Looking For Wireless Headphones?

I’ve been using Bluetooth wireless headphones for the past couple of months now, and I’ve formed opinions on the two models I’ve tried. Now, I’m no audiophile, but I do appreciate good sound quality. So far, I’ve used the Beats Studio Wireless headphones and the new Bose Quietcomfort 35. Both do what they are supposed to, but one is clearly better in my mind.

Some Disclosure

I’ve been a long-time user of Bose Quietcomfort products, going back to the QC2 in 2003. Most recently, I was using Quietcomfort 25’s most of the time, with Quietcomfort 20 in-ear units for when I am out and about.

A couple of months ago, I decided that I wanted wireless headphones (I really hate cables), and decided to give the Beats Studio Wireless units a shot. The reviews for them were pretty good, they collapsed down to a reasonable size and looked pretty good. It was a departure, since I’ve been using Bose and Sennheiser for a while now (and I was a long-time Sony and Koss user prior to using the Bose Quietcomfort 2’s). But some behaviours with the Beats got me to try the new Bose wireless headphones. I really like having noise cancelling, particularly since I’m working in an office again, and there can be just enough other noise that I don’t want to hear.

The Units

Both the Bose and Beats are wireless with a built-in battery, and feature an over-the-ear design. You recharge them via a USB micro-B connector, meaning that you are very likely to have a cable that will work pretty much anywhere you go. They both offer some form of noise cancelling, collapse into a smaller space for transport, and come with the option for a wired connection. They also include a built-in microphone for Skype and other services that need audio input, and external controls for pause/play and volume control. Both come with a travel case and an audio cable for wired use.

I found the audio quality on both to be comparable. The Beats product doesn’t have the amped-up bass that so many other Beats products have. Both provide a nice, balanced level of sound. With reasonable-sized speakers in the ear pieces, they offer decent sound quality across all frequency ranges. They obvious won’t match the quality available from proper large speakers, but for everyday listening, both are pretty good.

Where they differ is in design, battery life, and effectiveness of the noise cancelling. From a design perspective, the Beats are far and away the better looking of the two. They come in more colours (14 when I last checked) and are basically gorgeous. The Bose units only come in two colours, and are more about function and not form (okay, they do look a bit clunky alongside the Beats).

Batteries and Sound Reduction

When it comes to battery life, the Bose product wins hands down. Beats claims 12 hours on a charge, but I was lucky to get 8-10 hours out of them. Bose, however, says their battery should last 20 hours on wireless, and I can believe it. Starting from a half-charge, I got about 15 hours out of them right at the start. I haven’t had them as long, but I’m going guess that the 20 hour estimate may be on the conservative side.

On the noise cancelling front, the Bose again wins in a walk. The noise cancelling in the Beats headphones is a bit disappointing, barely reducing background noise. They do cancel some noise, but not as much as I’ve experienced with other noise cancelling units, and only a bit more than the noise filtered by simply wearing headphones in the first place.

The Bose Quietcomforts are as good or better than any previous Bose product. They block out an enormous range of sound, meaning you basically hear the music and not much else. For example, while typing this, the Beats would allow me to hear the keyboard noise fairly distinctly. With the Bose, I can barely hear the keyboard sounds at all.

There’s a side-effect on the Beats noise-cancelling to be aware of (and prompted me to try the Bose product): there’s a whooshing noise you can hear in the background that appears to be related to the noise cancelling. You don’t really notice it when you’ve got audio playback going, but without audio, I found the sound rather pronounced, and at times a bit annoying. With no audio playback, the Bose units are essentially dead quiet.

Part of the problem with the Beats appears to stem from their use of a single microphone to read background noise (the Bose units use two, one on each side). But this use of a single microphone, coupled with their algorithm, can result in a truly nasty behaviour if you cover the microphone: a low-frequency pulsing that can become uncomfortable rather quickly. If your head is anywhere around pillows (say propped up on a bed), it can be easy to block the microphone and induce a headache. Covering the Bose microphones doesn’t cause this same problem to appear.

A Note On Bluetooth Audio

There are couple of things to be aware of when using Bluetooth for stereo audio. First is that the sound quality, while quite good, is a little behind using wires. This isn’t surprising. With a wired connection, you have the full audio signal going to the speakers. When using Bluetooth, it appears you do get some compression and some of the signal is lost. True audiophiles will definitely hear the difference, but your average listener is unlikely to notice.

The other thing is that Bluetooth can be sensitive to computing load and the presence of other devices. For example, when I’m using them at work, I have 4 Bluetooth devices going at once (keyboard, mouse, trackpad and headphones). That means that, from time to time, you can get audio dropouts. It can get worse if you put the machine under load (for example, sometimes during a compilation, the dropouts can get a little worse). It doesn’t happen all the time, and sometimes you can go hours without them.

Using fewer Bluetooth devices seems to help. I was using the Beats on a recent road trip while I watched movies (using the same MacBook Pro I use at my office). With no other devices connected other than the Beats, and nothing to do but play the movie, I never experienced a dropout in the signal.

Which One?

Both are comfortable for long periods of time, and offer decent sound quality. But ultimately, the Bose Quietcomfort 35’s are the better product. Granted, they are currently CA$50 more expensive, but the extra money is worth it. The substantially better battery life and noise cancelling justifies the extra expense. The Beats certainly look better, and you have a broader choice when it comes to appearance. But the adequate-but-not-great battery life and somewhat disappointing noise cancelling offset the aesthetics. For those that can hear it, the whooshing sound in the background on the Beats should be a deal killer.

In the end, I would recommend the Bose Quietcomfort 35 for a wireless, noise-cancelling headset. Good battery, good sound and some of the best noise cancelling out there make for a very good set of wireless headphones.