The latest wireless headphones can be highly convenient, but our lab testing reveals this can come with compromises. If you’re looking at slimline pairs or truly wireless headphones such as the Apple AirPods, make sure you’re aware of the drawbacks.
But if you’re savvy with the pair you pick, you can get the whole package – a conveniently compact design with fantastic features and sublime sound quality.
Our lab tests and dedicated listening panel ensure you get the very best headphones – and avoid the duds.
1) Poor battery life
Truly wireless headphones are notorious for their poor battery life – which is why almost all current pairs come with a charging case to mask this. Three hours of battery life may have been fine for a commute, but many owners will now be realising their limitations during the lockdown when they run out before the morning is up.
In our headphones testing this month, we even found a big-brand pair that lasted barely two hours between case charges, and the worst we’ve seen struggled to last one hour, also from one of the biggest brands.
Neckband and corded in-ear headphones often suffer similar problems – there simply isn’t enough space for the batteries.
However, Samsung hopes to have solved this issue with its latest truly wireless headphones, the Samsung Galaxy Buds+ – claiming a hefty 11 hours of run time from a single charge. We independently test all manufacturer claims ourselves to see if they match up in reality – find out if these headphones are a fantastic choice in our Samsung Galaxy Buds+ review.
2) ‘Wireless’ doesn’t always mean wire-free
Bizarre marketing is bizarre marketing. Many wireless in-ear headphones do, in fact, have wires between the two earpieces – which is why pairs such as the Apple AirPods call themselves ‘truly’ wireless, and even these usually require a wire to charge them. What sets all wireless headphones apart from traditional wired pairs is that they have Bluetooth to connect to your phone without plugging in a wire.
So if you really want to avoid untangling wires, consider truly wireless pairs such as the Sony WF-1000XM3, Bose SoundSport Free and Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless. And if you really have wire-phobia, ditch the charging cable too with a pair with wireless charging such as the Apple AirPods Pro (pictured above).
No wires between the earpieces does make your headphones much easier to lose, though, and could be easy to lose – so if you want to avoid the worry, consider a corded or neckband pair. We’ve just reviewed Sony’s latest flagship pair, so see how it performed in our Sony WI-1000XM2 review.
3) Mic for video calls and voice assistants
Most wireless headphones have a microphone, but there’s no guarantee it will work as you expect. Not only does the quality vary wildly, our testing shows support for voice assistants such as Alexa varies wildly, let alone whether it actually picks up your commands accurately.
So with many of us wearing headphones more than usual during the lockdown, make sure you buy a pair that has the features that you need – and our reviews reveal whether they work as well as advertised.
For example, the attractively priced JBL Tune 220TWS truly wireless headphones (£100) claim you can ‘go from playlist to call to voice assistant without missing a beat’ – see whether this is actually the case in our JBL Tune 220TWS review.
4) Thin sound
Which? has tested hundreds of wireless headphones and we’ve found countless models with shallow thin sound, no bass or a tinny bass that lacks real depth. In fact, dozens of wireless headphones are so bad, we’ve made them dreaded Don’t Buy headphones that aren’t worth the money, no matter what price they are.
Good sound clarity isn’t just important for your listening pleasure. Which? has been in touch with a range of health experts who all agree that quality headphones will help you take care of your hearing, as you won’t need to raise the volume so loudly.
Find out more about this in the video below, where we talk to a audiologist who treats people who have noise-induced hearing loss from listening to headphones too loudly.
5) Non-replaceable batteries
As we all know from our smartphones, batteries do not last forever, and wireless headphones are no exception. It’s not possible to replace the batteries yourself on almost all wireless headphones – making this a serious consideration if you’re planning to spend £100 or more on a higher-end pair of wireless headphones. A quality wired pair of headphones could last a decade – wireless headphones tend to have a much shorter lifetime.
Our survey of owners of wireless headphones shows that a third of all owners from one of the most popular brands reported deteriorating battery life within the first three years of owning them. So if you choose wireless headphones, be prepared to have to replace them more frequently. If this happens to you, first check if your headphones are still in warranty. Even if it isn’t, some manufacturers will let you send them back for battery replacement services for a fee, such as for Beats headphones, so it’s worth contacting your manufacturer if your battery performance is suffering.
For all the headphones we’ve tested, see all our full list of headphone reviews.