With the recent announcement that the iPhone 7 will not have a 3.5mm headphone jack built-in, now seems like a good time to share my experiences and recommendations for Bluetooth headphones.
How I Listen
We use headphones in a plethora of distinct conditions. Our environments are the most important thing to keep in mind when we choose our headphones.
For example, my dad likes to wear headphones connected to his home stereo. He lives in a house in a fairly quiet neighborhood with nice thick walls. He doesn’t move around much while he’s listening, generally reading on his couch or working on papers. His music ranges mostly from classical through “classic” rock (60’s – 80’s) and some alternative and folk music.
Those conditions are perfect for his high-end studio-quality analog wired headphones.
In contrast, I listen mostly to music and spoken word podcasts. My music taste begins where my dad’s starts to taper off, ranging from “classic” (70’s – 90’s) rock to electronica and heavy metal. I listen at work, in a large office with an open plan that offers zero noise protection. I listen on my commute, aboard a ferry with a loud engine or BART train that screeches into its riders’ ears. I listen while desiring mental isolation on physically cramped airplanes. My conditions lead me to prize noise-canceling highly.
I also listen when I go for quiet morning jogs along the Oakland side of The Bay. I listen while gaming at home in my at-capacity apartment building next to a train station. I use different headphones for those conditions.
Why Bluetooth Headphones?
When I needed to replace my third pair of $100+ wired noise-canceling headphones in 2 years because the wire failed in some way, it was time to give Bluetooth headphones a shot. These wires were not hair-thin crappy ones either. There was simply no ideal length I could get that wouldn’t get damaged while I moved around, while wrapped up in my bag, or somewhere in between. There was always too much slack that got caught on things, or not enough slack and it would get yanked out of the jack often enough to damage the wire.
Bluetooth headphones offer the obvious benefit of wireless convenience. No need to wrap wires up whenever it’s time to put them away. No more sitting on them and turning slightly to have our headphones yanked off our heads. No more tangling up in our bags or getting hooked on doorknobs or other obstacles we pass by.
My wife and I realized less obvious benefits to it when we purchased our new car last year and could play our music through bluetooth there as well. Once we saw how awesome (and argument-reducing) this was in the car, we tried it out on our home stereo system as well. Using Spotify, we can even have a shared playlist across everyone at a party and everyone can add songs they want to hear throughout the night.
Many of the Bluetooth headphones I mention here are also bluetooth headsets. You can use them with your laptop or desktop PC to chat on Skype. If someone calls you while you’re listening on your phone, you can take the call without removing them. The Apple earbuds do the same thing, and you lose nothing by going wireless.
Downsides to Bluetooth Headphones
Bluetooth has a few minor quirks of course. You have to get used to pairing them with your devices, which only takes a few minutes the first time you do it.
You’ll occasionally lose signal if your device and Bluetooth headphones have objects — even your own body sometimes — between them, but that rarely happens to me with my iPhone in my pocket. The output device’s quality and condition (not the Bluetooth headphones’) are at least a small factor in that.
Lastly, anything wireless will need to be charged. Luckily, not as often as an iPhone (maybe 1/4 as often in most cases).
My Favorite Bluetooth Headphones
For Everyday: Photive BTH3 Bluetooth Headphones
For my commute, work hours, and throw-in-my-bag-and-go headphones I choose the Photive BTH3 bluetooth headphones. I’m wearing them now as I type this on the ferry, actually. They’re sturdy, comfortable, lightweight, and under $50 so you don’t feel like the world has come to an end if you lose them.
These bluetooth headphones aren’t noise-canceling, but their over-the-ear design works wonders and not needing to do that extra processing means the battery life is significantly longer than noise-canceling ones. I wear these for at least 6 hours, 3-5 days a week and only charge them overnight once or twice per week.
I tried a few other similar brands, but they didn’t last very long. Either they had a more flimsy plastic body that snapped when they fell off my desk once, or the Bluetooth receiver simply started losing connection out of nowhere one day. Photive has not given me any issues like those, and their customer service was great the one time I needed their help re-pairing them with a work-issued MacBook that wasn’t cooperating.
For the Workout: Phaiser BHS-730 Bluetooth Earbuds
I normally hate earbuds. They feel weird, they get really uncomfortable in my ears after 20-30 minutes, they don’t shield out any noise at all, they constantly fall out if you’re moving around, and their sound quality is abysmal.
These babies don’t have any of those problems. The earpiece is soft and pliable, so they don’t make my ears sore. They stay still in place, even when I clumsily trip over something on the trail. The wire that connects the two earbuds is exactly the right length to wear like a necklace when you’re not using them, without being so long that it gets caught on things and yanks the buds out. The sound quality and noise reduction are surprisingly good, too.
They come in a nice compact case with lots of extra earpieces you can swap in, and the components are all good quality from what I can tell. As you can probably see in the picture above, they have magnetic contacts on the backs of them so they snap together nicely to make a loop that lets you wear them like a necklace or hang them up on a hook when you’re not using them.
They don’t hold a charge for a very long time, but it’s enough for a couple of hours between charges. The buds are fairly small obviously, so it makes sense that battery life is at a premium. Just plug them in after your workout and they should be fine. I’ve even skipped a day or two and been fine a few times.
For Quality: Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Bluetooth Headphones
I grew up the child of an audiophile music teacher father and a multiple-instrument musician / dedicated choir singing mother. One of my uncles is so into home theater that he had a custom Dolby 9.1.2 surround sound system back when most of us were just learning the 5.1 surround configuration. I know what kind of quality is attainable out there, and can discern between them fairly well.
$300 is still a lot to spend on headphones for me.
I worked in electronics stores selling high-end audio gear for a few years while I was in college. I’ve tried a $20,000 McIntosh system in an ideal environment. I’ve listened to brand-new $600 Bose headphones several times. Yes, they’re impressive when someone else pays for them. The difference is noticeable, but it’s not worth the difference in cash to me.
Sennheiser Momentum 2.0’s are at the ideal place where I want my bluetooth headphones. They are extremely comfortable. Their noise canceling is better than any Bose bluetooth headphones I’ve used. They hold enough charge to continuously play (with noise-canceling on) for two cross-country (~6 hour) flights plus all the time spent in the airport before and after them. And they sound incredible.
They come in a nice faux suede zipped case with all the accessories I’ve ever thought to need. You can plug them in if your battery runs out or if you want to watch a movie on the plane — with the included airplane adapter. The cable can also be used for the larger headphone ports found on some home stereos. Sennheiser gives you a good quality micro USB charging cable that can be rolled and folded up carelessly before springing right back into shape. The bluetooth headphones even fold neatly and relatively compactly into themselves with ease.
The sides of the headphones may appear flimsy in photos, but they’re solid metal hinges that I’ve been able to fold and unfold without so much as a creak. They just feel luxurious, and I’m hard pressed to think of any downsides. I’m a big fan of Sennheiser products, and the Momentum 2.0 bluetooth headphones have only solidified that opinion.
These were well worth their price tag for me. They are equal to the highest end Bose pair I’ve tried, except more comfortable, more portable, and with a longer-lasting battery. I’d buy another pair with no hesitation if they were stolen somehow. But heaven help that poor soul when they feel my vengeance.
For Gaming: Sennheiser PC 363D Gaming Headset
I know this article is supposed to be about Bluetooth headphones, but I felt these were worth mentioning anyway. This is the best gaming headset I’ve ever owned. It’s comfortable, not too heavy, and does a decent job of shielding out noise.
The surround sound is awesome for gaming. I can use it as a context clue to figure out where I’m getting shot at from, or even with Dolby Axon (highly underrated) to easily identify who’s talking in a group chat.
But I think my favorite feature is the microphone’s hinge that mutes your mic when you rotate it upward. If you dislike using push-to-talk like I do, simply flipping your mic up and down when you want to talk is great. There’s also great tools included for filtering out unwanted noise your mic picks up, and it even works when I need the fan on full blast during the summer.
These are wired, which doesn’t matter to me so much when I’m sitting/standing at my PC or on my couch gaming. It might be nice to have all of these exact features in a bluetooth headset, so I can run to the fridge for a drink refill of course. But I’m not sure if that’s possible while keeping this level of quality.
iPhone 7 Comments
I hope this article helps any of you distressed about not being able to use your existing headphones for the next generation of iPhone. It does come with an adapter for your 3.5mm wires, but as you can tell I believe Bluetooth is finally good enough to be the better option anyway.
If your disappointment in this announcement is any stronger than a mild sigh, for the love of god don’t watch or read any news about current events because you might die of a heart attack. There are far worse things going on in the world every day than a missing feature on an overpriced designer smartphone.
And, as always, remember that you don’t have to buy it.