Bluetooth headphones have a whole bunch of advantages --mostly that there's no headphone cable to tie itself in Gordian-beating knots -- but one thing they sure ain't is cheap. That's why we've corralled together the best budget Bluetooth headphones going, to see if any of them have the chops to replace lower-priced cabled cans.
We assembled the best cheap Bluetooth headphones in different categories, from on-ear to over-ear and even itsy-bitsy earbuds to test. The price also ranges pretty dramatically, from £130 all the way down to £40. The feature set varies along with the price -- some of the higher-end sets have stuff like compatability for the apt-X high-quality audio codec, or NFC for pairing; the cheaper pairs struggle to include an in-line remote.
One thing you won't find on any of these cut-price Bluetooth headphones, however, is noise cancelling. For that, you'll be shelling out a couple hundred quid (take a look at our round-up of the best Bluetooth headphones money can buy if that's your cup of very expensive tea).
To test each pair, we did what we always do with review units -- used all of them as our primary sets of headphones, both out in the real world, and when we're studiously trying to
ignore each other work at Giz HQ. We also conducted blind listening tests, to eliminate any brand bias.
We have six pairs on test: two on-ears, the £130 Sennheiser MM 400-Xs and £70 Creative WP-450s; two over-ear sets, the £70 Sony DR-BTN200s and £60 Philips SHB7000; and finally, two diddy little sets of Bluetooth in-ear buds, which apparently have transitioned from a novely into something grown-ups can wear along with their long trousers and neckties. For that, we've gone with the £45 Plantronic Backbeat GOs, and the £80 Novero Rockaways.
Now that we have the line-up, it's battle time.
The Philips on-ear cans optimistically claim to be "Noise Isolation Bluetooth Headphones for Wireless Music with Call Control"; to be brutally honest, they barely fulfil any of those roles. Although they look pretty neat -- standard matte black plastic with red accents -- and they're decently comfortable, the sound quality isn't exactly top of the class. Mostly, that's owing to the complete lack of noise isolation -- although the Amazon listing might lay claim to "Nosie Isolation pads", they genuinely block out less ambient noise than any other pair of headphones we've ever tried: Bluetooth, Fischer Price, or otherwise.
Even in a completely silent environment, the sound quality is far from stellar: bass is virtually non-existent, while the highs and mids suffer from the kind of soul-destroying muddy and tinny distortion normally reserved for Apple headphones. Yes, the controls, fit and build are all decent -- not to mention the pleasingly low price -- but they're far from good. [£60 from Amazon]
The Rockaways are surprisingly OK for in-ear Bluetooth buds. Although the headphone that sticks in your ear is a little big -- a necessary design feature, given that those buds house batteries and an entire Bluetooth system on a chip -- the incredibly comfortable foam earbuds that ship with the Rockaways mean that fit and noise isolation are top-notch. Sound quality ain't bad either -- accurate and surprisingly loud, although the bass isn't exactly head-thumping.
Sadly, the battery life is a big problem -- somewhere between two and a half to three hours, depending on the volume you have them at. That's not even close enough to a long plane or train journey, or even getting to work and back. This is a problem I discovered just near Milton Keynes, on the London-Edinburgh train. 8 hours half-crouched next to a power outlet is not why I bought Bluetooth headphones. [£80 from Amazon]
Thankfully, battery life isn't a problem with Sony's brand-new cheap Bluetooth headphones, the DR-BTN200. (Side note: Sony really, really need to sort out the naming system on their headphone line, as to less resemble the number that you punch into the machine at Argos.) The DR-BTN200s are simple but feature-packed over-ear Bluetooth headphones, which like their more expensive cousins, have stonking battery life.
Sound quality is good, if not exceptional. Highs and mids are a little muddy, though the bass is pretty decent. The build quality is a little flimsy -- cheap plastics and faux leather -- and the insubstantial quality seems to have hurt the noise isolation, which isn't great. As a result, unless you're listening to 'tunes in near-silence, you'll have all the noise of the outside world dripping in, which ruins the listening experience just a wee bit.
The controls and feature set are the real strong point here, though. There are separate controls for play/pause/skip and volume, which are easy to find -- on the right-hand earcup -- and intuitive to use. The power button is oh-so-simple, and the voice dialler/call accept button is well out of the way, so you won't accidentally activate Siri while you're scrabbling around to skip track (something I've done more times than I'd like to mention). NFC also raises its head here -- while it's a little pointless if you always use your headphones with the same device, it makes the pairing process stupidly easy if you're always switching between different devices.
Finally, there's the battery life. Sony quote 40 hours of listening time, and if anything, that's an understatement. Using the headphones on my commute and in the office -- that's a good 10 hours of listening time per day -- I got five days of use out of the damn things, which puts the battery life in a different league to any of the other headphones on test. [£70 from Amazon]
The Backbeats are hands-down the best Bluetooth headphones for two things: running, and value for money. In terms of weight, size and fit, they're pretty much the same as the Novero Rockaways: slightly bigger than your average wired earbuds, but still small enough to jam into your ear without too much hassle.
However, Plantronics have added a little rubber insert that sits inside your ear, holding the Backbeats firmly in place. Sure, it takes an extra three seconds to put the buds on each time, but as any runner knows, trying to get headphones to stay in is normally a bit of a mission. With the Rockaways, a liberal application of duct-tape was needed to keep them during a run; the Plantronics are a much more secure fit.
Additionally, if you're not into the whole exercise-and-getting-sweaty thing (can hardly blame you), the rubber inserts come off easily, while still allowing you to use the different silicon earbuds that come with the Backbeats (small, medium and large earbuds come with the headphones, just like pretty much any in-ear buds these days).
The Backbeat GO's second party trick is the price. At just £45, these are super-duper cheap for Bluetooth headphones. Mercifully, they haven't suffered as a result -- audio quality is on par with most decent £30 wired headphones (think Sennheiser CX-300 or RHA MA350s), and the build is top-notch, with all the plastic and rubber panels fitting together beautifully.
Battery life is still a concern -- although they'll last around four hours, a little longer than the Rockaways, it's still not quite sufficient for long trips. Still, that's more a limitation of trying to fit a battery into your ear, rather than a fault of Plantronics. Ultimately, if you're after cheap Bluetooth headphones -- or really, any in-ear Bluetooth headphones -- these are the ones to go for.
As a £130 pair of headphones in a field mostly costing half that, the Sennheisers have to truly deliver to make them worth a second glance. But hell, they do just that. Light, comfortable, with great controls, high-quality fit and finish, and a sound quality miles better than the rest, the price is the only real sticking point.
The difference in quality between the MM 400-Xs and every other pair of headphones on test is patently clear. When folded up, the Sennheisers are remarkably tiny -- much smaller than the on-ear headphones, and so tiny that they got lost inside my winter coat when I hung it up for those three days we called summer. Moreover, they're flat, so you can slip them into a bag without crushing them into expensive neodynium dust.
The sound is equally excellent. They give good rounded reproduction, with decent definition in the highs coupled with surprisingly good bass given the size of the things. They also support apt-X, which helps get the most out of the high-quality drivers.
There are only a few minor niggles. Battery life is more of a brutally-maimed Duracell bunny, rather than bouncing all day long -- they often died about 6 hours into a day's work. However, the battery is removable (and you can charge the battery while it's removed with just a microUSB cable), so for an extra £15, you can sort that particular problem. Far more annoying is the headphone jack -- it has one, so you can listen to music without needing Bluetooth if you want -- but it's 2.5mm, requiring a special cable to connect.
If money's no object, the Sennheisers are definitely the headphones to go for. Comfy, unobtrusive and with one hell of a sound kick for something so small, they're one pair we really don't want to give back.
First place is reserved for our other on-ear headphones. Although the sound quality and build isn't quite on par with the Sennheisers, they cost nearly half as much, without any major sacrifices.
Let's start with the bad: the build quality, while solid enough, isn't exactly premium. There's a metal band running through the headphones, which at least reassures you they aren't gonna fall apart in your hands; however, the finish is a cheap-feeling matte black plastic. At least it doesn't pick up fingerprints, I suppose. The headphones do fold up small, although not rivalling the Sennheisers for size. Worse, the earphones don't fold flat, so you'll need to actually think about where you chuck them in your bag.
The sound quality is excellent, however. For such a tiny pair of headphones, they isolate well, which helps with the sound quality. The design of the earcups also help them sit comfortably on your noggin, without getting too sweaty in hot weather (not that there's any danger of that in England, of course!).
If you're a whomp-whomp-whomp bass fan, you're in luck: the Creatives boast the loudest (if not the cleanest) bass of the whole lot; not quite grunge-illegal-rave heavy, but enough to get your eardrums tingling. Mids and highs are both good, if possibly lacking in a little clarity. All things considered, though, they're head and shoulders above everything but the Sennheisers on sound quality.
Controls and battery life are both pretty good -- all contained on the right-hand side of the headphones, and tactile enough that you'll know when you've hit a button. Battery life is 8-10 hours, which puts them second to only the Sonys -- I was just getting a full day of listening out of the things.
We'll make this simple. Want the cheapest Bluetooth headphones you'll be able to stand on a daily basis? Get the Plantronics. Want the best audio quality? You'll have the Sennheisers, sir. Battery life, well, it's the Sony thingies, but the crown for all-round value for money definitely goes to the Creative WP-450s.
Truth be told, none of the headphones on test were terrible; it looks like manufacturers are pulling their fingers out and making Bluetooth headphones that aren't just comedy product-lineup-fillers.