Connectivity describes the various ways that a pair of headphones can connect to an audio source. Headphones without connectivity don’t serve very many purposes besides noise isolation. Some sort of connection is required to transmit audio data to the headphones so they can create sound. The ideal pair of headphones would work both wired and wirelessly, supporting Bluetooth with various codecs as well as a lower-latency radio frequency (RF) signal transmitted by a customizable and adaptive base station.
Different connectivity options have different pros and cons. Wireless headphones provide freedom from cables that can tangle and snag on things but are also prone to latency issues. Wired headphones generally have little to no latency at all but are limited in range.
Our connectivity score is based on the different connectivity options that a pair of headphones provide. We consider whether the headphones support Bluetooth, can be used wired, come with a base transmitter or docking station, have a wireless range, and have latency.
The way you use your headphones will greatly influence what you’ll want to look for in terms of connectivity options. Audio engineers, sound producers, and musicians tend to prefer wired headphones for their reliability and latency-free connection. Athletes who want to listen to music while training or commuters looking for ways to enjoy their favorite tracks on-the-go generally prefer Bluetooth headphones, while gamers will want to consider dedicated gaming headsets that either have a wired connection or a low-latency wireless transmitter with lots of inputs.
Bluetooth-compatible headphones can be connected to nearly any Bluetooth-enabled device that plays media. They usually come with an integrated microphone to take phone calls and have some sort of control scheme so you can manage your music and incoming calls directly from the headset. Not all Bluetooth headphones are created equally, and there’s a number of features that make some Bluetooth devices better than others, like supporting multi-device pairing or NFC.
Bluetooth headphones can be notoriously annoying to pair, which is why multi-device pairing and NFC are important. If you use your headphones at work and often switch between using your smartphone and desktop PC, or a tablet and a laptop, then you can imagine how frustrating it might be to have to reconnect your headphones over and over. Multi-device pairing eliminates this headache by allowing you to pair your headphones to a couple of devices at once, so you don’t have to reconnect so often. NFC pairing also helps too, since you can pair the headphones by simply tapping them on an NFC-enabled device bypassing what may be an otherwise pesky pairing procedure.
Being able to use your headphones wired is helpful if you don’t want to have to worry about battery life or latency issues. A wired connection is generally more reliable than a wireless one and can be compatible with more devices. Headphones that support USB audio can be plugged into your PC to access additional features, like support software that lets you customize the way they sound.
Headphones with a 1/8” jack can be used with any device that has a regular audio jack; however, some models sometimes come with an in-line remote and microphone that may only be compatible with certain operating systems (OS) or gaming consoles.
If you’re looking for headphones that do more than simply plug-and-play, you’ll likely want to check out headphones that come with a base transmitter or a docking station that can provide you with additional features and inputs.
Some gaming and home theatre headsets have a wireless transmitter that provides a low-latency connection so you can watch your favorite shows or play video games wirelessly without visible lag. Others are entirely wired but feature dongles or controllers that have different customizable features, like channel mixing or EQ access. Most good base/dock options have lots of different inputs, like line-in/out, optical, or even RCA for greater compatibility with a wide range of home theatre setups and some even support dock charging so you can charge your headphones on your TV stand when they’re not in use.
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).
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.
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 Bluetooth headphones with the default sub-band coding (SBC). We also measure the base latency of other RF headphones.
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 habits, it may not be as big of an issue for you.
There are a couple of elements that we don't test for explicitly. These elements include:
If you feel there is something missing that should be included or have any suggestions about how to improve our tests, please let us know in the Discussions below.
Depending on how you want to use your headphones, you’ll want to consider different connectivity options. Bluetooth headphones can be connected to a wide range of Bluetooth sources, from smartphones to laptops or tablets, and provide wireless freedom. They do come with a couple of downsides though, noticeably audio latency and battery life, so many people prefer the stability and reliability of a wired connection. Wired headphones can generally be used with any device with a standard audio jack, but some headsets also support audio over USB, which is helpful if you like to be able to customize your headphones. That said, you’re tethered to your audio source and don’t get the range of wireless headphones.
If you’re looking for headphones to set up with your home theatre system, you’ll likely want to consider something that has a base transmitter or docking station with lots of inputs so you can get the most out of your setup. Headphones with a dedicated wireless transmitter generally have low latency and decent wireless range, but they’re not very portable since they need to be in range of their transmitter to work. Overall, what you’ll want to look for will depend greatly on your personal needs and priorities, but headphones that support more connectivity options tend to be better-suited to a variety of uses and are more versatile.