With so many new logo’s appearing on the boxes for wireless bluetooth headphones in 2017, it’s time to take a step back & figure out exactly what all those logos mean and more importantly, what effect they have on the sound quality. Some very subtle logos will actually change whether you can even use a bluetooth headphone enjoyably. So if you are wondering how to get the best wireless sound from your bluetooth wireless headphones please read on!
Ok, we all understand the basic Bluetooth logo – basically this means you can connect your headphones without a wire so long as the audio player you are using is equipped with bluetooth. Just about every phone made in the last 2 years is bluetooth enabled (everything from Apple / Samsung / HTC / Sony) so you are probably covered there. Notable omissions would be older Apple iPod classics which still require a wired connection.
There are lots of classes of bluetooth, but to be honest they do not matter much with regard to headphone use, anything from Bluetooth 3.0 upwards will be fine & data transmit rates will be high enough for decent quality sound. The majority of newer audio players / phones are bluetooth 4.0 / bluetooth 4.1 / bluetooth 4.2 and there is little difference for audio between these ratings. All phones will be class 2 devices which means a theoretical maximum transmit range of 10 meters, which is also pretty fine so long as you are keeping your phone or audio player in your pocket.
Standard bluetooth (which we will refer to as SBC from here on in) has a data transmission rate of a maximum 328kbps and encodes the data by effectively removing the quieter sounds from the stream that your ear will not hear as it has been overlaid with a louder sound. This is called psychoacoustic masking & works great on telephone conversations, and is pretty good with music. The issues you will hear on you headphones with SBC is that the audio is a little more compressed & has a smaller dynamic range. The biggest amount of missing data is at the highest & lowest ends of the frequency range, and is normally noticed most at the high end of the range.
The latency (delay between the sending device playing a sound / then you hearing it on your headphones) of SBC bluetooth is upwards of 250ms, which is completely fine for standard audio only listening, but terrible for use with a TV or video player. The lip sync is hugely off & will give a pretty poor experience.
A slightly muddy sounding headphone with reduced bass definition & reduced treble is the common complaint of a lot of users of bluetooth headphones from previous generations (think pre 2015 when most bluetooth headphones were definitely considered to be a poor imitation of the equivalent wired model).
Since 2016 there have been a raft of higher quality bluetooth headphones released that have been designed carefully around these effects, with the drivers & equalization specifically tuned to minimize the inherent reduced dynamic range. The sound quality on these newer models is significantly better than ever before, even when just using standard SBC bluetooth.
Now, all headphones can connect over SBC bluetooth – this is the default connection method & will be used whenever there is no better connection supported by both ends (i.e. the audio player/phone and the headphones).
However this is where it gets interesting & relevant to getting the best wireless sound from your bluetooth paired audio player – on top of the basic bluetooth class, most phone manufacturers add a second layer of encoding which can drastically effect the sound you hear.
aptX is the big format to improve bluetooth for the more fussy audio listener, and is available on wide range of headphones & media players today including most high end phones from Samsung / HTC (but not Apple iPhone!).
This utilises a few slight improvements, such as slightly higher transmission rate of upto 384kbps, and a different encoding method. Rather than the psychoacoustic masking method of SBC bluetooth, aptX encodes the data using a time domain ADPCM principle. I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of this change, but effectively the sound is slightly less compressed & gives a wider dynamic range.
Most noticeably when listening there is more detail in the low end of the frequency range (the bass) and much more noticeable details in the high frequency range. This makes the sound more transparent & open, and is touted as being ‘CD quality sound’. I wouldn’t go that far, but we have done a back to back comparison with the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless (one of our favorite of the current bluetooth wireless headphones) and we can definitely notice a subtle difference between the same song being played on an iPhone 7 (standard SBC bluetooth) and a Samsung Galaxy S7 (aptX enabled bluetooth).
The tune sounds pretty darned good on the iPhone, and if we had not heard the difference on a aptX enabled audio player we would have been impressed & pretty happy with it. But the bass has less ‘thud’ and more detail with aptX, and cymbals & high frequency elements of the vocal track just sound clearer & fizz more with the aptX enabled.
You may not notice this on cheap earbuds as supplied with many audio players, but as soon as you upgrade to some nicer ear covers you will start to see!
Latency of aptX enabled devices is a bit better than SBC bluetooth, but still not great for using with a TV or video player. Most devices can manage around 150ms of delay which is still pretty noticeable.
aptX low latency is another class you may come across – this has the same audio characteristics of normal aptX, but with a drastic reduction in latency to below 40ms. This is a non-issue for audio only, but if you are wanting to use your headphones for watching TV or video, then it is a big deal & effectively cuts out all the lip sync issues of other bluetooth transmission formats.
We haven’t seen any aptX low latency audio players out there yet, but there are a couple of less familiar headphones that do support this feature. If you were to use an aptX low latency headphone on an aptX enabled device, it would operate in standard aptX mode. To use the low latency function, both ends of the connection must be enabled with aptX low latency.
There are a couple of brand new modes which have been made available, but we have not seen or tested any products with these features yet – namely aptX HD & Sony LDAC.
aptX HD increases the sampling rate & transmission rate by roughly double that of standard aptX, which moves bluetooth audio into the edges of high resolution. Real high resolution audio lovers will note that this is really only a half way step, as the sampling rate should really be even higher than aptX HD will support.
As of early 2017 we have not seen any audio player or headphones that are available to buy which will support aptX HD.
Sony LDAC is available on the newly released high end Walkman audio players, this is a true high definition / high resolution audio format & should be even better than aptX HD. Unfortunately this is only available on a small number of Sony products & appears unlikely to become a widespread adopted feature on other brands.
No apple phones support the higher quality formats at this date (early 2017 – so iPhone 5 / 6 / 7 only connect over standard SBC).
So – I hope you have found this feature roundup useful, in conclusion I would say that you will get acceptable audio over bluetooth with SBC, but if you are upgrading to better quality headphones then you would definitely appreciate the step up in quality with aptX which is very widely available on range of brands.
How to get the best wireless sound for Apple iPhone users
You only get the SBC bluetooth connectivity (albeit at the maximum rate). None of the additional formats apply to you, all wireless bluetooth headphones are going to use the standard connection.
How to get the best wireless sound for Android phone users
Many manufacturers (including the big guys Samsung & HTC) have been including aptX support for quite a while, you will see a small step up in sound quality by making sure your wireless headphones support aptX. Our current favorites are the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless and the Sony MDR-1000X Wireless headphones)
How to get the best wireless sound for Sony phone users
Sony have recently started to release their newest phones with both aptX & also LDAC support. If you are prepared to use the larger file sizes like FLAC, then you would definitely be in a good place with some of the new Sony wireless headphones for best sound quality. (check out our review of Sony MDR-1000X aptX LDAC headphones here).
How to get the best wireless sound for Audio / Video users
If you are wanting to use your wireless bluetooth headphones to ‘cover all the bases’ and pair them up with your TV for video or gaming, you really need to check out a pair of headphones that support the ‘aptX low latency’ protocol. Everything else will have a horrible lag & get right on your nerves as the lip sync will be terrible. There aren’t a huge number of options out there right now in the high end headphone ranges, but we will review some as soon as they become available. The majority of the decent wireless headphones intended for AV use are wifi enabled rather than bluetooth, which solves the lag issues, but also makes them incompatible with most phones / audio players. I’m sure this will change over time, but for now, no good news.
We will keep this post updated as new formats emerge.
Thanks for reading, if you are interested in finding out more about the latest developments with 2nd generation active noise cancellation for headphones, please check out our other guide.