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How We Tested Wireless Headphones

Monday February 11, 2019

The best wireless headphones sound great, can shield you from annoying noises, are comfortable enough to wear for hours, offer intuitive controls so you can take full advantage of their wirelessness, and can easily slide into your backpack or computer bag. We split our testing into five different metrics, one to satisfy each of the ideal qualities listed above.

Sound Quality


Sound quality is arguably the most important aspect of wireless headphones. Sound quality is inherently subjective, but we standardized our testing criteria as much as possible. After testing multiple different audio products, and having many different people listen to said audio products, we've found that clarity and powerful bass are the two main things that tend to make people say, "Hey, this sounds really good!" Therefore in our testing we listened to acoustic tracks and talk radio to ascertain clarity, and then added in bass heavy music to judge both the power of the bass and whether or not the clarity was maintained with more complicated and rounded melodies. All of this was done in a side-by-side manner, putting one pair of headphones on right after the other.

Our sound quality testing involved a lot of music listening  sometimes while staring out at the rain.
Our sound quality testing involved a lot of music listening, sometimes while staring out at the rain.

Noise Isolation


The main reason to opt for headphones over earbuds is the fact that they can take a noisy cafe and transform it into a quiet workspace. Our testing for noise isolation involved subjective real world tests like wearing all the headphones in the office and taking them to local cafes (try rocking up to your local cafe with 10 pairs of headphones and see the kinds of looks you get) and noting how much each was able to block out the ambient noise. We then did a more controlled test with a fan that created exactly 70 decibels of noise and tried each pair on one right after the the other, judging how much of the fan noise each one blocked out. All of these tests were conducted both with music playing and without, and for models that offer active noise cancellation we turned that feature on.

Testing how well each model's noise isolation helps us concentrate.
Testing how well each model's noise isolation helps us concentrate.

Comfort


Comfort is again subjective and and can be very different for different individuals. That why we had everyone in the office wear each pair of headphones for at least a day and take notes on how they felt. Spoiler: if you have small ears most headphones feel pretty comfortable, but if you have larger ears you may have to be a bit more picky.

User Friendliness


Almost all wireless headphones offer some sort of on-headphone controls so you can still adjust your music without having to whip your phone out. Here again we had multiple different people use each pair of headphones to adjust volume, skip tracks, play and pause music, and turn noise cancellation on and off (where applicable). Each of these people took notes on what they did and didn't like for each interface, and we turned those notes into number scores. We also had everyone pair all the headphones with their phones, but there wasn't any differentiation in terms of pairing difficulty, so we left that out of our final scores.

Examining the controls of our headphones.
Examining the controls of our headphones.

Portability


Sometimes it's the little things that matter, like not having to deal with headphone cables, or having a nice carrying case so you don't have to worry about stuffing your fancy headphones into your bag. We assessed the portability of our headphones by weighing them, measuring how small they could fold up, and having our in-house mechanical engineers assess the quality of any included carrying cases.

A large portion of our portability score was based on the quality of the cases that come with the headphones.
A large portion of our portability score was based on the quality of the cases that come with the headphones.