Wired vs Wireless Headphones

Wired vs Wireless Headphones – Which Should I Buy?

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When it comes to choosing your perfect pair of headphones, one of the first questions you will ask yourself is – wired, or wireless? If you’re in the market for a new pair of headphones this article will lay out all the pros and cons of each approach to headphone design; I’ll even touch on some other important factors to consider while you’re shopping.

In any discussion about whether wired vs wireless headphones are the best, we’ll have to take a slew of variables into consideration. Which sounds better? Which is more convenient? Which is more affordable? Which is more aesthetically pleasing? Are there any differences in carbon footprint or environmental factors? Depending on who you are some of these factors will weigh more heavily on your opinion than others in determining which type of headphone is right for you.

So the appropriate question to ask is not: “Which is better, wired or wireless headphones?” but rather ‘Who am I, and what do I do?”

Who am I, and What do I do?

So, there are very few technical differences beyond the actual method of connectivity that sets wired and wireless headphones apart. Note, I said “very few”, not “no”. The inconvenient truth is that unless you’re an audiophile with an overdeveloped ear for different frequency ranges and a slightly nauseating desire to be able to say your music “sounds better” than that of the next guy, you’re going to have a really hard time appreciating the few technical differences that actually exist.

The reality is that your choice of wired vs wireless headphones is going to be driven enlarge by your lifestyle, and what you want to use your headphones for. Who are you, and what do you do? So throughout this article, we’ll keep coming back to that question.

Wired Headphones

Wired headphones have been the norm for over 100 years, and people still swear by the simple audio solution offered by this classic design. I’m a music producer, so naturally, I have 3 pairs of wired headphones lying around in my studio that offer 3 different sound qualities, noise-cancellation capabilities, and comfort levels. My go-to pair of headphones have been my Audio Technica ATH-M50X’s for years now; I wear my Sony MDR-7506’s and an old pair of Bose on-ear headphones less frequently but it’s nice to have them kicking around for mixing purposes.

I am a fan of the tried-and-true design of wired headphones, but some of my less audio-oriented friends don’t own a single pair anymore, not even earbuds; they’ve gone fully wireless. So who should stick to wired headphones? Who are you, and what do you do?

Music Professionals

As the standard for music producers, audio engineers, musicians, DJs, and other people who require a practical and simple solution to get their audio into their ears without any extra hassle, wired headphones have earned their place in the studios and recording rooms of all sorts of professionals, but this headphone solution starts to lose its appeal once you take your headphones out on the street.

Audio professionals require fast latency speeds for audio signals that Bluetooth simply can’t match (yet). These professionals also need higher quality, and that comes cheaper when you take wireless connectivity out of the feature list for your headphones.

Gamers

Unless I’m playing Wii tennis or something, I spend my time playing video games with by rear planted firmly in a chair, so I don’t have to worry about getting tangled in a wire and pulling my whole setup apart. The faster latency speeds help when you add a microphone to stay in touch with a dozen team-mates spread across the globe. All the while wanting to get the full sound effect of the 3 grenades you just lobbed at the other guys over the scream of their mega blasters.

Wired headphones are the gold standard for sitting at a desk or professional workstation but take them on the go and you’re asking for frustration. If that’s the case, what is your alternative?

Wireless Headphones

When comparing wireless headphones to wired headphones it is important to note what the primary use for your headphones is going to be. If you are constantly on the go, wireless headphones are going to feel far more convenient for you during your day to day activities. I swear by wired headphones for their (usually) lower price and general straightforwardness, but even as a huge fan of wired headphones I can’t deny the amazing convenience of wireless Bluetooth headphones and earbuds.

Be aware that your wireless headphones may require charging and needing a dedicated power supply is only going to occur with higher-end wired headphones that require amplifiers. If you want wireless over-ear cans, on-ear headphones, or in-ear IEMs/earbuds you can definitely find something that will meet all your needs.  So who should wear them? Who are you, and what do you do?

Students

“Why not wear my nice wired studio headphones to class sometime?” I thought to myself one day. Well, I don’t know about you, but that oversized cord just looks terrible (regardless of your outfit) and gets in the way of pretty much anything you want to do. Lo-and-behold, my studio headphones ended up in my backpack the whole day. I kept my monitors in my backpack for a few days, but I only seemed to break out my wired headphones when I was sitting for long periods of time, so after a while, I stopped taking my headphones with me unless I was specifically planning on using my laptop to produce music. I went wireless.

Fashionistas

Wired headphones can be a pain if you’re fashion conscious or on the go a lot, they don’t look as good when you wear them, and they tend to get in the way. If you are a fashionista who wants to show off your outfit the last thing you want is a gaudy wire hanging over your designer shirt.

Gym Rats

Wired headphones are considerably bulkier and more of a hassle to wear in public, and at the gym, they are downright awful. It doesn’t matter if you have over-ear, on-ear, or in-ear wired headphones. I can recall a million times I’ve gotten tangled in my own earbuds on the treadmill or stood up from a weight bench and pulled my phone up off of the ground and watched as it fell back onto the ground. One too many close calls, I’ll say.

If you are someone who is always at the gym you could look into earbuds that are connected to one another but not ‘true wireless’, that way you don’t lose a tiny wireless earbud or get tangled in a wire on the treadmill.

Wireless headphones have become the norm over the past 10 years, and the future looks bright for these products, but there’s one iteration that deserves its own spotlight for being the biggest (and possibly most overblown) fad in recent memory, Apple’s Airpods.

Apple AirPods

It’s hard to talk about wireless headphones, or wired ones for that matter, without mentioning Apple’s 2016 take on wireless Bluetooth headphones, Airpods. In the past four years, AirPods have taken over as a cultural phenom in younger social media savvy circles, and regardless of being a trendy “must-have” for teens around the world, the technical prowess of these little wireless earbuds is nothing to laugh at.

AirPods were quite unfamiliar when they first hit the market, and faced criticism from consumers and critics, but over the years the design became more comfortable for the market to accept and quickly rose to the top of wireless headphone sales reports. With a lengthy list of convenient features, good battery life, competitive pricing, and a cult following, AirPods have become one of Apple’s most popular products in recent years. No pair of wireless earbuds comes with all the convenient features that AirPods have if you are using iCloud devices of course; the AirPods’ ‘Apple only’ compatibility has become the norm for most Apple products.

If you have a MacBook, iPad, and/or iPhone, a pair of AirPods could be the perfect pair of headphones for you. They’re compact, portable, full-featured, and priced competitively. If you aren’t an Apple user, I could see why you’d go without a pair of AirPods, since their compatibility with non-Apple devices is fairly limited. If you want the full AirPod experience you will want to have lots of Apple devices to use your fancy Bluetooth earbuds with. Overall, AirPods are certainly unique headphones and maybe the perfect accessory for you.

What About Price?

Wired vs. wireless headphones can vary wildly in terms of pricing. Some headphones, whether they are wired or wireless, can go for well over $1000! Depending on the different features, specifications, impedances, and designs of different headphones you could spend anywhere from $10 all the way up to some people’s monthly rent. With headphones varying so wildly in price, it’s important to ask yourself exactly what features you need in a pair of headphones. There are obvious concerns for a headphone shopper like sound quality, color, and fit (over-ear, on-ear, and in-ear), but you should also think of the more nuanced areas regarding your potential new headphones.

Wired earbuds are going to be the cheapest headphones you can find. Some earbuds go for less than ten bucks but be aware that you get what you pay for with audio equipment of any kind. I would never recommend spending less than $60 on any pair of headphones if you care about audio quality even a little bit. The cheapest pair of wireless earbuds I could recommend (Raycons) are going to run you north of $130, and at that point, if you have an iPhone you should really start looking at AirPods because of their great included features and optional portable charging case.

Now we’re in the $100 – $200 range, a great range to start looking at great wired studio monitor headphones like Audio Technica’s/ Beyerdynamics and passable wireless over-ear/on-ear headphones. This price range is where you will find some of the most staple headphone products on the market; low end Beats headphones, studio monitors, AirPods, quality workout earbuds, etc.

In my opinion, if you’re spending over $300 on headphones you should do a ton of research. Above this price threshold you’re looking at high-quality studio monitor brands like Sennheiser, AKG, & Bose, audiophile staples that require dedicated headphone amps and signal converters, studio IEMs, and other pro audio equipment. This price point is where wireless headphones start to match the audio quality of their wired competition at the $150 range. The more expensive the equipment gets you should rely on customer reviews and consumer testimony!

The price point where wireless headphones start to match the audio quality of their wired competition is around $150.

My Headphones

There are so many great headphones out there, but there are specific wired and wireless headphones that rise above the competition in my opinion. Before I pick my winner of the wired vs wireless headphone debate, I want to highlight my favorite pairs of wired and wireless headphones to familiarize you with my taste! To start, let’s check out my go-to pair of studio monitor headphones, my Audio Technica ATH-M50Xs.

Audio Technica really hit a home run with these affordable studio monitors, they have provided me with balanced sound for years and I’ve grown to really enjoy wearing them while producing music or simply watching videos or gaming. I have taken my M50Xs on the go before but these headphones really shine in a studio or desktop setting where you can hang your headphones on a rack and rely on them for stationary use. I have no complaints about these headphones, and I recommend them to anyone starting out with producing music or looking for a balanced sound experience that is also affordable.

For wireless headphones, I can’t ignore the convenience of Apple AirPods. I have used tons of wireless headphones in my day to day life, but the simple fact that I use a MacBook and an iPhone this makes AirPods a super convenient pair of wireless Bluetooth earbuds. I think the pervasiveness of AirPods within the “true” wireless earbud market has to do with the prevalence of Apple products in entry-level tech consumer circles, and owning an iPhone made AirPods a no-brainer for me.

If I didn’t own Apple products, I would have probably chosen a pair of wireless headphones with a lower overall price and higher sound quality, but my AirPods were chosen primarily due to their feature compatibility with Apple products. Regardless of this, my only complaint is that some say that AirPods don’t fit in their ears, so be wary!

 As you can see, I own two very different types of headphones that illustrate two different strengths. My trusty M50Xs give me affordable high-quality audio in the studio, but they are simply too bulky to comfortably wear walking around campus. My AirPods offer convenient compatibility with the devices I use every day, but for producing music the noise-cancellation, ergonomics/comfort, battery life, and sound quality just aren’t up to the task.

So… who wins?

Different strokes for different folks, that’s how it is going to be with this debate. In the end, I’m torn on this decision, but I’d personally have to go with wired headphones. It suits who I am and what I do best.

I’m a long-time gamer, an audio professional, a budding audiophile, and admittedly… a bit of a homebody. I like to have my nest, a place with all my knick-knacks and cool tech gear and plenty of snacks to call my own, and in that nest, I simply don’t need Bluetooth connectivity. Wires are fine with me because they allow me to get better sound quality for cheaper and decrease latency and lag when producing music. Overall, I choose the classic wired headphone design, but I still think Bluetooth wireless headphones have their merits.

As a college student, I love the out-of-the-way design of wireless headphones while walking around campus, and AirPods specifically allow super-fast switching between my MacBook and my iPhone. Siri compatibility is also a major plus. Unfortunately, other Bluetooth headphones I have used in the past simply take too long to switch devices and are sometimes a pain to connect to a device after the connection has been lost, but that leads me into another topic altogether.

Wired and wireless headphones both have their merits, depending on who you are and what you do.

The History of Headphones

To understand the wired vs. wireless headphone debate, it’s worthwhile to look back at history. In the early 1900s, telephone receiver headpieces were evolving into headphones; the first way to listen to a wide variety of audio signals before amplifiers were invented. These old headphones had very poor frequency response and therefore lousy sound quality, but for the first time ever we could store audio signals and play them back through convenient earpieces!

For almost 100 years we have celebrated these headphones and improved them to make the sounds they produced louder, clearer, and evermore impressive over time. Today we enjoy digital and analog audio signals at a variety of qualities and amplitudes thanks to a robust headphone market that offers something for everyone.

The new kid on the block, wireless headphones, shook up the headphone world for the first time in the 1960s in the form of radio headphones, these headphones used radio transmissions to send audio signals from a music player or radio to a pair of headphones. These were a primitive attempt at wireless listening, so there were countless quirks and inconveniences when using radio headphones. Wireless headphones wouldn’t earn mainstream popularity until the invention of Bluetooth technology in 1999.

Bluetooth headphones are a staple in today’s world of premium athletic headphones and Apple AirPods, but before 1999 the term Bluetooth was an obscure reference to Norse mythology and nothing more. In 2000, the first mobile phone with Bluetooth connectivity was released, and over the next decade, Bluetooth cemented itself as the go-to technology for close-range wireless connectivity of all kinds. In the present day, you’re almost more likely to see someone wearing Bluetooth headphones on the street than anyone with wired headphones.

Future Trends

If you’re a die-hard wireless headphone fan who is already angry with me because I chose ancient wired headphones over your wireless ones, don’t be so quick to judge. In only 20 years Bluetooth/wireless headphones went from a gimmick with a lot of promise to the standard headphone design among a generation. I think the future of wireless headphones is bright. If wireless headphones can manage to match or undercut the latency speeds of hardware wiring and create a more seamless audio experience, audio professionals and audiophiles are going to pounce on that new tech and wired headphones will be a relic of the past. When you factor in the ever-extending lifespans of modern batteries, things get interesting.

I can see a future where all headphones are wireless due to the simple fact that walking around with your head free of wires, yet still hearing your favorite music or podcasts is liberating. I feel great when I wear my AirPods because the product is light, unconstrained, and interfaces conveniently with the devices I use constantly. If battery life and latency speed continue to improve the way they are, the sky is the limit for wireless headphones.

Jake Currier
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Jake Currier
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