Updated

Wired Scores and Tests
Headphones

What it is: The type and compatibility of audio cables for wired and wireless headphones.
When it matters: When you want to use your headphones wired with a device that has a regular audio jack (line-out), like a smartphone, PC, or gaming console controller.
Score distribution

Wired usage refers to using your headphones with a wired connection, whether analog or USB, to play media from a smartphone, tablet, PC, or gaming console.

Most of the headphones we’ve reviewed support wired playback, even if they can also be used wirelessly. However, the level of wired compatibility depends on the type of connection and adapters provided. Most headphones come with an analog 1/8” TRS or TRRS connection for use with any device that has a regular audio jack; however, some models have controls that only work on a specific operating system (OS). Gaming headsets, even wireless ones, tend to come with lots of accessories like USB adapters or Y-splitters for wired compatibility with different gaming systems, while Bluetooth earbuds can very rarely be used wired at all.

For our wired test, we determine whether the headphones can support playback over a wired connection. We score the OS compatibility of the headphones, the different types of wired connections they support and their wired compatibility with the PS4, Xbox One, and PC systems.

Test results

When it matters

There are a number of differences between wired and wireless headphones, and being able to use your headphones with a wired connection offers a couple of advantages. If you play a lot of mobile games or like to stream movies on your smartphone, you might find that wireless headphones have too much latency to enjoy your favorite movie or game. Although you’re limited by cable length, a wired connection provides a lag-free listening experience that many prefer. For PC gamers, in particular, headphones that have a USB connection are often compatible with software that let you customize the way they look or sound when connected to your PC.

Our tests

Our wired tests evaluate the compatibility of headphones across various platforms when used wired. We score headphones based on their compatibility with different systems. The more wired connections and functionalities the headphones support, the higher the score.

We first determine whether the headphones can play media with a wired connection. If the headphones don’t support wired audio at all, they automatically score a 0 in the Wired category box and all values are set to N/A. If the headphones can play music over a wired connection, we determine if the connection is OS-specific. We then check if they can provide audio over an analog connection or via a digital source like USB. Finally, we check for audio and microphone compatibility on the PS4, Xbox One, and on PC.

OS Compatibility

What it is: Testing the headphones' cable to see which operating system it works with.
When it matters: Some wired headphones don't support all operating systems so this allows you to check if the headphones will work with your device.

Certain headphones that use what appears to be a regular audio jack may not have full functionality on all operating system (OS) types. Some wired headphones only work on iOS while others work exclusively on Android. Often you can choose a specific variant to suit which OS you primarily use, but some headphones are only available for one OS.

To test OS compatibility, we try using the headphones on Android and iOS. We plug the headphones into an iOS device, usually an iPhone 4, and test the in-line controls and microphone. We then do the same with an Android device. If the controls and mic fully function on both OS types, we conclude that the headphones are not OS specific. If the controls and mic fully function on only one OS, we list the compatible OS tested.

In the case of headphones available in different variants, worth nothing that we currently only purchase and test one OS variant: the variant tested is what appears as the test value. Our test also currently only measures full functionality and does not account for instances in which the headphones may partially support another OS.

Analog Audio

What it is: When your headphones can play analog media using a standard 1/8" TRS audio jack. Includes using a 1/4" or 1/16" TRS with a 1/8" TRS adapter.
When it matters: For listening to music with devices that have a standard 1/8" TRS audio jack, like an MP3 player, tablet, smartphone or PC.
Good value: Yes

The majority of the headphones we test support analog audio. This means they can play audio with a regular TRS audio cable. Most headphones have a 1/8” audio jack, but some use a smaller 1/16” jack. Most headphone cables end in a 1/8” connector that can be readily plugged into most smartphones, video game consoles, or laptops, but some audiophile headphones have a larger 1/4” plug for use with professional audio equipment.

Keep in mind that just because a pair of headphones provide analog audio, doesn’t mean they support passive playback. There are certain headphones, usually noise cancelling or gaming headsets, that you can use with an audio cable but that still require power from a battery to function.

To test whether the headphones support analog audio, we first ensure there is no other active connection like Bluetooth. We then plug the headphones into a PC with a 1/8” TRRS jack and try to play a media file. If playback succeeds, we consider that the headphones have analog audio.

USB Audio

What it is: When your headphones can play digital media using a standard USB connector.
When it matters: For listening to music on a PC. A digital USB adapter can offer some advantages over a regular audio jack, like a DAC or added software support.
Good value: Yes

Certain headphones can play media over a standard USB connection on a PC. This is less common than analog audio, but many gaming headphones provide USB audio, especially those that you can customize with dedicated software on your PC.

Keep in mind that certain headphones can still play music while charging via USB but don’t actually provide USB audio. Some headphones can provide audio wirelessly or via an analog cable while charging but won’t play audio from a USB source.

To test USB audio, we first check to see if the headphones come with a USB cable or adapter. If so, then we ensure there are no other active connections like Bluetooth, plug the headphones into the USB port of our test PC, and try to play a media file. If playback succeeds, we consider that the headphones have USB audio.

We don’t currently systematically test USB audio on the PS4 or the Xbox One, only on PC. Generally, most headphones that support audio playback on a standard USB port on a PC can also do so on the PS4 and the Xbox One; however, we can’t confirm at the moment that this is always the case since we don’t actually test all headphones' USB functionality on all consoles, only in exceptional cases where they can't be connected to the console's controller.

PS4 Compatible

What it is: PS4 compatibility with a regular 1/8" TRS or TRRS audio cable.
When it matters: When you want to use a wired headphone with your PS4 controller.
Good value: Audio + Microphone

Virtually all headphones that have a regular audio cable will play audio from your PS4 when plugged into the controller. That said, not all headphones will provide microphone support as well. So we test audio and microphone compatibility of headphones with the PS4.

To test PS4 compatibility, we first plug the headphones into a PS4 controller paired to our test PS4. If the headphones can’t be plugged into the controller, we try connecting them via USB. We then attempt to send an audio message through the chat interface. If we can only hear the system sounds, we conclude the headphones support audio only, but if we can record, send, and play back a message, then they have audio and microphone support.

Xbox One Compatible

What it is: Xbox One compatibility with a regular 1/8" TRS or TRRS audio cable.
When it matters: When you want to use a wired headphone with your Xbox One controller.
Good value: Audio + Microphone

Virtually all headphones that have a regular audio cable will play audio from your Xbox One when plugged into the controller. That said, not all headphones will provide microphone support as well. For example, headphones that are iOS-specific will not provide microphone support on the Xbox One. So we test audio and microphone compatibility of headphones with the Xbox One.

To test Xbox One compatibility, we first plug the headphones into an Xbox One controller paired to our test Xbox. If the headphones can’t be plugged into the controller, try connecting them via USB.  We then attempt to send an audio message through the chat interface. If we can only hear the system sounds, we conclude the headphones support audio only, but if we can record, send, and play back a message, then they have audio and microphone support.

PC Compatible

What it is: PC compatibility with a regular 1/8" TRS or TRRS audio cable.
When it matters: When you want to use a wired headphone with your PC.
Good value: Audio + Microphone

The analog audio test determines whether headphones can play audio on a PC with a 1/8” TRRS jack. However, not all headphones have a microphone that’s compatible with the PC. So we test the audio and microphone compatibility of headphones plugged into a PC.

To test PC compatibility, we plug the headphones into a PC like in the analog audio test and attempt to record audio with the microphone. If we can only hear the system sounds, we conclude the headphones support audio only, but if we can record and play back a message, then they have audio and microphone support.

What is not included

There are a couple of elements that we don't test for explicitly. These elements include:

  • Partial OS compatibility
  • Multiple OS variants
  • Microphone via USB
  • USB console compatibility (PS4 and Xbox One)

If you feel there is an item missing that should be included, please let us know in the Discussions below.

Conclusion

Using your headphones with a wired connection ensures a stable, latency-free listening experience. However, operating system (OS) and console compatibility differ between headphones. Some headphones have in-line controls that can only be used with certain OS types. Gaming headsets, in particular, demonstrate varying levels of compatibility with different consoles and gaming systems. In general, headphones that support analog audio will play media on virtually any device with an audio jack; however, microphone support is less reliable. It’s important to consider your personal needs and keep in mind that there’s often a number of different cables and adapters you can purchase to resolve different compatibility issues.

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