Bluetooth headphones and earbuds give you wireless freedom. With these devices, you no longer have to be tied to your smartphone or laptop to enjoy music. You can even use them outdoors to drown out any unnecessary sound that would otherwise detract from the listening experience.
However, one key disadvantage of wireless headphones and earphones is that they simply do not sound as good as wired headphones. And while advancements in technology have helped close the gap, the difference is still audible.
But what you may not know is that there are several factors that degrade the performance of Bluetooth headphones. In fact, the wireless mode of transmission is not the biggest reason for the inferior sound quality of these devices. In this article, we’ll learn more about these factors, and we will also check out alternatives to get the best sound quality.
Why Do Wired Headphones Sound Better Than Bluetooth?
Like all wireless devices, there is a degradation in the performance of Bluetooth headphones and earbuds due to the wireless mode of transmission. Since Bluetooth doesn’t have the largest bandwidth, it is only capable of giving out limited information at any given time. This results in lower sound quality and additional latency.
The latency of wireless headphones and earbuds depends on which model you are using. They can either be subtle or fairly obvious. But the latency is most noticeable when playing video games or watching movies.
Advancements in the latest version of Bluetooth, along with more advanced codecs, have tried to fix this problem. However, these issues still persist.
But with that said, we would like to emphasize that the degradation due to wireless transmission is not the main culprit for the inferior sound quality of wireless audio devices. In fact, there are great-sounding wireless headphones and earbuds in the market, such as the Apple AirPods Max and Sony WH1000XM4. The real culprit is the design of these wireless devices.
As mentioned earlier, the advancements in Bluetooth codecs have largely helped increase the performance of Bluetooth devices. But what are Bluetooth codecs? Without going into too much detail, a codec is a compression algorithm that determines how wireless audio is passed from the source to the listening device.
The most common codecs used today are SBC, APTX, APTX HD, and LDAC. Despite having different algorithms, all of these codecs have the same function. They aim to minimize the data being transmitted without sacrificing quality. This means that if your source device and your wireless headphones support these codecs, you will be minimizing latency and maximizing sound quality.
Limited Amplification Power
Bluetooth headphones and earbuds are powered by batteries. This means that each component must be as efficient as possible in order for the device to last long enough. And unfortunately, one area that is impacted is the amplification power of the built-in headphone amplifier.
The limited amplification power of Bluetooth headphones and earbuds can be immediately noticed. Most units that we have reviewed needed to be cranked up to produce satisfying sound quality. Additionally, since the amplification power is limited, the drivers that are used are also held back.
Without proper amplification, you cannot drop in high-quality drivers that are seen in high-end wired headphones such as the Sennheiser HD800S. It isn’t impossible to implement high-quality amps inside wireless headphones.
In fact, we have seen it before with the Hifiman Ananda BT. However, it is clearly reflected in its price that this process does not come cheap.
Wired audiophile headphones and IEMs have different kinds of driver designs. The most common type of headphone driver is the dynamic driver. However, newer audiophile headphones are utilizing other driver types such as planar magnetic and electrostatic drivers.
IEMs have also seen innovations in terms of their driver design. Lots of IEM manufacturers are able to combine multiple drivers to create an even more detailed sound. Most manufacturers use dynamic drivers, balanced armature drivers, or a combination of both. If you want to learn more, check out our dedicated article about BA and DD drivers.
As for Bluetooth headphones and earbuds, given the limited amplification and the need for efficiency, complex driver designs and inefficient drivers are a no-go. Additionally, general consumers are looking for other features in wireless products. And therefore, manufacturers tend to focus less on the quality of drivers and instead focus on other aspects of the device.
That doesn’t mean that putting high-quality drivers inside wireless headphones and earbuds isn’t possible. As we have seen earlier, the Hifiman Ananda uses Bluetooth technology but is able to perform similarly to its wired counterpart.
However, equipping the Ananda wireless with a high-quality internal amplifier and other components has made its asking price very high. And therefore, most manufacturers would rather go with the bare minimum to keep the cost of production low.
And just like Bluetooth headphones, there are also True Wireless Earbuds that are starting to incorporate good quality drivers.
The Lypertek Tevi we reviewed here is one example. But again, most mainstream brands are not willing to do this.
Apart from the subpar driver used on most mainstream wireless audio products, the implementation of these drivers is another cause of the poor overall sound. Most Bluetooth headphones and earbuds are tuned to appeal to listeners of mainstream music such as pop and electronic. This inherently makes them bass-heavy, or it makes the lower frequencies more pronounced.
This bass-heavy tuning alone is the issue. The issue is that the drivers used are not capable of properly reproducing the upper mid and high frequencies. This results in a muddy sound that drowns out vocals and other elements in the mid and high frequencies.
Consumer Audio Needs
General consumers aren’t looking for the best driver quality or the best internal headphone amp in Bluetooth headphones and earbuds. What they are looking for are smart features and other features that can make the experience more enjoyable. These include fast device connection, Active Noise Canceling Technology (ANC), Ambient Mode, Spatial Audio (found in Apple’s products), and many more.
With all of the advanced tech that’s packed in these wireless devices, there is barely any room left for advanced driver designs. And additionally, manufacturers will want to spend more on improving the device’s aesthetics to appeal to more consumers.
RF vs. Bluetooth Signal
Before we go into the alternatives to Bluetooth audio, we want to emphasize that not all forms of wireless transmission are bad. After all, modern gaming equipment and professional equipment for live music productions all use wireless devices. Of course, these aren’t using Bluetooth and are instead utilizing RF signals.
RF signals have a significantly larger bandwidth as compared to Bluetooth signals. As a result, they are more capable of producing more data and less latency.
Of course, these devices still have latency. However, the latency is so low and is virtually unnoticeable.
However, due to several reasons, this type of wireless technology cannot be incorporated with consumer products. The cost of manufacturing these devices is high. And with the current tech, these cannot be offered in small packages for regular consumers.
Bluetooth Adapters and Bluetooth Receivers
If you want the performance of wired headphones but the convenience of wireless audio, then there are some ways to achieve this. The two most common ways include using Bluetooth adapters and Bluetooth Receivers.
Bluetooth adapters connect to your headphones or IEMs and act as a replacement for your cables. You will have to take note that this will only work if your headphones or IEMs feature a detachable cable. Also, depending on the model of your headphones, you may potentially need different Bluetooth adapters since not all headphones have the same connection type.
For IEMs, these devices virtually turn your wired IEMs into TWS earbuds. The TRN BT20S Pro Bluetooth adapter that we checked out even had a charging case as well as different adapters to accommodate different IEM connection types.
These wireless Bluetooth adapters do not add too much bulk to your IEMs. They are pretty light and sit comfortably behind your ears.
However, take note that Bluetooth adapters will have some compromises when it comes to their features. Unlike TWS earbuds, Bluetooth adapters cannot give your IEMs noise-canceling features. It also will not give you a smartphone app for tweaking different aspects of your IEM. The same goes for Bluetooth headphones that are using wireless adapters.
Another alternative is Bluetooth receivers. These are small devices that connect to your wired headphones and earphones but wirelessly connect to a different source, such as a laptop or a smartphone. These devices aren’t as convenient as Bluetooth adapters since they still utilize a wireless connection. Some examples include the Fiio BTR5 and the Radsone ES100.
However, the benefit here is that they can provide more power to your headphones and IEMs and can provide better sound quality. Also, they do not need to conserve space so they can stuff as much tech as possible.
It is indisputable that the performance of wireless headphones is inferior to wired headphones when it comes to sound quality. However, the notion that the use of Bluetooth technology is the culprit isn’t exactly correct. There are lots of factors that lead to inferior sounds, such as the need for efficiency and the need to put in consumer-related features in such a tight space.
However, this should not discourage you from purchasing wireless headphones. As we have mentioned earlier, there are lots of great-performing wireless headphones and earbuds.
And if you will be using these outdoors and need features such as ANC, then Bluetooth headphones and earphones will be way more convenient than their wired counterparts. And of course, if you wish to come close to the performance of wired earphones but want a wireless set, you can always purchase adapters for your wired cans and IEMs.