Meta-Review of Portable Bluetooth Headphones - — Archived

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We recommend instead visiting our latest review of an ultra-portable noise-canceling wireless headphone.

The original text of this article as published in October of 2016 is preserved below; it may be of use if you’re considering a used version of these headphones.

Original text

Our meta-review of picky audiophile rants and international testing results has come up with three portable Bluetooth headphones that consistently top the rankings.


1. The Best-Sounding Small Wireless Headphones Overall

The LG Tone Platinum are the best portable wireless solution for great sound quality. Critics had great things
to say about their balance, liveliness, and clarity. They are isolating, so they’ll block out ambient sound, and they are also very well-suited to making phone calls. They have a horseshoe design that rests around your neck with retractable earbuds that come up to your ears. Most will find them quite comfortable, but this design is not very suited to running or intense gym use. More ↓

2. The Best Wireless Workout Headphones

If you expect your headphones to go in for some abuse at the gym, the best pair to get is the JLab Audio Epic2. jlab-epic-2They offer IPX5 waterproofing, solid construction, and the earbuds are connected by a tough, tangle-resistant cable. While they won’t please demanding listeners as much as the LG Tone Platinum, they offer a great range and produce impactful bass (though perhaps a bit too much so). They stay solidly in place while you move about, and are quite comfortable in a range of ear sizes. More ↓

3. The Best Unsealed Small Wireless Headphones

The portable headphones that we not only recommend but actually get the most use out of are the Plantronics BackBeat Fit. They can’t sound as great as either of the two above because they’re unsealed; they’re designed to let in outside sound. But, that’s exactly what makes them safe for use when you’re out and about. plantronics-backbeat-fit-2They’re also wonderfully light and comfortable to wear, and they are the best (often the only) pair of unsealed headphones that critics feel deliver truly quality audio across a full range. Calling and connectivity are also excellent. More ↓

We also have a few picks below for those who want noise-cancellation or the cheapest decent options.

Understanding Bluetooth Headphone Features

For quick primers on aptX, sealed vs. unsealed, and other features, click the drop-down headers below.

About the Sound Quality of Bluetooth, and the Question of aptX

Will you suffer by using Bluetooth? Well, if you are a picky audiophile listening to uncompressed audio in a quiet room, you will probably prefer a good set of wired headphones.

But if you’re like most people, you already listen to compressed audio (MP3s, streaming services like Spotify, etc.). You probably also listen to headphones when you’re out and about and not in pristine, silent environments. For you, chances are good you won’t notice any difference with Bluetooth, and you will gain an awful lot in freedom of movement by not having a cord from your device to your ears. Even the most modern Bluetooth standards (3.0 and 4.0) compress audio and thus lose some data, but again, compression has already happened at the level of your music file, and most listeners don’t notice this sort of compression. As usual we’re focused on the most convenient gear for people on the go, and we’ll be focusing on Bluetooth headphones here.

As for aptX, this is a codec for improved Bluetooth compression. If your phone or other device supports aptX, and you listen to CD-quality audio files, you could in theory notice an improvement from an apt-X enabled headphone. That said, your more honest reviewers tend to say that they can’t tell the difference.

Compatibility for these Bluetooth Headphones

Thankfully with Bluetooth compatibility isn’t really an issue any more. All of the headphones listed here are compatible with Apple iPhones and iPads, Android phones and tablets, and Bluetooth-enabled (that is, almost all) Mac, Windows and Chromebook computers.

Noise-Cancelling vs. Isolating vs. Open In-Ear Bluetooth Headphones

Open Headphones (a.k.a. unsealed, non-isolating): These are designed to let in sound from the environment around you, and thus they are safer to use if you’re out and about, particularly in streets where there are cars, those noxious and deadly beasts. If you want to be able to safely use your headphones anywhere, this is what you should get. Sound quality will never be as immersive and pristine, but some do think these can sound more “natural”.

Noise-Isolating Headphones (a.k.a. sealed, closed): These earbuds are designed to block out external sound by physically sealing off the ear. Since everyone’s ears are different, good isolating headphones generally have a variety of attachments to adjust to a variety of ear shapes. This is very important — it ensures both successful isolation and comfort. They are not safe to use out on the streets — if you like to walk around a new city with navigation assistance from Google Maps or while listening to music, go for open headphones instead.

Noise-Cancelling Headphones: In addition to physically blocking sound, these headphones create sound waves that are inverse to ambient noise, thus “cancelling them out”. They tend to work well for reducing low rumbling sounds like airplane and bus engines, but less so for human voices (or babies crying). Studies have shown them to improve task performance in the face of standard flight noise. They are not safe for use in any environment where you need to be able to hear your surroundings, and generally do not sound quite as good as non-noise-cancelling headphones.

Other Headphone Styles (Over-Ear, Open-Back...)

We don’t cover over-ear and open-back headphones here — those fantastic-sounding but bulky skull-cups. If you own in-ear headphones you’re more likely to carry them with you everywhere and actually get a lot of use out of them. If you’re a video editor, podcaster, homebody video-game nut, etc., you’ll probably want to consider something less portable than what we cover in this article.

Our full meta-reviews are below; as usual, we analyzed the reports from international consumer testing organizations, news media, and the better tech sites, blogs, and online video reviews. Sound, as always, is personal, so there was some variance; our choices are based on which of the most usable models gave the most pleasing experiences to the most people.

The Best-Sounding Bluetooth Headphones: LG Tone Platinum


The LG Tone Platinum Headphones were lauded by the American consumer testing organization Consumer Reports and a number of other critics. We thus feel confident in recommending them as the best mid-range Bluetooth headphones for most users (with the exception of those who want headphones for active workouts or who want to be able to hear the world around them at the same time; see below).

These critics say that the LG Tone Platinum headphones are a “good choice for the more critical listener”, produce “clear and crisp audio”, and “offer plenty of bass without overdoing it”. “The sound signature is engaging, as the sounds appear to fill a 3D space around your head,” notes one.

Audiophile criticisms tend to focus on the de-emphasized high frequencies and the more-emphasized bass end. Incidentally, the headset comes in bass boost mode, which you can change.

The collar design makes these less suitable for more acrobatic athletic activity, as the collar piece could bounce depending on your clothing. But we quite like it for everything else, and particularly the fact that it can be set to vibrate for incoming calls, so that you don’t have to rely on a phone’s annoying ring tones.

We are dubious of the real-world benefits of aptX, but some do claim that they appreciate the difference in quality versus other Bluetooth compression. The LG Tone Platinum supports the aptX HD codec, and if your device also supports aptX you’ll take advantage of that elite compression standard. And, another piece of marketing: LG has affiliated this headset with the celebrated Harman Kardon brand.

As a headset the LG Tone Platinum is particularly good at handling calls, thanks in part to dual microphones and noise cancelling (which works only for calls, in spite of what you might read elsewhere).

There is an LG Tone & Talk app for Apple and Android devices that allows you to hear SMSes and to select which alerts vibrate the headset, among other features.

The battery life is among the best available for Bluetooth headphones at 10 hours, and reviewers across the board have found that the LG Tone Platinum actually held up for at least this long. In more practical, day-to-day use, you’ll have to charge it only once a week or so. They take an hour and a half to two hours to charge.

So overall, this is a usable, convenient, and sweet-sounding piece that we have no hesitation in giving top billing. As of this writing, over at Amazon pricing was rather all over the place; if you try different color and seller options you may find a much better deal there than the price listed in the sidebar above.

The Best Workout Bluetooth Headphones: JLab Audio Epic2 Bluetooth


The big selling point for our gym headphone pick, the JLab Audio Epic2, is that it is rated IPX5 waterproof (meaning you shouldn’t dunk them for an extended period, but they’ll be fine if they get splashed or drenched in sweat), and have been shown to take quite a bit of abuse and keep working fine. They have a declared 12-hour battery life and in real life last for at least that long. They come with a whopping eight sets of gel tips to ensure that you get a great seal, whatever your ear size and structure. Users find that this ensures not only great isolation from outside noise, but that the headphones stay in place during a vigorous workout.

Reviewers also generally liked how they sounded, though not as much as our top pick. The bass is a bit overemphasized and boomy and the higher end doesn’t have as much clarity. But the vocals are clear and crisp and the soundscape is relatively open.

The Best Unsealed Bluetooth Headphones: Plantronics BackBeat Fit


Even and especially if you’re not in one, automobiles are horrifyingly dangerous; thus our need for hearing ambient noise when we’re in their vicinity jogging, rollerblading, biking, etc. The Plantronics BackBeat Fit are the best-sounding wireless solution; they’re unsealed, meaning that they let in outside sound while delivering your podcasts, music, or phone calls.

Not having a tight seal does mean that you’re going to lose out a bit on performance, especially on the bass end. That said, the critics (even one that didn’t understand that these aren’t supposed to seal) were generally quite impressed with the bass performance as well as the overall detail, balance, and vividness, with many commenting on the “smoothness” in one way or another. This was the only pair of unsealed Bluetooth headphones to really please audio nerds.

These are one of the few headphones that are pretty much comfortable for anyone without changing gel tips; they simply hook over the ears and the silicon pieces rest just inside the ear canal. Since there is no seal there’s no concern for different ear types, and pretty much anyone can eventually almost forget that they’re there. There were mixed reports from joggers; some felt that the band bobbed too much on the neck while running, while others didn’t.

Calling works great with these and Bluetooth connectivity is pristine. Real-life battery use for most came out to 7-8 hours. The Plantronics BackBeat Fit is rated IP57 waterproof, which means that it can be immersed in up to a meter of water with no problems — more practically, this means you should never have to worry about dust and sweat damaging the unit. The controls can take a little getting used to, but allow you to adjust the volume, skip and pause songs, and answer or reject phone calls.

The Best Noise-Cancelling In-Ear Bluetooth Headphones

There is really no question at the moment if you want both noise-cancellation and Bluetooth — reviewers across the board feel that the best small headphone options are the two Phiaton models below. They don’t do noise reduction as well as wired headphones, but they do do an excellent job.(Incidentally, if you want the best noise cancellation on the market and can put up with a wire, the more expensive Bose QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones are the hands-down favorite of reviewers and consumer organizations.)

Which one of these two you’ll choose largely depends on whether you want the clip design or the collar design.

The Phiaton BT 220 NC Wireless houses its electronics in a clip that attaches to your collar or shirt front.

Consumer organizations and reviewers generally love how it sounds, praising the even balance, detailed mid-range, deep bass, and  “open” dynamics.

Some people (especially with long hair) say that they prefer having this clip rather than having something resting behind their necks, while others don’t like attaching the clip to their clothing.

The sportier sister is the Phiaton BT 100 NC Wireless Earphones, which are splash resistant and rest on the collar with short cables that bring the headphones up to your ears. (If you jog, the piece may bounce annoyingly on the collarbones, but otherwise they’re quite comfortable.)

The noise cancellation works well and these are also said to be quite balanced in terms of the mix and level of bass and to offer excellent detail, particularly for vocals.

Also of note, the Bose QuietControl 30 is recently out and is already getting great reviews. It is a portable Bluetooth earphone with an open design and variable noise-cancelling, so that you can let in a bit of the outside world according to your needs at the moment. Bose is the leader in noise cancellation technology and this is the first product that allows the user to control the amount of outside noise to let in. Those who have listened to these report that the sound is full and with deep, engaging bass.

The Best Cheap Bluetooth Headphones: The Motorola Moto Surround

While the Motorola Moto Surround Wireless Earbuds don’t sound as great as any of our top picks, they offer the best sound you can get for around $50. They were, in fact, the only cheaper headphones generally near the top of reviewers‘ rankings in terms of sound quality. They were a bit uneven and sometimes “smeared”, but generally delivered impactful, detailed sound across a full range. There are three different EQ modes to choose from, so if you feel the need for say more bass for a thumping hip hop song while working out, you can make that happen by simultaneously pressing both volume buttons.

The battery lasts for 12 hours of constant music playback, and for 30 days in standby. Connectivity was reported to be great for Android devices, but there are some reported issues with lag with iPhones. They have the same collar-piece-plus-earbud design as the LG Tone Platinum (Motorola actually originated this design), but when not in use the earbuds are held in place on the collar by magnets.

A Decent, Cheap Wired Headphone Option

If you want to spend less and still have something ultra-portable that sounds good, you might consider a wired option. The BlitzWolf Wired “Isolating” Earphones are not, it must be emphasized, truly noise cancelling, but they do provide a seal that we’ve found comfortable on several sets of ears and that effectively blocks out some outside sound.

They’re excellent for spoken-word podcasts and music sounds good — much better than for other headphones that we’ve tried out in this price range. The bass is solid and present and there is a nice sense of separation of instruments. We felt that at times both the bass and vocals could sound slightly muddled, but again, overall this was an excellent performer for the price. They come with a small carrying case, an optional clip to attach them to clothing, and three sets of plastic tips to help you find the perfect fit. There are controls on the headphones for calls, volume, and skipping tracks.

Other Bluetooth Headphones — The Ones We Don’t Recommend

The Beats by Dr Dre Powerbeats 2 Wireless In-Ear Headphones failed to please audio the British consumer organization at all, while the Americans liked how they sounded. Taking these and the opinions of a variety of other critics as a whole, it seems that the high frequencies can cause some hissing and be too “bright”, and there is agreement that the bass is over-emphasized. Many commented that it was hard to get a proper seal in order to make them actually as isolating as they’re intended to be. And for some, the ear clip pinches too tightly. Critics feel that these are much better than the original Powerbeats, but even those who liked the Powerbeats 2’s bass-heavy sound feel that there are better options for the high price.

The Bragi Dash are truly wireless earphones — consisting of just two unconnected earbuds — and are just chock full of features. The carrying case doubles as a portable charger. There is 4 GB of onboard storage for music and podcasts. There are swiped commands to skip through music, change the volume, and turn on “transparency” to boost sounds from the world around you. Howeverreviewers were universally frustrated with glitchy controls, and they and Amazon customers have many problems with dropped connections. If those are fixed someday, this could be an interesting product. For now, it’s very expensive piece of junky, frustrating, plastic earplugs.

There is a seemingly wise reflective strip on the back of the Denon Exercise Freak headphones — although if you’re going to be out jogging or biking in traffic it would be better to use our unsealed pick rather than these sealed headphones, which won’t let you hear cars. They’re said to sound not too bad, but the bass is punchy but lacks definition. It was quite difficult for many to get a good fit.

The Denon Globe Cruiser In-Ear Wireless Headphones disappointed reviewers with distortion on the low end, a grainy mid-range, and some connection issues.

Dodocool Bluetooth Stereo Sports In-Ear Headphones

Dodocool Bluetooth Stereo Sports In-Ear Headphones are much cheaper than most of the other headphones we discuss here. They are truly wireless in the sense that there is no connection between the two earpieces, but they can both charge simultaneously on the same USB-A outlet via the included split-wire charger. We’ve listened to them and found the quality unsuitable for music; our favorite tracks sounded overly processed and the audio occasionally flickered in the left earpiece. These problems were less noticeable for listening to spoken word podcasts, making these a fine cheap alternative if that’s your only intended use and you want completely wireless earpieces. The large over-ear hooks can bend to the shape of your ears and skull, providing a snug, comfortable fit, and three differently sized ear tips are included.

The FitActive Air by iLuv Wireless Headphones are cheap but also some of the worst-reviewed in terms of sound quality.

The Gibson Trainer Ti100 headphones are not available in the States at this time. They are reported to sound excellent for people who can get them to fit right, but this is a challenge for some.

The line of Jabra Sport earbuds set themselves apart a bit by integrating with the Sport Life App (for Apple/Android). This allows for in-ear readouts on distance, times, calories burned, etc. We’re rather dubious about the actual utility of this — how often do you really need this info, and if you do, would the extra exertion of glancing at your phone be a dealbreaker? The Jabra Sport Pace Wireless Earbuds are marketed as having “premium sound”; reviewers say that these do work great for speech but that music sounded muffled and the bass is “dull” but goes “deep”. The Jabra Sport Coach are marketed for indoor workouts and are intended to provide “audio coaching”, like an invisible personal trainer. Finally, the most expensive of the lot, the Jabra Sport Pulse, have a built-in heart rate monitor. Your money would be better spent on an inexpensive, quality fitness tracker that is separate from your earbuds.

The Jam Transit Micro Sports Buds are cheap but reportedly do not sound great, particularly since they lack bass. Customer reviews are unenthusiastic.

The JBL by Harman Under Armour headphones are said to sound pretty good albeit with rather boomy bass and harsh highs.

The JBL Reflect Mini Bluetooth Headphones have gotten mixed reviews in terms of sound quality, with the most common complaint being that they lack powerful bass, and don’t go as loud as competitors. Some have problems getting a perfect fit with the two sizes of included earpieces, but others say they fit fine.

Reviewers complain that the Kicker EB300 has too much bass, sizzle at the high end, and a congested quality. They are water-resistant, at least.

The Kitsound Outrun were the best-liked in-ear Bluetooth headphones over at Which?, but they’re not available in the States. They deliver quality across their range, but the bass is a bit light.

The Klipsch – R6 Bluetooth Wireless Headphones have “patented oval ear tips” that got different reactions: reviewers feel that they produced uncomfortable pressure, or they too easily fell out, or they worked great. There is general agreement that the bass is emphasized far too much, and the sound is closed-in and “not for purists”.

The LG Tone Infinim and LG Tone Pro are older, cheaper down-market versions of the LG Tone Platinum that we think is such a great choice. They sport basically the same design and functionality (especially the Infinum) but there is general agreement that they don’t have the detail and clarity of the Platinum. The more portable LG Force is not widely available as of this writing.

The MEE Audio X7 Plus were generally not bad, but way too heavy on the bass end. This left listeners feeling that the rest of the sound profile takes a back seat. They could be a top choice if you really like lots of bass, though.

The Monster iSport SuperSlim headphones, typically of this brand, did  not please most critics very much. They have too much boomy bass, and some complained that they were uncomfortable to wear for too long. The Monster Adidas Sport Adistar seem to have fared a bit better but we can’t find them available any more. The ROC Sport by Cristiano Ronaldo & Monster Sport Super Slim headphones appear to have the same congested sound, but a soccer star’s name on them. You can do better than this gimmick.

It was hard for reviewers to get a proper seal with the Plantronics Backbeat Go 3, which led to complaints about them slipping out and being uncomfortable. This is at least partly because only one set of tips for the earbuds is included. The bass was also lackluster for most tastes.

The Skullcandy Smokin’ Buds 2 In-Ear Bluetooth Wireless Earbuds are described as “harsh”, “artificial”, and with “wobbly” bass. The ham-fisted corporate effort to market to weed smokers is rather embarrassing too.

The Skullcandy XT Free Wireless Headphones sound terrible compared to pretty much anything on the market. They don’t have much in the way of bass, and reviewers complain that they lack depth. They’re advertised as having a six-hour battery life but test at under five hours.

The SOL Republic Shadow Headphones sit on the collar bones as with the LG Tone Platinum, but earbud wires don’t retract or clip to anything. They just awkwardly hang down and swing about when not in your ears and can thus be easily damaged. That said, they’re much cheaper than our main picks and reviewers generally liked how they sounded: the bass is quite heavy (“booming”, even), too much so for most tastes; there’s an “open” and “lively” mid-range, and a well-performing high end. The earbuds are isolating. They’re water resistant and calling works quite well. If you want something that’s at a midpoint between the cheaper Motorola Moto Surround (above) and the costlier LG Tone Platinum (above), these could serve you fine.

The Sony h.ear MDR-EX750BT Wireless Headphone sits on the collar bones with cords that bring the earbuds up to your ears, as with the Sol Republic Shadow. There is a clip to stick the earbuds together, but it’s not the best solution. The headphone is somewhat isolating and is described by critics as having solid bass with good “kick”, but the mid-range is “hazy” and “grainy” — vocals don’t sound natural. This wireless headphone is rather unique in also providing an adapter cable that allows you to connect it to a regular mini headphone jack, supposedly for clearer sound (i.e., not compressed for Bluetooth); the volume buttons and mic don’t work when you do this. Overall, we find this unit overpriced and under-performing.

The Sony MDR-AS600 BT has an uneven midrange and thin high end, according to critics.

Reviewers complain that the bass end for the Soul Run Free Pro is boomy, and that high end hisses too much. Otherwise, they are comfortable and quality headphones.

The Yurbuds Leap 100 Wireless Earphones don’t go very loud and are said to have muddy bass. They sounded flat and unimpressive. There is also a version marketed to women.


To sum up:

  • If you want the best-sounding portable Bluetooth headphones, go for the LG Tone Platinum.
  • The best workout headphones to seal out a noisy gym environment are the JLab Audio Epic2.
  • The best unsealed choice to allow you to hear both your music and the world around you is the Plantronics BackBeat Fit.
  • The best noise-canceling headphones are made by Phiaton; the BT 220 NC clips to your collar and the BT 100 NC rests on your collar.
  • The best cheap Bluetooth headphone option is the Motorola Moto Surround.

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