Bluetooth Headphones: best from Sennheiser, Bose, and Marshall – and can they cancel noise?
Bluetooth headphones: the best available in 2021, for exercise, noise cancelling, and sound quality
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When it comes to buying Bluetooth headphones, there is a baffling smorgasbord of makes and models to choose from. Normally one would advise going for a well-known brand when purchasing electronics, but when it comes to headphones, it’s usually the smaller, lesser known brands that impress the most.
We’ve called in a plethora of Bluetooth models and these as our favourites: they all deliver great sound at affordable prices. Before we look, here’s what to consider (skip down to the products if you don’t enjoy tech talk).
Bluetooth headphone types
There are three main types of Bluetooth headphones: 1) the classic over-ear style; 2) in-ear buds connected by a neck cable with small integrated battery pack; and 3) True Wireless, comprising two in-ear buds with no neck wire and batteries built into each ear bud.
The very latest wireless standard is called Bluetooth 5.0 – improved speed, better sound quality and greater range – which many modern headphones now support. However, under this transmission umbrella there are also a number of compression codecs, which are essentially algorithms or pieces of software that compress the song you’re listening to before encoding it for wireless transmission over Bluetooth.
What is Latency?
Some codecs produce better sound quality and improved latency (a millisecond of delay between the signal leaving the audio source and the headphones or speakers you are listening to). Latency is never an issue when listening to music but it can quite literally spoil the enjoyment of watching a video because the image may not be in perfect sync with the audio.
Latency is most prevalent in True Wireless in-ear buds because the signal needs to be encoded and then shared between two separate ear buds – and that takes time. For this reason, we would avoid True Wireless models if being bought for watching films and music videos or you may find that actors’ lips don’t sync perfectly.
Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) explained
Some headphones in this roundup are equipped with ANC (Active Noise Cancelling) technology which cleverly cancels out the ambient sound around the listener to make the most of the music. ANC is useful in environments where continual noise surrounds the listener and is especially effective on aircraft and trains and in busy traffic. The system is so effective that you can even use ANC without playing any music; almost all ambient sound simply disappears.
The best affordable Bluetooth headphones and in-ear buds you can buy
Marley Liberate Air
Key specs – Run time: 9 hours (32 hours with case); Noise cancelling: No; Mic and remote: Yes; iOS/Android app: No; Case included: Yes
House of Marley produces a range of excellent audio gear using wood for both aesthetic and environmental reasons. The Liberate Air True Wireless in-ear buds are clad in bamboo casings which give them a really classy appearance, and they fit so well that you can hardly hear any ambient sound around you, including conversation.
These buds provided the best sound straight out of the box and with no need to reach for any kind of equalizer. Bass is deep and punchy while the treble and mid ranges sound smooth and silky, with far less harshness in the signal than any of the other models here.
If you enjoy a warm rich soundscape with very well balanced highs and lows these are the Bluetooth buds to go for. They go phenomenally loud so take it easy on the volume.
They also come with a small charging case which increases the run time from nine hours to an impressive 32 hours.
Elements like track skip and call answering can be performed by tapping on each ear-bud housing but this is quite awkward if you have stumpy fingers. Also, you can’t control the volume remotely which is a bit of a shame.
Marshall Monitor II ANC
Key specs – Run time: 30-45 hours; Noise cancelling: Yes; Mic and remote: Yes; iOS/Android app: Yes; Case included: Yes
Marshall, as any rocker will know, is one the world’s most famous guitar amplifier manufacturers. Well, here’s a pair of Marshalls to wrap around your ears.
These faux leather-clad cans offer excellent sonic reproduction but the frequency blend out of the box is quite treble heavy so the first thing you need to do is download the marvellous Marshall app and fiddle with the EQ settings.
These cans are supremely comfy to wear for long periods of time without creating cranium ache. They are also among the most well thought out Bluetooth headphones on the market, since they not only feature full, adjustable ANC (perfect for travel junkies) but they also come with the best remote control system of any – just one easy-to-feel brass button to pause, skip and scan songs, and raise or lower the volume.
There are also another two preset buttons on the head cup fixings which you would never guess were there without reading the manual. The ‘ANC’ button lets you switch noise cancelling on and off and the ‘M’ button lets you either select from three EQ settings (including your own custom one) or a choice of two voice control assistants – Siri and Google Assistant.
If you’re after a pair of over ears that deliver in more ways than just supreme sonic quality, then be sure to put this model near the top of the list.
Bose SoundSport Free
Key specs – Run time: 5 hours; Noise cancelling: No; Mic and remote: Yes; iOS/Android app: Yes; Case included: Yes
These weather-resistant, True Wireless in-ear buds are perfect for sporty types because they use little crescent-shaped silicone grips that fit between the cartilage folds of the outer ear, keeping them in place when jogging. Although they do stick out of the ears like mini wine corks, the quality of sound they produce more than compensates.
Frequency balance errs more towards the richer, warmer end of the audio spectrum so voices and guitars rarely sound shrill and overly bright. They also produce oodles of bottom-end thump.
Like most Bluetooth in-ear buds, the Bose SoundSport Free can be controlled remotely. With around five hours of playback on a full charge, battery stamina is pretty good and you can easily increase this by popping them into the supplied pocket-sized charging case.
Another cool thing is that they’re equipped with a geolocation feature – if you lose a bud, simply open the excellent Bose Connect app and the lost bud is shown on a map.
Available in black, blue or orange, these little buds punch way above their weight and in more ways than just sensational audio quality.
Sennheiser HD 450BT
Key specs – Run time: 30 hours; Noise cancelling: Yes; Mic and remote: Yes; iOS/Android app: Yes; Case included: Yes
For a shade under £135, you can’t go wrong with these elegant over-ear cans from highly respected headphone manufacturer Sennheiser. They’re super comfy for a start, even though they do grip the head quite firmly. They also support high-quality wireless codecs like AAC and aptX Low Latency – ideal for lossless streaming services like Tidal or high-resolution audio files from a dedicated audio device.
Like so many of today’s headphones, the Sennheiser HD 450BT’s default audio profile is tuned for modern ears that lean towards bright, crisp trebles and deep dynamic bass. However, the Sennheiser app’s extraordinarily tactile equalizer also allows users to create their own preferred audio profiles in case they find the default sound a little too jarring.
If you’re a commuter or jet-setter, then you’ll be pleased to know that these headphones also feature ANC for ambient silence while listening to your favourite tunes.
So you don’t have to keep reaching for your phone or other device, the HD 450BT comes with a host of buttons on the right ear cup for controlling playback activities like track skip and volume.
Key specs – Run time: 16 hours; Noise cancelling: Yes; Mic and remote: Yes; iOS/Android app: Yes; Case included: Yes
These unique in-ear buds evaluate one’s personal hearing characteristics by running a brief Haptic-Sense test – basically a series of ascending and descending tones that measure the extremely subtle sound waves bouncing back out of one’s eardrums. As soon as your personal hearing profile has been set, the sound quality is impressive.
The NuraLoop uses aptX HD Bluetooth for high-quality streaming and features active noise cancelling for uninterrupted playback on trains, boats and planes. Each earbud has its own set of touch controls for track pausing, skipping and volume, though the method does require deft use of the fingertips.
The only issue we found with these otherwise exceptional in-ear buds is that the stiff, sticky rubber neck cable that links them together tends to catch on collared clothing while you walk or move about, displacing one or both earbuds in the process. It’s not a deal breaker but it’s something to bear in mind, especially during the winter months when more clothing is worn.
Kokoon sleep aiding headphones
Key Specs: Run time: 11 hours; Active Noise Cancelling; Mic and remote no; iOS and Android, Case included: yes
If it’s comfort you seek, the Kokoon headphones will delight you: they are exceptionally soft and comfortable. Designed to be used both for everyday wear and to help you relax/fall asleep, the ‘Flexmould Comfort’ patented design helps the headphones mould to the shape of your head.
These cans work best when connected to the Kokoon app, which houses an extensive audio library of relaxation and sleep programmes, including many informed by CBT techniques. Indeed, we found the programmes great at lulling us to sleep.
Unfortunately, the hard shell of the headphones meant that as side-sleepers they were too hard for us to doze on, but if you sleep on your back they may be a terrific sleep aid.
Kokoon’s active noise cancellation (ANC) system is on by default. It’s impressive - making a marked difference to the sound of the world around you. It works best in lower frequencies - such as a snoring partner or an airplane cabin - blocking out the external world impressively well.
There’s also the option for active white noise, using the app. The headphones will detect when you’ve fallen asleep, fade out your music, and introduce white noise to help protect your sleep.
The Kokoon would be our choice for long-haul travel, helping unwind, and - if you can sleep on your back - happily sending you off to sleep. They work well as regular Bluetooth headphones, too.