We’re knee-deep in the world of Bluetooth, and the average customer has absolutely zero interest in wired headphones or speakers. Still, they complain about Bluetooth, and I happily complain with them. Bluetooth audio is one of the biggest downgrades in tech history—outside of a few situations, it’s the worst possible alternative to a messy wad of headphone cables.
When you’re shopping for headphones or speakers, audio quality and pricing are probably the deciding factors in your purchase. You want the best sounding speakers or headphones that you can afford—there are some exceptions to this “rule,” but it applies to most situations.
Bluetooth headphones and earbuds do not deliver the best audio at their price. If you compare two sets of $150 Bluetooth earbuds and wired earbuds, the one with the cable will sound better every time. And this situation is the result of both technical and economic limitations.
Maybe you’ve heard this already; a Bluetooth connection transfers less data than an analog wired connection. While true, this statement is a bit misleading. Wireless audio devices use compression to make the most of Bluetooth’s limited bandwidth. Using a codec like aptX, we can transfer lossless CD-quality audio without wires, and lesser codecs get close to that standard.
So, you only need to worry about data loss when buying budget or mid-range Bluetooth products. That’s definitely something to complain about, but it isn’t a huge problem, and it will get better over time.
In my opinion, the cost of manufacturing Bluetooth headphones and speakers is a much bigger problem than data transfer rates. These products usually contain batteries, wireless receivers, computer chips, and other parts that contribute to their price. And that’s not all—Bluetooth audio devices need bespoke software and often have dedicated apps, two things that contribute to development and R&D costs.
Even if a set of Bluetooth and wired headphones sound identical, the Bluetooth model will be more expensive. That’s just how it is, because the wired set of headphones is less expensive to manufacture.
Imagine a world where headphones don’t require a pairing process. No weird menus, button combinations, or other hassles. We once lived in that world, but it’s gone, and the nightmare of Bluetooth has taken its place.
Using Bluetooth audio requires a shocking amount of technical knowledge, guesswork, and finger-crossing. It doesn’t make any sense. Pairing a brand new Bluetooth device with your phone is usually the easy part—trying to re-pair it with a new phone or laptop is like falling into purgatory, and the manufacturers’ instructions rarely help.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to give up on connecting my Bluetooth speakers to other peoples’ phones, and I work for a tech website. It doesn’t make any sense.
Unreliability is also a huge frustration. Bluetooth connections are way more stable than they used to be, but dropouts are still common. It’s not the worst thing in the world, and hey, maybe it’s a decent trade-off for wireless audio. But wired headphones don’t drop out. If Bluetooth is replacing wires, it shouldn’t drop out either.
Rechargeable batteries are wonderful, but juggling a bunch of devices around a charging cable is a pain in the neck. At this point, I’d really like to minimize the amount of battery-powered junk that I need to deal with. Unfortunately, Bluetooth has a different plan.
Most Bluetooth audio devices (minus some speakers) are battery-powered—that’s kind of the point. And in some cases, I don’t mind charging these audio devices. Needy batteries are a fine trade-off for using a speaker at the beach, for example, and I definitely prefer wearing wireless earbuds at the gym.
But recharging the headphones that I use around the house? That’s just an annoyance, and I don’t think it’s a solid trade-off for wireless audio. And while I’m good at remembering to charge things, sometimes I pick up a pair of wireless headphones or earbuds to find that the battery’s dead. This problem doesn’t exist with wired headphones.
I hear you; this is more of a personal complaint. But it’s something that I have to mention because it’s directly related to Bluetooth audio’s most damning problem—environmental and economic impact.
Wireless headphones, earbuds, and speakers are disposable. The batteries that (usually) power these devices rarely last more than a few years, and from a practical standpoint, they’re basically impossible to replace. The average person isn’t going to saw open their AirPods or tear apart their Bluetooth speaker to find the inevitable tamperproof screws.
This problem leads to a mess of e-waste, which is terrible, because manufacturing and disposing of lithium-ion batteries isn’t great for the environment. But it also hurts your wallet. You’re forced to replace headphones and speakers more often, all because they have a battery.
Manufacturers are a big part of the problem. As our friends at iFixit learned, you can build a pair of earbuds or headphones with somewhat-replaceable batteries. And of course, there is absolutely no reason why large Bluetooth speakers should be so difficult to open. It seems that manufacturers benefit by making their products more disposable, so they have no incentive to create change.
But the nature of wireless audio is also a problem. Even if we could perfectly recycle lithium-ion batteries, the mining process creates pollution and uses a ton of resources. And because most wireless audio devices are portable, they need some degree of water protection, which means that they will always be a little difficult to crack open.
Now, I’m not saying that wired headphones and speakers are unbreakable. Poorly-made audio products, and especially earbuds, live a very short life before they end up in the trash. But those cheap Skullcandy earbuds you blew through a decade ago didn’t contain lithium-ion batteries, wireless receivers, and other nasty parts. And if you buy a decent set of wired headphones or speakers, they should last for several decades.
As you’ve probably guessed, I still use wired headphones and speakers. Most of them are several years old and still work perfectly. But I have a feeling that my wired audio devices will slowly become an inconvenience, because manufacturers have successfully made Bluetooth the standard.
I blame every tech company for this situation. But I mostly blame Apple, which boldly launched the iPhone 7 without a headphone jack to make the AirPods look more appealing. Since that fateful day in 2016, nearly all major phone brands have ditched the headphone jack. And while budget devices have retained their 3.5mm port, that’s slowly changing due to the prevalence of cheap wireless earbuds.
Maybe this was an inevitability—the worst part of wired headphones is the wire, after all. But I hate Bluetooth audio, and I hate that manufacturers have forced it down our throats. When I finally upgrade my phone, I think I’ll glue a headphone dongle to its case.