saying to make sure you aren't buying one of those odd models that doesn't.

The price

Finally, once you've sorted out models that suit all of your needs, it's time to think about the price. Like everything, recognizable brands will be more costly. Names like Bose or Sony or Sennheiser can have $400+ price tags attached, but usually offer excellent noise and call cancellation, a comfortable fit, and great battery life. For a lot of us, that makes them worth the price. But Jabra or JBL have models that are almost as good in the same areas at one-fourth the price.

I can't tell you how much to spend. Looking back at the money I've spent on headphones over the years, I shouldn't be telling anyone what to spend on them. But I can tell you that money should be your final deciding factor because great Bluetooth headphones come in all price ranges. A name or a style might be worth the premium for you, and that's OK.

Jabra MOVE

Like everything else, buying Bluetooth headphones will be easier if you know what you're looking for before you go looking for it. If I were buying a pair of Bluetooth headphones today, I'd pick up a pair of Jabra MOVEs (opens in new tab). They hit all the points that are important to me — comfort, battery life, audio quality, and easy controls — without the extras I don't want or need. They're also less than half the price of the Bose QuietComfort models (opens in new tab) other folks here at AC think are best for them.

Ultimately, we're both right.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

37 Comments
  • I hate buds, so I've been Kinivo headphones for the last three or four years as their behind-the-head headphones are easy to wear all-day and also easy to wear only one cup.
  • I have the same feeling about ear buds, I like my Krankz headphones, they are lightweight and battery lasts for 24 hours of constant listening.
  • This. Behind-the-head design is so good. Been using the Kinivo BTH 240 headphones for a year now (I think) and have been really happy with them especially with the insane battery life. Thanks again for recommending them.
  • Happy to help! The 260s are great, too, now that they're finally out.
  • They are!? I didn't know that. Please review them :)
  • Great advice all around, and the timing of this article is perfect for me. After avoiding over the ear headphones for as long as I can remember, I've decided to finally invest in a good pair of Bluetooth over the ear headphones. I'm trying the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless, Bose QC-35's, and Sony MDR100ABN's all at the same time, and I'll write about the strengths and weaknesses of each, and return the two I like the least. With comfort and sound being such personal things, it's hard to buy headphones just based on a review, or based on listening to music for five minutes in a display unit at Best Buy. It takes time, but you have to actually use a pair of headphones for at least a week before you know if it's a good fit for you.
  • That's some great wireless headphones you got there. I'd be very interested to read about the experience. I presume you'll write about them in the forums?
  • bluetooth remote speaker is acceptable since i dont put them close to my ears. but i'll stick with wired headphone if i want to hear a good detail, it's definitely better than wireless.
  • Jerry, you said "Your phone may not support aptX, but it's a wise decision to look for it anyway because your car or your laptop might." However, the headphones you suggest (Jabra Move) do not support aptX. Is aptX all that necessary at all?
  • If you want higher quality over Bluetooth, yes.
  • Unless you know the equipment you're going to be using them with (My Nexus 6P doesn't, and other things I'll be buying won't) you should get a pair that include it.
  • Absolutely agree! I wish AptX was just standard everywhere but unfortunately its not.
  • Yes, I wish it was as well. As I research phones, you really have to dig a bit to find out if its going to have aptX or not. Looks like the iPhones don't have it, and I am hoping the new Google phones have it (maybe they do since its HTC making the phone?). I am just going to wait a bit before I decide on headphones.
  • It's an extra license that has to be paid when building a smartphone, and unfortunately it's something easy to cut when OEM's are trying to hit a certain price point.
  • Oh I see. Well, if the rumors are true of a more expensive Google phone, perhaps they upgraded the audio quality.
  • Hopefully. I currently use a Nexus 6P, so I'm going to use a friend's HTC 10 for my actual quality test to narrow down which headphones I keep.
  • Buy Bluedio Turbine headphones, @ $28 you won't be sorry. Awesome sound, connection, battery life.
  • I check em out, thanks
  • Are there any BT headphones out that have a USB Type-C connector for charging? My guess is that there are not any yet, but trying to search to find out just pulls up a lot of noise about wired Type-C (and Lightning) headphones. I still have a fair number of micro-USB things, but it would be cool to move away from that.
  • None yet that I've found, but I have other devices that use Micro-USB so I'm in no rush to replace that.
  • Look for a 3.5mm jack
  • Ha.
    Ha ha.
    Ha ha ha.
    Whoo. You're so funny. Wow. I'm Out of breath from laughing so hard.
    You said look for a 3.5mm jack. Ha. That's hilarious.
  • There ARE headphones that support both wireless and wired modes, such as the QC-35's or Samsung's Level line.
  • The 3.5mm jack is a requirement for me. You can't use Bluetooth on an airplane.
  • Of course you can. What kind of nonsense is that?
  • Bose sound Sport wireless earbuds , best headphones I've ever bought. $150 but worth it
  • If you're spending more than $50 and the headphones don't support aptX, you're wasting your money. It's a must.
  • Driver size is a little looked for but a major contributer to good sounding devices. For in ear headphones you want drivers that are at least 10mm for decent sound. 11mm is preferable. The difference between 8 and 10mm is huge. One has a great base with warm mids, the other sounds tinny and piercing. For over ear or on ear headphones, 30mm is the standard and depends on what the driver is made of for good sound. Good headphones will have 40mm drivers and the very best will use expensive materials for the driver.
  • Really like the LG line. had the infinims for a year and upgraded to the Tone Platinum. - for my phone or tablet
  • Yes absolutely! I had the Infinium headset, and hands down they deliver some of the best sound I've heard from a Bluetooth headset. I currently own Supertooth Blue Melody BT headset that I bought off from my cousin. They don't have the louder sound that I'm used to, but they deliver some good bass and treble clarity is pretty good for a $40 set..saving up for the Platinum series though!
  • I have been enjoying LG headphones for a while. I'm currently using LG TONE INFINIMs and I love them. 10 hours battery life with music.
  • The only wireless headphones I've loved since using them are the Sony XB950BT (Black) and my V-Moda Crossfade Wireless. Though I tend to keep my M-100's anyways since they're way more portable than the two mentioned especially for over-ear headphones.
  • I have the wired version of the V-Moda, and was curious to how they sound as I didn't want to pull the trigger on $100 more if I didn't like them..
  • The new Sony MDR-1000x is on my radar ,and yes it has aptX.
  • "What to look for when buying a pair of Bluetooth headphones" Wired headphones ofcourse.
  • I'm bought the Ausdom M05 on an Amazon deal in back in March for $49.00. They support aptX, but only support Bluetooth 4.0. I'm no audiophile, but to my ears, they sound good. I'm using them with a Galaxy S7 Edge, and aside from the mids being a bit recessed, I'm happy with them.
  • I've been looking at the Jabra Move for upgrading from my current Kinivo BTH 240 since Serenity at iMore (and now Jerry) recommended those. But seeing as they don't support aptX, I might've to look at something else. Same for my next phone too.