Picking headphones is something we’ve all done at least once, and I’d like to think maybe more than a few times. It’s an essential gadget that we all need in our pockets, usually for listening to music on our smartphones. Android or iOS, budget or flagship, they’re all our everyday music players. Today, music listening is as accessible as it has ever been to us, with virtually unlimited streaming at the lowest costs ever thanks to the likes of Spotify, Apple Music, Gaana, JioSaavn, and even YouTube.
Irrespective of the smartphone or preferred streaming service, you still have to pick headphones that are perfect for you, your lifestyle and your music preferences. This is something I’ve been doing a few dozen times a day, almost every day for the past six years, and is perhaps the best part about my job.
The first question that most of us start with on the quest for the perfect headphones, is to choose between a wired or wireless headset. It seems like the logical starting point, but it’s not as simple as it sounds (no pun intended). Wireless headphones are better and cheaper than ever before, and true wireless earbuds like the AirPods have become top sellers around the world over the past few years.
Can wireless headphones really be compared to traditional wired headphones? Do they sound as good as their wired counterparts? I’m going to try and break down the pros and cons of choosing between a wired or a wireless headset, and hopefully help you pick one that fits your needs.
The case for wireless
I truly believe that there is no greater convenience today than having a pair of completely wire-free headphones that just work seamlessly with our gadgets. Wireless earphones have for many years been using the time-tested Bluetooth wireless standard to pair with smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, laptops, and the countless smart devices out there. When Apple decided to drop the age-old 3.5mm jack from the iPhone 7, other smartphone manufacturers quickly followed suit, and changed the idea of headphones forever; with that, wireless headphones exploded in popularity.
A few years later, the AirPods (Review) introduced a completely wire-free experience and gave birth to a new product category called true wireless earbuds; super-compact earbuds that are so small when worn, that many are hard to spot from even a few feet away — very James Bond-esque. Most Headphone brands tend to use the word ‘Freedom’ in their marketing when talking about Wireless Headphones. Freedom from being wired down to your smartphone or your laptop. Freedom to move around and have your music play in your ears. The ability to go for a run, or work out in the gym or board a train on your daily commute without wires getting in your way.
Compact size with more features
Wireless headphones are even becoming smarter than before. They may now boast several smart features such as having in-built voice assistants, wireless fast-charging to give you hours of battery life on the go, accompanying apps that can measure workouts and even heart rates, water resistance to keep them safe during sweaty workouts, and of course active noise cancellation to give you some peace and quiet in noisy environments.
Why then would anyone not pick wireless headphones in today’s day and age? The promise of hands-free, wire-free, and hassle-free convenience is surely the clincher.
The cost of convenience
While it’s true that in the last few years the cost to manufacture wireless headphones has come down a lot, in my experience wireless headphones can end up costing around three to four times the price of an equivalent wired counterpart. I like to think of wireless headphones as several devices, and not just headphones.
All wireless headphones need tiny speakers, a Bluetooth receiver, electronic components that connect to your smartphone, batteries to power them up, a built amplifier, and a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) to make sure that the data you are streaming from your smartphone gets fed as an electrical signal that speakers can understand. Each of these adds to the cost of the wireless headset. They can end up costing several times the price of an equivalent sounding Wired headphone that is simply a pair of speakers connected to a 3.5mm jack. It’s not hard to imagine that for the same budget, you are likely to get pretty ordinary-sounding wireless headphones as compared to a very impressive sounding wired one.
Perhaps another compelling reason to avoid wireless headphones is that they, just like most other electronic gadgets have a limited lifetime. They are battery-powered, and like all batteries, they will eventually die rendering them useless. Most wireless headphones are designed to last for up to three years of active use at best, so you’ll need to replace your wireless headphones much the same way as you do with your smartphone.
Compromising on sound
Despite its popularity, Bluetooth is also a source of several pain points. With every new version of Bluetooth that’s released, older wireless headphones become obsolete. While Bluetooth works just fine for streaming music or used with standard MP3 files, the wireless standard simply cannot transmit the large amounts of data that are needed to listen to high-resolution or lossless music that comes along with formats such as FLAC or WAV.
High Resolution streaming services like Tidal with formats like Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) offer the very best sound quality you can get for a true listening experience. But Bluetooth simply won’t work well with them. No matter how brilliant sounding your wireless headphones are, Bluetooth will limit the sound quality of your output by downsampling music to lower bit rates. Newer Bluetooth formats such as Qualcomm’s AptxHD and Sony’s LDAC attempt to solve this limitation by adding support for Hi-Res music, but their widespread adoption is still several years away.
Does wired mean better sound?
Wired headphones are often seen as entry-level, inexpensive earphones that can be plugged into a 3.5mm jack of a smartphone for a quick and easy listen. Sure, the inconvenience of having a wire in the way is not fun, especially during workouts, runs, or commuting on a busy train. However, wired headphones aren’t just limited to basic budget-friendly earphones. If sound quality is a priority over basic convenience, wired headphones come out ahead both in terms of price and more significantly, in terms of sonic performance.
Wired headphones have always been the audiophile’s top pick. Several popular ones from premium manufacturers have been used in music studios for over half a century as a reference standard for musicians and producers, even though the basics of the headphone haven’t changed all that much. In recent years, innovations in sound technology mean that they’ve become better sounding than ever before.
The rising popularity of audiophilia as a hobby amongst music enthusiasts mean headphone manufacturers are pushing the boundaries of what headphones can do. Audiophiles are not just passionate about their music, but also care deeply about the way the music sounds. They are in pursuit of a life-like music listening experience in a compact and portable headphone setup. Audiophiles can be hard to please, but that’s exactly what the best headphone manufacturers have excelled at over the years.
Premium headphones and earphones can cost over Rs. 10,000 for several popular models and can even go upwards of Rs. 1,00,000 for the very best ones such as the Audeze LCD-3 (Review), and are targeted towards the emerging audiophile community in India. Wired headphones and in-ear monitors, paired with a Hi-Res audio player or a portable DAC, are the audiophile’s devices of choice to listen to music. Wireless headphones are simply not good enough for the discerning music listener. For the price of a mid-range wireless headset from a popular brand an audiophile can put together a complete listening setup. Any comparison on the basis of sound quality would be pretty one-sided, with the wired setup coming out on top.
The right question to help you decide
Does it all then come down to priority? I’m afraid so. Very often, I tend to simplify it down to a simple question – sound quality or convenience? The pursuit of good sound will lead you down a path where wired headphones will, in most cases, sound significantly better than a wireless headset for an equivalent budget. However, convenience may also be prioritised above sound alone, when headphones need to be used for working out, long flights, or for a crowded commute. The convenience of a completely wire-free existence is undeniable.
Is there a middle ground? Can a headphone offer both the convenience of being wireless, along with incredible life-like sound? This is certainly what most headphone manufacturers are working on right now. Audiophile brands that make the very best sounding headphones and in-ears are all realising the potential of the wireless segment, and emerging Bluetooth Codecs such as AptxHD and LDAC make it easier for them to deliver high-resolution audio without wires. Several brands have released or are planning audiophile-grade wireless headphones. Many brands are even offering replaceable cables with Bluetooth, to be paired with the very best-sounding headphones.
A modular approach to choosing headphones, such as the Shure SE215, allows customers to have the flexibility of using their headphones in wired mode and upgrading it to use in wireless mode by simply swapping cables. Bluetooth DACs paired with premium wired headphones deliver the very best in sound quality along with the added convenience of being used wirelessly with smartphones. Perhaps in the coming years the boundary between sound and convenience will be bridged where the elusive perfect headphone can finally be on our bucket lists.
The author of this article Raghav Somani is the founder and CEO of Headphone Zone, an online retailer and distributor of headphones and earphones in India.
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