Wireless Headphones and Headsets

The decision to move to a wireless headset or wireless headphones is not to be taken lightly. Many people will think “the times they are a changin” and we should embrace wireless technology. Apple went so far in 2016 to completely get rid of the audio jack on their iPhones and iPods and began shipping them with AirPods – a Bluetooth replacement to the corded version. In my opinion (and countless others who vented on the forums) Apple completely missed the mark and lost touch with their audience, catering only to a 1% technology focused segment of their market. Shame on you Apple!

Apple AirPods

Regardless of your stance on the issue, there’s definitely a case to be made for either choice, but it’s important to understand the different types of wireless devices, as they’re not all the same, and honestly, they have different uses.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth Technology

Bluetooth technology specifications were formalized by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), which consisted of Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia, and Toshiba, on May 20, 1998. Since this time, thousands of companies have joined the Bluetooth SIG.

Bluetooth enabled devices work by utilizing a computer chip that contains the Bluetooth radio, to transmit data (music, sound, etc.) through small 1 milliwatt radio waves on the 2.45GHz band to the device (headset, headphones, earbuds).

Now you might be thinking two things – Firstly is that it’s transmitting radio waves likes a cell phone antenna and we know that ‘might’ cause cancer, so what about Bluetooth? Well, not really because Bluetooth transmits only 1 milliwatt, whereas a cellphone will transmit at 3 watts – that’s 3000 times more powerful than the Bluetooth signal. Secondly, you could be thinking about the interference of other devices like baby monitors, garage door openers, etc. That’s kind of addressed by the low power emission (1 milliwatt) and the fact that Bluetooth has a very small range of only 32 feet at the most.

Additionally, Bluetooth devices are not enabled, unless they’re “paired” with a source system. Pairing of devices occurs when you turn on the source devices and it sends out a signal looking for other Bluetooth-enabled devices that are on (like a headset). Once it’s found, the device will request a PIN (key) to unlock the signal. When you enter the correct PIN, your devices are then paired and can now function wirelessly. A great example of pairing is if you want to get into a locked house – you are the device and you can’t get in the house unless you have the key (PIN) to the door. Once your friend gives you the key (the pairing process), you can enter the house.

The big benefit to Bluetooth technology over other types, is that it doesn’t require a directly “line of sight” to connect. Because it uses radio waves, you can have your stereo playing in the living room and be listening to it in the basement or out in the yard, as it won’t suffer (too much) from the walls in your house. It’ll operate very similarly to your wireless router at home.

Now before you go out and say Bluetooth is for me, you need to understand it’s limitations and these can be a showstopper:

  1. Bluetooth is known to have horrible “pairing” issues. How many times have you headed out in your car and wanted to sync (pair) your phone to your car radio and listen to tunes, just to have it display “No Bluetooth Devices”. You have them both turned on, but for some unknown reason (gremlins) you just can’t connect. In a car, you’re just going to deal with a bit of frustration as you flip on the radio instead, but at home it could be a lot worse. Case in point – you have a wireless gaming headset and you’re scheduled for a big raid in 5 minutes, but you can’t connect your headset to your computer. You’ll have to restart your PC and cross your fingers and hope this time it’ll connect. The other issue with pairing is that your devices will randomly ‘stop’ pairing. Even though you’ve been listening to music for the past hour problem free, it’ll just die (gremlins).
  2. Bluetooth does a pretty good job of connecting devices wirelessly, but it was never designed to transmit music. Because of this, there’s been a lot of documented issues around “latency” or a “delay” in your music. Tie this in with the pairing and you can end up with music and sounds like you’re watching a video getting started and stopped constantly. Don’t believe me? Just Google “Bluetooth Latency Issues” and see how many pages come up – you’ll be astonished.
  3. The final deal killer is regarding sound quality. Last week I wrote a post titled Noise Reduction Headphones – How they work. In that post, I outlined the types of sound compression media, which range from a low 160kbps to a high of 9,216kbps. Now take that compressed signal (e.g. 160-320kbps) and push that through a narrow wireless band of 1 milliwatt. There’s no doubt about it, all the musical goodness just can’t get through the line, so it gets dropped and you end up with a weak sound. If you’re looking for Bluetooth enabled headsets for work to replace a telephone, then that’s fine as the loss is so miniscule that you really won’t notice it. The same can be said for computer gaming, as the sound is not a very rich experience. But if your need is to listen to music, then the quality is going to be like taking an orchestra full of violins, cellos, and French horns and replacing it with just 1 of each. That might be okay for you, if you listen only to digitally compressed (MP3) music, but if you want to listen to CD quality or better for the full body sound experience, then wireless devices are not really for you.

Radio Frequency Headsets

Radio Frequency devices operate by having a base station or transmitter devices that transmits a signal wirelessly using radio waves to a receiver (headset). Unlike Bluetooth technology, which requires a PIN ‘key’ to permit the sharing of data (music, sounds, etc.), Radio Frequency devices do not and are therefor nowhere near as secure, if at all. They operate similarly to Bluetooth, just without the added security and necessity of a transmitter. Additionally, they operate at a frequency of around 800-900Mhz, which is normally reserved for amateur radio, cordless phones (especially in Europe), home monitoring and alarm systems. Because of this, they’re subject to interference and the mostly likely culprit being other wireless phone devices.

Unlike Bluetooth, these devices have a larger range, upwards of 150ft, or up to five times greater than Bluetooth. Similarly, they also are not affected by walls and buildings, as they operate on radio waves.

Because they’re operating on a larger band, they work great for listening to music as you’re not going to lose much in the way of sound quality, however, the nagging interference these devices can collect (especially the further away from the transmitter you go), can be very bothersome. Where these devices actually shine, is using them to replace your phone and you require hands-free access. A good example is a friend of mine that operates a wood shop out of a shed on his property. He uses an RF headset so he doesn’t need to carry a phone with him and this allows him to be hands-free while working in his shop.

Infra-Red Headphones

Traditionally, these devices were built as headphones to work with TV’s, so that one member of the family could wear their TV headphones without disturbing another member of the house who is reading or gone to bed.

These wireless devices operate exactly like your TV remote. In-front of the device with a clear line of site, it works perfectly, but walk into a different room where you’re out of that line of sight and the device stops working. Just as with the Radio Frequency Headsets, these devices also require a base station or transmitter which must be in range with the headset. Additionally, the range of these devices is extremely limited to no more than 15ft at best, although manufacturers will talk about a range of nearly 40ft (maybe on a very clear, bright day with no obstacles or even furniture in the way). There’s still a market for these devices (mostly seniors who don’t want bulky headphones), but the numbers being produced are diminishing rapidly.

Battery Life

I’ve saved this to the very end, for if you have your heart set on a pair of wireless headphones or a wireless headset for online gaming, then you’re likely still going to go ahead and buy one, regardless of what I’ve discussed so far. But this – this really is the deciding factor and one not really talked about.

Wireless headphones or headsets typically use proprietary (company that manufactured your headphones) lithium-ion (LiOn) rechargeable batteries. In most cases you can not get a replacement battery from a specialty batter shop, as these must be ordered through the original manufacturer.

The typical listening time or play time of these batteries is approximately 8-12 hours, however that time can be reduced considerably if you’re listening to louder music or sounds, which require more bass and/or more power. Add in lighting which you’ll find on higher-end gaming headsets and throw in the use of a mic to communicate with your friends online and that useful like can get cut in half. Then factor in the age of the battery and look at your cell phone and how long it lasts compared to when you first purchased it. If you’re looking for a wireless unit that you only plan to use for music or gaming no more than 4-6 hours at a time (and know this number drops as your battery gets older), then wireless headsets will be fine. Or in our case, our son has broken two pairs of corded headphones as our dogs tend to lie under his computer desk and get tangled in the cord, so for him, wireless is definitely an option. Just know that within 1-2 years, you could be looking at either buying a new headset due to a dead battery, or purchasing new batteries from the manufacturer and then using YouTube to figure out how to replace the batteries (not an easy task).

One last thing – When you’re looking at headphones or headsets, most manufacturers will produce the exact same model, but one will be wireless and one will be corded. They’ll likely have different model numbers, so it’s imperative that you read the fine print to find out which one you’re getting.