There are some great Bluetooth headphones out there. AirPods Pro, Sony WF-1000XM4, and Jabra Elite Active 75t dominate the earbud market, while the Sony WH-1000XM4 and Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are among the best of the over-the-ear variety. Still, as good as all these headphones sound in a myriad of situations, they will never sound as good as wired headphones can. Here’s why.
Streaming services have recently upped the game when it comes to audio quality. Tidal was one of the first to offer CD-quality FLAC-based lossless streaming for an added price, but just in the past year, other services like Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Spotify (soon to be released) offer similar, high-bitrate lossless services, all for the same cost you had before.
What is audio quality, really?
If those buzzwords don’t mean anything to you, here’s a deeper explanation: digital music, like all digital products, is made up of digital information (1s and 0s). The more information you can fit into a file, the better your audio is going to sound. Ideally, you want as much information as possible so you can enjoy the full experience of that particular track.
However, information takes up space; the more information a file has, the more space it takes up and the more demanding it becomes to stream. To solve that problem, streaming services compress files, or remove information. It’s strategic; remove enough information to reduce the file size, but keep enough so most people don’t notice the degrading quality of their music.
That’s what we refer to when we talk about bitrate; it’s just the amount of data that can be transmitted with any given file. If a file has a higher bitrate, it can transfer more information, often resulting in better quality; if it has a lower bitrate, it transfers less, resulting in worse quality.
What lossless streaming does is avoid most of that compression to give you a listening experience that is as close to the original recording material as possible. And now that almost every popular streaming service offers this lossless listening experience, you should be able to take advantage of it with whatever headphones you have, right?
Why wireless can’t match wired headphones
Here’s the deal; Bluetooth, the technology that connects wireless headphones to your listening device, has a limit to the bitrate it can handle. It won’t matter whether you set your streaming service, like Apple Music, to play in lossless, since those files are going to be compressed to match what’s possible for that Bluetooth device.
That’s not to say that your music will sound bad, quite the opposite. Apple Music, for example, uses the AAC Bluetooth Codec to play music to Bluetooth headphones, which comes in at 256 kbps. Spotify has a maximum bitrate of 320 kbps. Those bitrates are going to sound great on your Bluetooth headphones.
Even Sony’s crown jewel, the WF-1000XM4, has a maximum bitrate of 990 kbps. While that’s roughly three times the bitrate of conventional Bluetooth audio, it still isn’t enough for lossless.
Wired headphones, on the other hand, don’t have this compression issue. They can handle the full signal from your listening device, and, in some cases, it’s the listening device that can’t handle your headphones. Some headphones need extra power in order to fully appreciate their quality.
That’s where a unit like a DAC comes in, supplying extra power to support both the quality of the file, and the quality of the headphones. You need a DAC to enjoy lossless in the highest bitrates on Apple Music, for example, regardless of which kind of wired headphones you have.
Not all wired headphones are equal
To be fair, there is a wide variety of wired headphones out there. Just because there’s a wire attached to a pair of headphones, doesn’t mean it’s going to sound immediately better than your AirPods.
Many wireless earbuds and headphones have technology that makes them sound amazing; a cheap pair of featureless wired headphones might be able to take in the lossless signals that your streaming service is sending out, but it’s likely that your AirPods sound much better in their compressed format. It’s not just the bitrate, it’s also how those headphones produce the sound, as well.
Perhaps someday, wireless technology will get to the point where we can beam lossless signals directly into our ears. But, for now, that technology is relegated to wired headphones.