Series: What Headphones Should You Buy Today?
The headphones that I used happily for the last several years have died, which means I need a new pair. I wanted to share with you, my adoring fan - hi, Mom - my process when I am looking to buy a new electronic gadget. Maybe you’ll get some insights into things to look out for, or maybe you’ll find a pair of headphones that you’d like for yourself. This definitely has nothing to do with the fact that my birthday is coming up.
Before I dive back into the available options, let’s take a look at what features are out there in the world of wireless headphones these days. Here are some of the things I’m interested in (in no particular order):
Battery Life - Obviously wireless headphones have to operate under their own power, so how long will that power last? My old pair could easily last 12 hours on a single charge, so I would hope to match that. This is a difficult statistic to really measure without being able to just use some and see for myself, because it’s hard to trust these numbers online. How much do various companies embellish these numbers?
Bluetooth 4 - You might not know that we currently live in the age of the fourth revision of the Bluetooth wireless standard, but here we are. My phone supports Bluetooth 4, so obviously I want to take advantage of that with some headphones that also support it. What does that get me over previous Blueteeth? The main buzz over Bluetooth 4 is the fact that it can operate in a Low Energy state (called LE), and thereby use much less power. This could certainly be a good thing for battery life in both my new headphones and my phone, but in reality headphones probably won’t take advantage of this feature, since they will be more interested in sending as much data as possible to achieve better audio quality. I therefore am somewhat skeptical of this being anything but a buzzword to make headphones seem cooler, like the ridiculous contrast ratios you’ll see listed for different TV and Monitor brands.
aptX - This is another buzzword, but it could actually mean something. The aptX moniker refers to an audio CODEC (the algorithm used to compress the audio - MP3 and AAC are other audio CODECs). When Bluetooth was originally conceived, it was intended primarily for making phone calls, so the built-in audio compression algorithm has never been great at doing music. AptX was apparently designed by Qualcomm (or someone owned by Qualcomm, anyway) and is designed specifically to improve audio quality sent over a bluetooth signal. The idea is that Bluetooth has a very limited bandwidth to work with, so aptX uses some fancy whizzbang programming magic to encode audio really well. I won’t presume to know anything at all about compression algorithms (it’s mind-blowingly complicated stuff). However, headphones that support aptX should offer better audio quality than those that don’t. The problem is that your transmitting device also has to support aptX, so that you can actually encode the signal into the new format. My phone is not listed on the aptX list of supported devices, but according to this forum post (featuring someone supposedly working for Motorola), it does.
The main feature I’m interested in here is that aptX should be much lower latency than not using aptX. A problem with Bluetooth is that there’s a slight delay when listening to something. It’s less than a second, generally, but that’s enough to be annoying if I’m watching a video. Theoretically aptX will eliminate that lag, so watching Netflix with some aptX headphones should be a much more enjoyable experience.
Wired option - I mentioned in my last post that some headphones have the option to connect a cord to them and bypass the Bluetooth feature altogether. This defeats the purpose of wireless headphones, of course, but it can still be handy when your battery dies or if you want to use them with a device that doesn’t have Bluetooth - for example a Nintendo DS - or if you’re on the airplane and those Bluetooth signals could crash the plane. My second wireless headphones, made by Creative, had this feature, and I did use it pretty regularly. However, no headphones I’ve had since then have done this, and I haven’t exactly missed it.
Near Field Communication - This is another buzzword which you might have heard lately. The latest iPhone made a big deal about the fact it supports NFC now (it’s how Apple Pay works), even though most Android phones had the technology since at least 2010. NFC is basically a way for two devices to communicate with each other by touching. You can send an image from one phone to another, send your credit card information to a pay terminal, or send any other small snippets of information simply by touching two NFC devices together. On a device like wireless headphones or the little camera I’ve been using for a while (it’s an excellent, albeit expensive, little camera), NFC is implemented to help you pair devices. The idea is that instead of having to go to your bluetooth settings to find your headphones, you’ll just touch your phone to them and it will take care of the rest automagically. This isn’t a make-or-break feature for me, because I have no problem with taking a minute to pair headphones with my phone. Once they are paired, every time you turn the headphones on, they reconnect. It isn’t a big deal.
Built in controls - One of my favorite thing about the Bluetooth headphones I’ve had is that I can pause what I’m listening to right on the headphones. This means if someone tries to talk to me I can easily just pause my music and pop them out of my ears without having to fumble with my phone. I definitely would want my new headphones to have buttons for play/pause, skipping tracks, changing the volume, and answering calls. For the record, this is a Bluetooth standard called “AVRCP,” or Audio/Video Remote Control Profile. Any bluetooth device with a play/pause button, from the speaker in your shower to your car uses AVRCP.
Active Noise Control - This feature is something you see very little in smaller headphones, and basically not at all in Bluetooth ones. Without getting into too much detail, active noise cancellation essentially uses magic to literally erase background noise from your ears. That sounds ridiculous, but it really is a thing. I’ve seen it implemented in larger headphones with mixed results, and it isn’t really something I’ve ever felt like I needed. Even with headphones, I usually want to be at least somewhat aware of what’s happening around me - you know, just in case.
Water Resistance - I’m not going to go swimming with my headphones on or anything, but I would like to know that if I get caught in the rain or something I don’t need to panic about them. This is often listed for headphones as being “sweat proof” which is just a more gross way of saying a little water won't destroy them.
Integrated Equalization - A lot of offerings have some sort of built-in nonsense to try to offset the fact that Bluetooth doesn’t sound that great. Some brands call it “bass management” but the point is that it pass the signal through a filter which tries to spruce it up a bit. I usually don’t care for this kind of stuff, because most of it is pretty superficial and just thrown in to make a product look cooler. I am therefore more interested in whether or not these features can be disabled.
Sheesh, once you get me going I’ll talk all day apparently. At least this time I’ve done a bit of research ahead of time, and so I actually have a list of options that are legitimate options. Basically I just did a couple Google searches for “best bluetooth headphones” or “bluetooth earbuds” and checked out the first couple results. The good thing about Google is that the results are weighted by how much traffic the results actually get, so you can put a little bit of stock in something that comes up in a google search. I usually read what these people have to say, and take their thoughts into consideration with everything else. Knowledge is power, after all. This can be a good way to, for example, see real-world figures on battery life and stuff. Anyway, let’s take a look at what I found.
Look, the first headphones that I might actually buy. As I was saying in my last post, Creative has made a lot of mistakes in their product offerings (and they also had the unfortunate pleasure of putting a lot of stock in a product that tried to compete with the iPod, and then having their major business basically made irrelevant by Windows, which is a story for another day). However, they aren’t terrible, and these headphones have some good reviews. They’re pretty simple (as you might expect for that price), with no wired option. However, the battery life seems respectable (the product page promises 12 hours, which means it meets my expectations, if I can trust the product page). They also have NFC, which is a feature I have no interest in one way or the other. They promise a “one tap bass management” feature, too. Creative historically knows their stuff when it comes to audio equalization, at least in my experience, so I bet this implementation isn’t terrible, and it can be disabled with “one tap” so that’s good to know.
Ultimately, though, I can’t get over just how awfully boring these things look. As much as I loved 1996, I don’t need headphones from then.
I was clearly not the only person who really liked those LG headphones, because that around the neck design has become pretty much a standard form factor. Take, for example, these from Sony. They don’t seem to have magnetic magic to keep the earbuds from flopping around when it’s in your backpack, which is not a trivial complaint. I would be worried they will get damaged with how much they are allowed to just hang loose. They’re also a bit pricey. Also, ugh, “H.ear.” Come on, Sony, give me a break. These also support NFC (Sony is going to start putting NFC into eyeglasses soon), and they use Sony’s proprietary LDAC protocol, which is basically their version of aptX. This means it’s useless to you unless you have a device that can transmit an LDAC signal, which in classic Sony fashion is limited to only Sony devices. The controls seem to be doubled up, with the same buttons doing volume and track skipping, which must be awkward. Finally, the battery life is a paltry 7.5 hours. All in all, they definitely don’t seem worth the price.
It’s going to be pretty underwhelming if I go through all this research just to get the updated version of the headphones I am replacing. Still, though, it seems like a no-brainer at this point. These should be pretty much the same thing as the ones I had, with a few improvements. The earbuds are now made by Harmon/Kardon, which is a good thing I guess. Also, the wires are apparently retractable now, which I suppose could make storage even easier, though I would worry that it puts unnecessary strain on those tiny wires. How does that mechanism work? Is it just another thing that could break? It would be underwhelming indeed to end up with perfectly good headphones that I can’t use because the retractable wire mechanism stopped working. Still, these are on the short list of viable options. They only support Bluetooth 3, for whatever that’s worth, but they do have an aptX logo right on the side. LG claims up to 14 hours of enjoying music time, which means they are a little better than the older ones. The name “Infinim” is the least obnoxious option so far. What does that say about this world we live in?
That’s not all, because the 900’s aren’t even LG’s final form. Where those Creative headphones look like they’re from 1996, these look like they’re from 1996’s crazy dystopian future, which I’m totally okay with. Are there actually any differences between these and the 900’s, though, other than the design and the higher price tag?
Why do companies do this? If you search for “LG Tone” on Amazon, you get (no joke) 28,359 results. Okay, I’m not going to be diving down through all that, but just on the first page you have the LG HBS-750 (Tone Pro), HBS-900 (Tone Infinim), HBS-810 (Tone Ultra), HBS-910 (Tone Infinim), HBS-760 (Tone Pro), HBS-850 (Tone Active Premium), HBS-800 (Tone Ultra), and the HBS-730 (Tone+). We know they also had the HBS-700 (Tone), because those are the ones I own already. All of these things are basically the exact same product. Why do they need at least nine different models of wireless bluetooth headphones, all on the market at the same time? Different price points I can understand, but nine different options is absurd.
It’s just like the Philips Sonicare toothbrush. Now, I have one and it’s great, but it was purchased for me so I never had the pleasure of trying to pick it out. I have since seen the Sonicare shelf in stores, and it’s a joke. They have at least six different versions of a little white tube with a button on it and a vibrating brush sticking out the top. Why? Look at vacuum sweepers, cameras, laptops, TV’s, even lawnmowers. At the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney here, there are simply too many options these days. Maybe the reason people are so enamored with Apple is not because any of the features or style, but because (until recently) there’s only one iPhone to buy. There’s no legitimate reason to make two different basically identical products, is there?
Anyway, this little adventure is getting out of hand. Where were we?
According to what I could dig up on the internet (“by Googling HBS 910 vs 900”), the 910 features better microphones than the 900, and improved speakers. I guess they sound better and work better in phone calls, which are admittedly legitimate things related to bluetooth headphones. The 910’s support Bluetooth 4, where the 900’s are only Bluetooth 3. According to LG the 910’s will only give you 10.5 hours of music time, which definitely goes against the low power promises of Bluetooth 4. Also, I am not sure where the buttons are on the 910’s, which makes me concerned they have some sort of awkward touch sensor which you just know isn’t going to work as well. I’m just not sure these are worth it.
Samsung also has an option for this. From the pictures, it looks like it’s some sort of hat that transforms into a paperclip? I think they went for form over function on this one. It has a clunky mechanism that goes around your neck and two big clunky ear pieces? Why does it need both? The beauty of the LG design is that when you’re wearing it you just have normal, old earbuds in your ears. With this thing you have to have those big leaches making you look like a total dweeb all the time. If I was going to look like a dweeb anyway, I could just play my podcast about nerd stuff out loud and save $50.
We’re now straying back into the world of companies I’ve never heard of. These guys seem legit, though, because they have some high praise around the Google results. These are noteworthy for a few reasons, but primarily to show something that happens all the time when you go shopping for gadgets.
On paper, these headphones have it all. They have Bluetooth 4 and aptX, twelve hour music time, and all the controls you could want. They even have a feature for wired use when the battery runs out, and they’re the only Bluetooth headphones I could find that have active noise cancellation. They’re that tried and true form factor and the reviews from various tech blogs speak very highly of them. However, the reviews on Amazon do not. There’s never an easy solution, it seems. A lot of the Amazon users point to poor Bluetooth connectivity, which could certainly be a problem. If they won’t work while my phone is in my pocket and they’re all the way up on my head, what good are they? It basically comes down to whether you want to take the risk for noise cancellation and wired functionality, because that’s all these have over the LG ones. I’m not sure whether those features are worth it or not.
These also have some good reviews out there in the Interworld, but I’m not sure why. With only eight hours of battery life and the same dangling earbuds as the Sony options, I don’t see any reason to pick these over the LG ones. Also, it seems like only the white ones are really available, and I do not have the lifestyle to support any kind of white accessories. I don’t think these are for me.
Well, somebody’s a little sure of themselves, aren’t they? “Superior Sounding” is quite a claim, but of course it’s pretty meaningless. They could be Superior to a tin can, but what good does that do for me? The reviews I've found on Google seem to back them up, though, so they supposedly do sound pretty great. With aptX and the latest Bluetooth whatevers, they have you covered on the technology front, but there’s obviously no corded option or NFC (because where would those things go?). Just click that link and take a look at them, because these things definitely win the award for sleekest headphones. How much smaller could they even get? They only promise a paltry 6 hours of use, which is pretty pathetic, but considering how tiny they are I’m surprised they even fit that much battery in there. The whole “all aluminum construction” thing is certainly a trendy gimmick, but considering the plastic shell was ultimately the downfall of my old headphones, I’m not going to complain about the added durability. The question with these is whether the novelty of having such tiny little headphones is worth the cost in both price and inferior battery life.
Hopefully that's enough selection for you. This is plenty for me, and I think most of these options would work pretty well as my new headphones. I should point out, of course, that I haven’t used or experienced any of these things myself. I’m entirely basing my opinions on what I’ve read online, so I’m not trying to review products I haven’t used. I’m just trying to discuss what I would spend my hard earned money on if I were going to buy one of these (or, you know, if my birthday was coming up or something). I have to assume, of course, that the audio quality on all these is at least similar enough that it doesn’t make that much difference. The reviews suggest that they all sound fine, and with Bluetooth we can’t expect them to really have breathtaking quality anyway. When picking out something like this, you have to weigh all the options and features, and the weird thing is that you kind of have to roll the dice a little bit on the feature you’re actually going to use them for - listening to stuff.
Ultimately, it’s hard to beat those LG Tones. They have a proven record and a good array of features for a great price. I’m still not sure if the 910 option is really that much better than the 900 one, and the offerings from Phiaton and NuForce certainly complicate things further. I’m not sure Phiaton is completely trustworthy, though, judging from the experiences of other Amazon customers, and I just don’t think the trade-offs of those tiny NuForce buds are worth it, either. Therefore, it’s down to the two LG models, and I don’t think you could go wrong with either. I don’t think the 910’s offer much that would justify the price and the lower battery life. Therefore, I think my pick for my next pair of wireless bluetooth headphones is the LG Tone Infinim HBS-900 Wireless Stereo Headset.
So yeah, I’m just getting the newer version of what I had before. At least I’ll know I did my research, though.