I’m not a Bluetooth audio codec elitist. I firmly believe that even humble old SBC can sound good in a well-designed pair of headphones.
Bluetooth is sometimes a secondary thought in today’s audio market rush towards wireless models.
It frequently gets jammed into once-wired products with little thought to how the chips, batteries, buttons, and extra weight will change the tuning of the ear cups. It gets short shrift in the budget to hit a certain price point. It has higher quality codecs bolted to it so they can market those in an effort to convince you of underlying quality.
It’s sometimes as hard to tell the difference between the different Bluetooth codecs as it is to tell the difference between amplifiers(unless we’re talking about latency), but the difference between the Bluetooth and wired modes when offered is often remarkable.
That difference exposes the design challenges they didn’t manage to solve in making the headphones.
Designing a wireless headphone is just as much of an art as designing a wired one.
Here, in no particular order, are the Bluetooth headphones I’ve used so far that get this tricky challenge the most right, in my opinion.
Bose QC 35 II
Bose cheated a little to make their Bluetooth mode sound good, and that’s because they “cheat” to make noise cancelling work also.
The electronic signal shenanigans needed to cancel out background audio require processing circuitry, and Bose makes use of that tech to shape your sound in real time.
This allows all of their headphones to doggedly pursue Bose’s preferred sound signature regardless of your connection type or audio volume, and pursue it they will. There’s no user adjustment options for the EQ.
Fortunately, that sound is the epitome of “nice.” It’s a warm, relaxed, pleasant sound that you can listen to while flying cross country or just hanging out on a Saturday afternoon.
Wireless mode was the top priority for the QC 35 II, and it shows, as it has the most refined sound signature.
If you turn the headphones off completely you’ll reveal how they “really” sound, and that makes the wireless performance all the more impressive…though again that comparison is a little unfair thanks to the signal processing going on.
The new Bose 700’s didn’t change much about the sound profile, and while some might see that as a good thing, it’s at the very least a missed opportunity for Bose to have included some limited user options.
I think a fun way for them to keep their sound signature while still offering a choice would be different profiles that mimic the different sounds of Bose headphones over the years.
They could sell it as the Bose 700 anniversary edition and charge extra. Oh no wait I should delete this.
Yes, I intentionally called out the original 1000X here and not the two follow-up models.
I liked the leather material on the ear cups. I liked the fact that the inside of the carrying case smelled like a new pair of shoes. I liked the exposed metal headband. I liked the close plushness of the smaller ear pad holes.
And I liked the sound signature, which was more or less a perfect digital enhancement of the old Sony MDR-1a. That’s not a big surprise, because the 1000X was built around the same driver platform.
The 1000X used just as much DSP hardware as the QC35’s do, but it came along with user options. You could customize the sound profile, and scan for leaks in the ear pad seal that would hamper the noise cancellation.
The default wired, non-powered sound of the 1000X was also better than the non-powered QC35.
These days, Sony’s expensive Bluetooth headphones still sound good. They’ve moved a little away from the premium materials of the first 1000X, but they’ve also redesigned the headband to be less prone to cracking. And they’ve pushed noise cancelling to new heights of awesome silence.
That quest for digital silence, however, has lead to sound quality taking a step down the priority ladder. You can still choose EQ profiles to your heart’s content, but the current 1000XM3 sound is a little more soft and consumer-friendly than that original model.
That’s fine, and I still think they sound a little more fun than the Bose models, but I miss that original pair.
I do have plans for more coverage of the 1000X lineup someday, even though I’ve gone silent since my cracking article. I’m really curious to see if Sony releases a 4th iteration that undercuts Bose’s new $399 price point this fall.
From past experience, there’s every reason to expect that’s just what they’ll do.
From two headphones that use extensive DSP to one that relies on good old fashioned analog acoustic tuning.
The core goal of the M50XBT was to keep the same signature of the original pair whether you used them wired or wirelessly. And Audio-Technica totally nailed it.
Somehow, they crammed a battery, a bluetooth chip, buttons, and a useless touch sensor into a frame the same size as the original pair, and slightly improved the sound.
It still has the sub bass extension and upper midrange energy/bite common across other Audio-Technica products, but it’s a slightly gentler listen overall.
You’ll get the same refined sound signature whether you use them wired or wirelessly, and for the codec aficionados out there, you get a choice of AAC or AptX to go along with standard SBC.
Audio-Technica achieved a remarkable feat of wireless headphone acoustic design without changing the size or wearing profile of their most-popular headphones.
The M50XBT is a great example of how to do Bluetooth right, and I hope other companies follow suit.
A second revision should either ditch the touch pad, or allow it to be used for more functions. It’s only use being a long-press to summon voice assistance is baffling. The one misstep in an otherwise exceptional design.
Skullcandy Grind Wireless
The Grind Wireless is the rare, relatively inexpensive Bluetooth headphone which managed to maintain the same sound signature as its older wired model, and didn’t lose any comfort, build quality, or portability in the process.
I’m sad that Skullcandy has minimized the Grind’s place in their headphone lineup. The less-hefty Hesh 3 is their new sub-$100 Bluetooth focus, and they have the even cheaper Riff…though that’s barely enough of a headphone to call it a headphone.
With the Grind, Skullcandy perfectly split the difference between build, features, performance, and price. And the wireless model carried on that tradition.
It’s hard to know if a Bluetooth headphone will have a good or bad implementation until you’ve listened to it. That same problem afflicts all headphones due to the subjective nature of audio.
Apple, Sony, and Bose have the money to market their products to the proverbial back row, but that doesn’t mean you’re always getting quality audio.
As phone manufacturers continue to move away from the headphone jack, the Bluetooth headphone market will only keep exploding with new models across all price ranges. There’s no one secret technique for figuring out if a Bluetooth headphone will be good from the spec sheet alone.
Some will use DSP to sound good, others will be acoustically delightful. And others will be cheap products that feel a bit thrown together.
I think the overall ratio between these categories will keep improving with time, and I like to revisit this topic every year or so to see how the market changes.
Right now, it’s a bit of a wasteland if your main concern is raw audio performance over visual design. I personally hope that acoustic designs like the Grind and the M50XBT eventually win the war, but I have the feeling that DSP-driven designs like the more-expensive pairs will always be in demand as long as ANC is the “hot feature” they’re marketing.