Wireless Headphones Explained: What Do You Need To Listen?

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Listening to music on headphones is great. You know what's better? Listening to your music without wires. Here's how wireless headphones work, why you might want a pair, and how some are different to others.

This guide is presented by Audio-Technica and the ATH-DSR7BT Bluetooth headphones -- featuring ‘Pure Digital Drive’, designed to give you an unrivaled wireless audio experience.

What Makes Wireless Headphones, Y'know, Work?

The foundation of modern wireless headphone tech is Bluetooth. It's a wireless audio standard that uses a common codec to compress a digital audio signal on your phone, laptop, or whatever device you want to listen from, and transmits it over the air to a pair of headphones nearby. Bluetooth has a 'pairing' handshake that makes sure that your phone and headphones are synced up only to each other; nobody else can listen in on whatever you're listening to.

Bluetooth is smart, though -- when you're not listening, it doesn't use nearly as much power as when you're rocking out. There's even low-energy Bluetooth tech that will keep your devices connected in the background so that when you want to listen at full power, everything is automatically ready to go. It's this kind of tech that allows some Bluetooth headhpones to have extremely long deep-sleep battery life of months at a time between listens.

Bluetooth is by far the most common wireless headphone tech. There are other wireless headphone standards out there, but they have limited application. You might have seen wireless headphones for late-night TV use in your local electronics store; they use radio frequency (RF) transmission rather than Bluetooth, but they're a dying breed and they're not really relevant if you want to be portable in the slightest -- they're too prone to interference from wireless routers, microwaves and the like.

What Makes Some Wireless Headphones Better Than Others?

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Specifically on the wireless technology side of things, not all headphones are created equal.

The class of Bluetooth that a pair of headphones supports mainly affects the range that you can listen to them while moving away from your smartphone or other wireless source. Class 2 Bluetooth is by far the most common, and supports a transmission power of up to 2.5mW for around 10 metres' range. Class 1 Bluetooth supports up to 100 metres range from your device, which is phenomenal, but also some Class 1 headphones are lower-powered -- but it's technically better. The difference between the two is academic, really, because there's another stat that's more important.

Check one vital statistic whenever you're buying a pair of wireless headphones: see what wireless audio standards it supports. The latest Bluetooth tech can transfer extremely high quality audio over a wireless channel, but you've got to have headphones and a listening source that supports it. The latest standard, apt-x HD, is just about the best that you can get, but you'll have to have a smartphone that supports it -- and that's either a brand new LG handset or another equally new phone. Other high-end wireless audio codecs include Sony's LDAC, which will come to all Android phones with the upcoming version 8.0 Oreo.

There are other nifty wireless standards out there that might influence your buying, too. For example: if you've got an iPhone, you might be interested in a pair of wireless headphones that have the W1 wireless chip -- it's just Bluetooth, but with a few tweaks that makes it easier to connect your iOS device to your headphones for the first time and with quick pairing after that.

Other Things To Consider

When you're running on wireless, you're running on battery -- just like the phone or laptop you're probably listening to your headphones through. And that means you want the best battery life possible, right? Factor that into your buying decision, or at least factor it into the way you intend to use your headphones in the future; charging them overnight is a very good idea.

You might want a pair of headphones that you can connect not just to your smartphone, but to other devices too. If you're working on your PC during the workday, a pair of wireless headphones that connect over USB to your computer can give you that same high quality sound that you're used to wirelessly, with the convenience of charging your 'cans' for the return commute home and to work the next morning as well. And almost all Bluetooth headphones will default to the wired connection when it's hooked up, so you don't even have to stop music on your phone.

We love wireless headphones -- not needing a cable connecting your phone and your headphones frees you up so much, even when you're carrying your phone on your person. At the end of the day, wireless headphones are about convenience just as much as they're about sound quality. You can have both, though -- you just have to research your purchase carefully.


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