How does wireless Bluetooth listening affect headphone sound quality?

B+O H9 Wireless

Yesterday at MajorHiFi someone asked, “Steph, how much do Bluetooth headphones affect the sound quality of my music?” It is a hard to quantify this question.There is no regulated numeric scale for audio quality, of course. Some folks have extremely high standards of quality and some have lower standards. But regardless, the question left me curious and sent me down a long road of discovery. Does wireless Bluetooth listening affect headphone sound quality?

Codecs

I first want to explain a few fundamentals of Bluetooth. Bluetooth senders (aka, your phone or music player) and Bluetooth receivers (aka, your headphones or speakers) must support the same codec in order to work properly. A codec is a device that compresses data and decompresses received data. All Bluetooth listening devices support SBC codecs (the original audio codec for Bluetooth). SBC codecs are made to have medium bit rates and only relatively small data can travel Bluetooth’s narrow bandwidth to your headphones.

But research and technology, as I am humbly aware, are solving problems they never could before. Which brings us to the codec, aptX.

aptX

The algorithm for the aptX codec was derived from research done at Queens University Belfast in the 1980s. Eventually the developers found a way to decrease the bit rate without losing audio quality. AptX can reproduce a 16bit/44.1kHz audio file accurately. It isn’t able to reproduce audio at higher qualities, but for normal consumer CD quality audio, it is great!

In 2009, aptX started to be implemented into consumer electronics. Now, many headphones are equipped with aptX codecs including: Sony h.ear in 2 NC WH-H900N, i.Tech ProStereo H2, Beyerdynamic Xelento Wireless, Audio Technica ATH-DSR9BT, and many more. For a full list of products that support aptX, visit their website: https://www.aptx.com/products.

Sade from MajorHiFi also covered aptX in an article back in April that is worth reading for more information.

Sound Quality Elements in Your Sound System

Bluetooth affect headphone sound quality
Bose QuietComfort 35II

Environment

The first thing to consider about sound quality is how many components affect it. First, reflect on your listening environment. If you are using a pair of Bluetooth headphones, maybe you are commuting, flying, or exercising. There is probably a fair amount of noise afoot (bustling traffic, children, and wind). Environment plays a role in the quality of our listening experience, like it or not. This affects how closely we should be judging the other elements in our listening system.

File Format

Your file format or streaming quality is another important sound quality factor. We all know that FLAC or WAV files sound better than MP3s or AACs which are made smaller by “lossy” data compression. They literally lose data. We’ve all heard how streaming music immediately loses sound quality. It might be unfair to judge other elements harshly if we are only streaming music or listening to MP3s.

Headphones

Headphones have the power to affect the sound in a variety of ways. This fact is reflected in the wide range of headphone prices. Headphones are available from $5 to $5000. They can make or break your sound.

Digital to Analog Converter

The digital to analog converter (DAC) is another element that affects sound quality. It would be a whole other article to describe how these can affect your audio quality. To keep things short, if you are just using the DAC on your phone, you are substantially hindering the quality you can experience.

Conclusion

So… what is my answer? Does wireless Bluetooth listening affect headphone sound quality?

If you are listening in a quiet environment, you’re listening to bigger, lossless files, your headphones are top of the line, and you have a high quality DAC, then yes, Bluetooth is going to significantly damage the quality of your sound. To listen wirelessly, check to see if your headphones or audio player support aptX. In that case, you will be all set. If not, it is worth researching other options.

For those traveling or exercising and streaming from your phone, I am confident you will be happy with using Bluetooth headphones. If you are unhappy with the sound quality, you may want to address one of the other elements in your sound system to see if it helps the listening experience.

If you are looking to purchase some new headphones using aptX, be sure to visit Audio 46 for a full range of options.

Sennheiser PXC550 Noise Cancelling Headphones