Who Needs a Headphone Jack?
Stereo headphones have been around since before the first Sony Walkman, and that's roughly how long we've put up with tangled wires while listening to music on the go. That's long enough, if you ask us. Fortunately, this is where wireless headphones come in. They're convenient for any situation where you don't want to deal with dangling cables—especially at the gym. And now that many phone makers are ditching the headphone jack, wireless headphones are a good way to ensure compatibility with just about any new device.
Wireless no longer means poor sound, either. These days, Bluetooth audio sounds much better than it ever has. Even though the stereo Bluetooth data signal is compressed, various headphone and earphone vendors have discovered ways of enhancing the signal to compensate for deficiencies in fidelity. (That said, audiophiles will still hear a difference and should probably stick with wired headphones.) But for casual listening, many of the most recent wireless models we've tested sound just fine—even great. Check out our buying advice below before picking the perfect pair.
Earphones or Headphones?
Earphones (or earbuds, or in-ear headphones) offer a slightly different sound profile compared with conventional headphones. Generally, you'll get better sound from a full set of "cans" around your head than from buds in your ears, but in-ear sound quality has improved a great deal. More importantly, in-ear headphones are much more likely to be water resistant, and much better suited for use when working out. Get a good sweat going, and you'll turn your headphone earpads into a nasty mess. For our top picks, check out The Best Earphones and the Best Headphones for Running.
If you aren't primarily looking for a set of wireless earphones for the gym, conventional headphones can offer a very good listening experience. You'll still have to choose between on-ear and over-ear models, however. On-ear headphones rest the earcups against your ears, but don't surround them. Over-ear headphones completely enclose your ears. Over-ear headphones block out the most outside noise and usually provide a more powerful, rich sound, but on-ear headphones are less bulky and distracting to wear when you're out and about. See The Best Headphones for more.
Bluetooth headphones are convenient when they're charged, but once the batteries run out you're left without music. Some headphone manufacturers include a portable charging case, like Apple does with its AirPods. Others include a 3.5mm detachable cable.
For models with a wired option, you can plug the cable in and use them as conventional headphones until you can charge them again, and use them without issue on airplanes, to boot. Wireless earphones almost never have this option, because they're already so small there simply isn't any room to place a headphone cable jack.
Active noise cancellation uses outward-facing microphones to pick up and analyze noise, which then gets canceled out by circuitry that generates an inverse wave in the headphones. It was previously an expensive, cumbersome technology that couldn't be found on wireless headphones, but that changed a few years ago with advances in battery life and circuit miniaturization. You'll pay a premium for headphones with active noise cancellation, but it's a handy feature if you just want to tune out everything around you besides your music. For more, check out The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones.
What About Completely Wire-Free?
Truly wireless earphones completely remove the cable and make each earpiece its own discrete device that wirelessly syncs with the other one. Apple got the wire-free ball rolling with the AirPods, and since then many other earphone manufacturers have been working on their own takes on the concept.
Wire-free earphones are generally gym-friendly, with most models sporting some form of water resistance. They also usually come with their own battery-equipped carrying case for keeping them topped off when not in use, and the simple advantage of not dealing with a wire is its own significant benefit. The trade-off is that most wire-free earphones have inferior battery life compared with tethered models, forcing you to pop them in their charging case fairly often. Their small size also means on-earphone controls are generally limited, and their price is usually significantly more than similar tethered wireless earphones. Our reviews go into greater detail about these benefits and limitations, and highlight how certain models are starting to overcome these growing pains.
The first wave of wire-free earphones were very hit-or-miss, with different models succeeding in different ways but none really rising up to stand against their wire-tethered counterparts. That has since changed, with very strong contenders like the Bose SoundSport Free, which offers the sort of performance, design, and battery life we've been waiting for to recommend any earphones in this category. For more, see The Best True Wireless Headphones.
Apple's W1 Chip
If you're an iPhone user, it's worth considering a pair of headphones that use Apple's proprietary W1 chip. The W1 chip makes Bluetooth pairing even easier—there's no need to open the Settings menu, as your phone automatically prompts you to connect whenever the headphones are nearby. The chip also makes for a more stable connection and increased wireless range.
Currently only Apple and Beats (which is owned by Apple) make headphones with the W1 chip, but that might change in the future. For now, we've got a whole separate list of The Best Wireless Headphones for Your iPhone here.
What's In Your Budget?
This is a look at the top wireless headphones we've tested overall, regardless of price. As such, many of the options here fall in the $100 and up range. That doesn't mean you need to spend a lot of money to get headphones that deliver quality audio. If you're shopping on a budget, head over to The Best Headphones Under $50 for plenty of great options that won't break the bank.
With that in mind, we've included a range of styles and prices here. You're bound to find something that fits well, sounds great, and—above all—doesn't tie you up in knots.
Bottom Line: The B&O Beoplay H4 headphones deliver a wonderful Bluetooth audio experience and look particularly good doing it.
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Bottom Line: Now with Google Assistant, Bose's latest pair of QuietComfort headphones, the QC35 II, is the best pair of wireless noise-canceling headphones you can buy.
Bottom Line: The expensive, exercise-focused B&O Beoplay H5 earphones deliver an excellent Bluetooth audio experience.
Bottom Line: The bass-forward Bose SoundSport Free earphones are expensive, but nail the design and operational details right better than any other pair in the growing wire-free category.
Bottom Line: The gym-friendly Jaybird X3 wireless earphones deliver high-quality audio in a comfortable, secure-fitting design.
Bottom Line: The JBL Reflect Fit delivers Bluetooth audio with intense bass depth and bright highs-along with a built-in heart rate monitor.
Bottom Line: The JLab Epic Air headphones deliver strong bass response, a gym-friendly build, and the best battery life we've seen in a truly wireless design.
Bottom Line: The Sennheiser HD 4.40 BT are reasonably priced, well-designed Bluetooth headphones that bass lovers are sure to enjoy.
Bottom Line: Bluetooth earphones don't get much more affordable than the Skullcandy Jib Wireless, which packs a strong bass punch for the price.
Bottom Line: The wireless, noise cancelling Sony WH-1000XM2 delivers strong audio performance that can be sculpted to taste using the free app.
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