Audio / Buying Guide

For Your Listening Pleasure: Wired versus Wireless Headphones

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With each year, the variety and quality of wired and wireless headphones improves for a wide range of consumer and professional applications. Apple’s removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack in the iPhone 7, as well as the recent release of the company’s Airpods, would seem to indicate that the trend is toward wireless, though there remain plenty of situations in which a wired set of headphones is preferred. Here are a few points to keep in mind when selecting your next pair of headphones.  

Apple AirPods Wireless Bluetooth Earphones

Convenience

The clear advantage to wireless headphones is being untethered from your mobile device. This is especially true with physical activities, such as jogging, aerobics, or lifting weights. If you prefer to keep your mobile phone in your pocket or bag, a pair of wireless headphones will likely be more practical when commuting on crowded public transportation.

The design, comfort, and especially how the headphones are worn or stored when not in use (such as whether the earcups can rotate flat to rest on your shoulders, or if the headband can fold inward for storage) will also directly influence how often and in what situations they are worn. In my experience, I’ve found the LG Tone Bluetooth headsets to be among the most comfortable and practical, because of their small size, extended battery life, and the way they seem to disappear from notice when not in use due to their neck-worn design.  

LG HBS-A100 TONE Active Wireless Stereo Headset

I also find the integrated call, volume, and playback controls found in most wireless headphones and headsets easier to work with than the 3-button remote built into many cables. Some manufacturers have even gone to considerable lengths to create sophisticated control systems for media and call management, including the use of sensors to pause/mute when removing the headphones from your head, such as is offered in the Parrot Zik line of wireless headphones.

Parrot Zik 3.0 Stereo Bluetooth Headphones

On the other hand, the requirement of having to charge a secondary device, apart from your mobile phone or tablet, can be annoying. The frustration you feel when the battery dies on your wireless headphones or headset, in the midst of a favorite podcast, can sometimes offset the convenience they afford.   

For this reason, I especially appreciate wireless headphones that include the option to override the wireless functionality by connecting a standard 3.5mm audio cable, such as the one on the V-Moda Crossfade Wireless. That way, you can carry the cable in your commuting bag and still enjoy your music or podcasts even if your wireless headphones lose their charge. If you have an iPhone 7, you would also need to bring a Lightning to 3.5mm adapter.

V-MODA Crossfade Wireless Headphones

On a related note, it’s a good idea to also carry a portable battery bank so you can recharge your wireless headphones or other devices on the go.

Sound Quality and Flexibility in DACS and AMPS

The sound quality of a pair of headphones is determined by many interrelated digital, electro-mechanical, acoustic, and psycho-acoustic factors. Think of it as a miniature sound system. 

In my experience, one of the most entertaining aspects of putting together a mobile hi-fi system is experimenting with various combinations of digital audio players (DAPS), digital to analog converters (DACS), headphone amplifiers, and even (in certain circumstances) interconnecting cables to achieve different sound signatures. One advantage of most wired pairs of headphones is that they enable you to try out different combinations of these elements in the signal chain until you find a combination that makes you happy.

Astell&Kern AK Jr Portable High Definition Music Player and DAC

By comparison, a pair of wireless headphones is limited by its wireless transfer protocol (generally Bluetooth), as well as the quality of its respective digital to analog converter(s) and integrated amplifier(s). These components are selected and optimized for an application by the product architects and engineering teams, along with the battery system and transducers found in the headphones or headset. Depending on that application, compromises are made in the design regarding balancing the size, battery life, and performance of the system.  

For professional applications, a wired connection is still preferable because it will provide incomparably greater flexibility in terms of available music equipment and performance by way of the resolution of your DAC and the power available from your headphone amplifier. Additionally, a standard Bluetooth wireless connection has a latency of more than 150 ms (+/- 50 ms), which poses A/V sync issues when attempting to edit dialogue or mix sound for picture. A wired connection also suffers from latency, but is workable, provided the latency is within 1 frame (about 33 milliseconds). For reference, the threshold of lip-sync detectability according to blind tests conducted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is -125 to +45 milliseconds, and the acceptable lip-sync standard for film is about 22ms in either direction. Bluetooth devices that implement Qualcomm’s aptX low-latency audio codec, combined with the advanced audio distribution profile (A2DP), claims an end-tend latency of approximately 40ms, which is far more usable for watching and possibly working with video.

When recording, mixing, and mastering music, these differences in resolution and dynamic range will make a greater difference in your result than might be of concern when simply listening to a compressed file streamed while commuting along a busy street.

Roland’s relatively recent acquisition of V-Moda might be a sign of things to come when higher-resolution wireless headphones are integrated as mobile monitors into a unified hardware ecology. Time will tell as technology evolves. In June of 2016, Bluetooth 5 was announced, promising significant improvements in data transfer up to 2 Mbits/s, which should mean 4x the range and 2x the speed of previous standards. It will take some time for manufacturers to fully adopt, implement, and optimize the new standard into their products, but hopefully there will be a range of options by 2018 that leverage the new standard and the aptX low-latency codec to further close the gap between wired and wireless headphones.

Hybrids: Integrated Amps and DACs in Wired Headphones

A relatively new trend in wired headphones is the inclusion of an integrated amplifier into the ear shells of the headphones, such as is available in Blue’s Mo-Fi dynamic “Sadie” and planar-magnetic “Ella” headphones.

Blue Ella Planar Magnetic Headphones with Built-In Amplifier

Audeze, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of planar magnetic headphones, has also taken this approach, albeit a step further, with the inclusion of a Lightning cable digital to analog converter with programmable DSP and integrated amplifier in the EL-8, Sine, and forthcoming iSine10 and iSine20 in-ear magnetic planar headsets.

Audeze iSINE 20 In-Ear Headphones with Lightning & Standard Cable

I was given the opportunity to listen to the iSine10 and iSine20s at the last AES show, and was floored—not just by the miniaturization of planar magnetic technology, but by how well the drivers’ performance can be optimized using the company’s Cipher cable DSP-enabled DAC and accompanying iOS EQ App. The THD level of the iSines was orders of magnitude beyond its predecessors, including multi-element in-ear monitors costing many times the price. Planar magnetics also tend to show better transient response and spectral decay, so a pair of portable planars means Hi-Fi everywhere.

If you have an iPhone or iPad and are curious about the sound offered by planar magnetic drivers, the iSine10 and iSine20 with the Cipher DAC, is a brilliant way to start. A standard 3.5mm cable is included in the iOS Cipher cable version and is also available with the headphones (without the iOS DAC) so you can use them with whatever DAC and amp you prefer, which makes them a great option for production and commuting.     

Noise Cancellation

Noise cancellation is available in wired and wireless Bluetooth headphones with varying degrees of sophistication. Typically, noise cancellation consists of a combination of passive isolation and active inverted phase processing.

Passive isolation is provided by the clamping pressure and acoustic seal that the headphone’s earpads make with your ears. Active noise cancellation uses miniature room microphones that actively mix the ambient room signal 180 degrees out of phase into the program’s signal to effectively cancel the bleed of the room’s ambience. Bose™ has recently improved its noise-cancellation technology with the new QuietComfort™ 35 headphones and QuietControl™ 30 headsets. B&O also has a new offering in wireless noise-canceling headphones, in the form of the H9.

Bose QuietComfort 35 Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones

Master and Dynamic takes a different approach from Bose by carefully selecting the materials that comprise the meshes and foams of the MW50 earpads. The company believes it can achieve sufficient passive isolation without having to overly process the audio signal. It does, however, employ dual omnidirectional microphones to improve call quality.  What’s especially interesting, however, about the MW50s is the use of 40mm Beryllium drivers. The speed of sound is approximately 2.5 times faster through Beryllium than it is through alternative driver materials such as aluminum or titanium, which means the first break-up mode of the driver occurs higher in the frequency spectrum. If you’ve never heard the sound of a Beryllium driver before, such as is offered in Focal’s Solo, Twin, Trio, and SM9 series of studio monitors, the new Master and Dynamics could be a portable way to enjoy this metal’s unique sonic properties. 

Final Thoughts

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the variety of available headphones in much the same way that a craftsman can appreciate the diversity of tools in a toolbox. The waterproof wireless headset that I wear when working out at the gym is great for its intended application, but it wouldn’t be my first choice for producing, DJing, or listening to music at home.

Just like the handle of a screwdriver could be used to hammer a nail, it would be better to have both a screwdriver and a hammer in your toolbox and to use the appropriate tool for its intended application. In-ear, On-Ear, Over-Ear, Open, Semi-Open, and Closed headsets all exist for a reason. Balanced armature, dynamic, magnetic-planar, and electrostatic drivers all generate sound in different ways and lend themselves not only to different applications but also to different styles of listening and different genres of music.  

It’s ok to own multiple pairs of headphones. Personally, I have a set of custom in-ear monitors (Future Sonics MG6 Pros, for listening to music at work with a Roland MobileUA DAC), a pair of Ultrasone DJ1s for DJ’ing, a pair of Shure 440s and Audio-Technica M40x closed-back headphones for tracking in the studio, as well as various earbuds, Koss Porta-Pros, and the aforementioned LG Tones for traveling and commuting. When taken care of, a well-made pair of headphones can make a nice second-hand gift, so I feel comfortable pursuing the quest for progressively better sound quality. 

Koss PortaPro Stereo Headphones

Right now I’m saving up for a pair of Audeze iSine20s for commuting, as well as, eventually, a pair of the company’s flagship LCD-4s with a powerful headphone amplifier, like the company’s Deckard or maybe, one day, the King as the basis for an ultimate home system.

Whatever your preference may be—whether you are looking to upgrade your existing headphones to a pair with new features, improved performance, or looking for a pair to meet a specific need—rest assured that we are living in a Golden Age of innovation with a breadth and depth of available options that will make even the most fastidious audiophile grin from ear to ear. 

Discussion 7

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Do the Master & Dynamic MW50 headphones really have active noise cancellation as the article indicates?  Neither the B&H product description nor the M&D website product description list active noise cancellation as a feature for this product.  This leaves me thinking that they really aren't noise cancelling.

Hi Gary - 

How right you are!  Thanks for catching this error.  We will have this corrected right away. There is no active noise-canceling feature present in this product.  Passive all the way.

We have now revised the error and apologize sincerely for any confusion the original copy may have caused.

— Copy Editor

This article although interesting left me asking more questions than it answered.  Lo Siento.

Mr. Cramblitt: 

From the author, Dan Bockrath... "Thank you for your interest and please feel free to ask any questions and we can expand the discussion."

— Copy Editor

How come there was no reference to latency problems with wireless headphones?  I'd LOVE a pair of untethered cans for use when I'm editing video.  Every one I have tried so, has a latency of 2 to 10 frames -  thereby making them impossible to use for synchronised video/audio editing.

Pete

I totally agree - I want to go wireless, as a camera operator I would love some zero latency earbuds. Any and all suggestions welcome.

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