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Bluetooth vs. Wireless Headphones: (There is a Difference)

Last updated: 2 months ago
9 min read

All Bluetooth headphones are wireless, but not all wireless headphones are Bluetooth.

Wireless headphones can use different connection technology from Bluetooth. Learn what it means below.

Bluetooth vs wireless headphones
CONTENTS (show more)

    TL: DR (Summary)

    • There are differences in sound quality, range, and connection stability between Bluetooth and other wireless headphones.
    • Bluetooth headphones are the most convenient because you can connect them to any Bluetooth-enabled device.
    • Other wireless technologies are not widely compatible and require special transmitters.
    • Bluetooth headphones are generally the best choice, except for gaming headsets.

    Are Bluetooth and Wireless Headphones the Same Thing?

    Bluetooth and wireless headphones are not exactly the same.

    All Bluetooth headphones are wireless, but not all wireless headphones use Bluetooth.

    Bluetooth is the most popular type of wireless technology in headphones. It uses short-range radio waves to transmit audio signals. Other types of wireless technology are radio frequency, KleerNet, infrared, and internal memory.

    The second most popular is RF or radio frequency technology. We commonly see radio frequency technology in wireless gaming headsets. More on that below.

    Each technology has different data transmission characteristics, impacting sound quality, connection range and stability, and ease of use. Read below for more details.

    It’s good to know which technology is the best for your needs.

    Related:

    Types of Wireless Headphones

    Wireless headphones are all headphones that can connect to a music device without a cable. Usually, the audio signal travels through radio waves.

    Most wireless headphones use Bluetooth, which we’ll discuss separately. Here are the non-Bluetooth wireless technologies:

    Radio-frequency headphones

    Radio-frequency or RF headphones use radio waves to receive audio signals from a music device. Usually, they work on a frequency range different from Bluetooth, 900 MHz to 3.2 GHz.

    Sony WH-RF400 radio frequency headphones
    Sony WH-RF400 are one of the most popular radio-frequency headphones for TV. Credit: Sony

    The radio frequency wireless connection can have a better range of around 300 ft (90 m). But it’s often capped at around 30-40ft (10-12m). It requires a base station, usually in the form of a USB adapter, which you connect to your music device (PC, laptop, tablet).

    • Longer range, around 30-40 ft (10-12 m)
    • Better sound quality (Higher data bandwidth)
    • Minimal latency
    • Works through walls
    • Require a transmitter/adapter
    • Susceptible to interference

    Also, the requirement for the external adapter isn’t the only drawback. Radio-frequency headsets are susceptible to signal interference from other radio devices. A Wi-Fi router on the same radio frequency can interfere with the connection and distort the sound.

    The most common use of radio frequency is in wireless gaming headsets. They offer better sound quality and a longer range. And because most people play video games at home, there aren’t many other devices that could interfere with the connection.

    Infrared headphones

    Infrared headphones use infrared light to transmit audio signals. They work similarly to a TV remote. And while infrared headphones exist, you won’t find many of them due to their limitations.

    Sennheiser IS 410 TV infra-red earphones
    These are obsolete Sennheiser IS 410 infrared earphones for watching TV Credit: Sennheiser
    • No interference from other wireless devices
    • Short range
    • Lower data bandwidth (worse sound quality)
    • Requires clear line of sight
    • IR signal can’t travel through walls and objects

    IR headphones require a transmitter with an unobstructed view (line of sight). The transmitter sends light waves to the headphones to transmit audio signals.

    Consequently, infrared signals cannot travel through walls and objects, as that immediately cuts their connection.

    This results in a shorter range compared to other wireless technologies. So, they’re most often used in headphones for watching TV or for use in one room (like audio presentations).

    Infrared wireless connection isn’t susceptible to disruption. Radio waves from other wireless devices can’t disrupt the IR signal because it communicates with light instead of radio waves.

    That means many smartphones and headphones in the same room won’t interfere with the signal.

    On the other hand, any object between the transmitter and receiving device disrupts the connection.

    Infrared headphones are easy to set up but offer short-range and lower sound quality.

    For these reasons, IR headphones are hard to find.

    KleerNet headphones

    KleerNet or Kleer wireless technology uses radio frequency in the 2.4 GHz, 5.2 GHz, and 5.8 GHz range. It uses a proprietary wireless technology that offers uncompressed audio transmission, low latency, and a good range of around 100 ft (30m).

    Sennheiser RS-175 KleerNet headphones
    Sennheiser RS 175 are one of the most popular headphones with KleerNet wireless technology. Credit: Sennheiser
    • Good range
    • Uncompressed wireless audio transmission
    • Low latency
    • Stable connection
    • Requires a transmitter/adapter
    • More expensive due to proprietary technology

    KleerNet wireless headphones have many advantages. They offer high data bandwidth at 16/24-bits, 48/96 KHz, so the audio is uncompressed when traveling through the wireless connection.

    This means you can listen to CD-quality music without wires. And the latency is minimal, which means a shorter audio delay between the music device and KleerNet headphones.

    Also, it uses less energy than comparable wireless technologies. This results in a longer battery life of Kleer headphones.

    Plus, the wireless signal reaches up to 160ft (50m) of range at 2.4GHz and 100ft (30m) at 5GHz.

    But it’s not perfect. It requires a proprietary transmitter, and companies have to pay if they want to use the proprietary technology, which increases the cost of KleerNet devices.

    The Kleer technology is often used in higher-end wireless speaker systems and wireless headphones for TV. The technology is ideal for high-quality audio transmission at home, where you have the space for the setup.

    Internal memory

    Internal memory wireless headphones have built-in storage and work as the music device and music receiver in one gadget.

    These headphones have internal data storage or a micro-SD or T-Flash memory card slot where you store your music. They act as headphones and an MP3 player in one.

    Modular Mod-1 headphones with memory card slot
    Discontinued Modular Mod-1 headphones have a built-in memory card slot

    They don’t connect wirelessly to a music device, but you can listen to them without a cable.

    • Standalone music playback without the need for a music device
    • Useful for physical activity
    • Have internal data storage and a music player
    • Bothersome setup
    • Can’t stream music

    Wireless headphones with internal storage usually have a capacity of a few gigabytes (GBs). This is typically enough to store hundreds of high-res or thousands of low-res songs.

    You have to transfer your songs to the internal memory via a USB cable which is inconvenient. When your music taste changes, you must replace all the songs in the internal storage.

    But once set up, you don’t have to carry a separate audio device or connection.

    On the other hand, the user experience of searching and choosing songs on these headphones doesn’t come close to a modern smartphone. For this reason, it’s hard to find this type of wireless headphones today.

    Some people use them as headphones for running and working out because they eliminate the need to carry a music device that can fall down or get in the way.

    Internal storage wireless headphones are a good choice for people who want to simplify their listening and don’t often change their music preferences.

    Pros and cons of each type of wireless headphones

    Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each type of wireless headphones for easy comparison:

    Sound qualityRangeConnection
    stability
    LatencyEase of use
    BluetoothAverage33+ ftDisruptableAverage
    30-200ms
    Simplest
    RadiofrequencyBetter30-40ft
    10-12m
    StableLow
    50ms
    Requires transmitter
    InfraredLowerShorterEasily disruptedLowNeeds line of sight
    KleerNetBest
    (uncompressed)
    100-160ft
    30-50m
    StableLow
    <20ms
    Requires transmitter
    Internal memoryVaries///Requires song management

    What Are Bluetooth Headphones?

    Bluetooth headphones are wireless headphones that use Bluetooth technology to connect to a music device without a cable.

    1MORE SonoFlow headphones on a rock

    Bluetooth is a well-known wireless technology first used in 1998. It uses low-power radio waves from 2.402 to 2.48 GHz. It’s best at sending data over short distances.

    Even though Bluetooth can reach over 1 km in range, according to this SIG article. Most manufacturers limit the range of Bluetooth headphones to around 33 ft (10 m).

    How do Bluetooth headphones work?

    First, you must connect the Bluetooth music device, usually a smartphone, and Bluetooth headphones. Once the wireless connection is established, audio transmission can begin.

    For example, your smartphone encodes and sends a digital audio signal to the internal Bluetooth radio, which transmits it to headphones via short-range radio waves. Encoding is determined by Bluetooth codecs.

    The Bluetooth headphones receive and decode the signal with the help of a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) into analog sound, which the headphones can play.

    Pros and cons of Bluetooth headphones

    • Cheap
    • High compatibility
    • Good range
    • Can connect to multiple devices
    • Limited data bandwidth (average sound quality)
    • Latency

    Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) manages the development and maintenance of wireless technology. And it’s very successful.

    Every year companies ship billions of new Bluetooth-enabled devices, estimated at 7 billion by 2026. This makes it the most widespread and used wireless technology, not just for audio transmission but data transmission in general.

    Widespread availability is also the reason Bluetooth headphones dominate the wireless audio market.

    Bluetooth headphone profiles

    Bluetooth headphones can support different profiles with different features.

    Here are the most common Bluetooth profiles:

    Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP)

    A2DP profile streams high-quality audio and is often used in streaming music from a smartphone to Bluetooth headphones. It can support low latency, meaning a short sound delay between devices, so it’s suitable for watching videos and playing games. A2DP is the most commonly supported BT profile in headphones.

    Hands-Free Profile (HFP)

    HFP is a Bluetooth profile designed for phone calls. It enables hands-free calling, answering and making phone calls, and basic controls like accepting/denying calls, hanging up, changing volume, and muting the microphone. HFP also works with the quality audio transmission, contrary to HSP.

    Headset Profile (HSP)

    HSP Bluetooth profile is comparable to HFP. Both are made for phone calls, but HSP is simpler. Headset Profile doesn’t have support for quality audio transmission. Therefore, it’s better suited for calling devices that aren’t meant to play music.

    Audio/Video Remote Control Profile (AVRCP)

    AVRCP Bluetooth profile, as the name suggests, enables audio and video controls on connected devices. It’s perfect for controlling music and videos with functions like play/pause, adjusting volume, and skipping tracks or videos. Combined with A2DP, it gives controls and high-quality transmission for audio and video consumption.

    Are Bluetooth Headphones Better Than Wireless?

    Bluetooth headphones are better in compatibility, ease of use, and cost but worse in sound quality, latency, and connection range compared to other wireless technologies.

    For these reasons, the only time other wireless technologies are better than Bluetooth is for wireless gaming headsets.

    HyperX Cloud Flight top shot
    HyperX RF wireless gaming headset

    Let’s see which wireless technology is the best for each category:

    Comparison of sound quality

    Which type of wireless headphones has the best sound quality?

    KleerNet wireless technology supports the best sound quality.

    Uncompressed audio will always sound better than compressed, making KleerNet headphones an obvious winner.

    Uncompressed audio doesn’t go through the process of encoding and decoding, so no data is lost.

    Radio-frequency headphones support the second-best sound quality. Their data transmission of 768 kbps is higher than Bluetooth’s 328 kbps with SBC, 392 kbps with LC3, or 320 kbps with AAC codec.

    But the audio quality isn’t determined by data bandwidth alone. Driver quality, electronics, design, and an audio source are all important.

    Which type of wireless headphones have the longest range?

    Bluetooth and radio-frequency headphones technically support the longest range but are limited to a stable range of 33 (10 m) to 100 ft (30 m).

    Why?

    In short, the way wireless technology is implemented in wireless headphones today, Bluetooth headphones reach an equally long connection range as other technologies. And at the same time, being more widely available.

    What is the reason for that?

    Manufacturers have recognized that limiting the range of Bluetooth is the most optimal implementation of the technology. Most people listen to Bluetooth headphones with a music device in their pocket, which is very close.

    Battery life & energy consumption

    JLab Go Air Pop charging the case

    Which type of wireless headphones consumes the least energy?

    Bluetooth wireless headphones require the least energy and, thus, have the longest battery life. But this is only true in low-energy mode.

    Bluetooth Low Energy consumes as low as 0.01 W – 0.50 W, depending on the use case. And when the need arises, it increases power consumption higher.

    So, while Bluetooth headphones are technically capable of extremely low power consumption, it doesn’t mean they don’t consume more energy. You have no way to control it as it’s an automatic process.

    Besides, the actual battery life of wireless and Bluetooth headphones also depends on battery capacity, driver size, other features in use, and outside temperature. The type of wireless technology doesn’t have a big impact.

    Ease of use and compatibility

    What type of wireless headphones is the easiest to use?

    Bluetooth headphones are by far the easiest to use and compatible with the largest number of music devices.

    You can connect Bluetooth headphones to all Bluetooth-enabled music sources like:

    • Smartphones
    • TVs
    • PCs
    • Laptops
    • Tablets
    • MP3 players
    • Radios
    • Music systems

    Pairing with Bluetooth is straightforward; turn it on, find the device among the available options, and connect. It also supports various controls and call functions for multiple uses of the same wireless connection.

    When it comes to ease of use, cost, and versatility, Bluetooth has no competition. It’s no wonder it’s dominating the wireless headphone market, especially the true wireless earphones.

    FAQ: Bluetooth vs. Wireless

    Are wireless headphones the same as Bluetooth?

    No, wireless headphones are not the same as Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a wireless technology, but other wireless technologies aren’t Bluetooth. In other words, all Bluetooth headphones are wireless, but not all wireless headphones are Bluetooth. They can use radio frequency, infrared, or KleerNet technology.

    Can you use wireless headphones without Bluetooth?

    You can use wireless headphones without Bluetooth if they have a headphone jack. Connect your headphones to a 3.5mm headphone jack with a cable. You can listen to music when you run out of battery life. Rarely, wireless headphones also use other wireless technology apart from Bluetooth.

    Is Bluetooth or wireless better for headsets?

    Radio frequency (RF) wireless technology is better for a headset than Bluetooth when you want to use it for playing games and chatting. It supports better sound quality than Bluetooth. You often recognize it as 2.4 GHz wireless technology in the product description.

    What are the disadvantages of Bluetooth headsets

    The disadvantages of Bluetooth headsets for gaming are worse sound quality and a higher chance of connection interference from other Bluetooth devices. Bluetooth generally supports lower sound quality than other RF (radio-frequency) technology. Nonetheless, the sound mainly depends on the quality of the drivers and tuning.

    Read more:

    Conclusion

    If you’ve read the whole article, you’ve come to 2 conclusions:

    • For daily use, Bluetooth headphones are the best and most convenient wireless headphones.
    • The only exception are wireless headsets for gaming that you use with a PC or console and a transmitter.

    RF or radio-frequency headsets for gaming are better because they support better sound quality over a wireless connection. But this isn’t a guarantee they’ll actually sound better.

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