From wireless headphones and true wireless earbuds to portable Bluetooth and smart speakers, turntables and soundbars, you’ll be all ears for our annual audio feature.
Everything you need to know about your desired audio product’s features and functionality is right here, along with an essential buying guide curated to suit your needs and budget.
Before we dive into the wonderful, wireless world of all things audio tech, here are some important factors that apply across the board to ensure that you get the best possible performance from your purchase.
Bluetooth is the standard for wireless transmission between devices without the need for an internet connection, but all the different versions can create confusion. Will a pair of earbuds supporting Bluetooth 5.2 connect with a Bluetooth 5.0 smartphone? The answer is yes – the Bluetooth signal protocol is backwards compatible, however the linked devices need to support the same version to access any updates. For example, Bluetooth 5.2 headphones paired with a 5.0 device will operate on the 5.0 protocols.
While Bluetooth 5.3 was introduced last year, many audio products are yet to support it, although many have Bluetooth 5.2, which offers better connectivity and Low Energy Power Control for energy optimisation and more data transmission.
Bluetooth 5.0 and above support multipoint, which allows multiple devices to connect to one primary Bluetooth signal simultaneously, eliminating the need for constant switching. Most consumer audio products can connect to two devices, like a laptop and smartphone, using multipoint. Additionally, Dual Audio on supported devices (like Samsung’s Galaxy phone) lets you use two pairs of headphones at once, or share audio between two different Bluetooth speakers.
Noise cancellation has become a popular feature in wireless headphones and earbuds and can be a blessing when you want to block outside noise and focus solely on the music in your ears.
Formerly reserved for premium ear gear, noise-cancelling tech has become more affordable and can now be found in many mid-range and entry-level models. There are three types of noise cancellation – Active, Passive, and Adaptive.
Active noise cancelling (ANC) is the most common type found in headphones/earbuds. Microphones in the headset detect background noise, which the tech analyses to produce ‘opposite’ sound waves that cancel it out.
Passive noise cancelling uses a physical barrier between your ears and outside noise, like the earcups of over-ear headphones and the silicone tips of earbuds. The stronger the seal, the better the noise cancellation.
Adaptive noise cancelling is similar to Active but more sophisticated. It uses microphones and algorithms to auto adjust the noise cancelling according to the levels of ambient noise.
Some headphones/earbuds will also offer Transparency mode as part of the noise-cancelling feature. This lets in outside sounds while listening when situational awareness is required.
It’s important to note that using ANC will impact battery life, as it requires additional power. How much depends on how noisy your surroundings are, and how long you use it for. Product specs will generally state how long a full charge will last when using ANC.
From rain and poolside splashes to perspiration during exercise, the ear gear and portable speakers you choose need to be splashproof at the very least. How well they withstand dust, splashes and the elements is determined by an IPX or IP rating, which can usually be found in the product specs.
IPX refers to the level of water protection and IP to dust. Ratings are generally measured from 0–8 – the higher the number, the more protection. If a product is both dust and water resistant, it will be denoted as IP. That means a speaker with a dustproof rating of 6 and a waterproof rating of 7 is IP67. The minimum rating for audio gear designed for outdoor use is IPX4 – everything above that is extra protection.
Battery life is a prime consideration when shopping for headphones, earbuds and portable speakers – you don’t want to be caught short while out and about. Most products will list the battery life from a single charge, but it’s important to remember there are factors that influence how long it lasts. The aforementioned ANC can drain the battery faster, and portable speakers with heavy bass can consume extra power. Earbuds have the advantage of a carry case that doubles as a power source and can store additional charges.