SHIFT: Why you don't have Bluetooth headphones yet

Some time ago I took a look at the state of Bluetooth technology and threw out some theories on why it hasn't been accepted by music listeners. While Bluetooth earpieces for phones have become as common as Crocs, when it comes to headphones, most people opt for a model that sports a dangling cable.

The unpopularity of Bluetooth headphones vexes many in the industry as well. In fact, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group offered to send me a few pairs of recent Bluetooth headphones to check out the current status of Bluetooth audio tech. I must say, I was impressed by advances in engineering and design in the three models I used: a pair of Sony ear-covering cans (DR-BT50), a remarkably compact pair of Sony Ericsson earbuds (HBH-IS800), and some Samsung noise-cancelling headphones (SBH600).

So am I ready to throw away my corded headphones, swearing allegiance to wireless audio forever? Not quite. Hit the jump for what's still holding Bluetooth audio tech back, and what headphones need to do before they're ready for the big time.


It Has to Sound Good

Let's start on a positive: Bluetooth streaming has come a long way in terms of sound quality. Music streamed from my iPhone (mostly 256kbps AAC files, with some 128kbps MP3s thrown in) sounded clean, with good dynamic range. I was impressed that I was able to crank the volume without any resulting "smushiness" in the sound — at least, no more than you'd expect from compressed music. Heavy bass translated well on the over-ear models, and the earbuds held their own. Even the game sounds in my Tetris iPhone app sounded crisp and hefty over the 'buds.

Still, the sound quality isn't quite as good as a well-made pair of wired headphones. But who really cares? If you want the absolute best sound quality, you shouldn't even be considering wireless. Most folks — who do care about sound but aren't obsessive about it — would be plenty satisfied by today's Bluetooth, if these three models are any indication.


It Has to Be Comfortable

It's hard to believe, but some companies still haven't figured out that headphones need to be comfortable for people to want them. I'm looking at you, Samsung — your SBH600 cans made my ears hurt after about 45 minutes of wearing. Not so good for long commutes.

On the flip side, I'm pleasantly surprised Sony Ericsson has managed to engineer any wireless technology into a pair of earbuds. These things are less than an inch in diameter, for crying out loud. The HBH-IS800 pair isn't even slightly bulky; if you didn't know better, you'd think there's nothing special about these 'buds.


It Has to Work

The feat of cramming Bluetooth into earbuds starts to look a little less impressive, though, once you actually use them. The IS800's connection with my iPhone was sketchy at best, contantly dropping out when my phone went into powersave mode. Range wasn't very good compared to the others, and worst of all, there are no controls on the 'buds apart from an On button — not even volume. It's like Sony Ericsson was so focused on feats of miniaturization they forgot to make a product that actually works.

Speaking of actually working, let's talk about the biggest flaw in Bluetooth tech, and the deal-breaker for me: lag time. There was a noticeable delay between playback on my phone and what I heard over the headphones, for every pair I tried. For music, this is no big deal; you hit play, and you just want to hear good, uninterrupted music. Even with phone calls, I could deal with the fraction-of-a-second delay. But for anything else that might require audio to sync with something, like watching videos or playing games, you can forget it. Bluetooth isn't there yet.


It Has a Future?

I have other quibbles with current Bluetooth headphones: chiefly, battery life and the non-instantaneous switching among devices, but the lag time is a killer. Until it's fixed, I have a suggested stopgap measure for manufacturers: Give your Bluetooth headphones an option to go wired. That way I wouldn't need a different set for games and video, and it would let me use them when they're out of juice. More importantly for you, it would ensure I don't start trying out models from other brands and decide I like them better, cord or no cord.

Anyone else have suggestions for the captains of Bluetooth? They're listening — fire away in the comments.