Wires suck. Fact -- they get lost, broken, or filched by unscrupulous flatmates. Better to do away with them altogether, which is why we've corralled together a collection of the best Bluetooth headphones money can buy, to see if any of them have the chops to replace good old-fashioned copper. The results, after a couple months of testing, are surprisingly positive.
We whittled the field down to six contenders to test: the Philippe Starck-designed Parrot Zik; Logitech's Ultimate Ears 9000; the Sennheiser MM-550X; Sony MDR-1RBT; the catchily-named Harman/Kardon Premium Wireless Over-Ear Headphones (PWOEH), and the hoodie-and-bling-wearing Beats Wireless.
All the headphones share some similar features: they all use Bluetooth (sadly not 4.0 at the time of writing) to connect (though you can use a wire when the battery dies); they've got controls to command your music, and they all spit sound out of two little speakers, which are connected together in some fashion, and perch dubiously over your ears. Headphones, in other words. Oh, and they all cost north of £200, with the most expensive pair (the Sony I-need-a-real-names) coming in at a stonking £399 (or 133 pints of beer, depending on your unit of measurement). Yes, you can get cheaper pairs, but we're searching for outright quality this time around.
We're looking for a couple of different things from the heaphones. Obviously, sound quality is going to be a big thing in a heaphone test (duh), but there are other factors that make a good set of cans -- battery life, fit and comfort, decent controls, and an effective means of blocking out the real world (either through a good fit, or active noise cancelling).
To test all of the above, we used all the headphones on a day-to-day basis for a couple of weeks, with a bunch of different devices (both Apt-X enabled and not), all with high-quality music streams. The noise cancelling was subjected to planes, trains and vacuum cleaners; as an added bonus, we also repeated the listening tests, but this time using one of our music-loving colleagues from TechRadar, who underwent the tests 'blind', to eliminate any brand bias. Finally, we conducted continuous listening tests to gauge battery life.
What can we say? Well, they're terrible from beginning to end. There are virtually no redeeming qualities: they don't sound great, they're big, unwieldy and uncomfortable, and the amount of noise they generate when you're moving around is unreal. Oh, and they're also annoyingly leaky, and call quality when you're using them as a headset is non-existent. They don't even look nice, and they're made from cheap-feeling plastic and a nasty metal head brace. They're like Marmite. Only everyone hates them. £200 from Amazon
A lot is said about Beats, quite a lot of it bad. However, having managed to avoid Beats headphones thus far in our careers, we went into listening to the Beats Wireless with an open mind.
Our minds, and ears, were instantly shut when the tunes fired up. They're muddy, with poor definition across the whole sound spectrum, with muffled, and they don't even have particularly deep bass. They made Dr. Dre sound like he was rapping while being waterboarded. Avoid. £250 from Currys
Sennheiser is renowned in the audio world for producing decent, sensible gear. In terms of design, its top-of-the-range Bluetooth cans fare pretty well -- light, excellent control layout, a removable battery, and actually comfortable. Moreover, they're the least 'leaky' (and therefore most sociable) of any of the pairs, and fare superbly as a phone-call headset.
In fact, everything's great until you come to actually listen to them. The sound quality is OK -- not a scratch on the top three, but much better than the likes of the Beats. Unfortunately, it all goes to pot when you turn on the active noise cancelling. For some reason it sounds like you're listening to your music down a tin can phone, which utterly ruins your enjoyment. For what it's worth, the noise cancelling is OK, but we just don't know why you'd buy these over some of Sennheiser's smaller 'phones. £265 from Amazon
The Logitech UE9000s rank in third, not because they're rubbish, but frankly, 'cos we can't see any reason why you'd buy these over the Parrot Zik. They're a quality pair of well-built headphones that offer excellent noise isolation and active noise cancellation, and feel like they'd last the longest if you were a bit rough with your headphones.
The soundscape is the best of the bunch, with good, punchy bass and decent definition in the high notes. Everything played through these cans sounds good, from classical music to dubstep, which makes them excellent all-rounders. In fact, in terms of overall sound quality, we reckon these might just take first place.
The controls aren't up to the best from the Parrots or Sonys, though, having only volume up, down and a pause-play button. Like a lot of on-cable remotes, you can double and triple-click the play button to skip track forwards and backwards, but it's clumsy when there's no reason you couldn't have dedicated skip track buttons. There's also a talk-through button that allows you to hear the world around you, but if you've ever tried to talk to someone with your headphones still on, you look like a right jerk; it's just rude, so you'll end up taking them off anyway.
Weight-wise they're pretty heavy -- about the same as the Parrots -- but come with a squidgy gel pad in the top band. They're not uncomfortable to wear, but they are noticeably heavy, making wearing them all day something you certainly need to get used to.
Battery-life-wise, we're looking at roughly double the longevity of the Parrots, or about 10-15 hours of continuous listening. That's mainly because you can't turn off the noise cancelling, which is a shame, because in the comfort of your own home you really don't need it. £300 from Amazon
The most expensive of the bunch, the Sony MDR-1RBTs certainly needs some monster performance. Unfortunately, they're lacking in areas that may or may not have a bearing on whether you buy these suckers. The big one is that they lack noise cancelling. Now, that might not be an issue (it's not for half our testing team), but when you're looking at the price it has to be a knock.
Having said that, the Sony's are still superb. They're light and all-day comfortable. The controls, while not gesture-based, are at least responsive, and the battery life is phenomenal. We're talking 50-60 hours of use, primarily hooked up to a computer over Bluetooth, which is probably more demanding than your average use connected to a smartphone. These are the kind of Bluetooth headphones you can charge once a week and do all your listening without fear of them running flat on you, and that's impressive.
They also sound great, with accurate highs, good, punchy bass, which combine to make vocals sparkle and instruments purr. You'll need a good source to make the most of them, but if you're listening to Spotify's 320Kbps streams or similar, they sound wonderful from guitar string to pounding bass. Normally £399, but currently £267 on Amazon
When we first tested the Parrot Zik back in July, they had to be wrestled from our cold unyielding hands at the end of the test period, and for good reason. They combine superb passive noise isolation perfectly with really great active noise cancellation, which feels like a veil of silence pulled over your ears. They were taken on both legs of a trans-Atlantic flight, and combined with a healthy dose of plastic-bottle-Chardonnay, actually let you get some sleep in economy.
When you're awake, they're equally stellar. Sound quality is superb, with an expansive and customisable soundscape making it more like a room-listening experience than the kind you're used to from traditional headphones.
More than anything, though, it's the extras that really make the Zik. Rapid, responsive and intuitive gesture controls are a genuine pleasure to use; swipe up or down for volume, left or right for track skip, and tap to pause or play. They even pause or play when you take them off your head. Simply brilliant. The only thing missing is a way to voice dial. They also look good (in an understated way, not the oh-look-how-much-money-I've-got-to-spend-on-blingy-Beats-crap-because-I-care-about-my-music), and unlike the Logitechs, don't bulge out a million miles from the side of your head.
Finally, there's also a handy cross-platform app that allows you to control the noise cancelling, equaliser, room profile, and check the battery life, which saves time with the Konami-code of button presses it takes to achieve the same on some of the others.
They are heavy though, and it makes wearing them all day something you certainly have to get used to. The battery life is also pretty short with everything going, however (like all the others), you can use them with a cable should that battery run dry. The Zik also have a removable battery, (unlike most of the others) which means you could, in theory, have a backup battery ready to slot straight into them. £253 from Amazon
Ultimately, you can lump the headphones on test here into two categories: those we'd consider spending our own money on, and those we'd like to see on a special edition of Will It Blend? The Parrot Zik, Sony 1RBTs and Logitech UEs are all superb pairs of headphones; we think the Parrots are the best all-rounders, but any sane human would be ecstatically happy with any of them.
The Harman Kardons, Beats and Sennheisers are a different kettle of fish. They murder both your ears and your fashion sense, and frankly don't come close to justifying the three-figure sticker price.
Sam Gibbs co-authored this review. Thanks go to Hugh Langley from Techradar, and our intern Scott, for helping test the headphones.