First things first. We are not including Apple AirPods in this review. In fact, we have not included any completely “wire-free” headphones in this review. These earbuds are completely wire-free because there is no cable running between the earpieces. Each earbud is completely separate from the other, so you don’t have to worry about cable. However, there are many drawbacks to these wire-free models — such as poor sound quality and battery life, and the ease with which they can be misplaced or lost. So we do not recommend any completely wire-free headphones. Hopefully, the technology will continue to improve and, when it does, we will be the first to go wire-free.
If you are looking for audiophile sound quality in these wireless headphones, you will not find it. Bluetooth signals are compressed, and, although technology has continued to improve the sound quality, wired headphones and earphones still retain a sound-quality edge. However, the convenience of wireless headphones lets you avoid having a cable dangling down to your smartphone. Plus, they look cool. If you are looking to get you a set of these babies, there are three decisions you have to make.
First, you’ll need to decide if you are going to buy earphones or headphones. In other words, do you want “cans” on your ears? Or just in-ear earbuds? The cans (headphones) generally sound better. Next, consider if you want noise-canceling headphones or earphones. Noise-canceling headphones block out outside noise, which makes them particularly useful on airplanes or other noisy spaces. However, they will cost you extra. A third decision is how much you want to spend. Since we blow all of our money on gadgets anyway, this is our least important factor.
THE WIRELESS HEADPHONE CONTENDERS
First let’s discuss the best wireless headphones. In a lot of ways, wireless headphones are the most convenient to use, even though they do cover up your entire ear. The wires connecting the speakers on each side run through the “strap” that goes over the top of your head. Our three picks in this category are as follows: 1) Bose QuietComfort 35, 2) Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2, and 3) Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless.
The Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones ($349) are clearly a world-class pair of headphones. These have what is probably the best noise cancellation available on the market. Plus, the battery life is long. They sound great, and the design and form factor is some of the best available on the market.
The Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2 headphones ($199) save you about $150. We love these headphones because they have a battery life of approximately 24 hours. In addition, they are very comfortable, and the sound quality and noise cancellation are very good (though not quite as good as the Bose).
Finally, the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless headphones ($399.98) also have an incredible battery life — 17 hours. In addition, they are probably the best sounding headphones on the market, but because they are so expensive — but still don’t include noise cancellation — they are our third choice in this roundup.
NEXT UP: WIRELESS EARPHONES
Now let’s talk about our favorite category, wireless earphones (in-ear headphones). We love this category. They are great while you are walking or working out, while you are calling on your cell phone, or while you are relaxing but want to maintain a better awareness of your surroundings. Our favorite three items in this category are: 1) Beats by Dr. Dre BeatsX, 2) Bose QuietControl 30, 3) JBL Reflect Mini BT, and 4) Jaybird X2.
The BeatsX ($89.99) are our pick for the best in this category. These earphones have the Apple W1 chip that makes it easy to pair and connect these headphones wirelessly, especially to an iPhone. The headphones are reasonably priced, and they have good (but not the best) sound quality. Plus, you can charge them in approximately five minutes. In addition, the BeatsX stay paired with your phone well beyond 30 feet — most Bluetooth earphones do not reach that far.
Coming in next are the JBL Reflect Mini BT in-ear sports earphones ($79 at Amazon). We love JBL speakers, and we love these JBL earphones. To our untrained music ear, these earphones provide the most accurate sound, both solid bass and accurate highs. These are sport model headphones (like the Jaybird X2 we talk about next) come with multiple options for ear tips, so they can stay in your ears during the most intense workouts. Moreover, the price is right.
Our third choice is the Jaybird X2 wireless headphones ($109). We first saw the Jaybird wireless Bluetooth headphones at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) approximately four years ago. The X2 is their latest offering. The Jaybird X2 earphones have fantastic sound performance and good battery life. Both the JBLs and the Jaybirds provide really a good bang for the buck and are good for workouts because both are sweat-proof.
Finally, we have the Bose QuietControl 30 headphones ($299). These headphones provide great sound performance and noise cancellation. They also have a wide variety of earbuds, making it easy to find a good ear fit. We do, in fact, love these earphones and would give them a higher rating out of this group. But the price ($299) is just a bit much for this category, because the primary use for these wireless earphones is for casual and workout use.
And there you have it. It is time to go wireless with your headphone and earphone choices. One day, in-ear earbuds — like the Apple AirPods, the Skybuds and the Motorola VerveOne — will be good choices. But for now, we think it is best to go quasi-wireless and pick from one of the pairs we have listed above.
About the Authors
William Ramsey, Partner at Neal & Harwell, and LogicForce Consulting President Phil Hampton are best known for The Bill and Phil Show. The duo tours often and provides technology news and reviews on their website, www.thebillandphilshow.com.