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Active Features on Headphones

What it is: Headphones with active components that require a battery. This includes noise cancelling and wireless headphones that actively reduce noise or transmit audio via a wireless connection.
When it matters: How suitable the power and wireless specifications of an active headphone will be, depending on your listening habits. The range and/or discharge time of the active headphone you select will be important if you're often on the move or have long uninterrupted listening sessions.
Score components:

Our Active Features' score describes how well integrated the active parts of a headphone are. This takes into account features like a wireless connection, downloadable apps to enhance your listening experience, as well as the duration of the battery life.

Newer headphone models come packed with different and sometimes unique features. Whether it's a wireless connection, active noise canceling or audio-enhancing options, they typically have electronic components that consume power and drain battery life. Therefore, the ideal active headphone is one that can deliver a stable, fast and far-reaching wireless connection with a long enough battery life, to easily last you throughout a typical work day. A headphone that can do all that and give you the ability to customize the sound profile to suit your tastes will have a higher score.

We measure the responsiveness and range of a headphone's wireless connection, the battery performance, and additional power saving features. We also score subjectively, the ease-of-use and efficiency of the supporting app.

Test results

Our tests

Wireless Range

What it is: Headphones that offer a cable-free listening experience over a wireless network, typically via Bluetooth or radio frequency.
When it matters: If you don't want to be limited by the length of an audio cable. This means having the freedom to move around in your home or office with a much greater range than an audio cable could provide, especially, if the Bluetooth source is heavy or difficult to carry.
Score components:

Our wireless test measures the range of a headphones' wireless connection in direct-line-of-sight and when the Bluetooth source is obstructed. We also take into account the Bluetooth version supported by the headphones, the latency for the default SBC connection as well as additional codecs, like aptX and aptX (Low Latency). Lastly, we judge how easy it is to pair with regular and NFC-enabled mobile devices.

A wireless connection is more important for listeners that use their headphones with a Bluetooth source that's difficult to move, like a PC or a TV. It also makes cable management less of a hassle, as there are no cables to get tangled or restrict your movements. However, depending on your headphone choice this may not be a significant feature for you.

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Latency

What it is: The latency is how long it takes for audio to play through your headphones once the audio signal has been sent from a source.
When it matters: When gaming or watching movies. High latency means you will hear the audio much later than the images you see on screen.
Score components:

Our Latency test measures the delay caused by transmitting data over a wireless connection. For headphones, it's the time it takes for audio to play through the ear cups which might be out of sync when watching videos.

We measure the base latency for RF and Bluetooth headphones as well any latency improving codecs such as aptX or aptX (LL). Base latency for Bluetooth headphones refers to the default sub-band coding (SBC).

The higher the latency, the more delay there will be between the images you see and what you hear, which could significantly reduce your movie or gaming experience. However, depending on your choice of headphones and listening habit it may not be as big of an issue for you.

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Battery Life

What it is: The power source of your headphones. All headphones with active features have a battery that will deplete over time.
When it matters: To continue using the active features of your headphones. Some models lose features or switch off completely when the battery is drained, which limits what you can do with them until the next charge.
Score components:

Our battery test evaluates how long your active headphones will last on a single charge. We score headphone batteries based on battery life, charge time and power saving features like auto-off timers. We also test if the headphones can continue streaming audio while charging.

All active features draw power from either a rechargeable Li-ion/Li-polymer battery or standard AAA or AA cells. Most of these features, such as wireless, audio enhancing tweaks or noise cancellation will stop working once the battery is completely drained. Therefore, the importance of battery life is significant for all active headphones but won't be relevant for passive ones.

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App Support

What it is: The additional app provided to enhance your listening experience. They typically deliver a set of practical features that give you more control over the sound, noise cancelling and effects that the headphones produce.
When it matters: An app with a lot of features allows you to customize your listening experience to suit your taste and preferences. For example, additions like an equalizer can give you more bass or treble and room effects can simulate a bigger Soundstage in closed back headphones.
Score components: Subjectively assigned

Newer headphone models tend to have downloadable apps that let you personalize some of their active feature settings. Equalizers, room effects, active noise canceling and playback controls can sometimes be adjusted via an app on your mobile device. We also evaluate the design and any additional features that make the app more practical or efficient.

For example with a decent parametric equalizer, you can compensate audio profiles to better cater to your listening preferences. However, depending on your headphone choice this may not be a significant feature for you, especially if the headphones are already well-balanced or completely passive, which in that case they most likely won't have an app.

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What is not included

A few elements that you could care about are not included in the score:

  • Passive Playback (Coming soon)

If you feel there is an item missing that should be included, please let us know in the Q&A section.

Conclusion

Our active feature test evaluates the additional features provided by active headphones. This typically means that the headphones are either wireless, noise-canceling or have customizable audio profiles accessible via an app. This makes active headphones a bit more versatile for most use cases but also potentially unusable when the batteries die. We measure the range and latency of the wireless connection (when applicable). We also measure how long active headphones can last on a single charge or with fresh AAA/AA cells. Lastly, we subjectively score the supporting app for its functionalities, design, and ease-of-use. However, active features are not as important for all listeners especially, if you prefer an already well-balanced passive headphone for critical listening or studio recording.

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