HomeTheaterReview's Wireless Over-Ear Headphone Buyer's Guide

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HomeTheaterReview's Wireless Over-Ear Headphone Buyer's Guide


It's getting harder and harder to find a headphone jack these days, especially on modern smartphones. And while it's true that we may have lost the nth degree of sound quality when headphone cables gave way to wireless connectivity, we also gained something in the process. Bluetooth has gotten better and better in terms of functionality and performance in recent years, but perhaps most importantly, cutting that cord has given us a new level of freedom. You can now leave your phone in your workout bag at the gym or leave your tablet in your seat pocket when nature calls on a long flight. That's even the case if you purchase many of today's high-performance personal audio players. It's a brave new world, and chances are good that even if you swore you would never buy Bluetooth headphones, you may be rethinking that pledge. If so, we're here to help.

The Competition is Fierce
There are many players in the wireless Bluetooth headphone game at this point. Major mainstream brands like Beats, Bose, and other mass-market brands are obvious contenders. But even more boutique, professional, and/or audiophile companies like Bowers & Wilkins, Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and others of that ilk have fully embraced Bluetooth by this point. So, how does one pick between them? It really just comes down to what your needs and preferences are. But before we dig into the specifics... 

Let's Talk Tech
HD1_Wireless_folding.jpgWhile the wireless aspect of this guide was driven by market pressure, the over-ear part may not seem so obvious. We decided to concentrate our efforts there because over-ear cans offer the best mix of comfort and--just as important--performance. On-ear headphones, while more compact, aren't generally as comfortable and don't always provide as much sound isolation. And in-ears just don't work for all listeners. 

Most of the over-ear wireless headphones we've reviewed recently rely on Bluetooth 4.0 to 4.2 technology, which in nearly every case works just fine. Initial setup may be slightly different depending on which brand of mobile phone you prefer. Some headphones support NFC pairing and others don't. Some smartphones support NFC pairing and others don't. But even if you're in the "don't" category, it's really as easy as putting the headphones into pairing mode (which generally involves holding down the pairing button or a dedicated sync button for a few seconds and listening for some sort of Vegas-like chime), navigating to your settings or system preferences on your mobile device, finding the headphones, then pairing them. After that initial pairing is made, connecting your headphones to your mobile devices is often as simple as turning them both on.

Battery life on today's over-ear wireless headphones is generally awesome. 20-plus hours is more common than anything less. Some headphones can last 30 hours or more, but that can come with added weight, which over time can be somewhat fatiguing or lead to uncomfortable temperatures, neither of which is preferable.

So, how far can you get from your mobile device and still listen to your tunes or podcasts? It depends on what version of Bluetooth your devices support. With Bluetooth 4.2, you might get in the neighborhood of 30 feet of range indoors, and maybe as much as 150 or 160 feet outdoors with direct line-of-sight. When Bluetooth 5 finally permeates the market, those numbers should rise to more like 130 feet indoors and over 600 feet out in the great wide open.

BW_PX_Wireless_app.jpg

Technical wireless specs are generally pretty comparable between current wireless headphones, though. What you're generally paying more for when you opt for pricier models is fit-and-finish, comfort, and sonic performance.  You'll also pay more for active noise cancelation, which can be useful on planes to keep you from blowing your ear drums out with music and/or movies while competing with some Rolls Royce engines right outside the window of your Boeing Dreamliner.

A Stern Warning About Headphones and Hearing Loss
That last point is especially important, and it's worth reiterating. It's incredibly easy to damage your hearing when listening to headphones over about 85 dB, which isn't all that loud by most people's standard. Its only human nature to crank up "Super Freak" when it comes on but then forget to turn it back down after the track is over, leaving you on a 30- to 45-minute path to doing irreparable hearing damage. Please, please, please--be mindful of how loud you are listening to your media when listening to headphones. Commit these numbers to memory: 85 dB over 45 minutes equals potential hearing loss. 

With that out of the way, let's take a look at our recent favorite wireless over-ear headphones, starting with the all-important NC models.

The Best Noise Canceling Wireless Headphones
This first recommendation will make audiophiles cringe, but the best noise cancelation that I've heard in a headphone to date is the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II. They are thankfully physically light. They're also thankfully not voiced like Bose's traditional loudspeakers, as I find them more neutral overall. They are very comfortable and are a pretty strong value, and if your top priority is reducing background noise as much as possible while also having a respectably solid listening experience, that's what you're getting here. For full details, read our Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II review here

A solid runner-up in this class is the Bowers & Wilkins PX Wireless headphones. The noise cancelation here is good, and sonic performance is more to my preference (although I wouldn't complain about a little more deep bass). They're also way more stylish. The downside is that they're a little heavier and hotter to wear as compared with the Bose. You can find our review of the B&W PX Wireless here.

The Best Sounding Over-Ear Wireless Headphones
If your attitude toward active noise-cancelation is "take it or leave it," the best headphones that I've found in the category are the Sennheiser HD1 Wireless. They still have active NC, in the form of Sennheiser's proprietary NoiseGuard technology, but that's not why you buy these cans. What makes them such a standout is that they're incredibly light and not too hot on the ears, which greatly enhances comfort over the course of, say, a cross-country flight.

Sonically, they don't have that bass-forward sound that the hip-hop generation is drawn towards. They are much more neutral and incredibly detailed. They sync to all of my devices nicely by just holding up the power button until a pleasant female voice says, "connected." Little touches like that are much appreciated. You can read our in-depth review of the Sennheiser HD1 Wireless for more details. 

Other apex predators include the Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless headphones, priced at around $699 but with a street price that's generally $100 less. They are the most expensive option on the list, but they earn it with their performance. One thing holding them back from the top spot is that they are bit heavy and even a bit stiff compared to the Sennheisers, making them less of an ideal travel companion.

But if you're just using them at home or for walks around town, they are perfectly fine in that respect. For more details, read our review of the Beyerdynamic Amiron Wireless here.

Bowers & Wilkins' PX Wireless also deserves a second shout-out here, though somewhat lower on the list. This replacement for the B&W P7 Wireless--which was my references standard in this category for the past few years--is even better, and a worthy contender in the "best overall" category. Their industrial design is improved from an already good starting point. The overall sound is more B&W-like than that of the P7, and certainly less bass-forward than you'd get with a Beats product.

They are light and easy to travel with or even take to the gym. Overall, the combination of performance, functionality, comfort, and style (sorry, but when it comes to headphones, that matters these days) make the PX Wireless one of our all-around favorites, even if it doesn't necessarily take top honors in any one particular category. Again, you can read our in-depth review here.

Of course, new wireless over-ear headphones are hitting the market at an ever-increasing rate as more companies embrace our wireless future. So be sure to keep an eye on our Headphone + Accessory Reviews page if you're not quite ready to buy right this moment. As new offerings become available, we'll also keep this guide updated.


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