As wired technology becomes a thing of the past, we’re diving deep into the world of Bluetooth headphones. This is the first in a series of Strategist posts in search of the best wireless cans to gift the cord cutters in your life – soon we’ll be naming our favorites in the under $150 and workout categories, too.
Before we get into the particulars of who makes the best wireless headphones, it must be said. Even as wires are becoming relics, wireless audio is always going to be a compromise – frequency compression over Bluetooth means that there’s always going to be a slight dropoff in sound quality compared to pair of headphones plugged in via the good ol’ 3.5mm cable.
But even so, Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless were some of the best headphones I’ve ever tried (period), and certainly the best-sounding set of wireless cans I listened to: rich and deep bass, warm and welcoming mid-range, delicate and precise high-end. Combine that with amazing imaging; each instrument on a good recording sounds like it’s placed in the room all around you, which makes everything from Kanye to Kronos Quartet sound jaw-droppingly good.
I tried four total headphones in this price range, and they’re all very, very good headphones: the Bose QuietComfort 35, the JBL Everest Elite 700, and the Sony MDR-1000X. All had things I liked – the noise cancellation on the Bose is so total it can be startling at first, the JBL Everest Elite 700s were a great value with an actually useful app for your phone that allows you to adjust the EQ as you saw fit, and the Sony MDR-1000Xs had a very smart feature that allows you to control just how much noise cancellation you want – helpful if you’re, say, waiting for a gate announcement for a flight.
For each set, I tried them out in two different setups. For one, I wore them in my (relatively quiet) office, listening to either .flac (or Free Lossless Audio Codec) files or songs with a sample rate of 320 kbps (or kilobits per second, the highest sample rate Spotify uses). While all sounded great, the Sennheiser’s quickly stood out for being to able to really deliver on, say, the deep bass thrum of Massive Attack’s “Angel,” the ways the drums drive towards the back of your head in Kanye West’s “Robocop,” or the snap of all the percussive frippery during the intro of LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean.” All sounded good, but none seemed to be able handle every range as easily as the Sennheisers.
The second, and to my mind more important, setup was just wearing them for days while out and about on my daily commute: listening to music off Spotify, both things I had downloaded before at 160 kbps (a decent sample rate) and actual streaming at 96 kbps. I figured I’m not always going to be sitting in front of a computer full of .flac files – how would the headphones handle being on the subway listening to low-quality music?
Once again, the Sennheiser’s handled everything like a champ. Twenty hours of battery life meant I could safely go at least three or four days without recharging (about five hours a day). The noise cancellation was strong enough that it completely masked the sound of that one busker who plays the bagpipes at Grand Central. Maybe too strong, in fact: I missed my stop a few times due to zoning out and missing the stop announcement. The Bose QuietComfort 35’s noise cancellation may have been more effective- even playing quiet piano-only tracks, I could only hear my music and the the slight vibration of the train up through my feet – but to me the Sennheiser was just fine for blocking out the world, and the actual music sounded less fuzzy to boot.
And finally, from a purely stylistic standpoint: I dig the vintageness of the Sennheiser. An all-leather headband hooks into stainless steel rails, which hold the smoothly curving earcups. They’re good looking without being showy and make you feel like you’re in a studio in the 1970s instead of trying to shove your way onto an overpacked 7 train.
Controls to skip tracks or turn up the volume are set in the bottom of the right earcup, and take a couple of minutes to understand, but were overall much simpler to understand than those on other pairs – I’ve discovered it’s better to keep all the controls on one side, rather than splitting them between both ears. The headphones also come with a 3.5mm wire if you want to take your music to the next level, but honestly, these things sound so good you may never bother.