In a fast-paced era where we feel like we’re always on the go, wireless speakers and headphones have become priceless. This is just one of the reasons we’ve seen wireless headphones consistently increase in popularity over the past decade. Yet the Bluetooth we know today is remarkably different from what we had access to just a few years ago, sporting more reliable connectivity, lower latency, and more affordable price tags. These advances have been essential for the modern tech world, making life easier for gamers, music enthusiasts, and the many hard-working individuals who don’t find much time to relax at home.
Still, wireless is only sometimes the answer, and wired variants can still be better for some users. In this article, we’ll explore the benefits and drawbacks of each technology and reveal which is best suited for each type of listener.
The Three Main Types of Headphone Connections and Their Role
3.5mm, USB-C, USB-A
Wired headphones have a cable that is either fixed to the headphones or, when removed, loses the ability to play audio. These are the most common form of headphones on the market, with the widest range of high-quality options.
Bluetooth, RF, and IR
Wireless headphones use one of three primary wireless technologies to provide audio without cables. These headphones aren’t intended for wired use.
Wired + Bluetooth
Hybrid headphones are Bluetooth headphones that can be used wired as well. When plugged in, these headphones are charged up, and when you want to use them wirelessly, you can switch from a wired connection to a Bluetooth one.
Choosing whether to go wired or wireless can be daunting, and is often because you haven’t yet learned the tradeoffs between the different types of connectivity. I’ve made it simple to get an overview of this technology and help remove that uncertainty.
Here’s the short of it…
If you’re only going to use it on a PC or with home audio equipment, and audio quality is most important, go for a 3.5mm or 6.25mm wired headphone. You’ll have the option of going open-back or closed-back, getting much better quality sound for a more affordable price. You’ll be sacrificing versatility, portability, and the addition of modern technology like ANC.
For console gamers and those seeking versatility, going for a hybrid headphone will give you the best result. You can use it on your phone, console, or PC. Being both wired and wireless, you’ll have every situation covered. These types of headphones are available in both USB-C and 3.5mm variations. By opting for a hybrid headphone, you’ll be limiting yourself on brands and designs, without much in the way of open-backs on the market.
Mobile phone users who don’t plan to use their headphones for other purposes benefit most from a wireless Bluetooth headset that connects directly to their phone without worrying about cables. They’re available at affordable prices and have broad manufacturer support. If you go with a fully wireless option that can’t be plugged into computers or audio equipment, your versatility will be limited.
Of course, this is a simplified conclusion. Below, we explore the nuanced differences between wireless and wired headphones, what makes a good headphone, and some history of wired and wireless headphones.
Understanding The Differences
Hard-Wired 3.5mm Headphones & Their Benefits & Shortfalls
|High-fidelity audio support
|Cable wear over time
|Broad support with home audio equipment
|Lack of mobile support
Wired headphones aren’t very versatile, and with many mobile phones now being produced without an aux jack, they aren’t universally supported by modern tech either. But what they lack in versatility and support, they make up for in sound quality, affordability, and options. The trade-off between cost and audio quality is an essential consideration that can significantly affect your final decision.
If you gather the best-sounding headphones on the market across all types, the list will be dominated by wired 3.5mm models. That’s because 3.5mm is still the best option for sound quality, and for those serious about audio, it goes much deeper than what’s convenient. There’s a reason you don’t see USB open-backs on the market.
It’s not just sound, though. Wired headphones are typically more affordable, giving you a better bang than USB alternatives. Additionally, you’ll have a wider range of top-tier designs, unlike the small group dominating the high-quality wireless headphones market.
Wired headphones come with their drawbacks. Being tethered by a cable means you’re bound to your listening space, which can become frustrating if you frequently get up. Additionally, there has been a shift away from aux support by consoles, mobile phones, and Bluetooth speakers. Finally, one must address the susceptibility to cable damage over time, especially for cheaper headphone models.
Wired/Wireless Hybrid Headphones & Their Benefits & Shortfalls
|Broad support from modern consoles & phones
|Cable wear over time
|High-quality audio potential
|Lacks open-back options
|Not bound by battery restrictions
|Not as much variety as 3.5mm
|ANC is common
|Often lacks good microphone quality
For ultimate versatility, hybrid headphones give you the option of going wired or wireless. Different tasks require different approaches, and having the ability to go wired or wireless lends itself to a fluid lifestyle. If you’re behind the laptop all day working, go wired. If you want to go for a run afterward, just unplug the cable and pair your phone. You’ve got audio while you’re on the move.
The hybrid headphone is ideal for most modern music lovers, but there is one group of people I wouldn’t suggest it for – the audiophiles. If you love audio and have an unwavering commitment to FLAC, these may not interest you as much. That said, we audio enthusiasts are always excited to get our hands on something new. After all, it could sit perfectly fun up on the wall with the other ugly stepchildren who didn’t make the cut. However, I can think of a few modern releases that could end up as a guilty pleasure, such as the Sony XM1000-M4 and the Bose QuietComfort 45.
The addition of noise-canceling in many hybrid and wireless headphones will appeal to those in work environments, particularly those who frequently travel. ANC isn’t included in all models but has become widespread in most flagship wireless headphones. If you want to reduce noise from your environment, this feature is a life changer.
Open-back headphones have become increasingly popular in recent years, lauded for their more refined sound, focusing on balanced frequency response and soundstage. Unfortunately, open-back designs aren’t typically associated with wired USB connections, and if you want to go this route, going traditional wired will be the way to go.
Wireless Bluetooth Headphones & Their Benefits & Shortfalls
|No movement restriction
|Audio quality potential falls short of wired options
|Addition of other modern features
|ANC is common
These wireless headphones use Bluetooth as the sole connectivity method and don’t incorporate a cable into their designs. They stand out for their powerful versatility and can be used in almost every scenario using Bluetooth transmitters. They have similar shortfalls to the hybrid headphones that I discussed above. While you won’t get the same high-fidelity audio with these headphones, they are usually affordable and have countless models available.
There are additional dynamics to consider when going wireless, though. Data transfer speeds drop when you remove the USB cable, and while not noticeable for general purposes, the latency may cause sync problems. It must be noted that recent releases have improved latency, which has greatly improved the transfer efficiency.
Battery life also becomes a consideration when going wireless, and estimating how many hours a day you’ll use your wireless connection can ensure sufficient capacity. Remember that charging methods vary between models.
If you want to move from a wired headphone to a wireless one, be aware that you may be sacrificing some sound quality. Modern Bluetooth codecs have become extremely impressive in recent years. You probably won’t notice a difference for most streaming formats, but there will be a distinction for those playing FLACs and focusing on lossless quality. At the same time, even a wireless option may give you better results than your existing wired model. Some wireless headphones can still easily outperform a large portion of the wired market, but wired options still dominate the top 1%.
A Brief History of Wired Headphones
Historically, wired headphones were a viable option for those who wanted music on the move, as you could easily attach standard 3.5mm jacks to most mobile phones. When USB-C broke onto the scene, things started changing. This was mainly due to USB-C’s ability to transfer audio data, a feature not present on micro-USB. As USB-C became more prevalent, manufacturers felt that adding a 3.5mm output was redundant.
In recent years, we’ve seen many new models opting to use USB-C as their connection type. This affords it support with modern consoles and mobile phones. Additionally, some new computer cases have their own built-in USB-C connection. The majority of these new USB-C headsets take a hybrid approach where they can be used either wired or wireless.
Still, there remains a distinction between the classic 3.5mm jack and USB-C. They each cater to a different market, with 3.5mm remaining common for high-quality headphones that focus primarily on sound quality, while USB-C headphones typically cater to a more casual crowd whose focus is likely to be more on versatility and broad console support.
Types of Wireless Technology Used In Headphones
Most modern wireless headphones incorporate Bluetooth technology. However, there’s more than one protocol for wireless connectivity, most of which predate the advent of Bluetooth. With the rate that modern technology becomes obsolete, it’s hard to believe that over half a century later, these alternatives to Bluetooth remain viable, holding strengths over Bluetooth. These are the most common wireless connection types found in headphones in today’s age:
IR is the earliest wireless protocol that was introduced to the headphone market. It dates back to the 1960s and was primarily used in home entertainment setups. Infrared connectivity uses light frequencies that aren’t visible to the human eye to transfer audio data wirelessly from the source device to the headphones. Infrared technology is still used in some audio products today, primarily in wireless TV speakers for the hearing impaired.
Infrared has low susceptibility to interference but suffers from limited range, a direct line-of-sight requirement, and relatively slow data transfer speeds. Unlike RF and Bluetooth, you won’t be able to retain a connection if you wander out of the room.
The 1980s saw the introduction of RF connectivity. This radiofrequency technology sought to negate the notable drawbacks of IR and provide a stable wireless connection without the line-of-sight requirement that IR was limited by. In addition, RF added additional range, allowing users to move further away from their audio system while retaining a reliable signal. RF excels in its data transfer speed, producing extremely low latency. Like Infrared, RF is still used to date and is primarily used in headphones that connect to the TV.
Radiofrequency has a better range than infrared, allowing the listener to leave the room while maintaining a connection. Where RF lacks is in its protection from interception and interference. It is prone to interference from other radiofrequency devices, which sometimes operate on the same frequency.
Bluetooth was initially released in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the consumer market began to experience this revolutionary wireless technology. While both RF and IR had been popular, they had never been as widespread as modern Bluetooth. Similarly, while IR and RF saw minor advancements, Bluetooth began to incorporate regular refinements through new version releases. Early Bluetooth versions were inefficient and far from our current refined wireless technology.
The versatility that one gets from Bluetooth is unmatched by other wireless technologies. It has a phenomenal range that can cover over 100 meters in some devices and is incredibly energy efficient, improving the battery life offered by supported devices. Still, Bluetooth isn’t perfect, and despite the noteworthy advancements in latency performance, it is still not as fast as RF.
The Future of Wireless Headphones and The Arrival of 5G
Grab your tinfoil hat, and let’s examine how 5G will likely influence the future of wireless headphones.
While still in its infancy, there is some buzz in the audio world about what it means for wireless headphones. Both 3G and 4G could transmit audio signals, but they were almost exclusively used for mobile networks. Many think that 5G will be different, with the early rollout already seeing discussions around performance in the wireless audio space.
5G is a significant step from 4G, especially regarding transfer speeds. When brought across to headphones, this efficiency could create a new stable, low-latency wireless connection method for consumers to enjoy their favorite music.
Broader integration with home audio is another common talking point with 5G. We’ve only just begun to see Wi-Fi support being more widely available for home audio equipment, and it may be five years before we start seeing 5G being similarly added to the audio market. New technology is always on the horizon, and this could be a big leap forward, assuming it’s adopted and implemented as experts have predicted.