Wired vs wireless headphones: which should you choose?
By Oliver Trebilcock
We explain the pros and cons of connecting your headphones wirelessly and via a cable, and whether your choice affects sound quality.
More and more of the headphones we test are now wireless. In contrast to traditional wired headphones, wireless equivalents can connect to your devices, such as your smartphone, without a wire. If you’re used to wired models, or want to find out more about wireless headphones, here's everything you need to know.
It's easy to misunderstand the term 'wireless headphones', as 'wireless' refers only to the connection between the headphones and the device controlling the audio. It doesn't mean there won't be any wires in the box when you buy them.
In addition, some wireless headphones come with a detachable cord, which gives you the choice to either connect wirelessly, or plug them in if you wish. This means you get the best of both worlds, and it can be particularly handy if you want to use your headphones with older non-wireless devices, such as a record player or CD player.
You'll find all our top wired and wireless headphone recommendations on our Best Buy headphones page.
If headphones are described as 'wireless', it means they have the capability to connect to your devices without wires – but not necessarily that this is the only way to connect them. If you'd like the option to connect both ways, look for a wireless set that comes with a detachable cord.
Pros: There are no tangled cables, and they can connect to devices that don't have a headphone socket (such as many of the latest smartphones). There's no longer a noticeable hit to sound quality by connecting wirelessly with good wireless headphones.
Cons: You have to remember to charge the battery in your headphones – if it runs out, there’s usually a complete loss of function, except for models with a detachable cord that you can plug in as backup. Wireless headphones can cost more than wired ones, but any cost difference is rapidly diminishing. In rare circumstances there may be wireless-connection dropouts or interference in some areas, although this would usually be for a fraction of a second.
Setting up the wireless connection from the headphones to your device for the first time is usually simple. Most wireless headphones will then reconnect automatically thereafter.
Wired headphones typically connect to your devices by what's known as 'aux in', also called a 3.5mm headphone socket. Some headphones come with a larger plug, but most will come with a 3.5mm plug too, as it's the most common one for connecting to a wide variety of devices.
Pros: Easy to use: just plug in and play. You won't need to worry about wireless-signal dropouts, and there's much less drain on your smartphone's battery life than with a Bluetooth or other wireless connection. You can connect to older devices that don't support Bluetooth, such as an older hi-fi system, CD player, TV or record player.
Cons: Many of the latest smartphones no longer have a 3.5mm socket, making it more difficult to connect wired headphones. Headphone cables often tangle easily, and the most common source of headphone failure is the joint between the cable and the headphone housing – wireless sets don't have this problem.
How do wireless headphones connect?
Most connect via Bluetooth wireless technology. There’s also a 'shortcut' way of connecting via Bluetooth, known as NFC (near-field communication), which makes the process even easier. Other connectivity options do exist as well (see below for details), but for almost everyone we'd recommend connecting via Bluetooth or NFC.
Bluetooth: This is a near-field communication technology that allows you to connect, or 'pair', two devices over a short distance – typically up to 10 metres apart, although it can be more. It's very easy to set up, and many modern devices support Bluetooth.
To connect your wireless headphones to a device such as your smartphone, you will need to ensure your headphones are in Bluetooth pairing mode. This is often activated by holding down the Bluetooth pairing button on the headphones' housing. Then you just need to find the headphones in the Bluetooth settings menu on your smartphone or other device.
Wi-fi: This is the same connection you use to wirelessly connect your devices at home to the internet, using an internet router or home hub. Unlike Bluetooth, there's no limit to how close your headphones need to be to your device, but both need to be connected to your local wi-fi network – meaning wi-fi headphones are only really suitable for use at home.
Sound can be very slightly better than with Bluetooth, as you can transmit greater sizes of audio data over wi-fi. However, the difference is miniscule, and only really relevant for audiophiles listening to very large files (such as 'lossless' audio format recordings). There aren't many wi-fi headphones on the market.
Infrared: This is the technology you're familiar with in your TV remote. These headphones use an infrared (IR) beam to transmit sound from a base unit – often a dock you store the headphones in when not in use. They often have a very short range (around 7 metres) and, just like with your TV remote, you need to have a clear line of sight between the headphones and base unit or you'll lose connection. This means you can’t wander round the house using infrared headphones. Infrared headphones are now very rare.
Custom wireless connections: A small number of wireless headphones still come with dedicated docks, which often recharge the headphones after use. This type usually has its own custom wireless connection frequency between the headphones and the dock. Typically these headphones are designed for private listening to your TV for home entertainment, and have the advantage of always being paired, but usually it's difficult to connect them to other devices.
‘Truly wireless’ headphones
So far we have focused on wireless technologies and their impact on audio quality (or rather the lack of it). However, the main reason many choose wireless headphones is the convenience – or freedom – of not having to mess around with cables.
The ultimate freedom comes with 'truly wireless' in-ear headphones, which don't even have a cable or headband linking the two earbuds together. You literally just get two earbuds: one for each ear. They're usually nice and small, too.
Early truly wireless headphones had poor battery life due to their diminutive size, and many came with charging cases to address this. However, battery life is rapidly improving as the technology matures.
Note that the size of the headphones has no correlation with the quality of the Bluetooth or other wireless connection, although smaller headphones do have inferior battery life in some cases. There are plenty of exceptions, though. We've also found fewer in-ear headphones that are good enough to be Best Buys compared with other types, suggesting that superior sound in a small package is more difficult to achieve, although there are many notable successes.
What connection should you go for to get audio perfection?
There was once accepted wisdom that wired headphone connections – especially large, over-ear models – offered better sound quality. This was because it was much easier to transmit large amounts of electrical data down a wire than it was to do so wirelessly.
However, any remaining gap has narrowed to the point where it's become hard to notice the difference, even to trained ears. You can get extremely good music-industry sound quality from a wired set of over-ear headphones costing around £120 (such as the Sony Professional MDR-7506). You'll pay more for additional features, such as wireless connectivity and noise cancelling (which can reduce background noise such as plane engines). This can then bring the cost of flagship headphones from brands such as Sony and Bose up to around £330.
So for headphones costing more than around £120, you’re usually paying for additional features rather than improved sound quality. There is a law of diminishing returns on spending several hundred pounds in search of audio perfection – we're talking very minor differences that only an extremely picky listener will notice. The best wireless headphones sound excellent.