Last updated on October 18, 2014.
I started looking at Bluetooth headphones after the Apple Watch was announced, since I think they’re probably the future and wanted to know what was out there. But once I started using them, I was surprised how much I liked them.
My criteria for inclusion in this review:
- Bluetooth, but can run passively with a cable when needed.
- Must not have a continuously lit or blinking LED during use.
- iPhone-compatible volume, play/pause, and seek controls.
- Small enough for most people to walk around with. The smaller, the better. They don’t need to fit in a pants pocket (none of these do), but they should fold small enough to fit unobtrusively into small bags.
- Currently in production. (Many allegedly great Bluetooth headphones have been discontinued.)
- Headphones, not in-ear monitors or earbuds. (I can’t wear the latter two, so I can’t review them.)
- Under $200, since it’s not worth risking a lot on small headphones subject to frequent transportation, sweat, and occasional light rain.
Very few models met these criteria. After some research, I ended up with the Sennheiser PX 210 BT, Jabra REVO Wireless, Sony MDR-10RBT, and Creative HITZ WP380.
Left to right: wired PX 200-II i (for scale), PX 210 BT, REVO Wireless, MDR-10RBT, wired Bose QC-25 (for scale). Creative HITZ WP380 not pictured since it was added later.
The same headphones, folded to their smallest sizes.
Small portable headphones always bring major compromises, usually in sound quality and long-wearing comfort, to achieve what’s most important for practical portable use. This class of headphone should be as small as possible, closed, and inexpensive — sound quality is far less relevant than physical characteristics.
And that’s good, because their sound quality spans a narrow range from “simply awful” (Sennheiser) to “slightly less awful but with far too much bass” (Sony, Jabra). Older Bluetooth headphones could blame the very lossy, low-complexity, low-bitrate Bluetooth audio codecs for their terrible sound, but modern Bluetooth codecs can sound much better. However, none of these sounded distinguishably different in wired mode — the cheap, small drivers are the limiting factor, not Bluetooth.1
Fortunately, while all of these suck for music, I mostly use portable headphones for podcasts, and they’re all good enough for that. From most to least expensive:
Sony MDR-10RBT ($189):
- Largest in the group; just barely portable enough.
- The best comfort by far, with a very soft around-ear design. But the large pads get far too sweaty during even mild physical activity like walking, and the earcups boomily resonate with each step I take. It’s better suited to immobile activities like riding mass transit.
- Good volume/playback controls, but the headphones maintain a separate volume level from the source device, which is inconvenient.
- Average Bluetooth reception to an iPhone in a jeans pocket, with only occasional split-second blips and dropouts from blocking the signal with hands, etc.
- Sound quality is poor, mostly due to the extremely boomy bass, which dramatically overpowers the rest of the sound. It’s even oddly and distractingly bassy during talk podcasts.
I find myself using the MDR-10RBT when I plan to wear them for a long time for their comfort, but only if it’s cold outside, since the earpads get so sweaty. Still, the boomy resonant steps while walking are annoying, and the overpowering bass is distracting. I can’t recommend it.
Jabra REVO Wireless ($170):
- Midsized, but only folds ball-style (like Beats), rather than being able to fold flat, which makes them bulkier in bags.
- Average comfort, with an on-ear design that’s larger than I expected, and slightly sweaty due to its wide earpads.
- Frustrating, unreliable touch controls.
- The best Bluetooth reception to an iPhone in a jeans pocket, with very rare blips or dropouts, and the only model I found with a unified volume control with the device (the volume control simply controls the iPhone’s volume level by software, rather than maintaining a second, separate volume level within the headphones).
- Sound quality is poor, sounding very similar to the MDR-10RBT with far too much boomy bass that overpowers everything else.
I wanted to like these as much as The Wirecutter did, but the touch controls are truly infuriating. I’m always swinging the volume too far when trying to make a small adjustment, accidentally adjusting the volume when I mean to skip forward, or accidentally invoking a control when I’m simply feeling for where they are. Touch controls should always be visible and reliable, and these are neither. They make the REVO too frustrating to ever use, and I definitely can’t recommend it.
Sennheiser PX 210 BT ($96):
- Smallest by far — it even fits in large jacket pockets.
- Average comfort, with a small on-ear design, least sweaty; comfort improves substantially after a few uses as the headband stretches
- Excellent volume/playback buttons that are easiest by far to navigate by feel, with an intuitive directional-pad arrangement. The headphones maintain a separate volume level from the source device, which is inconvenient.
- Poorer Bluetooth reception than the others to an iPhone in a jeans pocket, with split-second blips and dropouts occurring frequently if my hand swings in front of the pocket or I bend or turn in certain ways. Reversing the headphones or switching phone-pocket sides helps, but I wish it wasn’t necessary so often.
- The only model with a replaceable battery.
- Lacks a microphone, so unlike the others, this model cannot make phone calls. The MM 400-X is effectively the same headphone with a microphone, but at twice the price. (The MM 450-X adds active noise cancellation for a whopping $350, which I doubt it’s worth.)
- Has an annoying blinking blue LED by default, but it can be disabled.2
- Sound quality is poor, but it sucks more uniformly than the others — the bass isn’t overpowering and no part of the sound is particularly harsh, so it’s better suited to podcasts, at least.
When I first got these, the tight headband and blinking blue LED almost made me return them. But after the headband loosened up and I disabled the LED, I started taking them on walks far more often than the others due to their small size and better controls. The frequent dropout blips are pretty annoying, though.
Creative HITZ WP380 ($80):
- Small to midsized; only folds flat.
- Poor comfort, with a large on-ear design that applies too much clamping force on thin-rimmed pads.
- Frustratingly small controls with weird, thin 3-way triangle button for volume and play/pause that requires too much pressure to activate.
- The sound, and any control interaction, is delayed by about 1.5 seconds. These are completely unusable for video or games, and they’re even too annoying for audio.
- The sound always has a quiet but noticeable hiss. It’s even present during the built-in voiceovers (“Powering on!”), so it’s not a Bluetooth issue. If you can get past that, it’s not the worst-sounding pair in the group, but it has the typical overly boomy bass and deeply recessed midrange of cheap headphones that are trying too hard to sound like Beats.
- The headphones maintain a separate volume level from the source device, which is inconvenient.
- Bluetooth reception is excellent. I couldn’t get it to drop out at all. But I spent the least time with it because it’s so bad in other ways.
I can’t recommend these for anyone. They’re simply too uncomfortable, and the substantial audio and control delay is too annoying.
Ultimately, if you’re going to get one of these, the only one I can recommend is the Sennheiser PX 210 BT. The caveats are substantial — they sound bad, and the reception dropouts are annoying — but I’ve found that I simply love walking and listening to podcasts with wireless headphones so much that I’m willing to overlook those major downsides.
Going back to wired headphones during my dog walks seems clunky and antiquated now. Bluetooth improves overall convenience much more than I expected. I just hope better models come out soon.
For reference: the PX 210 BT sounds similar to the wired PX 200-II i and AKG K451, and all of these sound much worse than almost every headphone in my larger-wired-headphones review. But they’re also bigger, more expensive, and not wireless. ↩︎