Quantcast

The Best Bluetooth On-Ear or Over-Ear Headphones

By Lauren Dragan, The Wirecutter

If I really needed a pair of Bluetooth headphones, I’d get the Jabra REVOs, which (currently) carry an average price tag but have better build and sound quality than your average Bluetooth headphones. However, as relatively good as they are compared to peers, you can get better wired headphones for a lot less. Unless you really need wireless capabilities, you’re better off with traditional headphones.

If I really needed a pair of Bluetooth headphones, I’d get the Jabra REVOs (also available from Apple), which (currently) carry an average price tag but have better build and sound quality than your average Bluetooth headphones. However, as relatively good as they are compared to peers, you can get better wired headphones for a lot less. Unless you really need wireless capabilities, you’re better off with traditional headphones.

After researching extensively, considering 50 pairs and testing the best-reviewed 16, our panel of experts all agreed they liked our pick. Not only did the REVOs sound great, they were comfortable and built to last, and they have some really nice extra features: NFC pairing, cool touch controls, a cord with a remote and mic, a free app that allows you to tweak the EQ, and a helpful voice prompt that talks you through pairing.

How Did We Pick a Winner?

First, I interviewed a number of experts. However, many headphone enthusiasts are loath to use/recommend Bluetooth headphones because of the audio quality and cost. In fact, one well-known reviewer replied to my inquiries with a simple “Sorry, I’m no fan of BT.” That was the entire email. Another reviewer, Tyll Hertsens of Innerfidelity, could only recommend one pair of Bluetooth headphones. As a result, identifying a pool of headphones to test was an uphill battle.

I then took to user reviews on Amazon, Best Buy, CNET, Crutchfield and more to see what real people had liked. From there, I looked to see what was new on the market and untested; based on that list, I came up with 16 that looked the most promising and called them in to put them through their paces.

Each of the panelists…spent several hours pairing, listening…and then selecting their top three.

We then brought in a faceoff panel consisting ofGeoff Morrison, A/V Editor for the Wirecutter and writer for CNET, Forbes, and many other AV magazines; John Higgins, a session musician and music/audio teacher at The Windward School, and me, Lauren Dragan, a writer for Wirecutter and Sound&Vision and a professional voice actor with a dual bachelors degree in music and audio production.

Each of the panelists brought their own device and music selections and spent several hours pairing, listening, adding the cord, listening again and then selecting their top three. After I took into account price and features, we had a clear winner.

Our Pick: Why We Chose the Jabra REVO

The Jabra REVO set sounds great with or without a cord. They fit well, are light and comfortable, and feature intuitive touch controls.

Simply put, the Jabra REVO set sounded great for Bluetooth headphones both with and without a cord. They fit everyone well, are light and comfortable, had intuitive touch-based controls that were actually useful and beat out headphones costing $400 despite selling for only about $200.

John Higgins liked the sound. In general, he thought though they were quite good they were a little mid-heavy without adjusting the equalizer, which requires a separate free app. He also said he found them to be “very comfortable,” which isn’t something every headphone accomplished. He thought the touch controls were cool, though he had to get used to the circular motion for volume as opposed to tapping.

Geoff Morrison also praised the “cool design and good control scheme” and called the sound “not bad overall for the category.” (To be fair, Geoff didn’t love any of these Bluetooth headphones.)

Of all the Bluetooth headphones we looked at, the REVOs were my all-around favorites.

Of all the Bluetooth headphones we looked at, the REVOs were my all-around favorites. I appreciated the lightness of the REVOs. To me, the whole point of Bluetooth is the ability to move around, and really heavy, clunky designs can make that uncomfortable. The sound was pretty good for Bluetooth—relatively balanced—but I came up with a mix in the EQ app that I liked even more. That said, I don’t think any headphone should require an app to function, so I really took any app features into account as icing, not impacting the overall value of the headphone.

Why else did the REVOs end up a favorite? For one, they are really well built. They are foldable, and seem to be able to withstand being thrown in a bag or banged around. The touch controls are not only neat but easy to use. The sides of the headphones are touch sensitive (rather than using push buttons) and look like little rubber records. To increase/decrease volume, you glide your finger in a circular motion forward or back. To change tracks, you tap the front or back of the circle. The volume adjusts the volume level within the phone, not just boosting dB in the headphones. This means that you don’t have to dig in your bag to mess with your your device if its volume is set too low.

The REVOs also come with a cloth-wrapped cord that has a mic and one-button remote, enabling you to answer calls, skip tracks and get Siri but not control the volume. We appreciated this because many of the others came with cords that had no mic or controls. That means you can’t make a phone call if you run out of battery or need to use the cord for some other reason.

As that implies, the REVOs work passively. So if the battery runs out, you can use them with the cord. If you do this, however, the touch controls on the earpieces won’t work. That said, none of the headphones available have controls on the headphones themselves that function without the Bluetooth on. Only a few had cords that had remotes. And a couple of pairs had no corded option whatsoever.

Some other nice things about the REVOs are the built in mic—it works just as well as any headphone mic I’ve used. Also, the controls on the headphone not only handle music; I was able to access Siri, redial the last call I made and reject/answer incoming calls away from my iPhone. The REVO can also be used as USB headphones by using the included USB cord (which doubles as a charger). They’re NFC-enabled, so those of you with NFC-compatible devices need only turn it on and tap them to the REVO to establish a connection. Geoff tested this with his HTC One, and he said it worked as it should.

Jabra claims the REVOs have a playing battery time of 12 hours, which isn’t shabby.

Jabra claims the REVOs have a playing battery time of 12 hours, which isn’t shabby. A lot of manufacturers avoid making declarative statements on battery life on headphones while in use, but those that did had ranges from “about” 8-24 hours of active time. I wore them comfortably for 5 hours one day, and another night (after a full charge) I ran them at a volume loud enough to drown out the sound of an air conditioner for 17 hours before they said “battery level low” for about 15 minutes before finally dying. After they completely died, I tested them out with the cable, and they worked just as expected.

Overall, the REVOs are everything you need in a Bluetooth headphone: portable, comfortable, functional and (relatively) affordable. For $200, they’re really most folk’s best bet.

The REVOs are technically on-ears, not over-ears, which can be something some people might not like. If you prefer over-ears, we do have another also good option.

An Over-Ear Alternative

We liked the Bluetooth sound of these, though some people might find them uncomfortable to wear.

If our pick is sold out, or if you prefer over-ear headphones, our testers also liked the AKG K845 BT for Bluetooth sound. When corded, however, everyone found the high end to be too much. And that’s where the agreement ended. Geoff found them to be fairly comfortable, but John said the headband pinched, and that after maybe 30 minutes would give him a headache. I have a pretty small noggin, and I still agree. But I also had the added problem of the earcups being so large that sound leaked out the back under my jaw/occipital ridge. If I pressed the cups against my head to seal them, I got bass, if I let go, it seemed the bass bled out the gap. And although the controls on the headset were easy to use, the cord has no remote, and they cost $100 more than the REVO.

The Step Down

They sound quite good, have Bluetooth, and are only $50. If you need wireless in a pinch, these are the best.

If you absolutely need Bluetooth headphones and you want to buy a really cheap pair, there’s Swage by Rokit Boost. They have an astounding 4.5 stars on Amazon. We’re convinced it’s because they are Bluetooth and only $50. They look odd, have ‘80s Walkman-style foam ear pads, and don’t work with a cord. The sound is mostly mids, but they were not the worst Bluetooth headphones we listened to during our tests. In fact they sounded better than the Monster iSport and the SMS Sync by 50 (Cent), which are both $250. But the Swage didn’t come close to matching the clarity and balance of the REVOs.

The fit is tight, but they are comfortable enough for short use. That said, if you need Bluetooth headphones for as little as possible that make sound, these are as close to a budget offering as we could get.

What Else Did We Test?

The Logitech UE 9000 were also very well-liked. In fact, they were the only pair that had a positive professional review. But here’s the thing: they’re being discontinued and aren’t even on the Logitech site anymore. They used to retail for $400, and now you can get them for around $250 on Amazon, generally from third-party sellers.

But here’s the thing: they’re being discontinued and aren’t even on the Logitech site anymore.

They have probably the best sound of all the Bluetooth headphones we tested, and they include some great extras like a wall charger and a cord with a remote. They also have a mute button that boosts your voice so you aren’t yelling when talking to people. They’re over-ears, and are really solidly built. Perhaps too solidly, because they are really heavy and clunky, especially when you’re walking around. Also, Logitech may not accept warranty claims when purchased from unauthorized sellers, and to make a claim you have to call a non-toll-free number.

Another good alternative to the REVOs was the Nokia Purity Pro by Monster. (Though, yet again, we found ourselves with a product that seemed to suddenly sell out everywhere.) Although they say Nokia, they worked just fine with iPhones and Android devices in our test. Apparently, there’s an app that works with Nokia Lumia only, but none of our testers had one, nor knew anyone with one. That said, as I mentioned before, I don’t think headphones should rely on apps to function, and the Purity Pro don’t.

These were a close second to the REVO for sound quality according to our panel. John said that although they were “kinda skewed to the highs, it wasn’t objectionably so, and they had good bass.” Geoff called the sound “pretty good,” although he found that when corded, they had too much bass. I felt there was something missing in the low mids with Bluetooth, but overall found the sound decent.

The Purity Pros have a cool feature in that they automatically turn on when unfolded, and off when folded. They, like the REVOs, have NFC, plus a voice that talks you through pairing, which is nice. That said, the noise canceling feature is pretty useless, the build is less sturdy than that of the REVOs, and the cord has no mic or remote option. They’re also over $50 more than the REVOs — when they are in stock — so unless you have a Lumia or absolutely need over-ears, the REVOs are probably a better bet.

The Parrot Ziks were also a source of some controversy. I want to like them, and the design is undeniably beautiful. They have a bone conductor sensor and five mics to help with calls. And they sound pretty darn good over Bluetooth. But the Parrot Zik are, in my opinion, a great idea that wasn’t fully tested before release. They are completely dependant on their app. Want to turn the noise canceling on or off? You need to go into the app. Want to use a cord to listen to music? You need the app. (Yup, you read that right. Without the app, if you just plug the headphones into a source with the cord, the sound has this bizarre reverb thing that renders them unlistenable. It sounds as though you broke them or have a bad cord.) And I’m not the only one who noticed this. Basically, the Parrot Zik is useless if you try to use it with anything that can’t run the app. For that dependency, you’ll pay $400.

The Sony MDR-1RBTs are lightweight and comfortable. “Fine,” as Geoff put it. “Neither the worst, nor the best, the MDR-1BT are a good option if you can’t get the others we mentioned above,” was what he had to say after a good long listen. And he’s right about the sound: it’s a bit sizzling in the highs and muffled in the mids, although with a nice full low end. But there are a few technical hiccups that I found puzzling. First, they have an NFC option that we couldn’t get to work with Geoff’s HTC One (and there are others on Amazon commenting about similar issues, though with Samsung products). Secondly the Bluetooth audio connection will not work while the headphones are charging (by contrast, the Jabra REVOs will). As such, if you plan on charging from an outlet in one place and listening to a device located in another, you’re out of luck. They will, however, work with the ⅛” cord while charging. Are those deal breakers? Not necessarily, but they are worth taking into consideration when you look at the price tag, which is currently $100 more than the Jabra Revo and $50 more than the Nokia Purity Pro.

The Harman Kardon BTs are built sturdily and have that angular modern steel-and-leather look that a lot of HK headphones feature. Prettiness aside, the sound is, while not directly objectionable, lackluster at best. Geoff said they had a touch too much treble; John described a “lack of depth” and I agreed. There seemed to be a hole in the upper mids somewhere. The best I could say about them is that they were “fine.” The cable does not have a remote, but when on, the headphones themselves have a mic and a few control buttons. These are also another pair of headphones that are rather heavy and clunky if you are planning to listen to them while moving. They really aren’t bad, but for $260 we really expected more.

The VFrees by Velodyne were artistically designed with a fractured teardrop design. The problem is that the buttons aren’t labeled or intuitive, and you really need to memorize them if you plan to use them while wearing the headphones. The volume control is independent of the device you’re using, so you’d need to turn up the volume on your phone or iPod before putting it in a bag. And none of us were in love with the sound. The bass was muddy when in Bluetooth mode, overwhelming when corded, and I found them lacking articulation in vocal consonants. They started at $299 and are now $120 for a reason. They just fall short in so many areas.

The MEElectronics Air Fi Electronics Runaway were another pair that I was rooting for going in. They’re inexpensive and light; I was hoping they would be a good budget option since they also work corded. However, we were all disappointed with the sound. Geoff, John and I all remarked on the non-existent bass. If the sound were good, we could forgive the cheap construction, but without a better sonic response, we have to say pass.

Another less-expensive pair were the Creative WP450s. Nobody liked them. They fit too tightly and the sound was muffled. Geoff used the description of “listening underwater.” I said it sounded like too much reverb on a mixer. It was blurry and sloppy and not even worth its low price.

The JBL 56BTs were another disappointing option. Everyone mentioned how muffled they sounded. The bass was woofy and the cable was nonstandard, so you can’t lose that cable. Geoff called them “really bad,” and I hate to say it, but we all agreed. It’s really a shame.

Another weird offering was the Bose AE2ws. The best thing about these were the lightness; they were even comfy. That’s where the compliments end. The sound is overpowering in the high end. John mentioned a sizzling sound, and Geoff flat-out said the snare and drumstick sounds made the Bose something he “would not listen to.” I disliked the hot highs and also found the low-end lacking in definition. And then there’s the bizarre design. The Bluetooth module hangs off the side of the earcup like an afterthought. In order to listen corded, you have to remove it completely to find an odd shaped opening where you put the 1/16″ to 1/8″ cable in to connect. So in order to listen to them corded, you need to put the Bluetooth module somewhere, just asking for it to get lost. And at $250, you really don’t want to lose parts.

The only sport offering in the bunch, the Monster iSport Freedom, featured anti-microbial rubber. Sadly, the sound is so bad that we can’t even suggest them. Geoff commented on the overpowering bass and a strange background hum. I found them muffled sounding and John just remarked, “These make me unhappy. Bad fit, bad sound.” That about says it all.

Last to be struck down was the SMS Sync by 50 Cent. Geoff disliked them strongly on many levels. He found the build cheap and the sound sloppy and muffled with jagged frequency response. John said it sounded like there was a tape hiss in them, and I heard it too. It sounded like something was distorted, and with the cord, the bass was out-of-control. Nobody found them comfortable. For $230, you deserve more.

What makes for good over/on-ear Bluetooth headphones?

The only reason to get Bluetooth headphones is because you are someone who cannot work with a cord on a regular basis, and the devices you plan to use most are Bluetooth enabled. (This includes iPhones, iPads, most smartphones, newer iPods and some laptops.)

Freedom comes at a price that many headphone connoisseurs are reluctant to pay: sound quality.

Bluetooth headphones enable the listener to walk a short distance away from the sound source (i.e. your phone), or to keep that device in a pocket or bag without being hampered by a cord. However, this freedom comes at a price that many headphone connoisseurs are reluctant to pay: sound quality. The Bluetooth data capability is limited, and so some sound quality is lost in transmission from the device to the headphone. Overall, what we’re saying: if you can live with a cord, save your money and get great-sounding headphones for far less.

Also, these are not well-suited as wireless home theater headphones that one might use to connect to a TV, or even most stereos or receivers. Yes, some TVs and receivers might have Bluetooth capabilities, and yes, you could use these to watch TV in addition to their primary function with your portable device. However, we wouldn’t recommend these headphones for purchase solely to use with your TV for two reasons:

  1. You will be paying for headphone features that become useless with a TV (microphone, track-changing buttons, etc.).

  2. Bluetooth has lower sound quality than other wireless headphones. So if you want something only for your home theater, spend it on something that sounds better, rather than for features that you won’t use. We will discuss wireless home theater headphones in an upcoming article.

Still here? Okay, here’s what to look for in good Bluetooth headphones: First, fit. Are they comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time, or will you get a headache after 30 minutes? Do the earcups sit well on the ear, and reasonably block out external noise?

Second, sound. Is any one part of the frequency spectrum overpowering any other? (In other words, is the high end too loud? Can you hear the bass well?) Music should sound full and rich without any hissing or booming sounds. Voices should be clear and syllables should be crisp without hurting your ears. And, if headphones sound good while listening in one way (with a cord or Bluetooth) they should sound just as good the other way.

Third, build. Are the controls easy to understand? Can you access them easily while wearing the headphones? Do they work with a cord, and if so, does the cord have any controls on it? Do they work while powered down, or do you need the battery charged at all times to use them? How easy is it to pair to your device? And do they lose signal easily? Does the headband feel as though it will break? Because these are primarily used with your phone, you should try to find a pair that have a mic as well.

And finally, why are all of these recommendations so expensive? In short, because we don’t want you to buy a pair of wireless headphones that sound terrible. And believe us, the really cheap pairs sound awful, they often drop signal regularly, and still generally cost more than corded headphones that sound fantastic. You’d really be throwing your money away.

What Else is Out There?

There’s plenty more to choose from when it comes to over-ear bluetooth headphones. Here are the ones we didn’t test, and why.

AKG K830 BT – CNET gave them 2.5 stars. Ouch.

Beats Wireless – Amazon users give them only 3.5 stars, complaining about breakage issues and bad warranty support.

Creative Aurvana Gold and Platinum – both have been out of stock in stores and the Creative site for months, so we literally could not get them anywhere. Perhaps this means they are being discontinued or updated? If so, we’ll let you know, and get them in for testing ASAP.

Denon AH-NCW500BK – 3.5 stars on Amazon with complaints both on sound and phone-use quality.

Klipsch Image One – Engadget says the bass muddies up the sound.

ME Electronics Matrix – These are in the process of being revamped and re-released in 2014, so we will let you know when they come out.

ME Electronics Venture AF52 – These are on the way to being discontinued.

Monoprice Premium Bluetooth™ Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphones - As for the Monoprice, the reviews on the site are less than exciting. Lots of complaints of the Bluetooth dropping out, the earcups being too hot and the sound being muddy. The fact that they have to be charged (even to work with the cord) is a dealbreaker.

Phiaton Chord BT NC – Numerous Amazon reviews complain of them getting too hot to wear.

Plantronics BackBeat Go 2 – CNET only gives them 3 stars.

Sennheiser MM 450-X Wireless Bluetooth – replaced by the 550X.

Sennhesiser mm 550-X travel – 6/10 on Trusted Reviews; 3.5 stars on PC Mag.

SoundBot® SB220 Bluetooth Noise-Cancellation Stereo Headphone – I couldn’t track down a company website for these. Proceed with buying caution.

The Best in Bluetooth

Overall, if what you’re looking for in your Bluetooth headphones is functionality—decent sound and a compact rugged build—the Jabra REVOs are the best choice out there. They aren’t overpriced, have some great features and are a perfect fit for the person who really needs Bluetooth functionality.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 1/12/14 and is republished here with permission.